man praying

Giving Thanks for Celibacy?

I never imagined I would become a celibate. I grew up in the Primitive Baptist faith, and we didn’t talk about singleness that much. We gossiped plenty about relationships though, and most of my acquaintances in our tiny denomination married early. Like other denominations, we esteemed marriage as the place where life naturally transitioned and progressed. Singleness was just a temporary season of life preparing young Christians for the challenges of matrimony. If we ever mentioned celibacy, it was to joke at its strangeness; normal people didn’t remain single.

 

But I’m not a normal guy.

 

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve wanted normalcy. I have moments pumping iron in the gym or worshipping alone in the back row of church wondering how this all happened to me. How does a boy baptized at age six, homeschooled in a good Christian family, become a gay man? It sounds ridiculous.

 

Sometimes life feels like a game of poker, and I was bitter for the hand of cards God gave me.

 

Gratitude doesn’t come easily for me. I’m like one of the rebellious Israelites in the wilderness—complaining and untrusting of God’s goodness and provision. I’ve seen my sexual orientation as a curse, blaming it for all my issues. If I were straight, I would be a strong man—confident, attractive, and eloquent. But I’m not that man; I’m a boy, scared and awkward. “Be thankful in all things?” Seriously?

 

I recently read Ann Voskamp’s book One Thousand Gifts. Voskamp celebrates thanksgiving, or eucharisteo, the Greek word she uses throughout the book. It all starts with a simple Greek study. The Greek word for joy is chara and it’s found right in the middle of eucharisteo; joy literally within thanksgiving.

 

Ann Voskamp One Thousand Gifts

 

So then as long as thanks is possible … I think this through. As long as thanks is possible, then joy is always possible. Joy is always possible. Whenever, meaning—now; wherever, meaning—here. The holy grail of joy is not in some exotic location or some emotional mountain peak experience. The joy wonder could be here! Here, in the messy, piercing ache of now, joy might be—unbelievably—possible! The only place we need see before we die is this place of seeing God, here and now.”1

 

Can I find joy in a sex-saturated culture as a celibate gay man? What about joy in a marriage-worshipping church? Voskamp’s message reveals a liberating truth: Yes. There’s joy to be found here if you’ll only look. Joy is not reserved for the heterosexual, but remains available as long as I choose to give thanks.

 

But an internal change of attitude isn’t enough. I could choose to remain an unknown and invisible seat-filler in church, all the while telling myself I’m thankful and content. But that’s not contentment, it’s complacency. Thanksgiving doesn’t force me to accept things I have the power to change in my life. That’s fear. God compels me to take risks to live anything but a safe life. As I learn to count my blessings I should begin looking outward towards others. Voskamp writes that we “become the blessing,”

 

Eucharisteo is giving thanks for grace. But in the breaking and giving of bread, in the washing of feet, Jesus makes it clear that eucharisteo is, yes, more: it is giving grace away. Eucharisteo is the hand that opens to receive grace, then, with thanks, breaks the bread; that moves out into the larger circle of life and washes the feet of the world with that grace. Without the breaking and giving, without the washing of feet, eucharisteo isn’t complete. The Communion service is only complete in service. Communion, by necessity, always leads us into community.”2

 

A simple Christian sacrament reveals how we live in the church and God’s kingdom. In the Primitive Baptist denomination, we include foot washing in our communion services. It can feel pretty awkward to literally humble yourself before another Christian to wash his or her feet, but there’s something moving about the gesture too. It represents how I want to live out my faith. This posture of grace and humility inspires courage to be a blessing to others. Grace calls me participate in the work of redemption and I cannot remain silent to God’s work and the cries of the oppressed. I can say with Jeremiah,

“There is in my heart as it were a burning fire

shut up in my bones,

and I am weary with holding it in,

and I cannot (Jeremiah 20:9).”

