When Church Becomes a War Zone

man alone in church

 

 

Once upon a time I took church for granted. My roots ran deep in Christian subculture, specifically a sub-subculture that most Christians have never heard of. But it was home and never seemed all that dangerous. At worst, I ended up in the emergency room after roughhousing with the other little boys and busting my forehead open on the end of a pew. Ouch. But church functioned as a normal part of my family’s weekly rhythm. I drew pictures with crayons during the sermons and picked up on bits and pieces of theology here and there. At home I often played church with my collection of stuffed animals and told them stories of my favorite biblical characters. Mom thought I was destined to become a preacher, but life has a funny way of surprising us, doesn’t it?

 

My life tends to cycle. I hit phases where I’m on fire for God, generally when I experience a perspective shift—ex-gay to gay-relationship affirming to celibate. I’m silly enough to think I’ve arrived with all the answers, but with each turn of the cycle, the old doubts creep back in, along with the depression, loneliness, and anxiety.

 

Church has never been a hospitable place during the cycles and the doubts. Friends would tell me it’s ok to question, but eventually I needed to come to some conclusions—be one of them or find somewhere else. During the Gay Christian Network’s conference this year, Vicky Beeching spoke about doubt. Christians tend to view doubt as a sign of spiritual immaturity, but Vicky firmly believed that these seasons of intellectual and emotional wrestling can—and absolutely do—produce a beautifully mature and vibrant faith.

 

When my ex-gay story unraveled, Pandora’s box opened and shook the foundations of my solid reformed theology and conservative political ideology. Passive-aggressiveness defined my relationship with the church, while my conversations with God transformed into profanity-laden rants. The latter healed with time and space, primarily from interactions with gay Christians who trusted in God’s extravagant love and grace, thoughts I had never imagined. But my relationship with the church hasn’t reconciled as easily.

 

I live in Alabama, if you didn’t know by now. This isn’t the best area for a gay boy to find a church home. I’m a few years shy of 30 and really haven’t figured out the best way to deal with my sexual orientation in church. Oh yes, I hear you, my fellow evangelicals. Why even bring it up? It’s not anyone’s business, after all. Well, thing is, you lovely nosy Christians tend to make it your business within the first conversation. Do I have a wife? Girlfriend? Kids? Seriously folks, if you don’t want me to talk about the gay, stop trying to hook me up with random single women in your church. Sheesh. Thank you.

 

Frankly, I’ve grown tired of the angst and indecision. Do I come out or not? How long should I wait to open up? Should I even go to church when this one aspect of my personhood differentiates me so sharply from everyone else? It’s pathetic that church has become this difficult. Since I came out a few months ago, it’s just easier to go into gay activist mode. If I freak you out, you’re one less church off my list to consider, one less Christian I have to analyze and worry about.

 

Here’s the thing, as a straight Christian, you don’t have to listen to me. That’s your luxury. You can stick your head in the sand and twiddle your thumbs with all the other normal families in church. It’s called privilege. You were born with it, didn’t earn it, and can do pretty much anything you like with the benefits of being straight, white, middle class Americans (especially if you happen to be a man). Most choose silence and ignorance, because well, it’s easier. Different is uncomfortable and exhausting. I would make things so much easier for the body of Christ if I would just marry a woman and shut up. But maybe you’re a little more compassionate than that; you welcome me into your church but you keep me an arm’s length. Whenever the preacher talks about gay people, it’s always to discuss politics and the sin of ho-mo-sex-u-al-i-ty (I’m totally emulating Vicky Beeching’s imitation of a southern preacher with her awesome British accent, sorry). Your church’s preaching and ministries are crafted to nurture and support the faith of “normal” families and the singles who will eventually enter heterosexual marriage, but you leave gays like me to figure out life alone.

 

Here’s another thing, brothers and sisters. The Gospel tears down privilege. The ministry of Jesus centered on “the least of these” not Caesar, Herod, and the Pharisees. Sure, if folks from the religious elite like Nicodemus and Paul want to step down from their ivory towers and get their hands dirty in the work of the kingdom, then great. But you can be darn sure Jesus didn’t preach a prosperity gospel or The American Dream. Jesus proclaimed a kingdom that would reverse the curse of sin and death and offer lasting shelter and healing. But we’ve made the Gospel about ourselves, forgetting to share the kingdom with not only sexual minorities, but racial minorities, the homeless, the mentally ill, and so many other groups we’ve ignored and neglected throughout history. It’s high time to grapple with the difficulties of redemptively loving those we don’t understand. It’s high time to open our arms to all our brothers and sisters.

