A Place at the Table (Jul-Aug 2007)

By Matt Dabbs

by Sally Gary
July-August, 2007

When I was about six or seven years old, we got our first color television set. It was amazing to realize for the first time that the jail on the Andy Griffith show was green and that Jethro Bodine’s shirt on the Beverly Hillbillies really was red and white checked, just like a tablecloth! My mother, though, was mesmerized each night by Walter Cronkite’s blue eyes delivering the evening news. The news was on the television in the den every night as she fixed supper in the kitchen. I remember seeing the footage of the war in Vietnam, watching soldiers tromping through jungles, carrying bodies back to helicopters, people screaming and crying. Through all of this I set the table, one place for my mom, one for my dad and one for me, knowing that as soon as my dad came home from work, we would promptly sit down and eat whatever scrumptious meal my mom had prepared. Most nights the fighting in Vietnam disappeared as my daddy thanked God for our supper and we began to talk around the table. But there were other nights when the fighting hit too close to home.

My father struggled with unpredictable, intermittent bouts of rage as I was growing up – rage that was brought on by a lifetime of pain from his own upbringing – rage that was quite understandable given his family background, but terrifying to a little girl who thought everything was her fault. We came to refer to these episodes as “fits” and my mother would try to explain to me that daddy simply was “not in his right mind.” Out of nowhere, with no apparent explanation, he would rage and then retreat, not speaking to my mother or me for days, sometimes weeks, spending any time that he was at home isolated in his study or sitting in front of the television in silence. And those times seemed to last forever when I was little. To a child, a day is a long time to be angry, but a week seems like eternity – and several weeks in a row feels like forever.

During those first few days after he had had a “fit,” we walked around on eggshells, not understanding what had initiated his rage, therefore not knowing what might trigger it again. There were times that he erupted at the dinner table, but mostly, the dinner table just reinforced his emotional absence, because at first, he wouldn’t eat with us. Daddy’s absence from the table left a hole that I spent a good part of my life trying to fill. Then after awhile, Daddy would return to eating at the table with us, but he didn’t speak. And his silence was devastating to a little girl who desperately needed her daddy’s attention and approval.

Sometimes even after he returned to eating with us, he refused to say the prayer he had always said before our meal. Sometimes I think he didn’t want to pray out of shame from the way he had acted. But sometimes it was clear that he didn’t want to pray because he was still angry. Mama prayed at those times. Even at those times when he was still so enraged that he ranted and raved through the prayer, my mother kept on praying. And I bit my jaw so hard to keep from crying, mostly out of fear at his rage, but also from the hurt created by the ugly things he was saying. Once during the prayer he got up from the table and bellowed that there was no need to pray because there was no God. I thought my heart would break and as my mother continued praying, my hurt began to turn to anger. My mother did her best to engage me in conversation throughout every meal, to go on and create a sense of normality, even though things were far from normal. And I learned to pretend, to act as if everything was okay. But as I grew older and angrier and more confused than I knew, I wanted so badly to just reach across the table and say please, Daddy, don’t do this, please stop this – but I was too afraid.

We continued this cycle of rage and normality throughout my growing up, with far more good times than bad at our family table – times of laughter, of learning, of sharing family stories and memories, of entertaining family and friends. But the fear remained, that at some point, my father’s rage would return – a seemingly never ending cycle that kept us from being the family that God really wanted us to be.

At the same time that I was growing up in a family that taught me about God, I was also growing up in a family that had its share of problems—the biggest problem being that we kept those problems a secret. My mom had grown up with parents who were faithful church-goers, but my dad didn’t grow up knowing God. There was quite a difference in the homes in which my parents grew up. My dad grew up in a home that was at the very least neglectful, with an older brother who was abusive and parents who not only failed to protect him, but clearly favored the brother over him. Despite his sweet nature, after a lifetime of mistreatment—feeling unloved and unwanted by his family—my father had legitimate reason to be angry. That anger turned into rage and my mom and I were the targets of those rages.

Not knowing what it was that caused them — not being able to predict when they would come — created an overwhelming sense of fear, but at the same time, I desperately wanted to be close to him. I longed for his approval, his affection. Before I ever started to school I figured out — oh, it wasn’t a conscious “figuring out” — but I realized that he always played with my cousins when we would visit each other. And my cousins were boys. If I played “boy” things, he would play with me. He would play catch with me — granted, he threw the ball so hard sometimes it hurt my hand, but I wasn’t about to complain. He might stop. Or worse, he might get mad. By the time I was seven years old, I was asking for a football for Christmas. I had a little table and chairs and lots of sets of dishes — and I enjoyed playing with them —but Daddy wouldn’t sit down for a tea party. In fact, he made fun of things like that. But he would do “boy stuff” with me.

