(c) Rev. Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
When I consider my life so far, the most significant moment for me was when I had an “Aha!” moment and decided to come out 14 years ago – both to myself and to the world. That decision to change, or more realistically to improve, is important to me not because I came out, but because I finally chose to be the real me. I stopped being afraid of all the potential negative consequences that might happen. That major decision of change was mostly about me deciding to love myself.
Even though many past friends and members of the church I served at the time told me I was going to hell, and that I could no longer be their friend or their Minister, it’s funny that they also told me I’d become a different person – and they meant that in a negative way. At first, that upset me, but then I quickly realized I had changed but only in a way that I got better. I became happier, more confident, and more authentic.
The real me, the person who I was and am at my inner core, had mostly evolved. I revealed a relatively small part of me that I’d previously and wrongly thought was bad – and that has made all the difference in my life.
Since next week is Easter Sunday and, for many people, a day to celebrate the resurrection story about Jesus coming back to life from being dead, I chose resurrection as my theme for April. My intent is to consider what change means for us – on a societal level as I discussed last Sunday, on a personal level as I’ll discuss today, and on a spiritual level as I’ll talk about next week.
For most of us, changing ourselves for the better is something we say is a good thing, but we often are afraid of doing it. It’s far more comfortable – and easy – to go along as we are. But as we know, the world is constantly evolving around us. Change is a fundamental fact in the universe. If we stay the same, while everything else changes, we risk being left behind and becoming stagnant and boring. And so we come to a place like this church to consider ways to improve ourselves so we can then help improve the world. We also realize that making a decision to improve ourselves, perhaps by learning new ways to think or act, is periodically essential – for our own well-being and for the world too. If we become stale, what good are we?
For me, there were and are three essential steps I needed to take in order to change myself.
First, I had to face my fears – and overcome them. Any new thing in life, any so-called improvement in thinking or in how we speak and act, is difficult primarily because we are often afraid. What if I fail? What if others don’t like the new and improved me? What if the process of change is painful and difficult? What if change for the better actually turns out to be something worse?
The reality is that fear is like a prison in which we put ourselves. Our freedom is limited because we subconsciously tell ourselves, “don’t even think of being different!” We exist in a jail of our own making that seems comfortable only because it is familiar. Fear also causes us to think the worst about ourselves and the world. “I’m ineffective and a loser – so don’t try something new because it won’t go well.” Or, “The world is a nasty place – so don’t do anything different that will call attention to yourself.”
I thought those things before my “Aha” decision to come out. But the odd thing was, once I faced my fears and came out, I realized my thoughts of what might happen were far worse than what actually happened. My daughters still loved and accepted me. My dad didn’t reject me. I lost my job as a Minister, but within three years found a new and much better Minister position at the Gathering. And I attribute that job offer to the fact that I was a more happy and empowered person precisely because I’d faced my fears and changed my life.
I still encountered some difficult times. I lost friends, I felt very alone for a while, I occasionally questioned why I decided to change. But those negatives were temporary as they always are. Just as the adage goes about exercising our bodies, the same is true when we significantly change: “No pain, no gain.”
The second step I took to change was to love and accept myself for who I am. Part of what had held me back from changing was because I didn’t like who I was. An inner voice told me I was bad, sinful, and that being gay was the worst thing I could be.
I had to realize that who I was and am is someone worthy. I had to challenge all the things mean spirited people say about LGBTQ persons – and understand those are lies. Do I try my best to serve family, friends and strangers with compassion? Yes. Am I perfect? Of course not. Do I try to learn from mistakes and be better? Yes. If there is a god, or whatever else that made me, would she make something bad? Absolutely not.
Too many of us fill our minds with negative thoughts about ourselves. We have to first tell our inner negative voice to shut up! As I’ve said before, the only way we can love anyone else is if we first learn to love ourselves. We don’t become arrogant and stare lovingly in a mirror. Instead, we understand who we are, admit are flaws, try to change them, and more importantly see the beauty in us. Once I accepted that I’m a good person and that I am worthy of respect, I was able to change and improve my life. Ultimately, I found the ability to accept and love me – just as I am.
The third essential step to change myself was to be as authentic and genuine as possible. I had to agree to just be me – no masks, no hiding in symbolic closets, no fear of what others think about me. LGBTQ protesters often chant at protest rallies, “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!” I had to learn to say that to myself.
The world is full of fearful people who don’t love themselves and hide who they really are. Fake people are, at their core, unhappy people because they’re not free and they’re not real. Such people are either very sad, or else they hide their fears by being overly arrogant and seemingly invulnerable. And so, in sum, three things we must do to change: 1) face our fears, 2) love and accept ourselves, 3) decide to be fully authentic and true to yourself.
For any of us here today, especially young people, we know life is about change and moving forward. We tell ourselves change is no fun when, in fact, it is often exciting and good. Moving from being a young person to being an adult is scary. So is the change from being a strong and vital adult into being an older person. Other changes – to go to college, to start a new job, to evolve in how we think about an issue – these are equally challenging. But I need to assure myself – and you – we are capable – and the vast majority of people love us just for who we are. Black, punk, goth, trans, lesbian, jock, intellectual, artistic, preppy, grungy, old, young, male, female, gay, straight – whatever – we are each beautifully and wonderfully made. We’re amazing, strong, smart, and likable. Let’s keep on being who we are – while we keep on getting even better. We are a gift to the world and none of us should ever forget that!