Costly Obedience is a Two-Way Street

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Hey Church, let’s sit down for a few minutes and talk about costly obedience. It’s a concept that brings up a lot of emotions for me. I’ve been told my whole life that death is a major theme in Christianity. Coming to Jesus means putting all kinds of vices to death that interfere with our ability to relate to God. For many sexual minorities of faith, the message we’ve received from you tells us our sexuality is disgusting and displeasing to a holy God. We’ve been told to change it, suppress it, and kill it. And for many without any form of support, that death becomes literal. Costly indeed.

 

Now, I’m not denying there’s selfishness and objectification in the LGBTQ+ community that could use sanctification and redemption, but there’s sacrificial love too. There’s a community who supports each other and cares deeply for marginalized people. I’ve learned a lot about love from these people, far beyond what goes on in people’s bedrooms.

 

And speaking of what happens in the bedroom, that’s about all I heard from you in your pews as you discussed the LGBTQ+ community. Hook-up culture seemed to eclipse all other facets to sexual minority experience, and yet even within a hook-up you seemed oblivious to other motives that could be driving acting out behavior other than just sexual pleasure.

 

What if hooking up is more than steamy sex with a dude from the gay club or Grindr? What if it’s less about lust and more about loneliness? What if it’s less about craving an orgasm and more about a need to receive physical affection? What if a gay guy just wants to feel seen by another human being for a night?

 

In your call for costly obedience, what are you willing to lay down to make your vision of sexual ethics livable for sexual minorities? When I wrote about celibacy, people often told me how I brave I was for making this sacrifice for my faith. They expressed empathy for how hard this must be for me, but these individuals had the privilege to return to their families at night. They had the luxury to fit me in their schedules every couple of weeks when they could make time. I felt like I was living out some kind of tragic life story for other people to pity, and it wasn’t life-giving or redemptive. I certainly didn’t feel enthusiasm for calling other sexual minorities to live like me.

 

My perspective shifted as I moved out of state for grad school and had the opportunity to meet other sexual minorities like me. I found a lot that could be redeemed in same-sex relationships and even hook-ups. I found people hungry to connect, some going from guy to guy, perhaps unable to accept the goodness of their capacity to love and be loved by another man. Others showed commitment, kindness, sacrifice, humility, and so many other great qualities through their romantic relationships and in how they interacted with others. I saw people connecting and working towards a flourishing community.

 

So Church, how do you propose to compete with spouse and family we could have? Or even the casual lover who puts his life on hold to focus his attention to another for one night? It feels like you leave us to fend for ourselves while you have the opportunity to thrive in your families and in your churches that promote and nurture you. Where do you expect us to fit within your system?

 

From where I’m standing in the arena of my life, I see a bunch of Christians in the stands telling me how to live my life. If I make the wrong choice, then I’m a Christian who has fallen from grace. If I make the right one, you’ll put me on a pedestal as the answer to the gay problem. But that pedestal can be a lonely place to live, cut off from the LGBTQ+ folks like me while you fit me in your lives where you can.

 

People having been sending me messages the past several years asking me how to make celibacy work and how I deal with loneliness. I’ve never felt like I answered that question adequately, because I was still figuring it out for myself. It wasn’t until I read the research and heard a psychologist explain loneliness like thirst or hunger—good biological drives directing us to homeostasis. Loneliness may be a biological mechanism pointing us to our daily need to connect and look outside of ourselves. Just as we cannot thrive off one meal a week, so we cannot thrive off superficial conversations after a Sunday morning service. We are social beings who need each other to reflect God through our love. And research has suggested that lonely people are at greater risk of death than possessing physiological risk factors.

 

I’m not here to sway you one way or another on same-sex relationships, but I am asking a simple question. What are you willing to sacrifice to make the lives of LGBTQ+ people emotionally and spiritually richer? Sexual minorities can’t thrive off the crumbs of love you have left for occasional catch-ups over coffee. We need to be integrated into families where we can love people deeply and experience love from others. We shouldn’t feel as if our lives are burdens or tragedies, but just as meaningful and worthy and beloved as yours. As fellow image-bearers of God, we deserve a place at the table.

