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!

Listening, Loving, and…Criticizing?

I want to remember my citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven. Lent Week 2, Day 12

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I love my alma mater. It is a great university. I made lifelong friends there. I learned how to stretch my thinking theologically. The faculty and staff truly love people and work to nurture them.

But there are some faults with university, as well. They have made some business decisions that seem to conflict with their spiritual mission. They have fired people who were doing tremendous work to help the bottom line. They have embarked on building projects funded, in part, from shady business practices.

Yet at the heart of the university is truly a desire to develop students who will go out and change the world. They do not get it right 100% of the time. I still love them and I still criticize them. In fact, my criticism grows out of the fact that I love.

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I love my church. It is a place where leadership and membership are working together to bring about restoration. So many amazing things have happened in the years we have attended. Ministries have been started to help students attain their GED and help homeless people find a home. Houses have been repainted and minor repairs have been performed. Worship has become a freer exercise of pouring out our hearts to God. More and more people are being included in important decisions.

But there are some faults with my church, as well. It is a large church and while that brings about greater resources and opportunities, it also brings about slowness in movement. There is often a tendency to plateau—once some change has been made, people will feel that it is “good enough,” and it will take time to move further forward (often way too much time).

Yet at the heart of my church is truly a desire to restore all things. We want people restored to God. We want people restored to one another. Everything that is done or not done is out of a desire to do God’s will. They do not get it right 100% of the time. I still love them and I still criticize them. In fact, my criticism grows out of the fact that I love.

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I love my country. It is a place where people are free to make decisions about their lives. It is a place where dreams can come true. It is one of the most generous countries in the world giving so much money and time to volunteer efforts to try and improve communities. It is a place where people truly can move from the bottom to the top.

But there are some faults with my country, as well. Its founding documents were not written with “all people” in mind; they were written with landowners in mind. Black people were only considered 3/5 human when our Constitution was written. It has only been a generation that all people are allowed to vote. Well, unless you are a felon. Economic structures that have been passed down from the days of slavery have created slums and perpetuated the struggles for many people. Our country does not like to admit its wrongs. Slavery and racism have plagued this country since its inception but if anyone brings that up they are called a race baiter. Many people feel that we should say things are better now so we should just all be happy. When relationships between communities and police officers are brought up people struggle with listening to both sides to truly hear what can be done to improve those relationships. Decisions about immigrants, transgender people, and people of different religions are based on fear and not facts. Political leaders lie, are caught on video lying, and lie about telling the lies. We are all now looking at our microwaves wondering if they are secretly recording our conversations.

Yet at the heart of my country is a desire to be the land of the free. Improvements have been made. We still have a long way to go, but I do think the majority of people want to go there. They do not get it right 100% of the time. I still love them and I still criticize them. In fact, my criticism grows out of the fact that I love.

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I could go on and talk about my job, my family, my friends. These are all groups that I love and respect deeply. But they all get things wrong.

Let’s face it: I could talk about myself the same way. There are things I do that are good, yet I also know there are many areas that need improvement.

Why do we struggle to talk about the areas of growth in the people that we love?

I want to focus my citizenship first in the Kingdom of God. If I am going to do that, I need to apply Kingdom principles to my country; not apply my country’s dream to the Kingdom. How many of us get this backwards?

God’s Kingdom began and thrived long before there was any democratic nation. Our way of governing is not ultimately special. It is just one of a number of ways people have governed. Yet since we are people of the Kingdom, let us ask how those principles can impact our democracy.

Let us criticize what needs to be fixed. There is too much fear, too much anger, too much yelling, too much hatred, too much division in our nation. And we are not making it worse when we acknowledge it. In fact, we will never move to improving it if we continue avoiding. Our nation has a problem with racism. Our nation has a problem with economic structures continually stretching the divide between rich and poor. Our nation has a problem with reality TV stars having more influence on our policies than people who actually know what they are talking about.

