Sunday, October 10, 2010

Set Them Free

The cowering prisoners will soon be set free; they will not die in their dungeon, nor will they lack bread. For I am the LORD your God, who churns up the sea so that its waves roar... I have put my words in your mouth and covered you with the shadow of my hand. (Isaiah 51.14-16)

Exponentially and Continuously

October 11 is National Coming Out Day (NCOD) in the States and many European countries. (The UK observes it on 12 October.) It’s a relatively new tradition, and we’re just getting the hang of it. One might think of it along these lines: as US Independence Day is to Election Day, LGBT Pride is to NCOD. Pride celebrates freedom to be counted as equally recognized and honorable members of society; NCOD creates an occasion for women and men who’ve not yet embraced their freedom to do so. Since it involves no polls, there are no reliable data to assess its real impact. Yet even if we could calculate how many took advantage of NCOD, the figure—whether 5 or 5 million—would concede a gulf-sized margin of error to account for not including everyone, regardless of orientation, who quits the closet alongside the newly out LGBT individual. Coming out must be measured exponentially and continuously, because none of us comes out alone—whatever our closets may be (and we’ll get to that in a minute).

Calling off the hide-and-seek routine initiates a journey. The instant we say, “This is who I am and where I’m going,” we essentially ask everyone who hears (and hears of) our declaration: “Are you coming or not?” Thankfully, some hurry to join us, saying, “It’s about time!” Others come along despite uncertainty they’re equipped for the journey. Some need more time to process the information we just dropped in their laps—information we’ve had years to absorb—and send us off with promises to catch up, which they ultimately honor. Then, sadly, others want no part of it. They issue an ultimatum: “If you quit this closet, we’re through.” That’s why we can never know exactly how many people come out. It’s Henry + 6 x the people they inform (- those who stay behind). It’s Nancy + 250 x their friends and neighbors (- others who refuse to leave her closet).

What Do We Do?

The person coming out is never one data point, but a cluster of them that continues to multiply as more supportive allies accumulate. We show them our respect and gratitude by factoring them into our thoughts and conversations about coming out. As Christians, however, we’re also compelled to consider the missing points—the people shackled to prejudice and fear, those who sever ties to us because they’ve wound their love around doctrines, dogmas, and myths, and, finally, the unfortunates who filter every difficulty they face through their what’s-in-it-for-me sieve. What do we do—what can we do—for the people who can’t, don’t, or won’t leave our closets to take this journey with us?

We set them free.

Not us. Them. We set them free. This is where coming out ceases to be about us. Surely we understand those who willfully remain behind. How can we not, having fled the very terrors that torment them? It took years for us to muster the courage to defy it. Their reticence shouldn’t shock us in the least. Can we comfortably accuse them of conscious hatred, hypocrisy, and cowardice after inflicting the same harms—and many more like them—on ourselves? How soon we forget the doubt and confusion that darkened our lives!

Because we weren’t honest with God, others, or ourselves before coming out, we often look back on the closet as no more real than we were while trapped inside it. It’s now a cliché we’ve outgrown, a cartoon chamber of horrors we sneer at. But the closet remains very real to everyone it holds. It’s a prison that warps the heart of anyone too weak to resist its pressures. We recall the crippling grip of cowardice and the pain it hides in mean talk and hateful postures. The closet’s realities must never escape us. People we dearly love still languish there. And though we’re out of the closet, we won’t truly be released from it until we’ve done all we possibly can to set them free.

Answering Under Cover

“Okay!” I hear some complain. “The horse is dead. Put your stick down and tell us how we rescue our loved ones. What has to be done to tear the closet down?” We don’t tear it down. And we most certainly don’t go back into it, thinking we can sneak them out. (I know several who’ve tried and ended up worse off than before they came out—a few going so far as to submit to voodoo mind control therapy, attempting to reshape God’s image to reflect their fears. Oh yes, the closet is an extremely sinister place!) We free those still trapped in our closets by speaking and living freely. While they may claim they no longer care about us and may even say they hate who we’ve become, never doubt they’re attentively observing and listening to us. More likely than not, they watch because they’re primed to expect we’ll one day reappear at the closet door, begging forgiveness and readmission, like prodigals who’ve squandered their dignity on high living and carnal pursuits. In other words, they wait for us to fail. They don’t want us to fail, but they’re convinced we need to and we will. And that’s okay, because their attention is all that matters. With that, we have a God-given opportunity to demonstrate what freedom and integrity look like.

