Morality is no small issue for me. I have often joked, and it is only a half joke, that I find guilt to be a great motivator and if not for guilt, I’d never get anything done. It is a joke, and an attitude, really, that comes from a lifetime (that has so far spanned only 33 years and some odd months at this writing) of trying to be a nice boy.
Being a nice boy is tied into religion for me. I can say without hesitation that I recall experiences of the divine from a very young age, but it was the church and Sunday school that helped me interpret the divine. Unfortunately, the church, as an institution, seems more concerned with teaching its members to be good — no, even worse, to be nice — than it is concerned with teaching us to be loving, merciful, or forgiving. It is an important distinction, I think.
In recent years, my sense of morality has been in flux and I am finding myself more apt to err on the side of grace. A lot of this stems from having to accept that I am gay. For many, many years, I listened to the church and the culture around me and they said to be good meant to marry a woman and raise a family. As I relate later, the acceptance is a conversion story, as full of divine intervention as any religious experience.
Still, it created a shift of thinking, a new paradigm, to use an over-used term. So many of the rules I once thought were absolute were crumbling around me. I have grown less concerned about rules. For example, I’ve begun reading some old heroes, the Desert Fathers, [see below] in new ways. Rather than be fascinated by their great feats of piety and faith, I’ve begun to be amazed at how readily they broke their own rules and disciplines in the name of hospitality, mercy, love.
It has not always been so. In my youth there was no distinction between secular and religious law. All rules were God’s rules and they must be followed!
Let me illustrate with some stories from my personal history.
Remember the old paper towel dispensers in restrooms years ago? (I suppose you can still find them in places.) They had a push button and a crank. Pushing the button released the crank and you were given only so many turns of the crank, and therefore only so much paper towel to dry your hands. Well, my second grade teachers instructed us that we were to push the button only once and not waste the paper towels. One day, I saw another little boy push the button twice and use twice his allotted paper towel ration. I was quick to rectify the situation. I immediately went to a teacher standing outside the boy’s room and started to tell her exactly what I had seen. Once she realized what I was about, she quickly dismissed me. “A tattle tale! I’m tired of tattle tales. I don’t want to hear it,” she said and directed me back to our classroom.
I was bewildered, to say the least. Here I had come to her to dispense justice and I was the one called a tattle tale! I had done no wrong, only reported the crime! What injustice! Where would this all end? It was clear that unsupervised towel dispensing would lead nowhere good and soon the entire second grade would be swallowed up by chaos — chaos I tell you! — and good citizens like myself would be innocent victims when the greater judgment came down!
Hyperbole aside, the incident did confuse me some. I had a desire to please the adults (and God) by helping the adults (and God) keep everyone in line. And looking back, the response of that teacher was actually unusual compared to what I normally got. More often than not, I received a pleased response from teachers who followed up on my tattle tales and meted out justice with some satisfaction. Both theirs and mine.
Of course, I broke rules, too. For example, in fourth grade, I recall an incident during our music period. Despite the recent Watergate scandal and subsequent resignation of President Nixon (not to mention the Vietnam War) it was still quite the grievous sin to mock anything passing for patriotic in small town Texas. I committed that grievous sin. We were singing some national song and the girl next to me and I started getting silly, singing in funny voices and generally falling apart with the giggles. Our teacher ended the giddiness soon enough. She came down hard on us, but especially me, it seemed. You see, she had known, some 30 years previously, a distant cousin of mine and he had died in World War II, fighting for our country. Never mind I had no tangible connection to him. I had dishonored his memory by singing a patriotic song in a funny voice and I should be ashamed of myself. Even as I write about it, I can conjure up the heavy feeling in my gut I felt that day. I had fallen short of perfection. I was not a nice boy.
With this great predilection for doing right and suffering when I did wrong, confirmation was of enormous effect on me. For those of you who may not know, we Lutherans have a long standing tradition of teaching our adolescents, at the height of hormonal imbalance, the basics of our faith, i.e. Luther’s Small Catechism. As might be imagined, anything that had to do with living in accordance to God’s will (such as the Ten Commandments) was tremendously intriguing to me. I had a nimble enough mind so that I could fairly easily memorize all the rules and explanations and have time left over to ask a lot of questions, which were of a sort that would have made the pharisees proud. I became a master of finding the finest points around the law, all to my self righteous benefit, of course.
