Author Archives: Linda Robertson

So I’ve Come Out to My Christian Parents…Now what?

Ever since Just Because He Breathes was printed on Huff Post, I’ve been getting emails. LOTS of emails. And so many of them have been from gay “children” who want to have a healthy, good relationship with their Christian parents. I’ve noticed that a lot of you, like me, are people pleasers…and almost all of you want to have open, honest, respectful relationships with your parents, whatever your age. I’ve answered a lot of the questions, but I’m realizing that I’ve been saying a lot of the same things over and over again, so I am going to try to put them together here, for use by any gay “child” who has a Christian parent – or even any parent – with whom they want to be in relationship.

Things to Remember About Parents

Parents, particularly Christian/Catholic/conservative parents, are probably going to need some time…maybe a lot of time…to figure out how they feeling after finding out that their son or daughter is gay/trans/queer.

The list below is not a list of excuses for bad behavior on the part of parents…but it is my attempt to help you have some understanding of where they might be coming from. Families require a lot of grace…hopefully given by all parties. But sometimes you might have to be the one who gets the grace going.

I think this is for a lot of reasons, but here are some of the biggest ones:

1. No parent wants his/her child to have a harder life.
Inarguably, the life of an LGBTQ teen/adult is more difficult than the life of a straight person in America – and immeasurably more difficult in many other countries. This is something any parent is going to feel, even if they don’t have ANY concern about your sexuality otherwise.

2. Most parents have the “dream” that their child will someday grow up, marry and produce grandchildren.
When I found out that my future wasn’t going to necessarily include four heterosexual children and four spouses, all happily married with their own children (obviously, this is ludicrous, in hindsight), I had to surrender that dream to God…to give that up for the better dream that He had for us. But that took some time. Allow your parents some time to grieve the loss of that dream, if you can.

3. We parents can put WAY too much importance in how our family and friends see our children, and, consequently, us.
It is true that “good parents” are often deemed worthy of that title by the spiritual, moral and academic success of their children. This is a complete fallacy, but it is a very real pressure that parents face. It takes time, and a lot of strength (for us, that came from God), to be able to let go of what our friends and family think, and to ONLY listen to what God is saying to us. Most likely, you won’t be able to convince them that what their friends at church think doesn’t matter. You might be able to tell them that you need to know that YOU are more important than their friends, though.

4. Christian parents have been taught that being gay means this: You will reject God. You will live a dangerous, life-threatening “lifestyle.”
You will never be truly happy. You will abuse drugs and alcohol. You will have repeated, random hook-ups with complete strangers. A lot of them. And again, you will reject God…which means, to many Christian parents, that you will spend an eternity in hell.

None of the above is true, but it was EXACTLY what I was taught. And what I believe is still being taught by many churches and Christian organizations (see “The Story of Gay” on Julie Rodger’s blog). This lie – what I like to call propaganda – is largely what caused my SEVERE reaction of fear when Ryan came out to us. I believed all the Christian pastors and leaders who had told me that these were the facts. Again, it took time for us to realize that this was not true…not true at all.

5. Parents can sometimes be incredibly hurtful and cause you unspeakable pain.
We can do this, all the while thinking that we are doing what is “best” for you, because we are “speaking truth.” Too many of you have told me of horribly painful things your parents have said, done or posted on FaceBook. Although it is easy for me to think, “At least we never kicked Ryan out, or told him he was going to hell, or said he was abomination…at least we weren’t THAT mean”….the truth is we did do things that, unintentionally, broke Ryan’s heart. I could make you a list (not without crying). But we never did stop loving Ryan…we just hadn’t learned, yet, what the kind of unconditional love God was calling us to looked like.

6. Christian parents may need the support of other Christian parents with LGBTQ kids.
A friend of mine said this:

“I found out our son was gay over two years ago, accidentally. I sat on the info for over a month and cried every day. I searched the net for a forum like this, a Christian group. I found PFLAG and a very kind lady emailed me and we spoke on the phone. She has three gay children. When I mentioned being a Christian, well, I might as well have said I have the plague, in her eyes. She said that Christian kids have a much harder time because their parents and churches usually turn their back on them. I was discouraged and alone.”

In the past month, we have started a small network of Christian parents who love Jesus and who also love their LGBTQ child. Right now, the parents are literally and figuratively all over the map – where they live and where they are in their process of learning to fully love and relate to their child. But since we’re all on the journey, we are able to be there for each other, providing support, prayer and understanding that we can’t find in our local churches. We are praying for the resources needed to allow this network to grow and include more parents; please pray with us for this!

