running away

Learning to Belong

We are designed to belong, to reflect the community found within the Trinity. But community takes work. It requires patience and fortitude to keep giving when we feel we receive so little in return. When we enter community we bring our insecurities, wounded hearts, and unmet desires.

 

Finding home isn’t easy.

 

I’ve hesitantly searched for safe people to become my community. I’ve spent even more time running away from opportunities. Vulnerability requires great risk. I admire a lot of the Christian friends and acquaintances I’ve made over the years, and let’s face it. I like to be liked and I worry about rejection. I fear that most Christians wouldn’t understand (and don’t want to understand) my experience as a gay man in the body of Christ.

 

I’m perpetually stuck in a revolving door, connecting but then running when it looks like I may get hurt.

 

I refused to let anyone in. I feared if I opened the door, it would slam back in my face. So I learned the art of loneliness. A line from a song in The Phantom of the Opera aptly described my youth, “Never dreamed out in the world / There are arms to hold you / You’ve always known / Your heart was on its own.” So I walked through life as a loner not really expecting to be loved. It ensured safety because no one could hurt me. But no one could know me either. I was just a guy in the background without anything to say.

 

God said it wasn’t good for man to be alone. As a loner, I withered in anxiety and depression, hating the façade I wore. But I still liked people; I liked listening to them talk and I couldn’t help opening the door occasionally throughout life. Usually, I’d become paranoid or get hurt, and then would slam the door. I’d get upset and beat myself up for being stupid and oh you know, hoping someone would notice my existence and like what they saw. I can handle this by myself. Get it together, man. If I had seen Frozen back then, I would have been telling myself, Conceal, don’t feel. Yeah, sorry about that.

 

Despite all my attempts to hide, my heart refused to stay held in the dungeon of its captivity. I placed it there to keep it safe. It just wouldn’t stay put. My heart would sneak out when I wasn’t looking, when I was just trying to mind my own business. Suddenly I would have a crush out of nowhere or simply a desire to connect to someone I couldn’t help but find fascinating. And maybe I’d indulge my heart one more time, but then I’d usually freak out, and my heart would go back to the dungeon. I told it that love doesn’t work for people like us.

 

It didn’t listen. Silly heart.

 

And then one day in introductory psychology, it decided enough was enough.

 

It’s time, Seth.

 

“Whoa, time for what?”

 

Time to tell someone the truth.

 

“Heck no! There’s no going back if I do that! They’ll think I’m some sort of monster!”

 

But you’ll be free. Maybe you won’t have to carry this alone anymore.

 

So I told a friend. Then my pastor. Then my psychology instructor. Then my parents and siblings. And so I began my ex-gay journey (that’s a story for another day). I had taken a sledge hammer to the walls around my heart and made the first real attempt to tear them down.

 

~          ~          ~

 

We tell Christian testimonies in two parts. On one hand, you have the broken, messed up, miserable excuse for a life. But you can’t have a Christian testimony without an amazing transformation finale. The Christian proclaims how God brought freedom from sin and sorrow and now everything appears happy, rosy and perfect. Ain’t God great, y’all?! Well, that’s not real life. Beauty forms from struggle and suffering. The Christian life isn’t an easy one. We frustrate our brothers and sisters by whitewashing the difficulty that comes after committing our lives to Christ. No one, Christian or nonchristian, receives the “get out of jail free” card when it comes to trouble and problems. God promises to walk with us and work in us through the suffering to gradually transform us into Christ’s likeness.

 

When I hear coming out stories from other gay Christians, I feel a little torn. Sometimes they can feel like those cheesy, unrealistic Christian testimonies. Just come out and you will feel fantabulous. Goodbye, miserable closet life. Now, I don’t regret coming out to the extent I have so far. But gay Christians can feel pressured to gloss over the tough stuff we still face. We can trade one mask for another just like the broader Christian culture.

