Those were the first words in an email of the Rev. Matt Gough when I reached out to him to see if he would be comfortable having his sermon shared in my blog this week. I was checking to make sure that he was comfortable with his vulnerability being shared beyond his local congregation. He thanked me for checking, but assured me “I’m out” as a recognition that he wouldn’t be able to control the narrative now.
Matt shared a deeply touching and vulnerable sermon (link here) about being diagnosed with autism and social anxiety while serving as a minister where being a “social butterfly,” as he put it, is often considered a prerequisite. I promised not to make him the subject of my blog this week, but to share his story as another example of a blog topic I had already planned for the week.
Last week I taped a sermon (link here) for the whole presbytery titled, “Just As I Am,” as I reflected on the hymn of the same title and my own experience of learning to love myself “just as I am.” Quite honestly, the church does not make it easy to love ourselves just as we are. We preach a good sermon on it. We have a deep and wonderful theology that affirms it. But, in practice, the church has an unconscious way of reinforcing a more narrow narrative that doesn’t easily allow for the diversity of our human experience.
Matt’s “coming out” was especially important for First, Corvallis as they are going through a process to make a declarative statement to be an “open and affirming church.” But in a brilliant flash of wisdom and courage he told the congregation this last Sunday, “I was asking the church to do something that I have not allowed it to do for me.” He was referring, of course, to the years of masking and hiding his social anxiety afraid that if people knew the real him he wouldn’t be accepted or respected as a pastor.
Matt’s experience is not uncommon. The sermon that I preached this week is part of my long process of coming out to myself and to the church. I came out to myself over two decades ago, but coming out to the church has taken much longer as I constantly assess what is safe and what is helpful for the church to know.
More of the information is in my sermon, but I have been slow to let the church get to know the real me because it often feels that my narrative doesn’t fit, or it makes people uncomfortable, or people just don’t know what to do with it. I am a child of a teenage mother who left our family. My parents have been married eleven times between them. I am divorced and living the life of “discreet dating” that unmarried ministers feel obligated to uphold.
This week I had a monumental event in my family, but you would have never known it—because like Matt I haven’t allowed you into my personal world. After many years of my second child working through gender identity issues, Jules and I had a conversation where he (formally she/them) informed me that he was ready to be called my son. This is monumental for me and our family. This has been years in the making.
Why haven’t I shared it?
Because what I need is for people to celebrate with me and my fear is that I will spend more time educating you and defending my child and I don’t want to do that. I just want to celebrate this moment and enjoy it. So I don’t take the risk to allow the church to accept me as I am. I hide my real self and my real story and, in the process, give you no opportunity to love the diversity that is right in front of you.
Over the years, this issue of people hiding their real selves has become scarily apparent to me.
- I have heard members tell me the week after missing a Sunday, “Sorry, pastor, I just didn’t have the energy last week to put my church face on.”
- I have spoken with dozens of people who have said, “I like the people of this church, but I would never share my real beliefs with them.”
- Members have shared with me, “I enjoy this church, but my real spiritual community is my AA group where I can be honest and authentic.”
- After sharing parts of my story from the pulpit individual members have confided in me, “I too have a gay or lesbian child. I wished I felt safe to tell my friends in church.”
Why do I share this now? Because in recent years the presbytery has been focusing more efforts on mirroring the diversity of our communities in our churches and leadership. Our presbytery is 97% white. When I came up for election for this position one of our commissioners half seriously and half in-jest said, “I was hoping for a black lesbian woman for this position, but seeing that we didn’t get that candidate, you will do.” It wasn’t a jab. It was a way of affirming my call to the position while also making a statement about our “diversity deficit.”
My point today is this. We want more diversity, but first we must learn to acknowledge, accept and celebrate the diversity that already exists within us. We all have to quit hiding from ourselves, from each other and from God. It’s time to get real with each other. It’s time to act more like AA and less like a country club.
Matt, thank you for giving us that chance.
And thank you to all of you who are willing to take the risk to say, “God loves me just as I am. I want you to love me that way too.”
Matt’s Sermon link: “Silencing the Demons”
Brian’s Sermon link: “Just As I Am”
By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades
This comes to me at a very difficult time. My youngest son married his college sweetheart 18 years ago. Raised a Presbyterian, he converted to Catholicism before they married. They have teo lovely boys , 9 and 13. But the nuclear family has dissolved, as his wife has finally emancipated her self from the judgement of her faith and church and professed she is gay. Retrospectively, she has struggled with this for years. Her parents still see it as a demon within her. I’m thankful she had been able to breathe. My grief is for her two lovely boys and my son. My son is wounded but grateful she has peace now. But I know the boys are so innocent. I pray that her family will come to understand and the children will grow to understand.. we all need to be accepted ‘just as I am’.
