Asking Questions, Having Conversations

The following is a post I wrote for CenterPeace: providing safe spaces for men and women who experience same-sex attraction. For years, CenterPeace and their director, Sally Gary, have been striving to help create and increase conversations. I was honored to write this piece and am glad to share it here on my blog, as well. I would encourage you to check out CenterPeace’s website and blog.

(My post is one of series of posts written by fathers. Beginning today (Monday), Sally will also be sharing guest posts written by mothers.)

Continuing with our guest series from fathers of LGBTQ daughters and sons on Fridays, here’s a post from my friend, Paul Mathis.

Sometimes, I say the dumbest things. (According to my children, this only seems to be heightened as they grow older.)

I like to think I am a kind person; a thoughtful person; a caring person; a smart person. I know that I truly do want to be supportive and encouraging. But sometimes, in my quest to speak words of kindness, I mess up and say something that just sounds awful.

Have you ever read those posts on social media? Something like “Ten things never to say to a foster family,” or “Never say this to someone whose family member is deployed.” I read those and realize that I have said virtually all of them. Always with the best intentions. Always because I truly do care. But sometimes, I just don’t have the right vocabulary to speak into certain situations.

So when my son came to me several years ago and said he was bisexual (and later he would tell me he was gay), I did not know what to say. I came up with some non-committal response that ended with me telling him I loved him.

There is so much I wish I knew at that point. I had been raised in a traditional, conservative denomination that taught homosexuality was a sin. Although I never participated in any boycotts, I was quick to put down Disney and other media companies for their “liberal, homosexual agenda.”

Yet through all of that, I had several friends who were a part of the LGBTQ community. They welcomed me and I welcomed them. We spoke freely and openly. I can truly say I loved counting them among my friends.

But there were so many times that I would either say the wrong thing thinking I was being funny or supportive; or I would just not say anything at all because I was afraid anything would be the wrong thing.

One thing I never did: reach out to someone who could help me have these conversations. However, that was not just because of my fear; I did not know anyone with whom I could have those discussions.

My son approaching me made me so aware of my perceived inability to have these conversations. I did not know what to say. I was afraid to say anything wrong so I defaulted to saying nothing at all. I was woefully unprepared.

I wish I could go back and tell my past self that I was not unprepared. I loved my son. I still do. And it was okay for me to tell him that I was confused, uncertain, scared, and whatever else. It was okay for me to say that because I could also say without hesitation that I loved him. I loved his siblings, as well, unconditionally. I repeated that as often as I could.

I wish I could go back and tell myself that it is okay to question what I had been taught and to be okay with not having an answer. I wish I could tell myself to continue on the journey. I wish I could tell myself that I did not need to feel alone on the journey.

Here is what I cannot do: go back in time. Here is what I did do: reach out to Sally Gary and ask if I could have a conversation.

I remember well the day I texted Sally and asked if I could talk to her and say things that might make me sound ignorant and hateful. I just did not have the language I needed to have a conversation about sexual identity and orientation with my son.

Sally was welcoming. She was patient. She was kind. She was loving.

In the ensuing six years, my relationship with my son has grown closer. More than anything else, Sally taught me that I actually was prepared to have this conversation with my son because I loved him. Sally has taught countless people that conversations based in love are such a vital piece of building and maintaining relationships.

Here is what I continue to do: encourage every parent who has a question to make use of CenterPeace and all its resources. First and foremost, love your children. Second, know you are not alone. Third, continue engaging in conversation based in love and covered in prayer.

Sometimes, I say the dumbest things. But sometimes, my child hears me and knows he is loved.

I am grateful for CenterPeace and Sally and the conversations that have started because of this ministry. I am grateful for the visible support Sally has been to countless others. So when she lost her hair due to her chemo treatments I wanted to do something as a visible sign of support. My shaved head has inspired many questions. Each time I answer, I get to talk about Sally and CenterPeace!