 

Eve Tushnet wrote, “You can’t have a vocation of No.” It’s not enough for the conservative church to tell gay Christians that marriage is defined as one man and one woman. It’s not even enough for the church to exhort its congregants to “be nice to the gays out there in the world.” Many of us queer folks who hold the same traditional convictions on sexuality aren’t going to make your life comfortable by entering heterosexual marriage and pretending we’re just like you. …And many in mixed-orientation marriages are speaking up too. As a demographic of the church, we have unique spiritual and emotional needs. The church shouldn’t cultivate a thriving environment for the majority to the detriment of its outliers. The church has a responsibility to know the heartbeat of the congregation, to know if life-giving blood is circulating to all members of the body. The church needs to creatively find ways to make the church a home for all its members. There’s plenty of work to be done; there’s prejudices, privileges, and sins to be mortified and surrendered to God as a corporate body. Matt Jones wrote, “Unless a community is seriously modeling a commitment to hospitality and grace for all stages of life, its sexual ethic, no matter how ‘orthodox’ it may sound, will never seem viable or good in any meaningful way. This imaginative failure is also a moral failure, with churches leaving their gay members with little to no ability to actually live–or God forbid thrive– within the rich tradition of church teaching.” Thanksgiving partly fills the gap between how things are and what we hope the church will become. Community requires grace, or charis, the root word for eucharisteo. Sexual minorities need to exhibit forgiveness, mercy, and patience with straight Christians. The church as a whole needs to learn the ability to listen with humility and empathy.

 

It’s here, within my experience as a gay man and my convictions as a traditional evangelical Christian, where I find the most difficulty expressing gratitude. This path means no spouse and no awesome, hot sex (not gonna lie, that’s a bummer).  The traditional sexual ethic is costly, an aspect of Christianity we’ve forgotten in Western Civilization. Historically, Christians have suffered great sacrifices for their faith and convictions, some choosing even to die rather than to renounce their relationship with Jesus. And sometimes I can feel bitter. Why do I have play super-Christian, while other evangelicals analyze my faith and determine if I have a right to sit at the table? Why do I have to hurt this deeply and this much? When I apply Voskamp’s model of eucharisteo to my situation as gay and evangelical, I find another perspective.

 

“The act of sacrificing thank offerings to God—even for the bread and cup of cost, for cancer and crucifixion—this prepares the way for God to show us His fullest salvation from bitter, angry, resentful lives and from all sin that estranges us from Him. At the Eucharist, Christ breaks His heart to heal ours—Christ, the complete accomplishment of our salvation. And the miracle of eucharisteo never ends: thanksgiving—giving thanks in everything—is what prepares the way for salvation’s whole restoration. Our salvation in Christ is real, yet the completeness of that salvation is not fully realized in a life until the life realizes the need to give thanks.”3

 

I can’t speak for other Christian sexual minorities, just for myself. Ingratitude closes off my ability to connect to my Heavenly Father. My bitterness closes off possibilities to experience abundant life and the good gifts God gives His children. I have experienced legitimate grief through the process of accepting the traditional sexual ethic. It’s led to the death of hopes and dreams of a husband and family I wanted. It was a grief I couldn’t ignore and couldn’t suppress. While I’m always open to God’s Spirit and where the truth leads, I’m learning to find a place here in the evangelical church. At some point you have to move on, at some point you have to heal. I’m back where I began, but from a completely different perspective.

 

The gospel radically shifts how we approach sexuality, whether we affirm gay relationships or not. God calls us to kill lust and self-centeredness that characterizes sexual desire. God’s message of sexuality is countercultural—it’s not about me, it’s about the love I give to another. Celibacy extends that belief. Rather than an abandonment of love, celibacy is a lifetime, a calling to love. I’m learning to give myself in intimate friendships to diverse people: Christians and nonchristians, the gay relationship affirming and the traditional, non-affirming. I’m a firm believer that God will provide for my emotional needs as long as I have the bravery to reach out.

