When Jesus Redefines Masculinity

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Since coming out you might notice I cross my legs. When I’m animated or struggling to find words, I wave my hands around. I communicate primarily through my facial expressions, and when I do share my thoughts, my voice tends to be tentative and soft. I’m passionate about relational and artistic subjects like social politics, theology, psychological and spiritual flourishing, literature, spiritual memoirs, the craft of writing, film, and music. Culturally speaking, I’m no man’s man. By many churches’ standards, I’m a failure as a Christian.

 

I’m not a biblical man.

 

Or am I?

 

One of the many aspects I enjoy about blogging is the opportunity to interact with other writers. Over the past year I’ve become somewhat acquainted with Pastor Nate Pyle after he shared a lovely post with me about his intention to stay in the LGBTQ conversation. Nate recently published a book on masculinity called Man Enough: How Jesus Redefines Manhood. I despise most books on biblical masculinity and gender roles, but Nate’s message resonated with me.

 

Man Enough by Nate Pyle

 

Nate stresses multiple times throughout his book that there isn’t one single biblical definition for masculinity, but multiple ones. Rather than restricting men to a narrow definition of manliness, Nate offers a far more liberating, countercultural perspective:

 

“It is time to stop defining masculinity by what men do and start defining it by who men are. It is time to stop pushing men to fulfill a role and start focusing on helping men become human. Rather than focusing on making men breadwinners, warriors, or even better husbands, it is time to focus on encouraging men to be fully human and alive. If men can learn to be courageous—and not a ‘run into a burning house’ courageous but a ‘be authentic about who you are’ courageous—then men will be better husbands, better fathers, better coworkers, better neighbors, better friends. Better humans. Embodying characteristics such as vulnerability, integrity, gentleness, and courage will serve men far better in a changing world than forcing them to accept some predetermined role.”¹

 

At first, Nate’s message felt obvious for me. I’m nearly 30, and I’ve journeyed far enough in my story to care little about how others perceive me. I’m never going to be the guy who likes sports or hunting or understands the mechanics of a car. I’m never going to date a girl, get married, and have kids. But truth be told, I feel pressure to act more masculine. I lift weights most weeks and in my early twenties I trained myself to say “Man” and “Dude.” If I want to be recognized as a writer, speaker, and activist in a heteronormative culture, then I’m going to feel pressured to act “normal,” meaning masculine. Gay culture, even Gay Christian subculture, values masculinity in gay males. It’s seen as more attractive, confident, and strong. I once pursued a guy I liked during my brief Side A experience. He told me I was cute but not enough of a “bro” to be his boyfriend. I wasn’t good enough; I wasn’t man enough.

 

What I appreciated most about Nate’s message in Man Enough was his call for men to become authentic human beings. It’s a message that doesn’t bash masculinity or femininity, but recognizes of our unique personalities that suffocate under rigid gender role designations. Nate offers a strong warning: “Using the gospel to reinforce gender roles and ideals redirects our attention away from its central goal: that men and women will become like Jesus.”² This goal of developing Christ-like qualities lays the foundation of Nate’s argument. Popular culture and even church culture divides our humanity, esteeming some characteristics while minimizing others. But in Jesus we see complete humanity. We see a man who experiences righteous fury in the temple but also weeps when a friend dies. We see a man willing to face death, but is also comfortable when John lays his head on his chest. We can see great might and courage in Jesus’ personality, but also countercultural tenderness and intimacy.

 

The queer community has a lot to offer the church. Sure, it means pushing people outside of their comfort zones, but why is that such a bad thing? When the church can esteem my masculinity for who I am in Christ, not for my ability to perform certain cultural expectations, the entire church benefits. Straight men are given freedom to be Christ-like without being seen as pathetic and women are elevated as equal image bearers of God and not seen as inferior or a symbol of weakness. I cannot, and will never fit within any kind of biblical masculinity mold, and I don’t have to. God intends for my life to reflect his son, not some hollow macho ideal I could never attain.

 

Most days I don’t worry how masculine or effeminate I appear to the world around me. It’s subjective and not worth my time or energy. Grace establishes the foundation for the Christian faith. It’s not what I do, but what Christ has done. As Ephesians 2 notes, salvation is not of works lest we should boast. So I don’t need bulging muscles, sporty cars, wilderness survival skills, or an impressive career to matter. I’m thankful for Nate’s reminder that I’m man enough right now and I don’t need to prove anything to God or to the world. I’m free to be vulnerable and I can rest knowing who I am: a beloved son of God.

