I’ve noted before that I came to a place in my life where the church road was impassable. I was blocked by theological boulders, behind which stood well-meaning acolytes, who warmed themselves by a giant bonfire, even as they rained a barrage of judgmental sayings down on my head. I tried to climb over the boulders, and only gashed myself. I tried to edge around the boulders, and only squashed myself into a suffocating closet. I couldn’t turn back. But I couldn’t go on. So I found a little cavern in one of the boulders farthest from the rain of abuse, and hunkered down.
I haven’t really had a church “home” for about 5 years. That first year, I was still in my hometown, so as far as anyone knew, the church family I had cherished for 16 years was still my home. But I rarely visited. I was the invisible one, the unseen disciple, who lurked in the shadows of the unswept corners, hoping nobody would notice me, hoping somebody would notice me. In the center of the room was a cozy fire, around which chatted a friendly throng of Christians, basking in the warmth of Christ’s love.
Somehow, I had absorbed the thought that that warmth was not mine to have. So I shuddered in the dark corner, feeling traces of warmth on my face when somebody would step slightly aside to embrace another near the flame. This was so unreal to me, since I was myself one, along with the rest in the room, who had kindled that fire, who had tossed heavy logs on it, who had beckoned others to come enjoy the comfort of its light. In fact, once I had stood, back to the fire, reaching out to those in corners like the one I now inhabited. How had I moved away? Why had I moved away? What happened?
I think what happened was that it became increasingly impossible for me to pretend to be someone I’m not. And I had pretended to be the ‘justified in Christ’ ‘transformed by the renewing of your mind’ Christian. In fact, I am these things. But I had come to accept what I was taught these meant—that what was wrong in me was that I was gay. And that Jesus forgave this sin of mine, this sin that separated me from God, and that my acting straight (celibate) was evidence of this justification. Renewing my mind was a daily application of scripture, that I am a new creation in Christ Jesus, no longer gay, the old has gone, behold, the new has come!
Well, I’m gay. And the more and more I embraced this interpretation of scripture, the more the real me wavered, edging bit by bit from the fire that burned too hotly to let that realness be exposed. There’s this character in C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce who reminds me of me perfectly. He’s this tiny puppeteer, who manipulates this giant marionette. Upon finding him on the plain below Heaven, his wife tries desperately to show him that God loves him, but he never says a word—instead letting his marionette answer all the proper ‘pat’ answers of faith in Christ Jesus, of the longsuffering stoic. The wife begs him to please not let the puppet speak, to please be himself again before it’s too late—but he never does, and finally, in one dramatic pop, the little man disappears and all that is left is the wooden doll he created to face the world.
Somewhere along the line, I carved a marionette of myself. A marionette that was single, yes, intellectual, sure, but not gay. Definitely not gay. But you see, if I remained too close to the fire, the puppet’s paint would peel, and it would begin to smoke. I had to back off. But then I found myself in the cold, alone with the lie. Like the dinosaur in Thornton’s Skin of Our Teeth, I found myself outside, looking in, pleading “It’s cold out here!” And nothing is so cold as standing near a fire you’re not allowed for some reason or another to be warmed by.
The ice age set in.
I’ve broken the marionette, mostly. I still have a few strings entangling me, but I’m growing back to a normal size again. But I can’t find any fire to warm me. I found one flame at a church, where I spent some time trying to work my way in, into the nearest, hottest seats. I sensed an amazing chance of security, of warmth, of home. But in their narrow-mindedness, they elbowed me out to the cold again. Oh, they were very nice, very Christian. But they pegged me as the intellectual who knew more about the physics of fire than they, so I was relegated to a set-apart podium, upon which I was to stand in order better to gaze down on them and the fire below. I got a lot of smoke in my eyes, but I was still cold. When I tried to climb down, I overheard a large debate about the evils of homosexuality. And before I knew it, I was actively carving a new marionette, off in a chilly corner.
Rather than stand in the chilly darkness, where one can smell and even taste the heat, rather than carve a lie again, I chose to give up. I quit looking for the warmth of bonfire meetings. I piled on blankets, and dressed warmly. And I would occasionally sit in my little chilly room and flick my bic. Yes, I’ve got a little fire, too. Even if you won’t let me share it with you. But my oil is running low.
I visited a small ‘affirming’ fire this week. It was an old fire, mostly just embers, really. Glowing with a rich warmth, but paradoxically dead-seeming. All there were grandparents, the liturgy was musty, the music painfully off-key; but the message at the fire was justice for all, love in Christ, regardless human prejudice and insecurity. I felt warm—warmed for the first time in years. But the chill is deep. I didn’t want to be rejected, and I won’t make a marionette. So I said nothing. And I fled as soon as the meeting ended.
It’s still cold out here.