Being Seen

BEING SEEN

There’s now a video I filmed of myself on YouTube, in which I let myself be seen to the first time to most of you as someone who is gay.

As I say in the video, why I am doing what I am doing in finally letting people see me for who I am is about so much more than me being gay. My sexuality is not something that should be so big of a deal that it calls for having to do the very hard things I have had to do recently. But we have a problem in our churches and in our societies. Many people are still not able to be who they are–freely, openly, honestly–without facing misunderstanding, ridicule, violence, or rejection.

And so, the most important thing for us to do and so for me to do is to let myself be seen and tell my story. And since the story I have to share is rather long and pretty amazing, I thought writing it would be the best way to tell it. Also, as I emphasize in the video, in what I am sharing with you, I am not making an argument. I’m not fighting, I’m not protesting. I am just being a witness, and that is what is given to all of us to be.

HIDING

I’m pretty sure it was around springtime 2014 when I made what would end up being my last real attempt at arguing what has been the church’s “conservative” position on LGBT relationships and identities. I was on the phone with a friend of mine who was a seminary student who believed differently on these issues from what was the official position of the school he was attending.

After my own time studying the Bible at the undergraduate and graduate levels and engaging in my own personal study in issues related to the Bible, interpretation, ethics, etc., I already had all but left behind the “proof-texting” arguments. These arguments point to individual statements in the Bible that at least seemingly relate to homosexuality and interpret them to mean that any kind of relationship between two people of the same sex is wrong. I already understood that there were too many factors involved in the connection between the historical context of the Bible and our own context, and in the ancient languages bridging the two, to continue to go along with this way of thinking.

But, before my conversation with my friend that spring, I had decided that with all the debates going on in the church and in our society on LGBT issues, I needed to nail down as best I could what my position would be. So I re-read materials from scholars I respected arguing the conservative view who didn’t simply rely on the faulty proof-texting method but offered a fuller, more informed case for the legitimacy of only male-female relationships. And I felt pretty settled about it. As my friend argued his more progressive position which holds that same-sex relationships are not in themselves immoral, I argued that while perhaps the individual texts aren’t sufficient to rule out loving, faithful relationships between two people of the same sex, the larger story of creation of male and female together establishes the way all sexual relationships should be.  

Well, it wasn’t like I thought I lost that argument. I thought I did pretty well, actually. I argued my case, my friend argued his case, and neither of us were able to acknowledge at the time the irony involved: that he was the heterosexual one arguing for the legitimacy of same-sex relationships, and that I was the homosexual one arguing against them. At this point, I was still hiding even from myself. And since, with the way this unfolded for me personally, I couldn’t ever acknowledge I’m gay if it’s something as twisted and backward as so many people make it out to be. So when I took this “final” look at the issues and argued–successfully, in my mind– against homosexual relationships, it helped the sneaky part of me in the back of mind assume I had hidden myself away for good.

SEEING MYSELF

But the questions were still there and I continued to wrestle. And after several months, I began to feel like what I had tried to argue with my friend didn’t hold water, either. I had argued that God made male and female, thereby establishing the pattern for all sexual relationships for all time. But I realized–Genesis is a creation narrative. It explains how things exist. No one is arguing that we can exist without male-female sexual relationships. But the message Genesis tells is about the uniqueness of the creator God of Israel and the purpose for which he created humanity. It does not establish the patterns for the way everything has to be in all places and all times. If that were the case, single people would be damned and so would people who don’t live in gardens and eat from trees.

(I mention this to provide just a hint of what was going through my mind with this–it is by no means all that I could say about biblical interpretation and ethics as they relate to these issues. For this post, I have another purpose.)

I think it would be misleading to say, so therefore, I “changed my mind.” I think I knew deep down I didn’t want to change my mind. Having a conservative view was the way I could keep hiding from myself, even as I couldn’t admit to myself that’s what I was actually doing.

But, as I prefer to put, my mind did change. And I began to look into the points made by Christians who argue for full rights and inclusion of LGBT people in the church. (Over the course of time, I’ve read several works from both ways of seeing things, and I’ll include some notes on these resources at the end of this post.) I began to realize that there may not be a barrier anymore to acknowledging who I am, except for what people may think of me. So for the first time, I carefully began to actually consider that I could possibly be gay. I started saying the words to myself, “I am gay” and watching myself very closely for how I reacted. It was weird at first. And actually rather alarming. But I kept at it. I didn’t turn away or stifle or suppress or cover up. And for the first time, as it turns out, I was seeing myself. And had begun a new journey in learning to let myself be seen.

LETTING MYSELF BE SEEN

Several months later, in the early fall of 2014, I was in the office of the director of an organization I was connected to through my job at Christ United Methodist Church in Memphis in Local Serving & Outreach. Somehow, and for some reason, seemingly out of nowhere, she started telling me not to leave the church. She said that she had always looked at me and wondered how I ended up there, and that that church needs me. And then she said, “ … and, I don’t know about your sexuality, and I may not agree with it, but …” with her hands up as if to say, “Hey, whatever.”

Now, I don’t know where this came from. I hadn’t told or even implied anything to anyone about everything I was going through, and certainly nothing about possibly leaving the church. So, as surprised as I was, I simply responded, “Six months ago, I would’ve deeply offended by what you said.” Which is true. There was nothing more offensive that could send me into a rage quicker than people questioning my sexuality when I was hiding. “But,” I told her, “I have been learning to accept myself.”

