When We Disagree Well

guys talking

We’re taught from a young age to draw boundary lines. We clearly delineate those within and those who stand without the fold. We’re expected to be cordial to outsiders, but only as long as they remain on their side of the fence. God forbid they should ever cross the line until we know they’re one of us.

 

But what happens when an outsider begins as an insider? What happens to those emotional bonds, that history of shared experiences, those vulnerable late night conversations?

 

Do you grieve like death has struck? Do you withdraw because your friend has become a stranger? The lines are crossed; your comfortable, ordered world is crumbling apart. What are you going to do?

 

You see, for many gay Christian people like myself, we’re waiting.

 

~         ~         ~

 

You can fairly call Glee’s Santana a word that rhymes with witch. She’s a tough, beautiful, cheerleading Latina with a knack for artistically tearing people down and putting bullies in their place. But underneath that ice queen exterior lies a deep, vulnerable secret: Santana’s gay. When she’s unexpectedly outed, there’s one person in particular she worries will find out: her conservative, Catholic grandmother—her abuela. So one evening Santana goes over for a visit. When they sit down to talk and Santana shares this part of her life that has always remained hidden, Abuela can barely maintain eye contact. Occasionally her eyes meet Santana’s, but her expression is cold, empty.

 

A few moments ago Abuela fretted whether Santana was eating enough, now Abuela can’t recognize her granddaughter. She’s no longer an insider in a world Abuela can understand. It’s a moment of dreams and hopes deconstructing and there’s nothing left to lean on but her beliefs. There’s no time to call a time out, to pause, to process. There’s just overwhelming fear, discomfort, and disappointment. Abuela does the only thing she knows to do. She tells her once cherished granddaughter to leave and never come back. As Abuela leaves the table and turns away from Santana, far too many sexual minority youths can sympathize with Santana’s tears of rejection and heartbreak. And for a couple of seasons Glee leaves it at that.

 

Silence.

 

Here’s the thing about Glee: no argument is ever finished; loose ends are rarely abandoned. Santana has come a long way in her journey since being outed as a teenager. She still has plenty of snark, but time has deepened her capacity for compassion and taught her to become fiercely loyal to her friends. She proposes to her girlfriend Brittany and Glee takes the opportunity to reintroduce Abuela as Brittany tries to reconcile grandmother and granddaughter. Abuela remains just as opposed to gay marriage as before, yet there’s a hesitant warmth and softness we haven’t seen before. As Abuela watches her granddaughter perform, she smiles and tears up. But Abuela and Santana are still at a stalemate. Abuela stuffs the warm emotions down, believing nothing has changed. But she has changed—the years have likely given her time to think. On the day of Santana’s wedding, Abuela shows up to everyone’s surprise. She has found a way to embrace the tension without violating her conscience.

 

Abuela tells Santana before the wedding,

 

“I’m not saying I agree with every decision you make… I still don’t believe it’s right for two women to get married… But I do believe family is the most important thing in the world. And I love you, Santana. I don’t want to be the person in your life that causes you pain.”

 

Glee Santana and Brittany wedding

Image Credit

 

This is a pretty amazing conversation for television. We live in a world of black and white—you’re either for same-sex relationships and gay people or you’re against them. There is no middle ground. That’s likely what Abuela had been taught. Yet she decides to cut through the politics and theological arguments and center her focus on Santana—a woman made in God’s image, a fellow human with dignity and value, her own flesh and blood. So Glee doesn’t resolve the tension, and tension makes extremists on both sides wacky. Extreme liberals might say if you don’t fully agree with them, you’re oppressing them; you’re intolerant. Extreme conservatives might say if you go to a gay family member or friend’s wedding, you’re endorsing “the gay lifestyle” (whatever that is…) and your place in the faith might be in question.

 

In fact, Christianity Today recently discussed whether the traditional-believing Christian should attend gay weddings. Three out of four said no, while Eve Tushnet offered a different view. Eve framed her answer through unconditional love: “Whenever Christians can show that our love is not a reward for good behavior, we should do so.” This is similar to Abuela’s logic. Navel-gazing conservatives may worry how others will perceive them if they attend an open celebration they deem to be unscriptural, but that was far from Abuela’s mind. Santana and Brittany knew where she stood on the issue, but they also knew that Abuela had learned to love her granddaughter unconditionally. This was an important life event for Santana and Abuela chose to attend the wedding to demonstrate her newfound commitment to journey through life with her granddaughter in times of both agreement and conflict. Tough love wasn’t going to cut it anymore.

