You know how the prayer starts, especially if you’ve spent any amount of time in a more liturgically inclined congregation. It is the prayer that’s often introduced with words such as, “And now, as our Savior taught us to pray, we are bold to say…,” or “Gathered into one community by the Holy Spirit, let us pray as Jesus taught us.” I’m talking, of course, about what we’ve come to call The Lord’s Prayer.
For the longest time I’ve had difficulty praying that prayer for one reason: the opening words. As we all know, it begins, “Our Father…”
To use the image of Father for God or to describe my relationship with God has, for me, been difficult; and it’s only been recently that I can, having made peace in my mind with my memories of my father, begin to appropriate that image – of God as Father – into my own life and deepen my understanding of what it means to me to say that God is indeed my father.
Let me share with you a story which might help explain.
A young boy, 15-years old, and his invited friend are camping out in the boy’s back yard. Late that night the two embrace, sharing with each other that which they think they can only share with each other. The boy’s father appears at the door of the tent and, surprisingly, simply makes two statements, then returns to the house. It is a moment the young boy cannot comprehend.
Fredrich Nietzsche wrote, “What was silent in the father speaks in the son…”
Nietzsche was presenting a palpable truth, one which resonates, no doubt, with millions of sons, especially those who are queer.
If nothing else, Ray Gillespie was silent, and yet he has been speaking in me, even now, more than ten years after his death.
I look at the old photograph. There he is, sitting in the front row, first from the left. It’s a picture taken many years ago, back when the world was aflame; a portrait of the 86th “Black Hawk” Division, the 342nd Infantry Regiment. The faces are young – he was in his late twenties – but there are a lot of miles in those eyes; miles which were accumulated in the cities and farm land of Europe, miles traversed on the beaches and in the jungles of the South Pacific, especially the Philippines.
I don’t know when, exactly, the photo was taken, but he appears to be wearing the insignia of the rank of Major at the time. He returned to the United States in 1946, eight years before I was born.
Was that the source of his silence? The horrors of war? I did find pictures, old black and white ones, he’d taken in the Philippines during that time, photos depicting the absolute destruction of war. I discovered them after he died. I remember thinking at the time, I’d be silent, too, had I witnessed that destruction. Who would want to talk about that? Trouble was, the silence went beyond the war experience and pervaded most of our relationship.
They were truly, those young boy-men in that photograph, a great generation. No one can question that. I see them, too, in his Clemson College Class of ’39 annual; fresh faces full of optimism and hope and excitement who, within a short two years after they graduated, found themselves in a global conflict which left many of them dead on the battlefield. How could they not have been changed? But I cannot locate his silence, his distance, solely in that awful experience.
Maybe a part of it had to do with the fact that after trying so many times to have a son of his own with his young war bride, he and my mother had resorted to adoption. I was not, when you get down to it, his flesh and blood. I had been created by the union of two strangers. Was I loved, yet always a stranger, often referred to at family gatherings by his brothers and sisters as “Ray’s adopted son”?
He himself came from a large family; twelve siblings raised together on a red-clay farm in the mountainous corner of South Carolina known as Oconee County. Among them all, I’m inclined to think he was one of the more sensitive ones. So hurt was he, for example, by the accidental death of his pet dog when he was young, that he refused for years to allow me to have a pet. Eventually he did let me have a cat.
He was also academically inclined. He even won a state-wide essay contest when he was in the ninth grade and he always, always prided himself on his penmanship.
He was given to an overly shy nature as a youth, I’ve been told, and I certainly observed that in him as an adult. If we arrived late for some function, we’d simply turn around and go home. He wouldn’t be shamed by walking in late. He never did date and even as a student cadet at Clemson there was only one, the girl who would become my mother, Anne. They met at a Corps of Cadets’ dance, but of course he wouldn’t dance with her.
There are a host of other descriptors that can be applied to my father. He was consumed by the work ethic of his time and his Scots-Irish upbringing. As a perfectionist, he would often say to me, “Here, let me do that. You can’t do it right.” Ray was a man given to a higher sense of justice and honor and duty than I’ve ever been able to achieve. He was a man of quiet, unexpressed Protestant faith.
