Strong in the Broken: In This Tent We Groan

Today’s Strong in the Broken post moves from Tolkein to Lewis, from being a missionary kid to homosexuality to suicide. This essay is brave and it is one man’s story, told with complexity and honesty. It is published without a name, if you wish to contact the author, either please leave a comment or email me and I will put you in touch.

Disclaimer: I understand that this is a sensitive topic, and I cannot claim to have all, or really any of the answers. My hope is to tell my story in an honest way, not as a prescription for anyone going through similar struggles. I do not want to cause dissent or arguments over this issue. This is an uncomfortable topic to be sure, but comfort is no good reason for silence. This topic needs to be talked about until the suicide rate declines among this demographic. It needs to be talked about until this demographic falls in love with Jesus.

Falling in love is a terrible thing. Especially when you are the son of missionaries, and the person you fall in love with is another boy.

I never really had a concept of homosexuality growing up on the mission field. And maybe it wasn’t necessary. I was busy roaming the city streets, climbing on fortress walls, learning languages, running away from security guards. But even at the MK(missionary kid) conferences I think I felt a bit out of place, as if there was something different between me and my peers. I didn’t quite fit in even among my fellow TCKs (third culture kids). I couldn’t put my finger on it then. I just tried to love Jesus and obey him.

The subconscious prayer I tearfully prayed throughout high school and into college was, “God, fix me!”, because even though I didn’t know what needed fixing, I was aware of something broken within me. I noticed other guys instead of girls, but I thought it would pass, that it was nothing, that I was just sinful, that if I prayed hard enough, obeyed God enough, studied the Bible enough, I would become the right person. Somewhere in my head I was searching for a magical concoction that would fix me. I dove into theology and philosophy, trying to be the best Christian I could. I ceased to see God as my loving Father who longs to embrace me, and saw him as a genie with the power to grant my wish that I thought would please him, if only I would follow certain steps. I did all of this for at least seven years without the slightest idea that I was gay.

During my junior year at university, my inner world of acting perfect and believing all the right things finally collapsed on itself from sheer burnout and I admitted to myself that I was gay. They don’t prepare you for being this in the transition seminars. No TCK talk could have prepared me for this sort of identity crisis. This sort of world-shattering reality. Because just as I was trying to get accustomed to being in America, and thoroughly enjoying aspects of this culture, I admitted that I was not who I always told myself I was.

Depression pounded against my skull as my heart beat to the rhythm of my pleas, “God, let me be straight!” Shame told me to isolate myself, and my mind went into shock. I didn’t know how to find my Comforter in the Scriptures, because I had spent years treating it as a how-to manual. So I stopped reading this how-to manual that spoke nothing but condemnation into my predicament. I tried to shut my emotions down to give myself time to think, to pray. But then my eyes would catch that guy in the halls and I would break down.

Terror drove me away from my family, friends, people, and God. I was alone with myself and hated myself. My vending machine of a god was not accepting any currency I had to offer, and I became hopeless. My thoughts vacillated between believing I was an accident and that God could not possibly have meant to create someone like me, and blaming God for doing this to me. My God had failed me, or I had failed God. It didn’t really matter, did it? I hated God and wanted to die.

On my darkest nights my feet took me to the train tracks near campus and there I would stand, waiting for a train to come and take my life away. Exhaustion drove me back to my apartment with a fresh anger against a god I was convinced hated me. “Why can’t you let me die?!”

How can I blame God for this mess? I have been told that He is all-good and loving. I must therefore do what comes most naturally to me and imagine myself to be the leviathan beneath the surface of my heart, writhing my scaly body beneath the waves, hunting frigates. It does something to a man when he believes himself to be a monster. I debated whether my heart was more like Hyde or Frankenstein, because in public I could pull off a fair impression of Jekyll, but alone in my room, Hyde was the unwelcome companion who tried to convince me that Frankenstein was a better monster than I because he embraced his monstrosity and accepted it as who he was and called that identity good instead of hiding behind the false form of a doctor.

