When Christians Create Safe Space for the Hurting

Man praying and comforting a friend

I wonder sometimes what kind of Christian I would have been if I wasn’t gay. Would I still be a hardcore Calvinist? Would I still be politically conservative? Would I even care about the LGBTQ community?

 

How safe would I have been?

 

Now, safety or sensitivity isn’t a priority in many churches. Pastors sometimes feel a need to channel their inner Mark Driscoll in the pulpit and Christians can recite scriptural clichés like “speaking the truth in love” to justify all kinds of douchebag behavior. Christians occasionally criticize the church for being too feminine, and yet she is led by a lot of white men who preach tough love and evoke war-like imagery. Not too touchy-feely if you ask me.

 

“Always be ready to give an answer,” I was told growing up in Christian subculture. I understood that scriptural exhortation as more than giving my testimony, but also having unshakable apologetics. It felt like my responsibility to find every opportunity to call out sin. If people got angry or walked away, I could pat myself on the back for doing my Christian duty and pray that I had planted some seeds of truth.

 

I can’t say I listened all that well as a young Christian. Other people’s stories didn’t matter a lot to me, except where I could prove them wrong. I didn’t make much of an effort to understand the other person’s worldview, to imagine what it must be like going through a day from their perspective, to simply empathize.

 

I was a hypocrite, hiding my own secret I feared no one could accept.

 

The process of identifying as gay meant deconstructing how I perceived the world. Black and white certainty faded away and I found myself saying “I don’t know” a lot more. I really started listening to LGBTQ people and other marginalized voices as a new reality dawned for me: “Hey, I think I might be one of you.”

 

Fast-forward a few years: I had basically settled on a celibate vocation, I still had gay friends in same-sex relationships or pursuing them, and I wasn’t sure what purpose God had for all this complicated theological/relational… stuff. What was my role when one of my guy friends told me about a new boyfriend? Or when I’d developed a mentoring relationship with a younger sexual minority who just couldn’t envision a future of celibacy or mixed-orientation marriage?

 

Am I a bad Christian for sitting in the tension? For believing God’s still working in this amazingly complex, beautiful, wounded, and resilient human being? That I could possibly learn something incredible from a same-sex couple?

 

The only approach that makes any sense for me is emotional hospitality. I don’t have answers to every question, and often people aren’t asking for them. People just want to know if they can drop their guard and be real with me. They want to know if they can speak without being interrupted or contradicted or misunderstood. People are drawn to safe listeners who can validate their humanity.

 

I believe all kinds of folks can be safe people. Liberals tend to do a great job of withholding condemnation and extending grace, but I’ve also learned that Progressive Christians can be just as judgmental and harsh if you don’t believe the right things. And yes, conservatives can live up to the stereotypes: cruel, afraid of anything different, cold. It’s human nature to embrace the people who fit our beliefs and political ideology. As a celibate gay Christian I don’t know if I can ever belong in either or both camps. I don’t fit in conservative circles because I identify as gay and care deeply for the LGBTQ community, or among liberals because I feel called to live out a celibate vocation to find personal congruence between my faith and sexuality. There’s not a definite place in this world for people like me, and I don’t really know what to do with that.

 

There are major risks self-disclosing piece after piece of my life and identity. I am not conservative or liberal enough to likely satisfy anyone. But it’s the safe people, traditional and progressive, who get me through each week—who let me be myself. They know where I’m coming from, they don’t bite my head off, and they don’t become cold, closed-off and judgmental. We don’t agree on everything and we’re cool with that. We give each other safe space because we value humility and grace.

 

When I think about the friends who know my deepest and darkest secrets, most of them are psychology people. True, it’s what I’ve studied in college, so it correlates with the people I’ve gotten to know over the years. Yet there’s something about the way we’re trained to look at the world. We learn all kinds of beautiful concepts from Carl Rogers’ humanistic theory of counseling: unconditional positive regard (the therapist doesn’t place judgment on emotions), empathy (“entering the private perceptual world of the other and becoming thoroughly at home in it”1), and compassion (“to resonate with [another person’s] suffering”2). We’re also taught to value kindness, respect, humility, curiosity, and confidentiality. Man, the church needs more of those qualities.

 

Providing safe space to hurting people doesn’t mean compromising your own convictions or pretending like values or truth are meaningless. Suffering people don’t need answers so much as they need to know they aren’t alone in an indifferent universe. They might not need theories of God’s compassion and grace as much as they need you to live out and tangibly express God’s love in the present moment. Real friendships allow both parties to be authentic about beliefs and opinions, but there’s a right time and place to discuss differences and those conversations should always be spoken with complete respect and kindness. And then please, PLEASE let it go and leave the disagreement between your friend and God to work out. You’re just tagging along for the journey.

