I tried to follow the rules. I was born into the CRC and spent the first 18 years of my life as a member of the same congregation in my Midwestern-Dutch hometown. Rules were in my blood. Whether spoken or not, there seemed to be plenty of them. There were church rules. Go twice on Sunday. Never miss youth group on Wednesday. No coffee-time juice in the narthex or sanctuary. And home rules. No fighting. Don’t swear. Don’t leave clothes on the floor next to the hamper!
There were rules for going to friends’ houses and rules for interacting with adults. Rules for how to behave at school. Rules for what to wear. Rules for what to say. Most of the time, I followed the rules pretty well.
Of course, I didn’t grow up in some fascist legalistic community. The rules were well intended and meant to lovingly guide each of us through the chaos of childhood into the responsibilities of adulthood. To my surprise, one of the rules proved impossible to keep.
At 12 years old, I realized I was gay. The memory of lying awake in bed and finally “coming out” to myself is sharp in my mind. I didn’t fully understand then, but I knew I was attracted to boys in the way people assumed I should be attracted to girls, and I knew that was “gay.” With the faith of a child, I prayed hard that night and many after.
“I don’t want this. I didn’t ask for this!”
“Please let me like girls.”
“Let me be a normal boy! God. . . please.”
Not unusually, I cried myself to sleep. My begging was fruitless and God seemed silent. Where was he? I’d spent long enough in the church to know he was never supposed to let me go. The Heidelberg Catechism had assured me that whether in life or death, my comfort was in knowing I belonged body and soul to my faithful saviour. What? Here I was feeling like I didn’t belong. Where was my “faithful saviour?” Was this the line the Heidelberg writers forgot to annotate, that I could belong body and soul as long as my body was straight and my soul untroubled? I had followed all the big rules. I tried to be good. Where was he?
My church and pastor taught good Christian Reformed doctrine. I knew about grace and about the salvation that comes despite our sinful natures. Nevertheless, I was terrified. How is the grace of Jesus realized to a child who fears that their very being is the sin? How does one feel truly secure, when amidst all the normal trials of early adolescence, they fear their un-chosen identity has inadvertently damned them?
My parents learned of my secret broken rule early on. Now my time at home was spent trying to avoid my mom’s crying and my dad’s unreadable silence. I know it was difficult for them. They had worked incredibly hard to raise a happy, healthy, faithful family. Now they had a gay kid. What gives, God?
Pushing my faith away then was among the easier decisions I’ve made. Entering high school, I tried at every turn to reject whatever a “personal faith” meant. I didn’t have a choice in the Christian school or church services my parents chose for our family, but I didn’t have to engage with it. Why would I want to? Many (certainly not all) of my Christian school peers were deeply unkind and it seemed like the teachers were turning a blind eye. My group of misfit friends and I were verbally harassed, physically threatened, and repeatedly singled out, all within a proudly Christian school and community. So, I kept my head down, followed only the outwardly visible rules and got through high school as best I could.
In hindsight, I can see that despite the silence, God was around. I don’t have any other good way to explain why I chose to do some of the things I did. I wanted nothing to do with faith, but I voluntarily went to a program at Calvin Seminary right before college. I wanted out of my conservative town, but chose to go to an RCA college across the street from where I grew up. What was I thinking? Despite my best efforts, God’s mysterious grace persisted.
Right about then, when I had comfortably removed faith from my life, God came screeching back into it. Not through Campus Ministry mission trips or chapel services or Bible studies in the dorm lounge. Of all places, I heard God again at General Synod. Because I was both an RCA college student and gay, the school invited me to be a youth delegate to the 2012 RCA General Synod. It was widely known that the agenda that year would focus on LGBTQ inclusion in the church. I agreed; I was studying nonprofit management and thought if nothing else, this would be an interesting lesson in large-scale organizational board governance.
It’s hard not to laugh at how wrong I was. Sure, it was interesting, but it was also an absolute mess. Delegates yelled at each other from the microphones. People booed. A denominational leader cried from the dais. It wasn’t pretty.
God’s return didn’t come during the upbeat worship music we sang each morning. It wasn’t when prayers or angry accusations came from the microphones, or when long reports were made against dramatic blue backlighting. God showed up on an outdoor plaza during an ice cream social, looking a lot like a middle-aged white lady. She seemed like someone who liked following rules, too. Then she flipped my life upside down.
ROOM FOR ALL
I accepted her invitation to join a “Room for All” gathering of progressive RCA people, meeting in quiet to offer one another strength for the difficult Synod ahead. For the first time in my life, I was in a Christian space in which I didn’t feel shunned for my sexual orientation. These were teachers, ministers and elders who had done deep, good theological searching and concluded that the rulebook I was given at birth, the one that said I could be Christian or gay, wasn’t necessarily the right set of rules. Within moments, the wall I’d built between myself and the faith of my upbringing came tumbling down.
It’s been seven years since that first General Synod when I met God again. Since then, I’ve become reacquainted with faith and met a radically different Jesus than the respectable white guy from the stained glass window in my childhood church. Jesus was a rebel and a rule-breaker. I’d heard the stories of Jesus flipping tables in the temple or stopping the stoning of the woman caught in adultery, but I don’t know that it ever clicked just how radical that was. In the eyes of his society, he was quite literally a criminal whose penchant for breaking laws and preaching love ultimately lead to his death.
Following that example, I’m trying to preach love. Every day, though often difficult, I’m joining the struggle to make sure the next generation isn’t forced to choose between their God-given identities and their faith. I don’t have any formal seminary training; there are others who can more adequately argue the nuances and pitfalls hidden in translating the original Greek and Hebrew texts of the Bible. That’s not my mission. My mission is to love. I hope to continue passing on that new set of rules I was handed seven years ago and to introduce people to the rule-breaking Jesus that my literalist NIV upbringing didn’t adequately acknowledge. I invite you to understand Jesus as a rule-breaker, too. I’m glad I did. He saved my faith.
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