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Caleb Kaltenbach was born in 1978 in Columbia, Missouri, the only son of two university professors. When he was two years old, his parents divorced and each pursued same-sex relationships. From that point, Caleb spent many hours riding back and forth on I-70 between Columbia, where he lived with his father, and Kansas City, where he spent weekends, summers, and holidays with his mom and her partner, Vera.
Although his father remained closeted for years, his mom and Vera personified "out and proud." Often they would take Caleb along to LGBT clubs, late-night parties, and gay pride parades. A born extrovert, he was generally good with whatever she wanted to do, and her social community became his community.
One Saturday morning when he was nine, she woke him up early to tell him they were going to a parade. "You get to march with us and stand up for our rights." That was fine by him, and it was a fun time until they reached the end of the route, where they encountered a small group of antagonists. "Fags go away," "Jesus has no room for you," and "You'll burn in hell," read their signs. To add to the shock, some of the hecklers sprayed water and urine on the paraders.
"Why are those people acting like that?" Caleb asked his mom.
"Well, Caleb, they're Christians," she said, "and Christians hate gay people. Christians don't like anyone who's not like them."
Even at the tender age of nine, Caleb felt protective toward his mother. A newfound anger sprouted in his young heart. He wanted nothing to do with Christians.
Sadly, subsequent events only served to solidify his image of Christians as enemies of gays. By the time he was sixteen, he had no idea whether God was real or not, nor did he particularly care. What he did know was that somebody needed to take down the Christians' version of him. So when a friend invited him to a Bible study, he saw a perfect opportunity to implement a plan he'd been formulating for some time. He would go to this Bible study, pretend to be a Christian, and after learning enough about what they believed, he would dismantle their arguments once and for all. Pursuant to his plan, he called himself a "ninja Christian."
But things didn't quite go according to plan. These Christians weren't as bad as the ones he'd seen holding signs. He still found them annoying, though, and decided he would keep going back to stay on the attack. After a while, "I realized something was happening inside me," he wrote many years later. "I wasn't so sure of things I had once believed." Moreover, "the Jesus of the Bible was very different from the portrayal of him reflected by some of his followers." Caleb still didn't like Christians, but he found himself irresistibly drawn to Jesus. "He was someone who was kind and loving and yet still spoke the truth." During this time, he also started going to a local church. There he heard Bible passages explained verse by verse. He started going to youth group, and the people there quickly became like family to him.
One day—it was about three months after he'd set out to debunk Christianity as a ninja Christian—he called his new friend Gregg. "I'm ready to see what it means to follow Jesus," he said. Even as Gregg talked, methodically explaining the Bible's teachings on salvation, Caleb interrupted him midsentence. "Look, I already believe this. What's my next step?"
He asked Gregg to baptize him that very night. When he came up out of the water, Gregg assured him there was a party going on in heaven, but Caleb's mind had already moved on to something far from joyful. He knew what the Bible had to say about homosexuality. He had studied it over the past three months. He also knew what his parents believed about homosexuality. And what they believed about Christians. Now he had become one. This was going to cost him.
Grounded & Grilled
"Dad, I got baptized," he blurted out when he got home.
Silence. And then finally, "You were raised Episcopalian! You were baptized and confirmed in the Episcopalian Church!" A minor argument ensued concerning Caleb's decision that night versus his being baptized unawares as a baby. It ended with Caleb getting grounded, but he knew this confrontation was small potatoes compared to the one to come. In an odd way, he was grateful for the grounding. It gave him time to prepare spiritually.
"Oh, no," his mom whispered, rolling her eyes, before he could even get it out. She knew he'd been attending Bible studies. To her, that was already fraternizing with the enemy. Not one to be cagey, he came right out with his decision to follow Christ and the baptism he'd undergone as a declaration of his new faith. It was a long 90-minute ride to her house, and by the time they arrived, she was in tears.
Then came time to face Vera. "Do you realize the amazing opportunity you have been given to be raised by two women? Do you know that you are smarter than what you are becoming? Do you also know that you are siding with bigots?"
"I am a Christian," he told his mom and Vera, "but I still love you both and nothing has changed about that." He meant it with all his sixteen-year-old heart. Nevertheless, the entire weekend proceeded for him like a personal Spanish Inquisition. He returned to his dad's house on Sunday emotionally bruised.
Changed & Committed
Then things got even more interesting. The following week, he went to a youth conference for high-school students. Being with other young people trying to live for God felt like heaven to him. He woke up one morning and realized "that I could do nothing else with the rest of my life than preach the gospel." One week to the day after his baptism, he went forward and offered up his life for full-time ministry.
When he told his parents he planned to go to Bible college and become a pastor, they more or less disowned him relationally and emotionally. "When I say this was a hard season of my life, it really was," he writes in Messy Grace: How a Pastor with Gay Parents Learned to Love Others Without Sacrificing Conviction.
My relationship with my mother was the most important relationship I had. My relationship with my dad was also very important to me. When I was put in a position of having to choose either them or God, I was facing the most difficult decision of my life. Many nights I stayed up late and seriously thought about no longer following Jesus. If I did that, at least I would have my parents back.
But he couldn't go back. Something had changed inside him. "I had left the 'old me' and was a 'new me.'" And thus began Caleb's arduous training in the tension of living out both grace and truth.
Taking on the Tension
For more than twenty years, hostility over his Christian faith—specifically his adherence to the biblical precepts on sex—would color his relationships with his parents. If anyone had ever wanted to find biblical approval for homosexuality, he did. But he just could not find any loopholes. Even if he took the Adam and Eve story to be metaphorical, as he saw many people do, he still saw the precedent set that placed sexual expression in heterosexual marriage. It was just there. He couldn't get away from it.
But it wasn't that he wanted to change his parents' sexuality. He just wanted to bring them to Jesus. In the early years, he was so excited, he might have blurted out something like, Hey, you need to accept Jesus. Or, People who don't have Jesus are going to hell. Of course, that wouldn't go over well. If he expressed truth with blunt force that way, he would risk coming off like the protesters he'd hated as a child. But at the same time, faithfulness to that hard truth would not allow him to capitulate into a permissive, "hyper-grace" attitude and say—as he at times wanted to—You know what? I just love you guys so much. God doesn't care. Do whatever you want. Because to take that approach, while it might have given the appearance of grace, would have been to do violence to the truth. God does care. And because love must also care, love tells the truth. So Caleb set his mind to love them, take onto himself the tension of truth and grace, and entrust the rest to God.
Vera died vehemently resisting Caleb's pleas to accept the salvation Jesus offered, and Caleb wept genuine tears of grief even though his relationship with her had been difficult. After her death, his mom moved to Dallas, Texas, where he served as senior pastor of a large church. A few months later, his dad retired and did the same thing. Caleb wasn't sure Texas could handle the three of them living in one city. But God could, and the Kaltenbach family future took a radical departure from its past. When each of them arrived, church members showed up to welcome them and help them move into their new homes. They both started attending his church, and, individually, after about a year, they both came to a place where they believed in Jesus as Savior. To this day, Caleb still isn't sure how it all happened.
The gospel can lead to lives that are harder, not easier, he says, but taking on the tension of grace and truth is worth the cost. It was exactly this marriage of grace and truth that drew Caleb to Jesus in the beginning. And apparently the same marriage in him served the same function for his parents. •
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