My good friend, Susan Cottrell, also has a great blog with lots of resources for Christian parents of LGBTQ kids:  FreedHearts.com

7. You are going to need a lot of patience and a lot of faith.
We parents are slow to learn things sometimes, but just as God doesn’t give up on you, He doesn’t give up on us. It was GOD who did the “heavy lifting” in what Rob and I needed to learn; He was the one who really hammered the hard lessons home. He never abandoned us, even when we were way off track, following the trail of our own fears rather than following His voice.

Things to Remember About Yourself as an Adult Child

I’d like to share with you what I am learning, as a 49 year old woman, in my own life with our adult children, and through a lot of therapy sessions with an incredibly gifted Psychologist/Spiritual Director.

1. It is not your job to avoid hurting your parents’ feelings.
Though our kids (I will call them kids, but they are all adults now) do their best to be respectful, as they would in any relationship, often they have hard things they need to say to me. They need to tell me how I have hurt them, annoyed them, neglected them in some way, or made them feel unimportant. Sometimes they express these feelings beautifully, and sometimes it comes out in a rush, and it is very messy. Either way is okay. I am their mom, and it is my job to hear them, however they communicate. If my feelings are hurt, that is between me and God. If they have truly said something that was mean or spiteful, I can bring that up, but my first priority is to truly listen, mirror them and ask forgiveness, if necessary (it usually is). If I don’t respond well, it is NOT their fault nor their responsibility.

2. It is not your job to avoid causing your parents’ pain.
Actually, pain is a good thing for us as parents. It causes us to look inside, to examine our own hearts, and to depend on God, who is our ultimate source of comfort and security. When Ryan came out to us, it was an enormous gift. At the time, my walk with Jesus had grown rather stale. But after he came out, it was ANYTHING but. Through the next 8 years, my walk with Jesus grew and grew and grew. All thanks to Ryan’s honesty…my pain…and my resulting need for God’s help.

3. It is not your responsibility to protect your parents from trauma or illness.
Many of you are afraid, or have been told, that your sexuality will cause your parents a serious health crisis. But the truth is this: When Ryan came out to us, I threw up for days. I lost over 20 lbs, and I was already thin. I didn’t sleep. THAT WAS NOT RYAN’S FAULT. It was MINE. It was about MY fear. MY lack of faith. MY inability to trust Jesus to love Ryan more than I do.

4. It is not your job to make your parents happy by being a “good” daughter or son.
Nobody can make anyone else happy, but you can almost kill yourself trying, as I know all too well. If my happiness depends on the choices one of our children make, I am in BIG trouble. Not only will that not work (they’ll never keep me happy), but it will push our kids away from us faster than I can say the word happiness. Our kids have to know that they are free to make ANY choices, follow ANY dream, disagree completely with us as parents, and even disconnect from us completely…and we will STILL love them just because they breathe. Our happiness cannot be based on them…it MUST be based on our own lives – our own walks with God, our own marriage, our own friendships.

5. It is okay to tell your parents what you wish your relationship could look like.
If you express to your parents your desire that they really know you, and love you, that is what our family calls “leaning in” to the relationship – moving toward them because you love and value them. As you know, they aren’t mind readers. If you’d like them to ask about who you are dating, let them know that you’d love that, when they are ready. If you’d like them to treat you just like they treat your straight siblings, tell them that. It always works great to start these kind of statements with phrases like, “It would mean a great deal to me if….” or  “One thing that would speak love to me is….” or  “You are very important to me. I want to be close to you. It would help me to be closer to you if…..”

Just remember, what you desire cannot be an expectation. It can’t be something you demand, because you don’t control your parents (as you know). But do tell them what you need! This has been one of the greatest gifts our adult children have given to us.

6. The best thing you can do for your parents – and yourself – is to separate from them.
Become your own person, not dependent on their approval or their favor. In the end, this will result in a better, more real relationship with them, if they desire. Let me give you a few examples.