And yet, if I had to be a monster, at least I might try to be a useful one. If I were a dragon, at least I could feign an impression of Eustace and help to build a mast instead of razing a dwarven city to the ground in order to become king under the mountain. Of course I would be alone, unable to make the voyage to the edge of the world, but at least I might do a little bit of good instead of wreaking destruction before the eremitic storm clouds reigned over my island.

But the truth has a way of shining a light into the darkness. The first time I was honest about this struggle, my body physically revolted, and my throat tightened as I choked on the words. But a weight was gone. In being vulnerable with people I trusted, I allowed them the opportunity to love the unlovable parts of me, and to see light in a place where I could see only darkness; to see hope where all I comprehended was despair. In that moment, a thought flickered in my mind of a God who might be bigger than my small darkness allowed Him to be. I saw a human reflection of Divine love. No expectations. No if…then statements. No “at least…”. Just “I love you.”

A few months later, J. R. R. Tolkien convinced me to begin reading the Bible again by his words, “…I do not mean that the Gospels tell what is only a fairy story; but I do mean very strongly that they do tell a fairy story; the greatest. Man the storyteller would have to be redeemed in a manner consonant with his nature: by a moving story.” (Letter to Michael Tolkien).

I prayed that God would let me perceive the Bible as a fairy story, which is probably the strangest and best thing I have ever prayed. I lived and breathed the second and third chapters of Genesis for an entire month. I hadn’t planned to stay that long in the Garden, but the magic and beauty of the love of God kept me anchored there, beginning to break the spell which had bound me for most of my life. Where before I had seen a vindictive God who is bound by natural laws, I now began to see a God whose every action was done out of a deep and passionate love for Adam and Eve. This God seemed foreign to me, and I dared to hope that His love extended to this scared son of Adam. I began to faintly hear the call of a God in pursuit of me “Where are you?” and I was tired of hiding my shame from him.

I hate that what I fight against every day is becoming normalized and accepted (at least in America), for now I have to fight myself internally and the world externally, both vying for my acceptance as they tell me that they are advocating for my happiness. Sometimes they tell me that God would want me to live into this identity, that He made me good and wants my happiness. There are days when the fighting is exhausting, the desire seems inexorable, and I wish I could allow myself to accept it, grasp for it, lean into it. If I am honest, there are days when I want to embrace a lifestyle in which I could love a man and my God with a clear conscience, convinced that I am obeying God. But then I ask myself: Is my God the sort of God who would ask us to surrender all aspects of ourselves to Him? To say ‘no’ to our most deeply felt desires and longings in order to say ‘yes’ to Him?

C. S. Lewis in “Perelandra” makes a profound statement. In the book, the law is referring to one regarding the Fixed Islands, but it is fitting in describing the Biblical prohibitions against acting on homosexuality, “I think He made one law of that kind in order that there might be obedience. In all these other matters what you call obeying Him is but doing what seems good in your own eyes also. Is love content with that? You do them, indeed, because they are His will, but not only because they are His will. Where can you taste the joy of obeying unless He bids you do something for which His bidding is the only reason?” There are many times when I don’t understand why this particular law was prohibited by God. I understand that homosexuality does not accurately reflect His love for his Church–that is mirrored in the marriage of a man and woman. I can see that as beautiful, but I often wonder where that leaves me in the context of the corporate Church.

The brokenness I am walking through is twofold: a broken sexuality and a broken perception of God. But as Tolkien said “The hands of the King are the hands of a healer.” (Ioreth, “The Return of the King”) My thoughts and feelings are painful. Some days I just want the strong hug of another man, emotional intimacy and trust, knowing that my imagination is capable of taking me further, and so I fight to stop there, and long for honest touch and true speech. Other days, the old dream of being a father surfaces, and I think of the names for my offspring that my desires steel from me. I romanticize the closeness of a Godly marriage. It hurts, and so I sit alone in my room and weep and pray to God. Not to be made straight, but to be with him.

