Just a couple of weeks ago, I flew to California to participate in the 2013 Exodus Freedom Conference. This was my 11th consecutive annual conference. My involvement with Exodus began in 1999 when I timidly made a call to a local Christian counselor and began meeting with him weekly. I was 40 years old, deeply in love with Jesus and my wife, and for the first time in my life was able to talk about my three big secrets: the ongoing results of being sexually molested as a child, my secret struggle with same-sex attractions, and my addiction to pornography.
That counselor led a local Exodus support ministry for men like me. Men like me? Until I met Dan and he introduced me to that group, I never knew there were any other men like me. Finally, I learned that my experience wasn't as isolated as I had thought. There were many Christian men in church pews every Sunday wearing their cloaks of shame and their masks of perfection. I wasn't the only one who cringed every time a pastor made insensitive gay jokes or, even worse, spoke in an unloving manner about "those perverts" that were unworthy of the love of their families, the church, and even God himself. There were other men who wrestled with scriptural interpretations that left them in the line for hell with no hope of redemption all because of something that they were incapable of changing. In this group, I heard stories of men who had mustered the courage to ask their pastors for help only to be met with "I don't know how to help you." Some were banished from their churches. There were men who had been abandoned by their loved ones and men who literally walked through life with their heads low because of the shame heaped on them by their "friends."
Needless to say, through the counsel I received from Dan and the support of the friends I made in that group, my life changed forever. The greatest thing that they offered was a constant reminder that I was a child of God. My attention was always brought back from my own inclinations toward sin and shame and pointed toward the love of God. Over and over, I heard how I could experience true freedom if I ever could recognize who God had called me to be. I was reluctant to believe that message because my expectation was that somehow God had to miraculously change me from a homosexual to a heterosexual. Since I had been praying for that to happen for most of my life and it hadn't occurred, I had little hope that it would happen now. It wasn't until I changed my prayer and my expectation that I began to experience the freedom I was promised. I began to pray that God would draw me closer to himself, that my life would reflect his life, and that my heart would beat with his. I left behind any expectation of change other than simply, "Lord, change all of me."
I began to live out the life Jesus offered me when I accepted his gift of salvation. I started opening up to others in my family and church by sharing my story and by being vulnerable with my heart. It wasn't an easy start. In fact, it was like a trip to a bad dentist. It was hard for me to get the words out at first. Then, in time, I found that once I had shared my story, I no longer cared what that person or group thought about me. Once I had shared it with my church without receiving condemnation, I felt more peace about my relationship with them. I could be "me" with them. And each time I shared with another group, my circle of freedom became wider and wider until now I don't base my life or my decisions on what anyone else thinks of me. I am "me" all the time.
That brings me back to the Exodus Freedom Conference that was held last month. For the past 10 years or so, I served on the Exodus conference staff. I made friends from across the country - even around the world - through these annual meetings. Earlier this year, I was elected to the Exodus Board of Directors. I have been part of the ongoing discussion regarding the future of Exodus for some time, then came to the board in time for the final decisions and, ultimately, the vote to close Exodus permanently. It's a chapter of my life that I entered with reluctance, grew to love, and then joyfully ended. It was right to close this chapter at this time in this way.
Since the close of Exodus it seems that everyone has publicly offered their opinions about the reason it closed, the fallout or the success of its closing, or the pain or joy they feel because of it. I've read many but not all of the blogs, news reports, Facebook posts, etc. Many of them even quoted the statement that I made on behalf of the Board of Directors or other statements that I made.
I have two observations about what others are saying:
- I was surprised to learn that when journalists use quotation marks they are not necessarily indicating that what is included is a direct quote. Go figure.
- I was surprised that Christian writers have basically the same integrity (or lack) as non-Christians. The negativity, false accusations, and outright lies that I have read from people who once called me "brother" are sometimes infuriating. I seriously have to leave the internet for time to cool down.
For me, the result of this is not a change of heart about what I believe or about my belief that closing Exodus was the right thing to do. Rather, I rejoice that before I came to this point, I found a place of freedom from emotional dependence on what others think of me. They can't rain on my parade. My life flourishes through trials and hardships. I don't have to hide who I am or what I feel. While I am sometimes angered, I am not distracted by the words of others. Jesus, not any man or woman, is the Lord of my life. I try to offer back to my detractors the same grace I have received.
More than ever, I am determined to invite others into this life of freedom. The more I see the underbelly of legalists and modern Pharisees, the more I am reminded that God didn't call us to a religious system but to a relationship with a living God. Let the legalists spew the law, let the Pharisees spread their leaven, and let the accusers play into the hands of the master accuser. Meanwhile, I'll be talking to people about Jesus and dancing in the rain.