When You Feel Oppressed by My Faith: A Love Letter

A man walking on railroad tracks

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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.

When We Adventure Together

man looking over the clouds

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Today in class we talked a little about ethics and values in therapy, sparking a lively discussion about what happens in the therapy room when our moral convictions conflict with our clients’ values. We live in a pluralistic society, so there’s no way to avoid differing worldviews outside of our safe church bubbles. God calls us into the world to redeem his creation and part of that work includes interacting with those who see the world from a different angle.

 

Our instructor shared two common ethical approaches Christians take in the mental health profession as they navigate areas of tension. One solution is to refer clients to other professionals who share the client’s worldview and values. The other recognizes that the client is on a journey, and we as therapists have the privilege of walking with our clients during some of the darkest moments of their adventure.The client’s journey is not our own, we’re simply present to be an instrument of God’s grace.

 

Conservative Christians often cite their religious convictions as justification to avoid working with the LGBTQ population in any capacity, Christian psychologists and counselors included. That’s their prerogative, I guess. Yet my faith draws me to sexual and gender minorities because I esteem the Imago Dei in every human being. These people are my people, whether we share similar sexual ethics or not.

 

It will never be my ethical place in the therapy room to tell LGBTQ clients what choices they should make for their lives, whether they decide to pursue same-sex relationships, celibacy, mixed-orientation marriages, hormone therapy, sexual reassignment surgery, or a less invasive choice. The responsibility of such weighty decisions lies solely between the individual and God, and to paraphrase Billy Graham, it’s God’s job to judge, the Spirit’s job to convict, and my job to love.

 

I don’t think this means approaching therapy without my own values, though I’m not sure how that will work (especially since my future clients will be able to read what I’ve written). I’m still a traditional believer who has chosen celibacy to find congruence between my sexual orientation and faith. So when a client asks me how to find peace with God in a same-sex relationship, I won’t be able to share from my personal experience. But I will fully inform my client of all positions and respect the autonomy of my client to make his or her own decision.

 

My philosophy of therapy flows into my writing. My blog’s only agenda is to help Christians understand the LGBTQ community and to provide support to fellow sexual and gender minorities who may resonate with some of my experiences and thoughts. I am a storyteller, narrating one perspective of life as a Christian who also happens to be gay. I would never want anyone to feel pressured by me to adopt a vocation of celibacy. It’s not an easy choice, but it’s the only option that makes sense for me. We may disagree about what the Bible teaches on sexuality, but it doesn’t change my commitment to journey with you until my dying day. I will love, respect and value you; I will advocate for your dignity and humanity. You matter to me, Side A or B or whatever.

 

One of my professors describes clinical psychology as redemptive work. I’m in total agreement. There’s no dichotomy between the sacred and secular; it’s all for Christ. It’s my hope as I develop a deeper relationship with my Heavenly Father, his love will radiate through my words and actions in the therapy room—even if I don’t explicitly talk about God in session. Loving LGBTQs is my calling; it’s a major part of how I glorify God with my time on Earth. I’m still in a process and I have much to learn over the next five years in grad school and for the rest of my life.

 

In Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Sam couldn’t carry Frodo’s ring, but he could walk with Frodo when the road got rough and all hope seemed lost. Sam could carry Frodo when the weight of his calling had drained him of all strength.

 

I want to be a Sam to my friends and clients. For whatever time our lives intersect, I want to adventure with you through the good and the bad. I will walk with you through the fires of Mount Doom because I believe in a God who redeems, and I will share my hope when you cannot find your own. I’m in this with you.

 

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

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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.

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

brooklyn bridge

Where I Stand, Part Two

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.

 

Without agenda.

 

Without expectations.

 

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 recently wrote 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 The Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity 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.

 

 

1. http://psychologyandchristianity.wordpress.com/2010/03/10/understanding-sexual-identity-therapy/

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

bridge

Where I Stand, Part One

I pull off at the nearest exit after the accident. I find some kind of deserted recreation center and stop in the parking lot. My abdominal muscles tighten, so tight that it hurts and won’t release anytime soon. I clench the wheel and bang my head against the headrest again and again until I’m dizzy and I no longer know if the tears running down my face are from the accident, the weekend, or the headache I’m giving myself.

 

Stupid, stupid, stupid.

 

I still have to drive through Atlanta—through hell—to get back home to Alabama. I’m forgetting to breathe. I worry that I won’t be able to make it down I-20. What if I have a second accident? In the midst of a mild panic attack, other questions swarm through my mind.

 

You knew this was a mistake. Why did you ask to hang out? Why did you go?

 

Did it even matter?

 

~          ~          ~

 

I believe in bridge building. I have a diversity of friends and acquaintances with different opinions. Some are more vocal than others.

 

You just haven’t found the right woman.

You haven’t found the right man.

Don’t base your beliefs on your emotions.

Don’t be afraid to feel.

You’re too conservative. Wake up to reality.

You’re too liberal. Stop questioning everything.

 

People have strong opinions. They will fight to have the last word. I usually give it to them.

 

I have a generally reticent disposition to the world around me. I am, as Addie Zierman put it recently, a “conscientious observer” of life.

 

“The paradoxes that I’m interested in exploring aren’t the ones that make the Internet blow up. They’re the quiet, deep-down ones – the ones I find in my own messy heart: kindness and cruelty. Faith and doubt. Grace and justice and redemption and forgiveness and flesh and spirit.

 

That’s the kind of guy I am most of the time. It definitely describes Seth in real life.

 

But if I choose to say, “Hey, this is my experience,” someone will question my faith. If I lay out my beating heart to the world, people will disregard it; some will say nasty things.

 

It’s not so easy when your very existence is controversial.