And that’s all I said. I didn’t confirm or deny anything about my sexuality. For the first time in my life, I stood and let myself be seen, in whatever way it was that somebody was seeing me.

And I realized. I’m hiding, and yet people see me. I’m putting all this effort and worry into not being seen for who I am, and I’m not even doing that great of a job! So, what was the point?

I had no idea when I started that day that I would end it by coming out to a good friend of mine as I told him about the conversation at work earlier that day. I also certainly had no idea just what had begun in these first little tastes of what it was like to let myself be seen to other people.

OUT WITH IT

“I’m gay” was incredibly hard to say the first few times I said it out loud.

It was exhilarating and bizarre and surreal for anyone, but especially good friends I had known for a long time, to actually know. “They actually know now,” I kept saying to myself.

What I found was that even with the vulnerability and feeling of exposure when I was actually myself with people, I was becoming more confident. I was actually becoming comfortable being in my own skin. For as long as I could remember I had struggled with bouts of severe self-loathing, feeling like I couldn’t stand to be this person anymore. It would be brought on by, for example, not showing up at the staff meeting and bringing my best thoughts and contributions for the group to justify my existence. There were times I cussed myself out for stuff like this and wanted everything to be able to get away from myself. But, it was only after being able to look back, after beginning to let people see me for who I am, that I discovered that it was all due to me hiding myself my whole life.

So as therapeutic as it was for me to begin letting myself be seen, I didn’t know where it was going to take me. I had no plan. I more or less assumed that maybe one day far in the future I would come out to family and–dare I even think about everyone else?

The morning after I had just finished a retreat that was several days long, I was sitting on the couch at home. I was tired. I had taken a half day off work to recuperate from the retreat. I wasn’t in the mood to start sorting out my life.

And then it hit me, almost out of nowhere. Why two degrees in biblical studies only to end up on staff at my current church in a job in which I certainly don’t need two degrees in biblical studies? Why is that I’m so unintelligent in many ways like simple math and directions but I’m actually pretty good at interpreting texts, and grasping principles and forming arguments? Why was so I interested in the questions surrounding what Scripture even is and how it shapes the life of the church, particularly in ethical matters? Why had all the higher education institutions and churches I had ever been a part of reinforced the view on sexuality that I was parting with?

I jumped up from the couch and started pacing around the house with my heart pounding. I was realized for the first time that as big a deal it was that I was doing this in my own life, that perhaps it wasn’t just about me. I hadn’t even considered that until that point. What if I’m supposed to address these issues for the church, and be a witness with my own story?

My pounding heart knew that this was a big deal. Because to be this kind of witness meant that I would just be completely out with it.

That was unthinkable.

So, for the next several months, I still had no plan. I followed the journey I found myself on the best way I knew how,  taking each step as I saw to take it. I was still getting used to who I had found myself to be. I had a couple more sit-down, “I’m gay,” tears, hugs conversations with close friends who I knew would accept me and they did. Without them the story would have ended.

But the story kept going, and this brings us all the way to July 2015, where a few days in the mountains would bring to me the most crucial moments of my entire life.

WILD GOOSE

I had ordered my ticket to my first Wild Goose Festival almost a year prior. They release the cheapest tickets to next year’s festival soon after it concludes, and I already knew after being familiar with it for a couple years at that point that I would be as happy as a pig in slop at this gathering on a campground in a tiny town in the Appalachians of western North Carolina.

Church leaders and authors I so deeply valued were associated with it, and since it is mostly a “progressive” gathering, and a justice-oriented festival, there are many sessions and activities about LGBTQ issues. And it was camping in the mountains!

So on a sunny July morning, I packed my parents’ SUV with everything I needed to live in the woods for four days and headed eastward. While I was on the road, an idea/feeling hit me out of nowhere. I had a clear sense that something significant was going to happen at Wild Goose. Now, I had already realized that it would be the first time in my life I was going off to be in public and that I was not going to be having to hide. That I could just be without the fear of what anybody would see in me. This was a huge deal for me and what I went to Wild Goose thinking the most about.

But the sense I had in the car made me think that something particularly impactful was going to happen and it was going to be a significant step on the journey. At the time, all I could figure was that it would be just being able to not hide, and perhaps something like sitting around a campfire with new friends and being myself.

Little did I know. I never ended up sitting around a campfire at Wild Goose. But with the way things happened, Wild Goose wasn’t only amazing because it’s just amazing anyway (it is), and it wasn’t only amazing because it was the first time I was not hiding at all. It was amazing because with the way things unfolded, Wild Goose was a place where not only was I not hiding–I was actually seen.

* * *

IMG_0571

View from room at Mt. Pisgah

The day before Wild Goose started, I arrived in North Carolina on a Wednesday, finally coming to a stop on Mt. Pisgah in the Blue Ridge Mountains. After checking in to my room at the Mt. Pisgah Inn on the top of Mt. Pisgah, I spent the day driving around the Blue Ridge Parkway and marveling at the beauty of the Rhododendron flowers everywhere and the cool crispness of the air and how much it contrasted with the humid sultry air of the Deep South I had left behind.

I even made sure to visit Cold Mountain, the setting of my favorite American novel by Charles Frazier. I got back to my room with its lack of air-conditioning (you don’t need it) with large French doors opening to a gorgeous view of sun-soaked mountains in time for sunset to begin.

