When we think of how we have achieved the success we have, we often like to think of the people that lifted us up and helped us get there. It might be people who helped us financially, emotionally, or spiritually. Then sometimes you have to give the biggest thanks to the people who didn’t try to help you at all. Perhaps one of the greatest moments of my life was when my childhood friend tried to save my soul for Jesus.
I said tried. By his definition of “saved,” he failed to do so. And I’m sure in the moment I didn’t think it was the greatest thing to ever happen. It was quite nerve-wracking at the time, as any unsolicited intervention would be. As it turns out however, his actions did wonders for my soul, but not in the way he intended.
It all took place in the early 1990’s, when both of us had a few years of being “grown up” under our belts. We had spent a day together after I revealed that I was leaving our home state of Florida, and relocating to the frozen tundra of Wisconsin. He took my declaration at face value, and I was building up to the reason why I was leaving.
What first drew us together in the seventh grade was our shared love of loud rock and roll. I was a die-hard KISS fan (long after it was cool to be so) and he was beholden to Van Halen. This isn’t noteworthy unless you consider this was the early 1980’s in the Deep South, where and when this was considered “the devil’s music.” My affinity for KISS records made me familiar with the idea of record burnings and the moniker “Knights In Satan’s Service.” This was all senseless to me, as I could decipher absolutely no theological slant to KISS’s music whatsoever. I figured whoever came up with such an idea must know something about theology that I did not.
I was always amused by the attention my favored music received from those religious circles. Being raised Catholic, my family didn’t much concern themselves with such thoughts about rock and roll. My friend, on the other hand, was raised Southern Baptist. While I don’t remember my friend having particularly fundamentalists viewpoints up to that time, it always seemed the Southern Baptist crowd was on the hunt for whatever they deemed ungodly, so that they might call it out and shame it.
Religious scorn became personal during puberty. I knew I was gay from the first hormonal shift in my bloodstream. I didn’t realize it was a problem though, until my drifting gaze became obvious to someone in the junior high gym locker room. Once the glares and whispers started, my twelve year old mind deduced quickly that my personal safety was contingent on silence, suppression, and secrecy. No one could know, and it could not be discussed aloud, as it was not a safe topic to discuss with anyone.
I was able to come out as a young adult in a much safer environment: Disney World. Working at the Magic Kingdom park afforded me a safe cocoon to meet other gay, lesbian and LGBT-friendly individuals. Still at times, I had to leave that safety net and confront people from my past and present. It was time to tell my friend that I was moving to Wisconsin to accompany my partner in relocating to his new job site in Wisconsin.
Our discussion never became heated, but my friend was emphatic that accepting Jesus Christ – on terms and conditions set forth by the convictions of those who taught my friend – was the only way I could be saved forever. I was again curious as to how my friend knew so much about the God’s will for me, far beyond what I knew up until then. As it turns out, this was a fundamental (no pun intended) difference between his religious upbringing and mine. In his practice, my friend actually read the Bible! In Catholicism, I was generally limited to the three readings on Sunday, meted out by the missalette provided.
But more specific than just reading the Bible, what my friend was seemingly taught to do was to identify a crime or prejudice of choosing [i.e. homosexuality,] then find those specific passages that called it out, or were interpreted as doing so. Thus, any question of validity could be conveniently exempted with a brush of the hands and “well, that’s what the Bible says. You can’t argue with God, now can you?”
My friend’s assault of scripture passage quotes was overwhelming. I was alone against a barrage of someone who had done his incriminatory homework. This was before the internet, so access to readily compiled literature discounting the biased use of scripture was not at one’s fingertips. I had no defense against the crimes leveled against me, taken from a book that had actually been in my house all my life! Could I really be as corrupt and depraved as this?
Then something incredible happened. My friend broadened his argument. He presented his second verbal missive, which was that my soul would never be saved if I kept practicing Roman Catholicism. I realize in today’s day and age, such a claim would hardly be limited to fundamentalist thinking. Specifically, to what he was referring were traditional practices such as calling a priest “Father,” the perceived worship of statues, the idolatry of Mary, and the weekly reenactment of the Eucharist. For every practice and belief, my friend provided a Bible passage condemning it.
The light began show through. As a non-Catholic, my friend was clueless. Oblivious. At least about matters pertaining to Catholicism. He had no idea the meanings and significance of the traditions. Truly, it has nothing to do with whether he believed the same thing that I believed at the time. It was that he never asked – anyone – the origins or meanings of these traditions. Literal to the practice of “fundamentalism,” he saw everything as its literal representation, with no room for interpretation, symbolism or archetypal premise.
If my friend could so easily rail against the nuances of Catholic tradition about which he knew nothing, how might he be misjudging the concept of homosexuality? Maybe he sensed he was losing me, because he pulled out the big gun: the “are you going to defy God?” card. Actually, what he said verbatim, “If you believe that everything in that book is true and the Word of God, then you have to know what you’re doing is wrong.” It took me five seconds to construct the reply I had never said aloud: “Then I guess I don’t believe everything in that book is true,” and then I went home. It was years before I appreciated the magnitude of what I said.
What I learned since was that I need not believe everything in that one or any book be literally true in order for me to glean the deepest wisdom from its tenets and teachings. Just as I need not believe that George Washington ever chopped down a cherry tree in order for me to honor his place in history. Somehow, St. Francis of Assisi and Fred Phelps distill the words of the same book to bring diametrically disparate results into the world. It’s not the words and stories that bring about good works in the world, but those who incorporate the grace available to them, from whatever source, to create a greater existence.
That day with my friend ignited in me a lifelong passion to find what was true about me, and what is the Truth about all of us. I’ve studied over the last twenty years how our beliefs come to be as they are, why we do what we do, and why we don’t do what we don’t do as individuals and collectives. This knowledge has come from many books and many teachers. The irony is that my friend, in his actions, was significant among those teachers, having set me on the path contrary to his intention.
So to my old friend, I say thank you. Thank you for being completely well-intentioned and unenlightened. Thank you for diligently pointing south, so that I might know better to go west. Thus, when you give thanks and count your blessings, count among them those people who gave you the worst advice so that you could find a better way. Bless those who got you lost, so you could summon the courage to find your way back. Bless those who shackle you, so you could find the strength to break yourself free.