Surrendering Perfection

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)

  • Andy Goebel

    Andrew, I want to thank you for continuing to share chapters of your story. I also want to thank you for your graciousness, your eloquence, and your heart for God.

    I’ve shared with you that I am often frustrated, because when we talk about the church and the LGBT community our “conversation” has a tendency to take the form of bullet point statements regarding scripture, natural order, sin, tradition, etc. As a former high school and college debater, I can assure you that that sort of discourse is far from conversational. In many ways, we might as well strap on the gloves and enter the ring, for our verbiage really can become rather violent.

    That is why I am encouraged by this site and the conversations I see taking place here. First of all, just to have a forum to share honestly and question faithfully is a breath of air for those of us who have felt the desire to have this conversation for quite some time now. But perhaps more importantly, the conversation is more often than not framed in narrative rather than bullet point language, as is so beautifully evidenced by this particular post.

    True, it takes more time and patience to converse in such a manner. But I am convinced that the only way we will become the gracious, merciful, loving, body of Christ God has called us to be is to move away from the pugilism of bullet points and proof statements, and move toward hearing and responding to one another’s stories.

  • It breaks my heart when families put conditions on their love for one other.

  • Lorian

    Andrew, thanks for this lovely letter. Families (and churches) of origin can cause more pain and suffering for GLBT people than almost anything else. Those who either never reject their GLBT children from the outset, or who work through their feelings of fear, confusion and doubt quickly and accept their loved one before too much damage has been done to the relationship, are a treasure. But so many GLBT people have to simply accept the fact that they must replace the families (home and church) that they once knew and thought would always be part of their lives, with new people who can see and accept and love them for who they are.

    I would like to say, though, that I was less comfortable with the latter portion of your post. It’s not that I don’t believe gay people have imperfections like straight people, nor that I dispute the idea that we should all accept and love one another, imperfections and all, but in these types of conversations it is too easy to fall into the mode of, “Well, we’re all sinners, after all. I should love you even though you sin, just like God does,” meaning that homosexuality should be regarded as a “sin,” but forgiven, just as we forgive one another and ourselves for lying, or cheating, or otherwise transgressing.

    The fact is, I do not believe that homosexuality — feelings or practice — is inherently sinful (and would posit that the Bible does not represent it as such, either). The expression of one’s sexuality most certainly *can* involve sin. Any time we use sexuality to exploit or hurt, any time we are unfaithful to our promises and vows, our sexuality (gay or straight) can be an occasion of sin. But sexuality, faithfully expressed within the bounds of a committed, loving, monogamous relationship, is not sinful, whether between two people of the same sex or two people of the opposite. In fact, I would suggest that there is far more potential for sin when a person whose sexual orientation is homosexual attempts to suppress that innate orientation and marry someone of the opposite sex because they have been told that this is what God expects from them.

    In such a marriage, not only is there an increased likelihood of one or both partners straying outside of the marriage for sexual gratification, but there are other, more subtle ways of being unfaithful, or exploitative, or harmful. Those who enter into such a relationship are also likely to seek their emotional fulfillment outside of the relationship — not that we all can’t have intimate friendships apart from our spouses, but if our primary emotional gratification comes outside the marriage, are we truly fulfilling our vows to love and cherish one another? And if we are persons who find it impossible to be truly emotionally intimate with a person of the opposite gender, what hope do we have of *ever* giving our spouse the loving friendship and intimacy which is their right to expect from their partner (not even including the physical intimacy of sex)?

    Then there is the whole issue of how such a parental relationship will affect any children born into such a “marriage.” Many (most?) such marriages end in divorce because they are simply untenable over the long haul. And many of these marriages include little children who are then deprived of the stability and security of an intact home. Divorce is a terrible thing for children under the best of circumstances, but when people marry fully knowing they are unsuited to one another and unlikely to ever experience a fulfilling marital relationship, they are setting up their future children for disappointment, hardship and a fractured home. And even if the parents do not divorce, theirs will not likely be a relationship which demonstrates loving intimacy to their children.

