In my early ministry at First Baptist and career as a mental health professional, I promoted mixed orientation marriage and celibacy as the two options for a gay Christian. I didn’t realize at the time that my loyalty to conservative evangelical theological interpretations of the Bible limited me to only these 2 options. One can’t be a leader in a Southern Baptist conservative evangelical religious community and have any other other options. To announce a belief in any other options would result in immediate shaming, questions regarding the state of one’s heart, pronouncements that one must not be saved, and a dismissal from being in leadership.
So the conscious mind adopts the necessary mindset of conformity, without realizing that in the unconscious mind, there is an inner conflict that needs to be resolved. Some who don’t understand such repressions to the unconscious mind, have accused me of being deceitful and lying about my sexual orientation. For the one who has repressed their sexual orientation, rigid adherence to religious convictions keep the repressed orientation buried. It is not deceitful. It is not lying.
As a leader, I helped others conform to the dominant theological position that one cannot be gay and be Christian. In the spirit of Christian discipleship, we called it ‘unwanted same-sex attractions”. In the spirit of obedience to Christ, we chose to ignore those unwanted sexual attractions and walk towards what we had embraced as the only options based on our theological and biblical indoctrinations. Many could not even allow themselves to acknowledge a same-sex attraction or desire. Others, learned to accept the fact that the attraction and desire was being experienced, while renouncing them and engaging themselves in any and all mental or physical activities that would honor God and at the same time, push the unwanted sexual attractions back into the unconscious mind.
Most religious groups started out with rejecting the idea that a Christian person could be gay. As time progressed, some religious groups began to accept that a Christian person could be gay, however, they could not engage in gay behavior. They could either choose to be celibate – a lifelong prescription to aloneness and lack of romantic companionship and intimacy, or they could choose to develop interests in the opposite sex and enter into a mixed orientation marriage. I was truly sincere in this prescription for the gay Christian.
Looking back, it’s interesting how I personally experienced this dilemma. In the beginning, I couldn’t acknowledge being gay to either myself, or anyone else. It was repressed. Later, as I began to accept that the same-sex desires and attractions were present, and they were not going away, I learned to see myself as a bisexual man who chose a female life-partner rather than a male life partner. It was during this period in life that I allowed my experience to become a universal principle that would work for all people. The principle would be this: “If I can be attracted to males yet choose to marry a female and live successfully for all these years, so can you. It is possible for you to do this.”
I was wrong. Not everyone is able to be emotionally, romantically, and sexually comfortable with an opposite gendered person. I didn’t see this at the time. It was also during this time that in reading reparative therapy writings I began to consider the etiology of homosexuality through a child development and family systems theoretical lens. Over the course of time, my allegiance to this mindset began to waver. I saw more and more mixed orientation marriages fail. (A mixed orientation marriage is where one spouse is straight and the other spouse is gay). I saw more and more leaders in ex-gay ministry – those who had adopted celibacy – fail. I began to see Christian men and women despair over their inability to be celibate, their inability to see themselves with an opposite-gender spouse, and the inner-conflict this caused in their soul. I began to see people not be successful at trying to live their intellectually adopted faith convection because they could not get their inner-self to be aligned with their faith conviction.
Despair. Depression. Confusion. Frustration. Anger. Loneliness. Defeat. Shame. Guilt. The accumulation of these negative emotions was overwhelming. In myself. In my clients. In those I encountered in the church who struggled with their sexual orientation.
Then the LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him” (Genesis 2:18, NASB).
For 3 years of dating and 35 years of marriage, I saw my wife Nancy as my helper, suitable for me. And before she died in March of 2017, I would have thought I knew what being alone meant. However, I was wrong.
March through December of 2017 were the worst months of my life thus far. I encountered an experience of aloneness that I would have never dreamed possible. It was overwhelming. It was debilitating. It was relentless. Much of that time, I worked to distance myself from this aloneness through distraction. I didn’t realize that I was distracting myself, but in effect, that’s what was happening. Here’s how the distraction strategy started.