The Psalms are a magnanimous comfort on the nights that feel especially long and cold and dark. I don’t understand why I have these desires. I don’t understand why God loves me. But maybe that is alright, as I trust that he loves me in bigger, better, and brighter ways than the darkness inside of me can fathom. And I would rather the darkness not be able to comprehend the light than for the light to stop it’s shining. I want to be okay with pressing into the Love of Christ that a part of me does not find comfortable and cannot understand as good and true. I want with my whole heart to leap into His Love, so that maybe His love could brighten the darkness within me.

The truth is that there are no easy answers; my story is one of tension and living in the margins. But I fight to hope in a God who walks with us through this dark and broken valley. And sometimes that fighting looks more like losing, more like retreating. Fighting what Galadriel in the Lord of the Rings calls “the long defeat.” Paul has a poignant way of describing the way that I see my experiences in his second letter to the Corinthians: “For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened–not that we would be found unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up in life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight.” (2 Corinthians 1:1-7)

The author carries an American passport and was raised on British fairy tales while receiving a post-Communist education in the former Byzantine Empire. Some of his favorite pastimes include climbing trees and castle ruins, hiking in the Rocky Mountains, and sipping chai with a good book. His Eastern heart currently explores and seeks God in the Western United States.

Cinematic Diplomacy

Today’s guest post is by Paul Seaman (read more of his insightful work on Third Culture Kids and the legacy of those who coined the term and imbued it with meaning here). This piece is an excerpt from a longer work and in the piece is about, in his words, “among other things, the importance of connection, how everything is connected, and how stereotypes and prejudice keep us from seeing those connections.” Enjoy, and thank you Paul!

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My parents worked in Pakistan as an agriculturist and a nurse from 1963 to 1973. Most of my childhood was spent in that country until I was fifteen. Yet, that cross-cultural experience was also a somewhat sheltered one: I went to a boarding school for the children of missionaries, which itself was geographically isolated in the foothills of the Himalayan mountains. Even so, I had plenty of opportunities to interact with the local people, people who admired and envied the United States, and despite an embarrassing amount of stereotypes about life in the Land of Plenty, they were genuinely curious about America. I’ll never forget the many cups of chai, earnest conversations on trains, taking bicycle trips with Pakistani friends, and swimming in the Indus River.

When I returned for a school reunion in 1996, the famed Middle Eastern hospitality was still as gracious and overwhelming as I remembered. In Lahore I took my wife to a Pakistani cinema, for old times’ sake. (Their movies are made with the same melodrama and obligatory song-and-dance numbers that still characterize most of India’s “Bollywood” films.) It turned out to be opening night and the movie was sold out, but two college students—complete strangers to us—offered to help my wife and I get in. They refused any reimbursement, even though the pair of tickets probably cost them the equivalent of $50. Later, when I asked one of them if he could help me get a movie poster as a souvenir, he brought several to our hotel the next morning, just in time for our flight back to the States.

Today, Pakistan is in many ways a different country from the one where I grew up. It has been sad to watch the growing social chaos of the past few decades. The reasons are complex, but knowing that our country’s global policies have contributed significantly to hardening attitudes against the West increases my distress. And when I hear Americans lumping together all Arabs, Iranians, Pakistanis and Indians as America-hating religious extremists—egged on by the bigoted, inflammatory rhetoric of radio talk-show personalities and a clueless president—I think of those college boys at the cinema.

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Paul Lives in the East Bay area of Northern California with his wife Catherine Lockhart-Seaman.

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Passages Through Pakistan

Marilyn Gardner, author of Between Worlds, published her second book this week. Passages Through Pakistan: an American Girl’s Journey of Faith is a beautifully rendered story of growing up between worlds.

One scene, among many, that pricked my heart is of Marilyn’s mother attempting to plan t a garden in Pakistan. She longs for the vibrant colors of the place she left behind but the earth is unrelenting and nothing will grow. Finally she gives up and plants fake flowers, for the splash of brightness. From a distance, at least, it is beautiful. And then, it is stolen. Marilyn remembers thinking, as a child, “I thought we were loved.” Why would someone steal flowers from someone they loved?