When we dedicate our lives to our Maker and devote our energy to pleasing Him, what they actually see bears no resemblance to what they anticipate. As I’ve personally witnessed again and again, our departure from their closet-based assumptions will trouble them. It should, as coming out constitutes a profoundly daring leap of faith—an act of determination based on confidence that God made us and loves us as we are. And faith never goes unrewarded. So coming out changes us for the better. The trials and hardships that often follow the leap are sent to refine our character, correct our thoughts, and increase our faith. Coming out fixes our speech and amplifies our courage to calm the distress that troubles others. Listen closely to Isaiah 51.14-16. God promises what we say and the confidence we express will become keys that release those still locked in our closets:

The cowering prisoners will soon be set free; they will not die in their dungeon, nor will they lack bread. For I am the LORD your God, who churns up the sea so that its waves roar—the LORD Almighty is his name. I have put words in your mouth and covered you in the shadow of my hand—I who set the heavens in place, who laid the foundations of the earth, and who say to Zion, "You are my people."

See how this works? God honors their faith by troubling their minds. The churning doubts and roaring disapproval come from Him. He honors our faith by enabling us to answer under cover—to speak words He puts in our mouths boldly and fearlessly, knowing His hand rests over us. It doesn’t matter what closet we have (or have yet to) come out of. The things we want to hide are things God wants to use. Nothing He gives us is unworthy or unsightly. Every trait and talent, everything that makes you uniquely you, is given to steer and sustain your journey. Shake off worries about what others will think or how they’ll respond to your freedom. Come out. Claim your gifts. Use them. Demonstrate freedom and integrity. You’re surrounded with people waiting for you to come out. You know people who won’t get it at first, but they’ll follow in time. And you also know people too threatened and uncertain to leave your closet. See God in their churning. Hear Him in their roars. His hand will shelter you so you can speak His word to their troubled minds. You may have to speak it over and over. But keep speaking. Keep being. Set them free.

It doesn’t matter why they’re watching, as long as we can show them the freedom and integrity that come from leaving our closets of fear and doubt.


kkryno said...

I have a dear friend whom I've known since junior high. I knew the moment we met that he was gay, but that never mattered to me. He struggled with his sexuality for years and years, at one point telling his family that he was bi-sexual. He subsequently married his best friend after graduating college and had two wonderful children. In his late thirties he was so miserable for living a lie that he considered suicide many times. I wonder how often he came so close. He felt such guilt about the kids, and his wife. He love his family but he was denying a major component of himself. I know it must have been so hard to finally make that leap, but thank God he did! Had he not done so, I'm certain that we'd have lost him forever. Now he lives with his life partner, and his ex-wife lives with her new husband next door. They all raised the kids together, and house sit and dog
sit. They have huge family gatherings and even own a houseboat together. The kids are college graduates,and one is even bringing a grandbaby into the mix!

He'd have missed out on so many blessings had he allowed the darkness to win. I am one of many who rejoice in the fact that he didn't.

He's my ex-brother-in-law, but always my brother and friend!

Philomena Ewing said...

Wonderful Tim.
I just pray for the day when it won't be necessary to have a day like this.

Tim said...

Vikki, what a truly marvelous story (with a surprise twist at the end, no less)! What moves me most about it, though, are how these amazing people managed to stick together without listening to calls and criticisms from the closet. I'm sure there were a lot of very tense conversations with family, friends, and neighbors along the way. I'm sure there were moments they really had to fight to hang on to one another. And I'm sure there were a lot of questions along the way. And yet I'm sure there are a lot of people who watched their integrity and commitment and were inspired to leave their own closets! Oh, how this story blesses me. Thank you for sharing it.

Phil, yes! I pray God allows me to live long enough to tell a young person "We used to have this thing called National Coming Out Day." And I pray I'm not so deep in my dotage that I won't recognize the surprise and consternation in his/her eyes. We've come a long way in a very short time, and we've got a long way yet to go. But if we keep pressing ahead, the day we dream of will come!

Blessings to you both.

Much love,