Hang On

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It’s been an interesting couple of months, to put it mildly. Actually, life has been interesting for longer than that, but the past two months or so have been particularly momentous, seeing the culmination of a number of things long in the making.

Coming Out to My Daughters
About two and a half months ago, I guess, I came out to my two daughters and my wife, from whom I’d already been separated for four years. We were still legally married  because we were too broke to pay for the divorce, and mostly in order to facilitate our younger daughter staying within and graduating from her school district. I’d stressed terribly over how, and when, to come out to them. I’d already been out to a number of friends and colleagues, but coming out to family is a whole different thing. If a friend, even a good friend, doesn’t take the news well, and they cut ties with you, it’s a disappointment. Having that same kind of reaction and rejection from a family member is the great terror that robs gay men of cumulative months of sleep as they envision every possible coming-out scenario in their waking and sleeping hours.

Ultimately, the timing of my coming out was determined by unexpected events unfolding, and not by grand plan. My boyfriend had come for a visit, and we’d planned to drive down into southern Ohio and do some hiking and sightseeing in the beautiful Hocking Hills region. We had just left my place, and had set out on the 45-minute drive, when I received a text from younger daughter, asking to borrow my large suitcase for her imminent departure to Switzerland, where she’d soon be starting her undergraduate studies. Beyond the fact that I actually needed the suitcase for my own upcoming move, I realized that when she arrived at the house to “borrow” it, she’d be curious about the strange car parked in the driveway. But your kid is your kid and you’d do anything for them. I figured I’d just pick up a second-hand suitcase for myself in a thrift store, so I told her that it was OK for her to stop by and pick it up. A little while later, as I’m driving, I get a text:

“Dad, are you seeing someone?”

Wow, I hadn’t expected that – but I figured I could brush it aside easily enough.

“LOL! No, my friend George from Toronto came for a short visit and I decided to show him the Hocking Hills.”

“Yeah, are you seeing him?”

Wow. “Are you seeing him?”, not even stopping along the way at “Are you gay?” Had she had suspicions about me for some time? Had she put things together in her own mind before I could make my own announcement? I didn’t think so, but I also know that we human beings can often delude ourselves in the worst way. How am I supposed to say something, via text, while driving, that in even my best-case scenario would be a sit-down conversation of at least an hour? Try keeping the car on the road while processing that. Hell, try not wanting to deliberately drive off the road into a concrete abutment just to avoid the whole thing.

I realized two things. First, I was too big of a coward to actually tell the truth in that moment, in that way. Second, I had to text back quickly, because a long delay in answering the question would automatically give an answer I wasn’t prepared to give. So with a knot in my stomach and with my hands trembling, I typed as quickly as I could.

“Um, no. But in any case, the suitcase is in the downstairs hallway, make sure that you don’t…..”

I deflected. And then, for the next couple of days, I was sick to my stomach. I’d just lied to my daughter. I’d lied about something that was very important, and lying to her about anything just ran contrary to everything I believe about parent-child relationships. After a very stressful and not at all enjoyable day of hiking, I decided that I was going to have to come clean to my daughters, and quickly – which would also mean that I was going to have to come out to my soon-to-be-ex wife, and to my parents, and to the rest of my immediate family, in rapid succession.

I arranged to have dinner with the girls at a favorite local casual restaurant. We had a great time together. After we’d eaten, I started in with the younger, texting daughter.

“You know, you sent me some texts the other day that really took me by surprise. But I’m curious; I wanted to ask you: How would you feel if I were seeing someone?”

“Omigosh! Are you?”

“Well, just answer the question first. How would you feel?”

Slight pause…

“Well, I don’t know. Would it be a woman, or a man?”

Zing. She has to suspect. I actually feel encouraged by this. Maybe it isn’t going to be as  big a thing as I’d been fearing.

“Well, how would you feel if it were a woman?”

“It wouldn’t bother me. I’d be OK with it.” (Older daughter concurs at this point.)

Deep breath…

“OK… and how would you feel… if it were another man?”

Momentary awkward silence.

Older daughter chimes in: “Well, if that were the case, I just want to say I’d be OK with it. I mean, I’d have to get used to it, but we’re all who we are, and if you’re gay, that doesn’t change anything between us.”