And I have a problem with loving people who disagree with me. And I think I am justified. But how am I applying Kingdom principles to myself?

I think people are suffering. I need to reach out to them and help them. And I need to advocate for them and work for long-lasting change that will improve their lives.

And those people I disagree with? Those people who are making me angry? I pray. I pray for me to listen and seek relationship. I pray for them. I seek conversation (real conversation; not social media conversation). And I apply Kingdom principles to that relationship. If we truly love one another, we will listen and we will learn and we will grow.

After all, neither of us will get it right 100% of the time. But we can love and criticize one another. In fact, it will be because of that love that we do criticize.

Your Boring Story

We know the story. Even those who have little or no Christian background know the story of the Prodigal Son. We know about the younger son leaving and going to the far country. We know about the desire to eat the slop they were feeding the pigs. We know about the return home, the rehearsed confession, the anticipated humiliation, and giving up of the position his birth gave him. We know about the father sitting on the porch and seeing the son while he was still a long way off. We know about the fatted calf and the party and the joy. That which was dead is now alive; that which was lost is now found.

It is one of the most popular stories in the Bible. It is likely one of the most popular stories in all of literature.

And it is an important story. No matter how far you have strayed; no matter how egregious your behavior; no matter how hateful your words and actions have been, you can always come home. We need to remember this. We need to proclaim this. We need people to remind us how they have come home and how they have overcome.

But it just feels like something is missing…

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There are many opportunities to hear powerful testimonies of people who have lost everything and found it again. People who were born into horrible circumstances only to overcome. People who have undergone miraculous transformations.

And those stories are important. We need to hear them. There are people who are hurting, broken, and lonely. In the midst of despair, it is valuable to hear that you are not alone.

I have been given the opportunity to share my testimony in several settings. It is an honor to be able to do so. I am grateful that I can share where I have been and where my journey currently has me and where it is taking me.

I am also grateful for those other stories I get to hear when others share. It is a gift of grace to be present when someone is willing to open up and be vulnerable and provide us a glimpse into their lives.

But what about those people whose stories are, for lack of a better term, boring? What about those people who never had a journey “to the far country?”

Sometimes, I wonder if we celebrate the story of the modern day prodigals (which is good) so much that we discredit the story of the modern day older brother (which is not so good).

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I have read and heard and preached on and listened to sermons about the Parable of the Prodigal Son millions of times. (Or some number close to that.)

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So I never expected to hear something different in the story when I read it out loud last week. A small phrase that I never caught before. A few simple words that changed the meaning in a profound way.

I never realized before that after the party started—you know, the party with the fatted calf for the younger brother who came back home—the father went out to the older brother.

This may not seem like much, but it hit me as I read it this time: the younger son was not the only one the father noticed. The younger son was not the only one the father was waiting for. The younger son was not the only one the father ran out to in order to extend grace and mercy. The younger son was not the only one the father wanted to celebrate.

The father went to the older brother. The brother who had stayed at home. The boring brother.

Leaving home, squandering our money in alcohol and sex, landing flat on our backs at rock bottom, and only then coming to our senses is not a prerequisite to be loved by God.

It is also not a prerequisite to having a great story, a great confession.

The older brother stayed. When the father must have felt abandoned, the older brother was there. When the work load increased, the older brother increased his effort. When the father faced the shame that would have come with a child abandoning the family, the older brother worked to restore the family honor.

The older brother is not a bad person. He is not the antagonist (though he is sometimes seen as such). The older brother devoted his life to serving and honoring his father.

And because he was never in need of radical grace, he did not know what to do when he saw his father extend it. And when he struggled with the acceptance of his younger brother, the father then extended radical grace to the older brother.

No matter how boring you may think your story is, you are still the recipient of the amazing gift of grace from God.

And your story is still important. We need to know that there is redemption for those of us who have struggled with addiction, loss, imprisonment, and oppression. But we also need to know there is redemption for those who have never wandered away.

