A speech given at the PFLAG Open House in September of 2012 at Snow College by Dr. James Birrell, a retired professor at BYU and presently an adjunct professor at UVU, who teaches Multicultural Studies has supported the values and goals of PFLAG and has stated that the greatest blessing in his life is having a gay son.
Professor James Birrell with son Archer Birrell
As the father of a gay child, as a citizen of Utah, and as a friend to PFLAG and many people living in this county, I thank Robert Buckner, PFLAG, and others for their efforts to organize this gathering and to invite me to share my thoughts on what I have termed as the ministry of homosexuality.
I honor those who are here tonight. I acknowledge the diversity in this room, of thought, opinion, and experience. I don’t have to tell you how complex the issue of homosexuality can be among humans of various levels of understanding and belief.
We all have our individual and internal, conceptual and experiential mental kaleidoscopes through which we view and interpret all of our lives, and make sense of our individual circumstances and histories.
I honor whatever form the pieces of your internal kaleidoscope are presently in; we do not have to agree on what’s right or true to be in relationship, or experience community here.
Please know I have no ego need to be right in what I will share tonight—I may be wrong about many things; I only desire to share some of my journey of understanding homosexuality, thus far.
I am not invested in defending or persuading, only in inviting the listener to participate in the highest purpose of PFLAG, which purpose mirrors the theme of my talk tonight—and that is an invitation to personal growth, personal involvement, and personal healing through the ministries and possibilities inherent in any form of human diversity.
Please note also that while I mostly use the term gay—as it is central to my experience, I also honor and include all forms of sexual diversity within the LGBT community.
My talk is inclusive of—and I believe relevant to all our LGBT loved ones, though the ideas and assertions that follow are exclusive to me. I speak for no one else. Take from this talk only what makes sense to you.
I speak now of my deepest learnings and most sacred yearnings, thus far, in my evolution of understanding realities that have both defined and redefined my world.
I choose here to be open and authentic about real struggles that reframed—or maybe just revealed those core, authentic beliefs that came written on my heart, so that they might be explored and discovered throughout my life.
My experience suggests that having a gay child will demand that parents examine their inner lives—that is, their deepest truths, because having a gay child is—I believe, an invitation to understand love and life in expanded and remarkable ways—or, at least, it can be if we can are teachable enough to receive the lessons of living and loving that our children have come to teach us, and also if we are willing enough to change those things about us that are no longer in loving service to our present needs and circumstances.
At the time my son first indicated that he believed he was gay I had no way to be at peace about the matter, given my religious understandings. People only know what they know.
Accordingly, I honor what you know, and how you see the world differently from every other living person. That is, as it should be. And that reality is the value and gift we are to one another–when we have the disposition for teachability and the heart for growth. So, thank you for allowing me to come and speak of things I never have shared before in a public setting, and which have and will continue to shape my thinking about life.
This is a talk I could not have listened to when we first faced the possibility that our only son might be gay, let alone could have written and given publicly.
I marvel at the careful journey that has brought me to my present understandings. I marvel at the truths I now claim as possibilities, and at an unexpected spiritual path that brought me to know and cherish the impossible God.
I beg, therefore, your indulgence as you listen to me tonight. I speak with the utmost awareness that my experiences are my own, as well as the understandings I will share with you.
You will note that I did not say I would share conclusions, but rather understandings. I have moved away from making conclusions and more towards inviting into my life possibilities—or more truthfully, impossibilities—I no longer place limits on God’s heart, or the human heart.
I have learned, over the past 12 years since that sobering moment when the word “gay” entered our family vocabulary—our son shared at age 14 that he thought he was gay, that the key to coming to terms with having a gay child was my willingness to learn new truths, along with my ability to accept change—especially in the face of personal, spiritual, and internal dissonance or adversity about things I cannot change—like having a gay child and, initially, finding no way to be at peace about it.
Adversity, then, I have discovered, is merely change we have not yet adapted to.
I speak tonight to the good people of this county—whether they are present or not. I know so many of the good-natured people living here; I know their hearts are true to what they know. I know they are highly spiritual and deeply loving. Most come from LDS backgrounds; hence, I shall attempt to speak in terms I hope they can hear.
Not everyone one will be able to hear me, because of the realities and limitations of perceptual language when trying to express or explain how we see things. I accept that reality. I have learned that we don’t have to turn our backs on people who cannot hear or love us in the ways we would hope.
The good people I know in this county desire only to be more good— if you will. They love to the best of their ability, but life is lifing and demanding more from us all. Our times demand more love from each of us, if we are to transcend the anger and fear that seems to surround and divides us in every aspect of our individual and social lives.
