(Part 2 of 3 of God, the Church, and LGBT)
Music blared several decibels from her bedroom to grab my attention. Upon arriving at my 15 year old daughter’s room I saw the collection of homemade construction paper posters plastered all over the outside of her door.
With words in crayon and colored pencil scribbled over pictures of rainbows and picket signs, the message was meant to be clear.
“Equal Rights!” they exclaimed.
“Bi-sexual and proud!”
But the most offensive:
“My dad hates gays!” and “My dad hates me because I’m bi.”
Offensive not because of the subject, but because I had been accused of hate. Anybody who knows me well knows that I don’t hate anyone (though there are certainly people who frustrate me along the way). And I certainly never hated my beautiful daughter, who’s had me wrapped around her precious fingers since pretty much day one … and still does.
Furthermore, since becoming a Christian I’ve often been one who has pushed for a much more compassionate response to homosexuality – likely often leaving my conservative Christian friends wondering where I stood.
Just a half hour earlier it all began with a simple question. “Daddy, I want to paint my room. Will you help me paint it right now?”
“Sweetie, it’s almost 9pm and a school night. I appreciate that you want to paint your room, but we’re not going to do that right now.”
“But I really want to.”
“I know you do, sweetie.” Then, knowing that my attention had often been focused more on my daughter for the past couple months (which I will explain below) I replied, “Besides, I promised your brothers I would play this video game with them. I’m still in the middle of that.”
Now here we stood…at the door…with the posters. Frustrated at my daughter’s impulsivity and that she would pull what at the time I considered a “stunt” to grab attention away from her brothers, as well as frustrated at the accusations against me, I reacted impulsively myself.
“Turn that music down and take those posters off your door!”
“But you just hate me!”
“Take them down…now!”
An hour later, out of her bedroom came the desperate cry. I can still hear it in my head.
“Daddy, I don’t want to die!”
Soon enough, I stood helplessly in the ER, watching doctors & nurses scramble to pump an overdose of medication out of my precious daughter’s stomach.
So how did we arrive at this place?
As I’ve shared previously, my daughter suffered from severe depression. She is currently in a much better place and very openly and heroically speaks about it today, and I am very proud of her. At the time of her severe depression, she had just come out of a bad relationship with a boy. She was struggling with suicidal thoughts and very courageously sought to get the help she needed by willingly going to inpatient therapy for a couple weeks followed by several weeks of outpatient.
Because she was struggling with relationships in general and because of her tendency to make impulsive, self-destructive decisions, my wife and I placed a rule on her that she was not allowed to date anyone while she continued to heal.
In the midst of all this, she began to notice that she felt herself particularly drawn to another female classmate. Not long after that, one evening she handed us a note, explaining to us that she was bi.
Our response was simple, and went something along the lines of this: Sweetie, we thank you so much for trusting us and for openly and courageously sharing this with us. We love you, and God loves you, very much. Always have and always will. Nothing could possibly ever change that. At the same time, our rules still apply. No sexual relations outside of marriage or while you are still under our care, and no dating anyone while you continue to heal. If you wish to know how God feels about this, then we simply encourage you to read scripture and pray, asking him directly and discovering for yourself.
That was it. No preaching. No lectures. No 5 point study on homosexuality. This was a time for healing, not a sermon.
And yet, here I now stood in the ER, watching as they worked so hard to save my beautiful daughter’s life.
She had been pushing the past couple weeks for us to allow her to date this girl. Yet we remained unwavering, applying our dating rule to boy or girl alike. At the same time, she became convinced because of the church’s long history of “contempt” toward the gay community, that our feelings must be the same.
This particular day was a good day actually – no signs of animosity between us and her. But what I didn’t realize when she asked me to help paint, she was asking something else. And when she turned up the music and plastered those posters on her door, she was crying for an answer all the more.
“Do you really love me?” “Am I important to you?” “Do you accept me as I am?”
and “Am I still Daddy’s little girl?”
At the same time, I was asking my own sets of questions.
“Am I appreciated?” “Am I sufficient?” “Do you know for you I’d give my own life?”
And in that heated, emotional moment, though neither one of us intended it … we’d answered each other with a very resounding, “NO!”