As the sinking sun turned the mountains blue and the air even cooler, I heated up some soup with my alcohol cooking set I had purchased for the trip.

So I sat. There in the silent blue landscape I enjoyed my soup (that was actually too hot) and wondered what in the world I was getting myself into beginning the next day.

* * *

After this horrible time and gas-wasting catastrophe involving a “closed” road and railroad repairs and lots

Hot Springs, NC

Hot Springs, NC

of confusion on my part, I finally made it to the campground in the tiny mountain valley town of Hot Springs, North Carolina, where there is not a lick of cell phone coverage on any Thursday afternoon.

After I actually managed to set up my tent (by myself) a stone’s throw away from the French Broad River in this packed campground between two mountains, the main activities started later that afternoon. People were kind and inviting, the sun was bright, the atmosphere was beautiful, and we were there to give whole days of our lives to letting the Holy Spirit surprise us. I decided I really liked the Wild Goose Festival.

* * *

The next morning, I sitting and soaking in the bright day sun that would come back day after day until the very end of the festival. I had my folding chair in this big grassy section in front of the main stage where the plenary sessions and musical performances take place.

I looked to my left and was surprised to see Tony Campolo come and sit down next to his wife Peggy not too far from me. I thought, “Well, isn’t that great that Tony Campolo is here for the festival without having to be on the speaking schedule!” At one point Tony walked by in front of me (perhaps on the way to the food vendors behind us) and gave me a very polite smile and nod as he passed.

I had never met Tony before, but I first heard of him when I went to see him speak at Christ UMC in Memphis, where I would later become a member and join the staff. I didn’t know at the time that this church would be such an important part of my own life, and that I would myself worship and speak in that very chapel.

Tony Campolo and Brian McLaren

Tony Campolo and Brian McLaren

At one point during that morning plenary session, Brian McLaren, who has been an involved supporter of the Festival since the beginning, actually introduced Tony and brought him on stage for a conversation that wasn’t originally on the schedule.

I then remembered seeing on social media a few weeks prior that Tony had come out in favor of full LGBTQ rights and inclusion in the church and he received pretty severe backlash from his fellow Baptists and other more conservative folks for doing so. I didn’t know how bad that backlash was until Tony gave examples of what had happened with a somberness that was so striking for someone who otherwise was so spunky.

After this conversation went on for a while, Brian said they were going to continue into the first breakout session time in the Justice tent, which was a large tent just down the path from the main stage. I didn’t hesitate to go to that session instead of whatever I had already planned to go to, because both of these guys have been where I am.

So I took off walking toward the Justice tent, and Tony was being transported down there on the back of a golf cart. As I was walking, the golf cart comes right in front of me and once again, for the second time that morning, Tony is right in front of me looking at me and smiling. I say, “Thanks for your support, Tony. It means a lot.” That was was the first time I ever just acknowledged my own identity openly to new people. He smiled and said, something encouraging like “keep on truckin’.” Something like that, anyway.

As I walked up to the Justice tent I set my folding chair behind the rows of white plastic folding chairs that were already set out. And I sit down for this session that I originally hadn’t planned on coming to, because, as I said, it wasn’t on the schedule.

Here I need to offer some context.

I had gone to Wild Goose especially nervous about something. Not long prior to that, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that it was unconstitutional to deny marriage rights to same-sex couples. Aside from the fact that due to that decision I literally got no work done that day and could not help but sit at my desk and watch the videos, look at the pictures,read the articles, and watch everyone else celebrate openly on social media, it sparked a conversation at the leadership level of my church about “initiating conversations with the LGBT community.”

Honestly, I had many questions about why this was something leadership was interested in doing. It was curious timing, and I questioned what the real motivations where. To complicate matters, I was supposed to be involved in these conversations in light of my position in Serving & Outreach in which I focused on the church’s outreach in our city. So as I went to this second part of Tony and Brian’s conversation, burning a hole in my calendar was a meeting I was supposed to have upon my return from North Carolina in which I was going to be meeting with church leadership on these questions.

I was nervous–perhaps terrified–because I was already committed to not hiding anymore. I was not out completely,, but I was committed to not taking further steps to cover up or lie. So I knew that in going to this meeting that I’d be nervous about anyway because I would probably be expressing disagreement and challenge to the ideas being proposed by leadership, and because the conversation could go a certain way where if I respond honestly, I would reveal who I am.

So, as I’m listening to this conversation between these two people so much more experienced in these kinds of conflicts and situations, at one point Brian opens up the opportunity to the audience for questions. I hardly ever have questions that I feel like are worthy of being brought to the floor of events like these. But, I realized that this time, I may have a good question to ask.

* * *

I realized that with how nervous I was about what was coming up at the church, I could summarize my situation and get some wisdom, instruction–maybe just encouragement–from these people who have gone before me.

But, I realized. I would need to preface my question with the acknowledgement to this group of people (I didn’t realize how many people were actually in there at the time) that I’m gay. Now, I knew it wasn’t going to be controversial–this was Wild Goose, after all. But was this session being recorded? Is this going to be on YouTube? Can I stand up and do this?

By the time I thought about all these things (was there a question or two before me? I really don’t know), but I knew that I was going to ask it at the same time Brian said that they could take one last question. Try to keep it short, he said, and they’ll do the best they can to answer.

My hand went up. I was in the back. On one side of the room. There were plenty of other hands up. But somehow Brian saw me, pointed at me, and said “that guy right there.” And I was handed the mic.