This way of life continued and then when I was in junior high I became very much intrigued by a curly-haired boy who played the trombone. We were in band together and had a few classes together and for Valentine’s Day I was so bold as to ask his homeroom teacher to sneak a big box of candy from me into his locker! We dated throughout high school off and on, but I was pretty confused about what I wanted. Oh, I had the same picture of the future as most of my friends had — that one day I would meet someone who would take all that confusion away and we would get married and there would be children. But for right then, the thought of all that was pretty scary.

During all this time I was watching my mom and dad, learning about what marriage looks like. I’m learning what relationships are supposed to be between men and women. And to be honest, I didn’t like what I saw — because the same cycle of rage, silence, and normality — waiting for the next storm to hit — continued well into my adult life. I learned that women are vulnerable and it’s scary to make yourself so vulnerable with a man. I saw relationships — marriage especially — as a trap — an awful eternal trap that you’re stuck in. And you lose yourself. Marriage? I wouldn’t be so foolish as to get myself into a mess like that.

I entered college at Abilene Christian University as a freshman in the fall of 1979 and met another boy for whom I had very strong feelings. For a time I thought he might just be the one to change my view of marriage. But when that relationship ended, something inside me shut down. Something said, no more — they won’t hurt me any more. It was then that the enemy entered me, solidifying the confusion that had seemingly always existed in me as to who I was supposed to be, and I was forced to face the fact that I was experiencing a growing attraction to women. In those days there was no conversation — there was no mention of same-sex attraction — except that it was surely the unspeakable sin. I couldn’t accept the truth that that was indeed what I was struggling with — surely not the good little church of Christ girl, the little girl who had been to Sunday school all her life, who knew her memory verses every time, the leader of the youth group — surely it wasn’t really homosexuality that I was dealing with. I didn’t dare share what I was feeling with anyone — that was too risky. If anyone knew what was going on inside me, they wouldn’t want to have anything to do with me, so I just kept it to myself and asked God to change me. The result was a complete dichotomy of self. On the outside was a woman who had it all together and was totally self-sufficient. The façade kept people from questioning. But on the inside was a little girl who was petrified of any relationship that was too close. Keep everyone at arm’s length and they won’t find out any secrets — about your family, about your struggle. Keep it all inside and no one will ever have to know.

I spent most of my adult life struggling with those feelings of attraction. After teaching high school for ten years, I was still restless, still searching for something to fill the void — still a little girl struggling to win her daddy’s approval. So I decided to go to law school and it was there that the Lord brought me to my knees. For the first time in my life, perhaps because of the energy I had expended in keeping all these secrets, I could no longer pretend. I could no longer keep it together on the outside, while concealing this attraction on the inside. Out of sheer desperation, no longer able to live in this state of misery, I realized I had to come clean. I bargained with God, asking Him if it would be okay if I simply confessed what I was struggling with in a letter, still not able to utter the truth to another living soul. I actually used the “H” word — surely that would be good enough. But it wasn’t. I tore the letter into tiny pieces for fear that somebody would find it in the garbage and then people would know that Sally Gary was struggling with same-sex attraction.

I didn’t sleep all night. The next morning I was so distraught that I missed a final exam — there’s only one shot in law school courses — if you miss the exam, that’s it. It was at that point that God brought me to my knees — and I made a phone call to a man whom I had known as a professor at ACU and an elder in the church. At that time he was in a counseling practice in Dallas. And on a cold, snowy day in December of 1996, I drove to Dallas to confess my sin for the first time. At every turn the enemy tried to convince me to just drive my car off the side of the road — that way no one would ever have to know what you’re struggling with, Sally — you can end it now, he said, and save yourself lots of grief. God spoke to me through the voice of Amy Grant, singing “Breath of heaven, hold me together, be forever near me — lighten my darkness, pour over me your holiness.” I’m convinced the Holy Spirit kept me on the road that day, convicting me of what I believe even more strongly today — that nothing can separate us from the love of God — and that a God who loves us so much would not fail to equip us to live the life of holiness He calls us to. Not having any idea what my healing would look like —not knowing if those feelings would ever be removed or not — I committed to flying from Lubbock to Dallas once a week, for the duration of law school and then some, working with a man who believes what Jesus said over and over in the gospels, that all things are possible with God.