Unfortunately, younger daughter, whose line of questioning had started this chain reaction to begin with, was not anywhere near as conciliatory. She was taking it hard.

“But you’re the one that asked if I were seeing a man!”

“I was kidding!”

No you weren’t, I thought to myself. But this wasn’t the time to argue about that.

“What about the church that you just took the new job at? Do they know? Are you going to have to quit your job?”

“No, the church knows; I told them the very first time we talked.”

“Oh… wait… so they knew before we did?!!”

This was not going well. The remainder of the meal was tense, on at least one front.

Coming Out to My Soon-to-be-Ex-Wife
Two days later, I came out to their mother over lunch. When I got to the big declaration, her response was to smile and say “I knew it! Honestly, I’d have never suspected it, but after you went up to Toronto to see your friend twice so soon, and then you said you wanted to see George Takei at the Pride Parade, I really started to suspect it.” Of course, she had a number of questions, and maybe she’ll have more as time unfolds, and I tried to answer them as best as I could, even while I try to work out the answers to some of them myself.

A major factor in deciding to come out when I did was that younger daughter was leaving the country for school – remember the suitcase? I knew that I’d be coming out once and for all in very short order, and I wanted to do so with her in person, rather than via phone, Skype, or blog post. I’d deferred the start of the new pastoral position so that I’d be able to see her off at the airport when she left. Unfortunately, that was not to be. After our dinner, she got word to me via her mother that she didn’t want to see me, or talk to me, or hear from me, or have any contact from me. This has been the single negative reaction that I’ve received over my coming out (at least the only one actually spoken). It hurt, and continues to hurt, in a way beyond description. Before, I’d been Pops. Now, I didn’t even exist.

But, she’s eighteen. I remember being eighteen, and so black-and-white certain that I knew how the world worked and that I had all the right answers, well past eighteen. Just as I’d hurt other people with my own actions, I’m getting some of it back now, and just as those people had been patient with me until I came around, I can only do the same in the hopes that she will. I think she will, but it’s going to take some time. So I wait.

Coming Out to My Parents
In the midst of all this, I was shuttling back and forth between Columbus and New York, making final arrangements for the new job. During one of those trips shortly after coming out to the girls and their mother, I doglegged through Pennsylvania and did the same with my mother, and my father and his wife. It was grueling. Telling them was difficult – not, as I explained then, because I’m ashamed of who I am, but rather, because I knew that this news had the potential to cause them pain, and that was the last thing I’d ever want to do. As it turned out, those conversations ended up going about as well as I could have ever hoped – and far better than they did in the nightmares that had awakened me in the middle of countless nights. After the initial awkwardness, Dad’s response was “Well it sure isn’t the kind of news I’d ever wanted to hear, or expected to hear. But as far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t change anything. You’re my son, and I love you, and I’ll always love you, and nothing can ever change that.” He went on, “The only thing I worry about is that you’ve just had such a tough time of things for so long now, and I want things to be good and go easy for you for a change, and I just worry that this is going to continue to make things difficult for you.”

Telling Mom went differently, but ultimately just as well. After the initial shock, and running through the religious issues she had with the news, she thought very carefully about what I was saying. She ended up asking me some incredibly good questions, very thoughtful questions. I’d given Mom and Dad both copies of Matthew Vines’ book God and the Gay Christian, since I knew they’d both have reservations on religious grounds. At one point, Mom said “Well, I guess it’s just the way I’ve always said – hate the sin, but love the sinner.” Realizing that even that was a step in the right direction, I said, “Well, I hope that at some point, you get to the point where you don’t believe there’s any sin in this to hate.” She said, “I guess the first time I really saw this out of the abstract, as a real human issue, is when I saw the movie Philadelphia.”

“Well, if you’d like, I could recommend a few other movies that might help you as you think through all of this. Would you like me to send some to you?”

“Yes, I think I’d like that.”

In my nightmares, I’d envisioned having to dodge things being thrown at me, and being banished from the house. Don’t imagine that coming out to your parents is any less scary when you’re in your fifties than if you did it in your twenties. In reality, I was amazed at how accepting of this new reality they both were. I thought that the ability for me to be amazed by my parents had long passed. I was wrong. I’m sure that there will be bumps along the way, but my parents are amazing.

