I wrote the following (true) story several years ago, when I was still deciding if “coming out” would completely ruin my life. At the time, I was a professional minister. Several times every week I stood on a stage in front of hundreds of people and told my stories… and talked about Jesus… and tried to help people understand that they are accepted by God.
But while I was sure that God accepted me just as I was, I wasn’t sure the congregations I served would follow His lead if I told them my full story… especially the parts about me liking boys.
It was, obviously, a stressful time.
When I re-read this story a few days ago, I couldn’t help but think of the thousands of gay teenagers who spend every Sunday morning hiding quietly in churches across America.
You know they’re sitting in a pew right next to you, right?
In a study of 5,819 religious teenagers from 635 churches, a team of researchers found that 7% of religious youth claimed to be homosexual, 5% claimed to be bisexual, and 2% weren’t sure or their sexual orientation (Clapp, Helbert & Zizak, “Faith Matters: Teenagers, Religion, and Sexuality,” 2003).
That means that, contrary to what some church folks seem to think, gay kids aren’t just out there. They’re in here, too. Apparently, roughly 14% of youth in our churches aren’t as “straight” as we may think they are.
These kids are camouflaging themselves so well that they can’t see the people just like them who are hiding right next to them. They’re hiding, afraid of what will happen when they’re “found out.”
Obviously, it’s a stressful time.
As somebody on the other side of the “coming out” divide, I offer this as my open letter/story to gay youth. If you’re a religious (or formerly religious) gay youth (or former youth), I hope you know there are lots of us out there who will happily buy your stick (and I promise that will sound a lot less perverted after you read the story…).
Today my nephew tried to sell a stick at a yard sale. While I was busy getting rid of coffee mugs, Christmas ornaments, and old shoes, Braden was selling a stick.
Yard sales are essentially eBay in the wild… with card tables. Without computer screens and user names for shoppers to hide behind, yard sales let you watch as people search for treasure in your trash. Standing among tables piled high with unappreciated Christmas presents and neglected what-nots, yard sales give suburban scavengers the freedom to scrutinize rejected possessions and haggle over worthless junk.
Maybe that’s why only the brave among us host these front-yard thrift parties. It takes a certain amount of courage to clean out your closets and decide that you’re willing to build a public display from everything you’ve found in the dark corners of your house. It’s hard to assign value to your own junk.
It’s also hard to watch your neighbors judge the things that once lived proudly in your home. When your across-the-street neighbor sees your VHS collection of Little House on the Prairie, he might quietly judge both your sanity and your taste. Or, if you’re lucky, you might catch him covertly digging through the box while he thinks nobody’s watching, trying to find the episode where Nelly Oleson makes Laura (aka “Half Pint”) eat glue.
That’s the risk of displaying your life’s leftovers and intimate secrets for strangers, family, and friends. Sometimes you feel judged as people casually pick through your collected life. But sometimes, when a curious shopper stops to admire a trinket or appreciate what others have ignored, you find comfort in the knowledge that we’ve all collected the same trash.
Of course, most of our yard sale fears are unfounded. Yard-sale scavengers might sometimes be discriminating and judgmental, but they will also buy almost anything for the right price. Before my nephew came to visit, I sold a sack of Christmas ornaments and a pair of swim goggles to a bearded man wearing a hat. Apparently, his family is planning to celebrate the holidays by bobbing for Christmas. Around 9:00 I sold a short woman four Tupperware tops without their bottoms. It felt a little indecent. Several people asked if I had any electronics for sale. I said no. I don’t trust people who sell electronics at yard sales.
I even sold a wet suit to a woman who wanted to know if it would keep her dry.
I think God understands when you laugh at yard sale people.
With all this perfectly wonderful junk on display, my nephew tried to help by selling a stick. He found the small branch under a tree where he was busy trying to keep the grass off his shoes. Braden is five years old and doesn’t like to be messy. Freshly cut grass in the morning is messy. It makes your shoes look like nature has thrown confetti all over them and leaves your socks wondering why the rest of you weren’t invited to the party.
While Braden wiped the confetti off his size three sneakers, he found the stick. And decided to help.
Braden has always been a good helper. He loves to help you eat the icing off your cake. He likes to help you get wet while he’s taking a bath. He’s also good at helping you play in the backyard. Some children help their parents and teachers only because they’re told to or because they want to be rewarded for their efforts with candy and praise. My nephew, however, is an exception to the candy reward rule. Braden likes to help simply because he wants to be near you while you’re doing whatever it is you’re doing.
On the morning of my yard sale, Braden wanted to help sell all of the things I was either tired of using or shouldn’t have bought in the first place. And a stick.
When he picked up the stick and started to play with it, I couldn’t understand why Braden had chosen to entertain himself with a broken tree branch instead of playing with the wonderful junk I was trying to sell. There were four chipped baseball bats and a pile of stuffed animals well within reach. And what kid wouldn’t be happy playing in a box of old socks?
“Boys will be boys,” I thought as I left Braden to enjoy his stick.