    Far better for gay people to find loving intimate partnerships with a person with whom they are physically, sexually and emotionally compatible, and with whom they can form lasting, fulfilling, committed relationships. Far better for gay people to raise their children in a loving marriage to someone of their own gender, with whom they can provide a stable, loving home for those children, and with whom they can model loving, committed relationships patterned upon Christ’s love for the church.

    • I follow your logic and feel the strength of your argument, but it only holds if this assumption is uncritically subscribed to: “if our primary emotional gratification comes outside the marriage, are we truly fulfilling our vows to love and cherish one another?” Sometimes, sometimes not. I live and work in a culture where most people would chuckle and consider it extremely naive and immature to assume that marriage should carry this kind of burden. I suspect that many people throughout history would also. I’m one of the lucky ones who is very satisfied and grateful for my partner of 25 years. We probably wouldn’t have gotten to this point if expecting that our primary emotional gratification would come through our marriage had been a precondition at each stage of the journey.

  • Lorian

    Andrea LJ, I guess I’m just lucky, then. I see marriage through the lens of my own experience, for sure. We both have friends of our own and friends as a couple, but in our marriage, the bond between us is primary. We are the ones each other looks to *first* for love, intimacy, friendship, consolation, encouragement and support. Not that we can’t meet some of those needs with another friend, at times, but we first and foremost look to one another to meet our emotional needs. To me, that’s what a lifelong, loving partnership is about: being available to the other, caring for and supporting one another, turning to each other in times of hardship, crisis or joy.

    If some other type of arrangement is working out for you, that’s fine. But that doesn’t change the fact that a gay person married to a straight person is not likely to find or provide much emotional commonality, and their emotional focus is highly likely to be more outside the marriage than inside it. Will having friends other than one’s spouse to meet emotional needs destroy a marriage? Of course not — not in and of itself. But if one member of the couple is forming his or her *primary* emotional bonds with someone other than his/her spouse, that’s a problem in my book.

  • The beauty of unashamed nakedness in Genesis does point toward the intimacy you are talking about, and it is a transforming gift when we are allowed to experience it in this life. To me Genesis points to something more fundamental though, the unashamed nakedness before God of us finding our wholeness and satisfaction in the Creator. I don’t think you are doing this, but an assumption that human wholeness, health and holiness is based in a sexually and emotionally satisfying human relationship is hard to jibe with the earthly life of Jesus. Both marriage (satisfying and unsatisfying, as well as everything in between) and singleness can help in finding ourselves naked, unashamed, and beloved in the Creator- the primary relationship which comes before and will continue after all others.

    • Lorian

      Andrea, I never suggested that our marital relationship should supercede or replace our relationship with our Creator. But the Bible tells us that marriage is, itself, a “type” or representation of our relationship with God. As such, it is apparently an extremely important and valuable human relationship far beyond that between friends or acquaintances, and of far more import and value that casual sex.

      The Biblical metaphors for marriage include becoming a part of one another, being drawn one from the other, and becoming “one flesh.” In that very Creation story to which you refer, God states that, “It is not good for man to be alone.” For us as human beings to contradict that idea and suggest that for persons with homosexual orientations, it is *best* that they be alone for their entire lives strikes me as quite a bit of hubris.

      I know that God didn’t create me to be alone, and that God didn’t create me to be coupled with a man. The events of my life have made it abundantly clear that God created my wife and I to be partners and helpmates to one another. We bring the most glory to God when we honor God in one another and strive to live in a loving relationship which mirrors God’s love for all humanity.

  • Andrew, I love the love you and your family share. It is a love which believes the best, shelters all, and allows freedom, honesty, and change. Sounds an awful lot like the real thing- God’s love.

  • Loved this. My daughter is Bi and is having trouble being accepted by my parents. They love her as long as she doesn’t share any of her life with them. I love my daughter unconditionally. I just want her to be happy and have loving suppportive family and friends.
    Laura