I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. -Ephesians 4:1-3
Last Sunday I shared with rostered leaders, lay leaders, and the Mission Council a letter of explanation regarding my message delivered at the ELCA Youth Gathering on Saturday, July 18. In that letter I let our leadership know that I had “come out” to the senior high youth at the Gathering with the aim of helping them deal with their own issues and the importance of turning to Christ and the Church for grace and assistance in dealing with their life’s challenges. If you did not see my letter from last week, you can access it by clicking here. By the way, I revised that letter this past Friday, so it is somewhat different from the original letter. I believe it offers more clarity and says better what I wanted to convey.
One question that has come up this week is: “Why did I do this at the Youth Gathering? Why did I do this now?” I have written a response to that, which I share with you now. Here is my thinking about Why Now? Why the Youth Gathering?
The question of my decision to tell the story of my journey now is a complex one. As I have indicated, the roots of my life-long self-doubt, indeed self-rejection, go back to my years in junior and senior high. While I was not recognized outwardly as being gay, the language I heard in the culture around me, as well as in my home, caused me to think that my inner feelings were bad and that my thoughts and attractions were sinful. I believed that I could not be acceptable to God or others if they knew. That left scars so deep it has taken years of therapy and a sea-change in the church’s attitudes for me to find a sense of self-acceptance and, indeed, pride about who I am.
Since I walked with the ELCA through our journey of studying the scriptures, looking at the history and tradition of the place of gay and lesbian persons in our culture, I have slowly come to self-acceptance. I was still so fearful of blessing gay and lesbian persons in publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships in 2009 that I voted against the decisions of the church to bless such relationships. I realized soon after, that I was afraid to face my own demons as I voted “no.”
Yet, I see that it has been a good and godly thing, not only for the individuals involved, but also for the church as a whole and our culture. Thus, I began to verbalize my own reality… first to a close friend in the church, then to my counselor, and finally to my wife. All three of those moments were terribly difficult and very cathartic. I continued in counseling and was able to put much of my self-criticism and rejection behind me. I gained a sense of freedom and acceptance that I never knew before. After a time, I thought I was done with “coming out” and nothing more was needed. Except…
I experienced such a transformation that I felt my journey could be of value to others, especially young people who are most vulnerable to bullying, self-doubt, and rejection by parents, family, and friends. I wondered and discussed often with my counselors the idea that I have something significant to offer youth that might change the course of some lives.
I had wondered, however, who needed to know and what they needed to know. Surely no one needed to know my personal journey as information about me. If anyone else really needed to know, it would be my family… my two sons and their wives. For some time, fear of their rejection continued to linger within me and so I was fearful of taking that step. I was no longer afraid of rejection by anyone else but my family.
Yet, the sense that my story could help others continued to nag at me. Unfortunately, I developed no “plan” for telling others… perhaps it would just happen when and if the time were right.
The 2015 ELCA Youth Gathering theme was “Rise Up.” Youth gathered to hear powerful speakers urge them to claim their faith, to rise up and live it in the world. They worked in the community, grew through Bible study, and shared their challenges and struggles in small groups. The synod Story Day was a chance to study the scripture of the paralytic man who was lowered through the roof of the place where Jesus was teaching in order to be healed. “Your sins are forgiven. Get up and walk,” were the two invitations of Jesus. We had all studied and reflected on that, and now it was time for us to consider it in our worship.
The Story Day, however, began with my telling my “Call Story.” My call story started in baptism and I grew up in the church. My call story ended with my telling of my call to move from Pennsylvania to Texas to serve at Advent, Arlington. I described how, throughout that process, I could get excited about the possible move, but that I kept saying “no” to the call and to God. Finally, when it came time to make a decision, I was deeply overcome with something that I can only say was the Spirit of God convincing me that I was wrong. “When will you finally listen to me?” was the question. So I had to say “yes.”
After I told my story and sat down, throughout the process of the next two hours, youth told their stories of their call by God, both in small groups and in the larger context. At least four youth stood before the 400+ who were gathered and told of how God has transformed their lives.
At some point in the midst of that, it hit me like a bolt of lightning. “I have to tell my story today. Some of them need to hear it. It might make a difference for some.” I fought it for an hour. I rejected it in favor of my original sermon. I could talk about my journey in vague terms and be safe… or I could tell my own life story.
The more I fought it, the more I realized I was in the same spot, with the same presence of God that I had experienced in my call to move to Texas. I could say “no” or I could say “yes,” but my faith and trust in God moved me to tell my story.
Was this the right place and the right time? In biblical terms, we call that “kairos,” the “right time” or “God’s time.” I fully believe that the answer is yes. Youth today, for the most part, can talk about gay and lesbian issues without hesitation. My story would not be too startling to many of them; but it could be transforming and empowering for some of them… and it was.
I want to be clear that I was not telling my story to receive pity or kudos from the kids, although certainly that happened. Many were moved to tears; many were moved to affirm me personally. While that happened, it was not my intention. I tried to make clear that it is the overcoming love of God in Jesus Christ to wipe away sins of self-doubt, fear, and the rejection of others that has transformed me into a more real, whole person who is loved by God, just the way I am. The message of the sermon was that we can and do live in a church and a faith that is real, life-giving, and not one of rejection, fear, and hiddenness.
The overwhelming response has contained affirmations such as: “You saved lives today.” “You empowered me to come out to my youth group tonight.” “Your courage in faith provides an amazing example of how God is at work in the world and in our lives.” And so on.
Some can fault me for the timing. If I had prepared a time table, I would have told my sons and their spouses first, then the Conference of Bishops, then my rostered and lay leaders along with the Synod Council, and then, if all seemed right, the youth. Fortunately, the Holy Spirit doesn’t work based on our desires and in our time frame.
The Spirit pushes us to wholeness of life. The story of my journey of healing and self-acceptance is the story of the work of the Holy Spirit in my life. I believe that this was truly of the Holy Spirit and that the timing was right, the audience right, and the outcome was, perhaps, transformative for some. That is part of the goal of preaching.
I have no need for anyone to know about my sexuality… that’s not the issue. I would only tell my journey to groups and people who need to know God’s love and mercy in a tangible and life-changing way; especially if they are dealing with self-doubt and rejection.
Each person is uniquely and wonderfully made and as a result our lives will take different paths. What is important is to know that God loves us just as we are and desires that we live our relationship with God through our relationships of love and care with others. This is about the love, grace, and mercy of Christ; not about me. I am the vessel of that mercy and I am grateful for the opportunity to share it with the others.
Grace and Peace in Christ Jesus our Lord,
Kevin S. Kanouse, Bishop