Return to Exodus

Today we are at the 38th Annual Exodus International Conference…a place where we NEVER expected to be again. In 2006, at Ryan’s request, we went, with him, to the Exodus conference in Indiana. Ryan had asked to go for his 17th birthday in January of that year. We were THRILLED that he wanted to go – so agreed without trying to reveal just how happy we were (as if I could do that even if I wanted to – ha!). However, getting there didn’t go quite as planned.

Two weeks before the conference, on Father’s Day morning, when we stuck our heads into Ryan’s room to make sure he was up and getting ready for church, we didn’t see him. His bed was perfectly made – complete with military corners – and a note lay on his pillow. It said:

Dear Mom & Dad, I have run away. I just can’t keep trying to do this anymore. Please try not to worry.

I love you,
Ryan

He was gone for almost two weeks. By the time we found out he was safe (and in Sea Island, Georgia), we had a brand new appreciation for the trauma parents of runaways go through…it is indescribably horrific. We changed Ryan’s tickets from a flight from Seattle to Indiana, to a flight from Jacksonville to Indiana. We didn’t know if he would come, but he did. After two weeks of doing everything a parent most fears that their teenager will do, Ryan showed up at the Exodus conference, more than a little bit intoxicated from a combination of drugs and alcohol. While riding from the airport to the conference on a shuttle filled with conservative Midwestern Christians, he gave Rob – loudly – the gritty details of all of his adventures, including descriptive tales of his first sexual encounters, his first time purchasing and using all kinds of chemicals and his confessions of what he had done to afford to buy them. Ryan was always brutally honest, and he made no exception on that day.

Looking back, we have asked ourselves whether or not we regret taking Ryan to that conference, knowing what we know now. I don’t think so. Do I wish that we, as parents, had responded very differently to our son? YES. YES. YES. But do I think that the 2006 Exodus conference inflicted additional harm on Ryan’s soul? Not really. He made dear friends there. He had deep connections with other young men who were asking the same questions he was, connections he kept, even through his years of addiction. His conclusions, after the conference, were about being MORE honest about his own journey, not less. And he shared deeply with us about what he heard God say to him while he was there. Ryan always loved Jesus and loved to worship, and he was able to worship there with his whole heart, surrounded by teenagers and leaders that he had been completely honest with…friends that didn’t doubt his love for Jesus when he told them he was gay.

I know some of you are asking…but didn’t it reinforce the message that he wasn’t okay, just as he was? Perhaps. But we had already succeeded in hammering that message in quite soundly. And the thing is…we don’t regret having “exposed” Ryan to reparative theories. We regret ONLY exposing Ryan to reparative theories – to being too fearful to expose Ryan to gay Christians on the other side of this issue, so that he, with the help of the Holy Spirit, could wrestle through this with God and listen to GOD’S leading. Ryan wasn’t stupid (anything but, actually). And he sought – passionately – the face of God. We didn’t need to be afraid of ANY viewpoint on this issue…because God was big enough – powerful enough – faithful enough to speak to Ryan. But we actually tried to prevent that – we shielded Ryan from all but one perspective, giving him the mixed message of “we love you unconditionally, but you really need to agree with us – you really need to have the same conclusions that we do.” THAT isn’t real love. And it sure isn’t an example of real faith.

In so many other areas of our lives as parents, we helped our children to make decisions – their own decisions – by allowing them to consider all sides of an issue, by encouraging them to pray and seek God for wisdom, and by creating a place of safety in which to question and figure it out. And, by truly surrendering our own agendas and choosing to defer to God’s. But we didn’t do that with Ryan when it came to his sexuality. And we regret it.

Yesterday was an amazing day for us…one in which we were blessed – over and over again, by the staff of Exodus International, who have welcomed us, and our gay Christian friends, with sincere, open hearts and genuine love. Alan & Leslie Chambers, Randy Thomas & Jill Rennick have gone out of their way to communicate honest gratitude for our presence. I haven’t had much extra time, but I have seen a few very disparaging (to put it mildly) comments from other Christians about Exodus, and specifically about Alan Chambers. Those remarks grieve our hearts. We wish others could see and know the Alan that we do. Over the years, as we’ve been on our journey (a journey that was quite different than his own), Alan has been nothing but gracious, supportive and loving to us. With all of our hearts, we believe that he is the “real deal,” a messy, broken and in-process Christian (just like me), who is one of the most humble and sincere people I know. He is seeking to listen to the Lord, and to obey Him, at great cost to himself, his career and his ministry.

After reading my blog “Just Because He Breathes” in the first week of June, he sent us this message:

Linda: I just read your post from December on your friend’s blog. Even knowing of Ryan’s death, reading your words crushed me in a new and deeper way. I feel so sorry. I wonder what I could have done differently for you and Rob and Ryan. I do know I won’t be the same having read what you wrote and inserting myself and my son into your story/reality. This comes at a time when I am making significant changes at Exodus. I’d actually love your input. Also, I am so very sorry for anything I might have done or said or led that caused you to reject any part of Ryan. My heart, stomach and head aches thinking of it all.