…and an ER visit to boot.
Now, I’m past the blame myself mode, for I’m human after all. Nor did I ever blame my daughter. Depression is an illness that plays with the mind and emotions and causes individuals to act outside of themselves, in desperate attempts to relieve the pain in the only ways they know how.
But through this moment and years of counseling, healing and prayer, I learned something important: words and actions matter. And the reason they matter is because behind everything, behind every single interaction, people are always asking questions. But they are questions we don’t always see. These are not the surface questions like, “How are you doing?” or “Can you help me with this?”
They are the deeper questions that get to our sense of being such as, “Do you notice me?” “Am I accepted?” and “Do I matter?” The cries that start from birth and continue in everyone until the end.
But often we don’t see it, nor take the time to even answer it. And thus we leave those questions unanswered, often hurting each other along the way.
So I’ve set myself upon a mission – to try to find out what someone is really asking and try to answer it, though imperfectly, in every personal encounter I have. It’s a grandiose experiment, I know. And if I’m honest, as I’ve promised to be throughout this blog, I’m still learning…and often, very often in fact, I either answer it wrong or miss it entirely along the way. But I’m still trying and hoping you will to. For to me, it’s one of the greatest ways to love…to listen, really listen…a way to sacrifice.
One area that I feel that we very often fail to listen is the question of same-sex marriage. Put in the form of the question, either “Do you approve of same-sex marriage?” or “Is same-sex marriage sin?” or similar, it is one of the most emotionally and politically charged issues of our day. Answer it “wrong” and the consequences can be severe.
On one side you have executives asked to resign and TV stars canceled from their shows, trying to stay firm to their beliefs but accused of spreading hate. On the other side you have pastors or ministry leaders lambasted by their peers, trying a more compassionate tone but accused of compromising the faith.
At the root of the problem is this – it’s not just one question being asked. At the subsurface of this question, of course, is the question of whether homosexuality is sin; but even further than that are deeper questions still. And depending on who you are or where you are at in life, the questions are different for everyone.
So in truth, in that “one” single question there are really at least a thousand different ones being asked. And if we are really honest, since every person walks into life with different experiences, cultures, genetics and personalities, that “one” question is really 7 billion in 1.
Thus, that one question, that “simple” question, filled with so much emotion, pain, fear, long-held beliefs and passion, really becomes impossible to answer because when you think you are answering one question, you are unintentionally answering so many others at once.
To give you a better idea, let’s look at opposite ends of the spectrum. As a heterosexual individual I have often wondered why same-sex marriage is so important to the gay community. Yes, there are legal concerns such as health insurance for partners, taxes, adoption laws, hospital visitation and medical decision rights. Add in the psychology of the sense of permanence and stability that marriage offers.
However, statistics show us that among heterosexual couples the rate of marriage is significantly declining. Whereas, in 1960, 72 % of Americans were married, currently only 51% are married with the percentage steadily continuing to drop. On the reverse end, more and more couples are deciding to cohabitate, foregoing all the supposed benefits that come with marriage. In 1960, less than half a million cohabitated; now over 7 ½ million do (Huffington Post, “Marriage Rate Declines to Historic Low, Study Finds” ). Add in the rising divorce rate and it means that more and more heterosexual couples are simply finding all the “benefits” (both legal and psychological) of marriage simply not worth it.
So why is it that same-sex couples are pressing toward marriage so much when opposite-sex couples seem to be running from it?
The answer must be in the questions being asked. Now I cannot pretend to know the exact questions for every individual, so please forgive me if you are reading this and you are a person who has same-sex attraction and this particular question does not speak for you. But I cannot help but think that one of the underlying questions for many is this: “Can I be normal?”
For marriage is one of the most normalized institutions throughout the history of humankind and the rock around which much of our culture is built. For individuals who have long been explicitly or implicitly told they are “freaks,” abnormal or outcasts, and often been bullied or remained in hiding, to be openly married is to finally become a part of one of the most normal things there is.
Add to that is the question, “Can I be forever accepted and understood?” For those who have feared much of their lives being rejected by loved ones because of whom they are, to be married to someone who accepts them and gets them is the promise of finally being in a relationship that will last for good.
