Journey - Chapter 10
By Jerry McKay
Published June 2016 in Connection
In the introduction to my story, I mentioned that people have asked how my faith and my orientation intersected and collided. During that first year at CUC, there was a spiritual “event” that conspired against me to create great expectations on one hand and disillusionment on the other. Those expectations intensified my internal conflict and would carry forward to the time when I was in reparative therapy. Because my spiritual formation was profoundly influenced by that event, I will explore it at some length. Bear with me, as I
get a bit theological.
While I was in Japan, an Adventist pastor had been giving Week of Prayer lectures on Adventist campuses in the United States. I initially learned of Morris Venden through audiocassette tapes (showing my age again). While I enjoyed the taped messages, I was thrilled when I obtained a print copy of the fall 1975 Student Movement, the student newspaper for Andrews University. That 28-page issue was a transcript of Venden’s Week of Prayer messages.
As was my practice with any spiritual material, I methodically worked my way through it, ruminating over every word. I underlined, highlighted, circled, checked, and re-highlighted poignant comments that I felt related to my experience.
Venden’s sermons were rich with illustrations promising a victorious life. They focused heavily on the loaded concepts of continual obedience and the correct use of my will. He used a road trip as a running parable. On this road trip, intimidating Peterbilt transport trucks represented the threat to my obtaining personal victory in the here and now as I moved toward the Kingdom of God.
In this parable, my temptation was to cling to control of my will -- the steering wheel -- thinking I could out maneuver those trucks myself. By clinging to the steering wheel, I would in effect be assigning Jesus to the passenger seat. My spiritual ”work” was to surrender total control of the wheel – my will – to Jesus. Then I would experience continuous personal victory.
This quote sums up the heart of his message. “If as a Christian, you haven’t yet discovered meaning in the personal daily devotional life, don’t try anything else… It is the entire basis of the Christian experience; ongoing communion and fellowship with Jesus.”
Throughout those 28 pages, Venden repeatedly emphasized that the only way to access the benefits of the cross was through a faith relationship with Christ.
Of course, my ears perked up when he quoted from my cherished devotional companion to the Bible – The Desire of Ages. Quotes like the following pulled at my heartstrings. “When we know God as it is our privilege to know Him, our life will be a life of continual obedience. Through an appreciation of the character of Christ, through communion with God, sin will become hateful to us.” And again, “If we abide in Christ, if the love of God dwells in us, our feelings, our thoughts, our purposes, our actions will be in harmony with the will of God.”
By now I think you can appreciate why I became preoccupied with Venden's message. He insisted that a relationship with Jesus was comprised of Bible study, prayer, and the Christian witness – “the three tangibles by which all other intangibles are made tangible.” While his emphasis was not new, it re-enforced what I had been doing since my baptism at age twelve – diligently practicing a devotional life. And now, I had a year of mission service to add to my list of tangibles.
The inner conflict this created was intense, as awareness of my orientation increased while not experiencing any of the promised benefits. Because I was not becoming heterosexual in any sense of the word, I could only conclude that Venden's explanation applied to me.
“Now the only explanation for [not obtaining victory in the Christian life],” he insisted, is “that there must be an on-again, off-again abiding in a sense, to explain the failures that we have seen in our lives.” “Because,” he continued, “if we do not abide in Christ at any given moment – depending upon Him, leaving Him at the wheel, in the driver’s seat – our feelings, thoughts, purposes, and actions will not be in harmony with the will of God.”
What was I to think? The only conclusion I could come to was that I had not been intentional enough about my devotions, or that I was not doing it correctly. Because I was already primed by years of personal devotions, I was ready to do, with a vengeance, any variation on a devotional life I thought necessary to end my secret struggle.
I know I am repeating myself, but you must appreciate how deeply I identified with Venden's emphasis. When he said, “The only part that you can do in the fight of faith is an ongoing daily personal fellowship.” I took it to heart. I also took to heart the promise that if I came into this growing relationship with the Lord Jesus, “Jesus would fight my battles for me.
Scattered throughout Venden's sermons were phrases gathered from Ellen White outlining the changes that would occur if God took control of my will and then gave it back to me with Him in charge. While the list was extensive, I became preoccupied with those that seemed to speak directly to me. When God is in control, Venden insisted: inclinations and affections change; thoughts and desires change; impulses and tendencies change; passions are subdued; and our feelings, emotions, and imaginations are transformed.
That is quite a list. While it is not unusual for a Christian leader to speak in these terms nor for a Christian to seek these changes, I became preoccupied with them. To my detriment, I confused each characteristic with my orientation.
A non-Adventist might find it difficult to appreciate the force I gave to comments made by Ellen White. She holds a prophetic-pastoral role within Adventism, and the church would not be what it is today without her. She is like the Church Fathers are to Catholics, Luther to Lutherans, Calvin to Reformed people. Whether it was White or the Bible, I frequently misread and misapplied what I read to my orientation. I did not read ”change” statements as universal promises offering hope and encouragement. I read them as absolutes which I must experience if I were truly a faithful follower of Christ.
