A Love Letter to Teens in the Closet

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If I remember it correctly, being a teenager can be Hell.

In the middle of so much changing in and around you, it can impossible to figure out just who you are.

Trying to navigate it all; the desire to fit in, the fear of rejection, the cruelty of other people, and your own daily inconsistency—can all be rightly disorienting. Some days it’s a battle just to take the next tentative step into the world, knowing what might be waiting for you out there. It’s not a natural thing to purposefully walk  toward pain that way.

I don’t need to tell you this.

You know it all too well. You understand better than most teenagers, and that’s why I’m writing to you.

I can’t fathom what it’s like to be stumbling to finding yourself, while being told by the voices around you that this self is an abomination; to be discovering truths about you, that instead of bringing joy, only confirm your greatest fears that you are different and that this difference is a liability. The tension that can create within a young soul must be nearly too much to bear.

I can’t imagine how much it hurts to hide in the middle of the crowds, to be silent about the deepest longings of your heart with those close to you, to sit in the middle of a joke that is about you and having to laugh along with friends and peers oblivious to the bomb going off inside you—and to believe that God Himself is against you.

It must be exhausting to keep your guard up all the time; to have to weigh every word, manage every conversation, carefully maintain the facade at home and at school and with friends, so as not to ever be fully transparent. It must be a nightmare to never get to be real anywhere.

And I guess I just wanted to tell you that I see you and that I’m sorry if this is the road you have to walk, because you deserve far better.

I wanted to encourage you not to let the voices around you drown out the one within you, because that one is the only one worth listening to. And I don’t mean the voice that now parrots back the terrible things they may have said about you. I’m not talking about an inner voice that’s gradually learned to agree with the bullies and bigots and the brimstone preachers.

I’m talking about the voice that says, “Yes, this is who I really am.”

Because that is the voice you need to cherish and protect and to hold tightly too, until you are able to speak and fully live what that voice tells you. One day I pray you will be able to do that. One day you’ll feel strong enough or loved enough or safe enough to say everything. But that day isn’t anyone’s business but yours. It will happen on your terms and in your time.

But in the meantime, I wanted you to know that you are loved; not only the carefully crafted version of you that you share with the world to protect yourself, but the real, true, most authentic you that so rarely gets to show itself.

That you, much of whom you are still discovering, is original and beautiful and made for greatness.

Keep going, dear friend and know that someone sees you and is for you.

Be so encouraged today.

 

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Dear Angry Sports Dad,

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Dear Angry Sports Dad,

As a rule, I try to stay in my lane as a father; to not tell other fathers how to do their jobs, because I know how difficult and draining a job it is.

But I also know that we all have our blind spots. We all have trouble seeing ourselves clearly at times. I’m looking at you tonight and I’m wondering if this is one of those times.

You were unhappy with your 9-year old son tonight at football practice, that much was clear.

It was clear to his teammates as you stepped onto the field several times to chastise him.
It was clear to his coaches, as you shouted over their instruction to give your own.
It was clear to the other parents, who squirmed a little each time you did.

And it was clear to your son, whose obvious embarrassment and dropped head you might have missed.

I know it’s been a while since you’ve been 9, and you may have forgotten how difficult that can be, especially when you’re the youngest or the smallest or a little overweight, as your son is. When you are those things, you don’t need any help feeling like an outcast—it’s as natural as breathing. I wonder if you can remember that.

I also wonder if you remember how big a shadow a 9-year old boy’s father can cast over him, how loudly his father’s voice can resonate in his tiny ears, how much 9-year old boys just want to make their daddies proud.

I don’t know you or your son very well, but I lived long enough and been a father long enough to know that this anger of yours—it’s not about your son.

It’s not about the fact that he’s slow or that he seems hesitant to take a hit or that he missed a few tackles tonight. None of those things really merit that kind of outrage or disgust. As with much of our anger, it’s not about what it’s about.

This is probably a you problem.

Maybe things are really crazy at work or your marriage is strained or money is tight or you’re not happy in the shoes you’re in or with the way things are going.

