It was like that nightmare where you are strolling through a shopping mall, window shopping for living room furniture, sipping an Orange Julius and suddenly look down and realize that you are naked as the day you were born. All the dream people are looking at you with wide eyes and slack jaws and you have to decide if you are going to run out of the mall with all of your hidden glories jiggling around or stroll on through the Food Court speaking with a fake French accent and acting as if they’re all just a bunch of backwards Americans who wouldn’t know a minimalist fashion statement from a hole in the ground.
But this was the real deal. Definitely not a dream, but certainly a real life nightmare. It was May, 1981, about half an hour after my High School Graduation Commencement Ceremony. There I was, in a state of mortified, absolute wakefulness, standing next to my Nana at the counter of the neighborhood Swenson’s Ice Cream Parlor wearing a wrinkled, neon green Big Dog tee shirt that read “Who’s your Daddy?”, cut-off purple sweat pants, sheer black pantyhose and black patent leather pumps. Did I mention I was also wearing my mother’s pearl necklace and matching earrings? Well, give me a break. When I paid my deposit for the rented cap and gown, I had no idea I would have to turn them in the minute that my High School Graduation Commencement Ceremony was over. When I had left the house on the way to Commencement, I felt kind of like I was in drag with the pumps and pearls, but they did look pretty sharp with the black graduation gown. Apparently, what is appropriate under-gown apparel is one of those secrets that Mom’s know, but which a 17 year old who does not live at home is not privy to. When I picked out something to wear under the graduation gown, I was thinking about how hot that coliseum was going to be with 600 graduates and about 2,000 of their proud families members packed into it with no air conditioning to cool things off. I definitely was not thinking about heading directly to the after-graduation celebration with the “fam” at the ice cream parlor. Looking around at my classmates already seated at tables with their families, adorned in their Sunday best, I was pretty sure this had been a serious miscalculation on my part. I felt like a hooker with a sweet tooth and the worst fashion sense in history.
My Nana, however, was undaunted. When I had made a mad dash for my parents’ car after turning the cap and gown and announced that we would need to stop by my apartment so I could change clothes, Nana had reached over, patted my knee and said, “You look just fine. We are so proud of you!” My Dad, who may have been motivated partly by the fact that he had gone to bring the car around while I was turning in my graduation gown and had not really gotten a good look at me yet, and mostly the fact that it was Monday night and the Dallas Cowboy game was starting in less than an hour, had enthusiastically agreed with Nana. Apparently, he had not realized at that point that his eldest daughter was about to make a public appearance looking like someone dressed for a boudoir photo session gone terribly awry. In any case, I’m pretty sure that my Mother, who had definitely seen me, was not all that thrilled about it. But with her usual social adeptness, she had hugged me like I was the Emperor, and my state of dress was irrelevant. She didn’t say a word, and you’ve got to give a woman some credit for that kind of lovingly selective blindness.
A short six months before that present moment, I had left home in search of my place in the world. In search of a place where a 17 year old girl who loved other girls could fit into God’s world. This was the first family outing since I had left home. My grandparents and aunts and uncles had flown in from our hometown near Dallas for the big graduation event. I’m not sure how many of them were aware before their arrival that I didn’t even live at my parents’ house anymore, but I’m certain that even if some knew, none of them knew why I had left. To me, it felt like we had all be unceremoniously dumped into this big ocean called awkwardness and everybody was dog paddling around trying to keep our heads above the surface without drowning anyone else.
Now, as we stood waiting to be seated, I leaned over and whispered to Nana, “Sorry about my clothes. I didn’t think anyone would see what was underneath the gown.”
“Well,” she answered, “We’ve been seeing the underneath part of you for all of your life and we love you just the way you are.”
‘We love you just the way you are.’ She probably had no earthly idea how much I needed to hear those 8 words in that moment.