 

Sometimes church makes me feel like a pawn in a game of political chess. My story is not yours to hijack, twist, or use to shame other sexual minorities, nor is my life as a celibate gay Christian a pattern that all other sexual minorities should conform to. I’m a fairly moderate Christian. I’m skeptical that God blesses gay sex, but I’m confident God can sanctify gay love—acts of self-sacrifice and nurturing concern for another human being. I’ve chosen celibacy as a vocation of love, not out of fear of a monstrous God who will banish me to Hell if I marry a man. It’s a choice of costly obedience, yet I don’t believe I’m a better Christian than my Side A friends. I believe in the legitimacy of their love and faith in Jesus Christ and count them as my brothers and sisters, even though I differ with their interpretation of scripture. I’ll freely admit I’m no one’s poster child.

 

Church often feels like a war zone. Maybe you can understand why I’ve spent so little time in a faith community these past few years. So many attitudes and misunderstandings piss me off and cause me to question the worth of community. But guess what, guys? I’m not completely off the hook. The Gospel also calls me to engage with my brothers and sisters and share my story, to lean into the tension and extend grace. That means taking many deep breaths, patiently listening and discerning where people are in their understanding of sexual identity. People don’t always respond well, and grace still calls me to love unconditionally. Last week someone essentially told me I had a demon after I discussed my views on celibacy. Sometimes grace means stepping away from pointless discussions and letting someone else have the last word. Grace means taking risks, being vulnerable, and trusting God will redeem our interactions and sharpen us like iron against iron..

 

Jeff Chu also presented an excellent keynote address at GCN’s conference this year. Straight Christians should take note. As Rachel Held Evans tweeted, “I don’t just look to ‪#GCNConf for how to better engage LGBT issues. I look to ‪#GCNConf for how to be a better Christian.” Guys and gals, Jeff casts a pretty fantastic vision for what the church could be:

 

“The table I long for—the church I hope for—is a place where we let others see where the spirit meets the bone and help heal the wounds. The table I long for—the church I hope for—has the grace of the Gospel as its magnificent centerpiece. The table I long for—the church I hope for—is where we care more about our companions than about winning our arguments with them, where we set aside the condescension that accompanies our notion that we need to bring them our truth. The table I long for—the church I hope for—has each of you sitting around it, struggling to hold the knowledge that you, vulnerable you and courageous you, are beloved by God, not just welcome but desperately, fiercely wanted.”¹

 

My hope for the church is a future of gracious inclusion, hospitality, and curiosity. God has promised that the gates of Hell cannot withstand the progression of the church, that swords will be remodeled into farming tools, and the word of God will cover the Earth as waters cover the sea. The church has an optimistic future and an important mission: the restoration and salvation of creation. Or as one of my first gay Christian friends used to say, “making a little Heaven on Earth.” For many sexual minorities like myself, church currently feels more like Hell on Earth, more like a war zone. But there’s a day coming when we will belong, when we will be desperately and fiercely wanted. It will come as we tell our stories and change the hearts of our sisters and brothers. We may never find definitive answers to the gay marriage and gay sex question, but we can find the humility and grace to trust our omniscient Heavenly Father and journey together amid the doubting and dissonance.

 

In the meantime I’ll do my best to keep building bridges.

 

1. http://doesjesusreallyloveme.com/together-at-the-table/

A Blended Family

glasses

 

“This is like needing glasses,”

 

Dr. Erica Hahn shares in a vulnerable moment of Grey’s Anatomy. Erica discovers the truth—she’s gay.

 

“When I was a kid I would get these headaches, so I went to the doctor and they said I needed glasses. I didn’t understand that; it didn’t make sense because I could see fine. And then I get the glasses and put them on, and I’m in the car. Suddenly I yell,”

 

Erica pauses as the emotions kick in.

 

“Because the big green blobs I’ve been staring at my whole life—they weren’t big green blobs! They were leaves. I didn’t even know I was missing the leaves; I didn’t know that leaves existed. And then… Leaves!”

 

With tears in her eyes, Erica looks to her friend, now lover, Dr. Callie Torres.

 

“You are glasses.”1

 

~         ~         ~

 

 

Erica’s sentiment resonates with my experience on a broader scale beyond just a night of awesome sex (I can’t say I know much about that, sorry). You see, these last few years have been a season of reframing for me, or in context of Erica’s story, of seeing the world—and myself—more clearly. It’s been a process of discovering my family.

 

I’ve always known my family of origin, the church. I grew up in the little subculture of the Primitive Baptist denomination, a world without musical instruments or Sunday school; a people of rich hospitality and sincere love for Jesus. The Primitive Baptist faith gave me a distinctive identity. As I’ve grown more nondenominational over the years, Christianity continues to matter because of its heart centered in relationship with a holy, yet loving Creator. While I can’t justify or explain all scripture’s paradoxes and complexities, I find peace knowing God welcomes my attempts to struggle and grow through my questions and doubts.

 

Christianity has been my home for as long as I can remember. And yet, the church has been an incomplete home.

