“You broke the bonds and
“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” by U2
I was 25 years old in 1987. That was the year U2 released the song “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” It was also the first time I ever recall hearing of that particular band, even though they’d been around for over a decade by the time they released this song. If you knew anything of my early life, that fact wouldn’t surprise you. Even though I’ve lived on both coasts (California in the west; Maryland and Florida in the east), most of my early life was spent in the South. My mom and dad were both born in Virginia and 3 of my 4 siblings were born in Tennessee and Florida. Even in my own family, I was the odd-man out: I was born a Yankee, in Akron, Ohio.
Living in the rural South and with the influence of my nearly-hillbilly family (just to be clear, I don’t use the term “hillbilly” in a derogatory sense like, I assume, most people probably do. I use the term to mean a simple, rural southern lifestyle in which one’s success in life isn’t necessarily measured by how many things or how much money one acquires), the only music I knew well was Country music. I know that nowadays Country music isn’t what all the cool kids listen to, but back then most of the kids I knew listened pretty exclusively to Country. So listening to the music from a decidedly un-Country music group called U2 was really an experience for me!
I wasn’t sure if it was the different vibe or the unfamiliar-but-catchy melody of this song, but it really got stuck in my head for a while. What I didn’t know back then, in the midst of my battle with the closet and trying to deal with being what I was sure was my ex-Christian status, was that this song was about me. I was searching for something and I didn’t even know it. I realize that it’s probably hard for some people to understand what I mean by that. It’s hard for me to understand sometimes, too.
The first time I recall walking into to a church was when I was about 9 or 10 years old in Bristol, Tennessee at Emmanuel Baptist Church. My brothers and sisters and I attended that particular church for one simple reason: it was the closest Baptist church to where we lived. For a lot of reasons, I don’t think my parents were necessarily regular church-going folks, but they had both been brought up in the Southern Baptist tradition. Anyone in our family, who attended church, attended a Baptist one.
Emmanuel Baptist had a couple of buses to pick up the kids for church and Sunday School, but, as I said before, we lived so close, we walked there. I also remember my very first Sunday School teacher, Haven Booher. I guess that, if I could narrow it down to one particular person who introduced me to God, it would have to be Brother Booher. I regret that I never got to thank Haven for what he did for me—what he did for all the kids in his Sunday School class. I guess I was too young to be proactively thankful, but, if it means anything at all, I’d want to tell Brother Booher the heart of the child who came to know & accept Jesus as his personal savior was quietly and deeply appreciative. Even now--even in the midst of my struggle--I am thankful that God introduced me to Brother Booher. I think I showed my appreciation and thanks to Brother Booher by trying to make him proud of me. As soon as I was able (that means as soon as I asked my parents’ permission), I got baptized. I was just a child then, but even I knew that after pastor Howard Robinson brought me back up out of that water in that little room behind the pulpit, I was a new creature in Christ. My former life and my lifetime of sins had been washed away. It had been as if all my sins before that moment had never happened at all. Every time I think of that moment, I am reminded of song I heard by the Christian artist Morgan Cryar, called What Sin?
What sin, what sin?
When the idea of the “sea of forgetfulness” was explained to me as a child, I remember thinking, “Wow! An entire sea of forgetfulness. That’s a lot of forgetting!” I knew that, in God’s eyes, and in the eyes of my new family in Christ, I was re-born and that was when I committed myself to living a life to make not just Brother Booher or Pastor Robinson proud of me, but to make God proud of me. My church taught me that God had given his very own Son so that I might “have life and have it abundantly.” Even though I was quite young, I understood that such a profound sacrifice must have just shattered God’s heart into a million pieces. If God loved me beyond my ability to understand, then how much must He have loved his only-begotten Son? How agonizing must it have been to watch the human part of his Son suffer so unmercifully? How much must He have loved all of His children to go through the worst loss any parent can ever endure? I anticipated that my new life on the straight & narrow would not be easy, but in comparison to my all-powerful yet agonizingly helpless Lord watching the very human and very precious life of His only-begotten Son cruelly taken away, any potential battles in my new life would seem as nothing. Little did I know that, in the midst of the boundless joy of the gift I was given of a brand new life in God, shedding the burden of my old life and my old habits was going to be the easy part. The real battle and the real pain were yet to come.
