Part of what makes working in a restaurant kitchen interesting is you never really know who is coming for dinner and when they are planning to come. At the Durham restaurant we take reservations, so we do know the answer a good bit of the time, yet last Sunday night we had reservations for forty and we served ninety by the time the evening was over. More than half of the people just showed up to become part of that evening’s story.
The Duke restaurant is even less predictable because our major client base is the student body and, even though we are a fairly spiffy sit-down restaurant, we are, in their minds, a dining hall. Who needs to make reservations for the dining hall? One night last week a group of seventeen walked in for dinner. They were followed by two groups of seven, two groups of six, and three groups of four, and all of them were seated within fifteen minutes of each other.
In what has become an unintentional series of blog posts, I thought I might add life is a restaurant to the list: you spend most of your time getting ready, you don’t know who is going to show up or how long they will stay, and the point is to feed people and let them enjoy being together. Not bad.
The idea has set me to thinking about the people who have wandered (wondered?) into my life, though I have to say the metaphor breaks down a bit here because the ones who came to mind were people who fed me as much or more than I did them. They came to mind because of what is going on at our church. We are getting ready for a big celebration of our own in early October marking the tenth anniversary of our congregation’s choice to be intentionally Open and Affirming, which is to say we welcome everyone. Period. The O&A designation has particular significance to the gay and lesbian communities because they are not always sure where they are welcome, when it comes to church. We wanted to make it clear.
I grew up Southern Baptist, so I know all the arguments and verses folks use to say gays and lesbians have to straighten up (pun intended) to be acceptable. I’m not writing to pick that fight. I started to write, “The conversation is difficult because no one comes in willing to have their minds or hearts changed.” Here’s the thing: I’m writing about this metaphor because it’s how my heart and mind were changed.
I’m chasing a metaphor, remember?
In the restaurant that is my life, I’m grateful for more people than I can count who have dropped in, but tonight I want to point to four people – four gay men – whom God used to shape my life. The first is my friend, Jay, who was my first gay friend. I don’t mean he was the first gay or lesbian person I ever met, but he was the first one with whom I developed a long-lasting friendship. When we lived in Boston, he came up from Texas every year for Thanksgiving and Christmas for about a decade and then, when he moved to Boston, he lived with us for a year while he was finding work and getting on his feet. We share history that connects us and stories that bind us together as intentional family. I’m thankful for Jay who has helped me learn to be a better friend.
The summer before I turned forty, I fell into an existential crisis about writing. I had said for years I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t feel like I was writing anything. So I signed up for a summer session at the Humber School for Writers in Toronto, which is where I met Timothy Findley. I worked with him in the workshops that week and then he served as my mentor in a one-year correspondence course to write a novel. (Yes, I did write a novel. No, it has never been published.) In conversations during the week, Tiff and I talked about writing and faith and life. He had started in the theater and was working in a play with Ruth Graham and Thornton Wilder when he published his first short story. Graham read it and told him to write. We made a strong connection with one another and continued writing after the class was over. Tim was an excellent writer, a thoughtful and faithful person, and he was gay. I’m grateful for Tiff who helped me recognize I am a writer.
My favorite Christmas gifts over the past few years have been experiences rather than possessions. Ginger does an amazing job of finding things for me to see and do that last long after the events are over. One of the best gifts she ever gave me was a class in Byzantine Iconography. I don’t mean to learn about them, or to admire them, but to paint (actually, the verb they use is to write) icons. For a week one January, and then weekly for many months to follow, I sat in the studio with Chris as he invited me into the spiritual practice of iconography. I learned ways to pray I had not known before. I learned so much about the history and significance of the images we were creating. I learned I was pretty good at writing the icons. And I found a real friend in Chris as well, whose gentle and vulnerable spirit was as much a window into heaven as the icons were. And he is gay. I’m thankful for Chris who showed me I am an artist and taught me how to pray with a brush.
The summer after we moved to Marshfield, I feel into a deep depression. I’ve written about it any number of times in these pages, so I’ll spare you the story now. One of the people who helped me find my way and make meaning of those dark days was Ken, who began as a my counselor and became my spiritual director as I sought to shift from looking at the depression to trying to find a more holistic perspective. Ken and I share a love of poetry and, on more than one occasion, he would end our session by saying, “I have a poem for you,” and he would hand me a photocopied sheet of something by Mary Oliver or Rumi or who knows that appeared to have been written just for me. I don’t know anyone else who incarnates the grace of God anymore than Ken. And Ken is gay. I’m grateful to Ken for helping me see life is full of meaning, even when I was depressed.
All four people helped shape my life and my faith. God has spoken to me through them, God has incarnated grace and love and hope and faith in their words and actions. I am the person and the Christian I am today because of the love and care of these four men. These four gay men. Don’t get me wrong. They don’t get all the blame. There are many others, gay and straight, whose love has carried me. Still, in the restaurant that is my life I could not feed those who drop in had it not been for the nourishment offered me by these four friends.
Every Sunday at our church, Ginger begins by quoting a UCC slogan:
Whoever you are and wherever you are on life’s journey,
You’re welcome here.
Yes, I know it’s the UCC and that we are the liberals whose theology, as one Texas Baptist pastor used to say, “killed the Church of England.” (Another friend says it this way: if Christianity were a neighborhood, we’d be the last house on the left.) I also know, at the very bottom of it all, it’s about what you do with people way before what you do with Bible verses. One of the choruses I learned in youth group in the Seventies we sang last Sunday:
we are one in the Spirit we are one in the Lord
we are one in the Spirit we are one in the Lord
and we pray that our unity will one day be restored
and they’ll know we are Christians by our love by our love
yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love
Come, the table is now ready.