Coming Out to Everyone Else
With the immediate family now having been told, I was able to make the final, once-and-for-all coming out announcement, via a blog post,  to everyone else who hadn’t already been let into the circle of trust, to borrow a phrase from Meet the Parents. I did this the day after leaving the Columbus congregation – they’re dealing with a lot of other turmoil and transition at the moment; I didn’t want to add this drama onto them as well – and the day before starting in New York, so that I would be starting here completely out to everyone from the get-go. That single blog post had exponentially more hits than anything else I’ve ever posted here. Still, I’ve been encountering people who had missed the announcement, necessitating a series of re-coming outs. That will continue into the future, I suppose. Here again, the only comments I’ve gotten have been positive and very supportive. Of course, I’m not so naive as to think that the news was met with universal acceptance. I’m sure that there are a number of people who are not supportive; they’ve just chosen to say nothing rather than offer their thoughts openly. That’s more civil, I suppose, but I almost wish that I’d know if someone has written me out of their lives over this. Even worse is the scenario where a person says they’re OK with the news, but they really aren’t, and they gradually, quietly just disengage. There are a few people that I think may be doing this at the moment. I hope not.

Saying Goodbye
My last day of pastoring in Columbus was Sunday, August 17th, and I couldn’t have imagined a more wonderful and heartfelt sendoff from the congregation in my dreams. It was a great service, and a deeply emotional final sermon, followed by a touching reception. This congregation had meant so much to me, for so many years. I was so blessed to have been part of them all of that time.

(Not) Saying Goodbye
The very next day, my younger daughter left the country, without my being able to see her, much less talk with her, hug her. I actually considered hiding behind a column or a plant at the terminal, just to be able to at least see her before she left. As hard as it was, though, I respected her wishes that I not be there, no matter how much it hurt. And it hurt a lot.

Saying Hello
The day after daughter left for Switzerland, I left for Auburn, New York, and the day after that, I was already at work in the new position. A parishioner very graciously allowed me to stay in an unoccupied, but fully furnished home of theirs, enabling me to transition into the new surroundings quickly, and allowing me to make the full-scale transition more gradually. I’ve been living with limited stuff, out of suitcases (including the second-hand one I bought at the thrift store to replace the one that daughter took to Switzerland) and banana boxes. I can’t wait to get into my own place. The new congregation is also wonderful. I’ve spent the past month getting to know the people, the congregational culture, the city. I definitely like it here.

Back to Columbus – The Dissolution
My wife and I had finally gotten our dissolution paperwork filed, and of course, the hearing was set for three weeks after the new job started in New York. So last week, I had to drive a 14-hour round trip to appear in front of a judge for what couldn’t have been more than two minutes, answering Yes, Yes, Yes, No, Yes… to a handful of questions that we’d both already answered in the paperwork. Ah well. After being separated for four years, almost to the day, and with not even a wisp of fanfare, our marriage of 26 years (actually 22 together) was over. We joked in the elevator on the way out of the building. A few hours later, we met up again for a celebratory happy hour drink at the restaurant where older daughter worked. Then, back to Auburn the next morning, and back to work.

And Back to Columbus Again – the Real Move
Tomorrow morning, I drive back to Columbus again. This time, I finish up the last of the packing and start giving the house its final cleaning. The movers show up early Monday morning to pack everything up and, sometime a few days later, deliver it to my new permanent home in Auburn. There are a couple of things I need to drop off, a couple of goodbyes to share, and a set of keys to drop off at the landlord’s. And of course, older daughter and now ex-wife and I will go out for a nice dinner. Then early Tuesday morning, I leave the city I’ve called home since August of 1984.

