heart on sleeve

Hiding Behind a Label

photo courtesy of flickr creative commons, user Scott Garner

 

I can be a little needy. There’s a little boy in my soul that screams “Love me! See me! Don’t leave me!” I tend to look for validation from others rather than listening to myself, or more importantly, God. I sometimes feel like I missed out on something as a home school kid growing up in a church with only older people. If I’m honest, I feel very uncool. I’m quiet and slightly awkward. I depend a lot on my gay identity, especially how it interacts with my religious faith. It defines me. My sexual orientation pinpoints my differences from other people. It gives me purpose; it helps define a core aspect of my personhood. But my world is shrinking. I’m no longer the only gay Christian person I know. I’m not all that different.

Last month The Gay Christian Network held its yearly conference in Chicago¹. A lot of gay Christians I knew were there. I told a couple of folks I was so jealous. It would have been incredible to meet a lot of the people I respect and follow in person. But I wasn’t entirely honest either. The idea of going to the conference scared me. I had a lot of obvious excuses why I couldn’t go (and they will probably not change next year for Portland—sorry guys), but nonetheless, I did not want to be there. I feared an identity crisis. The thing that defined me in Alabama would become suddenly meaningless among hundreds of gay Christians in Chicago.

rhe dwebb

GCN Conference

When I come out to compassionate and open-minded straight Christians, there is curiosity. People may see me as brave, interesting, and well, cool. Kyle Donn, a Christian blogger, refers to this as “Sexy Christianity,” radical faith that can be glorifying to God, but can just as easily be a way to promote ourselves. Donn writes, “This kind of Christianity is dangerously cool. And that’s the thing… It’s dangerous. Here and there, it’s spot on; but my fear is that it flirts with the edge and settles for the empty satisfaction of a cultural ego-trip –- thirsty to hear cool people say: ‘Wow! You’re doing great things for God!’” As I processed by thoughts for preparing and launching this blog, I realized I had made an idol out of my sexual identity. I wear my heart on my sleeve, and I was trying to cover it up with an edgy label. Being gay was my ticket to the attention and validation I crave.

If I went to the GCN conference, that would mean leveling out the playing field. I didn’t want to be around gay people who naturally exude confidence and coolness that just doesn’t come naturally for me. I didn’t want to enter a new world of cliques, striving to get the “cool kids’” attention. What a Christian attitude, right? I envisioned looking into a storefront window, seeing all the amazing activity inside and feeling unable to participate–wishing desperately I was back in Alabama instead of freezing in Chicago.

If my identity centers on me, on this silly pedestal I’ve formed in my mind, it will fall over. If you didn’t notice earlier, I’m a broken guy. I’m gradually coming out publicly to encourage people (gay and straight) to live without masks. If my focus centers on pleasing others to maintain the applause, then I will only trade one façade for another. I’m going to screw up. But failure is part of growing, and abundant grace flourishes despite my clumsy attempts of reflecting God’s love.

I was reminded in a phone conversation recently with another gay Christian blogger that it’s ok to recognize my own need for love and validation. I tend to vilify this yearning, fearing I won’t be able to tame it. But a balance can be found somewhere between my unhealthy neediness and isolationist individualism (the very American mindset that I can deal with my problems by myself). One person cannot meet all my needs. Husbands and wives who place all their chips on a spouse for their joy and contentment in life will be severely disappointed. We are designed to thrive in a rich, diverse community, not an isolated family unit.

My concern about the conference makes me laugh now. On the one hand, I’ve had gay friends for a number of years since graduating from Bryan College. While our shared experience as sexual minorities originally drew us together, it is far from the only dynamic that makes our friendships work. One gay Christian friend in particular has been a dear brother to me for several years though we’ve only met once in person. He’s been my rock through many emotional and spiritual struggles. I don’t feel pressured to be anything but who I am when we interact. Certainly not some kind of perfect super-gay-Christian.