 

Celibacy feels like an experiment, but one I can’t really fail. My life’s purpose is to know Christ. Regardless of marriage or singleness, no one can exclude me from that pursuit. “What makes the gospel offensive isn’t who it keeps out but who it lets in,” Rachel Held Evans proclaimed at this year’s Gay Christian Network Conference. The gospel reaches all kinds of people with all kinds of convictions. Conservatives and liberals, Caucasians and ethnic minorities, Side A and Side B. It even lets in quiet, awkward gay guys like me.

 

If you asked me to choose one book the most radically shifted my perspective this year, I would point you to Ann Voskamp. She challenged me to live fully right where I currently find myself. I’m challenged not to live in complacency, but in thanksgiving and joy for the opportunities and relationships I currently have. I’m not waiting for my life to begin—it’s happening right here, right now.

 

And it’s glorious.

 

/ / /

 

  1. Ann Voskamp, One Thousand Gifts. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010, 33.
  2. Ibid, 192-193.
  3. Ibid, 40.

Featured photo courtesy of Jeremy Binns at CreationSwap.

books

When Our Stories Become Weapons

I am a storyteller.

 

I’m not great with small talk, nor am I all that funny. I certainly don’t have all the answers.

 

But I tell stories anyway.

 

I’d rather tell my story than argue. I don’t see much point in a debate. I say something, you pick out what you don’t like, and then I get mad that you aren’t really listening. What a waste of time. Arguing reveals our pride. We think we possess superior logic compared to others and we’re merely enlightening the ignorant. But debates only make people defensive, closing people off. Unless people feel safe and heard, they won’t have an open heart. Without a posture of openness, people remain shut off from new ideas.

 

So I’d rather just share my story than fight over sexual ethics.

 

But in this discussion of sexual orientation, I’m missing something if I focus solely on my own story. You’d be missing something too if you only listened to my story. Our individual tales need to interact like iron sharpening iron. We need to be challenged, to feel a little uncomfortable from time to time. We don’t have all the facts, and we haven’t stopped growing. Storytelling requires more than one perspective.

 

Rachel Held Evans wrote an important response a year ago to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story.” I resonated with Rachel’s application of Adichie’s talk to the discussion of homosexuality. Rachel primarily focused on one statement:

 

“The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

 

Rachel added,

 

“It occurred to me recently that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people are often subjected to this single-story treatment, both from myself and from other people.”

 

I’ve been around enough Christians to know the truth of Rachel’s observation. It feels like someone is always getting thrown under the bus in church. We develop assumptions in a vacuum, not knowing anything about the people we attempt to characterize. And often when people meet a sexual minority, they unfairly make this individual a representative of an incredibly diverse group of people. We allow certain stories to filter all other ones, to the point that stories cease to be stories.

 

Stories become weapons.

 

People so often hijack our moments of vulnerability to shame those who would be audacious enough to disagree. We all do it, conservatives and liberals. The debate around homosexuality is heated and we want real life examples to stoke the flame. Amid the fighting we don’t take many opportunities to walk in another person’s shoes. We don’t consider what another human has had to endure, or what flow of logic and conviction has led them to their current identity and position.

 

I appreciate Stephen Long for his honesty in how celibacy failed him. His attempts to honor his beliefs harmed him deeply—spiritually, psychologically, and physically.

 

Stephen wrote in response to Julie Rodgers’ “Surprised By Celibacy,”

 

I had trusted the life of celibacy to be similar to what Paul described: ‘We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.’ But this leads me to the question I often find myself asking of the church these days: what happens when we are afflicted and crushed? What happens when we are perplexed and driven to despair? Persecuted and forsaken? Struck down and destroyed? What happens when it doesn’t have a happy ending? What happens when it ends in drug abuse, or addiction, or a suicide, or an STD? What happens when people’s spirits are broken? How is that good? How does that purify and refine and bring glory to God?

 

Julie had written how celibacy had surprisingly sustained her faith, while Stephen wrote that it had nearly destroyed not only his faith, but his desire to live.

 

My story resonates more with Julie’s than Stephen’s. Embracing affirming theology only intensified my anxiety. I discovered peace in gradually submitting my life to a vocation of celibacy. So yes, there’s dissonance in our stories, but Stephen has been an encouraging friend as I’ve struggled to find my way as a blogger this year. His story matters to me as I tell my own as a celibate gay Christian.

