I Should Be Standing Up

“I really doubt I’ll have a job soon,” replied the man sitting next to me at the GCN convention in Chicago.  Like me, Rev. Danny Cortez wasn’t really sure why he was there, but felt quite confident that he needed to be.

Cortez has been a traditional, conservative Southern Baptist minister in Southern California; happily married, four kids, a big congregation that loves him, and today he has a problem.  About five years ago, one of his flock, a 20 something girl “came-out” to him, and challenged everything he had taught and had been taught about homosexuality.  Sara had been one of his “shining stars,” a youth leader who genuinely witnessed for Jesus; the Pastor considered her a Christian to be admired and emulated.  So when she admitted to him, in confidence, that she had a same-sex attraction (SSA), nothing fit.  Although she, and they, tried desperately to  “pray away the gay” striving for a closer, more faith filled relationship with our Lord that would “fix” her, she continued with her SSA..  She had done this for years, and would continue to plead that this burden be lifted, and reparative therapy was also tried, even though it sounded absurd:  The idea of “repairing” a disordered sexuality was based on the premise that children formed a SSA when they had a faulty or dysfunctional relationship with their parents.  But her’s were model parents, who love each other and their children, and both have a healthy relationship with her.  Sara eventually switched to a more “affirming” church, but continues her sharing and mentoring, pastoral relationship with Reverend Cortez.

However the Pastor wasn’t really sure who had done the mentoring.  She had showed him that his ideas about homosexuality were built on a crumbling foundation.  He had been misinformed about SSA, and he was now very challenged, and very troubled.  Had some of his sermons wrongly condemned?  Had he caused self-hatred in adolescents (and adults)?  Had his messages split families?  Was he to blame for bullying, or worse yet – suicides?  The next five years were filled with research and discovery, anxiety and guilt.  Finally he simply came to the conclusion, “I can no longer do this.”  His wife knew the torment he was enduring, and supported his decision to tell his church elders at its next meeting.  He was quite confident that this would lead to him being out of a job, and he would need to tell the kids to prepare for some belt-tightening.

The next morning he was taking his kids to school when the infamous “gay equality” Macklemore song came on the radio; he turned up the volume.  This would be a segue for the conversation he needed to have with his children.  When the song was over, as he struggled to put his pending unemployment into words they could understand, his son asked why he had turned up the song.  “I really like the lyrics,” he explained.  “Really, dad?” asked his son in astonishment, “but do you understand what the lyrics say?”  “Yeah, son, actually I do.”  There was a five-minute pause, before his son said…

“I’m gay,” his son sobbed, having dreaded this conversation for years.  (Just this week, his son Drew posted this)

Suddenly all the angst and theological gymnastics precipitated by Sara’s coming out to him all made sense.  This certainly did not feel like any kind of coincidence.  Even though the sequence of events now was starting to feel like the hand of Providence to Pastor Cortez, this was all still very foreign, nothing really made any sense at all. At least he had a better acceptance, if not understanding, of the journey.  How many of his colleagues had asked members of their own congregations to worship and seek counsel elsewhere? They would only be welcome back when they were “normal.”  So there he sat at the Gay Christian Conference, worried about his career, and his family.

So why was I sitting there, next to Danny and his wife?

On the Camino de Santiago, I had made a decision to make a difference with my own life.  Before his accident, my son had such a strong and loving connection with God that it overflowed onto every one he knew.  Surely he had confusion and anxiety about his SSA.  This was a challenge, adding some stumbles to his rocky road, but we all have some.  So how did he work it out with God?  Why did he enjoy such a healthy relationship and so many others, straight as well as gay do not?  I honestly don’t know, and I certainly don’t take any credit.

I can say that my son Cullen never heard the hateful sermons that I have read about.  They are “always our children,” and my minister has only pounded the lectern with messages of God’s love manifest through Jesus, who seemed most angry with those who sat in self-righteous judgment as hypocrites.  Our Church is a “hospital for sinners, not a sanctuary for saints.”  As a father, I embraced every conversation with him to use as a “parenting, even pastoral moment.”  Faith without journey is blind and shallow.  Our God invites our questions and doubts as we stumble through.  If there’s proof for everything and it all makes perfect sense, it’s not “faith” at all!