An Open Seat, Just For You

This week’s post is written by a special guest: my daughter, Rheannon. She is a freshman in high school this year, active in a local service organization, theater, and her church’s youth group (as well as Freedom Fellowship which she talks about in the post).

Many of these thoughts have been circulating in her mind for a long time, but the sermon we heard at our church yesterday brought some clarity and focus. I hope these words will encourage you as they have encouraged me. 

Yesterday at church my preacher talked about the kingdom of God, and how hard it was to understand how church was really supposed to be. He spoke about how the kingdom is not where you are comfortable – church is not the place where everyone looks like you, thinks like you, believes what you do.

Church is where you are different, and challenged, and uncomfortable.

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This picture was taken at Freedom Fellowship, a satellite church of Highland. I’ve been going to Freedom for six years – longer than I’ve been at Highland. Every third Saturday night, Freedom does a special worship service and serves communion. Since I’ve been going, I’ve stood at the end of the line and given a hug to the people passing through the line.

I have always felt the closest to God in those moments. I’ve felt the presence of God on earth every time someone new passes through and return the hug for the first time.

Freedom’s ten year anniversary was a HUGE event – a big neighborhood party. Everyone who had been at Freedom in the beginning spoke about all the special things Freedom offered, and shared their favorite memories. Terry St. Pierre spoke about communion and how it started. Then, he talked about my hugging and how much it had affected the people who experienced it.

Then, we broke bread. And I gave hugs like I had been doing for almost half my life.

The woman featured in the picture had been going to Freedom for a couple of weeks at that point. I’d seen her in worship, uncomfortable at first, and then getting into it as the weeks went on. Every time I saw her raise her hand in worship, it brightened my day in amazing amounts.

I believe God put her in Freedom for a reason. I believe God sent her to Freedom to experience his love.

I believe she was sent to feel how worthy she was in the kingdom.

This would be the second time she had taken communion at Freedom. The first time, I’d given her a short hug and let her move on quickly like I did with a lot of newcomers.

That night, though, I gave her the biggest hug I could manage. I tried to relate to her God’s limitless love for her.

And I received more from that hug then I gave. She gripped my neck and gave everything right back to me, and I’ve never felt more blessed.

Because God’s kingdom comes when people give up their safe zones for the unknown without fear. God’s kingdom comes to earth when we allow ourselves to love without boundaries.

I believe that Freedom is the closest I will ever come to heaven on earth, simply because there is no judgement and no hate. Freedom gives me a chance to experience things churches strive for.

We welcome everyone.

We do not judge.

We do not leave anyone out of what they want to be a part of.

We do not assign certain jobs to certain people based on sex, or race, or social status.

Freedom is a place where the things others people say and believe no longer hold any truth or importance and you can believe what God believes about you and be affirmed by dozens of people that know how important you really are.

Today, we’re celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who fought for equality and respect among all people.

One point made in church yesterday was that a big part of the civil rights movement was the assembly of church. MLK was invited to talk with many churches, to have dialogue with the people who believed what he believed and who wanted to help.

Church has always been important to people who wish to bring peace among humans. Church is the place that people could be together and not be afraid.

And suddenly, church seemed to stop being that place. It began to become a place where we pretended to be perfectly okay to fit in. Church became a place where I no longer wanted to be.

But Freedom Fellowship? That’s where, at my most uncomfortable, I felt the most peace. Freedom is where I began to believe in the power of church again.

And there will always be an open seat, on any pew, on either side of the auditorium for anyone who wants to be there.

There is always a place at any table, inside or out, where anyone can sit and share a meal before worship starts.

There is always a place in God’s kingdom for anyone who has ever existed.

There is always a place for you.

Update: I forgot to give photo credit to Zach Snyder. The photo was taken on Freedom Fellowship’s 10th anniversary celebration.

When Someone’s World Falls Apart

I still remember the stares.

Sitting on the back pew in church as people would walk by, I would make eye contact. Eye contact with faces that seemed to convey pity (“It is so sad what happened.”) or doubt (“Is he even sober now?”).