Therefore, if one thoughtful hour contemplating Jesus' life was not sufficient, then maybe two thoughtful hours were necessary. While I did not follow a two-hour per day routine, the thought that I was not being faithful enough in my devotions haunted me. I often wondered if the Apostle Paul was correct. Perhaps, in some way, my devotions were misguided and that I was worshiping the creature rather than the creator. As a result, I was under God's wrath and being “handed over” to these desires. I felt the implications were staggering – if not eternal – in consequence.
Earlier I mentioned expectations. Venden’s message heightened my expectation of a change in my feelings and attractions. However, because of my naivety about the nature of sexual orientation, I was setting myself up for a great disappointment. At the time, I understood my experience in the same way many see it. To use a commonly used but equally confusing term, I saw my orientation as a propensity.
Propensity is a tricky word. Some definitions sound more like behavior as in a tendency to eat too much, or an inclination to talk too much, or to have an angry disposition. When the term propensity is used to describe homosexuality, the person using it typically believes that I am heterosexual with homosexual inclinations. That was not how I experienced my orientation.
Other definitions sound more stable and enduring – even innate. This is where orientation fits in. If a heterosexual friend said he has a deeply ingrained or strong natural proneness toward the opposite sex, he would be describing his orientation as a state of being. Over the last 30 years, I have never heard one of my heterosexual friends describe his or her sexuality as a propensity. For them, it is who they are. Even if they remained celibate, they would still experience the world as a heterosexual. At least, that seems the case when I swap stories with my heterosexual friends.
Likewise, I often hear the misguided comparison of homosexuality to that of prostitution or adultery. Often it is spoken of in terms of an addiction like alcoholism or gambling. These are not orientations. Some are behavioral choices while others may reflect a propensity. All people can participate in these irrespective of orientation. Likewise, people of either orientation can have a propensity to be greedy, arrogant or just plain foolish. On the positive side, the fruit of the spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – can be seen in the lives of all despite their orientation.
At the time, I did not make the distinction between state-of-being and behavior. Some people don’t like it when I express my orientation as a state-of-being because they would prefer that homosexuality were a propensity – in the behavioral sense. I have to live with reality, however, not what others believe or would prefer.
In this state of confusion, I embraced the belief that my spiritual practices would change my orientation. I expected the emergence of a totally different state of being. Had there been some shift in my experience, it would have suggested that Jesus was fighting this battle for me. But there was nothing! I went to bed wondering when I would no longer be the evidence or object of God's wrath.
Three words from Jesus’ phrase ”as a man thinks in his heart so is he” succinctly capture how I felt at the time. I was always trying to figure out how to purge the ”so is he” from my person. It was like trying to split a theological or psychological atom. For me to hate the sin, was to hate myself. Linking continual obedience with the elimination of my orientation was a recipe for insanity.
Put another way, my devotional life was being overshadowed by a set of destructive assumptions. Assumption One: The spiritual person will always be victorious. Assumption Two: My orientation should not persist if I was totally submitted to Jesus. Assumption Three: If it did persist, I was to blame.
Venden talked at length about the right use of the will. “One of the great misunderstandings in the Christian life,” he wrote, “is how to use your
will and your will power.” The big question he admitted was how to know where divine power begins and human effort ends. He wondered how much God expects us to do and how much we could expect from God. How could Venden write with such certainty in the face of such questions? These “frustrating and heavy questions” as he put it, plagued me for the next decade and more. It is out of my experience that I plead with pastors or counselors to examine the theological framework from whichthey ask others to live their lives.
It would be easy to blame Venden's message for leading me into a quagmire of uncertainty. Believing that my devotions – prayer, Bible study, and witnessing – would result in a change in my orientation, I was left in spiritual turmoil. In this let-go-and-let-God theology, I eagerly anticipated some kind of divine intervention, but it never came.
The saddest part in all of this was that my devotional life was becoming a daily reminder of failure rather than the grace-filled space where I had always met with my Savior.
At this point ofpersonal crisis, it would be easy for some to interject that if I had had a proper understanding of the gospel, I would have experienced the change I hoped for. By ”proper,” they would mean a Reformation understanding in which Luther would have me locate my salvation in the objective life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. I would be introduced to that Good News when I started reparative therapy a few years later.
In that context, my counselor constructed a therapeutic approach focused on the external work of Jesus. I was encouraged to ”claim” my heterosexuality by faith in the same way I would claim my salvation by faith in Christ. I was counseled to believe that what I held by faith – my heterosexuality – would become more and more tangible.
While learning about the Good News was life-changing, in that context, I was asked to do things which now seem unethical. When I get to that part of my story, I will elaborate on how I was to apply ”the right use of my will” in a gospel context to change my orientation.
I never told anyone about the significance I gave to Venden's message – neither the hope nor the trepidation. At the same time, I was so enthusiastic, that I persuaded the college pastor to let a group of us – which included Donna – fix up a tiny old church that sat unused in the village of Lacombe. I was determined to fill the town with the hope of victory in Jesus while not experiencing it myself. Sadly, this marked my growing trend of ignoring reality.
We got as far as repainting the interior walls before academic demands dampened that dream. We were fired up, though, and throughout the year, many study groups were spent dissecting Venden’s sermons. With all of this going on in the background, I continued with studies and attempts at dating.