 

I do try to avoid conflict where I can. This blog isn’t the place to discuss who’s right in the gay debate. Should gay marriage receive acceptance from the church? Should the church mandate celibacy for sexual minorities? I don’t want to go there. Yes, I am a gay man and these questions shape my life, but they can also end an important dialogue. So let’s take that discussion off the table. There are other blogs and books that can address those kind of questions far better than I can. Let’s talk about what it means to be a Christian sexual minority. Let’s talk about the redemption of creation and the growth of the kingdom and how LGBTs fit into that.

 

Let’s talk about how we love people well with whom we disagree.

 

~          ~          ~

 

Thomas and I have been friends for more than two years. We met online and finally hung out in person once last summer as I headed back home from a friend’s wedding in Knoxville. He showed me around the little town in Georgia where he grew up. It was a fairly short meeting for driving five hours out of the way to meet him, but I didn’t care. It was nice to sit back and let Thomas open up about his past. It was nice that he cared enough to show me.

 

I tend to be the initiator in my long distance friendships. It stems from insecurity. Every friendship I’ve had with a gay man ended when I stopped talking. Admittedly, you find higher quality friendships in places other than gay dating apps, but that was a different time and I didn’t know where else to look. I desperately wanted to find people like me. A few guys talked to me out of kindness, not because they thought I was a cool dude (I mean c’mon, man. I think theology, psychology, and literature are pretty sweet). And they didn’t reciprocate interest in keeping things to “just friends” (and especially not if it excluded the benefits). Some were frankly just gross.

 

Thomas wasn’t like that. He apparently saw something in me that no one else did. At least he listened and actually opened up about his life too. He probably knows more about me than any other human on this earth. I’ve told him things via texts and Facebook messages I had never told anyone else. He’s been like a brother to me. We share a birthdate and though we don’t have much in common other than our faith and sexual orientation, knowing we’ve walked the earth for the same number of days always meant a lot to the sentimentalist in me.

 

Yet as a long distance friendship, Thomas was still, in a sense, a stranger to me; a blended creation of facts and pieces of conversations and the expectations of a lonely man. If I made the choice to know the real Thomas, the less my image would continue to exist. What if I liked my imaginary friend better than the real one?

 

I had a dream in March that I went to Georgia to hang out with Thomas to celebrate our twenty-seventh birthday. I’m a little spontaneous sometimes, so I texted Thomas and told him we should do something for our birthday this year. So a week later he invited me to a lake house party with his boyfriend and some of his friends.

 

Oh, Sethy. What have you gotten yourself into now?

 

I’m not an extrovert. My mind goes blank and I smile awkwardly and people probably think I’m stuck up. No, sir. This situation sounded like a disaster waiting to happen. Maybe this friendship wasn’t really sustainable anymore.

The day after our birthday, I told Thomas I wasn’t going. He asked why, and I simply replied I couldn’t do it. I was so sure I would shut down and I would get hurt. Thomas reassured me that he thought it would be a safe place to branch out, but he said ok.

 

I had guaranteed I was safe. I ensured I wouldn’t get hurt. No awkward situations for me. I –oh wait a minute. My last post had something to say about this. I told my readers to take risks, lean into the tension, fall down and get back up. Shoot.

 

I texted Thomas the next day and told him I had changed my mind.

 

~          ~          ~

 

Thomas and I are like day and night. We may have lived the same number of days and share similar experiences, but we have made different choices. He has a boyfriend, I’m choosing celibacy as I grapple with my questions. He’s liberal, I’m moderate. He graduated from public school and a public university, I was home schooled and graduated from a Christian college. We come from different worlds.

 

In other words, my friendship with Thomas crosses cultural boundaries.

 

Christena Cleveland wrote in her beautiful book Disunity in Christ:

 

“People can meet God within their cultural context but in order to follow God, they must cross into other cultures because that’s what Jesus did in the incarnation and on the cross. Discipleship is crosscultural. When we meet Jesus around people who are just like us, and then continue to follow Jesus with people who are just like us, we stifle our growth in Christ and open ourselves to a world of division. However, when we’re rubbing elbows in Christian fellowship with people who are different from us, we can learn from each other and grow more like Christ. Like iron sharpens iron.”¹

 

Cleveland stresses crosscultural unity because we have so much to learn from each other—across ethnicities, across denominations, and I’d add across perspectives on sexual ethics. If you look at the “Side A” versus “Side B” debate, to use The Gay Christian Network’s terms, you find two groups who desire to glorify Christ and love their neighbors. Both sides have valid points and shared interests.

 

I’ve chosen to submit to the authority of the church and work with the Christians in my life (conservative and liberal) to consider what my sexual orientation and sexual identity means for me as a follower of Jesus. It’s frustrating work, but it’s where I feel called to be. It’d probably be easy to grow distant from Thomas because of the differences in our life stories. The texts would eventually cease and we would forget each other. It would even be easy for me to latch onto a position and become more and more entrenched until I couldn’t hear Thomas speak anymore. Thomas would become one of them. A person I could categorize with broad, ignorant assumptions until he’s not really a complex, breathing human being—just a lifeless caricature.

 

I don’t want that.

 

While Cleveland primarily discusses the cultural differences between ethnic and denominational groups in her book, her message applies more broadly to all divisions within the church. Cleveland’s message offers a lot to consider on how we dialogue about sexual ethics in the church. It’s helpful for knowing how to build conversations and relationships with strong supporters of both traditional and gay marriage.

 

And Cleveland helps me consider how my friendship with Thomas moves forward.

 

Click here to read Part 2.

 

1. Christena Cleveland, Disunity in Christ Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013, 21.

 

photo courtesy of flickr creative commons, user Free HDR & Photomanipulations

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