Messy Grace (Part 1) - Kaleb Kaltenbach
Caleb Kaltenbach’s parents divorced when he was young. His mom came out as a lesbian; his dad came out as a gay man. That gave Caleb a unique perspective on life.
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Loving My Gay Parents
Guest: Caleb Kaltenbach
From the series: Messy Grace (Day 1 of 3)
Bob: Caleb Kaltenbach’s parents divorced when he was young. His mom came out as a lesbian; his dad came out as a gay man. That gave Caleb a unique perspective on life.
Caleb: I remember marching in a Gay Pride parade one time and seeing all these—I’ll use quotations, “Christians”—holding up signs, saying, “God hates you!” I remember that so vividly, almost as if it happened yesterday. I remember looking at my mom, looking at her in the eye, and saying, “Mom, why are they acting like this?” I was about nine or ten—somewhere around there. She looked at me and she said, “Well, Caleb, they’re Christians; and Christians hate gay people.”
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Monday, July 2nd. Our host is Dennis Rainey; I'm Bob Lepine. Caleb Kaltenbach grew up in what I think we’d all agree was a somewhat messy family situation. He had to learn, eventually, how to apply what he calls “messy grace.” Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us on the Monday edition. You know, every family is messy at some level; right? But there are—
Dennis: No doubt. I was just withholding the answer there because—
Bob: It’s self-evident; isn’t it?
Dennis: Wow! I mean, you get six children, two imperfect parents; I mean, what are you going to get? You’re going to get some—some messiness. This is where I think the Bible has all kinds of relevance, because it’s about messy people. It’s about imperfect people / imperfect stories and how God, in His sovereign majesty, works out a story that honors Him.
Bob: Yes; I love what Matt Chandler says—
—he says, “It’s okay not to be okay; it’s just not okay to stay there.” [Laughter] That’s what the story of redemption’s all about!
Dennis: Well, we have a guest with us today who has quite a story. Now, I just want you to know—as a listener, I don’t know what you’re doing; but set it aside—because what you’re going to hear is going to be riveting—I am confident of that. He has written a book called Messy Grace, and it is subtitled: How a Pastor with Gay Parents Learned to Love Others Without Sacrificing Conviction. Now, that is a mouthful!
Dennis: We have with us Caleb Kaltenbach. Welcome to the broadcast.
Caleb: It’s great to be here. Thank you for having me.
Dennis: Caleb, this lead line over the title of your book, How a Pastor with Gay Parents Learned to Love Others—wow! Take us back to the home you grew up in. I mean, I’ve heard a lot of stories; but I’m not sure I’ve heard one about a pastor who came from that kind of background.
Caleb: I was raised in Columbia, Missouri, and Kansas City—actually, I started out in Columbia. Both my parents were professors at the University of Missouri-Columbia and at local schools there—taught subjects like philosophy, law, rhetoric, and English literature. When I was two, they got a divorce; and both of them entered into same-sex relationships.
My mom went into a 22-year-long monogamous relationship with her partner, Vera—she was a psychologist. Now, my dad on the other hand—he had several different relationships. He never had one relationship that lasted. I actually—I didn’t even know about my dad until I got to be college-age—maybe just graduated from college—but I kind of always had my suspicions; I don’t know. But I was raised by three gay parents.
Bob: This is at a time that is unlike today, when these relationships tended to be more closeted. Were your parents “out” about their sexual preference?
Caleb: My dad was in the closet. My mom and her partner, as I said—they did go to Kansas City.
They were very loud and proud, and very out. They were on the board of directors for the Kansas City chapter of GLAD. They were activists. They took me with them to Gay Pride parades, and bars, and clubs when I was preschool age/elementary age. I remember going with them to activist events. I remember marching in a Gay Pride parade one time and seeing all these—I’ll use quotations, “Christians”—holding up signs, saying, “God hates you!” If that wasn’t offensive enough, they were spraying people with water and urine at one of the particular parades.