When Ryan returned to our lives, he was an adult, gay man who had walked away from his faith. He had made choices that were very different from ours, but they were his. He was completely honest about those choices, both the good ones and the bad ones. Our new relationship was built upon mutual respect, complete honesty and joint willingness to admit wrongs and to ask forgiveness. There was a clear acknowledgement that he wasn’t asking us to dig him out of the legal, financial and moral holes he found himself in, any more than we were asking him to help us feel “good about ourselves” as parents. This new relationship was PURE GIFT. It was authentic and open and DELIGHTFUL. There were no assumed expectations and Rob, Ryan and I each had complete freedom to be ourselves, and love flourished.

In our oldest daughter’s first year of college, Rob and I saw our firstborn make a marked transition from her dependence on us to dependence on God. She stopped, for the most part, asking us for advice, and instead went to God and to the mentors and friends He had supplied. Her life, in the past decade, has looked very different from what mine looked like in the same time period. Had she followed my example, and my natural inclinations for her, she would have been married for some time now, and would probably have a couple of children. But that wasn’t how God led HER. He had a different plan for her and it was a better plan for her (big surprise, right?). Our relationship today is stronger than ever, largely because neither of us are dependent on the other for our happiness, and we are both free to communicate – or not to communicate – as often as we like. She is a separate individual, accountable to God, and she makes her decisions with His help, not with ours (though sometimes she asks for our input). It took me much longer to be okay with the fact that she wasn’t anxious to marry than it took her…and I am so thankful that she didn’t change the course that God had her on just to make me happy.

So if you aren’t responsible to make your parents happy, and to make sure that they are never hurt, what is your responsibility?

As we all know, the Bible clearly tells us to honor our parents. Personally, I have really struggled with what that means. I am still asking God to show me, so this is a work in progress, as I am a work in progress.

Honoring my parents means, for me, that as a child, I am honest with them. I strive to be truly myself in my relationship with them, as I do with my closest friends. I honor them by being truthful about all my feelings, whether those feelings be anger or hurt or disappointment, just as I do with my husband and closest friends (the people I love the most). I do not slander my parents. I do not intentionally cause them harm with malice or bitterness.

I can honor my parents by setting healthy boundaries for both of us. Our youngest son has done a great job of this recently, as he has recently married. He has set some new boundaries for us, since he is leaving us and cleaving to his wife. Those boundaries have been truly honoring, because he is doing what is best for all of us.

I can also honor my parents by making my marriage and my closest friendships a priority in my life, because I am following God’s call for my life. Our children honor us when they make God’s call – in their own lives – their first priority. Even if we aren’t a primary part – or even a small part – of that call!

So, to conclude this not-at-all-exhaustive “guide” for gay children with Christian parents (God willing, we’ll keep learning and will add to this as we continue this journey together), remember this:

You do not have the power, by yourself, to ensure that you have a wonderful relationship with your parents.

They do not have the power, alternatively, to ensure that you will never be hurt by life, or that you will never encounter difficult situations as you wrestle with reconciling your faith with your sexuality and as you strive to listen to God’s voice above all others. They also do not have the power to keep you from having a flourishing, wonderful life full of God’s blessings.

Most importantly, you have the power to listen to God’s voice above all others.

I can remember Ryan singing…I can see him in my mind, crying out to God with these words:

All of You
is more than enough for
all of me
For every thirst and every need
You satisfy me with Your love
And all I have in You
is more than enough.*

So, with or without your parents’ love and approval, I am praying tonight, and trusting, that God, your Heavenly Father, who loves you far more than you could ever begin to fathom, will be more than enough for you.

 

*Lyrics from “Enough” by Chris Tomlin

Everyone Has a Story…

“Be kinder than necessary, for everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.” 
 — James M. Barrie

When our four kids were growing up, I used to always remind them that everyone has a story. I would tell them that no matter how grumpy someone may have been, how annoying their behaviors or how unkempt they were, there was ALWAYS a story behind it. I reminded them to give people the benefit of the doubt, because we had no idea what their “stories” were. Perhaps they had just been given a diagnosis of cancer, or maybe the love of their life just broke up with them or maybe nobody in their world ever saw them as valuable or worth listening to.

When Ryan was living on the streets of Seattle, using drugs and doing all kinds of awful things to afford them, I prayed that the people he ran into would remember that he had a story. I prayed that the police officers, the nurses, the pedestrians he bumped into and the people he stole from might have the insight to know that he never chose to become an addict. He never wanted to be miserable. He never dreamed, when he was a little boy, of growing up to become imprisoned by addiction. I begged God to bring people into his life who would trust that Ryan had a story; who would see the image of God in Ryan, and who would reflect that image right back to him.

