Love. Life. Loss. Legacy.

Death is not an easy concept to understand. It comes and sweeps all sense of stability from you, it takes your comfortability and shakes you up.

In my life, I can count on both hands the people close to me who have died. I can think back to the funerals, the families, the cemetery, the feeling of being lost.

I was ten years old when I lost my uncle. It was the first time I can remember having special memories with the person that died. It is the first time I truly sat in silence, a mental slideshow running through my mind with snapshots of the time we spent together.

Today, I lost a close friend – her name was Jorja. My first memory of Jorja is at the Metropolitan church in my town – my family slowly crept into the church, wanting to experience something new, but feeling a little awkward. Jorja was the one who greeted us and welcomed us in. Here started the journey to a wonderful and meaningful relationship cut far too short.

A few months later: Walking into our home church and suddenly my dad points out, “That’s Jorja. Remember her? She was at the Metropolitan church.”

“The transgender one? She was so nice! Can we say hi?” It was at this point that Jorja became a stable and welcome part of my life.

Jorja’s testimony is one of amazing re-creation in the eyes of God. Jorja finally found herself in her late fifties, and celebrated her third birthday this year. She has spoken to many other churchgoers about who she is without hesitation, guilt, or remorse.

Jorja has shown me how to be proud. She showed me to stand up and say, “Yeah World, it’s me. I’m beautiful and you can’t take any part of me away.”

Jorja taught me what it means to be a good ally. She taught me how to stand up for her, my gay brother, and my nonbinary best friend. She showed me that anger is not the only resource, and I can have a calm voice in all the turmoil.

Today, I lost a great friend. I lost the woman who means more to me than most. The woman who was an active part of my life for two years.

Today, I feel sad. I feel overwhelmed and confused and sad. I walked into my Spanish class, saw the faces of some close friends, and broke down. I sat in my seat, trying to do my bell ringer, and the tears began to fall. One friend grabbed my hand, another wrapped her arm around my neck, a third patted my cheek. I wanted to go home and curl up in a ball and cry until I couldn’t cry anymore.

Instead, I smiled a small smile at my friends, wiped my tears, and finished conjugating Spanish verbs.

It sucked.

I was surrounded by friends and comfort, and all I could think about was Jorja’s face when we went to see her at the hospital last month. All I could see was her face as she blew out her candles at her last birthday party. All I could see was her face as she stood in front of the Metropolitan church and gave her testimony and praised God. I felt all her hugs and cheek kisses. I heard her gentle voice — saying hello, asking how I was, telling us she had stage IV cancer of the tongue.

All I can hear is her trying to speak to us with the tube in her throat and needle through her tongue. All I see is her shaky handwriting asking my dad if she’s in Dallas.

I hear her say “I love you. God bless” to each of my family members as we stood around her hospital bed.

Jorja, you have been in my life for some of the worst moments. You have been here for some of the best. You were there for the mundane and the exciting. You became a part of our church family, and found your way into our hearts. You mean so much to all of us.

In the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda “Death doesn’t discriminate/ Between the sinners and the saints/It takes and it Takes/And we keep loving anyway”

To one of the saintliest people I know – you never stopped loving, and I won’t either.

I remember your stories of people who shut you out in ignorance – and your door was open to them. You never spoke ill of them, and you were ready to accept them back into your life. You didn’t force them to come to you, you showed them the open door and backed away to wait for them to make their own decision.

That is your legacy, and it is one of the most honorable. Everyone who knew you was blessed by your kindness and acceptance, and I hope to continue that in your name.

Death is hard. It will come and make everything tilt, off kilter, everything will feel wrong.  Feel it. Allow yourself to feel sad, to feel the pain. Cry. Scream.

And remember. Watch the slideshow. Think about the jokes, and the serious conversations, and the last moments.

I will continue Jorja’s legacy. I will live my life the same way she did. I will open all the doors I have kept shut, and see what happens.

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!

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.

That One Time I Attended a Same-Sex Wedding

I attended a same sex wedding for the first time last weekend.

I was honored that I was invited. Because I have had multiple conversations with one of the partners, who is my cousin, about the sin of homosexuality. I told him why I thought he and his partner should not adopt children. I told him I was glad when he was not in any relationship (at least, none that I knew of).

But I also have stayed close to him. When other family members stopped talking to him, I kept an open ear. When he entered into a new relationship (with the man he married on Saturday), I went to visit them. In fact, my wife, children, and I have stayed with them when we visited family on vacation.

My cousin chose love for me over our disagreement.

Over the past few years, I have been challenged in the assumptions I have held regarding same sex attraction. First of all, I had to accept the fact that the vast majority of scholarly research indicates a spectrum of sexuality and attraction that everyone is born with. Many people still want to deny this and research will continue happening, but biologically speaking it appears same sex attraction is indeed something you are born with. (I think environment and nurture play a role, as well, but biology plays a larger role.)

Second, it is clear that a lot of Christian theology has been lazy regarding same sex attraction. I grew up believing the story of Sodom and Gomorrah was about same sex behavior. In actuality, it is about domination, abuse, and lack of hospitality. The same sex behavior that takes place in the story has nothing to do with homosexuality, and everything to do with rape.

But Paul the Apostle does seem to say some pretty definite things about same sex behavior. So the bulk of my theological wandering has centered on Romans 1. But that particular struggle will need to be addressed in a different post. Suffice it to say that Paul had no concept of orientation, only behavior.