Or maybe you do remember what it’s like to be the youngest and the smallest and a little overweight. Maybe you remember all too well how easy it was to feel like an outcast. Maybe you remember that hurt distinctly, and the 38-year old version of you feels more comfortable letting it out on the field now than you ever did when you were 9.

But whatever this anger is about, you should know that even with his oversized pads on—your son’s shoulders aren’t made to carry it. They’re made to carry 9-year old things: dropped balls and missed tackles, failed tests and messy rooms, forgotten homework and lost socks. Those things are heavy enough.

9-year old boys should only have to carry 9-year old boy stuff, not 38-year old man stuff.

They shouldn’t have to shoulder the frustrations of their fathers.

You might feel your exasperated sighs and loud outbursts and sideline tirades are toughening him up, teaching him how to deal with adversity, pushing him to be the best player he can be—and maybe they are. But I’m not sure that’s what’s happening here, at least not if his body language means what it seems to mean. I might be completely missing it—but I don’t think I am.

When I was a 9-year old boy, my father was my hero. He was tall enough to touch God. He was a massive, towering presence in my life that could eclipse the sun, and all I wanted was for him to be proud of me.

Knowing that he was, steadied my legs when the earth would shake.
Knowing it, made me fearless in the darkest times.
Knowing it, gave me peace in the loudest storms.
Knowing it, made me unafraid to fall—and certain I could fly.

I bet that’s all the 9-year old you wanted from your father, and I imagine that’s all your son wants from you right now on this field. Remember, he won’t be 9 for very long. In the blink of an eye he’ll be 38—and he might be standing on the sidelines too.

Again, this is probably none of my business and I’m off-base and out of line here, but in those times when I can’t see clearly as a father, I hope someone helps me notice my blind spots so that I don’t miss the chance to be the daddy my kids need.

Be loudest with your love, Sports Dad.

 

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The Day I Chose My Heterosexuality

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I still remember the day I chose to be heterosexual. It was the fourth grade.

I was 10 years old and I already knew all about girls. I knew to take precautions with them. I knew to be very careful.

I knew they all had girl germs.

And if there’s one thing a worldly young man like myself already realized, it’s that you definitely did not want to catch girl germs.

And so I spent every recess sprinting through the schoolyard, tearing around the jungle gym, and barreling through clusters of scattering kids, trying to escape being touched by one of the female runners. It was like the cornfield human round-up in the Planet of the Apes (or maybe The Walking Dead, a few decades early). I did my best to help the other boys when I could, of course, but we all knew that when push came to shove, it was every guy for himself. Better them than me.

We ran for our lives every lunchtime, knowing that to be touched was to be contaminated. But I was super fast. Maybe it was my sweet new pair of Zips, maybe it was my natural ability, or maybe it was Adrenaline and desperation—but I was one heck of a runner.

That is, until Lori Kopcash.

Up until that day, Lori had been my greatest playground nemesis, and her very presence struck fear in my 10-year old heart. She was gross and icky and absolutely crawling with girl germs—and she could run fast too.

One afternoon Lori was chasing me through the blur of the screaming crowd around me, when I suddenly realized I wasn’t running as fast as I could anymore. In fact, I was sort of dogging it on purpose. The truth blindsided me like a truck: something in me really wanted Lori Kopcash to catch me.

That was the day I chose my heterosexuality.

Of course, there was no real decision to be made here; no furious debate in my mind, no great wrestling with the choice at all. I simply became aware that Lori Kopcash made me feel something I’d never felt before. I couldn’t rationalize it or explain it—I just liked her. I just liked girls. My perception of girl and their respective germs was never quite the same again.

We all can point to those moments early in our journey when we realize something true about how our hearts and bodies work. There would be more times, but this was the first.

It wasn’t until later that I learned through the faith tradition I’d inherited, that apparently not all people worked this way. Some people, my Christianity told me, choose to be gay; they reject the very natural reality of what God had hard-wired into them, and make a conscious decision to be a different way. What I experienced without thinking in that playground—they somehow decide. What was an awareness for me, was for them a premeditated choice.

I knew right away how ridiculous an idea that was.