To be fair, I cannot say with absolute certainty that those questions were in the minds of people as they walked by. But it sure did feel like they were. Every glance. Every whispered conversation. Every head shake. It was all so overwhelming.

And let’s be honest: I was in the wrong. I had lied. I had tried to cover up what I was doing. I got caught. It wasn’t as if I had an epiphany and confessed all my wrongdoings. I was confronted as a result of my own actions and finally ran out of escape routes.

So it was time for me to endure—not only the natural consequences for my actions, but also the fallout in all my relationships. I had hurt many people close to me. I had created a situation that also affected, in indirect ways, many other people. There were a lot of questions. In places I once was present I now was absent. In places I once had a leadership role I now had little purpose.

People wondered. People questioned. People assumed.

When my world fell apart, that was only the beginning. I had a lot left to endure.

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It is difficult to witness. It arouses feelings of despair, hurt, betrayal, shock, confusion. It leads to many questions. It is something we are rarely prepared for.

And the announcement can come in a number of ways: a social media post, an overheard conversation, from the church pulpit, in a newsletter. When we learn the news, our first response is often stunned silence.

Then, the questions start popping in our head: “What did they do?” “What happened?” “Was this a mutual decision?” “I had no idea anything like this was going on; how long has this been an issue?” “How is the person going to fare now?”

These questions are legitimate. They are part of the human experience of curiosity.

And we must resist the urge to ask them.

I have spent a lot of time with people in recovery. There is an interesting dynamic at play with many of them: they are learning to share their stories—their experience, strength, and hope—with others. They learn to love sharing those stories.

But they almost always hate answering questions.

The content is the same. The details are the same. The story is the same. So what is the difference?

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I am a big fan of stories. I am a big fan of vulnerability. I am a big fan of confession and accountability partners/groups. I think if more of us could learn how to share more openly and more frequently it would greatly increase our community in numerous ways.

But still, we need to stop asking those questions.

When someone’s world falls apart, asking those questions often serves to satisfy our need to have questions answered, but it rarely serves to provide hope and healing for the person who is hurting.

On the other hand, making yourself available for people to come to you makes a world of difference. You can be the person that others will come to when you show that your primary purpose is to walk alongside those who are hurting. And you can do that with an infinitesimally small amount of information.

All you need for walking alongside somebody is compassion. In fact, the fewer words you speak the better. Just be present. Just listen. Offer some words: words of comfort; words of hope; words of accountability to help prevent something similar from happening again.

I do still remember the stares (whether they were real or imagined doesn’t make much of a difference). But I also remember the people who were present. I remember the people who listened.

Can we all be people who listen?

Being Equipped, Encouraged, and Empowered at the Intersection of Faith and Sexuality

This post was shared on CenterPeace’s blog last week. I am grateful for our family’s opportunity to participate in this event. 

One weekend in October, many people are going to gather and discuss issues surrounding faith and sexuality. CenterPeace is hosting the e3 Conference (equipped, encouraged, and empowered) from October 27-29 at the Highland Oaks Church of Christ in Dallas, TX. Many Christian scholars from across the country will join families to share stories and information and discuss how to hold conversations about faith, same-sex attraction, and gender identity in loving, Christian ways.

I am excited about this conference for many reasons. As a Christian and student of the Bible, I truly am seeking to increase my knowledge in areas of interpretation and application. I have questions that I thought I always knew the answer to, and maybe I did. But I mostly just accepted what was said to me without genuine, honest searching.

As a recovering alcoholic, I have experienced many preconceived ideas about addiction and recovery—many of them negative. Through conversations and spending time with people, I have been able to teach people that the experience of an alcoholic in recovery is not what they thought. This same lesson has applied to me as I have had the opportunity to talk to Christians who are attracted to members the same sex or who do not identify with their gender the same way I do. I have learned that many of my preconceived ideas were wrong—and often negative. I have learned to love and have conversations; with the purpose of that dialogue being to learn and become shaped more in the image of Christ.

