Believing is Perceiving

ThinkingReligionsSeveral years ago I was teaching a corporate class and sharing a concept a participant simply could not grasp. For the next 10 minutes I presented the idea every way I could think of to help her understand. Finally, one of the other students raised her hand and said, “I think I see what’s going on here.” She looked her classmate in the eye and in three seconds cleared up everything.

“Oh. Got it,” my learner said, as if the last 10 minutes never happened.

Huh. I thought. That was interesting. I filed the interaction away and mentally visited it several times through the years. By the time I entered graduate school I had many more encounters with, and questions about how, humans perceive and learn. I was at the beginning point in my life of rethinking what I understood about the world, God and my relationships to others.

In my book I talk about the role of perception as it relates to communication. Though I simplified its importance, perception is really how we relate to the world around us. Perception comes from our cultural influences, the groups we belong to and our biology. It was once thought that our eyes were like video cameras recording information as it happened. Now we know that our eyes filter everything through perception.

Our brains gather information and store it in ways we can understand. It’s how we learn and how we perceive. We like to learn systematically: step 1, step 2, step 3, but we store information chaotically. In other words, if I give you three pieces of information you are going to connect that information to what you already know, and believe to be true, and store it away for recall. We call this a “cognitive schema,” or the process our brains use to make sense of our world. An example of perception based on beliefs is how racially divided our country is on the issue of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman.

I was still reeling, like much of the rest of the country, from the attack on 9/11, 2001, when my wife announced she wanted a divorce just two months later.  In spite of the anger I felt toward her and the dismal life that had become our existence, I didn’t want a divorce. How could she do this to our family? My thoughts anguished.

True to my beliefs I prayed for her. I prayed that she would change her mind, come back to her faith and that the error of what she was doing would suddenly become apparent to her. I read books on spiritual warfare and our battle against the devil’s fight for our souls. That was, after all, what was really going on, I believed. She was backslidden and no longer following the ways of Christ. There was no other explanation. I prayed hard and earnestly that God would change her.  I truly, with all my heart, believed God was going to put our family back together and that my testimony of change from homosexuality would be more powerful than ever.

As time went on and reality set in, I began to ponder life differently. I wondered why what I believed about God wasn’t my experience. The idea that “His ways are higher than our ways,” wasn’t working for me. I needed answers. I’ve always been an analytic, but I always asked questions in the context of my beliefs. Consequently, I always received the same answers.  Those answers were no longer sufficient.

I wondered what would happen if I began asking questions as if everything I believed was  not true. It was a scary proposition. To do so would be to rip out from underneath me the only foundation I’d ever known. I preached it. I wrote songs and sang about it. It was intertwined in every fiber of my being.

Like most of the country I didn’t know much about Islam or Muslims when we were attacked on 9/11. My introduction to the religion was plane hijackings and catastrophe. Yet, these terrorists so strongly believed in their cause they were willing to die for it.  Christianity was no different. The westernized version is not nearly as violent as Christianity of the past, but the belief is just as strong.  I realize there are different sects and different versions, but each sect believes it holds THE truth and all others are wrong. Certainly, in the name of ecumenicity, Christians are willing to accept the “non-essentials,” but core truths are worth splitting churches over.

The funny thing about perception is that humans only have a minute piece of it. We are finite creatures living in a vast universe with wonders and history our brains are too small to understand. Yet, we speak with such certainty. To claim a corner market on THE truth is presumptuous at best.

The more I learn the more I realize I don’t know. I have more questions than answers, but letting go of my preconceived ideas allows me to think in broader terms. Life is too big and people are too complex to cast into a narrowly defined mold or outcome.

I haven’t shut the door on Christianity, as some propose, but I see it much differently. Without the cultural trappings it is a religion of love, redemption and acceptance. To me, in this very real human world, that’s what has become important. Stripping away what I wanted to believe with what was really happening – and being honest about it – seems to be what that message was about all along. I couldn’t see it until I forced myself to see things differently.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences.

Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below.

Tim

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Going Gay

Life'sAJourneyOne of the comments on my last blog stuck with me. The comment was, “I just find it interesting when someone believes in something for most of their lives and then changes their mind when it effects them directly.”

A person changes his mind when he decides to have oatmeal for breakfast instead of eggs, or when she decides not to go to the grocery store, though she’d been planning on it most of the day. To suggest that someone simply “changes their mind” is to trivialize years, if not decades, of emotional and psychological anguish. People try to reconcile a faith that simply doesn’t acknowledge his or her reality.  It’s called cognitive dissonance: anxiety that results from simultaneously holding contradictory or other incompatible attitudes or beliefs (dictionary.com).

The anxiety I experienced when I was younger led to a suicide attempt, followed by years of depression and a failed marriage. Fortunately, I’m too much of a control freak to take drugs that would alter my consciousness and I hate the taste of alcohol. I’ve known many others who dealt with the cognitive dissonance by getting hooked on meth, becoming alcoholics, and throwing themselves into frequent anonymous sexual encounters. All the while, they stayed in church, read their Bibles, participated in Sunday School and suffered in silence.