For my readers well versed in the Bible, we’re all aware of the seven famous “gotcha” verses in scripture which “seem” to condemn all aspects of homosexuality.  I’m not a scholar, but I am well enough read to know how the many versions, translations, and commentaries differ for a myriad of reasons, including cultural context.  I honestly only know one thing: I am sure of much less than I was a thousand bible hours ago.  I’ll not go into any more details here, it’s so easy to Google search until you find something you want to believe.  If you’re curious, and have no idea where to start, look at these people:  Rachel Held-Evans, Justin Lee, Andrew Marin, Alan Chambers, Susan Cottrell, Matthew Vines, Daniel Mattson, Kathy Baldock and Julie Rodgers.  These are really incredible people and really thought-provoking links, and many vehemently disagree with each other; All challenge the way we think, so come back and look at each one thoughtfully…

If reading and research sound like too much work, start by watching this video of the Robertsons, who lost their son Ryan to a drug overdose, with their initial evangelical rejection of his orientation playing a huge part of the story.  A shorter slide-show version here and also an animated one (bring tissues when you watch Ryan’s story).

I’m most devastated when I hear so many stories of rejection by their own families.  If we fail to provide unconditional love to our children, what message are we sending?  Are we the hypocrites so often condemned by so many of Jesus’ parables?  How can we possibly expect forgiveness, acceptance and unconditional love from our heavenly Father when we refuse to forgive, accept, and love our own children? (Mt 18:33)

These are statistics that most certainly must make Jesus very sad:

When gay youth are unaccepted by their family, they are:

  • eight times more apt to attempt suicide than those who are accepted
  • (The Trevor Project was formed specifically as a gay child suicide prevention website & hotline)
  • six times more susceptible to depression than those who are accepted
  • three times more likely to get involved in drug and alcohol abuse than gay youth that are accepted
  • three times more likely to contract HIV/AIDS and STD”D than gay youth that are accepted?

So I sat in my chair in the back of the room next to my new friends.  I looked around and I was honestly in awe.  I was in the room with over 700 people – many were parents there supporting their child and some were pastors learning how they could possibly change their approaches, but most were people with same-sex orientation there to worship Jesus Christ.  Yes, we were “in church” for much of the four-day conference.  I would look out at the crowd, and pretend that I was there with my own child and these were his friends.  They held their hands up high in worship, with every voice singing with such volume!  Every denomination was represented and standing together with the most ecumenical thing I have ever witnessed. This was, without doubt, one of several times in my life when I was sure the Holy Spirit was present and truly directing an experience.    (These are people that have been told not to return to their congregations until they had been repaired?)

Churches should be safe havens filled with a loving message of support.  The fact that many are not makes me confused.  Even if you think homosexual relationships are sinful, ESPECIALLY IF you think this, shouldn’t you be the one MOST welcoming to those seeking the love, forgiveness, and counsel of Jesus Christ?  As you sit in the pews and look around, you do realize you’re looking at the spouse cheat, the tax liar, the work thief, the hateful bigot, the one living in adultery, the porn addict, substance abuse cripple, and the jealous covet.  If you’re honest, you may see them in the mirror.  Who are we to exclude an entire group of others from standing next to us?

As you lament the fact that your own children have “lost their faith,” look closely.  This one piece of the puzzle may be a metaphor.  Our new generation has more empathy and is much more accepting of homosexuality today.  They see the loving “Christian” community that rejects and vilifies their gay friends as not very loving at all.  Clearly we don’t get much positive secular media coverage, but perhaps the biggest enemy of our faith is not outside the walls of our churches at all.

Before beginning the keynote address, the speaker specifically recognized the parents who were there supporting their children.  They stood to thunderous applause.  Pastor Cortez reached down and pulled me up.  “You’re son is here, and you should be standing up.”

I’m no theologian, and am an expert about nothing.  I have opinions that have been formed by my upbringing, my culture, my immediate environment, and my conscience.  If Pope Francis, who I believe is the Vicar of Christ on Earth can honestly say, “Who am I to judge?” then my slamming Leviticus over someone’s head would seem wrong.  If my boy could converse and embrace with our Lord the way he did, I feel I it a worthy enterprise to foster that kind of relationship in folks of all kinds, as best I’m able.  So, I’ve read dozens of books, attended this conference, as well as at The Marin Foundation.