I knew that it was both arrogant and ignorant to imagine that anyone else’s experience of attraction or affection or desire was any different from mine, simply because their conclusion was different. The story that my religion told me just didn’t ring true. It still doesn’t.

Later when I became a pastor, I was committed to remembering how natural what I felt that afternoon for Lori felt, and to work toward a Church that respects that we each have a truest truth; that we should be allowed to live and love and worship from that most authentic place. If God made any of us to naturally feel what we feel without getting to choose it—God created all of us this way.

One of the greatest failings I see in my fellow Christians, is assuming that they can determine what is natural for someone else; what is their real, their truth, that they can decide for another person who they are.

It grieves me when I see followers of Jesus dismissing someone else’s story; their sense of identity, their inclination to love, the orientation of their affections, and the revelation of their own hearts—as if they know more about those people than they know about themselves. It’s the height of hubris.

One of the prayers I carry daily, is that more people who claim faith in Jesus will find the humility to remember what they learned about themselves at some point in their lives, and to allow everyone the dignity of coming to their own conclusions.  

There in the playground of St. Mary’s Catholic school, Lori Kopcash made me stop running. And when I did I woke up to the way my heart worked. I didn’t choose anything, I discovered it.

That is a gift we should give everyone, both inside and outside the Church: the joy of being who they really are and trusting them with their own stories.

We should tell all people that when it comes to how they love and who they love—they can stop running.

 

 

 

 

Exit Interviews: What I Wish My Former Pastor Knew, Part 1

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Note from John:

I’m very fortunate that I have a venue for my voice to be heard, and realize that most people do not. As a pastor, I spend a great deal of my days listening to people’s stories and trying to speak and write in such a way that those stories are represented in the world—and particularly in the Church.

I asked my readers a simple question, and the responses have been overwhelming in number, and in the depth of faith and pain they reflect. I believe they deserve to heard be directly, and over the next couple of weeks I will share as many as I can. I hope they will minister to you, that they will bring some comfort and encouragement. I hope you’ll realize how very not-alone you are in your desire to pursue faith in the tension between God and organized religion.

And if you’re a faith leader in any capacity, I hope you’ll sift these words to find the ones that resonate and reveal to you the ways you might better do the important, life-giving work you are called to do. 

As you read, resist the temptation to refute or argue anyone’s response. Simply listen and allow each person’s experience to weigh the same.

The question was: If you’re no longer in a church or struggle with the one you’re a part of—what do you wish your pastor/priest/minister/leader knew?

I want your message from the pulpit to be the least important thing you do for the week. I want to know that you see me, not just as a body on Sunday morning. Not just as someone who has something to give. I want to know that you see me and know my story. Nothing you have to say on Sunday morning counts, If I do not feel know and supported on the journey I am on. And I want you to give me permission to be on a journey, to be seeking. I don’t want to have to follow your rule book or listen to the answers you pull out of your playbook. I want permission to find my way. I want you to listen. And maybe even be open to learning from me in the way that I want to learn from you.

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I wish my former pastor knew is that my sexuality didn’t deter my love for ministry. If anything, it made it much stronger.

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That instead of working so hard to save people’s souls for the next life, I would like to see them working just as hard to help people during this life.

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That their complete silence towards me since I’ve left had hurt more than anything they might have said while I was there.

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That mercy and grace are indispensable when building community…
That we have all sinned and fallen short….
That doubt can foster growth…
That it is not a zero-sum game…
That where ever one finds love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control, the Holy Spirit is there…
That I still want lovely things for them…

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I want them to know that I can’t come back until their love feels like love; when it validates and heals rather than condemns, when they treat me like a person instead of a project.

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Eighty percent of every church’s beliefs come from the culture around it, whether they conform or define themselves by nonconformity. Their beliefs follow or fight against trends in politics, the economy, changing social norms. What we believe and how we act rarely has anything to do with God, so let’s stop acting like every bit of dogma is God’s honest truth—and make some room for people.