 

In this heated debate, it’s not hard to find stories to back up our positions. We live in an age of social media where we constantly share blog posts and YouTube videos to reinforce the validity of our beliefs. We take a person’s story—a creative work of art—and transform it into an instrument of oppression that can induce shame in others.

 

See? This lady found a husband and had kids. It’s not impossible. You just need to have more faith in God. Just keep trying.

 

This guy left his wife and kids for another man. Mixed orientation marriage NEVER work. You can’t possibly be happy in one.

 

Look at this woman, she’s going through life without a spouse and still has a thriving relationship with Christ. If she can do it, so can you! You just need Jesus, man.

 

Hey, this guy nearly killed himself trying celibacy. Celibacy doesn’t work.

 

Adichie reminds us of an important point,

 

Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.

 

When we talk about sexual orientation and sexual ethics, we must remember that we’re talking about real people. People like me. Our biblical paradigms tend to cloud our assumptions. If a man in a gay relationship says he loves Jesus and his husband, many would question his faith. He can’t really love God like I love God. Christians may feel convinced it can’t really be love. Surely it can’t demonstrate the same fidelity and sacrifice as a heterosexual marriage. But then you open your heart to a gay couple committed to their marriage and their relationship with Christ and something changes. The interactions and moments of life shared together obliterate your preconceptions. Maybe your beliefs shift, maybe they don’t. But you see the complexity far more clearly.

 

I believe Christians can thrive in a pluralistic society. We need patience to listen with grace, humility, and compassion amid the messiness and misunderstandings. We must also develop a love for stories. We have our own path to tread in this life. We shouldn’t assume others are farther behind us when we don’t see eye-to-eye. God may have us on different roads. We don’t have to be gatekeepers. We can embrace the simple commandment of scripture: love God and love our neighbor. We can rest knowing our brothers and sisters are in far more secure hands than our own.

 

My story is not a weapon, it’s an invitation of hospitality.

 

So come in from the cold and sit by the fire. I want to hear your story.

 

/ / /

 

If you missed Adichie’s incredible talk last year, please watch it. There’s a reason it went viral.

 

Featured photo courtesy of flickr creative commons, user Bravo_Zulu_

river in fall

Wilderness Conversations

Let’s take a walk out in the crisp autumn air, shall we? It’s easier to talk about the hard things when we’re moving. The silences feel less awkward, the fears less stifling. The trees are all arrayed in reds and oranges. It’s peaceful here, leaves crunching under our shoes as we duck beneath tree limbs, and shiver with the breeze.

 

Listen to the wilderness calling.

 

I’m crouching next to river’s edge, poking drifting leaves with a stick. I look up to your eyes with a sad smile. I have so little to say, so I speak with nonverbal gestures. They speak loudly if you could only read the language.

 

I don’t know your thoughts these days

We’re strangers in an empty space

I don’t understand your heart

It’s easier to be apart

We might as well be strangers in another town

We might as well be living in a another time

We might as well

We might as well

Be strangers1

 

I’m guarded; a chaos of emotion running through my brain. Questions, so many questions. So many things good Christians shouldn’t ask. So many things an out gay man shouldn’t bring up. Where do you turn when you’ve been walking in no man’s land for so long?

 

How do you choose between integrity and just a drop of intimacy? A glimmer of connection? When can I look into another’s eyes and find…

 

Home?

 

~          ~          ~

 

There came a day when I realized my crushes on men would never cease. The evangelicals had gotten it wrong. I didn’t know what that meant and the questions scared me. I learned to listen, but the listening only brought more questions. I processed my thoughts alone.

 

I didn’t want to believe the traditional Christian sexual ethic. I fought belligerently, actually. I despised evangelical weddings. I hated sermons on marriage. I rolled my eyes and swore silently in disgust. Bitterness and anger simmered beneath the surface. I didn’t know what to say. I just knew to smile and hide the feelings.