The world isn’t just changing; it is changing us! Perhaps, then, a better response to our times and challenges is to stop seeing our lives, and our challenges, and those we fear—and, therefore disapprove of, as problems to be fixed.
Perhaps a better response to the challenges of our lives is a loving embrace of the gift of personal growth that the universe wants to exchange within us for our willingness to give up fear of loving, fear of changing, and of unlearning and relearning more useful truths.
Indeed, as the good book says, perfect love casts out fear; love is our only hope and the heart of my message tonight.
Regarding the reality of and necessity for change, I have learned that– as Jesus said, you cannot pour new wine into old bottles; put differently, in the Mormon phraseology of the Book of Mormon promise, you must ask the heavens with a sincere heart, with real intent…because, as the wise have learned, the answers God gives to our questions will not only change how we think and feel, but those new answers will also change us.
You cannot expect to really know a new truth if you are reluctant to truly grow; that seems to be a universal law, according to my experience.
In my case, one of the great gifts of having a gay child was that life gave me a new question. New questions, I have learned, are invitations for new growth. In other words, I have discovered that when God wants to change you, God gives you a new set of questions—questions that only God can answer—such as, why is my child gay?
No theology, no psychology, no theory, and no argument could settle the matter definitively for me; hence, I pressed God unceasingly for such an important, soul-saving answer, given my fear of losing my son in eternity, and given my limited understandings of how God viewed homosexuality at the time.
I needed to know how homosexuality fit into God’s plan to save humanity, as I understood the plan at the time? If God condemns homosexuality, and God is all powerful, why didn’t God just use God’s omnipotent power to heal rather than condemn his gay children? My new questions, and the courage to ask them, spawned new and growing doubts within. Nothing made sense, anymore, including God.
Some life questions are so important, because they seem to be at the time life-and-death, soul-saving, high-stakes issues that you cannot merely surrender them to faith alone. At such times knowing why is the only comfort. Such was the case with me.
My new and burning question to God was, why is my son gay? How will all this work out? Will my son be saved? How does God account for all this? And what does this reality say about God, especially if God condemns what God might otherwise have healed.
Why is homosexuality as real a part of the nature and composition of life as heterosexuality; both show up in nature in some frequency on their own—that is undeniable. How, then, does God condemn nature? How does God condemn anything, if God is love?
As I asked these evolving questions, I reminded God of the scriptures that say; ask and ye shall receive—the key word here is shall, I reminded God. You cannot deny me, I declared matter-of-factly in prayer.
And I also quoted the scripture to God that says, what manner of man among you, when his son asks for bread would give him a stone; thus, I further reminded God that if I asked for bread I was to obtain bread, and nothing less.
You cannot lie, and you cannot deny, I reminded God. In that space of desperate (and demanding) faith, and fearing for my son’s soul, I held God accountable to the most compelling and anxious prayers I believe a father can experience—the prayer not for the life of my child, but for the child’s very eternal soul.
During this struggle, Kris and I did not speak to others of our faith about the possibility of our son being gay, save our Bishop. Instead, we sought every known pathway to healing, from holistic and spiritual teachers, to ministers who claimed to cast demons out of him, to visionaries who claimed his soul was female in past lives, to Mormon priesthood blessings, to associations with holy men and women of diverse faith backgrounds who offered any hint of a hope in healing the confusion.
I pled with God to change my son. I left no stone unturned in my search for obtaining healing and salvation for him—which I now see was really a struggle to save myself from those limiting beliefs that were causing my emotional trauma, and keeping me from experiencing a God of infinite impossibilities to the human mind.
Such a God can give hope to any circumstance. I came to call this hope, grace. And grace, as I have learned, is an incomprehensible love that brings forth eternal verities and possibilities which no human mind can imagine, deny or defend—let alone explain in mortal terms.
Over time I learned that my son was fine all along, though he had to pass through some dark days to recognize and embrace this truth; we all did.
I now know that the entire situation was and is in divine order.
It was never the situation that was the problem for me, but my thoughts about the situation that created the inner struggle—a struggle that ended once I stopped letting the world define my situation and started listening to (and trusting) my inner compass or kaleidoscope.
My internal kaleidoscope needed to turn in order to allow the pieces to reform into a beautiful new picture and understanding—which it eventually did, and I came to peace about the matter of my son.
But before I did, I gave myself absolutely, even excessively to my religious pathway, hoping to move heaven and earth in behalf of my son—striving to be so good that God could not possibly deny me my heart’s desire.