 

This is a two-way street, you see. You can’t ask everything from us and expect us to be all right on our own. I don’t have answers to all the moral questions about same-sex sexuality, but I do believe our love is a gift. We have so much to give if you could see all that we are. If you made room in your soul for an LGBTQ+ person like me, I think you might be surprised how much your life could flourish.

 

Christianity isn’t an easy religion; I totally agree with you there. But please stop making it an impossibility for the LGBTQ+ community to encounter Christ. I believe there are ways to hold your convictions and love sexual minorities well, and you are capable of doing a better job at it, Church. So let’s work on that.

Not Looking

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What are you looking for?

 

If you’re a gay man navigating gay subculture, you’ve probably been asked that question more times than you can count. It’s such a common question that we have a HBO show entitled Looking which explores the complexities of hooking up, dating, and love between gay men. I sometimes wonder if what seems like such a superficial question could actually speak to something far more meaningful than a hookup. In all our searching, maybe we’re hoping to finally be found.

 

The decade of my twenties provided a lot of opportunities to begin this journey of interacting with other sexual minorities. I can’t say I’ve always been proud of my actions or that my motives have always been unselfish. I’ve spent a great deal of time trying to assuage my loneliness through ineffective means which only perpetuated and deepened the angst.

 

Moving away from home and beginning the chapter of adulthood didn’t go quite as I had planned. If you’ve read much of this blog, you know I’ve been a fairly conservative thinker when it comes to same-sex relationships. I didn’t believe anything could change my perspective until I lived with the reality of singleness in a new location with a bunch of strangers. For a guy who has depended on people to help regulate my emotions, I was a mess. All the questions I’d suppressed resurfaced with a vengeance, especially as I experienced life with other gay men and encountered their humanity and rich perspectives. I ended up with more questions than answers, and I haven’t been in a rush to discover the latter.

 

Based on my circumstances, I could begin the process of dating if I wished. I’m studying at a school that probably forbids same-sex dating, and definitely has rules against same-sex sexual behavior. I’m sure that hasn’t stopped other sexual minorities from forming a compartmentalized life where they display one persona at school while they present a different persona in the LGBT community. There are times when the idea is attractive, especially when the loneliness feels unbearable and everyone I know is busy. There have been some weeks where the only deep conversations I’ve experienced have been with patients sharing their stories with me.

 

But I’m not a fan of secrets and closets. I’ve seen the damage they’ve done to my soul for years of my life. Relationships need community to flourish, just like individuals do. It’s not a fair situation for anyone involved, and yet it’s a messy situation that many of us Christian sexual minorities find ourselves navigating at Christian universities and colleges as human beings who want to be seen and loved like anyone else. We’re humans who need physical affection, and like all single individuals, we’re starving to be touched, to be affirmed that we’re worthy of something as simple as a hug. From a biochemical level, we need other people for our bodies to mass release oxytocin, a hormone that combats the harmful effects of the stress hormone cortisol and binds us to other humans, creating the feelings of closeness and belonging.

 

What are you looking for? Casual sex? Or maybe your soul craves an oxytocin release to feel less alone for a little while.

 

I don’t know God’s best for my future. I’m a part of two worlds who hold strong beliefs and feelings with what I should or should not do with my sexuality and my desires to be connected to another human being. Many sexual minorities cannot comprehend a future without a partner, while the future eludes me. I feel convicted that sexual minorities who pursue same-sex relationships are not damning their souls and bodies to Hell, yet I’m not convinced I’m meant to pursue a romantic relationship.

 

I see so much of my shift to affirming theology as an emotional response to my deepest fears of abandonment and being seen as unlovable. I think there are many compelling arguments within affirming theology, as well as difficult questions that traditional theology doesn’t answer well—and vice versa. It’s a tension I usually try to avoid—usually pushing myself to settle in one position of certainty or another. Our world pressures us to pick a side, either by warning us about our salvation or internalized homophobia. This leaves us with little breathing room to just be, to just live life in the assurance of God’s grace and mercy, and to experience the love of a community who extends the freedom to let us be our authentic selves.