Alan is a dear brother in Christ whom we are honored. privileged and blessed to call our friend. Please hear me – I don’t want to invalidate the intense pain, anger and damage that many of our friends and family have experienced as a result of their encounters with Exodus International and its affiliates. You have VERY real hurts and deserve VERY real apologies. And you have the absolute right to be angry…really, really angry. I don’t blame any of the many LGBTQ people who are skeptical about the public apologies Alan has made. I haven’t experienced what they have. I won’t ever really know what their journeys have been like. I am a straight, Christian, married woman who has only experienced a tiny glimpse of the depths of the pain they have felt, through the lens of her son. And I am amazed by the grace and forgiveness shown by many of our gay Christian and non-Christian friends towards Exodus. But I don’t expect it. As we have learned in 30 years of marriage, trust and reconciliation take hard work and a lot of time.

But, as I am learning in my own life, people aren’t all good or all bad. Each of us are a mixture of both; we make tragic mistakes and we have great victories. We hurt people we love, both intentionally and unintentionally. But if that makes someone all bad, then I am, of all people, the worst. Because I have committed some horrible wrongs and have caused untold pain in the lives of others. I need grace. I want grace. I am DESPERATE for grace.

I want people to see through my mistakes to my heart – to know that I don’t intend to be malicious or hurtful…but that sometimes I am. I want them to believe that I don’t want to be jerk…even though sometimes I am. And I want to believe in others in the same way. And for us, this is easy to do in the case of Alan Chambers.

We’re all in a process, and honest process – and progress – is difficult, incredibly slow, and can look coarse and unkempt. Is Alan perfect? Of course not! For me, I would much rather have messy, imperfect friends who are willing to admit fault, keep learning and STAY in the process, allowing God to teach them, than people who have everything figured out. Because I sure don’t.

It is because of Alan that we were able to share the extended version of our “Just Because He Breathes” story at the keynote session of the Exodus Conference yesterday morning (if you’d like to watch it, it is posted below). It can’t have been a popular choice for Alan to make. Our presentation was not exactly what the attendees had expected when they registered and traveled from around the world to be here. But he invited us to come and share, completely unedited, anyway. Because he, and the rest of the staff and board of Exodus, believe, as we do, that far too many people have taken their own lives because of the culture of hatred and bigotry that the evangelical church in America has not only tolerated, but cultivated. We can be silent no longer.

It isn’t exactly easy or comfortable to be here, because we are sitting in the tension of all that is going on. Many people here are at a very different place in their journey than we are. Some attendees are very uncomfortable with what we shared, and some feel that we have completely compromised and are no longer committed to truth. It is hard…because a lot of Christians are unhappy with us, and after posting this blog, perhaps some of our gay friends will be disappointed, too. It is completely okay with us if you don’t agree, or you have a different perspective. We NEED different opinions and people to challenge us. But, as our beautiful boy Ryan once said, “Dr. Tom, please be gentle.”

We are so very, very thankful that Alan allowed God to use him to bring us here, so that we could share our story – a story of how God taught us to truly love our gay son, just because he breathes.

Note: I’ve posted the video of our presentation below. Thank you to Alan Chambers for allowing our story – Ryan’s story – GOD’S story – to get out.

Second note: if you are wondering why Ryan said “Dr. Tom, please be gentle,” it is because when Lindsey was 4, and he was 2, they convinced their babysitter that we allowed them to jump from our half-wall in the kitchen onto the nearby recliner. In attempting this feat, Ryan’s front tooth was jammed completely up into his gums. We had to call our friend Tom Marxen, who is a dentist, to open up his office for an emergency visit on a Sunday morning. As “Dr. Tom”  was preparing to pull his tooth (the roots had fractured inside the gum), Ryan said, in the sweetest toddler voice, “Dr. Tom, please be gentle.” And his words often ring in my head when I hear others speaking harshly, or when I desire others to be careful and kind with me.

12 thoughts on “Return to Exodus

  1. Carol

    Linda and Rob. You are both testimonies for the power and motivation to change. My hope and sincere prayer is that there will be a time in the near future that you realise the only people you have not asked forgiveness for are each of you.

    You are loved, valued, appreciated. Your story is a journey – a charter for compassion. The full circle of which will be attained when you accept that forgiveness in your own heart beat and tears. Till that time – lean on your friends who are reaching their arms forward to show you the way.

