Tag Archives: Christianity

Weep with Those Who Weep…Please.

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When a child dies, the first place that parents, siblings, aunts and uncles often look for comfort is the church.

The church – the Body of Christ – will know how to help us. The church will know how badly we hurt – they’ve helped hundreds of families bury their children.

The church will be our safe refuge from this blinding storm of grief that has stolen our peace, our sleep, our appetites and our ability to think more than five minutes into the future.

The church – where people embody the love of the Man who wept at the death of his dear friend – will weep with us.

When our son died, it was difficult to get out of bed, much less to get up, get dressed and go face hundreds of people on a Sunday morning. But we did go, because we follow Jesus, and going to church on Sundays has been vitally important to our family.

It took about six months for me to realize that I had begun dreading Sundays. Sundays were when we had to see people who would, for the most part, do one of two things:

  1. Act overly happy and bright, in an effort to cheer us up, or to, perhaps, avoid talking about death.
  2. Avoid us entirely – turning the other way when they saw us coming, refusing to meet our glances, suddenly becoming busy looking up something in their Bibles as we walked by.

When our son died, churches were the place where we heard some of the most painful things, many of them from pastors.

Are you better yet?
We heard this one for the first time two weeks after our son’s death, and then countless times afterward.

The death of a child is like falling down and scraping your knee.
When this was said to us, one month after Ryan’s death, by a pastor responsible for funerals at a large church, we couldn’t even respond. We walked away, tears rolling down our faces, and Rob said, “He obviously has never lost a child.” I said, “I don’t think I ever want to go back to church again. EVER.”

This is what your experience will be like: blah, blah, blah.
At this point I always tuned out…the pain was too intense. To be told what we would feel by a pastor who hadn’t lost a child, rather than asked what we needed or what grief was like for us only made our pain worse.

Ryan wouldn’t have wanted you to be sad!
This was usually said by those who didn’t know Ryan well, or how he would have completely understood our tears. And it always made me feel like the person speaking was really the one who didn’t want me to be sad…or to be honest.

I know exactly how you feel.
This was typically followed by examples of how the person had lost a parent, grandparent or once, a pet. Nobody knows exactly how someone else feels, no matter how close you are. We would never say this to another family who lost a child, even if that child was 20, gay, struggled with addiction, depression, Hep C and recent hearing loss, and was named Ryan. Every child is unique, and every death is unique.

Be glad! He is an angel now, watching over you for the rest of your lives!
Aside from the fact that I don’t think this is the way Heaven works, it does what so many trite phrases do: it invalidates our grief. It communicates that we should be happy, not sad. It can make us think that it isn’t okay for us to be honest about how we are overwhelmed by sadness.
In the four years since Ryan’s death, I have heard the stories of far too many grieving families who have found not comfort, but only more pain, by attending church after the death of their child. I don’t think it has to be this way. I don’t think it should be this way.

If I had ten minutes to tell pastors, priests, teachers and leaders what to say to grieving parents and siblings, this is what I’d say:

Ask them what their grief experience has been like.
Allow your parishioners to teach you about grief and loss, and to let you know what they need. Please, please, ask them questions about their grief, and listen without interrupting.

Say their child’s name.
How are you feeling about Annelise? What do you miss most about Matt? The power of hearing your child’s name after they have died is enormous. Most grieving parents fear that their child will be forgotten and that their child’s life and death will not matter.

Our oldest son had been gone for about seven months when someone at church pulled me aside and gently asked, “How are you feeling about Ryan?” I wept with gratitude and relief. I didn’t realize until later that it was the first time I had heard Ryan’s name at church since his funeral. Just the sound of his name – the acknowledgement of his life, his existence and his value were like a soothing balm to my soul.

Let them know that they are welcome no matter how terrible they feel.
If we feel we have to force ourselves to act happy just to come to worship, we’re likely not to come. When we are feeling our worst, we need God the most. Please allow us to find Him in community with others, even when we are miserable. Even when we’re not sure if life is worth living.

Tell them that there is no timeline for “getting over” a child.
Parents who have lost a child – if as a newborn or a middle-aged adult – desperately need to know that there is no expectation to “get better” in six months, one year, five years or ever.

Reassure them, if needed, that God can handle all their questions, doubts and anger.
Although my husband has only felt closer to God since Ryan’s death, after about six months, I began to struggle with a lot of questions that affected my faith deeply. I didn’t need answers – only permission to wrestle through my doubts and fears with God. Remember, too, that asking questions, doubting and not attending church don’t mean we are walking away from God – quite the opposite. Please trust Him to meet us in our pain. He has, and He will.

Listen…without having to provide solutions. And then listen some more.
Unless you are Jesus Himself, you will not be likely to be able to bring their child back. And that is the only thing that would alleviate their intense sorrow. So don’t even try to fix anything. You can’t.

