This is part two of my essay on Bridge Building. Click here to read part one.
Did it matter?
In a sense, nothing really happened that weekend on the lake. I didn’t have profound conversations or insights. In fact, I barely said anything at all. It was an opportunity to just be—an opportunity to embrace my inner “conscientious observer.”
But thinking back, a lot did happen. It’s not every day a guy pursuing celibacy has breakfast with a guy and his boyfriend. What the weekend represented fascinates me. We didn’t argue, I didn’t feel uncomfortable when Thomas showed affection for his boyfriend. I didn’t look at it as an attempt to be like Jesus and hang out with “sinners.” I came to Georgia with an open heart and without expectations. While the deep theological questions of my heart remained unanswered, I can see growth in how I socialized with people, especially people outside my cultural boundaries. I never felt forced to be anyone but myself. If I just wanted to sit back and communicate nonverbally, then that was cool with me and the people there at the party.
People seem to think bridge building only happens when we’re getting our point across, especially if we say it loudly and passionately. I don’t really have a side. I have a buddy who has a boyfriend. I don’t fully know what I think about that. Regardless where my perspective shifts, I love him. Time is so short and we have so little to give. But I choose to continue giving some of mine to him. Despite the differences, despite any awkwardness or tension or risk, I give Thomas my love as my brother in Christ.
Because for some reason God formed this friendship and I commit to maintaining it. Or at least as Mom says, on my side of the court.
It’s in God’s hands.
~ ~ ~
I don’t know what kind of a future awaits a bridge builder. I expect challenges ahead if my friendship with Thomas moves forward. Any relationship will face difficulties. Even with God’s grace we’re still proud and self-centered people. Occasionally we hurt each other; sometimes we have strong disagreements. Community is messy. I don’t expect this to be an easy life. But hopefully it will be a rich, meaningful one despite the challenges.
As I’ve written from the beginning, Andrew Marin has been one of my primary role models on how we minister to others in the midst of dissonance, especially between faith and sexual identity. My paradigm changed after reading his book Love is an Orientation. Ministry to sexual minorities seemed like a risky idea before reading it. People told me it was like an alcoholic trying to minister to drunks in a bar. “You’re setting yourself up for trouble.” These kind of remarks led to a lot of confusion and ambivalence. I kept visiting hook-up sites in search of something meaningful, and that always ended with bad results. Maybe they’re right. Maybe this encapsulates the gay community. But I started to see a broader perspective in friends like Thomas. And Marin helped me grasp the idea of relationships across worldviews, cultural barriers, and us vs. them dichotomies. I discovered a deeper appreciation for living out grace and humility in my life as a follower of Christ.
I realized a gay human being couldn’t be compared to a glass of beer. I wasn’t running towards sexual promiscuity—to self-destruction—like an alcoholic to drunkenness. I sought integration for my life rather than compartmentalization. I wanted to be around people who would say “Me too, brother” and teach me to love God and somehow do this gay thing well. I wanted to learn how my faith informs my sexual identity.
That path started with Thomas and writers and bloggers like Andrew Marin, Mark Yarhouse, Wes Hill, Brent Bailey, Justin Lee, David Owens, Julie Rodgers, Ben Moberg, Stephen Long and many others. People with strong, contrasting beliefs on how to approach this discussion.
But I’ve especially resonated with Andrew Marin and Brent Bailey’s voices. They keep their position on the gay marriage versus celibacy issue a private matter. An acquaintance I met in Knoxville earlier this year (and have quoted before, because he’s that awesome of a thinker) challenged me to consider being vulnerable to both sides and truly listen to what each side has to say. He wondered aloud if there’s a risk publicly choosing a position. Could there be pressure to maintain that belief when you already have a personal stake in the discussion? Could it lead me to potentially minimalize and ignore salient arguments and insights from the other camp?
So back to Marin. He about Jonathan Merritt’s excerpt in Christianity Today called “A Thread Called Grace” and Merritt’s choice to not label himself based on his sexuality. It’s a lovely reminder of Andrew’s heart towards Christian sexual minorities:
Merritt doesn’t self-identify as gay in the excerpt. He doesn’t answer any of the baseline questions around the contemporary dialogue regarding sexual orientation. He also doesn’t speak to his future. Will Merritt live his life celibate or one day have a partner? And he owes none of those answers to you, me, or anyone else. Jonathan Merritt is a person who loves God who is loved by God. And that’s all I need.
Yes, he was outed. Yes, he is a public figure and is offering his story to public critique. Yes, the questions will always abound from people from all sides who will rabidly demand answers from him until the day he dies. I could care less about any of that. And I hope Merritt never gives anyone the pleasure of knowing any of those answers. He doesn’t owe you or me or anyone any of those things. You either trust Merritt or you don’t. You like his writing, thoughts, and opinions or you don’t. No matter what he says, I’m gay and getting married to my partner or I’m celibate because I believe in a traditional interpretation of scripture, partisan activists will still have a field day with him, his story, and his conclusions no matter what.
Merritt is Brother Jonathan to me. Always will be. It is not up to Merritt for you to decide what path you will take in relation to your own worldview, his story, or others in your life.
You may not realize it, but there’s a ridiculous amount of pressure on every sexual minority. It’s scary to choose sides, because our choices have repercussions. It’s also scary remaining neutral. You may lose friends from both sides. But despite that risk, I will not be anyone’s pawn in this cultural war.
So if you require a definite answer from me, then I’m sorry. I have no answer to give you. You will be frustrated if this whole complicated conversation comes down to a single question. If you no longer wish to read my words, continue our acquaintance or friendship, or respect me as a human being made in God’s image, then I must bear that cross and bid you adieu.