 

Some of the happiest times in my life occurred while I was reading Justin Lee’s Torn and James Brownson’s Bible, Gender, Sexuality. Meaningful friendships with other LGBTs were forged. This new perspective felt liberating. But doubts lingered. I struggled deeply with my reformed background and God’s goodness. I would beg my gay friends to reassure me I wasn’t a reprobate, usually after explaining what that word meant. I became convinced the gospel didn’t conclude with a happy ending. So I fought this angry, narcissistic being God had become in my mind. I stopped going to church, I avoided evangelical friends.

 

My blood pressure shot up for the first time in my life during that season. I discovered a health kick in college and never abandoned it. As I wavered between career choices after college, I took exercise science, nutrition, and anatomy classes. An exercise physiology professor told me with confusion and concern that I was nearly hypertensive. The anxiety of fighting God day after day was hurting me. I needed to rest; I needed a ceasefire.

 

I’ve only cried twice in the last ten years. I just don’t know how to; so many barriers and inhibitions stand in the way. One of those two times came after fighting with my pastor about Brownson’s Bible, Gender, Sexuality. He thought I was talking about my future, but by this point it had stopped being about me. Now, my pastor wasn’t one of those angry, shouting pastors. He was just a man trying to be faithful to his reformed interpretation of scripture. He reinforced the God I had been battling for so long. A God who would damn Christians for their blind spots and unconquerable struggles.

 

Barbara Brown Taylor brings up a fascinating question in her book An Alter in the World. “What is saving my life now?” I haven’t read the book yet (it’s on a very long list), but I often hear the question asked. It’s an invitation to storytelling. What things, ideas, or people in this world are meaningfully representing God in this moment? What keeps us holding onto hope when it would be so easy to surrender to despair? For me it was my gay Christian friends. I couldn’t deal with evangelical Christianity, the black and white answers that ignored the complexity of my life. But my gay friends challenged me to trust God. They helped melt the ice around my heart so God could touch me again.

 

Arguing with my pastor represented changes that were happening in my theology, shifts that were returning me to previously held beliefs. But I was also coming back with a new perspective. I was no longer fundamentalist, but a Christian skeptic. Every stone had to be turned over and examined. I would not go back to the old me. Those days were over. I sobbed alone in my car because I didn’t know what to do or what to believe. I haven’t cried since.

 

~          ~          ~

 

I believed the only way to remain a loyal, compassionate friend to the LGBTs in my life meant affirming same-sex relationships. The other side of the false dichotomy meant becoming a Bible-thumping jerk. As I realized the revisionist perspective just didn’t connect to my reading and interpretation of scripture, I became determined to find another way—a way that encompasses both my sexual ethics and my love for sexual minorities.

 

My friend David Owens comes to mind when I wrestle with these questions. He’s one of the most Christ-like men I know. David also has a solid relationship with his boyfriend Phil; they’ve been together for as long as I’ve known David. His faith and his relationship is not a contradiction for me, just a discovery outside the evangelical bubble.

 

I appreciated these words from a love letter David wrote for LGBTQ Christians on Ben Moberg’s blog Registered Runaway:

 

“As someone who leans admittedly Reformed in theology, I don’t believe I’ve ever had anything to do with my salvation. He is, after all, the Author and Finisher of my faith. My story begins and ends with Him. To live according to someone else’s convictions out of a place of fear and shame is hardly what I call living in freedom. Rather, I recognized that I would have to respond authentically to what He’d revealed to me. If I believed that God is good, then I would also have to trust that He wouldn’t let me remain on a path that would lead to my eventual destruction but would lovingly intervene as a good father.”