Know that grief – and tears – demand to be felt and experienced.
The research all points to the same thing: if one doesn’t acknowledge and make room for their grief, their grief will find another way to express itself. Alcoholism, health problems, rage issues, marital problems, mental health concerns and a myriad of other stress-related problems can all be the result of “stuffing” grief inside in order to make others feel more comfortable.

Teach your congregation to keep reaching out to the bereaved, even if they don’t know what to say.
In the “club” of parents who have lost children, almost all of them have also lost many friends as well. Friends who used to be close never call or come by anymore. It makes the experience all the more painful. Remind friends that they don’t have to have the perfect words. Often the most comforting thing to hear is, “I don’t know what to say.” Or, “I just cannot begin to imagine what you are going through.”

Know that birthdays and anniversaries of a child’s death are particularly painful, but immensely important.
A simple way to let a grieving family know that you haven’t forgotten them – or their child – is to make a note of their child’s birthday and the anniversary of their death on your calendar, so you’ll be reminded to send them a card, leave them a voice message or shoot them a text. On Ryan’s would-have-been-24 birthday, our pastoral staff sent him a birthday card, complete with personal notes to him telling him how his life has impacted them. It was one of the most comforting, honoring things anyone has ever done for us since Ryan’s death.

Remember that by bringing up their dead child, you won’t remind them of anything they aren’t already thinking about.
Some well-meaning friends avoid talking about the child, because they don’t want to make the grieving family cry. But truly, we can hardly think of anything else – especially in the first months and years. It is only comforting to know that other people remember, too. And our tears aren’t bad…they are necessary. They are healing.

Ask about their child.
Get to know him or her by asking about favorite memories, what they were like, etc. This is especially important if the child committed suicide or died as a result of addiction. Grieving parents of kids who struggled feel especially alone, and often sense judgment and condemnation of themselves and their child. Please acknowledge to beauty of every child’s soul, not just those who were successful in the world’s eyes.

Recently, Anne Lamott was asked what job she’d like if she wasn’t a writer. Here is an excerpt from her response:

I’d like to sit out in the very quiet courtyard at St. Andrew Presbyterian, with a bowl of cherries, and a bowl of M&M’s as communion elements, and talk to people one at a time.

If people were grieving, I would sit with them while they cried, and I would not say a single word, like “Time heals all,” or “This too shall pass.” I would practice having the elegance of spirit to let them cry, and feel like shit, for as long as they need to, because tears are the way home–baptism, hydration–and I would let our shoulders touch, and every so often I’d point out something beautiful in the sky–a bird, clouds, the hint of a moon. Then we’d share some cherries and/or M&M’s, and go find a little kid who would let us swim in his or her inflatable pool. I’d tell the sad person, “Come back next week, I’ll be here–and you don’t have to feel ONE speck better. It’s a come-as-you-are meeting, like with God, who says, “You just show up, my honey.”

This says it all: just giving permission for people to show up, knowing that someone will just be with them, allowing them to feel exactly how they are feeling. Sitting with a friend in their sorrow is the greatest gift we can give to someone in pain. Allow us to be sad as long as we need to. It is in that sadness that God meets us, and that He, slowly, redeems and restores our souls. We will never “get over” our dead child, nor do we want to.

But if we can be patient with ourselves and with God as we heal though the pain, He will help us not to get better, but to be better.

My Identity as a Straight Christian

Today I welcome my first guest blogger, our dear friend, Julie Rodgers, who is on her way from Dallas to Seattle to spend the weekend with us right now!

As a straight Christian woman, I “identify” myself as a heterosexual ALL THE TIME. One look at my FaceBook, and my friends know that I am CRAZY about Rob. My desk at work had pictures of Rob and I, and our kids, all over the place. Friends could easily accuse me of “flaunting” my straight-ness, if people were accused of such things, because Rob and I are very public with affection and open with how grateful we are for each other.

Julie-and-Us-June-2013

If Rob and I are getting a bit too friendly at church, our friends just laugh at tell us to get a room, or they stop and tell us that we are a role model for young marriages around us. We don’t get judgment – we get affirmation. Nobody in the church has ever challenged us that we are not putting our identity as Christians first. We’ve never been told that we aren’t making Christ the center of our lives. They assume we are, based on our commitment to loving each other in a Christ-like way.

If I had to stop identifying myself as a straight, married woman when I walked into our church, I would quickly stop going, because it would be IMPOSSIBLE for anyone to really know me. Rob is my best friend, my soulmate…and he has been so for the past 30 years. He is part of me, and has been an enormous part of how I am learning to trust that God loves me unconditionally. If someone wants to know Linda, they are going to have to hear about Rob. That is just HONEST. It isn’t a crime or a sin or anything else negative…and it is about time we start extending the same permission for our gay friends, if we ever want to really know them, and if we ever want them to feel comfortable at our churches.