During the last 10 days of Nancy’s life – the Hospice experience – I decided that if she died, I would not get stuck in unresolved grief. So, when Nancy was gone, I immediately began work to clean up our home. Nancy was a collector. She collected porcelain dolls, porcelain teacups and saucers, porcelain figurines (the most interesting to me were the Dresden figurines with lace), antique Victorian beaded purses, several different types of glassware (I can’t remember the specific types other than depression glass, something like flo blue, and such), Hallmark Christmas ornaments (every year since she was a teenager), sunglasses, shoes, clothes, antique furniture, all types of crafts (handmade things), cloth/fabric samples, antique wicker baby carriages, magazines (about home decoration, dolls, and such), and newspapers (until she read them, then they would get discarded, maybe). This is not an exhaustive list, but I don’t see any point in naming more things. You get the idea.
I knew that I would not be able to tolerate always seeing Nancy’s fingerprint on literally every square inch of our home. Unless I changed things significantly, I would not be able to get to the place of accepting the reality that she was gone and would never come back to me in this life. I would not be able to accept her death and passing if I remained immersed in all of the saucers, teacups, dolls, figurines, Victorian collectible items, antiques, and etc. So early on, I began the process of trying to sort things out, clean things up, and discard things either through selling them or putting them in a dumpster.
Cleaning out our home turned out to be an arduous ordeal.
I remember the time when we once visited one of her collector friends at their home. I knew when we walked in that Nancy would adopt her decoration style. Take for example a stretch of wall between two door openings. Imagine a row of dolls, ceramic bird cages (yes, I forgot to add those to the list above), and such aligned between the two door casings along the walls baseboard. Ok, then imagine a second row of things sitting in front of that first row of things, but aligned at an offset so you could see between the things on the first row and see the things on the back row. I remember asking Nancy to please not do this in our home. Guess what? Again, I loved her so I tolerated it. Looking back, I can see that the last three to four years was when it became unmanageable. I think Nancy must have used her collecting to distract herself from the fact that she didn’t feel well. I hate that we couldn’t figure out how to help her sooner. I hate that she had to suffer.
I often think about why I tolerated the accumulation of all these things. It was because I loved her and she liked these things and wanted to have them. Or, maybe it was because I decided early in our marriage that I didn’t want to be forceful with her – and mean, unkind, selfish, and inconsiderate like my dad was with my mother. It was probably both. In addition, she was very determined in her ways (yes, stubborn) and I either could accept her weakness or we could end our relationship. Ending the relationship was not an option for me so, I learned to tolerate all of Nancy’s collections of things being in our home. However, after she died, I knew that keeping those things around would have perpetuated an unconscious hope that she would be coming back. I have seen this happen so many times over the course of my counseling/therapy career.
Not changing things is one way people can get stuck in their grief.
You know about grief, right? What ultimately has to happen in the grieving process is that one has to accept that the personal loss has occurred – that the loved one has died and is gone and will not be a part of life with you any more. There are other things that happen between this acceptance and when the loss is initially experienced. However, acceptance of the new reality is the final stage of resolving or working through the grief. And, this acceptance is hard to embrace and hold on to. It tends to come and go during the grieving process. And the grieving process takes time. For some, it happens more quickly. For others, it can take years.
By the way, I don’t think the memories of one’s loved one ever go away. Grieving isn’t about losing the memories. Rather, it’s about resolving the pain and hurt of losing the loved one. Here’s how one writer put it: “… the mourner is caught between letting go, and holding near, the object of the loss. The mourner tries to keep the person alive through telling her stories, wearing her clothes, playing her music, preparing the foods she loved, or visiting places that were shared” (Berzoff, 2003, p. 275).
I have seen it so many times in my work. In the process of mourning, people get stuck because each memory of the person who has died is so full of meaning and longing. And, the one in mourning can – at least in their mind – keep the person alive through tenaciously holding on to as many memories as possible. I have seen people do this by having conversations with their deceased loved one. Or through visiting and maintaining a grave site. Or, by continuing to set a place at the table for meals. Or through a continual rumination of the events that surrounded the death of their loved one. Or through sitting in the midst of the deceased person’s belongings for many years, finding it difficult to change the environment around them.
