Language is a slippery thing. A word or phrase is understood one way and then, almost overnight, there is a culture shift and it takes on a whole new meaning. The title phrase here is an example. For generations the phrase “coming out” was an occasion at which aristocratic young ladies reached an age where they entered the social circle that, in centuries past, was called the marriage mart. It was a celebration of adulthood and was limited to the socially elite.
Then, rather suddenly, the implied meaning changed. Coming out became the term that described people who had been secretly gay (another word that has gone through a meaning shift) but have now decided to publically declare themselves. There was nothing sinister about this change, no plot to hijack the phrase; it was just seen as an accurate shorthand way to describe what took place.
But I’d like to use that phrase in a wider sense; in a description of an act to disavow or abandon a previously held conviction and to leave behind those who still hold it. In this wider sense Megan Phelps-Roper has just come out. At the age of 26 Megan has left Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas. She had been a third generation member of the church founded by her grandfather, Fred Phelps.
Westboro, as you probably know, has become famous for picketing the funerals of American service men killed in action and other settings of grief. They have also trumpeted the saying “God hates fags.” Most evangelicals wince when the church name comes up, so loathe are we to be associated with them. And Megan was more than just a quiet member. Articulate and social media savvy, she was sought after for interviews and active in promoting the church’s beliefs.
You can read Megan’s story here and I urge you to do so before continuing reading this post. I found her message profoundly moving. The essence of her situation is summed up in her question “Where do you go from there?” The question is followed by the painful confession “We (her sister came out with her) know that we’ve done and said things that hurt people. Inflicting pain on others wasn’t the goal but it was one of the outcomes. We wish it weren’t so, and regret that hurt.” Embedded in that last comment is the realization that she has no way to undo the hurt.
So where does she go from there? Not surprisingly, people are jumping in with suggestions. She can:
– Work tirelessly for gay rights. If she is good, in a few years she will be forgiven.
– Become someone who will speak forcefully against the evils of religion.
– Join church A (or church B, or C or D….) and learn real Christianity.
– Go to hell.
You can sense her desire to “hold fast to what is good” while sifting through the wreckage of her belief system. She reminds me of those pictures of people rummaging through the rubble of their houses after Hurricane Sandy looking for something of value. She has to be wondering what to pick up and what to throw away.
The thing is that, while her story is extreme, her situation is not unknown to many of us. A spouse abandons their family and the ones left behind need to come out of something they thought would last forever. A leader or pastor falls into sin and the followers feel betrayed. Sometimes we just have an epiphany and conclude that something which we believed is not true. Ours may not be of the magnitude of Megan’s but it is nonetheless real. At one time or another, I suspect most of us have walked in a lesser version of Megan’s shoes.
I have no advice for Megan and no real clue of what is going on inside her head. My heart breaks for her and I wish her well. Intellectually I know that God’s love for her is the same yesterday, today and always. I pray that she feels it. I don’t suppose I will ever meet her or communicate with her. But grace makes me weep for her. May I show the same grace to others who have, or need to, come out. May I recognize the things that I need to come out of.