Now, I pray each day that God will allow me to see His image in every person I meet, whether it is the homeless guy on the corner, the man in the truck who flipped me off for forgetting to signal before my lane change or the angry, entitled woman screaming at the checkout guy in the Costco line. I want to remember that I don’t know their stories and to extend to them the same mercy and grace I wanted people to give my son.

I have come to believe the importance of this even more deeply the older I get. We all have long backstories: journeys that explain why we react harshly to some situations and break out in sobs in others. There are reasons why I have a hard time being patient with people complaining about their children being late or choosing the wrong college, just as there are reasons why I cry when people use scripture to accuse me of doing damage to the cause of Christ.

Several important things I like to remember about stories:

1.  Jesus used stories for a reason. They are a powerful tool for teaching and reaching our hearts and souls.

2.  God has used the stories of others to teach me, to change me and to make me more like Him. NOTHING has affected me more powerfully than people’s genuine, vulnerable stories.

3.  When I know, or admit that I don’t know, someone’s story, it becomes nearly impossible to judge or dismiss them. In other words, it is very hard to “hate up close.”

4.  Often the kindest, most loving thing I can do for someone else (as well as the most edifying thing I can do for myself) is simply to ask questions and to sit back and listen to their story.

5.  Lastly, as several very wise men in my life have reminded me lately, nobody can argue with your story. It is just yours. True simply because it is YOUR STORY.

The past few weeks Rob and I have been truly humbled and privileged to read hundreds and hundreds of stories – all true, many heart-breaking and some victorious. Many of them have been from parents with gay “children,” parents who want desperately to love their children more fully. More of them have been from gay “children” with parents, children who want desperately to be loved more fully by their parents, whatever their age. They are all sacred, holy stories. I have been overwhelmed by the weight of them, but also completely astounded by the enormous grace that leaks out all over them. Grace and love that have the power to break down any walls that divide us. Grace and love that our world sorely needs. Grace and love from people who have every reason not to be graceful or loving.

There are two themes that ring out clearly from the hundreds, actually thousands of stories I have read this month.

First, that we all deeply desire to be known and loved by our Creator God.

Second, that we all desperately need to know that the people we are closest to, our families and friends, love us just because we breathe. Pretty simple, right?

And it strikes me now, as I read that back, how those two things…those themes that came through email after email, that resonated from comment after comment, perfectly mirror the words of Jesus Christ when He was asked what the first and greatest commandment was:

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”*

Hmmm…Could it be that Jesus knew exactly what we, as humans, need most in this life? To be connected to the God of the Universe, the One who created us in His image, and to be bonded to and loved by those on earth who walk with us? Perhaps we tend to make everything a lot more complicated than it needs to be. Especially if we take Jesus at His word when He said that ALL of the laws and ALL of the things the prophets said in the Old Testament hang on those two things: Loving God and loving people.

But back to stories. Less than a month ago, I didn’t think anyone needed to hear our unique story; I didn’t think anyone would want to hear about the regrets and sorrows of a mom who had lost her son. I thought that, by 2013, surely most people had learned the lessons we did a long time ago.

But I was wrong. If you doubt me, spend some time reading the comment sections on this little blogsite. You will read story after story of teenagers and adult children who long for God’s love and who yearn for their parents’ love. Some are still bound by the toxic shame that our society (and churches, to be sure) inflict on those who are gay. Others have been able to hear God’s voice of love whispering to them, even though the chorus of hate was louder.

I’ve also received countless messages from parents. So many of them, all wanting to love their children just as they are, be it gay, mentally ill, learning disabled or with some other difference. They have had to watch their child battle against the critical voices of their peers. Some parents want desperately to be able to love their child unconditionally, but live in fear because of the communities who would be quick to judge them and their children if they were found to be straying from what is “acceptable” and “normal.”

We’ve also received some of the most cruel condemnations I could ever imagine – I had no idea that words, written by a stranger, could hurt so badly, even when I know, on a rational level, that the words are not true. I can only remind myself that each of these writers has their own story, though none of them has offered to share them. They must have scars that run so deeply that even reading a few words of our story triggers a torrent of pain and rage.