I shook the tree of heaven for favor, by being so good that God had to bless me—as I understood back then how blessings were obtained.
I was desperate for my child’s soul.
Because of that desperation, I was driven to really know how all this worked, and not just accept an absence of understanding as evidence of faith.
I poured myself into temple attendance, church and community service, endless prayer and fasting, study and even going so far as to write rebukes of the so-called gay agenda—rebukes I so regret today.
At the time I was convinced that defending God’s position on—or rather, against homosexuality—as I had been taught it by others, would please God by showing God that I was on the right side of the issue.
How little of God’s heart I knew; or rather, how little a God I knew.
For all that pleading and bartering with God, the unexpected happened; seeking God to change my son resulted in God changing me.
The unimagined happened, including some things I hold too sacred to share in this setting. My sacred struggle in petitioning God for the welfare of my son affirmed a statement I had heard during that time by a former LDS general authority, Elder Neal A. Maxwell.
Near as I can recall, Elder Maxwell said to a group of BYU students– not long after his being called as an apostle in the LDS faith, “For God to keep his promises that eye hath not seen nor ear heard, neither entered into the heart of man all that God had prepared for those who love him, God will have to take some of our beliefs and greatly expand them; others he will have to completely reconstruct.”
Endless days and nights of studying, pleading, seeking, searching, pondering, praying, listening, discussing, and questioning greatly expanded or completely reconstructed how I saw myself, my God, and my son—how I saw all of life, really.
That which I once understood to be the one true picture of eternal reality turned out to be, instead, but a turn of a kaleidoscope of possibilities for either experiencing (and expressing)—or not experiencing God.
I saw how a kaleidoscope becomes a magnificent metaphor for living and learning, filtering and interpreting all our life experience. From birth I had been taught the proper view of what to see as true and truth.
These beliefs helped form the kaleidoscope of my early faith—a view and faith that held steady until it couldn’t—until new questions opened me up to wonderful impossibilities.
I thank the well-meaning and dedicated people, including parents, teachers, and leaders within a fairly homogenous community that worked so diligently to shape the formation of my neuropath-ways to God, and validated both my place in and fitness for that faith community—as they understood it through the lens of their own conceptual—and experiential kaleidoscope.
In conclusion, I wish to state that one of the great transforming truths I have come to know was given to me in a sacred moment of enlightenment. In answer to the question of why my son is gay, I share now a most precious knowing that could only have come in the right moment, and only after much scaffolding of new and expanded foundational understandings.
I hold in my emerging belief system the notion that our eternal souls were not created at birth, but merely continue our learning progression here in this world, aided by purposes and experiences we helped to design before this birth.
Accordingly, I was given to know that my son had chosen to experience homosexuality in this life for holy purposes, designed to serve human growth and expand human understanding—specifically, his own and that of his immediate and extended human family. This remarkable young man has been a faithful teacher to us; he is most extraordinarily loving.
My son came to minister to my beliefs and understandings that were less loving than those I now embrace. I now view homosexuality as a crucial component of life—a gift of diversity and opportunity that only the most loving could endure in the world as it presently is. To be gay is to be courageous—and courage is an expression of love.
I have marveled at what kind of love it must take for some souls to accept the path of love that homosexuality demands, especially as gays work through the struggles of coming to self-acceptance, before awakening to—and becoming at home with their advanced spiritual natures.
Gays do not lose God; gays reflect God into the world once they know the love they truly are and the difficulty of the ministry they freely took on in this world.
Certainly all life paths are difficult, that is, until love becomes the healing and guiding reality that transforms personal difficulties into wonderful new impossibilities.
Thus, I know that my precious son came into my life and into this world as love, and to bring me to a knowing of love that I might have otherwise missed—the same is true of all of my amazing and accepting children.
Honestly, I have yet to meet an LGBT person who—when they stand in the truth of their own magnificence—especially if that truth allows them to experience their oneness with God, does not excel at loving and goodness beyond words.
They can love straights in ways that straights may not be able to reciprocate, due to fears and limited understandings—including about God. Accordingly, gays are well suited to teach us much about loving without conditions.
When gays are in this place of knowing their true natures, their lives are not defined—as some suggest, by sex, but rather by love—and what a tender, grand love it is—a love born of coming to love themselves in the face of unloving judgments from people who are not yet ready to know the impossible love of an impossible God.
