Friday, October 22, 2010

Talking to my kids about the "h" word

For those of you who might have missed this YouTube, this is one of the great moments that has come out of the recent public discussions on gay teen suicides. Check it out.

So let's advance the discussion beyond what school administrators should be doing and what gay teens can do for themselves. What about regular old parents who send our kids to school? I'd imagine that how we raise our kids has everything to do with being a part of the solution. I've had other parents ask me (significantly lowering their voice at this point) whether I discuss the issue of homosexuality with my children. My answer: of course. With one child in middle school and another one about to enter middle school next year, I know that they might learn about other kids coming out as gay. I want them to understand what that means and how to respond to it.

I started laying the groundwork long ago by introducing our kids to a few of my friends who were gay when they were small. I didn't mention anything like "this person is gay" but I just let the kids get to know them for who they were. They would also hear during our family prayer times that I wanted prayer for friends of mine who are planning to come out to parents or who got kicked out of their churches. As the kids got older they'd ask why someone would get rejected by family or friends for being gay. What's gay? That's when I'd explain. That was also an opportunity to say, "Remember Mr. So-and-So who helped you with your science project? He's gay. Do you also remember Mr. So-and-So who gave you those nice chairs? He's also gay."

Most parents start wigging out at the thought of explaining homosexuality to their grade-school-aged kids. I'm not sure if it's because they think they have to talk about gay sex, or because they are afraid they'd be planting doubts into their kids' minds about their own sexuality if the existence of homosexuality were acknowledged. For what it's worth, here's how I've approached it.

First off, you don't have to talk to your kids about sex acts. Particularly if you are raising your kids as Christians, they are probably fairly sheltered and naive about that kind of stuff anyhow. Even when kids make crude sexual jokes in grade school, they don't have the slightest idea what they're talking about. Whether it's gay sex or straight sex, it's all gross and unfathomable to them anyhow, so don't feel an obligation to address it. Besides, sex is not really the issue here.

The issue is feelings. Talking about feelings is a good place to start if your seven or eight year-old asks about homosexuality--or just sexuality in general. I point to the story of Cinderella or any other well known prince and princess story. Kids understand that there's a special loving feeling that attracts a man and a woman in such stories. I explain that some people have those kinds of loving feelings except it's between two men and two women. I also explain that people who experience homosexual feelings can't help it and don't know where the feelings come from, so it's not like they're trying to be different on purpose.

But will bringing up homosexuality raise questions in a kid's mind about whether he or she is homosexual? Sure, my kids have asked about that. I just tell them that most people are heterosexual and chances are they are too, so don't worry about it. The reason I tell my kids that is not because I know for sure that they will turn out straight, but because there's no point in speculating about something when it's too early to tell anyhow. Encouraging them not to worry about it is the best way for them to avoid mind games, which can get in the way when it comes time later on to evaluate honestly whether they are gay or straight or bi or whatever. I also tell them that if they do come to an awareness of being gay at some point, I will love them just the same and nothing will change, so that's another reason not to worry. Since they already see how much I care about my gay and lesbian friends, I trust that they know I'm not just speaking empty words.

Because we raise the kids as Christians, of course they ask me about what the Bible teaches. I simply explain to them my personal view, which I've explained many times on this blog and you're welcome to skip this paragraph if it bores you. I tell them that because we live in a fallen world, some people find that their feelings are directed toward people of the same sex instead of the opposite sex, so it's true that homosexuality doesn't fit into what God had originally planned for humanity. But then, none of us can live up to God's original plan for us as human beings, so we shouldn't be singling out gay and lesbian people as if we're somehow doing better than they are. What's more, even though the Bible teaches that marriage should be between a man and a woman, it also teaches that loving one another is the most important thing, and since gay couples really do love each other, how condemning do you want to be of that? I just try to impress upon them that being true to the whole of the Bible's teaching quite often means that the answers don't come easily.