What I find terribly ironic about what is preached in many churches, and even what the Boy Scouts say they hold so dear, is this idea of honesty. Coming to terms with one’s sexual identity is the most honest thing he or she can do. It’s especially difficult in a culture that holds belief higher than truth. Belief cannot be proven. Gravity is truth. We must all adhere to gravity. The Bible, and especially a specific interpretation of the Bible is belief. Yet, many of us tout our beliefs (religious, political, or otherwise) as though they are facts to which everyone must adhere.

In spite of the physical and mental ailments I endured for decades, I held on to my faith, as it was taught to me. It was my belief in God the Father that ultimately led me to accept my reality. I knew as a human father I would never want my children to struggle the way I had struggled all of those years. To allow it, especially if I had the power to change it, would be no less than cruel.

Most people are followers. They think and do what they are told. Why wouldn’t they? Life goes along at an even pace and things seem to naturally fall into place. It’s when something doesn’t fall into place like it’s “supposed to” that we actually have to question ourselves and yes, even God.

I spent many years examining, deconstructing, and reconstructing my thought processes, what I believed, why I believed it and what my behavior would be as a result. My struggle taught me respect for others and their journeys. It’s taught me that I don’t know everything. I am learning to love more unconditionally and accept people exactly as they are. I feel I’m becoming the person I was always intended to be, I just never thought I’d become that person by going gay.

I’d love to hear what others think and their experiences.

Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below.

Tim

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Sin, Shame and the Ex-gay

Alan Chambers has repeatedly apologized for the Exodus movement. In a recent interview with Relevant Magazine, when asked what he was apologizing for, Alan said, “When it comes to sexual expression with members of the same sex or the opposite sex, I cannot apologize for what we believe about that. And yet, how we have wielded that sword has caused damage…We’re sorry this caused you shame.”

It is not only the wielding of the sword that causes the shame but the sword itself. The idea that homosexuality is a sin tells the ex-gay, and the gay community at large, that they don’t just have a problem, they are the problem. The Christian platitude that Jesus loves the sinner but hates the sin turns the message of love into a message of hopelessness. I can change a lot of things about me, but I cannot change who I am.

For many years I cut off relationships with great people because of the shame I carried over being gay. Eventually, I quit church altogether. Whether or not someone was judging me wasn’t as important as the fact that I judged myself so harshly I couldn’t function in normal relationships. I felt there was something so wrong with me, so not worth loving, I couldn’t have friends. I didn’t belong anywhere, except hidden away.

Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below.

Tim

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A Message Worth Repeating

McLemoreMy teenage daughter and I were riding in my car the other day listening to her iPod. Plugging her iPod into my sound system is as natural as buckling her seat belt at her age. When a song came on by Macklemore she said, “Hey dad, have you heard this one? I really love this song.”

The song was “Same Love.” I’d casually listened to it before, but hadn’t paid much attention to the lyrics. This time something caught my ear:

The right wing conservatives think it’s a decision
And you can be cured with some treatment and religion
Man-made rewiring of a predisposition

I spent five years of my life getting out that very message. Here we are, almost 20 years later, and that message is loud and clear. I never imagined it would be repeated in a pop song. I had a surreal moment.

I thought back to all the traveling, media attention, press releases, newsletters and so many people who carried that message forward for so many years before and after me. It’s a message now ingrained in pop culture, but not used as a message of healing and hope as it was intended. It’s a message that’s divisive, if not abusive.

Years ago I sat in a radio station in Santa Rosa, CA. Love in Action was invited to appear on a morning show. It sounded like great opportunity to propagate our message of hope and change. I thought it was just going to be the host and me. I was naïve enough to think, back then, that an invitation to speak was synonymous with agreeing with our message. Neither of those things was true. The show included two activist, and angry, lesbians, the combative host and mild-mannered me.

It became clear from the outset this was going to be the longest hour of my life. The host enthusiastically introduced the other two ladies followed by, “and on the other line we have Tim from Love in Action, a ministry that thinks they can change people’s sexual orientation.” I never even got a chance to say hi.

I did what I had learned to do when dealing with the media. I gave them sound bytes and made sure I hit my three main points. I was unbending in my message. I was confident. I was sure. But the women and I hit an impasse when one of them asked, “If a gay couple came into your church, would you welcome them?”

“Yes, absolutely,” I said.

“So you accept gay people,” she said.

“We accept people as they are and allow God to change them as he changes all of us,” I assured her.

“So you don’t accept gay people as they are,” she responded.

“No, we do, but God loves them too much to leave them that way,” I said. This made everyone angry, or maybe I should say angrier.

“You know what?” the other lesbian said, “What are you going to do 20 years from now when you come to realize you are gay, nothing’s changed and you have no place to go?!”

It was never a thought that entered my mind before, or even years after that encounter. I was right and she was wrong, as far as I was concerned.

I told myself that the most important thing was that we got the message out. Even if the interview went poorly at least I’m certain that there were people out there who heard it and I’d planted a seed of hope in them. They knew there was an option.

