Last fall, I wrote the following letter to my family on Thanksgiving. I share this letter here, especially mindful of those families with LGBT children. But I also share it because, though it may be addressed to my biological family, the message is equally one for my church family, my ecclesial family.
Over the past several weeks, I’ve listened to some of my friends relate their feelings in anticipation of going home for Thanksgiving. Some are excited: because they love and miss their family and can’t wait to see them again, or because this is the first time they’ve been welcomed home for a holiday in years. Some are ambivalent about family time, because they expect to sit quietly and peacefully coexist without really talking about the stuff of life. Others are downright anxious about going home, fearing harsh words, difficult conversations, and judgment. And some won’t go home at all, either because they’re not welcome or they’d just rather avoid the awkwardness and spare everyone the difficulty. All of my friends’ feelings in relation to their parents and family – excitement, ambivalence, fear, anxiety – stem from the fact that these friends also happen to be gay.
As I think about those friends who are alone in Chicago because they aren’t welcome at home, or those who are thankful for their first invitation home in years, my heart aches for them. And then I look at my own life. Year after year I’m invited home, and my decision to go is based strictly off of convenience: whether it “fits” with my school or work schedule. Perhaps for the first time, I now realize that I have had the luxury of turning down your yearly invitation. I take the invitation for granted, because I know there will be another one. There’s always Christmas. Or Easter. Or the Fourth of July. Heck, you’d even love for me to come home for just two days in the middle of winter if I could. If there isn’t an official holiday for getting together, we make one up. And I get an invitation, every time. This is how it’s always been with our family, and this year has been no exception. I shared the truth about myself with you, but you didn’t withdraw or withhold the invitations. And I would be remiss if I didn’t take note of this gift and stop to say, “thank you.”
Just this morning I was talking with a friend about the façade of the evangelical nuclear family – white, suburban, upper-middle class, educated, happy, beautiful, perfect. It’s all like saccharin, really: artificially sweet. For too many of these families, it seems that the worst thing in the world, they fear, would be to reveal their scars and blemishes. So they cover them up. Which is why part of me secretly loves when the news breaks out in scandal: Surprise! Bristol Palin has a baby! Shock! Mary Cheney is a lesbian! It’s not that I love gossip or that I revel in other people’s pain. But I like when that façade begins to be exposed for what it is and we are confronted with the messy realities of life, left with no choice but to accept them and move forward, together.
Our church has touted us as a model family in many respects: supportive, loving, skilled parents raising smart and talented kids, even through difficulty. We have been active in church, leaders even. We could have defended this reputation and held onto that pristine image for all it’s worth, covering up secrets, feigning composure. All the hardship we’ve experienced along the way could have been seen as blemishes to our record, causes for shame. But we’ve chosen a different way. Hard, awkward, uncomfortable as it has been at times, we’ve chosen to own up to our messiness and brokenness. We are not all in perfect health. We are not all in perfect relationships. We are not all in perfect jobs.
But thank God for that! If we were all perfect, what fun would that be? If we had it all together ourselves, what room would there be left for God’s grace? The myth of the “perfect family” really doesn’t sound so appealing, now that I think about it. It’s the “perfect family” that is so concerned with its own perfection that it can’t stand the thought of having their gay son at the table. If our family were “perfect,” then I’d have been shunned a long time ago.
I suppose what I’m trying to get at is this: if there’s one thing I’m thankful for this year, it is the gift of a family of imperfect people who aren’t afraid to admit it, and aren’t afraid to keep on loving one another. That’s the best kind of love, the best kind of family. And that’s the kind of family that I’m thankful, more and more each day, to be able to say that I have.
We baptize sons and daughters into this Church, welcoming them into our family. We vow at their baptism to love, care for, nurture, and support them in the faith. This is our work and responsibility as a church family and, for the most part, we do this work well. But then some of these baptized and beloved children of our Church will later grow to discover that they are gay. Let us never forget: these are our sisters and brothers at whose baptism we too made a commitment. What kind of church, what kind of family, will we be for them? Will we keep a firm grip on the illusion of perfection? Or will we open our hands to embrace the gift of grace and together celebrate all members of our family? For those children still waiting for an invitation, it’s time we extend our hands and finally say, “Welcome home.”
“We are a temple, the Spirit’s dwelling place,
formed in great weakness, a cup to hold God’s grace.
We die alone, for on its own each ember loses fire;
but joined in one the flame burns on to give warmth and light, and to inspire.”
(from “We Are God’s People” by Bryan Jeffery Leech, The Covenant Hymnal: A Worshipbook p. 600)