Journey - Chapter 14
The Year of Before and After, Part I
BY JERRY MCKAY
As my graduation approached, I should have been contacting conferences in Canada for a pastoral internship position. I was not. Instead, I returned to Japan, the only place I felt I could serve God and avoid the stress my yet unacknowledged orientation was creating. While my return was an acceptable option, it did not come from a place of strength. Distress was a common private component of my life. However, this trip to Japan would be unlike any other. Halfway through my two-year term, a life-defining moment occurred.
I arrived in Japan just in time to attend the baptism of a dear friend. During my final year of college, Mitsuko wrote to tell me of her decision to give her heart to Jesus. On August 3, 1980, Mitsuko was baptized in a beautiful, tree-lined mountain stream an hour west of Tokyo. English teachers, church members, her husband, and I gathered as she waded into a pool of water with the pastor to seal her commitment. I was thrilled to be part of this celebration because I never expected to be there. The day after, I rushed off to Osaka. Although my heart was in Tokyo, I had reluctantly agreed to start my work in Osaka because they needed a teacher.
Osaka Center was the largest Seventh-day Adventist English school in Japan. At its peak, 500 students studied English weekly. This was the school I had not wanted to teach at during my first year in Japan. In addition to multiple classrooms, the four-story office housed the local church, administrative offices for the language school system, and an apartment for two male teachers. Unlike the quiet suburban location of the school in Tokyo, Osaka Centre was on a busy street. One redeeming feature was its proximity to Osaka Castle. I could retreat to its peaceful grounds in just ten minutes.
I was supposed to be in Osaka for only a few weeks. “Supposed to” often ends up being something different. When I was asked to stay for the year, I was torn. I really wanted to be in Tokyo. Although I had returned to Japan to escape issues like dating expectations, I was still fully committed to mission service. For several weeks, I prayed for guidance. I think everyone, my friends in Tokyo especially, was surprised when I announced my decision to stay in Osaka.
My year in Osaka was much like my previous two years in Tokyo—30 hours of language teaching per week and as many Bible classes as I could create. I lived with several other guys on a mission compound 50 minutes west of Osaka. As always, my orientation intruded into all aspects of my life.
Sharing accommodations with male teachers was awkward at either end of the day when everyone was in a different state of undress. Additionally, many charming male students captured my attention and stirred up unwanted romantic feelings. Interactions with women also kept me aware of my orientation but for different reasons. Before the year was over, several women had made hopeful advances. One woman, to my astonishment, directly and forcefully proposed marriage. Had I been attracted to women, I might have accepted a proposal because living in Japan appealed to me very much. All advances created more stress than happiness, however.
Constantly shutting down feelings for male friends while politely ignoring advances from female friends stood in sharp contrast to my increasing longing for companionship. Even in Japan, I was frequently reminded that “it is not good for man to be alone!” During especially lonely moments, I grieved the loss of Donna's friendship acutely. At the same time, memories of my brief moments of intimacy with that male friend during the previous summer haunted me whenever my touch-deprived existence overwhelmed me.
Spiritually, the year was typical with respect to my daily devotions. I did, however, add one element to hopefully address my anxious concern about my orientation.
A Moody Press publication I bought in Osaka played a significant role in my prayer life. The Adversary dealt with a popular concern: the Christian versus demonic activity. The book was full of stories of deliverance from demons and came with sample prayers I could use to “overcome the flesh” and “appropriate the Holy Spirit.” I photocopied two of the prayers and pasted them into the back of my Bible to access anytime—for my Bible always went with me.
I had a specific “fleshly lust” in mind when I earnestly prayed:
Heavenly Father, I enter by faith today into death with the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross. I appropriate all the benefits of the crucifixion which is mine because of my union with Christ. I count myself dead to my old fleshly nature and all of its workings through my union with Christ at the cross. I recognize that my old nature always wants to resurrect itself against You and Your will for my life, but I wish to let it remain dead in death with my Lord on the cross. I am thankful that this absolute truth can be my subjective experience. I recognize that appropriating the death of my flesh is an essential step to victory over these fleshly temptations which buffet me. Amen.
The second prayer was similar but focused on appropriating the Holy Spirit. To protect me from deceiving spirits and bring me to victory, I prayed:
Blessed heavenly Father, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, I desire the Holy Spirit to bring all the work of the crucifixion and the resurrection of Christ into my life today. Enable me to respond to Your grace and to be sensitive to Your voice. Grant me discernment to avoid being deceived by false spirits. I desire that the Holy Spirit fill all my being with His presence and control me by faith. I trust my victory over the flesh today completely into the hands of the Holy Spirit as I let Him take control of me…. Amen.