I wish that those who have judged us, especially all those who left particularly hateful comments on Huffington Post (thank you to my friends who warned me not to read those), would realize they only know a very small slice of our story…that we haven’t shared all the joyful, funny, poignant and unforgettably precious moments we had with Ryan – many during his adolescence. And we certainly didn’t share any of the good things we did as parents, as our three surviving adult children have been quick – and kind – to point out. I wish they would have given me just a little bit of consideration…a pinch of benefit of the doubt…before accusing me of torturing and murdering my own child.

I continually ask God to help me remember that I probably don’t have the whole story before I judge others. Even people who spread hatred in the name of Jesus, which is especially horrifying and offensive to me. But the people who hate in the name of Jesus have stories, too; I just don’t know them, and I can’t begin to imagine what kind of horrendously painful stories would result in such hypocrisy and cruelty. So instead of voting them off the island (even though I would like to), I will pray that the grace and mercy of God will touch their wounded and infected places, so that they will be newly able to give grace and mercy to others.

In coming weeks, I’d like to share excerpts from some of the stories I’ve heard, in order to remind all of us (particularly those of us who are in the straight majority) of the urgent need in this country to make changes – real changes – to protect the emotional, mental, spiritual and physical safety of ALL of our children.

Perhaps we can all spend a little bit more time asking questions and listening, rather than talking and telling. Because if you’re like me, you already know what you think. And what you don’t know actually can hurt you…and others. So let’s keep our ears wide open to the stories that other people have to tell us.

So the next time you are tempted to write somebody off for being an insensitive, clueless jerk, or to thank God that you are not as arrogant or ignorant as that person pontificating endlessly on FaceBook or to just walk right by the disheveled man outside of your favorite, usually really nice grocery store (they are probably just begging for money to buy drugs, right?), remember…EVERYONE HAS A STORY.

Next time…maybe just ask…”What’s your story?” And pull up a chair and start listening.

My Gay Son’s Wedding

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.

Grace

One of the best gifts about the ten months we had with Ryan before his death was the time we were given to ask forgiveness for the things we had not understood, the things we had said that were hurtful and the ways we had communicated less than unconditional love for Ryan in the years right after he had come out to us. We had done some of that work in family counseling before he started using, but what a gift it was to be able to tell Ryan much more fully all that God had taught us while he was missing. 

And Ryan had so much grace for us. When we are lacking grace for ourselves, all we have to do is to remember that Ryan himself had forgiven us, not only in his words and actions, but in a letter he wrote to Rob on Father’s Day, 2009…only 9 days before we got the call from Harborview Medical Center that changed our lives forever. 

Dad,

I’m SO proud to be able to say that you are my father, and I always have been. When I was little you were my hero. When we had our differences, the pain I felt reflected the depth of my love for you. When we were estranged from each other, I still bragged about my dad, the firefighter. 

I don’t know how it is possible, but today, I am more proud to be your son than ever before. Words cannot describe how thankful I am to have the rare quality of relationship that I have with you. Things have definitely changed now that I am an adult, and the respect which you have shown me upon that transition is almost uncanny, but it is love in its truest form. I feel I should, in turn, show you a gesture of respect, from the bottom of my heart, due to realizations upon my maturations. 

In my mind, it would be a great shame to let you say you have come up short as a father. You are the best damn Father that I know of, and I can guarantee that 99% of the human population would have miserably failed if they tried to walk in your shoes. The responsibility that you have carried in our family has been enormous, and I am at a loss to understand how you are still standing. Well, I do know…it is because of your faith in God.

You have shown me again and again what it means to be a real man. To love unconditionally, to treat people with dignity and respect, to persevere through seemingly insurmountable tasks, to protect those dear to you, to stand up for your beliefs, to do the right thing even when others disagree, to give your best in everything you do and to trust God above all else. You have always loved me deeply, and have done what you thought was best for me. How could that ever have been a mistake?

Dad, you are my role model. I love you more than you can know. 

– Ryan
June 21, 2009

Definition of GRACE

Ryan lived grace. He had received grace. He gave grace. He oozed grace. And this letter is a great example of that. We miss you, our beautiful, beautiful boy.

Mail to Ryan…Our Beautiful Boy

My husband, Rob, wrote this letter to Ryan as part of our expanded “Just Because He Breathes” presentation for Exodus International. The video below was shown in our presentation, after Rob read this: 

Dear Ryan,

I miss you so much. I don’t really know how heaven works because you might already know everything I’m about to say but just in case you don’t there’s some things I want you to know.  I love you so much and it hurts so bad that you were not here last weekend to celebrate Riley’s wedding with us. We all missed you so much. Riley and Abby left an empty place for you, and Lindsey was the only bridesmaid who walked unescorted down the aisle, because you should have been with her. Even though the day would have been difficult for you in some aspects, you would have been so proud of your brother. And I know that you would just ADORE Abby. Your handsome face and easy laugh would have made the day complete for me.