This past week, a parishioner here commented that she was staggered, thinking of all of the upheaval and changes that I’d navigated in just the past couple of months. I thought a lot about that comment. The real truth is that – as my Dad had alluded to – there have been a near-continual string of major disasters and problems, which won’t be detailed here now,  that I’ve had to get through in my life, running back to probably about 2001. As much as I’d never wish any of those truly awful experiences on even my worst enemy, I really think that going through them taught me how to endure all these multiple, very stressful things in recent times. As difficult as so many of these things are, I’ve taught myself to compartmentalize them, and to be able to continue in a reasonably normal, sane, even good-natured way, even with things being very different while inside each of those various other “compartments.” I do also know this, and I know that there’s a risk of sounding superficial or corny, but I know that there’s no way that I could have gotten through all of this anywhere nearly as well, by simply relying on my own strength or smarts. The collective pressures and stresses that all of these things placed upon me could easily have crushed me like a Dixie Cup, and yet, somehow, I’m still here. Yes, I attribute that to God. Some people might think that clergy have a lot more about God figured out than the average person. I doubt that, actually; I think that we’re just taught a larger and better vocabulary to camouflage the gaps in our understanding. I think that the net result of my education has been that I’m less sure about what I think I know about God than when I began – and maybe that’s the whole point. But I do know that somehow, inextricably embedded within the deepest depths and the highest highs of our experience, there is an incredible, mysterious Something that is so real that you can feel the Something on your skin, hear the Something in your head, feel the Something in your heart, as real as anything you’ve ever experienced in your life. Others may call the Something something else; I call the Something God, and if the past two months, and the past decade, has taught me anything, it’s that I really can do all things through the Something that I also call Christ, who strengthens me.

So, I wonder what’s going to happen next month? I can only imagine. All I can do is just hang on, and enjoy the ride.

Out

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OK, as I’m about to go to bed for the last time in Columbus before starting the next chapter of life in New York, it’s time to finally kick the closet door the rest of the way open, once and for all. Friends, if you didn’t already know it, I’m gay.

Many of you already know that. Some of you have known it for quite a while. Others of you may have put the pieces together for yourselves, or at least been curious, based on personal conversations, Facebook posts, and various other bread crumbs I’d dropped along the path in the past few years. The fact is, I’ve been gradually coming out to an ever-increasing number of friends, classmates, seminary professors, pastoral colleagues, coworkers, and parishioners. I started with people who I knew would be accepting – mostly those who were openly gay themselves. Then, I nervously came out to those who weren’t gay, but who I thought were most likely to be supportive. While I know the streak won’t continue forever, I’ve been remarkably blessed in that to date I’ve received only acceptance and support from every single one of the friends and associates I’ve come out to.

That positive experience gave me the confidence I needed to finally come out to the people I was most worried about losing – my closest family members. It was becoming increasingly difficult to remember who I was out to and who I wasn’t, and I began to worry that my family would hear I was gay through the grapevine before I could tell them in person, and that would have been terribly unfair to them. I’ve now come out to them, too, in a series of face-to-face meetings in Columbus and Pennsylvania interspersed with traveling back and forth for pastoral onboarding meetings in New York. Of course, a few family members still found out before I could tell them myself, and I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to tell them in person. With one painful exception that I suspect will still resolve with a bit of time, I have received love, acceptance, and support – even when there wasn’t complete understanding – from all of the family members I’ve spoken with. That doesn’t mean there won’t still be some rough edges to smooth out, but I’m truly blessed, and very grateful, for the love that they’ve shown as I’ve come out to them. Unfortunately, I can’t come out in person to every family member or friend, and this combination blog/Facebook post will have to suffice for a lot of people. I hope that you can all understand that, and that you’ll forgive me if I didn’t speak with you in person.

Everybody’s coming-out process includes some challenges unique to their situation. Mine had an added dimension of complexity because I was working my way through it while simultaneously going through the pastoral search/call process. As you might suspect, that resulted in several interesting experiences, but sharing those right now wouldn’t be relevant to this announcement. I’m sure that I’ll share some of those experiences later. For now, though, what’s important is for me to live with integrity – being honest with God, honest with myself, and honest with all of you.

Frankly, to come out in such a public way as this seems odd to me for a few reasons. First, I’m not a famous actor, or athlete, or other public figure that everyone is interested in. I’m just me – a very normal, very average, often boring, middle-aged man, who happens to be a pastor, and who finally put the pieces together, stopped ignoring, denying, and/or repressing, and gradually accepted the fact that he’s gay. Hardly anything to prompt a press conference, a Fox News Alert, or a protest by the Westboro Baptist Church. Maybe at some point I’ll rate a scathing comment in The Layman, calling me a clear sign of the decline of the Presbyterian Church, if not of the very apocalypse itself. But otherwise, this news really deserves little more than a polite yawn.