I somehow knew that as soon as I decided to raise my hand that it was going to happen.

So I take the mic, I stand up, and I say, “This is uhh only the third time I’ve said this out loud … I’m gay.”

And at that moment, after saying those words out loud to such a large group, words which I had said only twice before privately, I dropped with my hands on my knees for a couple of seconds, feeling a flood of relief. A blur that I would remain in for the remainder of the festival began at this moment, but I know there was a hand on my arm from the woman sitting in front of me. And somebody yelled welcome. And I think there was even applause.

I stand back up and summarize my situation at the church, and I finally end by saying that when I come to this meeting at the church and to whatever it may lead to, “I don’t know what to say or what to do. What are your thoughts?”

Tony responded. And he said, “I had a sense from the Holy Spirit that something like this was going to happen, and that’s why I asked them not to record this session.” Check. I gave him a thumbs up. Wow, God.

I’m sure that after that he said some encouraging things, but the only other thing I remember is him threatening everyone in the tent with having their legs broken if they out me before I’m ready.

So after Tony threatened everyone that they better respect my privacy, there basically wasn’t enough time for anything else. I wasn’t able to keep my question that short, as it turns out.

As the session concluded, I think it was Brian who said that we should stand and just spend a few minutes looking at each other in the tent. Just look at each other. Don’t say anything. I didn’t realize until literally just now as I was typing this that what he was asking us to do was simply see each other.

And, since I just asked the last question and essentially came out in public for the first time, I don’t think it just felt like it–I think many, many people in that tent were actually looking at me.

So I simply smiled and nodded at this mass of people as each one of them saw me as a gay person. We were dismissed to go, and I was surprised and overwhelmed by the welcome extended to me by those people–these strangers and family of mine–in that tent in the North Carolina sun when it was the first time I was open–truly wide open–about who I am.

As I said, I knew saying that I’m gay at Wild Goose wasn’t going to be a big deal in a negative way, but I didn’t know it was going to be as big of a deal in a positive way. So, so many hugs, and tears, and words of encouragement, and prayers, and notes were given to me.

Note handed to me by a kind woman

Note handed to me by a kind woman

I had met Brian McLaren briefly after he spoke a few years prior in Memphis, which I mentioned to him when he came over to me in the midst of all this, hugged me, gave me his email address, told me to contact him, hugged me again, and walked off. I would later contact him and he would set me up with a new friend wanting to do some important work for LGBT youth in Memphis.

After receiving such a warm welcome, another guy named Brian came over and introduced himself, saying that he and his husband Gareth were the co-founders of the Wild Goose Festival and wanted to chat with me.

So, they took me over to the coffee vendor and with my pour-over in hand, the three of us walked down the path around the campground. As I was giving them more details about my situation, I was ready to be on the defensive when they would tell me that I need to come out right away and ask me what I was waiting for, and on like that.

That’s not at all the kind of conversation we had. Two things I walked away with from my conversation with Brian and Gareth: 1) have my support network of the people who love and support me, and 2) it’s my journey and my timing. However I’m led is how I’m led. That was it.

So, looking back now, I know that what I was being told was that I needed a people to claim as my own in all this. And I did mention to them that I had a few close friends back home who knew about my sexuality and I figured I would be telling a few more. So I didn’t feel like I had a lack of what I needed.

But, God’s grace is always more. It goes beyond what we think we need. As I rounded the far end of the dirt path that goes around the Hot Springs campground with Brian and Gareth, God was about to surprise me again in expanding who my people were, and in pouring out what I now realize to be the purest, most basic form of grace–people being given other people.

* * *

For some reason I had set down all my stuff (stuff that I needed) as I passed my campsite with Brian and Gareth at the far end of the dirt path. It was all heavy, and I wasn’t thinking. I was in a daze.

After the session with Brian and Tony In the Justice tent, I inadvertently met several people that I already knew of as I went to Wild Goose that I had already decided I wasn’t going to try to meet. Wild Goose is meant to be that kind of space where the speakers are able to mingle with us “ordinary” folk, but I wasn’t going to try to meet all of them, many of which I appreciate very much.

But, I did go to Wild Goose having decided that I would tell Sara Miles thank you for writing her words in books so I can read them. Her book Take This Bread is my single favorite book. I recently read it all the way through recently for a third time, and have looked over my highlights and underlines many more times than that.

Take This Bread chronicles her story of wandering into St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco on a whim, participating in Eucharist, and as she puts it, finding Jesus in her mouth. The whole experience shocked her into becoming a Christian and in her books she works out the meaning of this surprising encounter with the active spirit of Jesus, and how that experience unfolded into her founding a food pantry at the church as she took seriously the Eucharist as a shared meal.

Sara’s partner in ministry throughout her books is Paul Fromberg, the rector of St. Gregory’s. I realized what he looked like at Wild Goose because his biography was in the program. I even saw him at one point at the beginning of the festival, and thought, “oh, there’s Paul. cool.”

As Brian and Gareth and I were on the dirt path, and beginning to approach where we started at the Justice tent, walking towards us was Paul. Sara is a marvelous writer, and she’s gifted at characterization, so I knew that what was headed for us is a big, gay, sassy, sarcastic Episcopal priest from Texas who is capable of saying some of the most absolutely profound things. He also says profane things sometimes but does so in usually a very edifying way.

Paul greeted Brian and Gareth and they introduced me to Paul as someone who just came out publicly for the first time about half an hour ago.

