A Plug for “Space at the Table”
A huge thanks to a friend of mine who recently pointed me to Space at the Table: Conversations Between an Evangelical Theologian and his Gay Son. And to Zeal Books, too, for taking the risk of publishing this brief, dual memoir. It’s a beautiful book, one that tells the best kind of story. I can only hope that droves of both Christians and members of the LBGTQ community will read and learn it, as it’s the best attempt I’ve seen of taking both of these “sides” seriously, of seeing the kind of nuance and complexity that the issues the book brings up deserve. Along with the publisher, I also suspect that the book will make both communities uncomfortable, and that the discomfort could be productive if handled well. I won’t be able to fully replicate the book’s beauty and usefulness here, but I’ll try my best to give you a glimpse of what I read and heard.
In Space at the Table, we get more of Drew’s (the son’s) story than Brad’s (the father’s), but as they write, it definitely comes across on that page that both of them take other seriously on his terms and yet somehow without betraying their own individual convictions.
Here is Drew, writing about an adult return to the church that had played such an important part in raising him:
“Without warning my body broke, and I was overcome by grief. My chest heaved with sobs whose noise I tried to muffle, but they echoed through the space and I was embarrassed for myself, though no one was around to hear me except you. Mercifully you didn’t try to engage me or comfort me; you just let me cry. My knees bent, and I shook. No religious ecstasy here, no indwelling of the Holy Spirit, just an overwhelming sense of loss, whose sadness I have never allowed myself to feel because anger and resentment are much safer.
“How could I have invested so much of myself into a place, into a community, only to wake up one day and realize I was an orphan?
“Why have I gone so many years without admitting how important this world and its people were to me, and how much it hurt when I found I no longer had a home here?
“I allowed myself to feel for the first time how lost I was without it, how much I missed my church.”
The “you” Drew wrote to and about was, of course, his father and co-author. That the two of them could be present together for such a moment, that Drew was even safe enough to share such a vulnerable part of himself, says so much about the kind of the relationship they have. Elsewhere, Drew calls his father his “greatest teacher, (his) greatest foe, and (his) greatest friend.”
Brad, too, wrote about his son with generosity and affection, and even acknowledged that some of his actions had caused his son harm along the way. Here the father writes about how he has learned to relate with his son:
“Perhaps what the last couple of years has taught me most is to accept you as an adult. You still felt like my child when you left for New York after high school. You are still my son, but you are not really my child. The more I conceive of you as an adult and the more I treat you like an adult, the stronger our relationship has become. I cannot control or change you…And actually I don’t want to…
“We recently had a conversation about an issue in your life of real concern to me. I wanted to tell you what I thought you ought to do, but as the words neared my lips, I could hear myself saying, ‘Drew, I’m not here to give you advice.’
“You responded, ‘Dad, it’s okay. You’re my father. ‘I’m asking you to give me advice.’
“Perhaps when we come to that place in our relationship, we’re in the best place we can be.
I hope we stay there.”
Like any good story, we only get these landings after the two have waded through years of conflict and tension that they ultimately chose to move toward together. I was grateful that the book doesn’t shy away from the most difficult of topics: experiences in and with the Church, biblical interpretations, “ex-gay therapy,” early sexual encounters, “coming out,” fears about contracting HIV, drug use and rehabilitation, a brush with suicide, and – perhaps most of all – how to continue on in relationship given these two men’s differing commitments and perspectives. The books seems to answer, with a resounding yes, that we can, in fact, hold on to what we believe while still daring to love someone who’s very identity may seem to, on the surface, threaten your own.
Brad and Drew Harper seem to understand, perhaps a bit better than the rest of us, how much love will cost us. What I mean is, love might kill us if it doesn’t save us first. It’s really not all that “natural.” Rather, love seems to be the result of two individuals who are willing to enter into and stay with each other’s messes for a very long time, long enough to roll around in them, to try to understand them, to forgive them, to let go of our attempts at controlling them.
If I have one complaint about the book, it is the little sections of “frequently asked questions” that both Brad and Drew attempt to answer throughout the book. It seems both disruptive and counter to the overall tone. Had I been the publisher, if such sections seemed absolutely necessary (and I’m not convinced that they were) then I would have placed them in the back of the book as an appendix.
Nevertheless, by the book’s epilogue, Brad and his wife (Drew’s mother) have been receiving Drew’s gay friends and lovers in their home for many years, and Drew – who had moved back to the Pacific Northwest after stints in New York City and Cairo, Egypt – is an occasional attender at his parents church and even prays from time to time (to his broader, twelve-step God) before meals at his parents’ house. As such, Brad learns to see his son’s humanity rather than a caricatured “gay person.” And Drew is able to do the same with his father, to see that he is so much more than a stereotypical “Evangelical.” Yes, they are these identities, but they are also much more. These results probably fall short of “everything” the two men hope for, but instead they have accepted and received something, and who knows how much more is possible if they continue to lean into each other’s lives.
If we take Brad and Drew’s story seriously, perhaps love is more like a grace than it is a fairy tale or romantic comedy. Love is no picnic, and to enter in is all but to guarantee that you’ll feel uncomfortable along the way and be changed in ways you probably couldn’t have expected.