I felt I was doing my job of spreading the good news of the Gospel. I was prepared, somewhat, for opposition. After all, if they crucified Jesus for his message they would most certainly want to crucify me for mine.

So here we are in 2013. The message is so wide-spread there are organizations who’s full-time purpose is to stop it, inform others of all the crazy stuff people in the ex-gay movement are still saying and warning would-be inductees of the dangers of the movement as a whole. I didn’t think I would be on the other side, but here I am.

Besides my own life experience, I think being a father has changed me. My daughter loves people. All people. She loves them where they are, who they are and regardless of what they look like. Ironically, those were the characteristics I wanted to portray to others about God and about the ex-gay message. But telling people that “God loves them too much to leave them that way” is really saying God doesn’t love them at all.

I’ve learned that true love loves someone as if he or she will never change. He will still have his annoying habits, maybe overweight, pimples, warts, limps and all. Not only is he acceptable, he is worth loving completely, unconditionally, and fully. That’s a message worth repeating.

Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below.

Tim

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In Defense of the Ex-gay Movement

exodus_international_logoWalter had no way of knowing who he was talking to when he shared his opinion of the ex-gay movement, and the people involved, while in my living room. My partner, who belongs to a group of gay Christians, invited members over for a night of fellowship. “I can’t even believe that guy who got caught in a gay bar and still tried to tell people he was straight!” Walter rattled on. “I’d like to go to one of those groups and pretend like I’m there for help. Then I’ll give them a piece of my mind,” he said. I bit my tongue, at least for the time being.

To Walter these people were evil minions, hell-bent on seeking out the naive and helpless, and turning them into right-wing homophobes. Many members of the ex-gay community were, and are, my friends. Walter’s perception of them is similar to others I’ve encountered in the gay community, but that perception could not be any further from the truth, about most of these people.

I first learned of Love in Action in 1989, attended a couple of Bible studies and entered the Live-in program in January of 1990. It’s there that I met the founder of Love in Action, Frank Worthen, and his wife Anita. Frank was an unassuming man. Humble. Elderly. He barely moved his mouth when he talked. He wouldn’t be my first pick for a cult leader, if this was a cult. He had kind eyes and a big heart. Anita was a quick wit, motherly, and matter of fact. They were like the grandparents you wish lived next door.

Frank made his millions from businesses he owned and ran, eventually selling everything to preach his message of freedom from homosexuality through Christ. He and his wife never took a dime from the ministry in salary. To the contrary, they gave houses, land, time and money. They truly believed, and still do, that it is possible to live a Christian life, free from homosexuality.

One night, following a Bible study, I sat in Frank and Anita’s garage, a soon-to-be studio apartment they were building for themselves so they could give up their large master bedroom in their house to accommodate more people in their live-in program. I lamented how difficult it would be to leave my home and come to the live-in program, but I knew I needed to do it.

“God calls us to give up everything and follow him,” Anita said lovingly. “Sin leads us down a certain path and before we know it, we end up someplace we never thought we would be.” She continued.

“When I was single I said I would only sleep with a man once I was married. As time went on and marriage didn’t happen I said, ‘I’ll only sleep with a man when I’m engaged.’ When that wasn’t working for me I said, ‘Well, then I’ll only sleep with a man if I’m dating him.’ Finally, I said, ‘Alright, well, never two at the same time.'”

I couldn’t help but laugh. Anita was vulnerable about her own struggles, in light of what she believed about God.

When I went to Love in Action I did so with the conviction that homosexuality was a sin. Love in Action helped me find others like me. I knew the door was always open to leave, if I chose to do so. Like any large organization there are a multitude of motivations that drive people to or from involvement. I can attest, however, that throughout my nearly 30 years in the evangelical Christian community and seven years in ex-gay ministry I met more people who showed genuine concern, than people who were simply interested in controlling others. All of the people I worked closely with in the ex-gay movement, most certainly at Love in Action, were there because we sincerely believed our message. I made a whopping $18,000 a year during my entire tenure in the ministry. I certainly wasn’t getting rich from it.

We judge people more harshly when they disagree with us, though, in truth, we don’t have any idea what their motivations are. We attack through blogs and social media, but seldom take the time to get to know them personally and find out who they are and what drives them. I find much more judgement in the “tolerant” gay community than I ever saw in church.

So back to Walter. Later in the night’s conversation we were able to casually swing back around to the conversation about ex-gays and that person who got caught at a bar almost 15 years ago. (Geesh, let it go already!) “Things are never what they seem,” I told Walter, “and making a judgement based on what you see in the media leaves you to make assumptions, but doesn’t tell you the truth.” Then I shared my story with Walter. It was something I had not done before.

Many of us who lived through the ex-gay movement would now agree that it’s a movement that never should have been started, no matter how sincere its founders. But here we are. It was a different time; we were at a different point in history. Alan Chambers and many others are taking the right steps. We are moving toward an honest and open discussion. For us to heal, we must free our minds of prejudices and misconceptions that keep us locked in the past.

Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below.

Tim

 

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About Tim