    Reply
    1. Linda Robertson Post author

      Carol…

      Bless you for your words…you have always been so very wise.
      We do want to be gracious to ourselves, but we also do not want to forget what led to our mistakes, and the consequences of them…if it can help ANYONE else.
      I have over 200 emails from teens and adult children whose parents have rejected them because of their faith…and it breaks my heart. It is for them that we keep telling our story.
      I’ll take you up on your reaching arms, dear friend!!

      Reply
  2. Bethany

    Thank you for sharing your story. Although I am an atheist, and have been for several years, I was raised in a very conservative Christian home. I’m 35 years old and still not officially out to my parents, although they have been suspicious for many years. My parents love me very much – I’ve never doubted that. But this is one of the areas that we disagree on, and one of the few aspects of my life that I don’t share with them. I wish they could be enlightened the way that you were, and see that we don’t choose this life. It’s a part of who we are. I also wish that they could see the pain and rejection that I deal with, knowing that although they love me, my sexuality is not something that they will accept.

    I’m so, so very sorry for the loss of your son. But, please, be encouraged that you are changing other peoples’, other parents’, minds. Again, thank you for sharing your story.

    Reply
    1. Linda Robertson Post author

      Oh, Bethany…my heart breaks for you. I can’t imagine how painful it must be to have to hide such an important part of yourself from your own family. I feel sad that they are missing out on knowing ALL of you.

      But letters like yours remind me why we are here this week…and why we feel that God has given us a story to share. Thank you…your kindness, grace and true mercy are BEAUTIFUL.

      Reply
  3. Kelsey S.

    Mrs. Robertson,

    I was totally thinking about you yesterday when I heard the news about Exodus International and was wondering if you would post something. Your words are beautifully and humbly written, addressing a topic that needs to be discussed with grace and compassion. I had the opportunity to meet Alan Chambers a few years ago and he was nothing like the horrible things I had read and continue to read. He was just a man attempting to follow what God has asked him to do at this moment in time. As I read about the news yesterday I could not help but think that Alan Chambers has taught me a lesson, that people can change, maybe not gay to straight, but they can turn to love and acceptance, they can renounce hate and they can offer an apology and listening ear. What a beautiful message he has left us all with! In the end love wins because the really what matters is a heart after Jesus.

    Thinking about you and your family today. You and your husband are doing such beautiful work for the kingdom!

    Kelsey Elizabeth

    Reply
    1. Linda Robertson Post author

      Kelsey…WOW…your words are such an encouragement…and they reflect profound wisdom and grace. It lifts my heart to know that you are praying for Alan, and that there is COMPASSION out there for him. This has been such a difficult week for the Chambers. 😦

      Reply
  4. Elaine

    Our daughter, a PhD clinical psychologist, has been in a marvelous relationship with a woman , a Family Practice MD, for 23 years now. We love them because they are our children. And when some “friends” have asked, “How can you do that?” our answer is always, “Our children are our children, and they are the most precious of any human beings to us.”
    I am so sad that you have had to go through this terrible experience, that you have lost your beautiful son. And I am so glad that you have come to know that God does not make mistakes. God loves all God’s children, equally and without reservation. We need to do the same.
    This past Friday evening we celebrated Pride Shabbat at our Temple with members of our Am Keshet (People of the Rainbow) leading a beautiful service. And on Sunday, members of our congregation, gay and straight, young and old, male and female, rode our float in the Gay Pride Parade. God’s love poured over everyone.
    I wish you peace, Shalom, in your hearts.

    Reply
  5. John

    Dear Linda, I was very moved by your HuffPo blog, the letters you and Rob wrote, as well your presentation to Exodus and the video. I am so sorry for the loss of your beloved son but I do believe that your sharing the whole story of his pain and your own will help convince others to evaluate and change their views. It infuriates me that the leaders of my Roman Catholic church continue to promote a position which has only served to cause incredible pain to young people for generations. I tried to pray away my gay. It did not work and I came to accept who I was. I knew God loved me as I am and I could not accept that He wanted me to lead a lonely life. Of all the things in my life I am proudest of the fact that my partner and I have been together for 33 years tomorrow. I am going to share your blog through FB and encourage everyone I know to share it. Those of us who are gay and lesbian know the pain that Ryan felt and we grieve over the path his life took. But sharing his story will help disable the forces that have desroyed lives like Ryan’s and countless others. You truly are doing God’s work.

    Reply
  6. Jim Burroway

    Rob and Linda,

    It was such a pleasure to have met you at Exodus this year. I can’t express how incredibly brave it is for you to put yourselves out there like this. I do hope our paths may cross in future endeavors. Please keep in touch.

    Reply
  7. ginapoet

    Thank you, Linda, for sharing your story. It brings tears to my eyes- not just of pain or sadness, but for the joy possible in loving one another deeply with open hands and open hearts. I look forward to meeting your son someday in the world of Spirit. Yours, is a beautiful and honest story, woven with the deep beauty of your son’s soul as well. Thank you.

    Reply

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