So, immediately after Nancy’s death, I began to clean the house out. The start of this cleaning process was motivated by necessity. Upon arriving home from the hospice facility, I remember sitting on top of a stack of magazines telling my mom that I guess I needed to try and clear out a place in the den for someone to sit if they were to stop by to visit now that the funeral was over. So we started cleaning. And I was involved in cleaning for the next three months.
This cleaning kept me distracted from the pain of her departure and my aloneness. However, even in the midst of this distraction, there were times when the profound sense of aloneness would bubble up into my consciousness and it would take me several days to work through it and decide to try once again to get up and once again try to move forward in life.
When it would bubble up, the experience of depression and aloneness I encountered is hard to describe. It was if the foundation for all of life had been unmercifully jerked from under my feet. Everything about my 59 year old adult life had been built together with Nancy. Our home life. Our church life. Our vocational life. Our recreational life. Our life as best friends. Our life as lovers. Our marriage. The core of life was Nancy and me together as a couple. And then, all of a sudden, within a 36-day period, she went from being by my side in life, to death. She was gone. I would never see her again in this life.
A feeling of utter emptiness.
A profound feeling of helplessness.
A feeling of being lost and without direction.
A feeling of having no purpose.
And being alone with no purpose leads to hopelessness and despair.
A feeling of not desiring to find purpose, ever again. Why? Because I might work really hard to build a new life and then, without warning, the foundation would get jerked out from under me again. Somehow, when these periods of depression would happen, and they happened often, I would find myself getting back to the cleaning out process. I could handle the memories of Nancy. But, I could not handle the tangible evidences of her in every square inch of the place where I had to continue to try and live and figure out life again. I will never forget how exasperated and depressed I would get in trying to sort through all of Nancy’s stuff.
For years, I had justified and rationalized her collecting of things through thinking that one day, when she retired, we could do a business together and begin selling some of her collection to help us in our retirement years. She and I often talked about doing this together. I remember joking with her because deep down, I knew that she would never sell any of it. These things were like children to her. They were permanent. However, thoughts of investing in an inventory is how I justified/rationalized the investment in her collections. So, after she was gone, I decided that in the cleaning out process, I would try and sell her collections to recover the costs of all these things.
It wasn’t long before I realized that things were not going to turn out like I had hoped. Things that were once collectible and valuable didn’t seem to be as collectible and valuable as they once were. One reason I discovered was that the market was flooded with these items. Many of the people Nancy’s age and older – those who liked to collect the things she was interested in – were aging and deciding to downsize. The result was a greater market supply of those things that were more scarce in the past.
I also discovered that there was greater accessibility. For example, when Nancy and I were younger, you would only find certain Dresden porcelain figurines in an antique store in some obscure town you were traveling through. And there would only be 1 in that store. I still remember the first time we saw a Dresden porcelain figurine with lace made out of porcelain. Fragile. Delicate. Beautiful. Although we had been in every antique store we had ever passed by in life, we had never seen one of these types of figurines.Today, try typing in “Dresden porcelain figurine with lace” on Ebay.com and see how many you get. I just did it. Without the “lace” keyword, Ebay came up with 1,240 items for me to review. Adding the “lace” keyword yields 530. And you know the economics principle. When the supply is greater than the demand, the price falls.
The sheer volume of stuff that Nancy had collected was overwhelming. At times, trying to sort through it all was an overwhelming experience. I would have to stop and take a break. That’s when the aloneness would creep in and I would have to work through the dark time. I will always be grateful for my friends John and Anne Humphrey. John helped me through every step of this journey. He and Anne were like angels. They made sure I ate. John would come over and motivate me to get busy. And he would help me with whatever task I was attempting at the time.
About that time, I also began to realize that I probably wouldn’t be successful at trying to rebuild a new life in the house where Nancy and I had made our home. I would either have to move, or remodel. I decided that to remodel made the most financial sense. So, I began to work on making it “my home”, instead of “our home”. This gave me yet another option for distraction. When working with sorting through stuff became overwhelming, I would stop and work on remodeling plans. And when the plans were done, I would work on remodeling projects. When I would get tired of the remodeling projects, I would return to sorting out stuff. And that’s the way it went for the remaining 9 months of 2017 after Nancy died.