 

My whole life has been a journey of developing a secure attachment—knowing in my moments of loneliness that love is just around the corner. Rather than falling apart and needing other people to affirm I see you and I value what I see, I trust and rest in the stable love I receive from my family, my friends, and my academic community, even when it is not always present. I can regulate my own emotions, and I don’t need a man to save me from myself. If I choose to someday date, that decision will be from a place of security and out of a desire to pursue a vocation of love as a team, not because I need marriage to hold my spirit together. While I’m pursuing a calling to become a psychologist in an environment that dictates what I can do with my life, I choose to live in the light without secrets and experience the redemption found in showing up to community day after day, no matter how hard or messy it may be at any particular moment. I am loved as I am; I am enough as I am.

 

My life is not on pause; I’m in the middle of one of the greatest adventures of my life. So no, I’m not looking. I’ve discovered what my soul needs to thrive in this season. I’m embracing singleness as a gift, as an opportunity to love and grow where God has placed me. I resonate with these words from Eli Lieb, a gay singer-songwriter:

 

“All of my life I’ve been waiting around

Waiting for someone, but I’m the one I found.

Everything now comes easier to me

Waiting for no one

Now that I found me.”

 

No Prince Charming needed right now. In the vastness of God’s love, I’m found.

When The Loneliness Keeps You Up at Night

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I couldn’t sleep last night. Anxiety pulsed through my body, and for hours I couldn’t determine the cause. I stayed up past midnight reading P. D. James’ take on Jane Austen and binge watching Empire while wondering what was bothering me and keeping me up way past my bedtime. By 2 a.m. I was exhausted but refused to call it a night. A strange question popped in mind. Are you afraid of dying, Seth? No, I didn’t think so. A simple statement followed: You are afraid of aging alone. BAM. My eyes welled up with tears.

 

Celibacy never felt all that costly for me. I moved back in with my family after college and pressed pause on life for five years. I have four younger siblings, so there was always someone at home, always someone to remind me I’m not alone.

 

In childhood psychology, we learn that children go through developmental forms of play. One stage is called parallel play, where children play in the same space, but don’t really interact with each other. I joke sometimes that my introverted family is a little like that. But there’s comfort in living in communal space, knowing you’re free to interact when you have something to share.

 

But now I live in Virginia with my roommate from church. He travels a lot for his job, and there have been a few weeks where I’m on my own. I joked about his absence on Facebook earlier in the evening last night, but it didn’t hit me how much this empty house impacts me emotionally. Coming home for the evening to the emptiness chips away at something in my soul; it feeds a paranoia which tells me this is all I can expect for the future.

 

So I avoid sleep to hold onto one more day that included friends and laughter and happiness. The next day doesn’t guarantee any of those things. In fact, I may blink and grad school could be over. What happens then?

 

I reread a chapter Philip Yancey wrote about Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest and prolific writer who experienced same-sex attraction. Nouwen’s deep insecurities and craving for meaningful connection always resonates with me. Yancey describes Nouwen’s conflicted life:

 

“He would give inspiring addresses about the spiritual life then collapse into an irritable funk. He would speak of the strength he gained from living in community, then drive to a friend’s house, wake him up at two in the morning, and, sobbing, ask to be held. His phone bills usually exceeded his rent as he called around the world, disregarding time zones, in desperate need of companionship.”¹

 

My two o’clock breakdown didn’t involve driving to any of my cohort’s or church friends’ homes, because I would never want to impose my emotional mess on anyone else. Honestly, my breakdowns are usually over as soon as they begin: I’ll laugh at how silly I’m being and repress my deepest emotions. I’m fine. I got this. How are you?

 

Sarah Bessey wrote a must-read this week on the traumas we gloss over and refuse to process called “The Sanitized Stories We Tell.” I think she provides a brilliant analysis of our human inclination to cover up our hurts:

 

“It makes me wonder how much pressure we feel to sanitize our stories so that they don’t make people uncomfortable, how we anecdote our experience with the lightness or the healing or birth or new life alone in order to make it acceptable. We simplify and sanitize and so we miss the healing we could have if we only spoke the whole truth.”