On the other end of the spectrum are those who have long held faith in certain beliefs. For some they have had such faith their entire lives. For others, their faith came along later and it involved drastic changes in their lives. Some look back on the way they once were and can never go back because they see alcohol abuse or addiction or anger or shame in their past. Their faith has become a bedrock of who they are; their faith is who they are. It is the most important part of their life.
And at the foundation of their faith there is a belief in how their sacred texts are to be read. And if those texts can’t be trusted in some parts then how can they be trusted in others and where does their faith stand? Faith, by definition, is a fragile thing anyway because it is belief and hope in something unseen. So a root question for anyone of faith is always, “Is my faith real?” And when they interact with others it is often, “Do you value my faith?” which in translation is, “Do you value me?”
Regardless of where you stand on how certain scripture verses are understood about homosexuality, it is a fact that it has been interpreted one way by a large part of the church for centuries. Thus, to suddenly reinterpret (whether you think it right or wrong) is to rip at more than just a verse; it is for many to rip at an entire belief – a belief for some that has affected their entire lives. Add into that new questions about the freedom to continue in those beliefs and it becomes “Does the God who saved me still have a place here?” and “Will I be free to be who I am?”
Thus, with 2 different ends of the spectrum and a whole host of varying questions in between, when you try in short soundbites to answer a “simple” question, whose question are you really answering?
Nowhere was the dilemma of this question better illustrated than in the case of Chick-Fil-A a few years ago. During the summer of 2012, in answer to the question about same sex marriage, Chick-Fil-A’s Chief Operating Officer Dan Cathy replied in support of the “biblical definition of the family unit.” The response from the gay community and its supporters was swift with financial figures posted, boycotts ensuing, business relationships ending, and several mayors pledging Chick-Fil-A was no longer welcome in their town.
It became a battleground for gay rights verses religious rights, with one side concerned about “hate speech” and the other concerned about “freedom” of speech.” But why so much fuss over one man’s thoughts? Because it lay in the deeper questions beneath.
As far as many were concerned in answer to the questions of “Can I be normal?” and “Can I be forever accepted and understood?” the answer from Chick-Fil-A was “no.”
On the other side in response to the questions “Do you value my faith? Does my God still have a place here?” and “Will I be free to be who I am?” the answer through social media, business leaders and mayors was equally “no.”
Soon enough, talk show host and former Governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee entered the fray. His response? Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day. And so on Aug 1, 2012 thousands of people showed up at Chick-Fil-A with record breaking sales.
It was seen as a major victory for freedom of speech and religion, and I myself, concerned about such freedoms, initially gave my support. But as a I watched on the news with thousands lined up and saw the Instragams and tweets of people proudly eating their chicken sandwiches I had to ask…at what cost?
For in answer to some:
Do you value my faith?
Does God still have a place?
Am I free to be who I am?
They felt a resounding “YES!”
But in answer to others:
Can I be normal?
Am I accepted?
Am I favored?
They heard a deafening, “NO!”
While I’ve focused primarily here on the question of same-sex marriage, the question could also easily be asked of any other controversies about the LGBT community for which we expect quick, defining answers…at what cost? At what cost do we so easily toss aside the long-held inner feelings of those we deem different? At what cost do we so quickly trample on people’s faith? At what cost do we so simply ignore the questions? The deeper questions…the questions of the heart.
Communication specialists and psychologists will tell us that one of the single most important things to do in any communication is to listen first and let them know that you are. But sometimes our failure to do so because of our impulsiveness or insistence on making our point results in breakups and divorces and stalemates and feuds…and sometimes visits to the ER.
Am I talking about compromise? No? But to listen…really listen first…it’s worth the sacrifice.
Please note: while I wrote this to express the importance of listening, if you are someone who has lost a loved one due to suicide, let me be clear: it is not your fault. Depression is a disease that wreaks havoc on often the most innocent and sometimes affects families in ways that no one could have prevented.
Or if you, yourself, are a person struggling with depression who feels you have too many questions left unanswered and are ready to give up hope, please do not hesitate to ask someone for help. If you find yourself in a crisis moment, the suicide prevention lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You matter and are worth fighting for.
(Your feedback is welcome. Please tell me what you honestly think below)