Now, I’m sure my hormones were raging during this time, but it is clear I reacted differently to them than most boys around me. I learned from the pastor that dirty jokes and sexual comments about the girls were wrong, so of course that weighed heavily. While I found the jokes titillating, that the jokes and comments were primarily heterosexual in nature made them less titillating for me than for most of the boys.
I should be clear here. I was oblivious to my sexual and affectional orientation. While I can look back on incidents and feelings and recognize crushes on other boys or male tv stars, I operated under the assumption that how I felt about girls was how all boys felt about girls. Likewise, what I felt for my male friends, I thought, was how all boys felt about their buddies. I knew a pretty girl when I saw one and I would talk about wanting her for a girlfriend, but I also never quite got the fervor that the other boys got in discussing a desire for a girlfriend.
In this instance, being gay was a definite aid to my piety and self righteouness, especially in the pursuit of treating girls in a gentlemanly fashion. In one instance, we were sitting in the junior high cafeteria and the guys were making sexual remarks about the girls. I rallied up my courage and told them that it was wrong to talk about girls like that. “What’s the matter, Neil, don’t you like girls?” they asked.
What? Of course I liked girls. Some of my best friends were girls. With all the petulance of a righteous child backed by the authority of God, the Bible, my pastor, and a good number of adults, I answered, “I like girls, but in the right way.”
I was so clueless about so much.
As might be imagined, I received the label of queer, faggot, homo quite early. They were epithets I endured throughout high school. I still didn’t realize that what I felt for boys was romantic love and sexual attraction and I chalked up my lack of success with girls to shyness. My working definition of “gay” was a man who had sex with another man. Insofar as I was having sex with no one, least of all other boys, I couldn’t possibly be gay. I continued in my quite pious ways, being active in Luther League and ready to express faith in God and never having to seriously consider my sexual inclinations. (Nice boys don’t consider sexual inclinations, anyway.)
Sexuality is not so easy to avoid as an adult, however. What follows is written in very few details, as the story is not all mine to tell. Indeed, parts of the story that are mine are not all that comfortable to tell.
I had a lover once, for three years. It was not good. How that relationship came into being and all the reasons why it was bad are not pertinent to this present writing. There were many inequalities in our relationship with too much experience and power resting on his side of the scales, too much piety and religious fervor resting on mine.
Pertinent to this writing, however, is that this was the first time in my life that my piety and self righteousness were not powerful enough to acquit myself of sin. I could not reconcile what I was doing, having sex with a man, with who I understood myself to be, a Christian.
This was an intense time of crying and praying to God. If it is all right to be gay, make me feel good about this relationship. If it’s not all right to be gay, get me out of this situation.
It is unfortunate that I could only formulate the question in terms of gay being right or wrong, rather than the relationship being right or wrong, for it is definitely the latter that is more relevant to discussing what happened in those three years. From his being unable to discuss my concerns in any patient way to my being unable to show him any other kind of religion than the condemnation I was feeling, suffice to say it was sick. It is a wonder that I did not self destruct during that time. I was in nearly constant pain from the opposing forces in my psyche. I recall writing in my journal at the time that I felt hollow and that someone had taken sandpaper to the inner walls of my body. I felt like one massive, bloody abrasion.
When I finally was able to leave that relationship, I understood it to be the working of the Holy Spirit guiding me, and I still do. I see it with different eyes now, however, than I did then. I saw, at the time, God rescuing me from the sin of homosexuality and I had every hope that God would heal me into heterosexuality. I now see God rescued me from a hurtful relationship and granted me time to heal so I mgiht again face my sexuality at a later date.
God had to be patient. It took six years before I would again face my sexuality in any meaningful way. During those years, I steadfastly avoided homosexual issues as best I could, did my best to find women erotically interesting, and mostly learned to live life as a happy single person.
No. Actually more happened during those years. God, in eternal wisdom, chose not to work on me and accepting my homosexuality. God instead began to move in my life in such a way that I slowly had to learn to accept me, period. All my rules and expectations of myself were melting as the Risen Christ came to me in prayer and meditation, showing me God’s grace in the face of my feelings of unworthiness, making me more fully aware of my acceptance into the whole communion of saints.