Third, I have really been wondering what it means to live in a democratically free nation. Although I think we get hung up on the separation of church and state argument in all sorts of distorted ways, it seems this country was founded on the ability for each person to choose his or her own religious experience. In other words, we were never a Christian nation, but we have always been a religiously free nation (dominated by Christians).

If that is the case, I cannot expect the entire nation to live according to my understanding of Judeo-Christian beliefs. Therefore, I cannot deny the right of marriage to a group of people because they have a sexual preference that I might disagree with.

So for me, these three challenges led me to the point where regardless of what I believed regarding same sex attraction or behavior, there is no legitimate, civic basis for denying the right of same sex couples to get married. Regardless of what God’s judgment will be, the government must recognize the right of its citizens to marry.

Throughout this wandering, I have talked with my cousin on several occasions. He has patiently answered my questions and been a willing conversation partner. We have been more than just cousins, we have remained friends.

We both have chosen our love for each other over our position.

And this is important to me because I still don’t entirely know where I stand. But I do know this: I stood on a porch and hugged my cousin and his husband last weekend. I know that my family and I will be back out to visit them again.

This is important to me because I interact with many people who are still mistreated and abused because of their sexuality, their orientation, or their gender. While we talk and research and discuss biology, environment, and theology, we must not lose sight of the fact that we are talking about people. More than people, we are talking about sons and daughters of God.

This is important to me because when my cousin asked my son to be the ring-bearer, he did so with the intent of speaking a blessing to my son. As my son took the rings forward, my cousin and his husband looked at him and promised to be there for him as he continues to grow, mature, and experience life as a gay man.

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This is important to me because even though I cannot tell you my “Theology of Sexuality,” I can tell you my theology of God. It’s quite simple:

He always chooses people over positions.

Why I Hate Celebrity Culture, But Stand With Caitlyn Jenner

I really don’t like celebrity culture. I don’t really care who is dating whom or if their current relationship may be on the rocks. I don’t get how some people get caught up in the goings-on of complete strangers. I am baffled at how people are so concerned about the activities of the royal family.

When it comes to gossip, I just don’t care. It is bad enough supermarket tabloids seem to proliferate, but when places that are supposed to be journalistic spend significant portions of time talking about the life and times of celebrities I get discouraged. I think we are too consumed with the lives of others, especially those who are considered to be famous.

There is a part of me that is cynical and jaded when it comes to celebrities. I tend to assume everything they do is a grab for attention or notoriety. I am often suspicious of even good things celebrities do: “They must be about to release something new and they need to garner some goodwill.”

But I do like stories. I like to hear about people’s lives and their experiences. Additionally, I appreciate when someone who has an audience or an influence is willing to share their story in the hopes of aiding others.

So even though I get upset with our culture’s obsession with celebrity, I appreciate when those celebrities are able to provide help, hope, and encouragement for others.

Which brings me to Caitlyn Jenner.

My initial response with anyone associated with the Kardashians is to think it’s all about attention. My initial response when a celebrity does something so drastic is to think they must be trying to get themselves back into the news.

And maybe that’s true. But it doesn’t matter. The reason behind this celebrity doing this thing at this time is irrelevant.

Caitlyn Jenner is going to do good for a lot of people. And chances are you don’t get it. But you don’t need to. You do, however, need to get this:

There are people who are struggling with their gender identity who do not feel safe enough to talk about it. Many of those people internalize their struggle and decide to live a life they know is not honest, but it is what everyone expects of them. Some turn to risky behaviors to find some way to relieve the stress that continues to build up inside. And many turn to suicide because not only can they not reconcile who they are, they have no one to turn to who will listen to them.

So when people post insults on social media, call Caitlyn an “it,” or refuse to acknowledge that Caitlyn is a woman, people who are questioning their own gender identity are learning how dangerous it is to ask their questions out loud.

Which is why I am glad Caitlyn is doing this so publicly. She will be ridiculed. She will be mocked. But she will be talked about. Gender identity will be talked about. Other people, famous or not, will begin to follow her example and speak up about their own experiences. Those who suffer in silence may possibly be encouraged by someone willing to suffer in public.

You may not agree with what Caitlyn Jenner has done. You may not understand the struggle of gender identity. You may be weirded out by this whole story.

And all of that is okay. As long as you remember this: everyone does not have the same story you do. There are people in our schools and in our churches and in our workplaces who are trying to figure out where they land on the gender spectrum and they need to know they have safe places to talk.

The response to the Jenner story has been largely sickening. The insults and disrespect she has been shown are nothing short of dehumanizing. This is especially sad when that response comes from Christians. Jesus, who came to seek and save the lost, would not shut the doors on anyone who is honestly searching what their journey in life should be. Unfortunately, many Christians and churches have essentially shut the door on the people who need us the most. We have done this with our words of insult and exclusion. I pray our words will change and we will be known as a people of refuge.

I don’t like celebrity culture. I think we spend too much time thinking and talking about the lifestyles of the rich and famous.

But I stand with Caitlyn Jenner.

Because I stand with the young people I have talked to who have questioned their own gender identity.

Because I stand with people who are too afraid to speak up about their struggle for fear of being ridiculed and excluded.

Because I stand with all who feel they have no voice and they need someone to speak up for them.