The ministry of homosexuality, then, is an invitation to consider how Mary– the mother of Jesus, is an archetype for all who claim to be loving and Christian. Those who seek to be filled with the love of Christ have but one option—to love, or rather—as Mary did, to birth love into the world in every moment and in every situation.
The law of attraction attests to the truth that birthing love into all things will transform not only the giver but also the receiver of such impossible love.
But is that not the very meaning of unconditional love? As I see it, unconditional love does not mean to love others despite the way they are, but rather to send love into every way that they are—their shadows and struggles as well as strengths and virtues.
To walk with their darkness in love–which darkness is their sense of unworthiness, is to heal that sense of unworthiness through love! This is the very essence of love.
Experience has taught me that nothing can stir such unloving responses from heterosexuals as anything homosexual. My experience working with healing myself and others suggests that all people struggle with core issues of unworthiness, fear of rejection and abandonment.
People often wonder if they are enough, enough for themselves, for God, for each other, and for love. We struggle to love ourselves as we are, failing to see the perfection we already are—and always have been, in God’s impossible love.
From this universal unhealed place within virtually all of humanity, we struggle to honor our own worthiness, and miss the mark of attending to the second great commandment. From our sense of inadequacy and inability to experience true self-love, we are less open to experiencing the impossible love that makes loving all others more possible.
I believe that something inherent in the notion and ministry of homosexuality is meant to trigger the deepest insecurities in those unhealed places within both gays and straights.
I also believe that a big enough love can transcend the explanations and limitations of human understanding; I know, because I met the impossible God along the way who opened me up to loving myself despite myself—and that has made all the difference in loving others as they are.
To love the other as the self requires an understanding that transcends theology and psychology, for to love the other as the self requires us to comprehend both the at-one-ment of all things, and the assurance that loving the other as the self is actually choosing to love the self; in a real sense, I am you. You are me. Such an understanding is crucial to experiencing and expressing impossible love.
This impossible love, of which I speak, is not at first a comfortable love for many; to love this kind of love invites a painful and messy re- birthing process.
Spiritualist Marianne Williamson might call time spent in laboring to birth this kind of transcendent love–tomb time. In speaking of the death and resurrection of Jesus as an archetype for our own lives, Marianne invites us to consider how the old selves must continuously die in order for the new selves to be constantly resurrecting.
Between these life deaths and resurrections, she argues, is time spent in the dark tomb—just as the body of Jesus lay in the tomb those three days before resurrecting.
I have experienced this metaphorical tomb time, or in other words those times when we feel lost in our inner darkness.
Such dark nights of the soul are moments when we feel entombed by pain and impossibility. But the tomb is merely a birthing canal into new light and life.
Even a snake, I am told, when it sheds its skin must spend time in the shade to allow its eyes to heal enough to embrace the light anew.
Tomb time is where we shed the old us and resurrect a new us into a brighter light of understanding and loving, if we are teachable and embrace change.
Tomb time is the servant of light, because it is in those dark moments of the inner tomb that we discover ourselves, by witnessing which us shows up in these worst of times—a bitter or better us.
And tomb time is also where we discover the impossible God or remain tied to something smaller and less hopeful.
Tomb time reminds us that there are times when all you have left is the choice to love, or not. In those moments, when love is all you have left, you are ready to discover the breathtaking vistas of impossible love from a source you never imagined possible.
Love, then, is what emerges from the tomb. Love is the ultimate reality; the central ministry—especially in matters of homosexuality.
To me love is the transcendent ministry and opportunity that the reality of homosexuality invites all of humanity to come into community with.
Homosexuality is a love that invites both gays and straights to look inward at their deepest capacities to live the second great commandment—which is to love others AS the self in transcendent ways that unite, not divide the human family.
Some who know only theology may struggle with this notion, but those who know the heart of impossible love already are working towards it.
To that impossible God I met along my journey, I give unending gratitude, for love has made all the difference in walking this soul journey with my son—with myself, with all of humanity, really.
Finally, all love is a ministry.
I invite you to join the loving ministry of PFLAG in Sanpete County, which remains dedicated to reaching out to loving and healing, serving and blessing one another—especially those individuals who find themselves in tomb time over matters of sexual orientation—their own or someone they love.
PFLAG is a ministry, as it were, of love and growth, support and healing. PFLAG does not just save lives, it helps others to come forth out of the tomb time of struggling over issues of homosexuality and embrace wonderful new insights and lives.
Accordingly, I give this invitation that Jesus spoke at the tomb of Lazarus: come forth.
Come forth and love more, for love is the heart of the matter and ministry of homosexuality. At least, that has been my experience. Thank you.