 

I would love to tell you I eventually experienced some profound sense of peace or realized some comforting insight about my celibate vocation or God’s goodness, but nothing came in the silence of the night. Celibacy has its sucky moments. A lot of the time God doesn’t feel present in my suffering. That’s probably not what the church wants to hear, but that’s the truth. Nothing about obeying my convictions is easy. Sometimes I’m just a mess like Nouwen, going through an existential crisis and desperately wanting to know I’m not journeying through life alone. And sometimes I just need to sleep, hoping my neurochemistry will reset in the morning.

 

Yancey wrote more on Henri Nouwen’s thoughts about loneliness:

 

“He once described the wound of loneliness as resembling the Grand Canyon: a deep incision in the surface of existence that has become an inexhaustible source of beauty and self-understanding. That insight typifies Nouwen’s approach to ministry. He did not promise a way out of loneliness, for himself or for anyone else. Rather, he held out the promise of redemption through it.”²

 

Faith tells me there’s redemptive hope, even in a lonely, late night. My suffering connects me to my Savior, with humanity, and the creation. Together we yearn for God’s restoration of all things. Faith promises God will provide the friendships I need for my entire life.

 

But for now, I think I’ll take a nap.

 

  1. Philip Yancey, Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church. New York, New York: Doubleday, 2001, 301.
  2. Ibid, 303.

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.
running away

Learning to Belong

We are designed to belong, to reflect the community found within the Trinity. But community takes work. It requires patience and fortitude to keep giving when we feel we receive so little in return. When we enter community we bring our insecurities, wounded hearts, and unmet desires.

 

Finding home isn’t easy.

 

I’ve hesitantly searched for safe people to become my community. I’ve spent even more time running away from opportunities. Vulnerability requires great risk. I admire a lot of the Christian friends and acquaintances I’ve made over the years, and let’s face it. I like to be liked and I worry about rejection. I fear that most Christians wouldn’t understand (and don’t want to understand) my experience as a gay man in the body of Christ.

 

I’m perpetually stuck in a revolving door, connecting but then running when it looks like I may get hurt.

 

I refused to let anyone in. I feared if I opened the door, it would slam back in my face. So I learned the art of loneliness. A line from a song in The Phantom of the Opera aptly described my youth, “Never dreamed out in the world / There are arms to hold you / You’ve always known / Your heart was on its own.” So I walked through life as a loner not really expecting to be loved. It ensured safety because no one could hurt me. But no one could know me either. I was just a guy in the background without anything to say.

 

God said it wasn’t good for man to be alone. As a loner, I withered in anxiety and depression, hating the façade I wore. But I still liked people; I liked listening to them talk and I couldn’t help opening the door occasionally throughout life. Usually, I’d become paranoid or get hurt, and then would slam the door. I’d get upset and beat myself up for being stupid and oh you know, hoping someone would notice my existence and like what they saw. I can handle this by myself. Get it together, man. If I had seen Frozen back then, I would have been telling myself, Conceal, don’t feel. Yeah, sorry about that.

 

Despite all my attempts to hide, my heart refused to stay held in the dungeon of its captivity. I placed it there to keep it safe. It just wouldn’t stay put. My heart would sneak out when I wasn’t looking, when I was just trying to mind my own business. Suddenly I would have a crush out of nowhere or simply a desire to connect to someone I couldn’t help but find fascinating. And maybe I’d indulge my heart one more time, but then I’d usually freak out, and my heart would go back to the dungeon. I told it that love doesn’t work for people like us.

 

It didn’t listen. Silly heart.

 

And then one day in introductory psychology, it decided enough was enough.

 

It’s time, Seth.

 

“Whoa, time for what?”

 

Time to tell someone the truth.

 

“Heck no! There’s no going back if I do that! They’ll think I’m some sort of monster!”

 

But you’ll be free. Maybe you won’t have to carry this alone anymore.

 

So I told a friend. Then my pastor. Then my psychology instructor. Then my parents and siblings. And so I began my ex-gay journey (that’s a story for another day). I had taken a sledge hammer to the walls around my heart and made the first real attempt to tear them down.