This patient God was clearly and cleverly working in me, leading me to a deeper relationship in the Holy Spirit. Oh, I still had (have) the pious streak. I still thought homosexuality was wrong and if only all the other homosexuals would take the time to pray and study as I had, they could escape their “lifestyle” and live a happy heterosexual life. Still, I could not help but feel the working of the Holy Spirit the next time I fell in love. It was with a man, of course, and he is gay, but I could do no other but call him a Christian. He is both: Christian and gay.
Again, the story is much too complicated for this space and it is also not all my story to tell. I will say that this new understanding came from the Spirit leading me to read the story in Acts about Peter and his vision of the unclean food. What God had made clean, Peter could not call unclean. What I noticed for the first time was that Peter did not understand that vision to be only about food, as he right away met an unclean Gentile and upon seeing the Gentile’s faith, applied the same words to the Gentile. What God had made clean, Peter could not call unclean.
I had met a gay man of deep faith. What God had made clean, I could not call unclean. And I had to finally accept that grace for myself.
Well, the love I felt for this man was painfully unrequited, but that is almost beside the point for this telling of the story. From that point on, I began to read Scripture differently. I began to see in familiar stories the love of God that transcends all the rules. I finally started to see that God was not all that concerned with moral codes, even if the Bible is full of them. It is no little contradiction to read in one place that God requires that we stone prostitutes and then see the Son of God step between the prostitute and the stoners, challenging the latter, the ones with the law on their side, while sending the prostitute away without condemnation. Even the Old Testament testifies to this tension between rules and what God desires of us. The God who requires burnt offerings also speaks through the prophets who tell Israel that God takes no delight in burnt offerings.
What is it in human nature that we cling to the rule in the face of grace? We read in Scripture that women should be silent in church and that seems clear enough reason to keep women out of the pulpit, never mind the women who worked with Paul and traveled with Jesus. It seems clear enough that the Bible condones capital punishment, never mind that Jesus clearly calls for sinless folk to cast the first stone — and there is not one. Why can we not see, to paraphrase a saying from the Desert Fathers, that when we judge the fornicator, we break the same law. The one who said “Do not fornicate” also said “do not judge.”
When will we learn that the greatest commandment is to love God and neighbor, the image of God? (I use the plural first person with full intent.) When will we learn that the Sabbath is indeed made for humanity, not for humanity to use as club for beating reverence into someone who might want to bake a cake on Sunday? When will we see that all the rules about murder, theft, sex, even honoring our forebearers are about treating each other as children of God, not as mere objects to be used or pushed aside in pursuit of some personal gratification?
That nice boy impetus I spoke of earlier? It is still a strong motivator in me. I can still be guilt tripped into doing things that are not good for me or anyone else. I still have the urge to turn in the perpetrator of some crime, especially if it makes me look more righteous. I still feel ashamed of things that I logically have no reason to feel shame for.
At the same time, however, I am learning to respond to the mercy I have received. It is the mercy that says that I don’t have to work so hard and feel so unworthy because God takes pleasure in me simply because God is pleased with creation. I bear God’s image, as do you, and God delights in us because of it, not because of anything we have done. God’s greatest desire is not that we work great works of piety or self discipline, but that we live in relationship with one another, God and God’s progeny, choosing mercy and love over cold rigidity.
It is a much more ambiguous, and therefore much more difficult, rule to follow than “don’t push the paper towel button twice.” But in the ambiguity, there is freedom and as I have moved from the self righteous second grader through the disillusioned homosexual into learning to live the rule of wide mercy, I am finding that being in Christ is more about being free than it is about following rules. This, I am slowly learning, is Good News.
May the mercy of Christ flow through us, transforming each of us into bearers of this Good News to all we meet.
I greatly encourage further study of these early, Christian monastics. I have discovered that there is a great deal of information on them available on the WWW. A web search on Desert Fathers will take you to some fascinating places. In addition, I highly recommend To Love As God Loves by Roberta C. Bondi (Fortress Press) as a beginning point on how to read the Fathers in modern times.
Central Texas native Neil Ellis Orts grew up on a farm on the Lee/Bastrop county line. He earned a bachelor’s degree in theater from Texas State University, a master’s of divinity from Lutheran Seminary Program in the Southwest and a master’s degree in interdisciplinary arts from Columbia College Chicago. He has published fiction and arts writing, including the 2004 novel Hidden Gifts. He also makes short performance pieces and has presented them in Chicago, Houston, and Atlanta.