 

To my surprise I also found a lot of comfort in my reformed background. I grew up as a Primitive Baptist, a small denomination that emphasizes sovereign grace. What I remember clearly was a sharp division over whether scripture teaches the perseverance or the preservation of God’s children. Like many reformed believers, those advocating perseverance believed the Christian may have occasional setbacks, but will ultimately “persevere” in his or her faith until the end. I struggled deeply with this perspective; a traditional sexual ethic didn’t make room for Gay Christians in a perseverance framework. But my parents were part of the other faction. They held that sanctification was both the work of God and the individual. They made room for God’s children who became addicted to alcohol or committed suicide. Christians may screw up because we live in a broken world; sometimes the darkness is too great. But they firmly taught me that nothing can separate us as God’s children from His rich, abounding love. We are “preserved” in Christ and we can do nothing to earn or lose our salvation. To keep my sanity, part of my return to evangelical faith meant returning to my roots.

 

I’ve invested a lot of time interacting with gay Christians who affirm same-sex relationships. I’ve spent the weekend with one of my best friends and his boyfriend, having breakfast and spending the afternoon on the lake. In all these conversations and moments of life lived together, I’ve discovered plenty I don’t understand. When I see pictures of David and Phil together on Facebook I don’t feel judgmental or freaked out. I don’t agree with same-sex behavior, but I believe in love. You can’t reduce gay people to just sex. But that’s what so many evangelicals do. Many evangelicals don’t see the affection and concern gay Christians have for each other, nor the sacrifices that these people beautifully make.2 They genuinely want to express Christ’s love to their partners. I respect that. Amid the disagreements, I can still see God’s image within their lives.

 

~          ~          ~

 

I interact with several young guys who aren’t sure how they envision their future; they don’t know what position they’ll take. I tell them to follow Christ. Come to Christ as you are, feed on His Word, become part of a corporate body of believers who fervently love and welcome you. If the traditional position causes you to feel shame, despair, and suicidal ideation, then please don’t pursue celibacy. Be open to where God leads you. I promise God won’t abandon you. And you’ll find so many brothers and sisters in Christ from both perspectives who will still support you and love you unconditionally no matter what you choose.

 

Thankfully there are straight Christians like Jen Hatmaker in evangelical churches who speak from conviction with so much love and hospitality. Evangelicals who will listen. Jen wrote a few months ago,

 

“The gay community has been spiritually beaten, stripped of dignity, robbed of humanity, and left for dead by much of the church. You need only look at the suicide rates, prevalence of self-harm, and the devastating pleas from ostracized gay people and those who love them to see what has plainly transpired.”

 

Jen believes in a traditional Christian view of marriage. Ben Moberg wrote on Rachel Held Evans’ blog that Jen had done the impossible. “She wrote that same-sex marriage is sinful and yet left me in layers of love. It was a startling and confusing moment for me.” For those who wish to love sexual minorities better but want to remain true to their beliefs about sexual ethics, I highly recommend it. The church would be a better place for us all: straight and gay, celibates, those in mixed orientation marriages, and yes, the gay-relationship affirming.

 

There’s a lot of conflict and tension when you try to build bridges in war zones. It’s hard to remain neutral, and maybe it’s best not to be. But there are important qualities to have in this debate, primarily openness. I’m not God, you’re not God. Just because we have His Word doesn’t mean we can understand all its mysteries. So I choose to journey with my brothers and sisters in Christ regardless of agreement and disagreement. As Jen Hatmaker wrote, “I am convinced we need no more soldiers in this war. We need more neighbors.”

 

You’re welcomed in my life, neighbor.

 

~          ~          ~

 

So maybe we are strangers, me and my evangelical friends, me and my gay Christian friends. Maybe I will continue walking in no man’s land.

 

Maybe.

 

But here in this wilderness, among the trees ablaze with color or next to the chilly river’s edge, I’d like to think there’s space for us, for the questions, for the tension. I don’t expect people to always agree with everything I say or do, but I do hope for a little grace and humility.

 

And maybe, just maybe I won’t always wander the wilderness alone.

 

/ / /

 

  1. Keane, “We Might as Well Be Strangers” from Hopes and Fears
  2. Nick Roen wrote a really great post for Spiritual Friendship on this topic.

 

photo courtesy of flickr creative commons, user ChattOconeeNF