Caleb: I remember that so vividly, almost as if it happened yesterday. I remember just, right now to this day, I remember looking at my mom, looking at her in the eye, and saying, “Mom, why are they acting like this?” I was about nine or ten—somewhere around there. She looked at me and she said, “Well, Caleb, they’re Christians; and Christians hate gay people.”
That stuck with me. My whole childhood, I was raised to believe that.
I saw that when AIDS was developing in America and spreading, and we were learning more about it. Many of my mom’s friends contracted it. I remember one man, named Louis, who was a young man—his family was Christian. They already didn’t accept him, because he was in a same-sex relationship. When he got AIDS, they really didn’t want to have anything to do with him. We went and visited him in a hospital one time.
Dennis: Yes; you describe a scene in your book that is pretty—
Dennis: —pretty amazing.
Caleb: Yes; and the most disturbing thing was—obviously, it’s disturbing to see somebody die from AIDS, if you’ve ever seen that—but seeing his family being so nonchalant, while they were reading their Bibles, lined up against the wall, like they were waiting for a firing squad to come get them. That, to me, was unforgivable at that time.
Dennis: They were not next to his bed—
Dennis: —holding his hand, speaking love to him. They were kind of huddled together in another section of the room, not caring for him at all.
Caleb: No; and they wouldn’t even talk to us. I remember my mom looked at me and she said, “Hey, Christians hate gay people.”
Bob: So you grew up with that as your view of Christians and Christianity. At the same time, you’re going to elementary school. You had to be the only kid in your school who had two moms.
Caleb: Oh, I didn’t tell anybody that I had two moms—I didn’t tell anybody. Even as a young kid, I wondered about my dad; but I didn’t tell anybody because, even though, at that age, I didn’t think there was anything wrong about that relationship—at the same time, I knew that I was different. I did not want to get made fun of.
Bob: So you just would tell folks you lived with your mom, and your mom and dad were divorced; and that was it?
Caleb: And I would go back and forth; absolutely.
Dennis: Was it 50-50?
Caleb: No; I spent most of the time with my dad.
Dennis: I’ve been looking forward to talking with you; because I’m seeing children today grow up in homes, where they have two same-sex parents. I’m just wondering: “What’s happening in the life of that child? What’s that child thinking/feeling?” What was going on in your life, emotionally, if you can think back and articulate kind of what you were thinking and feeling?
Caleb: I remember Vera, my mother’s partner.
We did not get along at all, almost from Day One, when I was a little kid. There was a real jealousy/competition factor with her and my mother. I remember learning, at a very young age, that Vera really hated men. Even though I was a little boy, I was still a man—representative of that.
If I had time to take you through her past / my mom and dad’s past, you would totally understand where they would get that hatred from. I even understand it today. I don’t think that’s the right response, but I understand how that could be a response.
This is where I think parenting is so incredibly important on two levels. Number one, parents have got to learn that they have to deal with their issues; because whatever their burdens are, when they don’t deal with them and seek healing from them, they pass them onto their kids. Their kids now have to bear the burdens that their parents do.
But also, our kids—and I’m very mindful of this with my own kids—
—are always watching me: and how I handle stressful situations and how I handle life—because they model their achievement of emotional balance through watching me and their mother.
We want to do that in a Christ-like way so, when they see that life is difficult / that life is tough, they see us turning to God. They don’t see us raging, or ignoring them, or doing things like that, or being abusive.
Dennis: So back to the question, Caleb. As a little boy, growing up—obviously, you said you spent most of your time with your dad.
Dennis: Were you ashamed that you had two mommies?
Caleb: I wasn’t ashamed; I did not want to be made fun of. They never came together to any events. I knew that there was something wrong. What was really ironic was, even if you were to look at Vera and my mother’s relationship, Vera took on the role of the man in the relationship. Then my mom took on the role of the woman. Even within their relationship, they still mirrored the image that the Creator set up in the covenant of marriage. Even though it was not the right image, it’s always been fascinating that, even within that, we still mirror what God originally set up. Does that make sense?
Bob: Your dad, you said, was a bachelor.