When I read these prayers now, I can feel the heaviness associated with that time of my life. Like some kind of spiritual formula, I repeated these prayers on a daily basis. When I read them, often aloud, I did so with an underlying assumption that some demonic activity must be operating in my life. This assumption added to my spiritual angst. I was as sincere as I could be about exercising full faith, and I expected victory. I was not concerned about fleshly lusts resurrecting themselves because they had never died! I just wanted my attractions to men to go away and in their place experience what I perceived as “normal” feelings for women.
With my moment-to-moment attractions tormenting me and seemingly unanswered prayers for deliverance ascending to heaven daily, I offered to take on a project that would be the highlight of my work in Japan. I wanted to present a series of talks at the Osaka Center church and in Tokyo. Once given the go-ahead, I hid away in a quiet room just off the church sanctuary for hours on end. My ambitious task was to demonstrate how the story of Jesus was the unifying thread from Genesis to Revelation—and do it in nine nights. Being a visual learner, I wanted to illustrate this salvation history. To do so, I created panels with symbols inspired by the simple yet beautiful art of the Swiss artist Annie Vallotton whose work is featured in Good News translations of the Bible. My artwork was amateurish by comparison, but the ten panels helped link elements of my presentation as I built my salvation timeline over three consecutive weekends. I was excited about presenting the series in Tokyo to a familiar group of church members, friends, and former students. I believe the meetings went well, but I know I pushed the translators—usually language school directors—to their limits.
Because presenting the series was so rewarding, I was surprised when a deep sense of loneliness came over me despite being in the city I loved, and surrounded by students and friends. As I look back, I know that during my terms in 1975 and 1978, there was still a hopeful, carefree aspect to my life despite the angst caused by my orientation. This time, with an uncertain future ahead of me, no soulmate with whom to share my experiences, and relational needs shut down, I felt alienated from the world. The only thing I could do was continue to suppress all feelings, create a false front, and soldier on.
Shortly after the meetings were over, I set off on a spiritual adventure that was Buddhist in nature. Even though this was my third trip to Japan, I knew very little about Buddhism. I had done some reading, but that was limited. I knew that visitors could stay at temples, but I wanted something more tangible than a sleepover. After asking around, the name Eihei-ji came up numerous times.
Eihei-ji, or “the temple of peace,” is one of two main temples of the Soto school of Zen Buddhism. Eihei-ji is a training monastery with several hundred monks and nuns in residence, and it welcomed visitors like me. With the help of Goto-san, our branch director, I registered for a two-day training session. To get to Eihei-ji, I had to travel by train to the less-visited, western side of Japan.
Because it was November, the Japanese maples were in full color and the mountain air was cool and damp. When I arrived, I surrendered my clothes for the modest black uniform of a trainee. One young monk was assigned to look after me. Despite his limited English and my poor command of Japanese, we managed to communicate for my 48-hour stay. Everything my group and I did was an aspect of our training—down to when we slept and how and what we ate.
I could never, in a few sentences, explain the goal of Zen, but if I understand it at all, a key concept is that it is not something one believes in but something one practices. The practice of Zen meditation is meant to create a place where enlightenment or awakening can occur. Enlightenment comes in that moment when I realize that “everything is nothing.” That expression captures the vanity of clinging to binary or dualistic concepts such as self versus other, real versus unreal, love versus hate. In awakening to these binaries, I can then cease striving for things that were once falsely perceived as useful or beneficial.
I did not go to Eihei-ji to obtain Zen enlightenment, although eliminating some of the competing conflicts in my life might have been beneficial. I simply wanted an encounter with Buddhism that would give me a better point of reference with my Japanese friends. As it turned out, I experienced what many Japanese never do.
I will never forget rising at 4 a.m. and shuffling through the dimly lit, centuries-old halls and stairways with my little group of trainees. I felt a bit uncomfortable and out of my element joining the other monks in chanting their morning mantras in the grand hall before a large image of the Buddha. Knowing I was not participating in a performance for educational purposes, but joining in on the spiritual practice of the people left me in awe. I felt transported to a place far removed in time and space.
In addition to meeting in the grand hall each morning, we practiced meditation in a small secluded meditation room. For three two-hour sessions, I sat in silence with half a dozen others while under the supervision of attending monks. For a fourth session, we slowly circled the room in a walking meditation. While there were extended periods when my mind was the calmest it had ever been, it was hard to quiet my mind for long. I was an observer, not a true participant, and as such my head was full of Christian concepts as I compared my world to this alien one.