 

After college, my spiritual growth hit a rough stage. I knew I was never going to be straight, nor was I going to entertain the thought of marrying a woman ever again. I waded cautiously into the void of the unknown, entering this stage of transformation by myself. I shut out nearly every friend and acquaintance, afraid, I think, that they couldn’t handle the questions on my heart or the answers I was determined to find.

 

So I introduced myself to the gay community.

 

I really didn’t know where to begin or what to say. Gay people had always been “out there,” always out of reach. So I chose less than appropriate means to meet other sexual minorities (primarily dating and hook-up apps). Yeah, I was a tad bit naïve, and I didn’t always have the best or purest motives either. But I had come a long way from the opinionated reformed fundamentalist with an answer for every question. I began listening to stories. The stories I heard weren’t always from Christians. Nearly every gay guy I met had a background in Christianity and a story of pain associated with the church. Several gay guys I befriended held varying degrees of interest and devotion to the Christian faith. I clung to their words, every explanation of why they believed God blessed gay sexuality. Repeatedly I found myself infatuated with my new friends, desperately wanting to express love and be loved in return. I wore my heart on my sleeve and eventually guys only interacted when I initiated. When I stopped communicating and gave them space, it was too late. The friendships ended. These unhealthy cycles only deepened my insecurities and sense of worthlessness.

 

Something remarkable happened through one of those short-lived friendships though. The first gay Christian I crushed on introduced me to Brent Bailey’s blog Odd Man Out and Andrew Marin’s book Love is an Orientation. I was falling apart, possibly on a course away from my faith, frustrated and lost. Brent and Andrew revealed a new path. Reading Brent’s words filled me with hope—somewhere out in this would there were people like me, gay people who want to take their faith seriously. Whenever I brought up faith around my gay friends, they would shut down; they wouldn’t respond to my texts. Reading Odd Man Out brought tears to my eyes. Someone got it.

 

And suddenly I got it. Church wasn’t complete because it hadn’t represented the full diversity of Christ’s body. There was a reason I felt different. Everyone in the church seemed to have the same general story; everyone had the same major life events. They were all a bunch of middle class, Republican, white, straight, married Americans. No wonder church felt stifling and lonely.

 

I’ve been running from church for a very long time. I’m honestly not sure how to do church anymore. I really don’t want to play the role of the out and proud gay dude 24/7. I’m so much more than my sexual orientation. But I don’t want to feel trapped in the closet again either, waiting for some arbitrary time to come out once again. Some days I wonder if I have enough patience and grace to invest in another faith community. Let’s face it, families and couples are at an advantage in seeking out new churches. They have someone to lean on for support amid the process. Last year I thought I finally had made the transition to a mainstream church, just to realize how lonely I felt sitting in a row alone month after month, in a worship and preaching style far outside my comfort zone. Everyone seemed too evangelical and conservative to let me enter their lives. A church home felt more like a fantasy or a crushed dream.

 

But something pretty amazing happened this last Sunday. I met my friend Logan last year while spending a week in Tennessee catching up with some of my old college friends and brainstorming the concept of this blog. I had followed Logan’s blog over the past year and since I was already in a risk-taking, adventurous spirit, I asked if we could have coffee. Thankfully he said yes and what followed was one of my very favorite, cherished conversations. A year later, I had a request. I asked Logan if I could go with him to church. I had never worshipped with another gay person before, and I wondered what it would feel like. Logan was cool with me tagging along, so we caught up in a coffee shop where the church also happened to be located. It may have been the best church service I ever attended (awesome things seem to happen around Logan, just saying). The service was hip with its blend of liturgy and folksy contemporary worship, coffee and skinny jeans, but it was far more than  “sexy Christianity” as Kyle Donn has put it. For the first time in a long time, I didn’t feel alone in church, I wasn’t an isolated, individual sexual minority in a sea of heterosexuals. While I barely know Logan, it was really special to share such a symbolic moment. In that moment we were brothers united in one common love of our Savior. Sitting next to Logan allowed me to lower my walls, silence my inner critic, and worship. I didn’t know if I’d ever sincerely engage in church again, but for one Sunday I did. And it was awesome.

 

As God is maturing, sanctifying, and integrating every piece of my life, I’m slowly understanding what Dr. Hahn was saying about the glasses. Same-sex attraction used to be the dark issue that I shoved away in a closet as far from my consciousness as I could keep it. That proved as easy as holding a beach ball under water. When I finally ventured into the unknown of my sexuality, it took me a few years to find a path. I crossed physical and emotional boundaries I never should have approached. I was selfish, needy, and insecure, but through my sins and mistakes, God has revealed his tender mercies and redemptive love. I’ve learned a thing or two along the way. There’s peace in interacting with other gay people now as equals, whether online or in person. Not in pride, not desperately clawing for attention, but aware of just how beloved I am in my Father’s eyes. I also have a passionate desire to express Christ’s love to His people (gay or straight).