Wherever this blogs leads. I hope that feeling will continue to be my framework of ministry. No mask, just Seth–but at the same time I don’t want to lose myself in a black hole of self-obsession. I don’t have to prove anything to anyone. If there are people I feel drawn to befriend but they don’t reciprocate my interest in friendship and/or connection, that’s fine. God will provide for my emotional needs. If I’m seen as cool for ministering to LGBTs as an openly gay Christian man myself, great. More props to God. If people ignore or hate me for what I have to say, then this is still worth doing. The truly cool people in this world are the ones who seek to humble their hearts, slay their pride, and love without worry of how they’re perceived by their peers. That’s the kind of man I want to be.

 

1. The Gay Christian Network promotion pictures taken from HeyoDavo

loneliness

When We Were on Fire

photo courtesy of flickr creative commons, user Pierre Guinoiseau

 

It hurts to be alone. Sexual minorities often know this pain throughout seasons of their lives. Growing up, I bore feelings of shame and felt the need to keep secrets from the people I loved. Everything was stuffed away in a crevice of my heart; an attempt to protect people from the terrible truth. I’m a monster. I built walls around my heart so no one would ever see the mess. Alone.

An article in last month’s issue of Monitor on Psychology from the American Psychological Association examined research on how the heartache of loneliness impacts us not only emotionally, but also physically. The findings are fascinating and disturbing. One study found that those with good social connections were fifty percent more likely to continue living over the periods of time studied than those with weak social connections. “A risk comparable to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day and one double that of obesity.”1 Loneliness has been correlated with an increase in depressive symptoms, increases in blood pressure, and even an antibody associated with the herpes virus (resulting from a weakened immune system).2 Many Christian sexual minorities grew up in families, were part of a church, and had friends. But for many of us, we still felt very much alone. The research backs up our experience. “Feeling isolated is more dangerous than being isolated.”3 Dr. John Cacioppo added, “It’s not being alone or not [that impacts your health]. You can feel terribly isolated when you’re around other people.”4 And all God’s gay people said amen.

Sometimes I’m silly enough to think that heterosexual Christians can’t possibly comprehend the depth of loneliness that I feel as a gay man. Sure, life is hard for us all, but life seems so much clearer for heterosexuals. It’s like God caters towards the straight majority, leaving those of us in the fringes wondering where we belong.

Something recently changed for me emotionally. I read a memoir last month called When We Were on Fire by Addie Zierman. The book opened my heart to the truth that loneliness isn’t a gay problem. It’s a human problem. Addie Zierman wrote about her transition from early fervor for her fundamentalist faith, to doubts and cynicism about evangelicalism, to full-out depression, alcoholism, and anger with the church, and finally a new vision that emerged of God and life in the church. I felt a kindred spirit reading through Addie’s memoir.

When We Were on Fire

By my standards, Addie would seem to have it all. Well, at least what I naturally yearn for and desire: a husband. But Addie experienced what it’s like to live in the outer borders of the church. Her story began as a young woman on fire for Jesus. Praying at flagpoles, going on mission trips, and having a jerk of a missionary boyfriend who set the stage for the rest of the story. Fast-forward to adulthood, married to a business man and not the missionary she’d always envisioned, Addie has changed. Doubts and cynicism emerged and replaced some of Addie’s youthful passion. I began to feel connected to Addie’s story when she expressed the struggle that developed as the Ziermans started attending a house church. Andrew, Addie’s husband, grew spiritually, but Addie felt distant and out of place around the “super Christians.” Loneliness led to depression; alcohol became a coping mechanism. A spiritual gap appeared in Addie and Andrew’s relationship. Addie told her husband that they needed to leave. She couldn’t take it anymore. Andrew visited other churches with Addie, but maintained his house church friendships while Addie’s soul continued to decay from emotional and spiritual isolation.

Addie wrote about one church service they attended,

 I think, I am lonely. The Church People say, “Let God be your Friend.” The piano swells. A guy with long hair strums the guitar while the congregation sings “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” Jesus seems unresponsive. God is a million miles away.5

Reading Addie’s story, I was reminded of a beautiful, symbolic film I watched last year called To The Wonder. The character Marina experienced a similar feeling of isolation as she relocates to the USA from France to be with her lover, Neil. But separated from the setting where their love began, the relationship suffocates and crumbles. Marina is limited by language barriers and the ability to make meaningful relationships with other people besides Neil. What Marina needs, what Addie needs, is community.

