Archive for June, 2016

I need community. I am not alone. Rural and small town areas of our nation are replete with stories of community. The proverb—from a hard to verify source—that states “it takes a village to raise a child” is a pithy example of the value of community. Strong bonds of friendship develop on college campuses. Fraternal organizations are often cemented with comradely feelings. Faithful congregants in religious communities describe their connections with one another as family and many sing about being in “the family of God.” Even people who are bent on destruction and mayhem find brotherly camaraderie in the pursuit of evil.

I am defining community as a social, religious, occupational, educational, or other group that shares characteristics in common and is perceived or perceives itself distinct from the larger society around it. A community can be of any size and the common characteristics are felt deeply so as to create a strong bond. The size of the community is not as important as the vitality of connection between members of the community.

Each of us find community in different sectors of society, and are most often members of more than one community. In fact, participation in multiple communities promulgates healthy life balance. The narrow focus of a single community creates energy and purpose but is devoid of healthy perspective and requires constant recalibration from sources external to that community. If these external influences are not strong enough to bring needed correction, personal commitments to only one community result in a life that becomes unhealthy for the individual and, by extension, the community, and the world immediately outside of the community.

This submission to a single community often happens when fanaticism and radicalism take hold and fundamentalist ideologies overpower the autonomy of the individual. This phenomenon is observed in political climates regardless of the niche in the structure of society: government, philosophy, education, religion, entertainment, or science.

Someone may take umbrage with my position. I’m thinking of people who are so strongly committed to one ideology that they feel every one should share their life’s single purpose. This is true in every segment of society and can be documented with a plethora of examples. Consider the politics of government, or religious faith traditions, or the philosophical underpinnings of any human endeavor.

But I digress. Back to my initial statement that I need community. Upon the death of my wife Barbara, I was faced with how much I had grown to depend on her over the 45 years of our marriage. This was particularly true when I examined how she had become my entrée to community, particularly those communities with a social component. My introverted personality depended heavily on her. When I was left to negotiate the serpentine ways of entering into and engaging components of a community, I floundered. But I desperately needed what communities afford: belonging, affirmation, support, purpose, and social opportunities. I persisted in my effort to engage communities in which I had relationships.

Members of my communities were unaware of how isolated I felt in the hollowness of Barbara’s leaving, even while engaged in relational activities among them. I was a master at pretense and masked the difficulty I had in entering new communities. However, I persisted in my attempts because I felt community was critical for healthy living.

The reality of my need for genuine community became vividly real when I began the process of bringing people into a fuller understanding of who I am as a gay man (click here for a post about my coming to terms with my sexuality). I knew from the beginning of this kaleidoscopic journey toward authenticity, toward living a life of integrity, that former communities might disappear and new ones would hopefully emerge. I was not blind to what I was doing. I was cognizant of the real possibility of losing friends and even entire communities in which I had enjoyed the accoutrements of belonging. A huge question mark was superimposed on my communities when I began informing people that I am gay. Would some disappear? Would some grow stronger?

I am on the other side of those initial steps into sharing the truth and reality of who I am as a gay man. I am now able to begin evaluating my world of communities. There are some of my past relationships who may or may not have received this recent revelation about me. I have not, nor at this time do I plan to bring them into the circumference of this knowledge for I have not had a strong connection with them for over 20 years. Nor does it concern me should they hear from some source that I am gay. Truth is not something to fear.

There is still a question mark hovering over some communities in which I have enjoyed relationships in more recent years, though I am not currently active within their circles. In some cases there are community members who now have a more complete knowledge of who I am, but the community at large may be uninformed.

The primary community of family and close relatives has been affirming and I am most grateful for their acceptance. Some of them accept me without affirming, and that’s okay. Each must come into their own understandings in their own way. My children in particular have been wonderful. Their love has not diminished and their acceptance is unwavering. This family community is a source of comfort, affirmation, acceptance and pride for which I am deeply and fully thankful.

There are other communities in which I circulate. For instance, my church is a significant community for me. As such, it was the first one in which I began opening my life. Not the entire church, but valued members with whom I already had a warm relationship. I might characterize these friends as a community within a community. Each time I have opened myself to someone in the church, I have received no condemnation, no negative reaction, only love and gratitude for being considered a close friend with whom I could be authentic. My church community, not in whole but in a large part, is a place where I feel safe, receive affirmation, support, and can live my life with transparency.

Another community is the condominium where I live. I have discovered an enlarging group of friends who have warmly accepted me as a gay man. Some of them are gay while others are not. An interesting thing about this community is that almost all of them could be either my kids or even my grandkids! I am grateful for them, their affirmation, their support and the social opportunities they afford me.

I live in a downtown neighborhood not unlike a neighborhood anywhere in the country—rural, small town, or suburban. I know the store owners, restaurant servers and even cooks, policemen, street sweepers, mail carriers, and homeless people. Many, though not all, know I am gay and, because of my transparency, my relationship with them has even been strengthened.

I am a “member” of a community of people who habituate a coffee shop. We greet each other warmly, call each other by name, and all of us enjoy coffee. A member of this community stopped me on the street today to ask if I had made my trip to Dallas yet. I hadn’t seen him for several weeks yet he was interested in me and showed that interest by mentioning something specific about my life. And so it was when a friend entered the coffee shop today and I encouraged him to tell our friend the barista what happened in his life over the weekend: he had gotten engaged to a wonderful girl. This is another example of a community of people in my life.