Paul responded with a “So?” with enough facetiousness so that I knew he was kidding. But I also had read the books. I said, “That is exactly how I would expect you to respond based on the books!” So at that point I outed myself as one of the book-people.

I don’t remember what Paul said to me from that point on as we continued walking back toward the Justice tent, but I remember how I felt. With his arm around my shoulders, and his posture of being truly present with me, I felt pastored for the first time in my life.

At one point he asked me where I was from. I said, “Memphis.”

“Memphis … Memphis … hmm … yeah, I’ve got a niece who goes to ummm … Rhodes?”

“Yeah, Rhodes!” I said. “I don’t live very far from there.”

This little detail becomes important later on.

We kept walking, Paul said I should meet Sara, I said I was scared, but he went and got her and I was able to tell her thank you and that her words were nourishing for me. And then we kept walking toward the Justice tent.

Sara speaking on the main stage

Sara speaking on the main stage

As it turns out, Paul was about to lead a session in the Justice tent. I had dropped all my stuff off at my campsite because I wasn’t thinking, so I didn’t have my schedule with me. So I didn’t know what I was doing. It wasn’t until later when I went back to get my stuff that I discovered in the schedule that Paul’s session wasn’t originally supposed to be at that time–he was supposed to be doing his session at a time that I had picked another session over his and already circled it with a felt-tip pen.

I sat and tried to listen to what Paul was saying, but it was still quite difficult to think. I knew that following his session, Sara was leading an LGBTQ panel discussion, so after Paul wrapped his up I walked all the way back to my tent and got my stuff and came back.

As I walked back under the tent, I saw Paul sitting at a table talking to someone. He flagged me over and said, “Hey, how did I do?”

“Um … I don’t really know. I was mostly sort of watching you. Umm, but you looked great.”

“Well, thank you.”

After that Sara led her panel discussion which included Tommy Dillon, an Episcopal priest who was then in San Francisco with Paul and Sara but was in the process of transitioning to a new church on Bainbridge Island, Washington. I think I met Tommy not long after what happened in the Justice tent. He and his friend Hannah were good friends to me throughout Wild Goose, and for some reason, Tommy invited me to come to Washington in September with Paul and Hannah and others for the celebration of his new ministry there. I said yes. This is important later.

After the panel discussion, I wanted to come back around to Paul and tell him that I actualyl did listen to his talk a little and that it seemed like it was pretty profound. But I didn’t see him again for the rest of Friday and all day Saturday.

* * *

“Hey, I was looking for you!”

Paul was walking up to the Episcopal Church tent with Sara as music was on at the main stage behind us as the sun was going down on Saturday night. I was sitting there talking to Tommy about everything going on. Trying to sort it out and realize what was happening.

When Paul walked up and said he was looking for me, I’m sure he didn’t intend anything particularly meaningful, but to know that he saw me and was looking for me meant so much. I said, “Hey, I was looking for you, too–I wanted to tell you that I actually did hear some of what you said and something in particular you said was really profound!”

“Great–what was it?” he asked as he sat down next to me and Tommy.

“I don’t know–I didn’t have my notebook with me so I couldn’t write it down. And I can’t remember.”

“Well, thank you.”

So began an evening of mingling and talking with Hannah and Sara in there at different parts, but eventually it ended up with me and Paul by ourselves, when he gave me that night under the Episcopal tent the most important attention I had ever received.

I shared with Paul about all my fears and anxieties and excitement and joys. And I have the sharpest memory of a moment that I intentionally etched into my memory. As we were standing up under that tent, and Paul was giving me such needed encouragement and advice as someone who went through a similar journey as mine, at one point, with my hands cupped around the sides of my eyes, I say, “Paul, this is all a blur and I’m trying my best to remember this moment.”

And with him looking deeper into my eyes than anyone ever had, and his hands on my shoulders, Paul said to me, “Yes, remember this moment–under the Episcopal tent by the incense behind the main stage,” and with an emphasis on every word, “You are a beloved child of God. You are beautiful.”

Not long after this point, I walked to get a drink, and came back to the Episcopal tent where Paul was standing over on the edge talking to Sara, who was munching on some peanuts.

I can overhear that Paul is telling her about a part of our conversation, and as I stand there and try to eavesdrop as I look through some books Tommy had purchased, I go over to them. We talked for a little bit, Sara offered some peanuts which made me realize for the first time that I don’t care for peanuts by themselves, and then Paul looks at Sara and says, “Tell him he’s beautiful.”

Then God spoke.

“Honey, you are beautiful,” she said, and then without taking a pause like she had to think about it, “And what’s happening now is what the Holy Spirit has laid out for you. And it’s not just about you but it’s about the people that are going to be affected through you.”

And with that she made the Ash Wednesday sign of the cross on my forehead and walked off.

I did then what I do when I don’t know what else to do when truth hits me–I just sort of chuckled. Paul teased her for how she loves to put her hands on people. I remembered that happening in the books.

What had kept me from being in pieces in light of what was happening in my life at Wild Goose was that it was undeniable to me at that point that what was happening was completely God-blessed. I prayed so very hard as I began to take steps in coming out that if it was wrong, then God please correct me. Don’t let me go down this road if it’s not what is right.

And Sara’s emphasis on the word “now,” was especially meaningful to me because the exhilarating, invigorating, and very strange feeling that Wild Goose gave me was due to the fact that it was finally life–what was to come, and what was supposed to be–happening now. It was for so long “one day.” But the future had come rushing into the present.