The Language Wars – by Julie Rodgers, Guest Blogger

There seems to be a lot of confusion surrounding the term “gay” in evangelical circles, which is understandable since the church has only recently begun asking questions of how to welcome gay people in their congregations. Among conservative Christians, “gay” is often understood as an identity—particularly an identity that communicates one’s desire for gay relationships. Many well-meaning Christians take the assumption further, believing it’s a sin for someone to embrace a gay label because they see it to be an identity rooted in something other than Christ. Among the culture at large, however, “gay” is understood simply as a description of one’s attraction toward the same sex. It’s a way of communicating an important aspect of their lives to the rest of the world through language. So when someone says they’re gay, they’re saying “I’m attracted to the same sex,” but Christians often hear: “Homosexuality is the foundation upon which I’m built and the driving force in every decision I make.”

Because of the confusion over the term, I typically avoid using labels altogether and say “I’m just Julie”. For years I’ve internally thought of myself as “gay” (in the descriptive sense) and used the term among friends who know me well, but I haven’t felt compelled to use it broadly if it’s going to cause problems for those in my community or lead them to make assumptions about me. In other words: I accommodate others by framing my experience in a way that makes them more comfortable. But if we’re asking questions about how to create a safe place for gay people in the church, I think we should consider ways to welcome them without insisting they accommodate us with the terms they use to describe their reality. It can be detrimental for gay people to be constantly challenged by loved ones based on the language they use to describe their sexuality. Imagine this scenario:

Your friend calls you on a Friday evening and invites you out for a night of bowling with the crew. You’re tired after a long week of work, and you respond with: Thanks for the invite, but I think I’m going to stay in for the night. I’m an introvert and I recharge by being alone, so I just need some time to myself. “WHAT?” Your friend replies. “Why would you say you’re an introvert? You’re not an introvert—you’re a child of God!” Well of course I’m a child of God, you say. I’m a child of God, but I also happen to be an introvert—I recharge by being alone. “How can you claim an identity other than what God says about you?” Your friend insists. “Besides, I see you interact with others and you’ve always got TONS of energy! Why would you identify yourself this way and reduce the whole of your life to this one small thing?” Well, I don’t want to argue with you and I’m not claiming this as a defining aspect of my identity, you explain. I’m just sharing an important part of myself with you to give you a better feel for what it’s like to be me so you can know and understand me more fully. “Well, I get that you sometimes feel the draw to be alone,” he replies, “but I think you need to avoid using labels like that when speaking about yourself. There’s a lot more to you than this, and I hate to see you defining yourself by this one aspect of your life.” But I’m not defining myself…..

That sounds absurd, doesn’t it? We communicate who we are through language, and we use descriptive words to share our internal experiences in order to be known by others. While our primary identity is certainly rooted in Christ, we use countless adjectives to describe unique aspects of ourselves to one another: sensitive, intelligent, emotional, artist, brother, actress, writer, old soul, high strung, laid back—all these terms paint a picture of a person’s relationship to the world around them. Most people with a gay orientation desire to communicate that to their loved ones, and most feel the word “gay” is the easiest way to express one’s attraction to the same sex. Just like we don’t make assumptions about a heterosexual’s ethics or habits based on their revelation of being “heterosexual”, we shouldn’t make assumptions about a gay person’s beliefs or relationships based on their revelation of being gay.

This is important to understand because it can be defeating for gay Christians to be challenged every time they share this personal part of their lives with loved ones. It can start to feel like they’re being shoved back into a place of hiding—as if they’re only loved by you if homosexuality is a small part of their lives they communicate in subtle terms that don’t make you uncomfortable. Many gay people feel like “SSA” does not authentically communicate the extent to which their orientation affects their day to day lives: it gives the impression that this is simply a feeling that arises from time to time. But sexual orientation involves more than mere attraction; it affects the way we interact with the world. There’s a different relational dynamic when someone walks into a room as a gay person than when someone walks into a room as a straight person (just like a Latino probably experiences a country dance hall different than a Texan). It’s not necessarily a good thing or a bad thing—just different. But in order for your gay loved ones to be known by you, it’s important to extend them the liberty to communicate their reality through whatever language they feel best describes them.

This might not seem like a big deal, but we honor people by referring to them however they wish to be described. If someone takes the vulnerable step of welcoming you into this aspect of his or her experience, I think it should be cherished. It can be defeating for them to be challenged based on how they communicate their experience simply because you disagree with the language they use to describe it. I understand Christians don’t mean harm by insisting gay people reject the gay label—the rationale makes sense. But I hope you’ll consider what it’s like to be in the gay person’s shoes next time you find yourself uncomfortable with their choice of descriptors. It’s likely they’ve felt tremendous shame for being gay in the first place, and they’ve probably agonized over the fear of expressing that to their Christian community. I hope our churches will be a place where we desire for people to be known and loved enough to get past our discomfort over whatever terms they use to describe themselves. And I hope we won’t make assumptions about the way they choose to live their lives based on our preconceived notions. Ask them questions! They’re probably longing for a safe place to share more about this integral part of their lives.

Julie blogs at JulieRodgers.com and has an incredibly important voice in the discussions around being gay AND being a Christian. Lots of great discussions happen on her blog…join in!

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.

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.