I have not gotten involved in a “gay community,” though I’m not averse to doing so. Because so many people, gay and straight, have affirmed and encouraged me, I have not felt the strong necessity for such a single purpose community, which has been a felt need for many gay people. I have participated in a few activities with some of these communities and do not feel as awkward doing so now as I did when I first began revealing my gay sexual identity. I have yet to feel the need to depend on them as once I thought I would.

There are times when I identify with certain communities for specific purposes. As an example, the mass murders in Orlando, Florida brought me into the gay community emotionally and spiritually. I feel a kinship with the survivors of that awful atrocity. Though not organically so, I am a member of the community and feel the loss. This is not unlike when I was an international missionary in Southeast Asia and heard of the accidental death of a missionary in another part of the world. Even though I had not known the one who was killed, I felt a part of me had been injured and I grieved. So I offer prayer and tears for my gay community in Orlando.

I need community, but not just one community, a variety of communities. These communities provide perspective to keep my life in balance. My communities increasingly enrich my life and fill it up with novelty and growth, with spirituality and courage, with peace and contentment. I need community and am finding it in many places. You are reading my blog and I count you as a member of this virtual community. Please leave a comment below to spark community conversation, drop me a note in the “Let’s Talk” tab, or can click the “Follow Life’s Design” button at the top left of the page to receive an e-mail alert for the next post. Let’s build this community together in this space.

What Do I Feel About Orlando?

Posted: June 21, 2016 in Uncategorized

Forty-nine people were murdered in an Orlando, Florida gay club. Much has been reported and editorialized about this atrocity. It’s my head and heart that I am still trying to fill. With meaning and empathy. I can understand it from certain perspectives, but that understanding is on an objective, factual level, a level that perceives how people act toward and react from certain stimuli. On that level I can incorporate how someone has the capability to commit such a heinous act into a framework that is logical. I will not chalk it all up to the original depravity of the human condition. Although that certainly is a factor—everyone is infected with that depravity according to my faith commitment—not all of us murder 49 people.

There are a few uncovered facts, however, which paint a young man who is gravely emotional and unbalanced: He had a twisted and false understanding of his religion, the leaders of which have denounced the atrocity. He had a lack of clarity about various radical religious groups, the sum of which does not comprise the whole of the religion of his faith tradition. (The young man was treating the various Islamic factions as different extensions of the same movement; whereas, in practice, these factions are antagonistic toward each other. In practice, an adherent would identify only with one of them and not three or more as he did.) He had a lack of moral compunction, which even allowed him to abuse his wife, who should have been the object of his love. And a fact that is murky and may only be rumor is his reported frequenting of gay venues, which possibly included the one in which he murdered 49 people and injured almost as many, though this fact has been disputed.

Discounting the last of the puzzle pieces just listed, this young man’s mental and emotional state is a picture of a young man caught in the grip of a narrative promulgated by a few fanatical clerics. He surrendered to the narrative thus locking his mind in a box. He was no longer free to think; therefore, he set his mind on a shelf, and filled the vacuum with thoughts, words, and actions scripted by the few fanatical leaders and not from his religion, Islam. The results were devastating.

But consider the last of the pieces above. It was a gay bar. There were other venues where this atrocity could have taken place. Should there be more truth than rumor—time should bring clarity—that he had frequented gay bars, another set of puzzle pieces emerge: Was he genuinely homophobic? If he was, it may have come from the way his religion had been twisted and thus presented to him; it may have come from his sense of what it means to be masculine; or, it may have come from a fear that he was gay himself. If he had latent gay feelings, was he struggling with accepting his own sexuality in that he didn’t want to be gay and lashed out at those who were the living witness to what he himself feared he also was—something he loathed, which loathing again was the result of a fundamentalist religion?

This approach to understanding what happened in Orlando can be structured as an academic exercise. Scientific study from the fields of psychology, anthropology,  biology, sociology, and theology can all be brought to bear on it. But using an academic approach leaves me numb, empty, almost as though I had received a news report in an ordinary day. I don’t live in Orlando. I didn’t know anyone who died or was injured at the gay club called Pulse.  Nor, to my knowledge, do I know someone who knows someone who was even in Orlando on that fateful night, much less at the club.

But I can’t push it away, consign it to a think-about-later box, and thus eventually forget it. What it means to be human in the middle of such tragedy keeps coming back to the front of my thoughts, not dysfunctionally, but persistently. I think about being young and losing a boyfriend in such a sudden, tramatic way. I can’t wrap my head around that because I have never had a boyfriend—but I was young once, and so I try to imagine it. I think about what it must be like to have survived the experience, maybe even lying in a hospital, and be filled with guilt that I survived. I think about the anguish of a parent learning of the death of a son and also, at the same time, and perhaps for the first time, hearing that he was gay (either news may be traumatic to hear), and I wonder how it would feel if I were the surviving boyfriend and met my friend’s parents, perhaps for the first time, after such a tragedy. I sometimes wish I could have been there with open arms, with a shoulder, with an ear—arms for hugs, a shoulder for tears, an ear to listen. I hope each survivor, including relatives, was able to receive these gifts. Even now, as I write this, there is a tightness in my chest.

I am limited by not having a personal connection and by not being there. So I do what I can. I allow my heart to swell with grief,  my mind to sort my thoughts, and my spirit to voice my prayer. The spiritual power of God’s Spirit connects me with many in Orlando in a powerful way and that encourages me and I trust brings solace to hurting souls in some way, large or small.