It was late August. The sun was shining and it was still pretty warm out. There was a steady breeze blowing off the water and the maple leaves, which had just begun their autumn transformation, were sweeping back and forth in lazy figure eights at the tips of their branches. My windows were down and my farmer’s tanned arm, which was soaking up the last bit of sun it was likely to see for the next nine months, was draped out over the edge of the door of my green Ford Ranger pick-up. Kelly Clarkson’s “Behind These Hazel Eyes” blared out of the three working speakers at the highest volume possible, without distorting the sound. I was on the way to my classroom at the daycare. I ran the kindergarten after-school program. I had with me in the pick-up three large bags of Kio and Goldfish for my classroom fish tank. As I drove, a big fat honeybee ricocheted off my driver side mirror and up my flapping t-shirt sleeve. I slammed on the brake, shrieked something awful, and grabbed at my sleeve trying to confine the angrily wiggling insect within a fold of the fabric. Of course I was too late as the little bastard had stung me just above the tan line of my exposed arm.
Sometimes life can be cruel and my life had been hard. Very hard. By the time I turned 21, I had lived in 61 different places, my father had been in prison for nearly fifteen years, and my mother – though I think she tried – was at her wits end. Just before my 10th birthday, my mother sent me to live with three different relatives, each stay only lasting a few months. She then sent me to a boarding school for teen misfits in the mountains of Eastern Washington called, The Flying H Youth Ranch. I stayed for over two years. I’m not sure I’ll ever understand why I had been sent away those times, but I do know that at least once my mother said to me, “Three kids is more than I can handle.”
A week after my 15th birthday, she put me in a state run foster care system. Despite that she, along with my twin brother and older sister, lived just 15 minutes away, she left me in foster care until my 17th birthday. Once out of foster care, but still in high school, I relied on families from the church to take care of me. This was the church to which my last foster family belonged.
For the rest of my junior year of high school I moved about every two weeks. With three months of my senior year left, I ran out of places to stay, so I moved into a church run homeless shelter with everything I owned. My mom still lived just a short distance away and my Aunt and Uncle just a bit further then that. Neither wanted anything to do with me. After graduating with a 3.6 GPA, I entered the work force and started trying to make my way, but always forging on alone. I spent many, many years going to therapy just to deal with all of the baggage from a lifetime of craziness and unimaginable hardship.
At the age of 25, I landed the best job I had ever had as an After School Program Leader at my church. The church had become my home. I literally lived in a house owned by the church on the same street as the main church building. I sang on the worship teams for both the main church body and the ENORMOUS college ministry on campus. Every part of my life was in some way connected to that building and its people. They had become my family and friends. It was by the far the safest place I had ever been.
Once back inside my truck, as I rounded the last bend in the road along the waterfront, I noticed a co-ed pair of joggers emerging from the interurban trail onto the shoulder of the road I was on. My eyes were immediately drawn to the butt and legs of the 30 something, tanned, AMAZINGLY well built, tight-running, gear-wearing man. I remember thinking, OMG he is soooo hot. Then I stared at him in my passenger side mirror as I drove by. It wasn’t until he was no longer in view that I realized what had happened and I exclaimed “Noooooooo!!!”
At that moment a pit of an ominous feeling swallowed my heart; the thin veil between my true reality and the reality I had constructed in my head was ripped in two and was never going to be put back together. It was as if someone had set a trap for me and at that right moment pulled a lever, opening the trap door where I stood. In an instant, everything I knew about myself suddenly meant nothing. It meant worse than nothing, it meant that life was about to get hard again and I wept bitterly over the death of the small taste of hope and progress I thought I had started to make.
A few days later, and still pretty down about it all, I went to my counseling session with a pastor from church. I told her, as tears again began to fill my eyes and stream down my face, that I was GAY!!! There was a pause from her as she searched my face. She asked me in perhaps the most concerned tone I had ever heard from her… “Well, have you ever acted on it?”