As a parent, I have wrestled with what it means to have a child acknowledge his own same sex attraction. I have learned the blessing of having people with whom to hold conversations. I have had a lot of questions. I was blessed to have people and resources close by. I know that many parents either do not have or are not aware of the resources available to them.

The e3 Conference can be a great step in the journey for parents, siblings, children, or friends who love someone who experiences same sex attraction or has questions about their gender identity.

If you have questions about the intersection of faith and sexuality, this is the conference you need to attend. Come and find conversation partners. Come and ask questions. Come and learn about resources.

Come and be surrounded by the love and peace of Jesus.

What Churches Are Doing Right

“Why does preaching always talk about the badness of humanity but not the goodness of humanity?”

It was an interesting question. My daughter, age 15, is an aspiring preacher, herself. She has noticed that the sermons that seem to have the greatest impact are the ones that talk about what we are doing wrong as Christians and as the church.

Our conversation went on to talk about the balance of convicting people (which will often come across as negative) with acknowledging the good that is being done (which will often come across as positive).

Her follow-up question was, “Why don’t we hear more of those acknowledgments?”

It is a necessary conversation to have. I hope wherever you live you can have this conversation with your family and with your church.

But it led me to think about this topic in a different context:

I have long stated that churches do a poor job helping addicts recover. I started this blog with the hopes of starting conversations, raising awareness, and providing insight into how “normal” people can help those of us who struggle with various forms of addiction.

But I have I forgot to mention the good parts? I have failed to point out that there are some good things going on in some Christian circles?

If I have, let me try to correct that.

Church offers a place of healing. One of the blessings of social media is to be connected with friends all over the country and even in some other parts of the world. That connection allows me to have a small glimpse into their places of worship. There a lot of churches out there who are intentional about being Spirit led. They are not focused primarily on tradition or primarily on show, but first and foremost on allowing God’s grace and mercy to flow through. Many pastors are learning about the pain their members are experiencing and speaking to that. If you have found one of these places, be grateful. If you are still looking, please do not give up. There are a lot of Godly houses of worship out there.

Church offers community. Many churches are learning how important it is to create community as opposed to padding numbers. Sunday school classes, small groups, activities, and service projects are becoming more and more popular. Which is great. One things most recovering addicts need is community. (Which is why the AA model has endured for 80+ years.) The community that is created does not need to necessarily address “Jesus and the 12 Steps” or some such topic. All community needs to do…is be community. This is also an area where home based churches are so powerful. People who have spent most of their lives in isolation are truly blessed by a community who knows them and loves them, warts and all.

Church provides guidance. And by guidance, I mean spiritual leadership. Mentoring. Examples of people living faithful lives even in the face of difficulties. It is much easier to get out of one’s self when there are others you can follow. Again, the guidance aspect of AA (sponsor-sponsee) is one of the reasons it has been around for so long. Churches are learning how important this is. This doesn’t have to be done formally (in fact, it goes hand in hand with community), but it just needs to happen. As people in recovery observe others, they learn that people can deal with the difficulties of life in healthy ways. I have been able to witness a lot of relationships between non-addicts and addicts that have yielded great results. Because both people just loved each other.

There is a lot that churches have to learn about dealing with addiction and recovery. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t doing anything right. So let me take this opportunity to thank the churches that have been instrumental in my recovery.

From Rochester, NY (Lawson Road Church of Christ and Hope Lutheran Church), to Pennington, NJ (Princeton Community Church), to Abilene, TX (Highland Church of Christ and Freedom Fellowship), I have been loved, nurtured, and carried to where I am today. My family has been shown extreme care and love as they dealt with all the consequences my addiction wrought upon our family. They have not gotten everything right. But neither have I. We are just a bunch of humans fumbling our way along this journey we call life.

And I have been able to witness a lot of the goodness of humanity along the way.