I am visiting my family for Thanksgiving this week. It was too convenient not to travel here, as I was only two hours away last weekend for the American Academy of Religion’s Annual Meeting in Chicago. After a weekend there that was both stimulating and profoundly overwhelming, I don’t mind lounging on my childhood couch today in Madison, being well-fed our family’s amusing blend of Southern and French food: pain au chocolat and beignets with jello salad and a good heaping of buttered grits.
Being home this holiday has larger significance than the convenience or the food, however. I would be lying if I were to say it isn’t hard, because it is hard to be here. For years now there’s been an elephant suffocating this space, and the phone-lines that run between it and my home in Indiana. This elephant has made her presence known in our national religious discourse and our elections as well.
The elephant is this: I am gay. I am gay and joyfully partnered and my parents couldn’t be more devastated. My parents, grandparents, neighbors and many childhood friends are all confused and honestly hurting over my “choice,” and being home—away from my supportive, loving community and partner—reminds me so vividly of the deep divide in my family and the wider American Church.
I suppose I am the stereotypical “good girl.” I hate disappointing people. The idea of actually hurting them crunches my heart into a little ball and makes it hard to breathe. I think that’s why it took me so long to come out, even to myself. I couldn’t acknowledge that at the very core of who I am is something that would apparently hurt others: my parents, church and friends. But at some point I realized that by keeping it all pushed down, wadded up and ignored I was hurting myself deeply.
And to hurt myself isn’t really preserving others. The first step towards a healthy earth, a healthy family and even a healthy faith, I realized, is a healthy me. I know it’s overstated, but one day it came down to this: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” It helped that the year I decided to be was the same year I met a beautiful brown-haired woman that helped coax me out of hiding and into the light of being me: wholly and fully, gay and all.
I also learned a thing or two about what it really means to hurt others. Me being gay, no matter how much my mother insists that it hurts her, doesn’t hurt other people. It doesn’t hurt their marriages, or even the grand institution of marriage. It doesn’t hurt my little sister. It doesn’t hurt my congregation or my denomination. It also doesn’t hurt me. I do not hurt others by the act of being true to myself and loving the woman I love with joy and abandon.
And yet I do acknowledge this: my parents are hurting. It’s obvious being here: even sitting on our couch and watching the fire glow. A book published by Exodus International, When Homosexuality Hits Home: What to Do When a Loved One Says They’re Gay sits prominently along with a host of other books regarding “the Homosexual” on my parents’ bookshelves. I found one strategically placed in my room when I arrived here: Homosexuality and the Christian. The books are carefully marked and underlined, exhibiting attentive reading and study. My first instinct is anger: I’ve offered a number of gay-affirming resources that I found helpful in my own integration of same-sex attraction, partnership and Christian faith, and my parents have rejected them for books that are hugely biased towards a conservative position.
But if I step back, perhaps I can imagine something further: the careful underlining and study reveal pain, hurt and confusion. They are consistent with the fact that my parents truly have no one to speak with who doesn’t identify as a conservative evangelical Christian and though everyone in their lives has been concerned and even condemning of my relationship and orientation, my parents are still searching. Perhaps I can even take one more step back: though leaving books that ultimately reject same-sex partnerships as legitimate in my room saddens me, I could perhaps—in my greatest moments of compassion—see the gesture as one of love. My parents do love me, and when everything in their world is telling them that I am “going down the wrong path,” their gesture is one that says they hope the best for me, even though we strongly disagree on what that best is.
I have learned that I do not hurt others, even though it is possible for others to hurt because of me. I do not need to hold onto guilt because of this. But it’s acceptable, even commendable, for me to acknowledge that hurt. It’s a simple gesture, to say to my mother, “I’m sorry that you are hurting.” To say that does not accept responsibility for her hurt: the words are not words of apology but of understanding and care. But even those words aren’t easy for me, because by all means I want to say “Just stop it! There’s no need for this! Just accept me and my partnership and celebrate with me! God will not condemn you for acceptance just like God doesn’t condemn me!” I want so badly for her to just let go. But by saying that, in some ways I’m really saying this: I am right, and if you would just see it, your hurt would disappear.
To be right. About God and homosexuality. About family and hurt and love. Those are powerful words and I cringe a bit as I write them. To see an end to my parents’ suffering: yes, I want that. But is it necessary for me to be right in order for that to happen? Being right seems so final. So “hard and trampled,” as Yehuda Amichai points out in the poem above, a poem I found on a friend’s fridge yesterday when I fled to her house after a long and hard afternoon with my parents.
Amichai’s poem, at first, struck me as perfect for my parents. “They need to read this!” I thought. “Then maybe they would give up on being right and concede to me!”….but then were does that leave me? It leaves me right back at the beginning of the poem: it leaves me in the place where I am right. The place where spring flowers do not bloom.
Good poetry, like the best moments in church or reading Scripture, leave you both comforted and deeply disturbed. In the middle of this Thanksgiving holiday, facing my own sadness, my parents’ hurt and trying to give thanks through it all, Amichai has indeed left me both comforted and disturbed. Someone told me once that is the role of the Holy Spirit, too: to bring us hope and light in our darkest places, and give us a twinge of darkness, confusion and disturbance where we are overly confident and gleaming.
I am, today, working so hard to get to that place where I am right. But where will it get me? Hard earth and wilted flowers, if they grow at all. Oh yes, and that troubling, ephemeral image at the end of the poem: a ruined house. I imagine my house, were this elephant of gay and God allowed to trample fully through it: it is a pile of bricks, a smoldering bed frame, some dishes smashed and useless.
So what instead? What whisper of hope is offered for this house and this family on this Thanksgiving? “Doubts and loves,” writes Amichai, “dig up the world.” Doubts and loves. Maybe it’s the similarity of the spelling between “loves” and “loaves,” but Amichai’s prescription reminds me an awful lot of that miracle story, the story of the multiplication of the Loaves and the Fishes. That took faith: the faith of Jesus, or maybe the faith of God that the people would be generous enough to share. Doubts and Loves take faith, too. This time my own.
Can I hold onto the real doubt that my parents will ever accept me and my partnership, and still love: love in the plural, even! Can I let go of my desire to be right, and hold instead the incredible power of love—love even mingled with doubt?
It strikes me that this poem, and this Thanksgiving, offer a lot of wisdom for Interreligious dialogue as well. There’s no question that the richest and wisest way to enter into any kind of conversation is with open hands, not holding onto the conviction that you are right and must somehow convince the other that is so. Interreligious and ecumenical dialogue isn’t about convincing someone else that my Christian Mennonite tradition is somehow right. It’s about sharing instead my own experience, complete with Doubts and Loves, and fully hearing the experience of another. Only with that attitude can “moles” of understanding soften the ground and whispers of wisdom and truth that transcend tradition be heard.
This Thanksgiving, then, it’s not about whether I am right regarding gay marriage, how to best spice an apple pie or anything else. It’s about whether I’m willing to love, and love through doubt, in the midst of it. Whether I’m willing to let my own earth be dug up, be it by the Holy Spirit, the Scriptures, or even books left on my bedside table. Whether I’m willing to have compassion for the pain of another, regardless of whether I think it is futile.
This Thanksgiving, for the first time in years, I have come home. And to go somewhere, one has to leave somewhere else. To be home, today, means I’ve had to leave the place where I am right. I’ve had to leave it and come here with faith and hope that a whisper will be spoken, and doubts, loves and loaves will be discovered around a Thanksgiving meal where sweet potatoes becomes plows preparing the ground for spring flowers.
 “The place where we are right”, Yehuda Amichai. Retrieved at: http://daysofawe.net/shebotzodkim.htm