You may think your story is boring. But it is not. Your story is valuable. Your story needs to be heard.

Your story will be a blessing. So share it.

 

*Picture is of the painting The Prodigal Son Returns by Soichi Watanabe

A Modern Day Parable

A parable:

Yesterday, I was driving down a road I have driven many times. As I approached a red light, I turned my eyes towards my left. My plan was to come to a stop and make a right turn on red. As this is a path I had traveled often, I was probably not paying as close attention as I needed to. When I looked to the left, all the cars coming towards the intersection were getting into the left turn lane. My path was clear, I began to turn right.

Only after I began my turn, I noticed the barricades, construction equipment, and construction workers. They were patching holes in the street and had the entire street blocked off. My youngest child was with me and said, after I began the turn, “Dad, what are you doing?” I made a mistake. I was not observant. My path was blocked.

I now had several options. The first was just to be stubborn enough to keep on going. I could have pushed the accelerator to the floor and barreled through the barricades, equipment, and people and sped on along my way.

The second option was to open my door, get out of the car, and yell at the construction workers for being in the street working at a time that was not convenient for me. After all, I had somewhere to be; they could potentially make me late. Besides, it was after 5. They should be done working and headed on their way home.

The third option was to yell at my youngest child. “Why didn’t you tell me sooner? Didn’t you see they were there? Why would you allow me to make such a mistake? You need to be aware of what is going on and inform me before I do something stupid.”

The fourth option was to say, “Oops. That’s embarrassing,” put the car in reverse, back into my lane, and wait for the light to turn green and continue my journey utilizing an alternate route.

One option was dangerous and potentially life threatening. Two options would result in the damaging of relationships. One option necessitated humility, opening my eyes, acknowledging my mistake, and finding a better solution.

Open our eyes that we may see.

Post-Election Chaos; Now What?

Two statements that only serve to ratchet up arguing with no intent to create dialogue: “All protestors are lazy, whiny, crybabies who need to get over it.” “All Trump voters are racist, misogynist, and hateful.” Neither statement seeks to increase understanding or promote conversation. Both stand simply as “I am right and you are wrong.”

Two statements that are uncomfortable truths but can serve to create dialogue: “Trump’s campaign was filled with hateful rhetoric. People who were the targets of those messages are legitimately afraid. Even though you may not agree with the rhetoric, it has already stung. Listen. Hear the pain. Hear the fear.” “In the aftermath of the election, you may feel angry and wish to cry out. Do so. But then get up and start doing the things that will bring about unity in your community. Start being the person this world needs you to be.”

In my own little sphere of experience, I have already heard four stories of those rhetorical targets being dismissed, insulted, and told to leave (and one of those four is my oldest son). If you supported or are even just okay with President-Elect Trump, please know that there are people suffering because his rhetoric has emboldened people to act this way. You may not. You may hate it just as much as I do. So please speak up with me. Please encourage your elected officials to publicly denounce the hatred and abuse that is way too prevalent in our country right now.

Also in my little sphere of experience, I am witnessing people creating groups for dialogue and action. Friends are looking for ways to perform acts of kindness in their neighborhoods. People are volunteering at places like the IRC. They are donating to places like Pregnancy Resources. They are seeking people who are afraid and offering solace and refuge. MLK told us all that riots are the language of the unheard. The unheard are making their voices known this week. In the weeks to come, those voices can still be heard in the millions of subversive acts we perform: service, kindness, organizing, running for office.

If people on both sides truly want to come together and work through whatever the next four years will bring, we need a lot less of the first two statements and a lot more of the second two. We also will need a lot less talking and lot more listening. We will need to acknowledge more and more the reality and the fear that many people face. We will need to recognize the humanity in the people we see around us.  We will need to stand up for those who being attacked.

There is a lot to do. I hope we will do it together.

(And for those who profess to be Jesus followers, we need a lot less patriotism and a lot more cross-shaped people—but that may be another blog post in the future.)