But if you can step into the dissonance, this world of gray where I live, then come and walk with me. Come with your beliefs. Share them with me if you wish. I will listen. Let’s tell stories around the fire; tales our wounded souls and our hope for redemption. Let’s learn from each other and find the vulnerability to risk being found wrong in search of the truth. It’s all part of this glorious, messy process of sanctification.
It means so much when you choose to walk with me through life and its questions; when you can call me “brother” like Marin even if we disagree. I need people that remind me to rest when I’ve wrestled with God for too long, when I need to remember His compassion and goodness. You make the tension more bearable.
It’s my relationships that tear away my insecurities and spark courage within me to pursue my calling no matter the cost.
~ ~ ~
I never want to stop building bridges. I want to keep replicating that weekend. I want this to be my life’s work. I want to spend every day creating a little shalom on this earth, making God’s will done on Earth as it is in Heaven in my life and in my relationships.
I want to become a mental health practitioner (I already have the bachelor’s degree in psychology, so that helps). Maybe it’s part of being an oldest child of five, but I have this nurturing, fatherly, and pastoral quality to my personality. The career inventories in college told me I should either be a pastor or a psychologist. I think you can be both as the latter. I want to be able to “comfort those who are in affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God—for as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too” (2 Corinthians 1:4-5). I know plenty about affliction. I know much about darkness. God’s grace brought people in my life that helped me fight my demons and fight for my will to live. I’ve been the client in a therapist’s office. I know how it feels. I want to be a tangible reminder of God’s unconditional love, directing people to hope—if only to plant seeds like my therapist did seven or so years ago.
So I’m applying to graduate programs this fall. I’m particularly drawn to Regent University in Virginia Beach. It’s a Christian school that contains run by Dr. Mark Yarhouse. I transferred to Bryan after finishing community college knowing my goal was to go to Regent and study Christian sexual minorities, LGBT concerns, and sexual identity. But I discovered I wasn’t ready for Regent when I graduated four years ago and I’m so thankful I waited and developed my faith and identity during that time. Regent feels like the right place to further my ministry goals to the church and LGBTQ community as a psychologist and writer. So we’ll see what happens next year.
One reason I’m especially excited about Regent is the therapeutic framework that Dr. Yarhouse co-created with Warren Throckmorton called Sexual Identity Therapy (SIT).
“SIT is essentially a client-centered and identity-focused approach to navigating sexual identity questions or concerns. It has often been contrasted to reorientation therapy and gay affirmative therapy. It is based on the idea of helping people reach congruence, so that they live and identify themselves in a way that is consistent with their beliefs and values.”1
Given my current position on homosexuality and my views on bridge building, this seems like a great fit. I want to practice a form of therapy that can flexibly extend grace towards sexual minorities of all perspectives. I currently affirm my friends and my future clients’ freedom to follow God in accordance with their convictions. I’m honored when my friends share and process their thoughts, feelings, and beliefs with me. I try my utmost to ensure my friends feel loved, respected, and supported regardless if I agree with them or not. I hope to have that mindset when I’m working with my future clients.
No matter what graduate program I attend next year, I’m excited that it will finally provide the freedom to come out publicly; to attach my words with my name and my face. I want to own what I believe. I’m looking forward to living in community completely open about who I am. I suspect it will be more redemptive and transformative than I could begin to imagine.
So I don’t know how my calling will play out in the future. Maybe I’ll become Dr. Seth the psychologist, or maybe God will close that door and lead me to something else. I just hope I can live life well wherever God places me in the present moment. Every relationship I enter is an opportunity to build bridges and share my story as a Christian and gay man.
~ ~ ~
T. S Eliot wrote,
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.2
I don’t know if I’ll ever feel certain about the issues that “make the Internet blow up” as Addie Zierman said. After all my life’s explorations, I may still find that I’m a conscientious observer and ever more aware of how little I know. Eliot’s words are true. The more we search for the answers, the clearer we discern we’re right back at the starting point. And yet, we see the issues from a new light. We see the “gay issue” as more than politics and sex, and as Marin would point out, as real people—breathing, thinking, loving, and hurting individuals. The cross-cultural dialogues Cleveland advocates may not produce conclusive answers, but maybe our efforts to learn from those outside our culture and comfort zone helps to silence our arrogance and ignorance. Maybe through trial and error we learn to walk together without unintentionally offending and hurting each other.
~ ~ ~
I was a little sleepy as I headed home from my weekend with Thomas. Driving down a highway heading towards Atlanta, I suddenly found myself in chaos. Some kind of large object fell out of the bed of truck a few vehicles ahead of me. Cars were crazily switching lanes, horns blaring. I didn’t have much time to react in the sudden disarray. The car in front of me switched lanes and all I could think to do was break. I was tired and rarely ever have a reason to drive on a highway or interstate back in Alabama. And I screwed up. I had nearly stopped as I ran into the back of a car stuck behind whatever had fallen on the highway. Thankfully no one was hurt, other that my bank account for the traffic citation I received.
As I paid the citation last week, I jokingly sent Thomas a text:
It’s expensive to hang out with you.
Sitting there in that parking lot after the accident, I didn’t feel like laughing. That same question kept running through my mind.
Did it matter? Has it been worth it?
That’s not an easy question to answer. But as I’ve written and processed this post over the last few weeks, I admire my courage for trying. And I know I won’t stop trying. I will continue laying out my heart to sexual minorities because I’m incomplete without their stories and their friendship.
I will keep pursuing friendships with gay people, with straight people, with Christian people, and with non-Christian people. That’s my calling.
Let’s build bridges.
2. Eliot, T. S. “Little Gidding.” In The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Twentieth Century and After, Stephen Greenblatt & M. H. Abrams, 2319, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006.
photo courtesy of flickr creative commons, user Jo_eD