Raymond Gillespie. Shy, sensitive boy. Boy-to-man soldier and officer who thought Douglas MacArthur walked on water. He was a stern and quick disciplinarian with a volcanic temper; a man who saw the world only in black and white, right and wrong. Raymond, the protective husband, and for the most part, silent, distant father.
There is a theory that’s floated every now and then that fathers somehow instinctively know when their sons are queer and, therefore, either consciously or, most likely, unconsciously, distance themselves from them. It wouldn’t take much for me to think there’s something to that.
What he had to have known was that I gravitated more toward make-believe and the arts and shunned sports (with the one exception of Tae Kwon Do, taken up after being beaten by a school bully who called me a “faggot”). What he had to have seen was that I much preferred the company of other boys who were, at least in my perception, also “different.” Surely he knew that my 13-year old boyfriend, Billy, and I were more than just Boy Scout troop pals. How could he not know?
What I do know that he knew was this: one night, when I was 15-years old, I’d invited a friend over to “camp out” in our backyard. Ray came to the tent late that night to check on us before he went to sleep and found us naked and in each other’s arms.
Typical Ray would have yelled and screamed and thrown things and beat my butt until I bled. I’d experienced that eruptive anger many times before and fully expected it then. But no, he didn’t do that. He simply told us to get dressed, that what we were doing was “nasty,” and to not do it anymore. Then he left and returned to the house.
Why? What was going on in that moment? I’ve asked myself that question a thousand times. Was he so disappointed that he couldn’t find it in himself to react in anger? Did he feel utterly helpless in the face of such obvious queerness? Did it touch something within his own core, perhaps recalling something from his own childhood or those days in “this man’s army?”
Nietzsche, in the second half of the sentence quoted at the outset of this essay, wrote, ” …and often I found in the son the unveiled secret of the father.”
Did that discovery of his queer son in that tent in our backyard bring to the fore, internally, some secret he had been carrying since his childhood on the farm and through the war years? Not that I for a moment think he was queer, at least not in the sexual sense. I don’t at all think he lived an inauthentic life in a self-constructed closet of tough, stoic, John Wayne-esque masculinity. But there in the backyard, something was, nevertheless, different – different in our relationship and his presentation in that moment of revelation.
What it was I will never know. It was shortly after that night that I began constructing my own safe enclosure of misleading facades. The answer to the question: “Why did he react so out of character having discovered his queer adopted son cavorting with another young, naked boy?” would never come from him. It would not, because I remained, until after he’d drawn his last breath, silent; I was never, while he was alive, comfortable enough with my queerness to ask – or tell.
God, spoken of by Jesus as Father, that first person of the Trinity in theological terms – God, Our Father, who art in heaven. This God has known me far better than any adoptive or biological father ever could. This God created me. This Father knows me, has known me, even before I was born. My Father knows my heart, my constitution. He knows I love a man and I’m convinced, by Scripture and experience, that he blesses that love. He does not turn away; he does not remain silent or grow distant knowing thus. In this God’s fatherhood is different from Ray’s.
What I’ve been able to do – and here I am approaching sixty years of age – is finally appreciate that difference and not project my own feelings, whatever they may be, about my adoptive father, Ray, onto God. Ray was a good father and a good man; but human is what he was. Flawed, with all the warts that come with simply being human. I’ve not had to forgive him in order to achieve this peace I’ve made with his memory. There’s nothing to forgive. I’ve just come to where I can understand him, and those memories of him, and see him for what he was. I’ve been able to see that despite all of those flaws, there he was loving me the best way he knew how, given his own experience. And I’ve finally got to the point where I don’t have to project on my relationship with God my relationship with Ray. They were, are, both my father. And so when I pray, “Our Father,” I no longer see the man who opened the tent that night to discover a queer son, the man whose anger could burn blue flame hot; rather, I see, I feel, “I love you and celebrate you just the way you are, my child, born of faith.”
Writer and speaker Rev. David R. Gillespie served as a Presbyterian minister after graduating from Columbia International University and Reformed Theological Seminary.