 

It also helps when you can see a gay relationship as more than just sex. As any married couple will tell you, and I’m sure gay couples would agree, sex is not the center of the relationship. I particularly liked this quote from Eve (and whole-heartedly concur):

 

This decision about attendance is easier for me, because I believe God calls some people to devoted, sacrificial love of another person of the same sex. Let me be clear: I don’t think that that love should be expressed sexually. But some people who marry a same-sex partner are doing so out of a call to love, even though they misinterpret the nature of that love. We should support as much as we can. When a woman forgives offenses and humbly apologizes for her own wrongdoing, cares for children, listens, comforts, and learns to put others’ needs above her own preferences, those are acts of love—which do not become worthless or loveless when they take place within a lesbian relationship.

There are a lot of gray parts in the discussion, such as the selfless love and service Eve noted. I personally believe scripture affirms sexuality exclusively between a man and woman in marriage, and as much as I’ve tried to convince myself of revisionist theology, I still don’t feel compelled by many of the arguments (I still recommend conservative Christians check out folks like Matthew Vines, James Brownson, and Justin Lee and grapple with what they have to say). However, it bother me when Christians question the legitimacy of my friends’ faith who feel convicted God affirms same-sex marriages. I disagree with their position, but I fiercely believe they deserve a place at the table, that they are my brothers and sisters in Christ. If they want to worship Jesus, I’m not going to discourage them from seeking Him where they are. I’m not God who can examine the heart, nor the Spirit who sanctifies and softens the heart. I’m not the gatekeeper to the Kingdom. I refuse to stand in the way of anyone desiring a personal relationship with Christ and the power of the gospel. How that works out in the lives of sinful humans who have the freedom to participate in their sanctification will vary. At our best, we remain imperfect no matter how close we are to the goal. So my friends have my respect, my love, and my support. As the years go by, I expect to gladly attend multiple gay weddings because I’m in my friendships without conditions, expectations, or an agenda.

 

I believe in building friendships with all kinds of people. I’m close to a few Mormons. I have friends who are Agnostic and Atheist. Some of my friends are Black, Hispanic, and Asian. I like being one of the guys, but I can just as easily mingle with the ladies. I relate to progressive Christians, but I also appreciate what I learn from conservatives. I’m politically and theologically moderate, so no one likely agrees with me 100% of the time. There are opportunities to examine our different points of view—a time to ask questions, to listen, to share our perspectives, but then to put the discussion back on the shelf. Diverse friendships aren’t centered on our conflicts. That’s unhealthy. I don’t harass my gay-affirming friends about celibacy every time we talk. They know what I believe. We’re too busy talking about great books, watching movies, going to concerts and art exhibits, exploring nature, eating good food (that I’m not allergic to), maybe worshipping Jesus together, and just enjoying the gift of life. Diverse friendships work when we disagree well, when we learn from our differences, when we share life together.

 

~         ~         ~

 

We spend our life drawing boundaries lines in the sand, defining “us” versus “them,” and making sure we stick to friends who keep our lives comfortable and unsurprising. But isn’t it amazing when we can step across the line and unconditionally love those who are different from us? It’s not that our beliefs don’t matter, that we shouldn’t try to seek truth, or ascertain standards like sexual ethics. What I’m talking about is a call to humility, because we’re fallen, finite and biased. Scripture gives us the big picture, the “metanarrative” of redemption, but we can’t see all the threads God is weaving together to form His tapestry. We simply know our call to love God and our neighbor, to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly before our God. Yes, we have much to stand for. …We just don’t have to act like jerks to share it. I love Abuela’s example; she didn’t compromise her convictions, but Abuela didn’t let her beliefs rob her of Santana’s relationship.