 

As I came out to friends and family and began processing my sexuality, I would feel frustrated and a little depressed reading Christian coming out stories. It seemed like opening up had solved all their problems. But I was still insecure. I was still a little socially awkward. And I still felt very broken. In a lot of ways, I was still basically a loner afraid of meaningful, intimate friendships.

 

Coming out didn’t fix any of that.

 

When you spend so much of your life stifling emotions, walling up your heart, and avoiding friendships to keep a secret hidden, there will be repercussions. Psychologists call it learned helplessness. You shock a dog so many times without a way out, eventually when an escape from the pain appears, the door opens, the dog will just lie there and whimper. He has accepted the pain and no longer believes in freedom though the opportunity stands right in front of him.

 

Coming out is an important step, but it’s just the first step on a long, winding road. Some of my lowest days came after opening up about my sexuality to friends and family. I’ve had major depression and anxiety since starting this blog. But through the process of self-disclosure you learn resilience. You fall down, and you get back up. You find you’re tougher than you think. You learn to lean on Christ for the strength to get through the current moment.

 

But falling down still hurts. My former pastor used to say that people are like porcupines trying to snuggle up. Inevitably we’re going to poke each other. Relationships hurt sometimes. Pain is part of life. No matter how much we try to medicate it, hide from it, or delay it, pain exists. Is love worth it?

 

C. S. Lewis wrote,

 

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in the casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.”1

 

There’s no easy way to become part of a community. It’s awkward. You make mistakes—sometimes embarrassing, bad mistakes. Tension always exists between safety and risk. Lean into the risk; let it burn as the flames of vulnerability engulfs the dross of your fears and insecurities. You won’t be the same, but you will be something better; someone stronger. You will be a person loved by a community in this world. It may take some time and heartache before you find it, but I believe God provides tangible reminders of His affection if we’ll seek them.

 

When I focus so much attention on my own heart and self-worth, I reveal something far more complicated and broken about myself. I’m self-centered. When I’m only worried about myself, I don’t see the situation going on around me. John Ortberg describes it as living in an antique shop:

 

“Every day you and I walk through God’s shop. Every day we brush up against objects of incalculable worth to him. People. Every one of them carries a price tag, if only we could see it. Lepers and AIDS patients, children and gray panthers, the wise and the foolish, saints and prostitutes: Worth the life of my Son, the price tag says. Will you respect the value of those you touch? Are you willing to pay the price? When you reach out to the untouchables in your world, you are signing up for pain. Love means disappointment and heartache.”2

 

Love does involve risk and occasionally it wounds our souls through the journey of life, but as C. S. Lewis pointed out, to escape the pain and loss we must abandon living and embrace Hell. To experience Heaven on Earth, we must accept that the good, beautiful moments are but a taste of what’s to come. The bitter, broken pieces also point to the truth that we’re made for a better world that’s not here yet. And in the process of shalom, the Hebrew word for prospering and peace, we’re ever making the Lord’s Prayer a reality; where the Lord’s will is done in Earth as it is in Heaven. As the Kingdom of God expands throughout history, it culminates with the return of Christ after all enemies have been placed under His feet, the last enemy being death.

 

God’s kingdom expands as we push past our insecurities and self-centeredness and jump enthusiastically into community. Redemption and restoration comes through intimate, close friendships. As we build flourishing communities of love where evil is vanquished and the captives are set free, we live out the Lord’s Prayer.

 

John Ortberg continues his antique shop illustration:

 

“…God’s shop is full of signs that say please touch. We may not want to. We are afraid or shy or busy. But it is only when people are touched in their brokenness that healing comes.”3

 

The Church, in my opinion, is the fulfillment of Revelations 22. Scripture says there are trees that produce leaves for the healing of the nations. I believe this describes the church’s work now. As we touch the lives of those around us, healing occurs and the kingdom advances. This should motivate me to love others without regard to risk and pain. This is why I should share my story with the world. Healing comes when we feel free to be vulnerable and transparent, knowing our community accepts and loves us, and values our contribution to the work of the kingdom. This is our vocation, no matter who we are or what we do. We all have a role to play in God’s redemptive narrative. And as I participate in shalom, I find a home.

