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!

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…

_________________________

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).

_________________________

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.)

13c624503a3550cf9b427e6f5a7e6e0d

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

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.

_________________________

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?

_________________________

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.

When All Else Fails, FaithWorks

I originally posted this in January. I am posting again today because Class 40 is graduating tonight! FaithWorks of Abilene is an amazing place. I love telling people about it.

“It’s never too late to become what you might have been.”

I love my job. My actual title is Classroom Instructor; however, I learn so much more than I could ever teach.

At FaithWorks of Abilene, we provide underemployed and unemployed individuals with the confidence and skills necessary for gainful employment. Our mission is to help people find their place in the job market. We use a career counseling curriculum, provide counseling, teach the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, look at the life of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, and provide lessons in how to deal with conflict.

But that’s just a program description. It is important. I love telling people about it. (Seriously…invite me to speak and I will fill you in completely!)

However, there is so much more to FaithWorks than our program. It is all about our students. The reason I learn so much is that a diverse group of students bring their life experiences, their challenges, their unique abilities, and their resolve and determination to the classroom. We have students who have been told for so long they will never amount to anything. They come to us and prove people wrong.

I could tell you about the woman who made a mistake at a young age and spent many years in prison. When she came out, no one wanted to hire her; even though she attained three college degrees while incarcerated. After FaithWorks, she was given a chance by a local employer and has been promoted twice.

I could tell you about the man who was highly educated and working very successfully in his field. After a relationship break-up and emotional breakdown he lost everything. When he came to us, he had lost all of his self-confidence. Within two weeks of class starting, his confidence started coming back. He actually became a second teacher in the classroom.

I could tell you about our kitchen coordinator who never held a job for more than six months. After graduating from FaithWorks she started working in our kitchen and has been here for six months. Plus 3 and ½ years.

I could tell you about the woman who was homeless and always drunk who was estranged from her family. When she started, she had been out of work for a while. Due to some medical issues, she has not been able to find full-time work but she has been consistently volunteering ever since graduation. She has maintained her sobriety and has been living in her own home. She has reconciled with many members of her family.

I could tell you about the other 400+ students who have come through our doors.

I could tell you about the single parents who attend class and work part-time jobs in the evenings and weekends to take care of their families while they are in class.

I could tell you about the people working to make their lives better after making mistakes and picking up a criminal record.

I could tell you about the recovering addicts and alcoholics who just needed someone to give them a chance.

I could tell you about the students who experienced an unplanned life transition in their 40s and 50s and needed help getting reestablished.

I could even go on to tell you about how the systems in place that often work to make it more difficult for unemployed people to find work. I could tell you about all the obstacles that are placed in the way and all the hoops that people are made to jump through. I could tell you about the scores of people who keep telling our students, “You can’t.”

But instead of telling you about those, I just want to tell you that every single one of our students has faced a number of challenges. When they come to us, all they need is someone who will say to them, “I am on your side. You can do this.”

And once they receive a little bit of encouragement, they take off.

It truly is never too late to become what you might have been.

*If you live in Abilene and would benefit from our program, our Fall Class begins September 12! Check out our website: faithworksofabilene.org and our Facebook and Twitter pages.