 

In a perfect world we wouldn’t all agree. Rather, we would respect our differences and have enduring grace and patience amid our conflicts and tensions. We wouldn’t have selfish agendas or abandon friends because they haven’t made progress toward our point of view. We wouldn’t have to hide our faith or our convictions; we could be transparent and honest about who we are and what we think. We would be open-minded, open-hearted, curious, and kind. We would gather at one table and it would be messy, loud, and uncomfortable, but oh so endearing and safe. Everyone would have a voice; everyone would belong.

 

And while we live in a world of haters and zealots, I like to believe my friends can envision that table when we sit down to talk. I will not shove my faith down your throat; I will listen more than I speak. We may not agree, but you will be respected. I simply offer my faith and my friendship as an invitation.

 

The ball’s in your court.

Great Expectations

man nature

I grew up in a large homeschooling family. We went to Primitive Baptist churches and stood out among the older congregants. Other than my siblings, I didn’t have a real-life friend until I was fifteen. I had a Mormon pen-pal for a few years and somehow made diverse friendships on message boards as the designated fundamentalist. After a devastating week at Boy Scout camp, I really didn’t know if I could do real-life friendships. Maybe I was just too sheltered and too different.

 

It didn’t stop me from trying.

 

When I became a teenager, my family joined a new church and suddenly I had connections to people in my age range. I loved to write, so I decided to create a newsletter for other Primitive Baptist youth, especially those who felt isolated like me without friends their own age. The newsletter gave me a voice and purpose; I could present myself as confident, intelligent, and maybe just a little bit cool.

 

Unfortunately, my social deprivation quickly revealed itself in church camps and out-of-town church meetings. I talked way too fast, stuttered, or just didn’t know what to say to other teenagers. I cried myself asleep many of those nights away from home, embarrassed because I felt like such a freak. I didn’t realize the only way to overcome awkwardness was to work through it, and as Elizabeth Bennett advised the reticent Mr. Darcy, “Practice.” But there weren’t a lot of opportunities to learn when most of the teenagers were hours away from home. Every time I went to a church meeting or camp, I swore I’d never go back. …And then somehow I’d find myself back again a year later.

 

In junior college, I fell in love with stories, partly because I had an amazing English Literature instructor who would let me hang out in her office and talk about characters, symbolism, and religion. I particularly loved gritty stories with redemptive endings or the sad ones that kicked me in the gut and left me depressed and haunted for days. I majored in psychology so I could hear real-life stories and take part in people’s journeys. I had two dreams: become a psychologist and an author.

 

Blogging sorta accomplished one of my goals, but it also forced me to face my deepest insecurities. It honestly didn’t matter how much progress I made, I still felt like that awkward, stammering teenager with nothing interesting to say. Worst of all was getting to know some of the writers I’d read for years. I really wanted to belong in their cliques; I hoped they would like me. But the writing community is a fickle, forgetful place. Often you have to do your time before you fit in. The disappointments often hit me hard.

 

My life has a pretty consistent theme: I depend on others to validate me. I expect to embarrass myself and prove to you how socially incompetent I am. I just know people will inevitably lose interest and concern and I’ll be right back where I started. Alone. Surely I missed out on some vital social script to maneuver through life. How can I convince cool people to teach me? What can I do to attract their attention? I’m ambitious. I work pretty hard to hide my insecurities behind my successes and I’m constantly doing something to feel worthy of your attention: create a newsletter for Primitive Baptist teenagers, start a psychology club in college, publish a blog about being gay and Christian, get accepted into a doctoral program… But success doesn’t guarantee belonging. I still have to do the vulnerable, delicate work of interacting and developing friendships. I can’t run and hide in my room whenever relationships get a little messy and complicated or when it looks like another person has ignored me or doesn’t reciprocate my interest.

 

I need another perspective.