 

Self-identifying as gay begins internally as we recognize our differences from the world around us. But sexual identity isn’t so much an act of naval gazing for me. It’s about kinship with those who have shared similar experiences and suffered all kinds of indignities from the church and society. Christian sexual minorities struggle with questions and fears that privileged straight Christians will never have to stress about. Every option before us comes with great sacrifices and heartache. I call myself gay because I am part of a community, regardless of our differing views on sexual ethics. I am a brother to my LGBTQ family; they have my unconditional love until the end of my days.

 

I freely admit I could be wrong on so many things. But I’m certain of two things. I have one awesome Savior and one awesome family—a diverse, blended family of ethnicities, genders, political positions, varying socioeconomic classes, ages, and heck yes, sexual orientations.

 

My gay friends are my glasses. They make this world, and the church, a much more beautiful and welcoming place.

 

  1. Grey’s Anatomy, Season 5: Episode 6, “Life During Wartime.”

 

Photo courtesy of flickr creative commons, user Filly Jones

The Year the World Turned Upside Down

couple watching fireworks

 

2014 was the year I planned to topple walls and slay monsters. This was to be a year of dreams, a year where anything was possible. The year I stopped running.

 

Writing is hard; I discovered that. Writing forced me to face difficult questions that rarely had concrete answers. People didn’t always like my conclusions, and they occasionally told me. I learned the art of deep breathing while reading private Facebook messages and e-mails, graciously disengaging from pointless arguments and attempting to find elements of truth amid the ignorance.

 

I read a lot of books on writing. They told me not to compare my skills to other writers, but I couldn’t help it. Everything I wrote felt like crap, but it would take time to realize we all begin as crappy artists. Art becomes great after intense struggle and through many trials and errors. And yet people responded with such sweet kindness to my poor artistry. Sometimes an individual would message me for advice, but more often people reached out with their stories, just needing an understanding stranger to listen to their heartache and loneliness, but also their hopes and dreams.

 

Blogging gave me an opportunity to examine my motives. I found my heart was not entirely noble nor selfish, just a complicated mixture of the two. A blog can empower the silent and marginalized, people like me. I was the guy in the background so paralyzed by all my perceived flaws, and suddenly I was speaking and people were listening. Life held purpose, not just dreams. My words were helping people and occasionally the established writing community of faith noticed my existence. It was exciting until it became terrifying. Becoming a public figure meant finding an appropriate balance of being myself—but not too much, because, well, I’m kinda awkward, silly, and melodramatic. And wordy. Lord, am I wordy (not in person, mind you, just when I’m typing). But I digress.

 

Transforming from an awkward, quiet guy into a public figure was excruciating. I hoped people would finally see me, and would suddenly love what they saw. All those years of neediness became so apparent and oh so consuming. I misused many of the opportunities God gave me because I was still in victim-mode. Oh, poor celibate, lonely Seth. I expected other people to come to my rescue and fix that. Surely with a platform the ache could be repaired and the void filled. If I could only get into certain niches and belong in certain friend groups, then I could be content. I would be whole. I would become this suave fellow with the perfect script for every situation. However, I wouldn’t be Seth, the guy who listens and smiles more than he speaks. I’m a guy with a complete personality who doesn’t need to be molded and erased to belong. I’m already an actor with a part to play in God’s redemptive drama.

 

This was the year the world turned upside down. I battled my toughest insecurities and experienced a great deal of rejection and disappointment. But all through my life God has been forming a persevering spirit within me. For all the people who have hurt me, God has blessed me with family and friends who became my crutches until I could learn to walk secure in Christ. People may not like the man I became this year. That’s fine. I’m still a man very much in need of sanctification and spiritual formation, but I’m a man who found his voice and courage. More importantly, God taught me about rich, costly grace this year—grace for myself, a misunderstanding church, and for the conflicting and diverse convictions of my brothers and sisters in Christ. When I was troubled and didn’t know what to say, God told me to lean into the tension. When scripture presented a complicated and paradoxical deity, I took a deep breath and said ok. I looked to Jesus and trusted Him for one more day. When evangelicals spoke with black and white confidence and emergents spoke with gray mystery, I said ok. I continued to journey with my diverse friends for one more day. No more running.

 

I don’t know what to expect for 2015, whether this experiment crumbles, my blogging ministry expands, or something altogether different. I hope this year finds me at Regent, beginning my professional development as a clinical psychologist and learning to live transparently and honestly in community. But maybe that’s not God’s plan. Maybe this will be a year of reframing and rediscovering. Whatever happens, I hope to continue faithfully writing and listening. I hope to be more giving and less self-centered. I hope to become more human.

 

Thank you for reading in 2014 and may God’s presence and grace uphold you this new year. Shalom, my friends.