We writers tend to tell the stories that traumatize us. Whether we write fiction or memoir, suffering makes for better conflict, more passion, and—if it’s our aim to get published—higher book sales. I’ve been thinking about this a lot this week—a week when I think I’ve finally finished with a year of revisions on a memoir that six agents told me last year was fascinating material when they asked for the manuscript. All six ultimately rejected the full manuscript—for completely different reasons—but all graciously took the time to offer specific feedback.
And so I pulled the book from the queer world of the query and went back to my desk to see what I could do with their sometimes contradictory comments. As I wrote and rewrote, I considered their feedback, but I didn’t let it drive the story I felt compelled to tell, a story about leaving behind a world of anger and conflict for a place where I could find a haven, a place of peace.
I tried to be patient with the process, thinking and rethinking what I’d written, and I understood for the first time why some memoir writers move so far from the truth that gave birth to their stories that they end up mired in accusations of fiction rather than truth. And I vowed over and over again that I would not do that—that I’d find a way to honor both the hurt and the healing that has made me who I am.
In the past few days, I’ve been reading and rereading the manuscript to give it a last light touch—to be sure it’s exactly the story I want to tell. I’ve taken my heart back again and again to the place where this journey began—to the place that made me understand that the power of love is greater than any hurt.
And so I want to give thanks for and to the man who opened the door in my mind that launched me on this journey, Dr. Fritz Schilling—a reverend in the truest sense of the word, whom I met when I was 22. I’d been traumatized by the churches of my youth, particularly by the faith my parents grew up in and ultimately rejected. The church’s hold on them was herculean—and though both fled the church, the scars they bore disfigured their lives and threatened their children.
The Sunday I wandered into Fritz’s church was the first time I’d felt the Presence of Grace—what my minister this morning called the God of the Embrace. Though I’d heard hundreds of sermons from men who imagined themselves emissaries of a vengeful God, I’d never encountered a true reverend—a person who revered the quiet reverence of a gentle Spirit. Fritz opened his arms to the congregation and said, “Welcome to this place where we’ve come to search for God together.” And though I’d heard much fire from the pulpit, Fritz was the first to offer the warmth of God to me.
Because of Fritz, I’ve given up the wobbly legs of faith that were constantly being knocked down by the brimstone hurled in my direction. I’ve learned to stand more firmly and to walk with people who believe faith is a lifelong quest.
I’ve been in scores of churches that offer no such message—and every time I move to a new home, it takes me a long time to find a place that approaches faith as Fritz taught me to do. Since the mid-80s, when Fritz headed south and I headed north, I’ve been fortunate to find a few good ministers—including a few good women and a gay man. But I know that they are rare—those leaders in any faith, not just Christianity—who can share their faith without denigrating the faith of others who see God through a different lens.
And so, Fritz, I thank you for the wondrous gift you have given me. Because of you, I have seen the face of God in many unexpected places—in other houses of faith as well as our own and even in the churches of my childhood after you once told me that those churches helped make me who I am. And most of all, you helped me see God in the face of my own father, who had the courage to turn away before a church that thought it knew the mind of God did to his children what it had done to his own life.
And if my story can pass on that gift to someone like that girl who stumbled into your church all those years ago, then it will be because you first taught me about the God of Grace, the God of Love, the God of the Dance.
Thank you for teaching me that we are all the people of God. And so, as you used to say, let us all join together to tell the stories of God for the people of God.
May it be so.