 

Processing my sexual orientation and faith over the years have taught me many things and revealed how little I actually know. I probably would have been a very different person if life had given me a different hand of cards and more privileges, but it didn’t, and I’m thankful for that. I’ve tasted suffering and experienced marginalization and I’m a better human because of all of it. I can hear people’s stories and begin to see them as who they truly are: beloved in the eyes of their Heavenly Father.

 

Safe and wanted, not condemned because of Christ’s rich grace.

 

~         ~         ~

 

  1. Clara Hill, Helping Skills: Facilitating Exploration, Insight, and Action. Washington, D.C.: The American Psychological Association, 2014, 114.
  2. Ibid.

When Friendship Feels Like a Fairytale

depressed man

 

I don’t really believe in friendship.

 

Those were the words echoing in my mind as I wrote draft after draft responding to Wesley Hill’s new book Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian. Don’t get me wrong, Wesley’s written a beautiful, brilliant book. The church needs to read it. But parts of Wesley’s book felt too good to be true, more fairytale than reality. Maybe the best thing we can hope for in our busy lives is just friendly acquaintances—moments of connection to get us by. Maybe we should just take the advice of a song in The Phantom of the Opera: learn to be lonely.

 

I tell myself I’m good with the solitude. I’m not a great communicator; sometimes when I’m around people I feel clingy, awkward, unwanted. Whatever. I’ve lived most of my life emotionally alone. I generally accept complacency and apathy over risk and disappointment. Who cares anyway?

 

Apparently I did.

 

After college I developed a bad habit of flirting with guys to feel wanted and seen. I craved being the center of someone’s attention, even if I knew it wouldn’t last for more than a few days. Over the years I’ve tried to make social media and long distance “text-pals” replace the adventures and face-to-face conversations I was missing in real life, often because I avoided vulnerability with the people I knew locally. I’ve sent out too many texts and Facebook messages at existential low points and received far too many I’m sorry, buddy and Praying for you responses to last me a lifetime. They did little to assuage the hurt.

 

This is not enough.

 

I’ve had some great friends over the years (and still keep up with many of them), but as a gay celibate, there never seems to be anything permanent and immutable about friendship. Friends move on to new priorities and new rhythms of life; they marry and have kids, they move up social ladders, and they move away. Nothing stays the same. Can I really bear the losses again and again? Is life just a cycle of inevitable abandonment?

 

Perhaps it depends on the relationship.

 

Wesley discusses two kinds of relationships from Catholic writer Maggie Gallagher in Spiritual Friendship.1 “You’re mine because I love you” and, “I love you because you’re mine.” The first doesn’t include any serious attachments or commitments; convenience and feelings of endearment are all that bind the relationship together. Either person could walk away when the friendship is no longer easy, comfortable, or uncomplicated. But Wesley elaborates on the more hopeful alternative:

 

“In this latter type of friendship, my love for you isn’t the basis of our connection. It’s the other way around: we are bound to each other, and therefore I love you. You may still bore me or wound me or otherwise become unattractive to me, but that doesn’t mean I’ll walk away. You’re not mine because I love you; I love you because you’re—already, and always—mine. We’ve made promises to each other; we’ve committed to each other, in the sight of our families and our churches, and in the strength of those vows, I will, God willing, go on loving you.”2

 

Christians expect this level of commitment from husbands and wives, but Wesley offers a compelling question: what if friendships could contain some level of this fidelity and structure? What would that look like?

 

Maybe we’d see more nontraditional homes—families practicing communal living with other families or with singles like me. Maybe we would be more intentional about extending hospitality and creating regular routines to hang out. Maybe we wouldn’t be so quick to shrug our shoulders and put old friendships in the rearview mirror when people move away; maybe we would make more sacrifices to keep investing in the people who matter.

 

Yet it’s these same sentiments that feel so unrealistic and hollow. Of course it sounds great, but right now I find myself caught somewhere between neediness and reticence—never able to find a happy balance. It hurts too much to hope for more.