That said, I am not angry that you relapsed on that day In late June 2009. I know you did not intend to let things get out of hand like they did. In fact I would not be bitter or angry even if you had taken your life.  I have nothing but compassion and respect for how well and how long you battled your difficulties. Only now by reading your journals, do I more fully realize how much pain and difficulty you were facing. Whenever I feel like I need a good cry, all I have to do is to pull them out and it puts me in touch with the deep pain you were in…and how, as your earthly father, I let you down in many ways.

I am so very, very sorry for the things that I did to contribute to your despair. I so desperately wish that I had known back then what I do know now. I thought I was so right when you first came out to us. Little did I know how much I had to learn. Please forgive me for letting fear control my decisions and the way I responded to you, instead of faith. I should have trusted God, who loves you so much more – and better – than I do, and who never stopped chasing after you.

I so regret how slow I was to truly understand and love you without any conditions.

But you always had such grace for me. You were so patient with us while we learned what really mattered.

Thank you for trusting us with your deepest thoughts and fears and sharing so much of your experience as a gay teen, and a gay young adult, attempting to reconcile his faith with his sexuality. Thank you for all your letters and emails; the ones that made us laugh and the ones that made us cry. Your handwritten letters are priceless to me.

I so wish that I could introduce you to some of my dearest friends now, men and women who love Jesus with their whole hearts. They have helped me to understand that gay is not a deal breaker for God…that gay and Christian can co-exist, and that God isn’t wringing His hands over this issue. He is way bigger than this. I know that God did not reject or abandon you, or anyone else.

I wish I could take you to dinner tonight and tell you all the ways that your life…and even your death…blesses ours every day. We have learned so very much from you. God, through you, has opened up a whole new world for mom and I.

I wish we could make that snowboarding trip to Mount Baker that we had planned.

I wish you could see how we’re still using the zip line you designed. I will never forget the joy on your face as you concocted yet another way to creatively fly across our back yard.

I wish I could take you backpacking again, and that we could talk and talk and talk as we hiked.

I wish you were here to have backyard bonfires, and to come up with ever increasingly crazy ways to alarm our neighbors.

I wish you could call and tell me all about it when you met a guy you were interested in…and that I could meet him, too.

I wish that we could have a barbeque on your roof, with the view of the Space Needle that we loved so much.

I wish we could ride down the driveway together…one of us on my rip stick and one on my long board…and that we could teach each other new tricks as we laughed and crashed.

I wish you were here to help me hunt the raccoons that threaten to eat our Janie cat…I will NEVER forget the time you pegged that one 30 ft up in the tree in our front yard, and then 20 seconds later, got the second one on your first try.

I wish you could cook your specialty eggs in our kitchen, adding that fire sauce, while you sang funny songs and worship songs and whatever else came to mind. I miss your voice.

I wish you were here in the audience, sitting with Larissa and Cam and Lindsey and Grandma Pat and Uncle Ronny and Uncle Don and all our new friends from Biola Queers, who I know you would love so much.

I wish I could hold you again.

I love you, Ryan.

I miss you. Oh, how I miss you.

I am so very, very proud of you.

I am sorry for EVER wanting you to be anyone other than who God made you to be. I am so very sorry for all the things I said that caused you to feel that I would love you more if you were straight.

I know now that you were EXACTLY who God intended…and that you were BEAUTIFUL.

You were, and will always be, my beautiful, beautiful boy…

We showed this video to accompany the letter during our presentation:

Just Because He Breathes

June 1, 2009 – 2nd Day of 17 Days in Harborview

On the night of November 20, 2001, a conversation held over Instant Messenger changed our lives forever. Our twelve-year-old son messaged me in my office from the computer in his bedroom.