There is a payoff to having all these at-home conversations (which, by the way, should never become preachy or overbearing, but should happen gradually over a period of years). For one thing, your kids should know that you will always love them, that you've thought ahead to all the different scenarios of how they might turn out and you've already decided that nothing will stand in the way of your love for them. For another, with all the hatred and bullying that goes on in our schools today, you want your kids to be a positive influence, a voice reason and understanding among their friends, even their Christian friends. I may not be able to control what the other kids do, but as a parent I have to focus on raising my own kids to contribute positively to society. You do your part and hope that other people are doing theirs.

Friday, October 01, 2010

"Washed and Waiting"

My friend Wesley Hill has written his first book, Washed and Waiting, which arrived fresh off the press and at my doorstep via UPS about ten days ago. I had the privilege of reviewing the manuscript when it was still in its early stages 2 1/2 years ago and am gratified to see it now in such elegant form, a short-and-sweet volume of 153 pages, containing reflections that are spiritual, personal and even poetic.

It probably isn't going to make most people happy, yet that's exactly why I think it needed to be written. Wesley writes an unapologetically Side B story of his own journey. By Side B I mean that he is gay, Christian and celibate. He does not offer an ex-gay testimony to satisfy straight evangelical conservatives, nor does he speak approvingly of his homosexuality to satisfy gay Christians who affirm same-sex relationships. This book was written for the benefit of those very few Christians who walk the narrow path that he walks, and offers them a sense of companionship on the way.

Woven into Wesley's own story is the inspiration he has found in the stories of two other highly respected Christian men, Henri Nouwen and Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose private struggles with homosexuality and with living celibate were little known during their lifetimes. There are no magic solutions offered here, no eureka moments that would enable one to coast the rest of the way through the pearly gates. If you view your homosexuality as sinful and you don't see any possibility of change, you know there are no pat answers to your situation. But what you will gain--what I hope you will gain if you are a Side B Christian--is encouragement from knowing you aren't alone, that others have walked this path before you and are walking it even now.

But this book has something to say to straight Christians too. These days there is a lot of arguing in the conservative church about how you can't be gay and Christian. People who talk this way have a certain definition of "gay" but they also have a certain definition of "Christian." In their eyes, anyone who believes that the Bible does not condemn same-sex relationships is a liberal whose faith doesn't have to be taken seriously. That's a debate for another day. But with Wesley's book you don't have to read too far before you realize that he not only holds to a very conservative position on homosexuality, but his theological knowledge and breadth of Scriptural understanding far surpasses the average pew-sitter. This isn't someone you can dismiss as a "liberal." Even the title, Washed and Waiting, is a profound theological expression of how he views his current status: one who is already justified (washed), but is not yet glorified (waiting). If only more of us would have to humility to embrace the status of "washed and waiting," instead of viewing ourselves as "having arrived and waiting for others to catch up."

And so what also interests me about the book is how it speaks indirectly to the straight conservative Christian who may be skeptical about whether someone really could be gay and Christian. And beyond that it also addresses straight Christians who may have gotten as far as accepting the "gay Christian" label but might be tempted to view celibacy as a simple, one-size-fits-all solution for everyone. Wesley shows that he has embraced the call to celibacy but that walking the path is hardly simple. He tells stories about all the straight Christian friends he has had to lean on for support and speaks of the church as his spiritual family he needs to fill the void of loneliness. He draws upon a deep Christocentric theology of patience, suffering and sanctification to sustain hope through his personal struggles. As a straight Christian reader you wonder again and again, "Could I do this? Could I walk in Wesley's shoes?" and, "Maybe I could support someone who feels called to this, but could I demand such a thing of my brothers and sisters in Christ?"

Wesley decided to write this book because as a gay, celibate Christian he could find nothing on the bookshelves that spoke to his need for wisdom, encouragement and spiritual reflection in the midst of his raw struggle. I know a lot of you out there have been looking for a book like this as well. I hope that you will take away from this volume not only Wesley's insights, but wisdom from Nouwen, Hopkins, and the many other voices that are woven together here in a grand conversation about suffering, sanctification, longing and hope.