As I began to go back and explore the messages I picked up as a little girl —messages about my worth as a female, about what it really means to be feminine, about men and how men treat women, how men and women relate to each other — I realized that the enemy had clouded my perceptions of who God made me to be. Satan had filled me with lies about the value of my femininity. And as the Lord began to heal a lifetime of wounds, revealing truth to me about who I am and how much he adores me as his daughter, those feelings of attraction toward other women slowly began to go away. Then as my father entered that counseling process, as he began to acknowledge his own brokenness and learned ways to be the husband and father God called him to be, we began to have the kind of relationship that I had always longed for — and those feelings of same-sex attraction disappeared even more. You know, you’re never too old to sit on your daddy’s lap, to ride bikes together, to go to the circus and eat cotton candy together, to eat hotdogs at a Dallas Cowboys football game together — that’s what the Lord has allowed me to have with my daddy after a childhood that we both missed. You’re heavier when you’re 36 years old, but it’s still awfully sweet!

And so today, you can rejoice with me that God has completely restored my femininity — He has reclaimed me as his daughter and empowered me to be the woman that He made me to be. All that the enemy tried to steal from me, God has given back —and blessed me in ways I never would have dreamed possible. If you had told me as a little girl that one day I would feel free with my daddy, that I would be able to talk to him and express feelings — even anger — to him, I wouldn’t have believed you. But that’s what our all powerful, all knowing, all loving God is capable of doing for us. So rejoice with me that God has redeemed not just me, but my dad, my parents’ marriage, and our family. Praise Him for that!

The Lord has also redeemed my picture of marriage, helping me to be less fearful of a committed relationship for life. He has allowed opportunities for me to enter into dating relationships which he has used to affirm me and show me just how sweet being in that kind of relationship can be. Who knows what the Lord has in store for me? All I know is that I am a new creation in Christ and I live each day open to all of the ways in which the Lord seeks to bless my life.

Through my own experience, the Lord has given me a greater understanding of the same-sex struggle. Unfortunately, we have all too often been presented with a view of homosexuality as being the ultimate sin. As Max Lucado has said, homosexuality is not a sin above all sins, but a sin among sins. When we begin to understand that same-sex attraction is not the problem, but merely a symptom of much deeper underlying problems, we can see the sin of homosexuality in a different light. This doesn’t remove our responsibility to live as God calls us to — to live a life of holiness in which every part of ourselves is submitted to God’s will, including our sexuality. It simply helps us understand that same-sex attraction comes from the same root as all sin, our own brokenness. Our brokenness creates a hole that we will search a lifetime trying to fill, with anything that will fill the void and make us feel whole, even if for just a moment.

The brokenness — feelings of loneliness, of rejection and abandonment, of not feeling wanted or loved or good enough — that leads one person to abuse drugs or alcohol, that leads another to jump from one heterosexual relationship to another, that leads another to work endless hours to acquire more and more — is the same brokenness that leads some of us to pursue fulfillment through inappropriate same-sex relationships. When we understand more of the truth about homosexuality, our fears surrounding it begin to fade and we are able to enter into meaningful discussion about the issue. The more we are able to talk about it, to learn about the struggle, the less shameful it is for those of us who struggle with same-sex attraction to openly admit. And when we bring things out of the darkness and into the light, true healing begins.

The same-sex struggle is often viewed as a sexual struggle — a behavioral struggle. Certainly, same-sex attraction affects behavior, regardless of whether or not a person acts out sexually or not, because how we think and feel often affects how we act. But the essence of the struggle is not behavioral. The same-sex struggle is about identity, an identity that somewhere along the way has been distorted. The formation of gender identity is complex, influenced by biology, by temperament, and by the intentional and unintentional messages we perceive from infancy. All of these factors play a vital role in how we think and feel about ourselves as feminine or masculine beings. Everyone’s story is different — God created us so uniquely that there are no “cookie-cutter” answers to the question of gender identity, nor to the causes and development of same-sex attraction in individuals. Each person’s struggle is unique, therefore what healing looks like for each one of us will be as equally unique.