 

This loner is ever learning to belong.

 

1. C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves. Glasgow: William Collins, 1960, 111.

2. John Ortberg, Love Beyond Reason. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998, 57

3. Ibid.

 

photo courtesy of flickr creative commons, user *Passenger*

lit candles

A Reignited Faith

There was a time I doubted God’s goodness. The flames of my love for Christ had burned out. I still maintained a Christian worldview, as I was drilled at church and Bryan College. But after too many unanswered questions and masks worn to hide my doubts and frustrations, I drifted from Christ. All my spirituality had become a set of routine practices. Go to church. Read the Bible. Pray. It’s what I was supposed to do, so I kept up the façade because I knew I should.

 

But I really didn’t want to.

 

Eventually I didn’t go to church most Sundays. I usually worked late Saturday nights, and I made excuses on Sunday morning. I stopped reading my Bible. I filled my schedule with anything to avoid it. I prayed once before going to bed, and usually I fell asleep before I could finish it.

 

I. just. didn’t. care.

 

I could relate to Jonathan Merritt when he wrote, “My heart was hardened, clogged by the traditions of religion and the cardboard God I had created. As a result, church attendance became a feast on a stale cracker: dry and unfulfilling.”1

 

I was angry and stressed all the time. I felt alienated from God and the church. I had eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. My eyes had been opened to what the church did not see. There was no going back to Eden.

 

But the Good Shepherd never stops pursuing His sheep.

 

God brought people and circumstances in my life that softened my heart. Over a couple months before I started this blog I could slowly feel my perspective changing. I stopped worrying that my life would be a failure and I took a risk. I wrote.

 

Gradually my faith reignited as I found purpose for my life.

 

“Is it possible that the God who created me is better than the God I’ve created?

 

Could it be that the true God—that Jesus—is better than I imagined?”2

 

I honestly hadn’t heard of Jonathan Merritt before March. Christianity Today released an incredible excerpt from his new book Jesus is Better Than You Imagined that went viral, flooding my Facebook and Twitter feeds. When I read “A Thread Called Grace,” I was so moved by Jonathan’s emphasis on grace after being sexually abused as a child and after being outed by a gay blogger. Jonathan revealed a powerful gift for storytelling, for redemptively narrating the trauma and shame he had experienced while pointing to the Savior who continued to restore shalom in his life.

 

 jesus is better than you imagined by jonathan merritt

 

Merritt spoke of a Savior who takes the broken pieces of our lives and recreates us into beautiful vessels of service for His kingdom. Vessels that are even more valuable and useful because of the suffering they’ve endured.

 

I pre-ordered Jonathan’s book as soon as I finished the excerpt.

 

Jesus is Better proclaims the truth that I need to hear at this point in my journey with Christ. The book begins with Jonathan’s longing for something more. His faith languishes from a narrow view of God’s character and how the Heavenly Father interacts with His children. Chapter by chapter, Jonathan points to ways Jesus became real and alive through various life lessons. He found Jesus in silence at a monastery, while being held by bandits at gunpoint while doing relief work in Haiti, amid losing a friend to a random disease, in being outed to the world, and yes, even in church with other imperfect saints.

 

I’ve spent years trying to make my old theology work. But it doesn’t fit anymore. And I don’t have to feel guilty because my perspective of God and scripture has changed. I still believe the essentials; I can affirm documents like the Apostle’s Creed. And all the questions and doubts can remain unanswered as I pursue an intimate relationship with Christ. The more I know who I am, the easier it is to be around the Christian subculture I grew up in. It deepens my appreciation of the diversity within the church body.

 

Looking back, it’s not too surprising that my faith burned out. I carried a heavy burden. I felt like I needed answers for every question. I thought I needed to become the perfect straight Christian. I had a Messiah complex around my gay and/or liberal friends.