Braden, however, didn’t want to simply play with the stick. He wanted to sell it. Just as I was about to remind the boy that his mother would probably be unhappy if he managed to poke out his eye with a stick, Braden’s attention turned to a Hispanic woman digging through a pile of slightly used shoes. He held the stick out to her as if this particular stick was the most wonderful thing in the world. How have you lived this long without it? It’s just what you need! “Excuse me,” he said in his most polite voice. “Do you want to buy this stick?”
The pause that followed was filled with innocent and awkward. Braden stood in the grass with his tiny hand extended, smiling the precious smile of a child who still believes please is a magic word. While he shuffled his feet in a nervous dance of hope and terror, Braden’s eyes filled with a fear that he will only fully understand the first time he asks for a date or uses the words “I love you.”
“Do you want to buy this stick?”
To a five-year-old, a stick is still a treasure, worth a few shiny quarters. It is a magic wand and a baseball bat, a sword and a shovel. It can attack a tree and poke things you’re afraid to touch, including (but not limited to) sleeping dogs, wasp nests, and girls. A good stick is at least as valuable as a tennis racket and more useful than an old waffle iron. It was therefore reasonable for Braden to assume that the old woman might actually want to buy a slightly used stick. She could use it to beat her husband or maybe stir some soup.
Unfortunately, the woman hadn’t used her imagination in a while. It had gotten rusty. She had no desire to attack a tree or poke a sleeping dog. She didn’t want the stick.
Braden clearly couldn’t understand the woman’s apathy. Why hadn’t she immediately accepted his offer and produced a handful of cash from her purse? Braden assumed that buried beneath the gum and tissues, mints, makeup and other womanly gadgets, the woman must have had at least two spare quarters that wanted to be spent on a stick… but she wasn’t interested. The woman looked down at Braden like he was offering her a cup of lava or a few dozen mosquito eggs and walked back to her station wagon empty handed, oblivious that she had just rejected a five-year-old child who had only just begun to explore the wonders of a free-market economy.
The woman drove away without realizing that when Braden offered her the stick, he wasn’t really trying to make a sale. He was trying to make a friend. When Braden spoke to the woman, he was essentially asking a question he will continue to ask for the rest of his life.
Is what’s important to me important to you, too?
Is what’s valuable to me valuable to you, too?
Do we both think the same things are beautiful?
Do we both think the same things are funny or clever?
Do the things that break my heart break yours also?
Will you please decide that what I have to offer is valuable and worth your attention?
Would you like to buy this stick?
Whenever we try to find what we have in common with another person, we always risk finding instead what will keep us separate. But if we never risk rejection, we also never risk acceptance.
Fortunately, Braden’s innocence still protects him from the fear and insecurity future years will bring. When the ungrateful woman walked away, Braden didn’t cry or pout or even attack her with his tree sword. Instead, he dropped the branch and took up the new task of cleaning an old file cabinet with a barbecue brush.
Braden doesn’t like for things to be messy.
Later in the day, after Braden went home and the buzzards carried away everything of real value, a few yard sale snobs slowed their cars just long enough to glance at my picked-over tables. When they realized I had nothing they wanted, they sped away, avoiding eye-contact, anxious to find a coffee table the next block over or a few rare records across town. I tried not to let these suburban drive-bys hurt my feelings, but they did. I guess I’m not as secure with myself as Braden is, skipping through the yard with his clean shoes and four-foot bravery.
That’s why, when I walk out of my house every day, I leave everything valuable locked inside, hidden behind closed curtains and doors. If people had full access to my history, I’m afraid they might find all the memories that have filled my past, the stories that have built my present, and casually disregard them as unimportant or uninteresting.
Would you like to buy this stick?
If people were free to wander through my closets, I am scared they might poke thorough the boxes and uncover all the secrets I’ve wrapped so carefully and packed away in safe places on high shelves. I am afraid they will decide that I just have too much junk. The work isn’t worth it. And I can’t risk that. My confidence, like the economy and my property value, is simply too fragile.
I know it’s not particularly flashy or brilliant. It’s terribly ordinary. But it’s the best stick I have.
Sometimes I wonder if people understand that every conversation, every joke, every story, and every smile is essentially one person offering himself to another person, posing the same basic question. Every awkward silence, every nervous laugh, every spoken or written word is really me asking in my most polite voice,
Do you want what I have to offer?
Will you see that I am valuable?
Would you like to buy this stick?
I ask these questions hoping you will see that I am not just dead wood, broken and useless. If you look close enough you will find that I am also a sword, a shovel, and a magic wand. I am a child. A lover. A sometimes failure. I am even reasonably useful if you use your imagination. I can dig a hole or stir some soup. Or be your friend.
Would you like to buy this stick?
Before you answer, I need for you to close your eyes and use your imagination. I need for you to be willing to look into my deep darkness, and sadness, and fear, and hurt, and hope and not cringe or laugh at what you find there. I need for you to realize that every house has a closet full of unappreciated treasures and misunderstood trinkets. And trash. I need for you to understand that sharing these things with the world is scary.
And so, if one day I gain the courage of a five year old and really offer myself to you, please don’t walk away. I might not handle the rejection as well as Braden did.
Would you like to buy a stick?