All of a sudden, towards the end of both projects, it was the holiday time. I made it through the Thanksgiving season okay. I drove over and spent the day with my mom and Artie. Both of my step-sisters and their families visited and we had a good holiday together. Then, at Christmas time, I drove over and spent several days with my immediate family at my brother’s home in Alabama. When I returned home, the holidays were over, the cleaning up project was completed, and the major parts of the home remodel were done. And the profound aloneness settled in.
Throughout my life, as one with a Baptist and evangelical heritage, I have heard people say to others that, “Jesus is all you need”.
Well, that’s just not true.
I have seen others judged for their sadness and depression, resulting in them feeling the experience of shame and guilt just because they were having feelings of sadness, as if in our Christian experience, the human feeling of sadness is something that can be expelled by choice! Yes one can chose to be joyful, but that doesn’t alleviate the sadness.
Now don’t get me wrong! I do believe that God is our “All Sufficient One”, our El Shaddai. And, I do believe that Jesus’ atoning work on Calvary is sufficient for our salvation. In fact, it’s the only way we can have a relationship with God. Yet these are His very on words: Then the LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him” (Genesis 2:18, NASB).
I can’t speak about the experience of other people. For me however, it wasn’t enough to be around other people in community – such as a grief support group, church, work, and etc. I would enjoy being around people in those contexts, but then I would come home. And, my home was empty. The reality that I was relationally alone would engulf me like a dark cloud. This feeling was magnified in “my home”. Home is where close relationships are central in our lives.
At that particular time in my grief journey, I couldn’t see that life would ever again be good. I mean, how could it be? I would question myself: “Do I have the energy to build a new life?”; “Am I willing to risk building a new life knowing that it could unravel and be gone literally in an instant?”; “Do I want to go through that pain again?”. And the answer would be “No”. Just “No”.
Of course I would talk to Jesus about these thoughts and feelings. I would pray and ask Him to examine my heart and help me understand what I could do to help it mend and heal. I asked Jesus often to give me the desire to live again if that was what He wanted for me. Daily, I would ask Jesus for energy to get up and try to move forward. And often, I would share with Him the anger I felt at Him and the sadness as I wondered why He let this happen to me. But by the end of December, 2017, I was ready to give up.
But God hadn’t given up on me and on December 29, 2017, Jesus answered my prayer. He knows me best. He knew what I needed. I met a new friend who had also recently gone through some traumatic and debilitating life experiences. It was love at first sight. I found someone who I was miraculously able to open up to and express myself authentically and not fear being vulnerable. For the first time in my life, I experienced someone who could understand the feelings I was experiencing and who would let me just share those thoughts and feelings without judgment or condemnation or attempts to tell me what I should or shouldn’t think or feel. I think that Jesus literally met me in my new friend. And, I began to heal that very day.
In 2018, day by day, I moved through the darkness that had engulfed me as I journeyed towards the light that Jesus shined into my life experience. Day by day, I would share with Michael and he would listen to my heart. Then, he would share with me and I would listen to his heart. When time permitted, we would work on a project together – usually one of the smaller jobs that remained related to my home remodeling project. At other times, we would ride bicycles together. Or we would get together to run errands for each of our households. Day by day, I became more able to re-engage life in new ways. And, day by day, my love for Michael grew.
Then the LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him” (Genesis 2:18, NASB). Amen. Michael is suitable for me. In fact, he is perfect for me. Thank you Jesus for helping me to discover that I can progressively and over time rebuild life and relationships. Thank you for sustaining me in the process. And, thank you for helping me realize that You understand my human need for flesh and blood relational companionship. But ,most of all, thank you for sending me my soon to be husband, Michael.
And thank you for helping me know that I am a Christian gay man and that you are okay with me. Thank you for helping me know that Michael and I can be married, and you are okay with us. And thank you for the friends we have that have truly manifest Christlikeness in their relationship with us.