To which my response was, “What do you mean?” She then asked more pointedly if I had ever touched a man in a sexual manner. “No, of course not,” I said.
With some relief she said, “Oh, then you’re not gay, you’re just same sex attracted. That’s way different.”
I’m not going to lie…that made me feel better. According to her, temptation was perfectly fine as long as nothing came of it. However, she then proceeded to ask me to quit my job in the daycare. I didn’t understand why she was asking this. I loved those kids and they loved me. They had helped me heal a great deal as I was able to re-witness childhood through their little eyes. I also had medical benefits for the first time since foster care and the most money I had ever made up to that point. Naturally, I declined to quit my job and dismissed her idea.
About a week later my boss called me into the office at the daycare and told me, “I know that you are going through a lot right now. We think that you need some time to sort through that. Come September, if you have things in order, feel free to reapply for your position.” I was dumbfounded and devastated.
Just a few days later, the pastor in charge of the college ministry called me into his office to tell me, “I know that you have a lot going on right now…” But as if I had been a salmon hauled into a boat and bludgeoned over the head to stop my flopping around, his words merged into a haze that went in one ear and out the other. I refocused just in time to hear myself getting kicked out of the house I was living in. Again I went numb and in a zombie-like manner, packed my things and moved on.
I immediately found work at the local pet store where I had purchased the fish. I found a home with some of the college guys from the church ministry group and just kept plodding along one foot in front of the other. Then the worship pastor called me into his office about a week later. As if it were the new motto of my life, he repeated the same mantra, “Hey, I know that you have a lot going on right now, and I just think that it’s probably best that we cut back how often you are on the team; that way you can deal with that stuff.” It felt like someone had shot a crossbow bolt into my chest.
At that moment I realized that the pastoral staff had been talking to my counselor about my “issues” and had been coached on how to disconnect me from the structure of the church. It was like having the arrow twisted in place. The pain was intense. As my heart sank, there was a numbing and heavy feeling building in its place. The worship pastor then let me know that my future involvement in the church was dependent upon my dealing with “those issues.” He then pulled a brochure out of the thin drawer that hung just below the keyboard on his desk. It was a relatively plain brochure with the outline of a cross broken by waves of water running through it. Just below the image were the words “Living Waters.”
It was the Second week of September 2005. I had paid $1,000, received my books and other materials, and started on my three-year journey to true brokenness. Twice a week for 6 months I gathered with 30 other participants and staff. We worshiped at the foot of a big wooden cross for about an hour. For an additional hour we received a teaching on all the ways in which we may or may not be broken, followed lastly by an hour of small group time. During small group, we all took turns listing how the previous week’s message had affected us, how we thought we were broken, and all the things we had been convicted of “by the Holy Spirit,” regarding our pasts. Then the leaders would recap how we were broken, damaged, needy, greedy, selfish, demon possessed, prideful, stubborn, and that we were doomed if we couldn’t let Jesus take it from us. They told us that He wanted to take it and that He was begging us to let Him take it. Each and every week we spent 6 hours recognizing our need, recounting our failings and the feelings they produced, recanting our broken ways, “receiving forgiveness,” and finally recommitting to Jesus to be pure and righteous in His eyes. Regardless of all this, we were ushered into the exact same process again the following week.
The shame that eats at your soul every waking moment starts with the knowledge that you are a sinner, one of the worst, and it doesn’t matter how far you have taken the sin, whether private thoughts, or hardcore carnal acts. The “truth” remains that you are perverted and broken in far more and grander ways than you could possibly hope to fix. It became impossible to make and keep eye contact with anyone.
