As a young seminarian in the late 1970’s, I enjoyed being a graduate student on the campus of a major university in the Midwest. The big library and vast intellectual community were a thrill, but the greatest joy was attending Sunday services at the university’s chapel, an elaborate modernist/Gothic building on the edge of campus.
Surrounded by the chapel’s exquisite stained glass windows, I came to enjoy the sermons of the university’s chaplain. I marveled at his ability to weave together theology and Bible and modern life in a beautifully crafted and well-delivered sermon.
One night, my wife and I were out to dinner with a seminary faculty member, and the topic of the university chaplain came up. I shared my admiration for his preaching talents.
“You know he’s a homosexual, right?” said the faculty member.
My jaw dropped. I was stunned. I’d had no idea.
As I wrestled with my feelings about this news, I realized they were all too jumbled and confused and angry to sort out. I stopped attending the university’s chapel and found a comfortable, but less interesting, church of my own denomination nearby. At the age of twenty-two, I could not make sense of how a Christian—a pastor no less—could also be gay.
Looking back on my first experience of a gay clergyman from the vantage point of time and greater maturity, I realize how my reaction was very much a product of my suburban middle class upbringing.
As a teenager I’d become aware of the taunts leveled at kids who appeared effeminate.
Growing up as the sole boy in a family with four sisters meant that my gender socialization had to be learned outside the home. So as a junior high student I recognized that I must either avoid appearing effeminate or risk being ostracized by the other guys at school. Nothing was more despised that someone who was “light in the loafers.”
I actively suppressed any behaviors or thoughts that made me appear effeminate. By the end of high school, it was second-nature for me to see blurry gender lines or homosexual orientation as shameful and wrong.
My emerging understanding of the Christian faith deepened my prejudice. I remember one night determining that my contribution to Christianity would be to take all of the rules of the Bible and put them into a single, comprehensive list. Christians could then know just how to live their lives without having to dig around in the Bible to find out what to do and not to do! Christian life was reduced to a list of things about myself and others that needed to be suppressed in order to fulfill God’s expectations.
Then seminary happened.
Even as I was avoiding the university chapel I had begun to study the Bible in a new way.
I began to learn the larger themes and important principles that hold it together. I began to understand how St. Paul resolves the tension between the Old Testament theme of “Law” and the New Testament idea of “Gospel.” His Letter to the Galatians (5:1) changed my whole understanding of faith. “For freedom Christ has set you free. Do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.”
I understood in a new way that the New Testament asks us to let go of rules and entrust ourselves instead to the Spirit’s guidance. The fruit of our relationship with God is to be love, joy, peace and more. This new way of looking at the Bible asked me to focus less on correct behavior and to focus more on learning how really to love in a Christ-like way.
At this same time, I became youth intern at a large church some miles away from my seminary. One of my tasks was to meet with the young, male high school students for Bible study. I found myself struggling with how to lead these young men who were just beginning to shape their adult masculinity.
Since I was only a few years older than them, I found the old worries about my own masculine identity coming to the fore.
Even though I’d been very popular in high school, I never felt fully accepted by the athletes and other popular boys because I didn’t have a brother. I’d never even admitted it to myself, but among other guys, I secretly felt that I was pretending to be just like them. I had no sexual attraction to other guys—just a deep hunger for acceptance, for brother-to-brother camaraderie and affection—what I felt I’d missed as a child.
There were a lot of pressures in my life at this time: a new marriage, a weight loss problem caused by ulcers, the stresses of ordination requirements, and the new challenges of graduate school.
For the first time in my life, I headed to counseling and sat with an older psychologist in the free counseling center at the university. The topics of gender socialization, masculinity, acceptance by other men, and my shock and anger at the university chaplain all came up. I clearly remember one session, in which the counselor asked me out of the blue if I’d had any dreams lately. No, I hadn’t, I said.
Then that night I had a dream.
I dreamed of the boys in my youth group standing around in a circle looking at me, one at a time, and saying, “We accept you for who you are.” When I shared the dream at my next session, the counselor said: “I think we’re done.”
Like a jigsaw puzzle, the pieces to a new understanding of myself started coming together. I adopted as central for me the themes of grace and freedom, which I believe are the heart of New Testament theology.
I began to accept myself for who I am, which is an important first step in accepting anyone else. I began to relax into a new identity as one who appreciates the uniquenesses of individuals as part of the beauty of creation.
I recognized that my gender socialization was part of the unique “me” God was creating. I didn’t have to worry about who I was as a man—or who other people were either. I also learned that my unresolved issues were too often projected on others.
I needed to work through those issues to learn how to love.
The journey has taken me many places since then. I completed a doctorate in theology and sexuality in 1997 at Princeton Theological Seminary. I’ve advocated strongly for full inclusion of gay and lesbian pastors in my denomination, and I’ve added my voice to the many other pastors and priests in my state who are advocating for marriage equality for all. The basic truth I learned in seminary is that God is love. Really. Love.
One spring day about a year after I learned the chaplain’s sexual orientation my wife and I walked back into worship at the university chapel. As I knew I would, I heard another beautiful sermon by the gifted, gay university chaplain. Because I’d grown up some and struggled through my own issues, I clearly saw Jesus in him that day.
He wasn’t just gay or even just a preacher or a chaplain. He was a brother. My dear brother, a child of God, and a gift by God to a young seminarian who was learning to love.
Originally published on November 9, 2012