And, to reiterate for me, just as I had realized through an earlier epiphany, that all of this was about so much more than me, were the perfect words to help me realize–as I did the next morning–what Sara’s Ash Wednesday cross on my forehead really meant.

* * *

After we wrapped up hanging out at the Episcopal tent that Saturday night and Paul and Sara were getting ready to return to their hotel, Tommy asked them when they were flying out. Paul replied, “Six,” and I took that to mean 6:00 am the next morning–the last day of Wild Goose which ends at noon.

So I said my goodbyes to them and told them I will definitely come visit, especially since I have a friend who lives there who I have never gone to see.

I started feeling large relief knowing that the festival was beginning to come to a close and I was going to be able to go somewhere away from people and actually process what had happened there.

So, the next morning, the last day of the festival, I was up early and in my lawn chair in front of the main stage ready for all the morning’s activities that were going to take place there.

Every morning at Wild Goose started off with a prayer or meditation/prayer service of some kind. I wasn’t very attentive as they began this service because I had my journal and I had begun to write. I simply wanted to remember everything that was happening, but it was in the writing that everything began to sink in. I felt like I might actually cry.

I looked up and then saw Paul and Sara walking in. I go up to Paul and say, “I thought you guys left!” “No,” he said, “flight leaves at 6:00 tonight.”

“Oh! That makes sense. Well, I’m starting to write and I think I’m starting to get it.”

“Good!”

After that I walk back to my chair, pick up my journal, and continue to write.

As they begin the service, with Paul and Sara and others standing up front not far from me, I don’t know what’s happening because I do start to cry. I keep my head down, and as the people up front split up among the crowd behind me, they are praying over people. It is a healing prayer service.

The only one of the people praying over others that I can see when I turn my head left and right is Paul, and he’s probably half a stone’s throw away. I’m sitting there with tears coming down and I keep looking over waiting for Paul to get done with the people standing in line for prayers. Eventually I look over and he has no one in front of him. We make eye contact and I do the “come hither” nod with my head. There was no way I was getting up.

As Paul approaches, and my face is in my hands, I see his feet on the grass right in front of me. When I know and feel

Me and Paul - photo by Tommy Dillon

Me and Paul – photo by Tommy Dillon

that he is there, I erupt into the most violent “scream-crying” I have ever done. I had no idea those noises were even in me, but I let them out all over Paul’s shoulder as he kneeled with his arm around me.

It felt like a death. It became the way I understood one meaning of Sara’s cross on my forehead. I had turned a page in my life, and I was being led by God to bury what I had carried and to let die what needs to in order to make way for the new life that was coming.

After I wore myself out, I said, “I’m exhausted.”

“I guess so,” Paul said. “That was years and years of what was built up.”

[I didn’t know until I was listening to a later Paul’s sermon at his church in which he mentions my crying all over him that he wasn’t supposed to be at this healing prayer service much less serve at it. Of course.]

The rest of the morning included me ditching my chair and sitting on the grass right next to Paul, and then parading around the campground which led into the procession for a Eucharist celebration. Wild Goose was over, and then, for the first time at the festival, it started to rain.

I say goodbye to Paul and to others I had talked to over the course of the festival, and I see Sara gathering her stuff from near the main stage. I jog over to her in the drizzling rain and I say, “Hey Sara!” She comes straight over to me, kisses me on the cheek and hugs me, and I say, “Thank you for your words last night, Sara. They were prophetic. They were prophetic.”

She says, “Hang on to them.”

And I gave her a thumbs up, trotted away in the rain, and so ended Wild Goose.

When I stood up and asked my question in the Justice tent, I wasn’t supposed to get answers. That meeting at the church that I was so nervous about at the church never even materialized. I was supposed to stand up and in front of that group of people and be seen. I am grateful to each and every person who served as the presence of God in my life in those mountains, to those people who saw me, and told me what they saw, and who loved what they saw.

* * *

On the way back home, I stopped in Nashville. With my returned cell signal, I looked on Facebook. I had a

Leaving Wild Goose

Leaving Wild Goose

message and friend request from Paul. He was on the ride home, he said. “So glad God brought us together.”

I looked at his profile, and whereas he had asked where I was from and acted like he had to search for the name of the college his niece attended, under his “Education” was listed, “Rhodes College.”

“And, you lived in Memphis,” I replied back on Facebook.

“Exactly.”

I thought it was just a joke, until I saw Paul again in September for Tommy’s celebration in Washington for what would essentially become the second part of Wild Goose.

WILD GOOSE PART II

The entire time on Bainbridge Island was beautiful and incredible in every way. Tommy and his friends had put together a wonderful schedule for his friends gathered there to celebrate his new home and work on the Island.

But really, I was just wondering what I was doing there.

This is what I told Hannah when we flew in at the same time and were able to take the ferry over to the Island from Seattle together: “Who am I to be here? I barely know Tommy!”

I did not anticipate that this trip to Washington was going to be Wild Goose Part II. The welcome of Tommy and his friends extended to me gave me the kind of space I had in North Carolina, where I could just be me.

And thanks to Tommy, as we sat around the fire one night, I could be me and tell my story to these new friends–these people given to me. I wrote about this amazing evening previously on the blog in “Election and Communion with a Banana Cream Pie.” Read it now and you’ve got much more context than you had before.