 

~          ~          ~

 

We tell Christian testimonies in two parts. On one hand, you have the broken, messed up, miserable excuse for a life. But you can’t have a Christian testimony without an amazing transformation finale. The Christian proclaims how God brought freedom from sin and sorrow and now everything appears happy, rosy and perfect. Ain’t God great, y’all?! Well, that’s not real life. Beauty forms from struggle and suffering. The Christian life isn’t an easy one. We frustrate our brothers and sisters by whitewashing the difficulty that comes after committing our lives to Christ. No one, Christian or nonchristian, receives the “get out of jail free” card when it comes to trouble and problems. God promises to walk with us and work in us through the suffering to gradually transform us into Christ’s likeness.

 

When I hear coming out stories from other gay Christians, I feel a little torn. Sometimes they can feel like those cheesy, unrealistic Christian testimonies. Just come out and you will feel fantabulous. Goodbye, miserable closet life. Now, I don’t regret coming out to the extent I have so far. But gay Christians can feel pressured to gloss over the tough stuff we still face. We can trade one mask for another just like the broader Christian culture.

 

As I came out to friends and family and began processing my sexuality, I would feel frustrated and a little depressed reading Christian coming out stories. It seemed like opening up had solved all their problems. But I was still insecure. I was still a little socially awkward. And I still felt very broken. In a lot of ways, I was still basically a loner afraid of meaningful, intimate friendships.

 

Coming out didn’t fix any of that.

 

When you spend so much of your life stifling emotions, walling up your heart, and avoiding friendships to keep a secret hidden, there will be repercussions. Psychologists call it learned helplessness. You shock a dog so many times without a way out, eventually when an escape from the pain appears, the door opens, the dog will just lie there and whimper. He has accepted the pain and no longer believes in freedom though the opportunity stands right in front of him.

 

Coming out is an important step, but it’s just the first step on a long, winding road. Some of my lowest days came after opening up about my sexuality to friends and family. I’ve had major depression and anxiety since starting this blog. But through the process of self-disclosure you learn resilience. You fall down, and you get back up. You find you’re tougher than you think. You learn to lean on Christ for the strength to get through the current moment.

 

But falling down still hurts. My former pastor used to say that people are like porcupines trying to snuggle up. Inevitably we’re going to poke each other. Relationships hurt sometimes. Pain is part of life. No matter how much we try to medicate it, hide from it, or delay it, pain exists. Is love worth it?

 

C. S. Lewis wrote,

 

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in the casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.”1

 

There’s no easy way to become part of a community. It’s awkward. You make mistakes—sometimes embarrassing, bad mistakes. Tension always exists between safety and risk. Lean into the risk; let it burn as the flames of vulnerability engulfs the dross of your fears and insecurities. You won’t be the same, but you will be something better; someone stronger. You will be a person loved by a community in this world. It may take some time and heartache before you find it, but I believe God provides tangible reminders of His affection if we’ll seek them.

 

When I focus so much attention on my own heart and self-worth, I reveal something far more complicated and broken about myself. I’m self-centered. When I’m only worried about myself, I don’t see the situation going on around me. John Ortberg describes it as living in an antique shop:

 

“Every day you and I walk through God’s shop. Every day we brush up against objects of incalculable worth to him. People. Every one of them carries a price tag, if only we could see it. Lepers and AIDS patients, children and gray panthers, the wise and the foolish, saints and prostitutes: Worth the life of my Son, the price tag says. Will you respect the value of those you touch? Are you willing to pay the price? When you reach out to the untouchables in your world, you are signing up for pain. Love means disappointment and heartache.”2

 

Love does involve risk and occasionally it wounds our souls through the journey of life, but as C. S. Lewis pointed out, to escape the pain and loss we must abandon living and embrace Hell. To experience Heaven on Earth, we must accept that the good, beautiful moments are but a taste of what’s to come. The bitter, broken pieces also point to the truth that we’re made for a better world that’s not here yet. And in the process of shalom, the Hebrew word for prospering and peace, we’re ever making the Lord’s Prayer a reality; where the Lord’s will is done in Earth as it is in Heaven. As the Kingdom of God expands throughout history, it culminates with the return of Christ after all enemies have been placed under His feet, the last enemy being death.

 

God’s kingdom expands as we push past our insecurities and self-centeredness and jump enthusiastically into community. Redemption and restoration comes through intimate, close friendships. As we build flourishing communities of love where evil is vanquished and the captives are set free, we live out the Lord’s Prayer.

