Thursday, July 24, 2014

On Friendships with People who Wouldn't Attend my Gay Wedding... and our New Jobs!

When we first started mailing out invitations to our (gay) wedding, Danice and I braced ourselves for some invitees to tell us they could not attend because they did not support our marriage.

There weren't many, but of the few who declined for this reason, some were close friends and family members.  We understood their reasons for not coming, but we still missed them that day and grieved their absence.

Not long ago, I had breakfast with one of these friends.

It wasn't the first time I'd seen her since she'd emailed me to inform me she wouldn't be attending my wedding.  Although the email really disappointed me, I didn't have the guts to bring it up in person with her.  It was easier on my pride to pretend it hadn't really affected me.  Besides, the last thing I wanted to do was to guilt her into coming. I closed myself off to her, and as a result, despite her continued efforts to reach out to me, all our interactions had felt forced and surface-level.

My stomach was in knots as I waited at Cafe Deux Soleils for her to show up, dreading another awkward conversation.  I wanted to be honest about the way her choice had affected me, but I had no idea how to bring it up, no script prepared in my head, and no clue how defensively she would respond.

For over an hour, we talked about everything except my very recent wedding and my new wife.  Our conversation was pleasant enough, covering work, travel, and mutual friends, but there was an elephant in the room, and we were stumbling around trying to avoid it.  I halfheartedly watched for a wedding-related conversational on-ramp to guide us into the topic of her absence, but in my pride and self-pity, I wanted her to bring it up; I wanted her be the one to notice I was distant and wounded.

Finally, she asked, "How can I be praying for you and supporting you right now?"

I bristled at the question, and knew immediately that I couldn't pretend anymore.  I couldn't think of a way to answer that wouldn't be tinged with bitterness.  I took this as the final push toward vulnerability: "I have no idea how to answer that question, because there is so much distance between us now.  I'm hurt that you didn't come to my wedding.  I can guess where you're at theologically, and I think I understand why you would find it hard to be there, but it still hurt me.  You were my closest friend who made that choice for reasons of conscience."

There, I thought.  No going back now.

Tears rose immediately in her eyes.  She thanked me for my honesty, for my courage in confronting her.  She said she was deeply sorry she had hurt me.  I believed her, surprised at how genuinely conflicted she seemed.  She told me she didn't know she meant that much to me, especially since I had waited so long to come out to her.  Despite deciding not to come, she had eagerly looked for pictures of my wedding on her Facebook feed, trying to connect as best she could on this important day in my life. She wept all the more as she tried to communicate her hope that her choice hadn't doomed our friendship, or her friendship with others who affirmed my marriage.

I melted as I watched the tears roll down her face.  I knew then that she had already been punished enough, and that she, too, had felt pain through this experience.  I saw that my decision to come out to her much later than most others in our circle of friends, though justifiable,* had already eroded trust and closeness between us over a year ago.  I understood that her decision not to attend my wedding had brought distance not only between her and me, but also between her and many other mutual friends who were critical of her absence.

I was struck again with the fact that I can't just lump everyone who disagrees with me into one category of people who are "against" me, whom I can easily stereotype and dismiss.  It was clear in that moment that this friend was truly "for" me.  Her love for me was palpable - not the so-called love that patronizes and talks theology at me, but the love that was written in pain all over her face, the love that mourns when I mourn and struggles to rejoice when I rejoice, even when that rejoicing is for a reason she can't affirm.  I knew her heart was with me, even though she couldn't quite reconcile her conscience with her heart.

I forgave her.  I assured her that I didn't want to cut off my friendship with her, but that I also knew it wouldn't be the same between us - anything related to my marriage would be potentially complicated to talk about now. She agreed, and we both sat in that sad realization for a while.  By the end of our breakfast, though, we both expressed hope that by continuing our friendship, we would both learn and be changed for the better.  "How can I ever change unless I'm in relationship with you?" she asked.

What I didn't realize is how quickly that conversation would change me.  I had meetings and chaplaincy sessions scheduled right after that breakfast, and I had worried I'd be too emotionally drained from this conversation to have any capacity to listen to other people's problems.  Instead, I found that forgiving my friend had inexplicably opened up new wells of patience and compassion in me.  As I talked with other hurting people that day, I felt myself giving them the benefit of the doubt, seeing their best selves, trying harder to understand.  I had relentless energy to empathize with them.

I am freshly convinced of my need to be in real-life-relationship with people with whom I vehemently disagree.**  Sure, I need some friends who I can count on to agree with me and back me up.  But in this world of polarized online debates, caricatured straw-man foes, and stinging anonymous comments, I also need risky breakfasts with friends who think I'm wrong about stuff, friends who will most certainly hurt me, and with whom I can find healing.  We need the opportunity to tangibly love one another, to see the world through each other's eyes, to challenge each other's thinking and feel each other's feelings.  We need this as people seeking to follow Christ.  Heck, we need this simply as humans coexisting on one planet, trying to keep ourselves from destroying one another.

Danice and I with our new co-workers at New Direction, Wes and Wendy
Most of you know that Danice and I are moving to Toronto in a couple weeks to take jobs with New Direction ministries.  New Direction is all about nurturing safe spaces for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people to seek Christ, and about helping Christians who disagree on this topic find more gracious and hospitable ways of living and talking together.  Much of our work will involve the risky, bridge-building kind of relating that I've written about above.  I feel a mix of fear and excitement, knowing what lies ahead for us in this work: the painful but rewarding exercise of enemy-love and neighbor-love.

Some of you (like my aforementioned friend) have asked about how to support us as we take on these new roles.  We're grateful that New Direction had already started fundraising for our positions before we even accepted their offer.  If you'd like to give toward our work at New Direction, you can sign up to donate online here.  You can designate your gifts to the "Vibrant Community" campaign if you'd like to directly support Danice and me, but all donations to the organization are beneficial!

And please pray for us, especially as we say lots of teary goodbyes and head out across the country in a U-Haul van to start this new adventure together.


* I don't think any LGBT person should feel pressured to come out to someone before they're ready, especially if there is good chance of rejection due to differing theology.  But it's also a reality that people feel crappy when they find out you waited longer with them than with others to reveal this deep part of yourself.  It's unavoidable, non-culpable pain, but pain nonetheless, and trust often takes time to rebuild.

** Sometimes we have to wait for these opportunities - not everyone is in a good space for bridge-building friendships.  For example, it would have been nearly impossible to connect with my friend if she had been actively praying for my marriage to dissolve, or if I had refused to even talk to her until she changed her views about my marriage.


Anonymous said...

You are far more patient & understanding than I would have been. There is no basis for theological discrimination in this day & age and those who guilt others as sinners based on some screwball idea of what they think they've read in the bible is an admission of weakness on their part! Your approach was unique and well though out and loving....I commend you, but that said, she would no longer be a close friend of mine until she sought out the truth!

Beth said...

Ian, thanks for reading and commenting. If I can respectfully disagree with you, I think my friend IS seeking out the truth on this issue, just like I had to do years ago for myself. Because I haven't always had a gay-affirming theological perspective, I can empathize with her and others. The traditional perspective is far from a screwball idea - I believe this is truly a disputable matter for which both "sides" have valid arguments. I just happen to believe the gay-affirming arguments are stronger.

If we could ALL admit our weakness as fallible interpreters of Scripture, we might have grace for one another when we disagree. I think what matters is how your theology works itself out in practice, and in practice, my friend is trying her best to love me rather than guilting me or actively discriminating against me. I hope this comes across in the blog.