Ryan says: can i tell u something
Mom says: Yes I am listening
Ryan says: well i don’t know how to say this really but, well……, i can’t keep lying to you about myself. I have been hiding this for too long and i sorta have to tell u now. By now u probably have an idea of what i am about to say.
Ryan says: I am gay
Ryan says: i can’t believe i just told you
Mom says: Are you joking?
Ryan says: no
Ryan says: i thought you would understand because of uncle don
Mom says: of course I would
Mom says: but what makes you think you are?
Ryan says: i know i am
Ryan says: i don’t like hannah
Ryan says: it’s just a cover-up
Mom says: but that doesn’t make you gay…
Ryan says: i know
Ryan says: but u don’t understand
Ryan says: i am gay
Mom says: tell me more
Ryan says: it’s just the way i am and it’s something i know
Ryan says: u r not a lesbian and u know that. it is the same thing
Mom says: what do you mean?
Ryan says: i am just gay
Ryan says: i am that
Mom says: I love you no matter what
Ryan says: i am white not black
Ryan says: i know
Ryan says: i am a boy not a girl
Ryan says: i am attracted to boys not girls
Ryan says: u know that about yourself and i know this
Mom says: what about what God thinks about acting on these desires?
Ryan says: i know
Mom says: thank you for telling me
Ryan says: and i am very confused about that right now
Mom says: I love you more for being honest
Ryan says: i know
Ryan says: thanx

We were completely shocked. Not that we didn’t know and love gay people – my only brother had come out to us several years before, and we adored him. But Ryan? He was unafraid of anything, tough as nails, and ALL boy. We had not seen this coming, and the emotion that overwhelmed us, kept us awake at night and, sadly, influenced all of our reactions over the next six years, was FEAR.

We said all the things that we thought loving Christian parents who believed the Bible – the Word of God – should say:

We love you. We will ALWAYS love you. And this is hard. REALLY hard. But we know what God says about this, and so you are going to have to make some really difficult choices.

We love you. We couldn’t love you more. But there are other men who have faced this same struggle, and God has worked in them to change their desires. We’ll get you their books…you can listen to their testimonies. And we will trust God with this.

We love you. We are so glad you are our son. But you are young, and your sexual orientation is still developing. The feelings you’ve had for other guys don’t make you gay. So please don’t tell anyone that you ARE gay. You don’t know who you are yet. Your identity is not that you are gay – it is that you are a child of God.

We love you. Nothing will change that. But if you are going to follow Jesus, holiness is your only option. You are going to have to choose to follow Jesus, no matter what. And since you know what the Bible says, and since you want to follow God, embracing your sexuality is NOT an option.

We thought we understood the magnitude of the sacrifice that we – and God – were asking for. And this sacrifice, we knew, would lead to the abundant life, perfect peace and eternal rewards. Ryan had always felt intensely drawn to spiritual things; He desired to please God above all else. So, for the first six years, he tried to choose Jesus. Like so many others before him, he pleaded with God to help him be attracted to girls. He memorized Scripture, met with his youth pastor weekly, enthusiastically participated in all the church youth group events and Bible Studies and got baptized. He read all the books that claimed to know where his gay feelings came from, dove into counseling to further discover the “why’s” of his unwanted attraction to other guys, worked through painful conflict resolution with my husband and I, and built strong friendships with other guys – straight guys – just like the reparative therapy experts advised. He even came out to his entire youth group, giving his testimony of how God had rescued him from the traps of the enemy, and sharing – by memory – verse after verse that God had used to draw Ryan to Himself.

But nothing changed. God didn’t answer his prayer – or ours – though we were all believing with faith that the God of the Universe – the God for whom NOTHING is impossible – could easily make Ryan straight. But He did not.

Though our hearts may have been good (we truly thought what we were doing was loving), we did not even give Ryan a chance to wrestle with God, to figure out what HE believed God was telling him through scripture about his sexuality. We had believed firmly in giving each of our four children the space to question Christianity, to decide for themselves if they wanted to follow Jesus, to truly OWN their own faith. But we were too afraid to give Ryan that room when it came to his sexuality, for fear that he’d make the wrong choice.

Basically, we told our son that he had to choose between Jesus and his sexuality. We forced him to make a choice between God and being a sexual person. Choosing God, practically, meant living a lifetime condemned to being alone. He would never have the chance to fall in love, have his first kiss, hold hands, share intimacy and companionship or experience romance.

And so, just before his 18th birthday, Ryan, depressed, suicidal, disillusioned and convinced that he would never be able to be loved by God, made a new choice. He decided to throw out his Bible and his faith at the same time, and to try searching for what he desperately wanted – peace – another way. And the way he chose to try first was drugs.

