It was a lazy Saturday afternoon, and we were hanging out at home with our friend Bryan. We were doing that odd, slouchy multitasking common to the new century: watching TV while deeply engrossed in our smart phones or tablets, rearranging rows of candy, scrolling through Facebook and Twitter feeds, or messaging with other friends. He looked at me suddenly and said, “Oh! I want to show you something.”
We set aside our smaller devices and grabbed the old-fashioned laptop. He navigated to YouTube and brought up a music video. “I just saw this yesterday and wanted to get your reaction.”
I had heard about this song and had seen part of the video, but I had never just allowed myself to sit there and actually watch and listen. I did, while Bryan stood to the side and also watched.
You know those moments when you’re watching or experiencing something deeply moving with someone, and there is this palpable sense of reverent silence surrounding you, focusing your senses more fully to the experience? This was one of those moments. We were both very still as we watched.
When it was over, I looked over to Bryan. Teary-eyed, he said to me in a soft, broken voice: “Kevin, I really hate this world.”
He didn’t have to clarify. I knew what he meant. Like me, Bryan is gay and was raised in a conservative evangelical eco-system. Unlike me, he has a family who would disown him if they knew he was gay. Also unlike me, he married a woman and tried to make it work for years. He has two beautiful kids from that marriage. Thankfully, he has a number of supportive friends as well as a supportive church. Still, he carries a heavy burden.
I am impatient. I want to fix people. I want to make Bryan’s problems go away. In that moment, I wanted to take Bryan’s pain away. So, I launched into an off-the-cuff “elevator talk” on the benefits of therapy, how it’s helped me, and how it could help him too.
If you are cringing right now, good. I’m cringing too.
As I continued talking, I noticed that his face—which was softened by the hope of that song and the longing for a better world--was hardening. His eyes went from teary and searching to glazed-over and blank. I was losing him! So I tried to explain with more thoroughness and more clarity how talking to a therapist can help one deal with issues of shame and anger and confusion. He nodded and smiled, but the moment had passed.
What he really needed from me in that moment was to be with him and listen. He needed me to sit there with him in the gloriously awkward silence. The truth of this matter is: I was afraid to be there with him. I was both afraid and ashamed of the strong emotions that were being stirred up in me. In fear and shame, I pushed him away by giving clinical advice. My response wasn’t loving, because love and fear can’t be in the same space.
By the way, it’s ok that I “messed up” here. I’m not beating myself up about it. Bryan and I have a close friendship, and I’ve since told him how I wish I would have reacted in that moment. There are times when advice is warranted and needed; this just wasn’t one of those times. I’m learning that when I have an impulse to “fix” somebody, I need to pause, listen first, and simply be with the person. It’s OK if it’s silent and awkward and messy. In fact, it’s probably a good sign!
The Mr. Fix-It impulse reminds me of the recent apology by Alan Chambers, president of Exodus International, the organization that attempted to change a person’s sexual orientation through “reparative therapy.” The apology was followed by the announcement that Exodus International would shut down immediately, and a new organization would be formed called reducefear.org. From the apology:
“Moving forward, we will serve in our pluralistic culture by hosting thoughtful and safe conversations about gender and sexuality, while partnering with others to reduce fear, inspire hope, and cultivate human flourishing.”
Chambers added later that the new organization would “work to change their churches to be more like a loving, accepting ‘father church’ than scolding, judgmental ‘older brother church’” (Think Progress, h/t Taylor Marsh).
So, as a gay Christian, what do I think about all this?
I think before they do anything, they need an Exodus of their own--which includes a significant time in the wilderness.
I think these individuals have good intent. But good intentions can make you blind to the damage that your well-intentioned actions are causing. Even before the apology, they believed they were helping people; thankfully they now realize that that wasn’t the case. However, how can an organization that got it so wrong for so long simply say “Oops! Sorry!” and then start again, immediately, on a different track? Perhaps there is a strong urge to right the wrongs. However, even assuming the best intentions, it would be more helpful if these individuals stepped away from the public forum and listened for a time—not only to the LGBTQ community, but to themselves and to God. Some serious soul-searching must take place before they can be helpful bridge-builders. This takes time. It cannot be rushed.
I understand the desire to “fix” people and to alleviate suffering. But even with those with whom we share close relationships, great care and wisdom is needed before attempting The Big Fix. How much more so with those who have done so much damage for so many years?