For the other families in the ice cream shop that night, this milestone celebration may have actually been about ice cream and graduation gifts like new cars and diamond earrings, but for my family, on this evening, it was all about what lurked “underneath”. Actually, it was about the unspoken struggle to decide whether or not to expose what was underneath the ocean of our awkwardness. And if we did expose it, if we dared to talk about the rainbow hued shark in that ocean, what then? What would my family think of me? What would the friends of my family think of my family because of what my family thought of me? And what about God? What did God think of me? Because the real question was, what would God think of my family because of what my family thought about me? After all, we were a “Christian family”. All of our friends were Christians. We were religious, because Christians were religious. In fact, “everyone” was religious. Because in 1981, religious was considered a good thing to be. At least in the Bible Belt in our part of Texas. Well, not “hippies”. And not atheists. And not a feminist. And certainly not gay. You could not be a hippie, an atheist, a feminist, or a gay and be religious. Thus, if you could not be one of these kinds of people and be religious, you could certainly not be one of these people and be a Christian. The terrifying truth was that it was a known fact that God did not like these people. And more than anything else, the people in my family wanted God to like them, and even more, to love them. And we desperately wanted to love each other. But how could we do that if one of us was not loved by God? So there it was. No one other than me and my parents knew exactly what lurked underneath. But everyone else knew that something was down there, and whatever it was, it was dangerous and it had dragged me out of my parents’ home and into the ocean of awkwardness. And so my Nana did all that she knew to do. She threw me a life preserver made up of 8 words:
‘We love you just the way you are.’
She, who had rocked me on her lap and taught me to sing with her, “Into my heart, into my heart, come into my heart, Lord Jesus. Come in today, come in to stay, come into my heart, Lord Jesus.” And he had. He had come in, and he had come to stay. He does that, you know. If you ask him to come in, he stays.
John 14:23 Jesus said, “…My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”
I know what you are thinking. “Yeah well, it depends on what God knows about me…” But no! The whole thing, the wondrous, incredible, almost unfathomable thing is that God already knows everything about us! Especially the parts that like underneath the ocean of awkwardness and the sea of self-loathing, and the valley of “what the heck?” where we are when we don’t even know ourselves. God has known us from the very beginning.
Psalm 139:13 “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” That’s what the Psalmist said, and it is truth. Be still for just this moment and let yourself feel that. Just read those words several times. Do they resonate within you, somewhere “underneath”?
And consider this. God knows you now, too. Seem weird or impossible? It seemed weird to Nathanael, too, and he was called to be one of the 12 disciples. One of Jesus’ best friends! But listen to what Nate said when Jesus called him. John 1:48 “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked. Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
Wherever we are, and whatever we are, God knows us. God knows what is underneath and loves us “Just the way we are”, Just like my Nana told me. You don’t have to take my word for it. I can prove it. I can show you God’s Word for it. It’s there, my beloved friends, in the love story that we call the Bible. It took me a while to see it all, to begin to fully comprehend it, and I am still finding deeper comprehension of such an incredible Love. For me, this part of the journey started in 1981. And that night in an ice cream shop, when I was dressed like one of RuPaul’s future rejects, was an important step among my earliest ones. You see, when my Nana said those words to me, God took me one step closer to confirming them in my heart. And in the blog posts to follow this one, I’m going to share some more with you about the steps God lead me through. My hope is that by coming alongside me in my journey will make yours a little easier.
It is possible, beloved friends, to reconcile with God and even with family. My beautiful family did indeed learn to swim to the shore and get out of the ocean of awkwardness. And not a one of us drowned. Now, sometimes I look around at us all, and remember what we looked like: dripping wet with all of our assorted shapes and sizes, crazy hair sticking up with seaweed stuck in it, feet all covered in sand – and I fall in love with each of us all over again. We may have struggled and swallowed water and looked weird doing it, but we made it together through the incredible strength of the love of Christ. And there are some of you reading this, who haven’t made the first step. But you can! All it takes is a choice – one brave moment when you take one step. So now is the time. Come on, beloved – kick off those pumps and pearls, come just as you are and get your feet wet!