We had – unintentionally – taught Ryan to hate his sexuality. And since sexuality cannot be separated from the self, we had taught Ryan to hate himself. So as he began to use drugs, he did so with a recklessness and a lack of caution for his own safety that was alarming to everyone who knew him.

Suddenly our fear of Ryan someday having a boyfriend (a possibility that honestly terrified me) seemed trivial in contrast to our fear of Ryan’s death, especially in light of his recent rejection of Christianity, and his mounting anger at God.

Ryan started with weed and beer…but in six short months was using cocaine, crack and heroin. He was hooked from the beginning, and his self-loathing and rage at God only fueled his addiction. Shortly after, we lost contact with him. For the next year and a half we didn’t know where he was, or even if he was dead or alive. And during that horrific time, God had our full attention. We stopped praying for Ryan to become straight. We started praying for him to know that God loved him. We stopped praying for him never to have a boyfriend. We started praying that someday we might actually get to know his boyfriend. We even stopped praying for him to come home to us; we only wanted him to come home to God.

By the time our son called us, after 18 long months of silence, God had completely changed our perspective. Because Ryan had done some pretty terrible things while using drugs, the first thing he asked me was this:

Do you think you can ever forgive me? (I told him of course, he was already forgiven. He had ALWAYS been forgiven.)

Do you think you could ever love me again? (I told him that we had never stopped loving him, not for one second. We loved him then more than we had ever loved him.)

Do you think you could ever love me with a boyfriend? (Crying, I told him that we could love him with fifteen boyfriends. We just wanted him back in our lives. We just wanted to have a relationship with him again…AND with his boyfriend.)

And a new journey was begun. One of healing, restoration, open communication and grace. LOTS of grace. And God was present every step of the way, leading and guiding us, gently reminding us simply to love our son, and leave the rest up to Him.

Over the next ten months, we learned to truly love our son. Period. No buts. No conditions. Just because he breathes. We learned to love whoever our son loved. And it was easy. What I had been so afraid of became a blessing. The journey wasn’t without mistakes, but we had grace for each other, and the language of apology and forgiveness became a natural part of our relationship. As our son pursued recovery from drug and alcohol addiction, we pursued him. God taught us how to love him, to rejoice over him, to be proud of the man he was becoming. We were all healing…and most importantly, Ryan began to think that if WE could forgive him and love him, then maybe God could, too.

And then Ryan made the classic mistake of a recovering addict…he got back together with his old friends…his using friends. And one evening that was supposed to simply be a night at the movies turned out to be the first time he had shot up in ten months…and the last time. Ryan died on July 16, 2009. And we lost the ability to love our gay son…because we no longer had a gay son. What we had wished for…prayed for…hoped for…that we would NOT have a gay son, came true. But not at all in the way we used to envision.

Now, when I think back on the fear that governed all my reactions during those first six years after Ryan told us he was gay, I cringe as I realize how foolish I was. I was afraid of all the wrong things. And I grieve, not only for my oldest son, who I will miss every day for the rest of my life, but for the mistakes I made. I grieve for what could have been, had we been walking by FAITH instead of by FEAR. Now, whenever Rob and I join our gay friends for an evening, I think about how much I would love to be visiting with Ryan and his partner over dinner. But instead, we visit Ryan’s gravestone. We celebrate anniversaries: the would-have-been birthdays and the unforgettable day of his death. We wear orange – his color. We hoard memories: pictures, clothing he wore, handwritten notes, lists of things he loved, tokens of his passions, recollections of the funny songs he invented, his Curious George and baseball blankey, anything, really, that reminds us of our beautiful boy…for that is all we have left, and there will be no new memories.  We rejoice in our adult children, and in our growing family as they marry…but ache for the one of our “gang of four” who is missing. We mark life by the days BC (before coma) and AD (after death), because we are different people now; our life was irrevocably changed – in a million ways – by his death. We treasure friendships with others who “get it”…because they, too, have lost a child.

We weep. We seek Heaven for grace and mercy and redemption as we try – not to get better but to be better. And we pray that God can somehow use our story to help other parents learn to truly love their children. Just because they breathe.

Linda Diane Robertson
Originally written on December 5th, 2012
Posted on January 14, 2013 – Ryan’s would-have-been-24 birthday

NOTE: If you’d like to read an example of the beautiful, gracious and loving soul our son Ryan was, read the letter he wrote to Rob on Father’s Day, only 9 days before his accidental overdose.