The story captures the hard work, creativity, delight, devastation, and recovery inherent in so many experienced of living abroad.

Marilyn writes about going to boarding school. Oh, the complicated, loaded topic of boarding school. Marilyn handles this with so much vulnerability and grace. She refuses to shy away from the pain or to sink into defending her parents’ choice. She lays it out bare, the sorrow and the joy, hand in hand, that have made her into the incredibly wise, empathetic, and openhearted woman she is today.

This is the woman who oozes out through the words of this book – compassionate toward herself, her parents, toward God, and of course toward Pakistan. I don’t want to write spoilers, but at a moment of horrific tragedy and facing the question, “How can I live with this?” Marilyn remembers her mother saying, “You will live with this because of forgiveness and because of grace.” Again, she captures truth through sharing vulnerable stories.

Passages Through Pakistan is a book for Third Culture Kids and their parents, for churches, for people who live internationally and for the people who send them out, who love them, who pray for them. It isn’t always an easy read because Marilyn doesn’t gloss over the hard parts of her childhood but it is a hopeful read, because she finds joy and God in those hard parts.

When I finished reading, I had one overwhelming urge: to buy this book for my teenagers. This  is the perfect graduation gift for TCKs. Parents out there, with kids at the boarding school my kids attend (I’m talking especially to you guys) – I’m serious.

I’m buying copies for both my kids, even though I received an advance copy for the purpose of reviewing. I want them to have a hard copy to hold between their hands. Even if your kids hate to read, urge them to read the final chapter. Give the gift of wisdom and perspective as they head out into the wide, wild world.

You can read Marilyn’s blog Communicating Across Cultures here and you can buy Between Worlds and of course, Passages Through Pakistan here.

 

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To All the Teachers of Third Culture Kids

Quick link: Dear Teachers

Today at Brain Child my essay is up about the teachers who have helped my kids in so many different countries, languages, and school systems. We have been so thankful over the years for the people who have invested in our children. It isn’t easy, to take a kid who speaks no French or who is going through major culture shock or grieving various losses, and help them thrive.

Dear Teachers

We are an American family living in Djibouti and my kids attend a French school. Their first days of preschool were the first days they spent entirely and only surrounded by the French language.

I am not a teacher. I think I might explode, or implode, if I were a teacher. I don’t have all the skills I want my kids to inherit, few parents do. That’s why we need teachers and these are just a few of the skills our teachers have given, alongside an academic education:

Preschool: Communication

At my first parent-teacher meeting, the teacher told all the parents that our children had to ask permission, in polite French, before using the toilet. Then she looked at me.

“Except Lucy,” she said. Lucy was allowed to grab herself, bite her lip, and do a little dance. “Until she learns the words.”

I loved the teacher immediately.

Kindergarten: Empathy

I would make a terrible teacher. This is not a humble brag or an exaggeration. Ask my kids. They want help, I try to explain, they get more confused, dad comes home, and voila! They understand. He’s a teacher.

And so I have needed this other people. Here’s a small way of saying ‘thank you, merci, shukran, and waad mahadsantahay.’

Click here to read: Dear Teachers

What is Success for a TCK?

Quick link: Parents of Third Culture Kids, Failure, and Redefining Success

TCKs, Failure, and Success

Today I’m writing at A Life Overseas, a revised version of a blog post from four years ago. The sentiments still stand. What does success look like for Third Culture Kids? At least for mine, it doesn’t look like preschool graduation parties or sports trophies for all the kids just for showing up. It doesn’t always translate well onto Instagram or Facebook and it might not feel like success at first.

What kind of parent cries, and not in a happy way, when their child tests into a gifted and talent program? What do those confused tears mean? It took a lot of wrestling for me to understand, at least for myself, what was happening in that moment. This essay tries to capture a bit of that. Not sure I succeeded in communicating it well, but I took a risk and I tried tackling a topic that is a little challenging. I guess that’s kind of the point.

Click here to read Parents of Third Culture Kids, Failure, and Redefining Success

*image via Flickr