As a healthy 20-year-old male, my libido was as charged as any of my friends and I was always affected by visual stimulation. Because this experience is beginning to sound routine you might be tempted to think I was growing accustomed to it. That assumption would be wrong.
As always, the dormitory was the primary source of visual distress. The ”wanting” to look never ended and the constant modifying of my behavior was draining. I spent as little time as possible in those community showers even though there was a bit more privacy than back at Kingsway. Even though I could arrange my mornings so that I got in and out of the showers ahead of the others, I couldn't avoid all the scantily clad guys moving about in the halls!
Awareness of my orientation was further heightened because finding a mate was taking on a serious tone. For us single theology majors, there could be a sense of desperation. Next to the degree itself, having a wife in arm at graduation was a not-so-unwritten expectation for employment. This little fact was not lost on me. In the back of my mind, there was a growing concern that all my dreams might be in jeopardy if I couldn’t find a wife.
Most of my friends were dating. Kelvin settled into a serious relationship. Despite the happiness I had for him, it was hard to watch him and Marcia together. I couldn’t help compare myself to Kelvin and others. Their obvious attraction to the opposite sex made me very aware of what I did not feel. Even the tender act of holding someone’s hand was out of my reach. When the desire to hold someone's did cross my mind – and it did – it was that of a male friend. In turn, that thought was followed by those “why” questions, followed by a headache.
Naturally, some women were more physically appealing to me than others. I may not be sexually attracted to women, but I am not blind to aesthetic beauty. Still, even stunning beauty failed to arouse sexual interest. And that is the crux of the issue. Without physical attraction or emotional appeal driving me, little else could follow. My social interactions were similar to walking through that bee-filled shed. Everything was happening around me, but I was disconnected from it all. To function day to day, I had to suspend most feelings and emotions.
With my attempts to date, a trend emerged. Generally, by the time a second date might have occurred, I had identified a reason a relationship could never work. It was usually a superficial reason, often a physical reason. Before I elaborate, I feel I should do as TV stations do and state that any resemblance to any person is entirely coincidental, and to protect the innocent, names have been changed.
My dating year looked like this. If Miss September had a small mole on her neck at the beginning of the month, all I could see by the end of the month was a huge hideous growth. If Miss October was a full-figured girl on the 1st, by the end of the month, all I could see were breasts. If Miss November were less blessed “in that way,” by the potential second date, I was sure I should be dating the full-figured girls. Miss December's hips were too hippy by the end of the month; Miss January’s slender arms were definitely too thin by the 31st; Miss February’s hair was too curly or too short or too long. Miss March’s ankles were too stout. Miss April was deficient in every way; and Miss May – well, the school year was over by then – proving there was just no one meant for me that year. Meanwhile, there were just-fine guys everywhere I looked. I can make light of this now, but at the time it was distressing.
When I couldn't rationalize ruling out a potential a mate based on physical appearance, I used my field of study. As a theology major, there was the ministerial ”must-have list” – an unwritten list of essential characteristics women must possess in order to be a good pastor's wife. She should be able to play the piano (even teach piano if need be to support our family). As well, she should be able to cook a fine meal, entertain, and get along with every church member. She must be able to create and manage the perfect Adventist home. No one ever met all those criteria. Subconsciously, this played right into my denial system.
Whenever I imagined a future that included a wife and children, there was no link between them. I had no fantasies about ”knowing” a woman as Adam knew Eve. Even during those embarrassing nocturnal emissions – which I had no control over – women were never featured. And yes, Christian men studying theology have nocturnal emissions! Any children in my imaginary family had either been discovered under a cabbage leaf or delivered by a stork.
If there had been the slightest attraction, there would have been something to work with. I had zero propensities for the opposite sex. I thought about this day in and day out, week after week, and month after month.
My only ongoing relationship was with Donna, although there was never any mention of our being in a ”relationship.” We were always doing things together. If we weren't going shopping, we were attending prayer groups. Often, rather than attend a social function on campus, we would sneak away to make a campfire in the woods beside a nearby lake. Under normal circumstances, this would all have been so romantic. For me, it was only platonic.
After a year and a half at CUC, things literally changed one night. In early December, I got a phone call in the middle of the night. Night calls are disturbing because they often mean something serious. This was a serious call but for an exciting reason.
When my foggy head cleared, I realized it was the director of the language schools in Japan. Bruce was calling to ask if I wanted to come back to Japan for another year. Silly question! For the last year and a half, I had been chattering about Japan every opportunity I could get. The only problem – Bruce didn’t need me at the end of the school year. He needed me that January.
Although Kelvin was supportive, he told me years later that he wondered why I hadn’t decided to finish my degree and then go back to Japan as a pastor. There were any number of reasons why I jumped at the opportunity, but two stand out. Life in Japan was more exciting and rewarding than working on my degree, and it was an escape from the growing conflict between career expectations and my orientation. There was one other good reason. Donna was already there!
Whatever the case, the next couple of weeks flew by. I had to write exams, finish papers, and make a trip home for Christmas. By early January, I was thrilled to be back in Tokyo.