In previous posts, I’ve described lots of my mistakes and failures and a few of the many times I’ve fallen far short; I’ve shared them for a reason.  Exposing your true self, warts and all, shows you’re vulnerable, approachable and able to relate.  It’s an invitation to others in my Church, my Community, and anyone who I might encounter who doesn’t know where to turn to approach me if they need resources. I’m not really sure what it will look like just yet, but I am forming a support mechanism, a ministry of sorts.  The perception seems to be that my Roman Catholic Church has no where to turn.  In fact, we have quite a few support mechanisms if you know where to find them; the most helpful support ministries are the folks themselves.

I have been there, walked in a parent’s shoes.  I’ve shouted at God, pleading for help, begging for answers. I’ve read dozens of books, spoken with mentors.  I’ve cried the tears of panic and anguish with concern for my son’s physical, mental, and spiritual health.  Because of the unique texture of my life Camino, I can be quite a resource.  There’s much comfort and consolation in knowing you are not alone when you face something so frightening.  I can direct concerned parents and their scared, confused children, as well as frustrated adults with many struggles associated with this journey.

Please feel free to contact me or pass this post on to someone who may need to hear this.

And, as always, I’d love to hear your comments.

Rev. Danny Cortez, Linda Robertson, me & Mrs.Cortez

Rev. Danny Cortez, Linda Robertson, me & Mrs.Cortez

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Coach Mike

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My daughter Emily called me from college, crying because she heard about Mike Snelgrove’s passing – apparently from a heart condition. We spoke for a while about what a real impact he had made on her life. Not just that he had been a strong influence for her to pursue a cheer scholarship to HPU, but what a good person he was. She was feeling the horrible guilt we all do when someone we care about leaves our world. We don’t stay in touch, tell them that we care about them, or even thank them. So the next day I found the funeral home online-obituary and posted my thoughts, hoping so much that Mike’s little girl would someday know how her daddy had positively impacted those he touched.

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By now, I’m thinking he’s well aware of my feelings:

Mike Snelgrove was a coach at Extreme All Star Cheerleading in Melbourne, Florida for years.  I hope he knows how many little people he touched, and what a positive influence he was at such a vulnerable age.  These adolescent years are probably the most important formative times of our lives. (Don’t we all remember them vividly, even decades later?) These are children, and they never feel good enough, never quite feel that they measure up to goals at home, at school, and especially with their peers.  Mike was the rock that God calls us all to be.  My Emily and later Cullen spent several hours a day, and often 5 days a week at the gym.  He was a constant source of affirmation.  Positive energy that was so authentic.  Mike was the genuine thing.  He loved these kids and they loved him.  He told them how talented they were, even when they really weren’t.  How he could tell how hard they had been working, and just how hard they were trying. “Good job!” “I’m so proud of you!” They formed their little fraternity, their club that only their squad could understand … the stress, excitement, sweat, blood, pain, failure, success, failure again, practice, keep trying, practice, competition, keep working, you’re awesome, I’m so proud, you can do this, wow that was awesome, wow I’m so proud of you.  None of their school friends got it – they didn’t need to.  They had their cheer friends who did “get it.”  They knew, so what others thought at school mattered a lot less.  They knew they were awesome. Cause Coach Mike said so.

Mike was a man’s man, a real guy, as I’m sure his military buddies know.  But he didn’t judge, he didn’t need to.  Not only did he keep little girls from feeling inadequate and weak and failures like we all do in adolescence; he was also an inspiration to the boys.  Constant “attaboys” and high fives and hugs.  They were working so hard, and Coach Mike appreciated it.  And some of these boys had a different kind of a struggle than any of us can even imagine.  As concerning as having a gay son is to many parents, we can’t imagine the inner angst and confusion, and lack of worth they often feel.  Coach Mike looked past this, and made them feel OK with who they were.  Their sexuality may or may not be a struggle, may or may not be real, may be painful, may be a source of torment and fear.  But Coach Mike made it irrelevant, because these were also great kids, hard workers that needed a hug and to be told it was gonna be OK.

I don’t think he really got it, how important he was to them, what a wonderful role model, how loved he has been by hundreds of little people over the years.

