Monday, July 29, 2013

Overrated and Underrated: A Meditation

A few months ago I was reflecting on the difference between niceness and kindness, in the context of human conversation and interaction. To me, being nice means using certain words or tone in an attempt to smooth over differences. It means saying things that you think another person wants to hear.

Being kind, on the other hand, means remaining true to yourself while holding empathy for the other person. It means not only speaking, but active listening. It means bringing your whole self to a conversation, including your anger. Niceness doesn't require relationship--in fact it discourages it. Kindness seeks relationship and understanding. Niceness isn't that difficult; in fact it can be a cover for manipulative or passive-aggressive behavior. Kindness is costly because it requires authenticity, vulnerability, and true connection with others. It risks rejection.

Niceness is overrated in our culture, while kindness is (scandalously) underrated. I started thinking about other words and concepts that American and/or Christian culture--especially those of us who are privileged--either value highly or undervalue. The list below is a result of meditating on these concepts.

Keep in mind that I do not believe that everything I list as "overrated" is necessarily bad or unhealthy; some are merely over-valued in comparison with what I list as underrated.

Overrated Underrated
Niceness Kindness
Certainty Mystery
Expertise Intellectual Humility
Arrogance Pride
Relevance Authenticity
Criminal Justice Social Justice
Explaining Listening
Conventional Wisdom Instinct
Atheism/Theism Humanism
Shame Guilt
Having Good Intentions Assuming Good Intentions
Modesty Rules Healthy Sexuality
Freud* Jung
Playing the Martyr Practicing Meekness
Fixing Empathizing
Destination Journey
Notoriety Obscurity
Stability Change
The Bible The Holy Spirit
Truth Love

* With apologies to Amy Hollingsworth!

What do YOU think? Do these comparisons resonate with you? Are there any with which you disagree? What would you add or remove from this list? Thanks for reading!

Friday, July 26, 2013

Known By Our Hate

“So, I’m coming out to my parents tomorrow!”

Her announcement on Twitter spread quickly in our small group of online friends. My heart went out to her, because I remember how incredibly difficult it was for me to come out, and how difficult it remains for all of us in my family to process.

I recalled another woman I had met recently, married with children, who somehow found the courage to come out. Her husband was incredibly supportive; however, when she told her parents…there was only grief and the refrain: “how could you DO this to us?”

I thought of a friend in nearby Washington, who got engaged to his partner of over 10 years after the State legalized gay marriage. He sent invitations to his family, and got a letter back from his sister—using the RSVP envelope from the invitation—that told him how wrong and immoral it was that he was getting married to his partner.

I remembered another friend, a recent college grad in his mid-20s, who wrote a long heart-felt letter to his father, explaining the journey he’s taken: praying, trying to change, and finally understanding that God loves him as he is. His father wrote back: “it would be fine with me if I never saw you again.”

I’ve heard countless other stories from the LGBTQ alumni group of the Christian university I attended, where some or all family members continue to scorn, ignore, or outright reject their loved one.

Update: Please see the heartbreaking true story at Christian Nightmares Too called What hiding the truth from church members cost one Christian man.

So when my friend announced her impending coming-out, I worried for her. A few months back, I had shared with her the story of my formerly-married-friend-with-the-supportive-husband-but-unsupportive-parents. Graciously, she asked about her and her well-being. “Doing well,” I said, “but it’s still a struggle. I’m hoping your parents are much more empathetic. It’s hard when you are taught your whole life that homosexuality is a sin.” Since she is a self-identifying Christian, I just assumed that her parents were too. But she said, “Oh, my parents aren’t religious, so I don’t have that hurdle.”

The first thing I felt was relief. Oh, GOOD! That makes it so much easier!

I also shared this news with my formerly-married friend, and she had the same reaction: one of immense relief.

Then it hit me.


LGBTQ people are afraid of religious people; they are afraid of Christians. And can you fucking blame them? Like it or not, Christians have made a name for themselves. As Rachel Held Evans pointed out in her post last year, How to Win A Culture War and Lose a Generation:

"When asked by The Barna Group what words or phrases best describe Christianity, the top response among Americans ages 16-29 was 'antihomosexual.' For a staggering 91 percent of non-Christians, this was the first word that came to their mind when asked about the Christian faith."

As Christians, we’re known for our hate.

THIS MUST CHANGE. It’s not an option. Following Jesus is not holding on to “literal” views of the Bible in order to feel better about your own shortcomings. Following Jesus isn’t defending what you call “truth.” Following Jesus is not being hyper-defensive and playing your martyr card when someone calls you out on your bullshit. Following Jesus is not word-policing or tone-policing or behavior modification.

Following Jesus means loving people where they are; being a champion for justice and mercy; acknowledging your own advantages and humbling engaging with those who are less advantaged than you are--listening to them; calling out abuse and injustice and those who perpetrate it.

I’m the first to admit: I’ve got problems and issues. I don’t love people well. Too often I’m blinded to my own fortune, participating willingly in a world where white men are seen as superior.

On the other side of the coin, I don’t know HOW to love people who are stubbornly abusive, unjust, and ignorant. I feel I’m learning how to love those people who are caught UNDER that trap of being unknowingly abusive and unjust, because I know I’ve done it and continue to do it. I’ve been forgiven MUCH by God and by others. But I'm not there yet. And I still don’t know how to love the perpetrators of it. Perhaps in time and with maturity I will understand how this can be done. (See Rachel's post today for some wise words about this conundrum).