Bob: He’s who you spent most of your time with. At what age did you start to become aware of the fact: “Hey, my family’s different; I’ve got two moms.” You’re starting to understand human sexuality for yourself at—I guess, 10, 11, or 12 years old—whatever age it was. When did you start to put the pieces together that the family you were in was unusual?
Caleb: When I was in elementary school, because I would see everybody else talk about their parents and so on and so forth. I started watching my dad. I knew that he did not have a girlfriend. I knew that he spent time around one person in particular. He had different people over, and then I wouldn’t see them for a while. There was an ebb and flow that just was not ever consistent—there was hardly any consistency. By the time I got to high school, my worldview was very whacked-out. I mean, I did not have a Christian worldview, obviously.
Bob: But when you grow up in that situation and that’s your normal, a lot of young people just think: “This is normal.
“It may not be the same as everybody else’s, but my situation is not a wrong situation.”
Caleb: Yes; but the thing is that there’s no standard then. The Bible provides a standard in holy living—sanctification—and how we should live our lives in every aspect / in every domain of our life.
Dennis: And you didn’t have that.
Caleb: No; I didn’t have that. My worldview had no standard; it had no basis. It was always shifting. It was like culture—culture is always changing, because people always change; because there’s no focal point. When you follow Jesus, He’s the focal point; He’s the standard; He’s by which you measure everything and make your decisions.
Bob: Did you have any sexual ethic?—any personal sexual ethic?
Caleb: No; I didn’t. I mean, I never had premarital sex or anything like that. I never got into anything destructive; but I was of the mindset that anything you wanted to do, as long as it didn’t hurt anybody, was okay. You know, more of a Modern Family-type mindset, I guess you would say.
Bob: Right. So what your mom and dad had chosen to do—
—you looked at that and said: “That’s their choice,” or “That’s who they are. They’re just being true to who they are.”
Caleb: “That’s good for them.”
I’ve never experienced same-sex attraction. My mom would always ask me a lot, “Well, it is okay, Caleb; it is okay.” Even as a young kid, I would say: “I’ve always liked girls. I’m sorry; I don’t…” Some of the times, I felt like my mom was trying to talk me into it—you know, again, they were activists. They were very justice oriented.
Dennis: Growing up in this home, where you didn’t have a healthy relationship between a mother and a father, in a biblical sense, and without a standard—I was just wondering how you handled—you sure didn’t have the culture shoving it down your throat as it does today; but you weren’t confused, it doesn’t sound like, at all.
Caleb: No; I thought it was okay for them to do whatever; but you’ve got to understand, from the very beginning, my parents raised me differently. I mean, I’ll just give you an example—I don’t write about this in the book—but one of the first movies I ever saw, as a kid, was An American Werewolf in London.
Caleb: Still scares me today, thinking about it.
But you think about that!—there was no standard; there were no boundaries. That’s one of the things I realized about my childhood—that there were no boundaries.
There were boundaries with my parents, but they’re very long-stretched. When I would step over one—usually, when I would question their sexuality or their choice to be in a same-sex relationship, even at a young age—the consequences were very swift. That’s how I grew up, so I had that same justice within me.
I got invited to go to this Bible study when I was in high school—led by a high schooler for high schoolers. I thought: “This is perfect! I’m going to go, and I’m going to pretend to be a Christian. I’m going to be a ninja-Christian. I’m going to go in there…”
Bob: [Laughter] A ninja-Christian?
Caleb: A ninja-Christian.
Dennis: Now, hold it! What’s that?
Caleb: Well, you know: “I’m going to go in there and I’m going—I’m going to pretend to talk the lingo. I’m going to learn about the Bible and dismantle their faith with my questions,”—that was my plan.
I never owned a Bible.
