A Surprisingly Beautiful Question
As a speaker, Question & Answer time makes me nervous.
I have a certain neuroses around ensuring that I appear to be the guy with all the answers (even though clearly I'm not).
And even though I've been working through this and have gotten much better, all those old feelings come up strong when I open the floor for questions. It's a vulnerable moment of putting myself out there while actively trying to respond in open-handed ways of not coming across as some sort of know-it-all. But I often panic, "will I give the right answer? Will I say it convincingly? Will I sound smart? Or look like I'm caught off guard?" and so on.
Last week I had the privilege of presenting a talk on UnClobber at The Wild Goose Festival inside the tent hosted by OPEN. Most speakers during The Wild Goose allot time at the end for Q&A. It fits the ethos of the festival. However, seeing as how anxious I get at such a thing, I didn't mind if my talk filled up the entire 50 minutes, leaving no time at the end for questions.
But when I glanced at the clock, just before telling my final story, there was still 11 minutes left. I quickly considered drawing the story out for 11 minutes, but that would have been painful for everyone.
Nervous though I was, as the applause died down after my closing line, I opened up the floor for questions.
I am so glad I did, or else I never would have met Bob.
Bob was likely in his early 60's, clean shaven, short silver hair, and had eyes that oozed compassion. When he raised his hand, almost not high enough for me to see (as if part of him wouldn't mind if he didn't get called on) I caught his eye, smiled, and nodded for him to proceed.
"Intellectually, I am right there with you. What you're saying makes sense," Bob began, alluding to the fact that I had just presented a case that the Bible does not condemn homosexuality, nor does it divinely prohibit any and all same-sex sex acts or relationships. He took a breath and went on, "but if I'm being honest, there are still feelings in here," he pointed at his chest, "that are confusing... feelings that make me question homosexuality and the okayness of it all... feelings that hold me back from becoming fully open and affirming."
I could feel the energy in the tent bursting in multiple directions.
There were those, from the LGBTQ community, who's guard went up a little, possibly surprised that there were folks at The Wild Goose Festival who were not fully open and affirming. Then there were those who, like Bob, struggle with the same sort of tension and feelings, but who perhaps wouldn't be so courageous as Bob to say so out loud, and who now felt relieved that they weren't alone.
Then there was my own energy. All my anxieties about the terror of Q&A time were blooming. I did not want to mess this up, and yet I also did not want to be controlled by the feeling that I couldn't mess things up.
I'm complicated, I know.
I took a deep breath in and smiled at Bob, trying to let him know that I saw him, and that he was safe. Then I said this,
"Bob, first of all, I want to say how brave you are for asking that question. I honor the courage it must have took to raise your hand and vulnerably share what you just shared. Thank you for showing us all how to be brave. I'm proud of you."
Bob's kind eyes began to well with tears. I went on, listening intently to Spirit, trusting she would guide me next.
"Second, here's what I think is most important in all of this. I really think you need to start by loving yourself. I think you need to love yourself by showing yourself a lot of grace and compassion when you notice those feelings arise. Here's why I say that, I believe that those feelings in your heart, the feelings you struggle with to truly accept and celebrate LGBTQ people--even though intellectually you want to--those were formed in you largely at no fault of your own. You were raised in to a world that normalized heterosexuality, and in to a world that marginalized those who were gay. Your world and culture (and possibly even family and religion) shaped how you felt about these things long before you could make up your own mind about it. So the first thing I think you should do is to give yourself some grace and not shame yourself when those feelings arise. Don't go to the place of thinking that you are truly, in your core, a bigot or an awful person because those feelings are there. Instead, begin to love that part of you. When those feelings arise, name them, and say to them, "I see you there, I notice you, and I understand you are there for reasons out of my control. And I love that part of me. Ultimately I don't want that part of me to control the type of person I become, but I refuse to shame that part of me. Rather I will be gentle and give myself grace."
Bob's body softened, as if a massive weight just slipped from his shoulders.
"And then, the other thing I would say, is to start building relationships with someone from the LGBTQ community. Get to know them and their story. Discover their humanity. Because you've been given messages for so long that they are less-than-human, that there is something broken and wrong with them. I think the only way we can start to change our feelings toward the Other is to move toward them and be in relationship and community with them. You'll be shocked at how quickly, I think, those old tapes that have been recorded for you for most of your life, start to get recorded over with new tapes. New messages of how gay people are just that, people, like you and me. And eventually, I truly believe that your heart will settle in to the place that your head is longing for: an open and affirming faith of full inclusivity."
The crowd applauded as Bob nodded and said thank you. I wish I would have given him a hug. Then a gal on the other side of the tent raised her hand, nearly standing up as she did so. When I called on her she turned to Bob, grinning from ear to ear, "Hi Bob, my name is Liz, and I'm queer. And I would love to sit down with you and be that gay friend that helps you in your journey."
And the crowd went wild again.
That's part of why I love the Wild Goose Festival. Real people, chasing after love and justice, and longing to do it in community. Cheering on those to our left and to our right. Trusting that we are all doing the best we can.
And that's part of why I love the spaces I get to speak in to with UnClobber. Because even though, for me, my journey was the opposite of Bob's--I had to align my disagreeing mind with my already open heart--the goal is still the same. The goal is a more just and generous faith that welcomes and affirms all people to the Table of God.
And if there is any way, large or small, that I can help people in that journey?
What a gift.
Bob, thanks again brother. For sharing your heart with us, and letting us love you.
Now, in the words of the Biebs, "you should go and love yourself."
UnClobber: Rethinking Our Misuse of the Bible on Homosexuality releases on Sept 28 from Westminster John Knox