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I wish the pastor of my Catholic church could understand how hard it is for me to attend Mass with my Transgender son in light of Pope Francis’ recent remarks. I wish he knew how I sat there in bitterness, resentful of having to tithe to an organization so intent on rejecting people like my young child. I wish the pastor could be brave enough to outwardly love and support the LGBTQ community, and even start a group so that we didn’t have to feel so alone. I wish the pastor could preach about how although not all Catholics might agree, we still deserve the same love and respect, not condemnation

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I would like my former pastor to know how free I am. He said when our family left his church that we were headed to destruction, but in fact we have never experienced more joy and freedom than we do now. I would like him to know that he is the one in bondage. Not only is he in bondage, he is putting chains of bondage on each and every one of his members. The damage he has done (in the name of Jesus) is irreparable. I want to believe in Jesus still, but the Jesus I was taught of doesn’t look anything like the Jesus you speak of.  “I like your Jesus…”

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I wish they knew how hurtful it is to receive emails inviting me to conversion therapy classes.

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I wish he knew I am not ‘back sliding’ or lost the plot or lost my faith in Christ. I really wish after 10 years and starting a ministry that I was worth a phone call or coffee date to say, “Hey, you ok? I see you and your family have left and we miss you, and if you want to share I would love to know why you left and if you guys are okay.” I wish he knew the cost of losing my church family and I wish he knew that all those people who have left are not just the trash taking themselves out, but people worth something.

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I wish they knew how the church’s overt sexism and bi-phobia, and eventually its rape apologetics caused me to feel more pain and anguish in the community than away from the community. That after 20 years since leaving Christianity, I still do not feel safe or welcome as a human being in the church, let alone loved. I am happier keeping my distance.

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I wish my pastor knew about how vulnerable I was at the time (as a teen), and how much I needed him to be who I thought he was. I wish he knew that I had caught on to every attempt at manipulation, every subtle mention of the situation at the podium, and every condescending tone of voice he used with me. I wish he knew how damaging that behavior was to my ability to trust people in a critical age of my life. And I wish he knew that my refusal to go back to any church is due to his hunger for power, not because I was a “confused sheep” that was led astray.

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I wish you knew how hard it was for me to walk away from a ministry that I would have done for free. I wish you would remember who you are as a godly man, swallow your pride, and seek my forgiveness. I wish you knew that it was because of your ungodliness that I have a very hard time trusting male leaders. I wish you knew there are no titles in the kingdom of God that we are all equal. There is no brotherhood or sisterhood—only friendship.”

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That God works in ways beyond our own understanding.  Just because we don’t understand something, it doesn’t mean that God doesn’t have His hands on a life that desperately wants to love and worship. No one believed Paul when he first spoke of the grace that changed his heart.  We who are gay or transgender can indeed be used and used effectively. All they need to do is give us a damn chance.

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I wish my pastor knew how hurt I am by him not being the friend he advertised himself to be.

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That hate drives young people away. Fear (“You’re going to burn if you don’t do x,y, and z . . .”) is very off-putting. It may have worked in the past. Not now.

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I would like them to know that having questions, experiencing doubts and being uncertain about things the church is teaching, does not necessarily equal spiritual immaturity. No one comes right out and says that you are spiritually immature because you are struggling with things like the concepts of Heaven and Hell, or substitutionary atonement, or the inerrancy of the bible, or the sovereignty of God etc., but when they kindly offer to pray that God will make these things clear to you, what they are really saying is that they hope you settle down soon and get back to seeing things the way they do.

 I think it would help if pastors stopped saying everything from the pulpit with so much certainty, if Christians were taught fewer answers and trained more in the skill of asking good questions, if the local church would be a little more humble about what they know and hold to be true, if it would not be considered heresy to think or believe differently in their midst, and if more people in the church believed that right living is more important than right doctrine.

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Our Episcopal Church is full of former Catholics and many many gay former Catholics. I often wonder if my Catholic priests and bishops know this. Do they see the good that we do and the glory it brings? Do they realize that so many of us would have been the priests and sisters that they so sorely need? Do they see that we are living out our Catholic faith through the Episcopal church because that is where we can truly be ourselves. Do they miss us? And beyond wondering if they see or know this or miss us, I want to know if they care that we are gone? Do they wish it was different? Are they fighting to change things and make things right from the inside?

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