 

You can rest in my provision, Seth, God’s Spirit whispered to my heart.

 

I fell in love with this quote from Jesus is Better:

 

“Jesus is better than I imagined because He shatters my strivings for sterility with a radical invitation to live free. Free from sinful patterns, but also free from moralism, free from legalism, and free from condemnation. Free to love the unlovable, to use your gifts to serve those in need, to share the great story of redemption through Christ with others. Jesus liberates me from the ball and chain of religion and releases me from a cold life of moralistic perfectionism. This kind of God is almost too incredible to accept, and yet there He stands nonetheless.3

 

Christianity sometimes doesn’t feel very liberating. I love that Merritt points out what God has both freed us from and what this liberty opens us up to. This is the gospel. This is good news. This kind of perspective allows love in and creates community and intimacy with our Heavenly Father and the people around us. This freedom sustains us, frees us from shame, and allows us to rest in our Savior amid all the injustices and suffering in our fallen world.

 

~          ~          ~

 

I was initially drawn to Jesus is Better after discovering that I could relate to Jonathan’s story as a sexual minority. But interestingly, he refrained from self-labeling himself by his sexual orientation.

 

“When people today ask me how I identify myself, I never quite know how to answer. It doesn’t feel authentic to label the whole of my being by feelings and attractions, and my experience has been that those parts of me tend to be somewhat fluid. One day I may feel more one way than another, and the next I feel a little differently. I am far more than my feelings, so I don’t answer that question. Not because I want to evade others but because I want to stay true to myself.

The essence of who I am is far more shaped, influenced, and guided by my spirituality than by my sexuality. I am wholly wrapped up in my pursuit of Christ and His amazing grace.”4

 

[And if you haven’t read the excerpt, you should go back and finish that last paragraph. I tear up every time.]

 

While I have chosen to identify a part of my experience as a gay man, I have so much respect for Jonathan’s choice to not self-label. Either way, we both have the responsibility to place Christ first in our hearts. My sexuality doesn’t dictate my spiritually, but rather my faith informs and channels my sexual orientation. I am so thankful for all the sexual minority voices that I have discovered over the last few years who take scripture seriously. They come to different conclusions, but they also have a unifying desire to glorify Christ in all facets of their lives.

 

~          ~          ~

 

I really needed to read this book. It was encouraging, insightful, and hopeful. I felt like something fell into place as I read Jonathan’s words.

 

I feel a desire to do something, to devour scripture, to pursue community in church, to keep writing even when it feels discouraging. I have a reignited faith that I appreciate so much more after all I’ve seen and learned and experienced. Jesus feels more real than ever.

 

And Jesus is better, far better, than I ever imagined.

 

____________________________________________

 

Jonathan Merritt writes at http://jonathanmerritt.religionnews.com/

 

  1.       Jonathan Merritt, Jesus is Better Than You Imagined (New York: FaithWords, 2014), 11.
  2.       Ibid, 14.
  3.       Ibid, 144.
  4.       Ibid, 96.

 

photo courtesy of flickr creative commons, user Pasukaru76

depressed woman

When I Fear God Is Not Good

God sometimes feels something like Sid from Toy Story.

 

A sadistic kid with evil plots for his toys.

 

I grew up in a denomination that emphasized God’s sovereignty over history and our salvation. God chose some through predestination to Heaven, while abandoning others to their fate in Hell.

 

We had proof texts like

 

“For his dominion is an everlasting dominion,

and his kingdom endures from generation to generation;

all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing,

and he does according to his will among the host of heaven

and among the inhabitants of the earth;

and none can stay his hand

or say to him, ‘What have you done?’”

Daniel 4:34-35 ESV.

 

I believed in God’s absolute sovereignty without question like any good Reformed Christian. I believed scripture was black and white. God is good because He promises I can trust Him.