 

  1. Nate Pyle, Man Enough: How Jesus Redefines Manhood. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015, p. 61.
  2. Ibid, p. 157.

When We Find Our Resilient Selves

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I’m not ready.

 

Words I’ve said too many times over my lifetime. I’m not ready for adulthood and responsibility. I’m not ready to risk rejection within community. I’m not ready to pursue my ambitions because maybe I don’t have what it takes.

 

I spent five years after college waiting for some spark of bravery to ignite my life and burn away all the fetters that kept me from moving forward into adulthood. I would start a goal and panic when the struggle became too intense. I learned to run from my problems and retreat within an inner prison where no one could reach me or know me.

 

Blogging became one of my first steps out of the shadows. I wanted connection with the Gay Christian subculture, and if I could befriend the writers and speakers who represented it, then maybe I’d finally be someone. Maybe my voice could matter. Many established Gay Christians did become aware of my existence and then moved on. I doubt their disinterest was personal, but I took it as another crushing reminder that I wasn’t good enough—that I would never be good enough for any community.

 

I’d write a post and sink into depression for weeks because I had no idea what I was doing. Clearly I wasn’t ready to write publicly and connect to readers and other writers. Most of my life I’ve convinced myself I’m trash: useless, worthless, and undesirable. The more I spoke, the more I revealed how pathetic I was. I just wanted to quit and go back to my invisible life.

 

But then I’d write again and slowly my posts became less about obtaining the attention I’d never possessed, and more about the art form. I began to feel life through my story. I experienced moments of growth as I took another step of faith through one more blog post, one more vulnerable conversation, one more deep breath.

 

Every month I cycled through depression, refinement, and redemption.

 

Studying under Dr. Mark Yarhouse had been my dream since transferring to Bryan College to study psychology in 2008. I intended to apply to the clinical psychology program every year since graduating, and every year I would tell myself I wasn’t ready. But blogging changed something in me; it provided a sense of courage I’d never known. Surviving a year of blogging had taught me readiness would never come. I could only try and wait for God to make the next step clear.

 

And then to my delight and terror, Regent accepted my application.

 

Like blogging, I arrived in Virginia Beach with many unrealistic hopes. I thought I’d left my depression back in Alabama because now I had purpose. I was out as a gay man in a Christian academic community that valued diversity and I even found quick support in my new church. I would belong, God would fix all my issues, and everything would be perfect for the rest of the semester.

 

Not so much.

 

It didn’t take long for my doctoral studies to overwhelm me. When I freak out I shut down, and when I shut down I isolate myself from others, and when I isolate myself I begin to self-destruct. The melancholy would sink in every Thursday evening after classes ended for the week. I would spend my weekends in bed, weighed down by anxiety and sadness because I wasn’t connecting. I’d worry if the loneliness would define the rest of my life and maybe I’d just made a stupid, super expensive mistake. I started turning in homework late and I declined offers to hangout with others. By midterms I ruminated about dropping out. I had set my ambitions too high; I’d flown too close to the sun.

 

I am trash. I am nothing. I am invisible.

 

The week after midterms I initiated a meeting with one of my professors about my late work. She empathized with my pain and fears, but also challenged me with compassion to receive the help I needed to continue moving forward.

 

Find your most resilient self, Seth.

 

An old friend from Bryan encouraged me to open up to a few people in my cohort. It wasn’t easy. I didn’t want them to see me as unstable or to further alienate myself if I somehow managed to survive the semester. But I finally brought my depression, anxiety and other self-destructive tendencies into the light to a few cohort mates and upperclassmen. I learned telling people I’m gay doesn’t mean I’m out of the closet—emotionally I’m still there. But by lowering my walls just a bit I could receive my friends’ grace and lay the foundation to meaningful relationships that provided the support I needed.

 

The first night I knew I would be okay happened as I went out for drinks with a few cohort mates. We walked across the street to a club and I danced for my first time in public as the music blared. I mimicked the other dancers and laughed at my terrible dance moves. I didn’t feel like the depressed, crazy guy for one night. I was with friends and I was wanted and I was okay.

 

Redemption happens in unexpected places. God is everywhere, even on a dance floor.