When Tommy asked us where we were most alive as we sat around that fire sharing meat and fish and veggies (and pie), and we went around sharing where we were most alive, I was able to say that there were big parts of me hidden and dormant that are now coming to life for the first time. And it is there that I am indeed most alive.

The next day, at his party in this bar/coffeeshop on the Island, Tommy asked me and another new friend of mine (also named Nathan) if we would share our stories of coming out and being who we are with the party gathered there. I was able to share everything that had happened with Wild Goose and situate that gathering there within the larger story of how I had been welcomed and had been given a people–that most important grace of hospitality and inclusion.

Some of the Rev. Tommy Dillon Entourage at Bloudel Reserve

Some of the Rev. Tommy Dillon Entourage at Bloudel Reserve (Paul is on the back left and Hannah is in the front left with the sunglasses)

Paul was also there and witnessed this whole impromptu sermon I gave. He also told me as we were around a fire on the deck of a pub on the Island one night how much it had meant to him that when I told him I was from Memphis at Wild Goose, he realized here was another young man in Memphis going through similar struggles as he did when he was in college here and was not able to explain or deal with what he was experiencing in his sexuality. If he can help me in any way, it would be the special work of God in us. And it was certainly that.

* * *

Paul also told me with his face lit up by the fire on that deck behind the pub that whereas he had told me he was interested in going with me to Seattle on my last day in Washington, he decided not to go after all.

“It’s not that I don’t want to hang out with you,” he said. “I just need more time in peace on this Island.”

“Well, fine.”

I was disappointed that Paul would not be coming with me to Seattle, but as I crossed the ferry early that morning on the day of my flight back home, I was excited to be in the city for the first time so I thought I would just wander aimlessly.

Eventually I decide I want to find my first Seattle coffee shop to go to, so I find one. For some reason, standing outside that coffeeshop, I decided not to go in. I thought I would find another one, instead.

I keep wandering and I find another coffee shop. I thought I would go in that one. I go to the counter, order my espresso and sparking water “for here” and then turn around realizing that the dining area was completely full.

After looking around a second, knowing that I can’t take the ceramic and glass in my hands out with me, I spotted this space on the bench on the wall on the far side of the shop. There was just enough space for me to sit down and not invade the personal space of a guy sitting there.

I sit down with my coffee and water in my lap, and then I hear a girl’s voice asking me, “Do you want to sit here?”

My first thought is, “Oh, no. She’s not talking to me, is she? I just want to drink my coffee and go exploring.” But I look over and yes indeed a girl perhaps in her 20’s with red hair is looking at me pointing to an open seat across from her.

“Sure!” I say. I don’t know why. Normally I would’ve said, “I’m fine–thank you though!”

When I sit down, I don’t know if it’s one of those moments when I need to talk to someone with a computer open on the table who looks like they’re working, or just say “Thanks” and drink my coffee.

Bainbridge Island

Bainbridge Island, WA

Well, she started asking the questions first. If I was visiting, where from, why. I started to explain just the basics–that a friend of mine starting a new ministry at a church on Bainbridge Island, and I came for the celebration.

She seemed interested and kept asking enough questions so that I ended up explaining everything. Everything about Wild Goose and what led to it and what had been coming out of it. By this time I had moved up onto the bench she was sitting on because the other guy left.

After I more or less wrap up my story, she’s looking at me and then I was surprised to see her face scrunch up and she starts to cry.

I grab her hands with my hands, so here we are, holding hands in this crowded coffeeshop with her crying and me looking like I’m about to cry.

And then she starts telling me that my life is going to change. That I’m going to amazing things in the church. She said a lot more than this but I was so surprised by it all it was difficult to take it in.

I don’t end up getting much of her story, even though I invited her to tell me about it. She declined. The only things I got from her were her first name, that she grew up in the church in the midwest but was no longer in the church, and that she was living with a girlfriend in Seattle.

I could be wrong, but it seemed like what was happening was that this was a rather sudden interruption of Jesus into her life with some guy talking about being gay and led by God.

And then she said something I will never forget. She said, “And, I don’t even know why I started talking to you. I just saw light coming from you.”

I was shocked. I thought the only vibe I was giving off was I wanted to drink my coffee and water and get out of there. But I said, “Thank you for seeing me, and for telling me what you see.”

As we began to get up and leave the coffee shop, she asked if I had written any of this down, and I knew then that at some point it would be on my blog. I wrote down the address on one of my business cards, assuming that at some point I would hear from her. I mentioned Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, too.

But after we hugged outside the coffee shop and parted ways and I texted Paul that God was stalking me around Seattle, I have never heard from her. Maybe it’s appropriate that way. I pray for her when I think about her, and I am so grateful that just when I thought I really did have enough and didn’t need anymore, God saw fit to put her in my life at that point, to see me and to tell me what she sees.

* * *

On the same day I returned to Memphis from Seattle, I saw my good friend Emily, who has spent the last several years as a volunteer at the church coordinating the Benevolence Ministry assistance that comes through our department. We were about to head into a simulation of an aspect of poverty, and I told her that Washington was amazing.

I hadn’t told Emily anything at this point. Nothing about me, Wild Goose, or anything. But she replied to my comment about Washington with, “I was praying very specifically while you were in Washington because God told me that it was going to be a significant step in your journey.”

God told Emily something even I didn’t know. I joke with her and others that God tells her my business. Because she also wasn’t too surprised when I met with her to give her the whole story. I had responded to her in that moment she said she had been praying for me, “There’s actually a bigger story I want to share with you.” And she said, “I thought there might be.”