I explained to my crying daughter Emily not to be sad; she must be so thrilled that such a positive influence had come into her life at such a hard time for her.  Many of her friends were headed the wrong direction, and cheerleading had been a stress valve, the positive channel for her energy and daily frustrations.  She worked so very hard and is a much better person for it.  I reminded her to make a positive thing out of her friendship with Coach Mike.  Remember the ripple effect.  She wasn’t even in his inner circle of family and close friends, and yet he had still made such an impact almost ten years later: to remember how we influence every person we’re with every day of our lives, and to pay him forward with each and every person we lift with our words and deeds.  He lives in his legacy, that cup of loving enthusiasm that over flowed onto everyone he touched.  And I know my kids lives were made better for having known him.

I read the online comments – how his buddies in Iraq trusted him, what a great guy they found him to be.  I honestly don’t know about how his close friends and family feel, I don’t know them.  Surely some who knew him better are well aware of his human faults. I praise our God for being compassionate and forgiving.  I pray for Mike and that those who love him to know that his short life was not wasted because it was cut short.  Instead, that his life was a wonderful fulfilment of all that we’re sent here for.  My family is blessed for having known Mike Snelgrove.

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That was the backdrop of my acquaintance with Mike.  We were not friends, per se, but certainly friendly.  He would always shake my hand and smile, and tell me how much he thought of Emily, and later, of Cullen.  I was one of the always-present “cheer-parents” that he actually seemed to seek out to high five and hug when my kids had competed well, when Emily finally “stuck” her first “full,” or when Cullen did it on his first try!

Which segues into Cullen and Mike.  And Cheer.  Since Mike was always so friendly to me, I have to assume that Cullen never told him what a jerk of a father he had.  I realize how disingenuous “self-deprecating” sounds after you write it, but Dear God, how I wish I could have a “do-over.”  Inside I squirm when someone remarks about what a great father I am.  I’ve made more mistakes than anyone I know.

OK, unless you’re totally new to my blogs and never knew our dear Cullen it’s no secret at this point he had a gay orientation.  You also probably are aware that like many (most?) parents, I was not very happy about this kind of reality.  This is addressed at length in prior posts.  Suffice it to say, looking back, my attitude towards Cullen’s participation in cheer makes me hang my head even lower.

I remember his excitement when he told me that when Emily was on stage competing, it looked so fun.  He felt exhilarated just watching them; it seemed so exciting, and he really wanted to start.  Without hesitation, I replied that there was absolutely no way I could afford it.

Admittedly, cheer is an extremely expensive activity for kids.  His mother and I had just divorced, the finances were drained, and we just wouldn’t be able to afford it.  That was all true.

True, maybe, but we all know how it looks now.  The only boys that cheered were gay, and I couldn’t allow him to do something that was so gay, because maybe this was, you know, “just a phase.”  Right, just a phase, and all we needed to do was to go camping, and to more ball games, and spend more time teaching him to throw the ball, and maybe carelessly leave the Victoria’s Secret catalog in his bathroom.  Yeah, that should do the trick.

How much harm did all my efforts do to my dear Cullen?  Maybe it made me feel better; I was doing “everything I could,” so this problem certainly wasn’t my fault.”  But no, despite my attempts, Cullen HATED going to ball games, and he most definitely could not throw a baseball or a football worth a crap.  I couldn’t either, but at least I didn’t “throw like a girl.”  Wow, I really wish I could take those words back.  How must that have hurt to hear from your father, when you were doing your best to be “good enough” in his eyes, to make him proud.

And why would I care how about how he would wave his hand, or put it on his hip?  (Maybe if he stops doing that, nobody else will know, and I wouldn’t be so embarrassed and ashamed).

So, there it is.  So much to be proud of, and I chose that hill to fight on.  Claiming poverty, I did not pay for my son to do the sport that he wanted to participate in.  I had paid three years for Emily, and a for a decade of dance for their older sister.  But the rules were different now that his mother and I split up.  I’m sure it didn’t help any that there was money for his new step siblings to be in swim club.  Admittedly, those were funds that had long ago been set aside for them, but for 13 year old Cullen I’m quite sure it just didn’t feel fair..  He never said a mean word, or resented his new siblings; and was quick to correct any of his friends who might refer to them as his “step”- brother or sister, they were real siblings.  I know he saw right through me; Cullen saw it better than I did.  Sure, the monthly budget was a convenient excuse, but the bottom line was, I could have found the money, but I didn’t.  I did not support my son in the one sport where he could excel.  It will become apparent later why I’m sharing such ugly and painful admissions.