I grabbed a New Revised Standard Version, and I didn’t know what that meant. I just figured they revised something, and I took it. [Laughter]
You’ve got to understand—I had never been in a Christian household before in my entire life—like an evangelical, conservative Christian household. Imagine me walking in, and the first thing I notice on the wall—I looked at my friend that came with me and I said, “Why are there framed pictures of sheep, and lions, and Bible verses all over the house?” I looked at my friend and I said: “Is this part of the deal? If I turn Christian, do I have to get a sheep picture?” [Laughter] I mean, because I had never seen so many framed pictures of sheep before in my life! [Laughter]
Dennis: I want to take you back to the Gay Pride parade that you marched in as a boy. You gave some—really, I can’t imagine, from a descriptive standpoint—having somebody spit on you, and toss water, and, as you said, urine on a little boy and have so many people hating you because you were marching in a parade on behalf of the whole LGBTQ community.
What would you say was the most hurtful and hateful thing you experienced, as a boy, growing up, from the Christian community?
I’m picturing you going to this Bible study—it’s like I would think you would be a ninja, going into that thing; because you’d had some harm done to you by the Christian community. Was there anything done, as you grew up as a boy, that you would characterize as the most hurtful and hateful thing?
Caleb: Yes; one time my mother and I were driving through Kansas to visit my family. There were these Christians on the street corners, holding up signs. I remember my mother’s car was a purple RAV4. You’ve got to understand—she had bumper—she was very loud and proud—she had bumper stickers on there, like: “Lorena Bobbitt for Surgeon General” and stuff like that. I mean, “Graduate of Thelma & Louise Finishing School.” I mean, you’d spot it a mile away; you know?
I remember, my mom didn’t do anything to them.
She pulled up, and they saw her stickers. They started cussing at her, and they started yelling at her and spitting. I just looked at my mom. She started crying in that moment, because she felt humiliated. I remember thinking about that, and I remember—
Dennis: How old were you as a boy?
Caleb: I must have been close to middle school. It was not my best moment—I rolled down the window and flipped them the bird. I got a hold of their newsletter. They put that on the front of it, saying, “Look at our persecution.” Hopefully, that’s gone out of print.
I just remember my mom and her reaction of them immediately judging her without getting to know her, and just the humiliation and the tears, and just the pain that she had. It was so raw that, when I looked at a Christian, I thought about that.
Bob: So when somebody comes to you and says, “Do you want to come over to a Bible study at So-and-so’s house?”
You were thinking: “I want to come blow this thing up. I don’t want to come and be a part of this group. I want to come and dismantle it.”
Caleb: I was ready for war; I was ready for war.
Bob: And yet, you walk in. There are Bible verses and pictures of sheep all over the place.
Dennis: You were probably thinking about slaughtering some sheep at that point. [Laughter]
Caleb: I didn’t know what was going to happen. I didn’t know if we were going to sacrifice a chicken downstairs in the Bible study. I didn’t know what would happen.
So we go down there, and we’re all reading through 1 Corinthians. I’m in 1 Chronicles, and they’re all reading verses from Paul. Then I read a verse about somebody getting slaughtered—not a sheep though—a person. They said, “Well, Caleb, where are you?” I said, “Well, I’m in 1 Chronicles.” “Oh! You’re in the Old Testament!” I said: “So, I guess there’s a new one. There’s updated 2.0!” or something like that. I was so embarrassed, but I kept on going back; because I’m like, “I’m not going to let these people get me down.”
Dennis: Did they know where you came from?
Caleb: I think a couple of them did. Definitely, when I didn’t even know there was a New Testament, they were like: “Oh look! Somebody that’s not a Christian right there.”
Caleb: Some of the attitudes changed and softened towards me; because, when I first said that I was in 1 Chronicles: “Is there a New Testament?”—you know, a girl said, “Yes, the New Testament” as if I was supposed to know that. “I’m sorry. I must have one of those new Bibles,” you know? I didn’t know.
Caleb: But I kept on going. It’s funny; I was expecting to disprove the worldview of Christianity, but I found Somebody very different in the Gospels than what I had experienced on the street corners or the hospital rooms.
Dennis: You’d actually had a young lady—prior to this Bible study; hadn’t you?—who had given you what you thought was a love note?
Caleb: [Sigh] Yes. That was painful. It was nice and painful at the same time, because she—you know, for elementary age, she was hot. I thought she dug my chili, but she didn’t. It was a Jesus note. I remember opening it and thinking to myself: “Oh, really? A Jesus note?” I was hoping for: “Caleb, you’re debonair. You’re all this and more.”