In the meantime, I’m just angry. I want to see a community of people who live out Kingdom of God ideals; instead I see marginalized people relieved when they don’t have to deal with Christians.

As for the woman who came out to her non-religious parents? It went really well. “I have GREAT parents!” she said.

I celebrate with her.

I also mourn for us.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Tennis as Metaphor

I play tennis. A lot. It's fun to play. It's fantastic exercise. More significantly, I've formed meaningful relationships through tennis. Today, many of my best friends are avid tennis players with various backgrounds, beliefs, and worldviews. If it weren't for tennis, I may never have met these loving, kind, empathetic, fun, and complex people.

Side note: I realize that most of you that read this blog (all 8 of you) probably aren't really into sports, let alone tennis. A few of you may even think that I'm extremely frivolous to write about something as non-consequential as tennis. (I mean, besides golf, what other activity screams "WHITE PRIVILEGE" more than tennis?) As to that, all I can say is that one of the best aspects of the USTA (United States Tennis Association) is their investment in tennis programs that make the sport more accessible for everyone. Yes, racquets and tennis balls still cost money, but you don't have to be a member of a tennis club in order to play regularly in leagues and tournaments, or just for fun.

On a more personal and subconscious level, the reason I play tennis is that it has become a profound spiritual metaphor for my life.

As much as I love tennis, the game frustrates THE HELL out of me. Twelve years ago, I won my first tennis tournament. Little did I know that by the age of 40 I would STILL be trying to win my second one! I tried again these past two weekends.

In the first tournament, 2 weekends ago, I actually did quite well and reached the final, losing to an 18-year-old in 3 sets. However, last weekend I lost in the 1st round and THEN lost in the 1st round of the consolation draw: a very poor result. Both men who beat me were older, in better shape, and had better shots.

Near the end of both matches, I could feel myself disengaging. I felt small, awkward, and humiliated. At the end of the second match, I congratulated my opponent, walked out to a hidden part of the parking lot, and spent a good 15 seconds systematically smashing my racquet against the concrete curb. Then I disgustedly hurled it into some mulch.

When I was working with a therapist, we discussed my tennis game regularly. Our discussions weren't focused on trying to win more matches, but on the dynamics of the interactions on the court as well as the feelings I was experiencing during and after matches.

Tennis is a tool for me to understand some of the more raw emotions that, as a gay-but-closeted evangelical Christian, I was unable to express. Not only was I unable to express these emotions--I was unable to FEEL them. I learned to cope by transforming negative emotions such as anger, shame, fear, and guilt into numbness. (I call it the Emotion Transformation Machine.) I could easily describe this transformed feeling as "hopeless," but it was an anesthetized type of hopelessness. I became familiar and comfortable with the feeling, and preferred it over the "messier" emotions.

Sometimes when I'm playing tennis, I experience the non-transformed emotions so quickly and so acutely that I can't help but feel them. I don’t have time to transform them; at least not right away.

Examples of acute, negative emotions while playing tennis:

  • When I'm playing someone who is just as good as or better than me, I experience fear, anger, and shame.
  • When I'm playing lousy, I experience anger and shame.
  • When I'm playing someone who is a jerk or who have fans that are jerks, I experience anger and shame.
  • When I'm playing someone who isn't very good and/or I'm beating them soundly, I experience guilt.
My therapist encouraged me not to suppress/transform these emotions during a match, but to experiment with them.

I fully admit that when I'm playing a match and I feel the flood of these emotions, the last thing I want to do is experiment. My first instinct is FLIGHT. My coping mechanism, the Emotion Transformation Machine, kicks in. I have a very physical reaction of numbness in my legs. My shoulders droop, and I can barely keep my head up. I can't look my opponent in the eye. People who have seen me play have witnessed this transformation. I am present only as a physical entity--I am completely disengaged from the match and from my opponent.

Not only does this dishonor me, it dishonors my opponent.

When I experience these emotions on the tennis court, I have a unique opportunity. Instead of transforming them, I have the opportunity to identify the emotions, to face them by fully feeling them, and to be fully present on the court. In the few times that I am able to do this, something very profound happens. I realize something at a bone-marrow level:

I am worth fighting for.

At some subconscious level, tennis has become a metaphor for my own life and identity. It is the drama of my own existence that is played out every time I step onto the court. I battle my opponent (and myself) for space. I make a statement saying: "I belong here. I am an individual. You cannot take that away from me." God has created someone who is beautiful, worthwhile, strong, and lovely; someone who is equipped to fight against the dark forces in this world; someone who is able to stand up to oppression in all its forms; someone loved and able to love.

Someone worth fighting for.

For someone who was taught the opposite, these are profound truths indeed. Sometimes, if we are damaged by spiritual abuse or other forms of abuse, we don't have the capability to comprehend these truths. Even if we are told over and over that the lies we've learned to tell ourselves aren't true. That is why there is so much power in a metaphor. It speaks to us at a subconscious level. (It is the same reason that dreams have so much to tell us.)

This life-metaphor has also shown me how important it is to honor one another's anger, especially those who have been damaged by fundamentalism. We are taught to wear masks. We are taught that anger is sinful. We are taught to flee from our own humanity. When we do this, we aren't able to connect with others--love becomes impossible. We are also unable to come to God as we are. We become "whitewashed tombs." Jesus railed against this. He railed against it hard. So did all the prophets. And they always railed against the powerful, unmerciful, and unjust. Specifically, Jesus railed against the religious leaders of the day.

For all these reasons, the tennis court, for me, has become holy ground.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Big Fix

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 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?