A few days before we actually got to what would be a six-hour breakfast with the whole story, I was talking with her at church about something. And at one point she says, “It’s about that letting that light shining before people.”

I put my hand over my face, and through a tear I said that I would explain why I was crying at our upcoming breakfast.

As a side note, my boss came by my office one afternoon a few weeks ago and recounted a conversation with a Russian woman at the JCC he attends. As soon as he walked off, I turned to a notepad on my desk and jotted it down:

The woman said to Bob: “Bob, you see people. And you talk to them. That’s good!”

Bob says to me: “We just need to see people.”

I tell Bob that’s something I’ve learned that is really my guiding principle. To be seen and to see each other.

Bob says: “You know, when I hear you say that, that just means letting our light shine.”

LENT

I knew probably a month after Wild Goose Part II in Washington that this Lenten season was going to be special. It was time for me to let myself be seen completely and to stop hiding once and for all.

I have been nourished on the journey by Sara Miles's words, those written and those spoken. Through them God continues to be rather direct. And I am most grateful for Paul, who--like his shepherd so often does--surprised me by showing up at the right time. (Page from Take this Bread by Sara)

I have been nourished on the journey by Sara Miles’s words, those written and those spoken. Through them God continues to be rather direct. And I am most grateful for Paul, who–like his shepherd so often does–surprised me by showing up at the right time. (Page from Take this Bread by Sara)

This whole season has been a journey in itself of understanding the significance of Sara’s Ash Wednesday cross on my forehead as I learned to continue following what the Holy Spirit had laid out for me and that this isn’t about what will happen to me when I let myself be this vulnerable, but what would happen to all those who are still hiding if I don’t.

This is what I kept telling myself this past Wednesday as I was more scared than I have ever been as I woke up that morning and was going to tell my parents who I am.

I sat on my bed, on another Wednesday as it turns out, and cried tears that I was doing my best to hold back. I retraced the cross on my forehead slowly with my thumb. I had died, and I was trying my hardest to remember that and embody that into the most vulnerable moment of my life.

That was yesterday. It went as well with my parents as I could have expected. I have eternal gratitude for their love and acceptance and for all the prayers from so many people as I was heading into this. And as I returned home to my housemates, I was exhausted. I felt like I had at Wild Goose–poured completely out and yet also filled in a new way.

It was both a pleasantly warm and slightly cool Memphis night last night as my housemates  at #TheMalcombHouse took me out to a nice dinner on a patio in Overton Square in the beautiful sunset. Being out with these friends on such a night, having just crossed the major hurdle of my life and having to this point followed this amazing journey of letting myself be seen, it felt like healing happening.

As our meal began, we raised our glasses of Stormy Mornings. They offered a toast.

“Here’s to being seen.”

*clink* *clink* *clink*

EPILOGUE

I am finishing up this blog post to get ready to put up. It’s so long! And I am so tired.

I was tired in a different way a few weeks ago when my entire body was sore after hand plowing two large plots at my parents’ house and sowing each seed of beans and greens and herbs carefully. I didn’t know even with all the work and all the manure and compost I could afford if I could bring forth food out of that patch of nonfertile ground.

On my flight back to Memphis this past Tuesday after visiting friends to get ready for coming out to the world, I thought of the Les Miz musical line, “Another day, another destiny. This never-ending road to Calvary.” I tweeted it, as we do when we want to express something ambiguous. Someone on Facebook commented that that road to Calvary ends in resurrection. And, yes. It is all redeemed. Any death suffered gives birth to new life.

The day after telling my parents, here I sit. Trying to get this blog up. I see I have a text from dad. I know that it’s not good. I haven’t heard from him since the big talk yesterday. I think, what is it now? What new problem is there with how we’re going to deal with what people think? So I just held my breath and looked at the text.

It read, “You have a few sprouts in your garden!” With the little green sprout emoji.

Whew. Breathe out.

Well, here we are, and Lent is almost over.

The Lord is risen, indeed. Hallelujah.


Why I’m Still Choosing The United Methodist Church,” published on the blog of Reconciling Ministries Network.

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4 comments on “Being Seen

  1. bethgsanders says:

    Beautifully written, poignant, and courageous. Thank you.

  2. […] Scripture overall. If anyone is curious about what this process looked like in the finer details, I am currently working on writing my story at greater length. But to put the matter succinctly, I gradually came to see […]

  3. Laurie Norris says:

    Hi, Nathan. I am Paul’s sister and Mom to his niece that attends Rhodes. I found your blog post in a really roundabout way after checking Paul’s Facebook for news about his weekend. Anyway, thank you for sharing your story. Our church is going through a period of prayer and discernment regarding same-sex marriage. I’m still in Texas and go to the church that Paul and I grew up in – a wonderful, loving community with people all over the board with regard to how God wants us to respond to our same-sex attracted brothers and sisters (of which there are maybe zero that attend our church). Anyway, I am so thankful that God threw Paul your way. He is pretty wonderful. I am thankful to discover your story, which I will to share with my fellow leadership team members. God bless you in your ministry.

    • Laurie, it is so neat to hear from you! I am very grateful you took the time to read my story, and I am so glad that you are finding something in it to share in such important conversations. It doesn’t cease to amaze me either that things worked the way they did with Paul. He is wonderful. Thank you for letting me know, Laurie!

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