PROLOGUE: As a result of my last post, I have received a few questions but mostly affirmation and support. If you didn’t read it, you may wish to check out Deep Places before reading this one. A few of the responses can be summed up in the word “why.” In this post I am attempting to describe how a life must flourish to be fulfilling. In a simplistic way, I’ve used the life-cycle of trees and my experience with an ivy as a metaphor for my life.
The corner of Grand and Arsenal in Saint Louis, Missouri, was busy, not unlike a normal spring day this past April. The gray overcast sky foretold expected rain in the afternoon. The grass was green again in Tower Grove Park, which was filled with a filigreed bright-green canopy as the fledging leaves erupted in profusion, and the dark evergreen cedars stood stalwart and eternal in contrast to the freshness of grass and trees.
The seasonal cycle expectedly returned to spring with nature’s fresh budding rampantly trying to become full-fledged summer. I forced my English Ivy on the window sill at home to assume a semblance of spring-like characteristics.
This English Ivy is over 23 years old. It was given to my mother by William Jewell College when she and Dad attended his fiftieth anniversary of graduating from that venerable institution of higher learning, “the ivy league school of the West,” so it bills itself. She lovingly and graciously gave it to my wife Barbara not long after that event. It has sustained three long-distance moves, pruning several times, and often extended mistreatment.
It almost died in January when I was away in Portland, Oregon, for over a week. It had reached the top of the windows and was hanging out a foot making some of the branches approximately eight to nine feet long needing drastic attention.
I examined it over a weekend and discovered only two long branches and a few shorter ones that came out of the maiden trunk. I decided now was the time. I began cutting, severely, until the longest of three or four signs of life were less than ten inches. I thought, I’ve either killed it, or given it renewed life. In either case, it will be better than watching it struggle to live.
I suppose I doubted the ivy would survive. I could call it a lack of faith. Sometimes life provides surprises that are not dependent on faith. God is not dependent on his creation to accomplish his purposes. Sometimes he limits himself to provide the possibility for humankind to discover on their own how life works, and thus grow and flourish so he can have a genuine, mature relationship with them.
The ivy has not only survived but flourished. Today, four months since the severe pruning, I counted at least nine new branches. Doubt has been erased by evident reality. The 23-year-old English Ivy will again be a flourishing bush with multiple branches spilling over the pot and rising up to greet life-giving rays of light through the window.
As the calendar morphed into the 21st century, I had come to a point where creativity was dry and withering away. There was only one branch that had life: my commitment to Christian faith resulting in spiritual nourishment, which was reinforced in and through my church.
I had stepped away from my work with the North American Mission Board (formerly Home Mission Board); I had come out to Barbara but was immediately returned to silent confinement by her desire that no one know about my gay sexual orientation; my stab at a church consulting initiative never rose above dry ground; the only friendships I had were connected to NAMB and were no longer in reaching distance; and I was searching for a way forward. Like the ivy, I was not flourishing.
A little hope came when I served for a couple of years as regional director for academic affairs for a small Indiana university, and for four years as pastor of a Baptist church in the southeast Missouri Bootheel. I was active. I had “stuff” to do. But I wasn’t flourishing. Life was flat.
I would not say that what has happened since leaving Atlanta has resulted in a radical pruning, the kind I did to the English Ivy. However, by the process of physical relocation from Atlanta to Poplar Bluff, Missouri, and from Poplar Bluff to St. Louis, connections with people and former activities have weakened. This has not been so much the result of conscience action as much as neglecting initiative to remain connected. The effect has been pruning away some life connections and failing to maintain those that had been a source of fruitful growth.
But, like the ivy, there remained in my life continuing growth, and the extension of a couple of living “branches.” Then growth would stall, but always something would indicate there was still life and thus hope. I was never without hope. And faith was always present. I didn’t feel that God had forsaken me. I was just on a treadmill of living without creativity, novelty, genuine joy, and empowering peace.
Then Barbara’s sojourn under the cloud cover of cancer provided purpose and direction for a spell: to “play the hand that had been dealt us” with cholangiocarcinoma. Following Barbara’s death, life paused for a few months. Then came the desire and energy for the kind of change that would result in freedom and growth—the kind of “free indeed” and “abundant life” the Christ of Scripture promises. So I contacted a counselor—someone with whom unhindered questing could help me sort out my thoughts and feelings—and began weekly conversations with him.
These very helpful sessions with a counselor, a committed Christian, allowed me to discover what I needed to do and how to go about it. Like the ivy, I discovered life with new and fresh meaning. In the summer of 2013, with the counselor as a resource, a mirror to reflect my thoughts and feelings, I began intentional work on life issues. I focused primarily on my sexuality, a part of human reality with which I had been wrestling since 1997.* I wanted, needed resolution to living an abundant, free life as a sexual being.
In the process of seeking integrity, vulnerability, and transparency, I began discovering evidence of new growth; and encouragement returned affirming the direction I was traveling. Invigorating expressions of the new growth and a heightened sense of hope have appeared like the newly emerging branches on the cared-for ivy. A recent evidence of new growth is a sense of normalcy as I come out to people revealing my gay sexual orientation—normal in that I experience little or no anxiety preceding such conversations and I do not dwell on them or worry about them past the experience. I say “normal” because it is a simple statement of fact about who I am. Being gay is a very normal for me.
I have stepped away from the counseling, a decision that doesn’t mean I “have arrived.” I don’t think any of us arrive at a full and perfect way of living this life. The process continues. I have made a public statement about my sexuality on the pages of this blog. Public knowledge allows me to fully live my life without constantly walking in and out of people’s perceptions.
I sum up this brief reflection with the word “flourish.” I’m comfortable with life right now, while at the same time I desire more. Life is good. The God, the author of life, has graced mine abundantly. It’s my responsibility to take care of it, my “ivy.”
Fall is approaching and the trees have a sameness about them. The leaves look heavy with the heat of summer and tired from the life-giving process that has coursed through their veins and into the fullness of the tree. Soon they will lose an ability to perform the function for which they were created just a few months ago. The trees however, have other life-nurturing tasks for the winter to maintain growth in their relentless quest for maturity. And so do I. The ivy at my window is flourishing—healthier than it was last year. And so am I.
*Actually, I had subliminally felt that I was different in 1952 when I was twelve years old, and sexuality didn’t crystalize for me until sometime after I reached 50 years of age. Out of fear and confusion, I didn’t consciously begin dealing with it until 1997.