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Wounded Healers

Copyright © 2012 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved. Permission granted for use in gatherings with attribution of author and blog site.

A month or so ago on the internet, I happened onto a recent review of my first book, Uncommon Calling: A Gay Christian’s Struggle to Serve the Church. While giving credit to my activism of forty years, the review took me to task for being “self-obsessed” and, while insisting homophobic people change their ways, failing to confess things I needed to change in myself other than my shame and lack of pride.

I understand that people do not read as carefully as they used to, but the book listing under the genre “biography” as well as the subtitle should warn readers that the book is intended to be autobiographical. I completed it 25 years ago this summer, and it came as a result of being asked to tell my story so many times that I thought I’d save everyone’s time and trouble by telling it in print.

It appeared at a time in the LGBT movement when many of us thought personal narrative was the best way to overcome heterosexism. And I was persuaded by Carl Roger’s dictum that “what is most personal is most universal,” as practiced by my spiritual mentor Henri J. M. Nouwen. Nouwen believed the minister (every Christian) was, according to a rabbinic story, the wounded healer who unbinds and binds her or his wounds one at a time, so as to be ready to help others unbind and bind theirs. It could be said that each of his books on the spiritual life revealed some personal wound being dressed and addressed in the hopes of helping others with similar wounds.

Henri J. M. Nouwen

Henri once wrote that the “J. M.” in the middle of his name could stand for “Just Me.” He believed that the minister (again, every Christian) was called to live a life offered to others. The autobiography or memoir is said to have first appeared in The Confessions of Saint Augustine, and spiritual autobiography has long had a place as a means of doing theology. I lead workshops and retreats on spiritual autobiographical writing, encouraging participants to tell their stories.

But I also wanted to tell the story of one denomination (the Presbyterians) struggling with the issue of openly gay and lesbian Christians in their pews and pulpits. Recently preparing my letters from Henri for donation to his archives, I ran across his advice on an earlier version of the manuscript that I focus on myself rather than the church—that that’s what readers would want. I chose to tell both stories, because for me, I was only an example of what LGBT people were experiencing in every denomination. I dedicated the book “To gays and lesbians who struggle to keep faith,” by which I meant religious faith as well as faith in ourselves. The most frequent response I’ve gotten to the book is, “You told my story,” which is exactly why I wrote it.

As to the dismissive tone in the review about my need for conversion from shame to appropriate pride: most LGBT Christians of the era and even today will tell you that this was the most important transformation we had to make. “Out of the Closets and Into the Kingdom” was my final paper for professor Letty Russell’s Liberation Theology course.  It meant giving up self-denigrating, LGBT-denigrating, even suicidal behaviors to embrace who we are as beloved children of God, citizens of God’s commonwealth.

Throughout the book, I explain that homophobia is something we all are working on, gay and straight alike. And when I talk about the need for the church to change, I tried to put it in “we” language, as I am part of that church and its needed reformation. That I didn’t feel the need to use the book as a private little confessional was to save the reader from “too much information,” as well as to reinforce the purpose of the book: to gain acceptance for LGBT people who should not be rejected because we also sin. Toward the end of the book, I wrote, “How can I reject the church for a lack of integrity when I also struggle to more fully realize this goal? … I’ve abandoned perfection as a spiritually desirable goal. How can I then require perfection of the church?”

I am not providing the link to the review because I understand that snarky commentary is used to draw people to blogs. I notice this when I post something edgy on this blog, and I try to avoid playing to this. The comments on the review reinforced this notion—an internet lynch mob was forming, as one wrote that I must be a young person, part of the “me” generation, and another, noticing my longevity in the movement, said I was probably one of those self-absorbed boomers of the 60s. Perhaps that’s most disturbing of all, that people who have not read the book or any of my work feel entitled to form an opinion about it.

Nouwen, whose reputation grew from his early book, The Wounded Healer, came toward the end of his life to understand how people can hook us in our wounds, as he describes in The Inner Voice of Love: “People will constantly try to hook your wounded self. They will point out your needs, your character defects, your limitations and sins. That is how they attempt to dismiss what God, through you, is saying to them.”

Consider me hooked. But don’t dismiss what we might learn from all this.


Chris will be leading a seminar, Henri Nouwen: The Wounded Healer, February 28-March 3, 2013 for the Spiritual Formation Program of Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta, Georgia. The public is welcome!

Review & Commentary