You know, she explained the gospel to me. I threw away the note and told her I’d think about it. But even to this day, I still remember it; because she’s probably one of the only Christians that I had a positive experience with. Actually, when I think about it now, she actually took the time to sit down and to write that out, as an elementary age schoolgirl—writing that out, letting us know about the gospel. That was huge when I think about it, and I tell my kids about that all the time.
Bob: Okay; so if you could go back and have a do-over of your middle school/high school experience, and you could coach the Christians in your school on how to—how to reach out to a guy like you, what would you tell them to do differently than they did?
Caleb: I would say: “Number one, don’t assume that everybody else is at the same spiritual level that you are.”
Caleb: I mean, even when I preach every Sunday, I don’t make that, you know—
Caleb: —assumption; exactly! Everybody’s at a different spiritual level.
The second thing that I would say is: “Don’t automatically engage in a Bible study, where you think that everybody obviously knows: ‘Hey, we’re going to go to
1 Corinthians,’ ‘We’re going to go to…Paul,’—this kind of thing. If you have a new person, you have no idea if they’re new or not.”
“Don’t assume that everybody’s on the same page as you when it comes to politics,” because I wasn’t whatsoever. I was raised by two extremely liberal parents. I was nowhere near, and they immediately brought up politics. They immediately started trashing politicians, and so on and so forth. You’ve got to understand—my mother was very political! I can be very political. This was a huge turn-off; because I’m like: “Okay; these people are assuming I am where they are. These people just are moving, and I’m lost. I don’t even know that there’s a New Testament. They’re ripping people, politically, that I know that my mom likes.
“So far, it feels like the same thing, except I’m sitting down with the enemy. It feels like I’m sitting in the Trojan horse almost”; you know?—that’s what it felt like in that moment.
Dennis: Just listening to where you’d come from, I’m amazed you became a believer. It had to be God chasing you down—and His love and His grace.
Caleb: It was the sovereignty of God, absolutely; 100 percent.
Caleb: I mean, I learned——the more that I studied Jesus, Dennis, I learned that He had very deep theological convictions and expectations for how we should live our life. He also had very deep relationships with people—who are far from God and not like Him, which, I guess, was everybody was not like Him—but still, He pursued people that the religious culture would not. He pursued people that even secular society wouldn’t either. He really marched to the beat of His own drum.
Dennis: Yes; you tell the story in your book about how Jesus approached the woman caught in adultery—
Dennis: —and how the religious community didn’t rescue her. They were ready to stone her.
Dennis: And how Jesus reached out and protected her. I think that’s who you encountered in that Bible study. You ultimately found the Jesus Christ of the Gospels and of the New Testament, who fulfilled the Old Testament. He became flesh and showed us what real love looks like and what God’s love for us is today.
Bob: Yes; we’ve reflected, often here, on what John says about Jesus in John 1:14, which is that He was the picture for us—He is the revelation of the Father—but it says He’s full of grace and truth. He’s full of both—there’s grace and there’s truth. I think that’s what we’re having to learn to wrap our hearts and heads around, as followers of Jesus today: “How can we be full of truth?”
Well, you say it: “How Can We Learn to Love Others Without Sacrificing Conviction?”—that’s the subtitle of the book you’ve written—called Messy Grace.
I’d encourage our listeners to get a copy of it and read your story—read the things you’ve learned along the way, and how you’ve coached us today to do better as we engage with people who don’t think the way we think about issues. Caleb Kaltenbach’s book is called Messy Grace. We’ve got it in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. You can order a copy from us, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com; or you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY to order a copy. Again, the toll-free number is 1-800-358-6329—1-800-FL-TODAY—or go online to order at FamilyLifeToday.com.
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Now, tomorrow, we want to talk about the difference between accepting someone and approving of someone; because, as we’ll hear from Caleb Kaltenbach, that’s an important distinction. I hope you can be back with us again tomorrow.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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