Ever since my earliest rememberings, I knew that I was somehow different. I remember being more-than-just-a-little-attracted to the other little boys on the playground and somehow—even to a child—society’s pervasive message that same-sex attraction was not tolerated was simply common knowledge. I knew that I had to always keep this part of myself buried deep inside. In addition to all the other things that kids learn during their “formative years,” I had began to try to master the ugly art of hiding and subterfuge. After too many years of practice, unfortunately, to this day, I still find myself suffering from the effects of my so-called success. Instead of learning to love myself, I began the slow, sure path toward hating what I was becoming. With hindsight, I see now that it all happened so slowly that I didn’t even really notice it. When I first found God and faith at Emmanuel Baptist Church, it was the first time I can recall feeling as if I was truly loved and loveable. I didn’t question it; I took it all in, and I allowed myself to feel a part of the family that was offered to me. They all showed me love and acceptance and made me feel at home. I didn’t know enough, as a child, to see the obvious dichotomy: these people who barely knew me seemed to love me with what I thought was unconditional love, yet I couldn’t even begin to know how to love myself. How could I respect myself enough to love the person I had become when I was in a perpetual state of denial and hiding? I couldn’t see back then how this attempt at enduring an unresolved dual life would end, and, since I didn’t know the words to describe what I was going through and because I couldn’t dream of daring to share my “deep, dark secret” with anyone else, I knew that all that was left to me was to keep up the farce. I guess deep inside I hoped that God would love and guide me through it. Maybe God would make right what I couldn’t.
As I took it all in, and as I began to love being a Christian and learning about how special a child of God was, I began to concentrate on the spiritual part of my life. I began to allow myself the luxury of forgetting—for even a moment—about what separated me from the rest of the world. I began to allow myself to bond with my new family. I began to assimilate (in the best sense of the word), and I began to allow the principles of Christ—as they were taught to me—to become the solid ground upon which I could build the rest of my life. I loved my God and my family in God beyond all else. In my mind and in my heart, my relationship with God was the #1 truth. My relationship with my church was a close 2nd. I could and would never doubt that they were relationships that would last beyond this life into the next. In a world where very little was certain and where few promises were ever made to me, I held firm to the idea that nothing could break the bond of love that I found in that church and with all those who told me everyday how much they loved me. It’s amazing what we take for granted when we believe we are truly loved.
As I grew older and began to understand more about myself, I began to also hear in my church how people like me were threats to the God-fearing (one of which, of course, I already considered myself). I remember seeing my pastor red-faced and practically yelling from the pulpit how “men laying down with men” was an abomination and how such people were doomed for eternal damnation...a damnation of their own making. The “AMENS” coming from the pews around me still ring in my ears. The Southern Baptists were not shy or ambiguous: Homosexuals were not welcome. The truth I had suppressed about myself was brought to the fore again. I began to realize that my family was talking about me. For the first time that I was aware, they were talking about the exception to the Unconditional Love rule that brought me to God in the first place. Because I had excelled at suppressing and hiding, I’m pretty sure that they didn’t know they were talking about me, but I knew. They also didn’t know that they were beginning to de-construct my very world and they were removing all that I had grown to know as certain in my life. My church family could never see it like this, but I knew that I had not CHOSEN to be different and I tried to dutifully ignore it away, but as I grew older and came to better understand the nature of my sexual orientation, I also began to learn to doubt them.
I had always taken my church at it’s word. In my eyes, all they said or did began in love, so I accepted it all as truth...unquestioned truth. Once I saw them, in essence, taking back what they were saying, my crisis of faith (in my family in Christ) began.