During my memorable two days, I was annoyed by the fact that my orientation still created a distraction. Being attracted to my pleasant Buddhist attendant was an unwelcome intrusion, but the attraction was there nonetheless. Awareness of my orientation in this context added to my growing frustration that nothing was having a transformative impact on my orientation. Prayer, Bible study, and Christian witness were having no impact. Fear, guilt, and shame did not diminish my attractions, and my brush with enlightenment did not change anything either.
On the orientation-awareness side of things, one out-of-character event gave me insight into how I was feeling at the time while a second triggered my anxiety. First, my moment of insight:
One evening that autumn, we hosted a fall festival with food and games. Masks were featured in one activity. When the evening was over, one teacher—the joker among us—talked several of us into riding the trains home while wearing masks. It was all I could do to put on a mask in public, breaking from all etiquette by Japanese standards, and spend most of my 50-minute commute home wearing a clown mask. When we boarded the train, I was red with embarrassment even though hidden by the anonymity of the mask. As I started to relax, two contradictory, yet related, insights emerged. I shouldn’t have been so surprised at the sense of liberation this anonymity provided, but I was. My inner dialogue unnerved me. If I could lose my identity or disappear, I thought, I might be able to be at peace. I was shocked at the extent of my longing to disappear and be free from the burden of my orientation. Then the counter insight. For most of my life, I realized, I had been wearing a mask. Not only was I hiding from others, I was hiding from myself. I secretly longed to take off my mask and live my life authentically even though I had no idea what that would mean.
The second event illustrates why I longed to escape. In 1980, the controversial, pornographic Italian-American movie about the Roman Emperor Caligula opened in Japan. In keeping with Japanese advertising practices, posters and movie clips outside theaters depicted the violent and sexual content of the movie. For weeks, I had to pass a theater where the movie was playing.
If I had been drawn to the explicit heterosexual elements, of which there were many, I might have felt better about myself. But no, I was drawn to the homoerotic aspects of the movie. How could I escape the weight of knowing what Paul said in Romans chapter one while wanting to vicariously take part in the life of this notorious emperor? My distress was equal to my curiosity, and my guilt and shame greater than the sum of it all. It may sound sacrilegious to say, but when I repeated my prayers for deliverance from one set of fleshy lusts, I longed for another—heterosexual lust! I would have traded one for the other. This is how “crazing making” my life had become.
The year in Osaka was rewarding and over before I knew it. I made new lifelong friends, witnessed the baptism of more friends, and added new experiences to my life. Nevertheless, I was excited about returning to Tokyo in June of 1981. While significant events occurred that summer, for the moment, I will jump to October and the day my life changed forever.
On a beautiful October morning after class, I headed to the language school office. This was the office where, in 1975, I froze when a male student showed more physical affection than I could endure. Then as now, the school director was chatting with teachers and students.
I slipped into the office and moved toward a vacant chair. To get to the chair, I had to squeeze past a small table that held our IBM Selectric typewriter (this was before computers). A pile of magazines, left by one of the missionaries, was sitting on top of the typewriter. I paused to glance through the pile—Newsweek, Time, a church magazine from Michigan, and an Adventist publication for clergy called Ministry.
When I saw the cover, my heart stopped. On the front of the September 1981 issue of Ministry was the shadow of a cross looming over the shattered arrow and circle symbol for masculinity. At the bottom of the cover were two words: Homosexual Healing.
I wanted that magazine desperately, but I didn't want anyone to know that I wanted it. Feeling like I was stealing, my heart raced as I slipped the magazine under the folder I was carrying and immediately left the room. Once the magazine was safely hidden, my anxiety dropped, but I was just aching to read the article.
That evening, when classes were over, I made up some lame excuse to stay behind rather than walk home with my coworkers. Even after the school was deserted, I was so afraid of being caught with the magazine—afraid of what people would assume about me—that I found a secluded spot on the second floor.
The article turned out to be a 10-page interview with a Mr. Colin Cook by the editor, J. R. Spangler. Spangler opened the interview with a statement and a question. “Homosexuality is a condition that has come to the forefront nationally as the gay community has become more vocal. What is the beginning point in understanding the homosexual and ministering to him?”
Within minutes, I was lost in the interview. I felt as if I were reading about myself. I frequently had to pause as emotion choked off my breathing. Sometimes I trembled as I read. At other times, tears made it difficult to read. That evening, I named what I could no longer deny. With my heart pounding and mind racing, I used the word homosexual to describe my experience. While it was terrifying, there was also a great sense of relief. Even though I sat in silence in that empty school, I felt less alone than ever before. I felt understood. I felt hopeful.