Second, while I’m certainly not ashamed of my sexual orientation, pastors typically already live within narrower boundaries surrounding their private lives, and I work hard to guard at least those boundaries as they are. Just like anyone else, I expect a reasonable degree of respect for my rights to privacy, and I don’t believe that I need to announce my sexual orientation to anyone as soon as we meet, any more than I feel they need to do so in return.

Third, I have concerns that having come out, people will think that the nature of my ministry will be a one-note symphony; that it will be all-gay-all-the-time. In fact, being extremely sensitive to that potential misunderstanding, I’ll probably raise the LGBTQ issue less than many straight clergy. A large part of my sense of call to the ministry is to work for increased justice in various forms, and while LGBTQ inclusvity in church and society is one of those forms, it is only one.

So given these concerns, why am I coming out in such a public way? First, I’ve already mentioned that doing so gets the information to a lot of you with one simultaneous announcement. But the larger reason is to make a few points that I believe are very important, and to a few different audiences.

To those who know me in the church or otherwise, who hold conservative/traditionalist views which oppose the inclusion of LGBTQ people in full life of the church, including its leadership: many of you have known me for a number of years, and without wanting to blow my own horn, I believe that you’ve seen my pastoral gifts, and you see that I have clearly been called into the ministry. Quite a number of people have made these very comments. If you find yourself in this category, I challenge you to reconsider your position, by seeing that God has called me to the ministry while being perfectly well aware that I was gay, and has given me the gifts to serve in that calling capably, . I challenge you to recognize that a person’s sexual orientation, whatever it might be, is a part of having been created in God’s very image, and that God accepts LGBTQ people into the full life of the church. As the apostle Peter said “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean” (Acts 10:28 NRSV); and that “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” (Acts 11:17 NRSV). I hope that knowing me will help begin a process within you where your earlier views are challenged, and eventually revised. If you’re in this category, I’d be happy to speak with you in greater detail regarding scriptural interpretations, but now, for you, this is not an abstract theological debate; it has a name and a face – mine.

The second audience that made me decide to come out in a very public way are youth – and adults, as well – who are struggling with their own sexual orientation, or who have recognized that they are LGBTQ – and who, because of that, have feelings that they’re sinners destined for hell; that God doesn’t want them or love them or accept them as they are; and that there is no place for them within the Church. Many in this audience may have struggled for years, praying until they were blue in the face for God to “cure” them, or “fix” them, but God never did – and so, they felt that God must hate them, or is punishing them, or they’re just not praying hard enough or dedicated enough. Some in this audience may have considered, or may be considering suicide as a result of their spiritual crisis brought on by being gay.

To you, my friends in this second audience, I want you to know that I’ve gone through most, if not all, of those same struggles and inner strife. I want you to know that God never “fixed” you, or me, because there was nothing wrong with us that needed fixed. The diversity seen across the whole human spectrum is a collective reflection of the very image and loving nature of God’s own being, and that includes our sexual orientation and sexual identity. God has been with you, and has accepted you, all along, even if many within his Church haven’t figured it out yet. You are a wonderful, remarkable child of God. It’s true that not every church institution has accepted this reality yet. But more and more Christian churches are reaching this conclusion, and living more deeply into God’s message of love and acceptance. If you’re seeking a relationship with God and with a church community, you may have to switch denominations or traditions, but you will find more and more welcoming congregations, all around the country. My friends in this audience, you are a very important reason for my very public coming out. I want you to see, through the example of my life and call to the ministry, that God loves you and accepts you, too.

Having said all this, I want to make it very clear that I have absolutely no desire to be anyone’s “gay pastor.” I just want to be a pastor – who, yes, just happens to be gay, but who is using the gifts that God has given me, in the way that God has called me, in love and service to God, to Christ, to my congregation, and to the world.

I’m sure there will be more later, but for now, the closet door’s all the way open, and that’s good enough for the moment.