In our modern romantic and sex-driven culture, we think that love for one person will solve all our problems. Many LGBTs (and heterosexuals) end up on a relationship treadmill, desperately seeking “the one.” Christians who are lonely are told to find a spouse. But what if you’re like Addie—married, beginning the American dream—but still drowning in loneliness, depression, and alcoholism? Addie’s marriage hits rock bottom. She has an emotional affair with another man. Is it enough to tell the hurting in the church like Addie–like me– “let Jesus be your friend?” How does that work?

Scripture describes us as image bearers of God. John writes, “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and this love is perfected in us” 1 John 4:11-12. I don’t know what God looks like, yet every day I see God in flesh. I see Him when I love others and others reciprocate love to me. The community that Addie and Marina desperately seek is a taste of Heaven on Earth. They long for a tangible reminder of God’s affection and affirmation that they have worth as human beings. This is what I want from the church. Know me. Love me. See my dark side and don’t run away, to paraphrase a Kelly Clarkson song (don’t judge).

I’ve grown up understanding that the church isn’t where you show your brokenness. Keep your family issues at home. Wear a façade. Smile, shake my hand, worship, go back home to your dysfunctional life. Jesus called the Pharisees white-washed tombs–pretty on the outside but harboring dead people’s bones inside. That’s basically what church has become. It’s funny. People feel sad for LGBTs who choose celibacy, fearing they will live a life of isolation. Yet as units, our families in the church have become exactly that. Hermits. We keep our problems to ourselves. We can take care of it. Alone.

The struggle that Christian LGBTs experience is the tip of the iceberg for the American church. I would guess there are a lot of Addie Ziermans out there, alone and needing a community (not just a spouse) to promote spiritual nourishment and growth. We need to see, feel, and hear God now in meaningful relationships. Plural. Christianity isn’t a personal religion. It’s communal.

So how do we create community? The Civil Wars released a powerful song last year about loneliness. It’s a love song to the isolated. It’s what I think Addie yearned for someone to say.

It’s not your eyes

It’s not what you say

It’s not your laughter

That gives you away

You’re just lonely

You’ve been lonely too long

All your acting

Your thin disguise

All your perfectly delivered lines

They don’t fool me

You’ve been lonely too long

Addie wished she could tell someone in the church “I am falling. I am dead weight, and there is no one to catch me.”6

You’ve held your head up

You’ve fought the fight

You bear the scars

You’ve done your time

Listen to me

You’ve been lonely too long

Like Addie, I’ve wanted someone to see me; to understand how much it hurts sometimes. There aren’t sufficient words to articulate this messy, broken situation. There are no magic words you can say to make it better. But it’s not the words that matter, but your presence and your relationship that makes all the difference as we walk together through this life.

Let me in the walls

You’ve built around

We can light a match

And burn them down

Let me hold your hand and dance ‘round and ‘round the flames

In front of us

Dust to dust

Addie and her husband Andrew began to work on their issues. She reached out to childhood friends. She became a mother. Addie let go of some of her cynicism towards the church and returned with a different, stronger perspective. From what I can see, Addie found a community. Through Addie’s story, I see a bit of my own. We’ve all bought into the lie that no one understands our pain; that we’re experiencing this life alone. While our stories are unique, elements and themes weave throughout all our narratives that bind us together. As we tell our stories, we burn down the walls that have kept us from living–that have held us back from community. As the dust and ashes clear, we discover a home. We’re not alone.

Addie Zierman also blogs at How to Talk Evangelical

P. S. I highly recommend this memoir. Chapter 21: Born Again is especially wonderful. I pretty much highlighted the entire thing.

 

1. Anna Miller, “Friends Wanted,” Monitor on Psychology 45(2014), 56-58. 

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Addie Zierman, When We Were on Fire (New York: Convergent, 2013), 162

6. Ibid., p. 157