A couple of weeks ago, a dear friend from church posed this question to me: “If Ryan were alive today, and he was going to marry his boyfriend, would you and Rob attend the wedding?”
My immediate thought was – to be COMPLETELY honest – “HELL YES!” (For those of you who know me, I don’t use that word often…or ANY swear words…I have too many old tapes in my head that say that certain words actually have the power to determine one’s eternal destiny!) But this is the truth: Wild horses couldn’t keep Rob and I from going to Ryan’s wedding. We’d be there, decked out and sitting in the front row, just as ecstatic and proud as we were last summer when Larissa married Cameron, and this month when we were delighted to watch Riley promise his lifelong faithfulness to Abigail.
I know that for many of our evangelical Christian friends, you probably don’t understand this; you’ll see it as an endorsement of sin, and as a compromise on our part to the truth of scripture. But that isn’t how God speaks to us about it. That isn’t what it is about for us.
A wedding is a major life event – a turning point – a sacred day that is unlike any other day in one’s life. As our oldest daughter would say, “your people” surround you on that day, because they all recognize the monumental importance of the occasion.
True, when I think about my own wedding day, it isn’t October 22, 1983 that is most important, but every day that has come because of that day…it is really about our marriage. But still, October 22, 1983 was when it all began. The day itself was incredibly, indescribably important. And we wanted those whom we loved and who loved us best to be there with us. When we got married, I had a few friends who were not in support of my decision to leave school and to marry a guy I hadn’t really known all that long – for goodness sake – I was only NINETEEN! So not everybody in my world thought it was a great idea. Not everybody thought it was wise or even sane.
And I ask myself, how would I have felt if those people, who supposedly loved me, had told me that they weren’t going to come to our wedding because they couldn’t support such a young woman giving up her education to get married to some man she had only known for a year and a half? Would that have made me change my mind? Would that have spoken love to me? Would that have done ANYTHING but alienate and distance me from the people who took that stance?
When our adult children make big decisions, whether it be who they marry, where (or whether) they go to college, where they choose to live, what worldview they choose to embrace, what faith they live by, or other such choices that they are free to make as adults, Rob and I feel strongly that if we say we love them unconditionally, then we better back up those words with actions. No mixed messages. No passive-aggressive comments. We can’t put conditions on unconditional love – to me, that seems to be the ultimate oxymoron.
And Christians, let’s get honest. If my oldest daughter decided to sleep with a guy before marriage, to live with him and then get married, you wouldn’t ask us if we’d attend the wedding, would you? If our daughter made those decisions, her choices would be a far cry from the ones Rob and I made. But it wouldn’t stop us from adoring her, right? Why is it so different for us as Christians when we’re thinking about our gay kids?
One of the many lessons we learned – the hard way – from Ryan’s life and death, is that if, as an adult parent, we want to be close to our adult children, we will love who they love. We will listen and not give advice (unless asked for, and even then, with gentleness and caution). We will give them the space and freedom to make their own decisions, because they are the ones who are living their lives, not us. If we give them gifts, they will truly be just that – gifts – with no expectations attached. We will not continue to assume the role of authority in their lives, because we are no longer their authority; our adult children have transferred their dependence from us, rightly, to dependence on the God of the Universe, their Creator and their Lord.
In the years after Ryan came out to us, we often made decisions that caused him to feel distant and alone – alienated from the people that were supposed to know and love him best. Yes, sometimes parents of teenagers have to make those kind of decisions, and some that we made were, indeed, necessary and wise. But others served no purpose other than to control Ryan out of our own fear, and they resulted in painful division and strife between us.
Several years ago my friend Jodie said this, “I wonder if it has become easier to oppose ideologies than to actually love people.” There is a great deal of wisdom in that statement. For many Christian parents of LGBTQ adult children, I think it might be easier to “take a stance for the truth” and avoid attending their weddings, inviting their partners over for dinner, or including the person they are dating to the family Christmas gathering. It is harder, actually, to lean in and be a bit uncomfortable; it is more challenging to make myself vulnerable to being in an unfamiliar situation where I might not know how to act. I might feel out of place or unwanted. And sometimes I have felt out of place and unwanted. But from our experience, each time we take those kind of risks, when we intentionally get out of our comfort zones and follow God into the lives of others, He teaches us – through them – so many, many things we couldn’t have learned otherwise.
It really doesn’t matter what Rob and I think about gay marriage. We haven’t taken a public position on it or shared publicly how we voted last November. We have been doing our best to listen to God, and He hasn’t led us to make that our platform. But He has called us to share the story of how He taught us to truly love Ryan, including all the things we would have done differently. He has called us to weep with those who weep, and rejoice with those who rejoice. He has called us to speak up for those who are voiceless…the LGBTQ teens and young adults who feel banished from the church and unlovable to God. Most of all, He has been continually granting us a deeper and deeper understanding of what unconditional love really is; He has been revealing how we can trust in His unconditional love for us, and how we can display that love to others.
If we, theoretically, disagreed about a decision one of our adult children was making, would sharing our unsolicited theological position be edifying and helpful? I don’t think so. When friends who disagree with me have tried to convince me of my error by moving away from me instead of walking alongside me, it only causes me pain and damages the relationship. I have been drawn to Jesus by His kindness, grace and mercy. And the people I want most to be around are those who show me that same kindness, grace and mercy. The friends who give me unasked for advice (we have received a lot of this since losing a child) tend, to be frank, the people we don’t meet for coffee at Starbucks. They are still our friends, but when someone who hasn’t lost a child themselves tells us how we should be handling our grief it doesn’t exactly endear them to me. Actually, sometimes it makes me want to say those words that I was taught could endanger my salvation.
And the bottom line is this: I trust that God is big enough to BE GOD in the lives of the people I love. If they are making a decision that is not pleasing to God, HE is powerful enough to communicate to them. He doesn’t need me to be His spokesperson to my adult children. I can remember countless times when, as a parent, I would observe something in one of our teenagers’ lives that concerned me, and God would prompt me not to say something, but to wait on Him. Over and over again, they would – without my help (go figure!), come to the same conclusion that I was praying and hoping for. And often, I would laugh at myself for even thinking that God needed me to do His work for Him! I am not saying that we never talked to our kids about things we felt they needed to hear – just ask them – we did that a lot! But when I rush out before God, and react to something that scares me by pronouncing my judgments on others, I almost always mess things up.
Oops…One more bottom line. We never know how long we will have the gift of the lives of those we love. We can’t take even one day for granted. I am thankful for each time we were able to lean in to Ryan’s life, to love him without conditions, to enter his world and to really love the people he loved. When that meant walking with him – hand in hand – through Capitol Hill on PrideFest weekend, did I feel a bit out of place? (Yes! But probably more because everything about me screams “EASTSIDE MIDDLE-AGE MOM!” than because I was in the middle of a gay pride celebration!) I am so thankful to my Heavenly Father for removing our fear, and for teaching us to soak up every event, every day, every time Ryan invited us into his life. I can’t even begin to imagine the pain we would feel now, had we said “No, we cannot support you in this, because this goes against what the Bible teaches.” Our regret and sorrow would be indescribable.
So if Ryan had survived his struggle with addiction, and had met the man of his dreams, you bet we’d go to his wedding! Not because we are the poster parents for an issue or a cause…but just because he is our son…and we love him…just because he breathes.