 

But there came a day when I didn’t trust God. I realized at Bryan College I was never going to become straight and I didn’t have a clue what that meant for my life. It scared me. Celibacy scared me. The idea of marrying a guy scared me.

 

I had invested all my hope in healing my sexuality. I am not gay. I cannot be gay. I AM NOT GAY. I just had to figure out God’s secret plan to make myself straight. I felt at home among conservative, straight Christians because I believed eventually I was going to be one of them. Beautiful wife. A couple kids. The American dream.

 

I woke up.

 

What now? The church hadn’t prepared me for this reality. I didn’t feel like God had prepared me to be gay in the church. Suddenly the safe, familiar home amid conservative, straight Christians felt foreign and threatening. Everything I believed was called into question.

 

Who are you, God?

 

C. S. Lewis wrote amid the grief of losing his wife “Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.’”¹

 

After college I developed friendships with other gay men. I didn’t want to freak anyone out, so I kept my new friends a secret from my family and church. Secrets kill the soul and damage relationships. I made a lot of mistakes and got hurt multiple times. But over those years I made a few friends and acquaintances I still care about. Out of a lot of men driven by lust I found a few who loved Jesus or at least had the maturity to value friendship.

 

I found myself in a tension of old beliefs and new ideas I wanted to believe. The God I had known was one who loved the elect, not every single human being. I didn’t want to get on His bad side. How could I reconcile this image with the Jesus who came in grace and truth and hung out with sinners? But I also felt like a man looking into two storefront windows. One, the conservative Christian church; the other, the lives of my gay friends. Some of my gay friends were very dear to me. One pastor had told me that not only were gay Christians going to Hell, but they had an even worst place in Hell prepared for them because they knew the truth and used Jesus to cover their sins. That really helped my anxieties.

 

Could I be more righteous than God for loving those He refused to love?

 

Suddenly my faith fell apart. I felt that in order to be a Christian, I needed to give up my compassion. It made sense why so many evangelicals stick to their own. They have certainty that the people they love will be with them in Heaven. You don’t have to be stressed out, anxious, depressed, and angry all the time. You can coldly tell someone, you’re a sinner. Repent or get the hell out of my life.

 

I was mad at God. I could totally relate to Lewis when he wrote, “Sometimes it is hard not to say ‘God forgive God.’”² Scripture told me not to be anxious, but how can you surrender your anxiety to God when you can’t trust your Heavenly Father?

 

I was mad at Christians. Their ignorance and lack of concern for the marginalized infuriated me. I ranted on Facebook. A lot. My friend count dropped as I offended my evangelical acquaintances. I drifted away from church. I didn’t go most Sundays, and if I did, it was only out of obligation.

 

God felt silent. I could only read scripture through the paradigm of my denomination and it hurt. I had questions and the answers Christians gave me were hallow. The answers closed off my spirit. If I wasn’t working or in a class, you would likely find me in bed. That’s all I had energy for those days. When awake, my mind would go back to the same questions. They repeated over and over. I preferred sleep over the migraines I gave myself worrying about others. Worrying what this all meant for my life.

 

“Go to Him when your need is desperate,” Lewis wrote, “when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence.”³

 

It’s one thing if you’re conservative and believe in complete free will. Maybe you can convince a loved one to change. But if you’re convinced that God predestines all things, then you’re powerless. If everything is preordained, why pray? God’s made His choice. Why feel? I might get attached to a Hell-bound sinner. Maybe I had chosen to be a Christian because I feared Hell more than I loved Jesus. Maybe that’s what God wanted—my fear rather than my love. I finally assumed this must be what it means to be a reprobate; incapable of accepting the harsh reality of God’s nature. I was a bad Christian. Bad, Seth. Bad.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

So here I am today. I’m still a Christian. I’m still in love with God. And many of my questions still remain.

 

I met a new acquaintance earlier this year. He said something in a coffee shop that shifted my perspective. Maybe when God leaves a question unanswered, the problem is that we’re asking the wrong question.