Dear Jackie; something came to mind I felt compelled to share with you. Your son and daughter-in-law had “to be” in order for those two sweet grandsons to be! I found peace and comfort in this way of thinking when I went through my own divorce many years ago. It gives me comfort to this day – I am to be a grandma in July, too! My first Grand!
I pray you, your son, grands, and DIL find peace and comfort in this and that God loves all of us, just exactly as we are…no matter what.
Jackie, you express so well the grief that is involved in this. There is grief and pain in not coming out and grief and pain in coming out. I will hold you and your family in my heart as you find ways to gracefully and lovingly move through this. Peace…Brian
Thank you for sharing who you are. I wish that there was an opportunity for people in my congregation to share more openly about themselves and their faith. My experience is that people may share more easily about physical disease than they can about other struggles in life. Presbyterians, like many other Christians, must focus more on practicing such vulnerability and creating community that is honest to God and each other.
My experience has been that it often takes one brave person to start the conversation. Education is good, but it often remains safe and theoretical. It is when a person dear to the congregation “comes out” in whatever form that the boundaries of community start to expand. I agree, there is something about sharing struggles that aren’t associated with physical challenges where it suddenly becomes, “Is it okay to share this? Will this paint me as being somehow less of a person?” Vulnerability is hard work! Peace…Brian
Thank you for sharing both of these sermons. Staying home for the past year has allowed me to “just be myself” in ways that I never was before. I wonder whether I can return to church. Can I put on my costume, my disguise again? It has been so comfortable to drop the facade.
Marcia, that is so powerful. It’s as if this time has exposed how much we sometimes put on costumes in order to go to church. My prayer is that this time will expose that and challenge us to be more honest and vulnerable with each other.
Hi Brian! This if for both you and Jules: congratulations on your fully becoming yourself! Would that all of us, of whatever persuasion, be as willing and strong to truly become who we are. God uses all people, and all people are God’s. May you walk the path of blessings of your Creator!
Thank you, Scott. We have been on a great journey together.
Your sermon and the one of Rev. Matt Gough’s that you shared were so very powerful! I can’t thank you enough. Although I don’t think very many of us have actual diagnosed conditions for feelings of fear, inadequacy, etc., I do know that I’ve often felt “not as good as” or “not good enough”. Your sermons make me want to be more compassionate, understanding, loving, accepting, etc. of others and not be judgmental, biased or critical. Your choice of sharing a favorite hymn “Just As I Am” really sums it up for me. You and Rev. Gough really “hit home runs” in your sermons. Blessings to you both!!!!
Blessings, Synthia. Most of us have hidden pain and struggles and I appreciate your commitment to be more accepting and compassionate. One never knows what pain is hidden just under the surface of our social masking. Brian
Thank you Brian! God loves us “just as we are” in spite of our fear of judgmental humans who cannot accept us and the gifts we bring to the planet. Once we figure out who we really are instead of who we think other people are expecting us to be, we get a whole lot of sanity/peace. Thank you for your breadcrumbs today.
Knowing you I am aware of how much you have lived into this truth of being who we really are rather than who we feel expected to be. As I age I feel like I am moving closer to that all the time. I just don’t have the energy to be someone else!
Brian, both your and Matt’s sermons were wonderful! Thanks for stepping up and “out” about your real selves and encouraging the rest of us. I grew up with a “manic depressive” mother, and brother labeled “mentally retarded” as an infant. Our household was loving and supportive in spite of these ‘other-than-normal’ traits.. Found out as an adult, Dad thought of leaving my Mom after the first two roller coaster years and stayed because of family encouragement and support. Mostly because he loved her. Mom was finally stabilized with appropriate medication when I was 10.
Those different ‘traits’ of our growing up make me who I am. I believe for all the anxiety I am stronger and more empathetic in my belief that God doesn’t throw away anyone because they’re different.
Thanks again for sharing two great sermons. Peace!
I appreciate your awareness that “God doesn’t throw away anyone because they are different.” I have learned that no matter what our story is God seems to have a way of using it for good, for healing and for connection. Thank you for sharing some of your family’s story and how it has shaped you and what you bring to the world. Peace… Brian
Your wonderful post reminded me of the CS Lewis quote: “Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point.” Courage is reflected in all the stories that you shared in your post and that have been shared in the comments. And you are right. It takes one person with enough courage to start the conversation by sharing who they really are. Well done.