 

See, I can embrace a life of service to others, that’s not a problem. It’s not hard for me to show kindness to everyone while keeping them at arm’s length. But accepting another person’s love? That’s terrifying; the risks are so great. It’s easier to remain closed off to everyone around me. True, no one can hurt me, but to paraphrase C. S. Lewis, a life without love is just a living Hell. Christ came so we could experience abundant life—including the ability to experience intimacy and belong to a spiritual family. Unfortunately, the abundant life doesn’t liberate us from the crosses we must bear to walk with Jesus. In order to thrive, we’re going to suffer like Jesus did. No prosperity gospel can shield us from a broken world. Maybe loneliness is my thorn in the flesh I will bear to the end of my days. Perhaps God is teaching me to see his power made perfect in my weakness, in my emotional pain. Maybe an insecure guy like me can find strength to persevere another day, knowing it isn’t only me, but Christ working in me to will and do of his good pleasure. My Heavenly Father promises his grace is somehow sufficient. I freely confess I don’t know what that means, but I have to believe I’m going to be ok.

 

~         ~         ~

 

I flipped through Spiritual Friendship again and discovered Wesley had already anticipated a response like mine. He knew his words would come across hollow to those who had not tasted the richness of intimate companionship or those who had lost close friendships. But I think Wesley had people like me in mind too, people with beautiful friendships that occasionally dig deeper into the things that matter, yet people who still feel the sting of dissatisfaction. The sting feels especially potent when the best form of connection some of us can attain most days is through texting, email, or social media. But at friendship’s best, even marriage’s best, there’s no way to escape the pain of loneliness. No one will ever feel fully understood or like they completely belong. I love this quote from Wesley:

 

“Friendship … doesn’t solve the problem of loneliness so much as it shifts its coordinates. Just as marriage isn’t a magic bullet for the pain of loneliness, neither is friendship. It does, we hope, pull us out of ourselves, orienting our vision to our neighbors. But no, … it’s not enough. It’s never enough.”3

 

This is where the Gospel steps in to redeem our stories. Yes, the fall severed the perfect unity we experienced in Eden with each other and God, but Christ came to restore all things, and that includes our relationships. We still face conflict and misunderstandings, we get busy and neglect the people God has entrusted us to love and nurture, but God is still redeeming his people and still building his kingdom. One day the work will end, all will be made right, and all our suffering will cease—including our loneliness.

 

In the meantime we need faith—faith God will accomplish all he has promised and will provide for our emotional needs. Faith supplies the motivation to risk disappointment and heartbreak to develop and maintain intimate friendships in order to thrive as social beings. It takes a lot of faith not to become cynical when attempt after attempt has only resulted in rejection. And it takes faith to keep digging with patience when those attempts have only led to superficial acquaintances—while trying not to stifle the potential friendship.

 

Friendship requires a delicate balance. As the Christian boy band Plus One sang, “If you need love / Take the time and be love / Breathe it out create love / See how things can turn.” Sometimes we need to be more intentional about loving others and proactively pursuing their friendships. But sometimes we have to realize we’ve done all we can do; love can’t be one-sided. We have to step away and give people space believing some will return. And believe me, I know how scary that is when you’re convinced people will forget your existence if you don’t consistently remind them. God help my unbelief, I guess.

 

I don’t pretend to have this all figured out, nor do I present myself as some poster child for celibate gay Christians. Celibacy sucks, but I think there’s beauty in the pain, any form of pain, when our suffering drives us to each other and to our Savior. There’s something so powerful when we can say, “Hey, me too.” Rachel Held Evans says church should look more like an A. A. meeting than a country club, and I think we’d be far healthier and more joyful if we’d all take more risks and show more vulnerability rather than trying to impress others and pretending like we have our you-know-what together. I feel a sense of connection when Rachel Held Evans talks about her doubts on her blog, when my friend Addie Zierman writes about the darkness of her depression, or when several of my local friends share their struggle to hold onto God’s goodness in their infertility. The loneliness doesn’t hurt so badly when we hurt together.

 

Most days friendship feels like a fairytale. But you know what? I still choose to embrace Wesley’s vision of friendship in faith. I still believe it’s a model the church needs to rediscover for the benefit of the entire Body. Jesus said not to be anxious about the future, and for me that means not worrying if I’ll end up old and alone because I chose celibacy to reconcile my faith and sexuality. God will provide. Life will never be perfect, but God will never stop offering little reminders to smile and remember how much he loves me. Those reminders often come from the people in my life. Yes, I am scared of disappointment and rejection, but I will continue pursuing friendships until my last day because I intend to thrive.

 

 

  1. Wesley Hill, Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2015, 41-42.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid, 98.
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

Image Link