 

Marlena Graves wrote a beautiful blend of spiritual memoir and theology last year in her book A Beautiful Disaster: Finding Hope in the Midst of Brokenness. Marlena spoke of our suffering as a wilderness, a place to practice spiritual disciplines to deepen and mature our relationship with Christ. The wilderness is a place to face our insecurities and even has things to teach us about our desire for attention:

 

“We all, every one of us, want our God-given dignity affirmed by others. We want to receive attention. We want to be valued, appreciated, admired and sought after. We want to feel cherished and adored—to be ‘in’ with others. We want to know our lives matter. We want to be loved. That’s why some of us so desperately want to be famous. It’s why we are overly concerned with our reputations, why we loathe obscurity, and why our confidence hangs on the opinions of others. When it comes right down to it, some of us believe that we matter if and only if hordes of people are fawning over us.”1

 

Blogging quickly revealed I had some unhealthy motives for writing. Sure, I wanted to help people, but I didn’t feel like I was making much of an impact if the established writing community didn’t notice my posts. Rather than staying faithful to what I loved, I allowed certain people’s lack of enthusiasm to crush my love for the craft of writing and my hopes of becoming writer—a profession that a requires a ridiculous amount of failure and disappointment and honestly never guarantees anything. And when I actually had a viral post, I felt like a deer in front of headlights. I had no idea what to do with the attention.

 

Marlena offers incredibly helpful insight:

 

“Pursuing fame and prestige will corrupt my soul and in all probability prove elusive. An out-of-control need to be seen is an addiction that will drive us to compromise the Jesus life. In the kingdom of God, being seen and pursuing fame and prestige are not to be our motivations. That’s why Jesus told us to seek first the kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33). Perhaps our endeavors will lead to fame, but that’s not what we should aim for or why we do what we do.”2

 

I’m slowly learning not to care what others think of me; i’s not my responsibility to know. All I’m expected to do is live transparently and honestly. Maybe I’m just meant to be the guy in the background. If I can be completely open with just a few close friends, that’s more than enough. Maybe I have a place in the broader discussion of LGBTQs and the church, maybe I don’t. There are already great spokespeople leading the conversation, so I don’t have to strive to be something I’m not. The word is slowly getting out there. Whatever platform God gives me will suffice.

 

My recent graduate school interview was an incredible experience. It revealed a different paradigm than the one I’d imagined. I’ve spent my life trying to win over people I found interesting, but never really believing I had anything to offer. During my interview I openly shared how my story as a sexual minority deepened my empathy and compassion for the marginalized and the suffering. I spoke up in a student panel and asked a question on the treatment of minorities on campus, revealing I was a gay applicant. In one day I had accomplished what I never would have dared do before I published my blog. My approach during the interview was completely “take me or leave me,” a perspective I’m not normally brave enough to feel. And yet, people would stop and ask me questions about my experience. They told me about gay people they knew. I was shown kindness, respect, and surprisingly, interest. Huh. Who knew?

 

I’ve built all my dreams on some fairly weighty expectations. Do more, be more and then you will be loved. But all along God has been calling me to minimalism. Do less. Just be you. I have made you enough as you are.

Write and become a clinical psychologist because you want to, Seth.

Pursue your passions because you can’t imagine doing anything else with your life.

Follow your dreams because they still matter even if no one knows your name or thinks you’re worth knowing.

The best friends you’ll have in this life are the ones you don’t have to impress, convince, or win over. They don’t care about your popularity or influence. They don’t want anything from you except your love and friendship. They like your personality, your interests, and your story.

 

My journey has been long and weighed down with baggage and insecurity. I’ve lingered far too long in the desert. But Marlena reminds me that God hasn’t left me in the wilderness without a purpose. Rather, she writes, “I experience the greatest divine growth spurts deep in the wilderness, in the midst of wild and unwelcomed pain. God uses the suffering I experience in the desert wilderness to show me who I am without him, to drive me to repentance, and to make me holy and wholly alive.”3 For all the insecurity I’ve experienced throughout life, I’ve also found resiliency and optimism to keep giving intimacy another shot. The blog has shown me my fears, but also my courage.

 

Intimacy scares the heck out of us because we aren’t perfect; we screw up and reveal our selfishness, pride, and yes, our insecurities. But you have to let people show you grace rather than run. The friends worth keeping will stick around. Just love people and let them be. Lose the expectations and live. Embrace the wilderness.

 

  1. Marlena Graves, A Beautiful Disaster: Finding Hope in the Midst of Brokenness. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2014, 131.
  2. Ibid, page 132.
  3. Ibid, page 195.