If you didn’t know Cullen, here’s a glimpse.  Did he get depressed and mope around and complain how unfair life was and hate me for how much I sucked?  Not a chance.  In a few days Cullen had gotten a job washing dishes at Rosati’s, the only restaurant within bicycle distance, so he could pay for cheer himself, and had arranged a carpool system to get to class.  Remember also that Cullen was dually enrolled in college classes, and despite the work and practice regime, maintained a 4.0 GPA, and tutored several of his classmates.

This enthusiasm and resourcefulness might have been news to his father, but not to Mike Snelgrove.  No, as I said above, Mike was nothing but affirming and supportive.  Quick with a compliment, constructive with the criticism, he fed Cullen’s talent and self esteem so that, within 6 months of joining the club, he was on the elite squad, the very best of the competitors.  Mike stayed late after practice, and gave Cullen lots of private lessons.  Mike was a young adult, with lots of his own bills to pay, but only charged for a fraction of the lessons for Cullen, knowing he was paying for the classes and privates himself.  Cullen knew this and really looked up to Mike for being such a “stand-up” and affirming person.  About the time Cullen left to attend Florida State University, Mike joined the army.  In 2010, he was home on leave, and died in his sleep of a “heart condition.”  Indeed.

We roll our eyes and laugh when a news story reports where someone says “God told me to do this,” or simply that God “spoke to me.” Maybe the way such stories are presented by the media is a reflection of our culture itself – that folks who hear what God is saying, and even religious folks in general are weak for needing some mythical god to lean on, or are uneducated morons, buffoons.

I don’t really care what people like Bill Maher say about anything.  I’m a reasonably intelligent person, and I know what I’ve seen and heard, what I’ve experienced.

As I mentioned in last week’s post, on May 4th, 2013, Mike Snelgrove walked past me on the Camino de Santiago in Spain.  What you now know is that this was three years after he had left this world.

I had longed to see an apparition, or even a dream in which I got to see Cullen.  Other people were having them.  Lots of them.  (The subject of a later blog post).  But why not me?

My Map-My-Hike app showed that I was hiking at 4.2 miles per hour, a reasonably brisk trekking speed through the Spanish forest when I was passed by this person, who whispered something to me.  The log then shows me stopped there in my steps for over 10 minutes.  I honestly don’t remember this at all.  I do remember I was dumbfounded when it hit me who I thought I had just seen, and what it could possibly mean.

This was pretty big stuff.  Even if I just imagined the entire thing, why?  Why not something, or someone else?  I had lost touch of Mike when Cullen left Extreme Gym, and had no idea he had joined the army.  Why would I see someone that reminded me so much of him, with an army rucksack, on this particular day?

Was this the message I had so been pleading for God to give me?  Had God indeed spoken to me – in the earthquake, the fire, the wind, and now the whisper of a passing “stranger?”  And what did it all mean?

And what does it mean, going forward?

Anyone who knows me, know that the gears are always turning in my head.  I’m usually not paying attention because I’m so engrossed with hidden meanings, the metaphors and lessons presented by life.  I suppose I overthink everything, so this whole thing just kind-of makes me numb.  Clearly this was some kind of message.  Was I to take comfort that Mike was involved, and that somehow he had found Cullen and that they were safe?  Or was this something about where I was supposed to go.  As you can imagine, its a bit of a struggle charting a new course after such a loss.

I think it is all of those things, and probably lots more.

We had founded the William Cullen Klein Memorial Scholarship at FSU to help a student each year realize the dream that made our Cullen so very happy, studying in China.  I raised almost half of the money necessary to have the Scholarship endowed (permanently funded) from sponsorships of my walking the Camino last year.  A memorial scholarship certainly seemed (and still seems) appropriate, but where is the real “legacy?”  To me, a legacy would be something going forward, making a difference; doing perhaps what Cullen would have wanted done, a difference in the world, because he had been here.

The answer came to me in the airport in Chicago, on the layover.  I read a book called, “Love is My Orientation,” by Andrew Marin.  This set the backdrop for going forward, and for the first time in a long time, I sensed a smile looking down on me.  I’ll continue to share, and expound, as I do go forward.  Please share your comments.

Much Love.

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