I quickly lost the ability to sing, and then every childhood message of being unwanted, unneeded, and unloved echoed once again within the gaping cavity of my rib cage. My soul was pulverized and heavy, it was like everything I thought I was, hoped to be, and wished I wasn’t, had been smashed with a sledge hammer and was now nothing more than a pile of shards. Everywhere I went, I was pushed inside my prison that was paved and painted with a sharp cutting jagged stucco of broken dreams and failed attempts at being loved. What made it all that much worse was that I agreed to all of this because I thought it was the right thing to do and because I didn’t want to be alone ever again. I agreed to have my beating heart ripped out of my chest and dissected because I thought those people loved me and wanted to help me. I never felt more damaged, broken, vile, and rejected then I did at the end of those three years of conversion therapy. Every attempt to strip part of myself off and cast it away only served to disconnect and disfigure parts of who God made me to be.
When I imagine running into the leaders now and making eye contact, I see in their imagined gaze only their wasted love, my broken promise, and inability to change myself. The whole chapter of my life was the equivalent to standing in the center of the bee hive, allowing, and even asking to be stung, over and over again because quite foolishly I hoped it could do some good. After all the stings and injected toxins, I instead only became allergic to the stings. After the three years had passed, I realized that to stay, to be stung one more time, would cost my life.
It has been 6 years now and while I’m happier and healthier than I have ever been I still find myself ducking behind displays at the grocery store and leaning down in my car as I pass the church. I still find my heart in my throat when I’m talking to a Christian. Still, I’m marching on and moving forward one step at a time. Yet, it still feels like I’m alone.
It was mid June in the late afternoon. The temperature was in the high 80s and a light ,intermittent breeze spilled into the neighborhoods from the waterfront. I sat on a stump in my garden, perhaps a bit to near the blooming comfrey and pineapple mint, which when gently tussled by a breeze filled the air with a magical scent. A group of white pigeons walked up and down the red brick path. The female darted to and fro, picking up seeds and bugs, while the male pranced around behind her. The male pecked at her neck every time she stopped in a constant attempt to chase her back to the nest in a little building nearby. Behind the adult pigeons a pair of youngsters, that were just learning to fly and feed themselves, squealed and flapped their wings in pitiful up and down motions. They begged to be fed by their parents who seemed to be thinking more about the next clutch of eggs and less about their existing brood.
Suddenly, a big FAT honey bee flew across my field of vision at eye level, snapping my attention back to myself, my safety, and my needs. I went as stiff as a board, except for gently blowing on the bee to discourage it from landing. I crossed my fingers that it would move on. Sure enough, the bee meandered over to the nearest comfrey stalk and slowly worked each of the little black dotted purple flowers from bottom to top.
All of a sudden, an image of Jesus popped into my mind. It wasn’t just a picture or painting, but rather a mosaic of his likeness made from what appeared to be broken tiles of different colors and shapes. Along with the picture came thoughts, How do I know what Jesus looks like? How do I know His character?
In my garden, I realized that what I knew of Him should come primarily from Scripture, then from my own life, and then the world around me. I realized that on top of my image of Jesus being the cliché blue-eyed European Jesus, I had also bought into many of the character flaws perpetuated by his human followers. My mosaic was more a representation of Him based upon the bits and pieces I borrowed from this broken world and the broken people who lived in it. It was at this moment I decided that getting back to the basics needed to be the next leg of my journey.
This June will be the sixth year from the day I sat on that stump. It has been a constant and sometimes hard-fought battle to unlearn the message of brokenness and re-learn, in any form, a message of acceptance and value. When I started realizing that every message of condemnation and conviction were from people and not from God, it felt incredibly freeing. The hardest parts of recovery have been living in this town where all of this happened while still having the possibility of running into the leaders and participants at the grocery store, gas station, or Starbucks.
Struggling to engage in a church where half the people you know don’t agree with “who you have become,” and don’t see anything wrong with the way “the Church” treats people like you, has also been one of the hardest pieces of recovery. However, when I stop and think about the sting of it all, I remember that big, FAT bee clumsily bumbling from little purple flower to little purple flower and I find peace again. In a great design, I realize that I am a beautifully made as a part of God’s creation and not some crazy defect to be sanded down or painted over.
Photo – Porsupah Ree
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