 

I found my first moment of purpose towards the end of the semester transcribing an interview of a sexual minority student at a Christian university. The interview reminded me how grateful I am for this honor to tell our collective story—even statistics and research data reveal an art form; themes that resonate and unite our individual narratives. I love moments when I feel part of this beautiful and diverse community of sexual and gender minorities—a community who has so much to offer the body of Christ. I needed this reminder. There’s a reason why God wants me at Regent and it’s worth the stress, tears, all-nighters, loans, and five year commitment to fulfill this calling.

 

God has already enabled me with the ability to pursue my calling. I will never be ready until I step out in faith, fail, and pick myself back up. I’m still learning how to be human; it’s an awkward, painful growing experience. I’m a man lost and thirsty in the wilderness, but like Hagar, I’m finding my salvation in El-Roi—the God who sees me. Not seen as trash, but as a beloved child. Transformation is happening, and slowly I’m becoming the man God is shaping me to be. Slowly I’m allowing people to touch my life.

 

Resilience only requires one step at a time.

When You Feel Oppressed by My Faith: A Love Letter

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Yesterday I listened as a local affirming Gay Christian shared a little of his faith story with me over private Facebook messages. At one point he stopped and told me he wanted nothing to do with the oppressive message of the Side B/traditional sexual ethic position. The conservative church had told him his sexual orientation was sinful, a mistake, and contrary to his status as an imager bearer of God. He didn’t want to waste any more energy around it.

 

I paused as I reflected on the weight of this man’s words. It’s easy to become defensive when someone slams my personal beliefs—to feel I need to justify my faith. But I’ve been Side A and affirming. I remember what it was like. I truly know how the conservative church’s teaching on sexuality can oppress the spirit. My faith felt like trying to stay afloat in a tumultuous ocean. I fought so hard to keep my head above water, gasping for oxygen as the waves crashed over me. Does God really love me? Am I a reprobate? How do I reconcile the chaos going on inside me? As I struggled to survive, Christians would come and share Bible verses, platitudes, arguments, and their fears for my salvation. All of these felt like weights I couldn’t carry as I sunk into the ocean’s depths. If I was going to live, I needed to run. So I left the church for over a year.

 

“I get it, man,” I told him.

 

~          ~          ~

 

But I have no agenda, no expectations on friendship. You don’t have to become celibate for us to be cool. I understand if I bring up painful memories with the church and I won’t be offended if you need to walk away. But please know I don’t think you’re disgusting or a mistake. I believe you’re always within God’s grace—the same grace we all depend on as fallen creatures in need of a great Savior.

 

I know you’re doing your utmost to honor the authority and integrity of scripture. This is not a light manner. I know the depression and anxiety; I know the stakes. But I have to believe God’s grace is more efficacious than my ability to check off every correct theological box. I’m a reformed Christian, at least that’s my background shaping my interpretation of scripture. Romans 8 says that nothing can separate us from God’s love. I have to believe God’s redeeming grace covers me and my self-destructive tendencies; that it covers our blind spots and biases. I have to believe God looks at the entire story; that he’s more than an apathetic robot.

 

I’m here for the journey with you. Not to remind you of our differences whenever tensions and disagreements arise, but as a friend who supports and loves you through life’s beautiful joys and aching sorrows. I’ll have coffee with you and give you high fives when you share about the new love interest in your life. I’ll go with you to the dark places through the break-ups. I’ll celebrate with you at the wedding and I’ll hold your hand at the funeral. I’m in this with you.

 

I want your faith to thrive. I don’t want to be an obstacle keeping you from experiencing the power and beauty of the gospel. I want my friendship to reveal a little bit of Jesus and his unceasing love for you. Perhaps my friendship will reveal a celibate calling for you, but more than likely it won’t. And I’m ok with that. Maybe you can discover a deeper appreciation for friendship, learning that life can be purposeful in this present moment even without a romantic partner as you participate in God’s kingdom, assisting in redemptive work. But this I know for certain: I will learn from you. You have much to teach me.

 

I can’t change how scripture speaks to me, how it informs the way I feel called to live my life. But my life is not the standard, and I’m humble enough to admit I could be wrong. When I speak about sexual ethics, I can only speak for my own story. In stories we find common themes and resonate with similar experiences, but each story is unique. My story isn’t a weapon to tear you down or invalidate your perspective. I’m just one thread in a diverse tapestry.

 

When you feel oppressed by my faith, please know I don’t extend judgment or condemnation to you. Just grace and a hospitable heart.