Bishop Gene Robinson (Michael Houghton/The New York Times)
Last year during the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, Larry King had Gene Robinson and others (Andrew Sullivan, the Rev. Jo Hudson, the Rev. David Anderson, the Rev. Albert Mohler) on his CNN talk show to discuss LGBTs in the Church. It was about as enlightening as such gabfests usually are; not very. The anti-Gay crowd brought up their usual talking points, while the Gay people gave honest, sometimes surprising answers to King’s attempts to probe. What struck me was a little piece of video going into the first commercial break, in which Gene said this:
It’s time for us to stop talking about being gay and start talking about God and telling the story of how God has acted in your life and in mine. And when we tell that story, people will come to see that the Jesus they know is the Jesus we know.
I’ve never done that. But it sounds like a good way to engage my own people—most of them, in this country anyway, raised as Christians, who have now fled from God and the Church to try and maintain their own sanity.
I don’t blame them one bit. I’ve gone for long stretches having nothing to do with God, Jesus, the Church and organized religion. The most serious rupture came when my lover Jack got sick, desperately ill, close to death. I prayed and prayed and prayed that he would get better (“if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can move a mountain”), but after his 10th or 12th amputation, I quit praying in disgust.
Or maybe it was the second heart attack; I don’t even remember.
When I reconstruct that timeline of misery, I know that as of December 6, 1990 I was still sufficiently faithful that we married each other in front of an Episcopal priest. I’d wanted to get married for the previous four years, though my stance then was that we should wait (in protest, really) until we could walk down the aisle at a public ceremony in our parish church. It’s now 17 years later and we still can’t do that officially in the Episcopal Church without all hell breaking loose—schism, headlines, secession.
But Jack got so sick that I was scared of losing him, and my little protest made less and less sense; I wanted him to know that I was committed to him in love no matter what. So I asked him, and he consented, and the priest came to our apartment and officiated before 40 of our friends. I was happy, and Jack was glad.
But the sickness went on, and I finally gave up on God. I was royally pissed off; my prayers had no effect.
(Except they did; Jack’s still alive. Wasn’t that what I asked for?)
Years went by; we separated. It was amicable, but an enormous shock to me. He loves me, but he wanted to be on his own. So I did the loving thing, and helped him to get free.
I have some sense that he betrayed me, that he’s been less than honest this entire time; but what’s done is done. It was all a long time ago; we’ve both moved on. I’m not sorry for what my life became, but I meant every word of those vows, in front of God and everybody.
My life kind of fell apart, but I wrote a couple of novels in my new “freedom.” I made new friends. I moved back home to take care of my mother while she died (hey, I had lots of experience with the sick). After the second book I moved to the nearest city to try to meet someone new, then realized I hadn’t the least bit of interest. I still think I belong in a relationship, but I’ve given up praying for that too.
I wrote freelance for awhile, living off my inheritance, then I finally took a great job, perfectly suiting my talents. I was a crisis intervention specialist at a rather good mental health center in Merrillville; my charge was to save people’s lives, to prevent suicide and homicide in a very violent, drug-infested city. It was there that I encountered God again.
My job was to conduct psychiatric evaluations of people to see if they needed to be hospitalized, either because of suicidal/homicidal thoughts or because they were addicts. The process was rigorous and thorough, with a standard set of questions, but also the opportunity to intervene—to make a difference, to teach, to touch. I used every bit of my personality, everything I ever learned; and people responded. I loved my clients and most of them loved me.
When we were done, I would report the client’s data to a psychiatrist, who made the decision about admitting the person to the hospital. Then I’d go back to see the next client waiting for me, or if I had time, I’d take a little break and talk to God about what I’d just heard. It is, after all, an honor to be let into someone’s intimate, personal interior life—to hear their horror stories, their pain, their shame, their coping mechanisms, their loneliness; and it’s a grave responsibility to help bear them up and get them back on track. Sometimes that meant saying no; often it meant disappointing people with yes. I had a lot to talk to someone about, and no one but God to listen.
It was during one of those talks, out on the dock by the kitchen as I smoked a cigarette, that God shocked the poop out of me by answering back.
Here is what I remember of it. I’d been working for many months, having these chats with God that brought us close again, praying for that part of a client’s life that I could not influence, that’s external, not internal, like unemployment and discrimination and family problems, all of which do become internal; praying for their hospital care after my little piece of treatment was done, when all of a sudden God interrupted me, and monologue became for one brief second dialogue.
I don’t quite remember what I was saying, but it did involve acknowledging God and thanking him for all his help—I suppose I was awfully proud of myself, because those clients made me more than I’d ever been, having to reach deep inside my guts to say and do something helpful, and we really can’t reach that deep of our own accord without divine help—so I guess I forgave God and said, “If you want me in the church, I’ll…”
Boom! “I do want you in the church.”
I didn’t hear a voice; this was a thought planted inside my brain from outside of me. In no uncertain terms, God interrupted my entire train of thought.
Monologue turned into dialogue, and the unspoken question—Jesus?—was unambiguously answered. Yes, Jesus.
It may be that God commanded this because it was easier for me; I was brought up in the Christian Church and that’s my cultural heritage. Maybe God brings Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Zoroastrians to himself differently; I can’t say and don’t need to. It’s not up to me to judge Gandhi.
But I have no trouble whatsoever now affirming John 14:6: “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except by me.”
The exclusivity attributed to Jesus—that there is no other way—got answered definitively for me, not for anyone else, in those silent words planted inside my head. “I do want you in the Church.” I am and must be a Christian. That is my calling; I am marked with the blood of Christ on my forehead, repeated long ago in the water of baptism. This is the shape of that mark: +
I didn’t choose this; it was chosen for me by God, with help from my parents and the Church.
And no matter how screwed up I get, no matter how royally pissed off, no matter how despairing and self-destructive (because that’s what all sin is, kids), I have been marked.
In another post, someday maybe, I’ll tell you how wonderful my life with God has been ever since. This is not a tribute to my piety, far from it; I give God all kinds of grief, and being Christian in this life is no cakewalk. We’re still subject to the same disease process, the same neurosis, the same ugly politics and unjust treatment as every other human being. Being Christian is no shield that way; we are mortals, made of dust, to which we shall return.
But still, life with God is fabulous; he is a Lover beyond all imagining.
Jesus said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”
Amen. Come thou long expected Jesus
born to set thy people free.++