 

C. S. Lewis came to agree with this concept.

 

“When I lay these questions before God I get no answer. But a rather special sort of ‘No answer.’ It is not the locked door. It is more like a silent, certainly not uncompassionate, gaze. As though He shook His head not in refusal but waiving the question. Like, ‘Peace child; you don’t understand.’

 

Can a mortal ask questions which God finds unanswerable? Quite easily, I should think. All nonsense questions are unanswerable. How many hours are there in a mile? Is yellow square or round? Probably half the questions we ask—half our great theological and metaphysical problems—are like that.”4

 

I lost sight of grace. I’d been drenched in Calvinism for so long, I had forgotten what grace feels like.

 

I believe salvation is all of God. It’s not what I do, believe, say, think, or feel. It’s what Christ accomplished and finished on the cross. It’s not of works. It doesn’t demand perfection, because I can’t meet that standard.

 

I don’t know exactly how grace works. Where does God’s regenerating work end and man’s freedom of will begin? I don’t know.

 

“He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” John 1:11-13 ESV. Awesome. That clears up everything.

 

I know many Christians want to have their I’s dotted and their T’s crossed, but I’ve realized if I want to have a thriving relationship with God I don’t need to have perfect doctrine. I need Jesus. I need His relationship. I need to discover Him in scripture, prayer, and community to shape me into His image. I don’t have to know everything.

 

There will always be a tension between passages like John 3:16 and Romans 9. You can choose either side and use one to interpret the other. We can get lost in debates over which perspective best glorifies God. And it’s a major issue for some Christians. It’s all scripture though. And maybe we’re supposed to wrestle with these questions. It’s nothing new for me as a gay Christian—spiritual wrestling and questions.

 

The Bible is more than systematic theology. Scripture is a narrative of how God redeemed us from our depravity and brokenness. We don’t want the Bible to be a story. We want to know the basics. Tell us the rules. Give us a life manual. How do we avoid Hell? But the Bible is so much more. It’s His love letter. It’s our history. It’s our vision for the future. If we strip it down to doctrinal points, we lose the hope of the gospel. We lose the opportunity to know God.

 

Lewis continued from the quotation above and wrote, “And now that I come to think of it, there’s no practical problem before me at all. I know the two great commandments, and I’d better get on with them.”5

 

My compassion is not weakness. I need it to live out God’s overarching commands. I fell in love with the people the church ostracized; the ones who may never come to the “right” conclusions. That’s real agape love. I don’t love people with an agenda. I don’t have a timetable for you to conform to my beliefs by a certain length of time. I just love people. And I love Jesus.

 

I’ve found comfort from a passage of scripture as I’ve returned to God:

 

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 4:43-48.

 

I’m thankful for this passage. If God calls me to love my enemies, what does this say of His heart? Would God call me to a higher standard than He can meet? God is the standard. I am to love my enemies because He loved His enemies. When I fear God is not good, I turn to one act, God’s substitutionary death on the cross, and it reveals something of God’s character. Rather than Sid, an immature, evil brat, I see Aslan. Fierce, dangerous, and holy. But most definitely good.

 

I don’t really have a position on homosexuality. I’m not “Side A” or “Side B.” I’m a man who wants to walk alongside the church and LGBTs and get my hands dirty with love and grace. I’m not positive what God thinks on the subject. I’m not God. But as I’ve encountered my Father apart from hardcore Calvinism, I’ve found a God of mercy and compassion. He’s not so much wrathful as He is concerned with justice in a corrupt world. I have held my gay friends tightly in my fists. I had to solve the questions for them. And I finally trust God enough to let go. They’re in good hands. Whatever eternity reveals, I know my responsibility in this life. Love God. Love my neighbor.

 

I’d better get on with that.

 

photo courtesy of flickr creative commons, user Yuliya Libkina

 

1. C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (New York: HarperOne, 1961), 18.

2. Ibid, 40.

3. Ibid, 18.

4. Ibid, 81-82

5. Ibid, 82.