The only characteristic of healing that looks the same for everyone is that it is found not in a method, not in a program, but in the person of Jesus Christ. Only through a deeply personal and intimate relationship with God through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ do we begin to see ourselves through His eyes. When we begin to discover His infinite and unfailing love for us—when we begin to not just know about this love, but to feel it in the very core of our being—then we see ourselves differently, as daughters and sons of the King, as princesses of the Almighty, as children of the Most High and we know our worth is found in Him. Through the filter of the cross, this new image of ourselves frees us and motivates us to submit all of those parts of ourselves to God’s will. This is what becomes life-changing, transformational — only through a relationship with God do we have the motivation and access to the power — the same power, Paul tells us in Ephesians 1, that raised Jesus from the dead —to change anything about us. I believe Jesus when he said repeatedly in the gospels that “all things are possible with God,” and yet I know that God deals differently with each one of us. While my healing meant the removal of feelings of attraction for members of the same-sex, others’ picture of healing may look completely different. It may not include total removal of those feelings, and yet that should not exclude any of us from the kingdom. Some of my brothers and sisters in Christ wake up every morning of every day, having to submit those feelings to God over and over, committed to living lives of holiness. While God may not remove this struggle in them – just as He has not yet removed my own personal struggle with pride and impatience and selfishness – we know that we are not defined by our feelings or our struggles, but by our identities as children of God, dearly loved.

Whatever we’re struggling with, true healing is found only through God’s grace, experienced from being in community with other believers who are also seeking God’s will for their lives. This is especially true for the same-sex struggler. Yet how can we create and live in this necessary community if we continue to exclude some from this fellowship? Jesus invites all of us to the table, regardless of where we are in our journey of being transformed into the likeness of Christ. Zaccheus didn’t change – he didn’t decide to stop swindling people out of their tax money – until after Jesus went to his house, ate at his table, eating his food on his turf. Only after spending time with Jesus at the table of fellowship can we begin to understand the need for transformation in our lives. Only after coming into close, personal contact with the Good Shepherd can we begin to desire the kind of life He calls us to. Only then do we have access to the Source of power needed to change the kinds of things that need changing in our lives – our selfishness, our pride, our impatience, our sexual immorality. When I come in contact with Jesus – when I feel His tenderness toward me and see the wells of compassion in His eyes – I want nothing more or less in my life. I find myself wanting to spend more time with Him, I want to be more like Him, I want to be closer to Him, and yes, I want to change everything about my life that doesn’t fit what He wants for me. Jesus invites each of us to the table, whatever our table manners, wherever we are in the process of becoming more like Him. This includes our brothers and sisters who are experiencing same-sex attraction. Only when the church extends the love of Christ will a world who doesn’t know Him accept His invitation to the table.

As I experienced more freedom from my own struggle with same-sex attraction, the Lord put a dream in my heart to help others find their way to the table, resulting in the ministry of CenterPeace. Built around the concept of table fellowship and Jesus being the CenterPeace of that table, CenterPeace is a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation committed to extending Christ’s invitation to all those who experience same-sex attraction and to provide support to anyone who is seeking change from unwanted same-sex attraction. CenterPeace will provide outreach and resources to churches and campus ministries through classes and seminars at various events, such as the Zoe worship conferences, and workshops for individual congregations. Workshop training will equip leaders to establish support groups for those seeking change. In the future, an intern program will prepare teams of individuals to live and work in predominantly gay communities, building relationships and eventually establishing home churches in these neighborhoods. And in 2007, continuous online resources will be available at www.CenterPeace.us, providing ongoing support for people who are seeking change and expanding materials available for ministry.

No, my journey wasn’t easy. It was long and hard and painful. But it was worth every ounce of energy and time and heartache that it required. Knowing where I am now, compared to where I was, I’d be willing to do it all again – and that’s saying a lot, for it was no easy task. Those years were some of the most painful of my life – but they’re nothing in comparison to the joys God had in store for me. I pray that you’ll find the strength to follow whatever path God has set for you, to be the person He calls you to be. I pray that you’ll be surrounded by brothers and sisters who will help you find your place at the table, and that spending time with Jesus there will move you ever closer to the life He calls you to, whatever that looks like. Join Him at the table. He’s saving a place just for you. Right next to Him. That’s what happened in my family. Jesus became the main course of our mealtime – the true sustenance for our family – the centerpiece of our
table.

“Come to the table …. And taste what forgiveness is for.”

For more information about CenterPeace, contact us at P. O. Box 3384, Abilene, TX 79604 or email at [centerpeaceinc@gmail.com].New Wineskins

Sally GarySally is an assistant professor in the communication department and coaches the forensic team at Abilene Christian University. She serves as executive director of CenterPeace, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping churches better understand and respond to the same-sex struggle. She is a member at the Highland Church, plays bunko with a great group of friends and loves to watch Andy Griffith reruns.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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