As I grew older, I guess it was just inevitable that I would begin to explore the world around me and begin to notice things I never noticed before. Reading, studying and listening to the Southern Baptist stance on “the homosexual lifestyle” opened my eyes to a side of religion that I had had the pleasure of being blind to for so long: the side that delighted in fighting “the enemy”. The more I listened to them, the more I began to understand that these people I had grown to love didn’t see me as a loved brother or even as a disappointment to the family, but as an agent of Satan himself. To say I was in shock is a huge understatement. I slowly began to back away, for fear that they’d begin to notice. I found reasons to avoid church functions and church members. I just knew that, if they knew me—the REAL me—they’d abandon me anyway. At least this way, I was the one who chose to walk away from them. In my confused mind, I was able to end this Christian love affair before they had the chance to learn the ugly truth and end it themselves. I guess it gave me a false sense of a little bit of control in all this.
I worked (and still work) so very hard to separate in my mind the love of my siblings in Christ from the love of Christ. I pray every day to remember that just because THEY don’t love me doesn’t mean God doesn’t love me. I get so mad at myself sometimes because intellectually I know that that should be enough for me. I nearly daily tell myself that I should be able to be strong enough in the knowledge that God loves me with the everlasting love that I have known and felt from Day One and that that should be the focus of my faith instead of continuing to hurt over the revocation of love from my (former) Christian family. I know that I shouldn’t care that they can no longer find a way to love me. I know that they are only human and that they are simply mistaken about me and people like me. I know that God’s love is enough. I know these things. I also know that it still cuts me that those who claim to faithfully seek God’s heart can no longer abide mine. I wish it didn’t hurt so much. I wish that they could be in my skin for even one day. Sometimes I wish that I hadn’t known their love in the first place, because you can’t miss what you never had, right?
As much of a non-sequitir as this may appear at first blush, one of the greatest truths in life that I have learned in trying to be who God made me was eloquently stated, of all places, in the 5th season of the TV series, Buffy The Vampire Slayer. In the season finale episode titled, “The Gift,” just before the series namesake, Buffy, jumps to her death off a scaffolding in a selfless attempt to save her sister, Dawn, and, of course, the world, Buffy whispers in her sister’s ear, “...the hardest thing in this world is to live in it.” Considering where I’ve come from and the battles I continue to fight to this day, even if it’s from the mouth of a fictional character, no truer words have ever been spoken.
So, here I am: an open, proud gay man, so very over hiding and lying and trying to be something I will never be. I have done my best to give up Religion, yet keep the Faith and to always remember that there is a world of difference between the two. As I heard someone say once, I try not to judge the Master by His servants; truly easier said than done, to be sure. I try to live my life according to the principles of Christ, as I know them, in spite of the spiritual bruises that I carry with me to this day, inflicted by my former brothers and sisters who take great pride in proclaiming themselves “people of Christ”. Like most humans, of course, some days I am more successful than others, and sometimes I forget to give myself credit for having gotten as far as I have (with God’s help).
Most times, I don’t really know what label I am supposed to use to describe who I am. Maybe a label isn’t necessary at all. Sometimes labels just make it easier for the world to put you in whatever little box makes them feel most comfortable. Besides, a friend told me once that labels (like closets) are for clothes...not people. When people ask me, I usually just tell the plain unvarnished truth: that I am a recovering Southern Baptist. If it is true that I remain a Christian, then it is a most solitary form of Christianity, to be sure. Mostly I just try my best to be what God made me, and not slip back into the “victim” mode. I try not to measure my spiritual life by what I do not have, or what I have lost, or what I cannot do. If anything, I guess I most of the time, I could be described as a “Glass-Half-Full” person. Not such an easy endeavor for someone who is so used to living without a figurative cup at all and who hid himself and who prayed fervently for invisibility for over 3 decades, hoping that if “they” didn't see me, they'd just move on to the next target. I guess I am what is widely known as “a work in progress.”
Even a dozen years later, I’m still on my quest to find ME (or what is left of me, I guess), so obviously, to quote Bono, “... I still haven’t found what I’m looking for...”.