 

John Ortberg continues his antique shop illustration:

 

“…God’s shop is full of signs that say please touch. We may not want to. We are afraid or shy or busy. But it is only when people are touched in their brokenness that healing comes.”3

 

The Church, in my opinion, is the fulfillment of Revelations 22. Scripture says there are trees that produce leaves for the healing of the nations. I believe this describes the church’s work now. As we touch the lives of those around us, healing occurs and the kingdom advances. This should motivate me to love others without regard to risk and pain. This is why I should share my story with the world. Healing comes when we feel free to be vulnerable and transparent, knowing our community accepts and loves us, and values our contribution to the work of the kingdom. This is our vocation, no matter who we are or what we do. We all have a role to play in God’s redemptive narrative. And as I participate in shalom, I find a home.

 

This loner is ever learning to belong.

 

1. C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves. Glasgow: William Collins, 1960, 111.

2. John Ortberg, Love Beyond Reason. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998, 57

3. Ibid.

 

photo courtesy of flickr creative commons, user *Passenger*

loneliness

When We Were on Fire

photo courtesy of flickr creative commons, user Pierre Guinoiseau

 

It hurts to be alone. Sexual minorities often know this pain throughout seasons of their lives. Growing up, I bore feelings of shame and felt the need to keep secrets from the people I loved. Everything was stuffed away in a crevice of my heart; an attempt to protect people from the terrible truth. I’m a monster. I built walls around my heart so no one would ever see the mess. Alone.

An article in last month’s issue of Monitor on Psychology from the American Psychological Association examined research on how the heartache of loneliness impacts us not only emotionally, but also physically. The findings are fascinating and disturbing. One study found that those with good social connections were fifty percent more likely to continue living over the periods of time studied than those with weak social connections. “A risk comparable to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day and one double that of obesity.”1 Loneliness has been correlated with an increase in depressive symptoms, increases in blood pressure, and even an antibody associated with the herpes virus (resulting from a weakened immune system).2 Many Christian sexual minorities grew up in families, were part of a church, and had friends. But for many of us, we still felt very much alone. The research backs up our experience. “Feeling isolated is more dangerous than being isolated.”3 Dr. John Cacioppo added, “It’s not being alone or not [that impacts your health]. You can feel terribly isolated when you’re around other people.”4 And all God’s gay people said amen.

Sometimes I’m silly enough to think that heterosexual Christians can’t possibly comprehend the depth of loneliness that I feel as a gay man. Sure, life is hard for us all, but life seems so much clearer for heterosexuals. It’s like God caters towards the straight majority, leaving those of us in the fringes wondering where we belong.

Something recently changed for me emotionally. I read a memoir last month called When We Were on Fire by Addie Zierman. The book opened my heart to the truth that loneliness isn’t a gay problem. It’s a human problem. Addie Zierman wrote about her transition from early fervor for her fundamentalist faith, to doubts and cynicism about evangelicalism, to full-out depression, alcoholism, and anger with the church, and finally a new vision that emerged of God and life in the church. I felt a kindred spirit reading through Addie’s memoir.

When We Were on Fire

By my standards, Addie would seem to have it all. Well, at least what I naturally yearn for and desire: a husband. But Addie experienced what it’s like to live in the outer borders of the church. Her story began as a young woman on fire for Jesus. Praying at flagpoles, going on mission trips, and having a jerk of a missionary boyfriend who set the stage for the rest of the story. Fast-forward to adulthood, married to a business man and not the missionary she’d always envisioned, Addie has changed. Doubts and cynicism emerged and replaced some of Addie’s youthful passion. I began to feel connected to Addie’s story when she expressed the struggle that developed as the Ziermans started attending a house church. Andrew, Addie’s husband, grew spiritually, but Addie felt distant and out of place around the “super Christians.” Loneliness led to depression; alcohol became a coping mechanism. A spiritual gap appeared in Addie and Andrew’s relationship. Addie told her husband that they needed to leave. She couldn’t take it anymore. Andrew visited other churches with Addie, but maintained his house church friendships while Addie’s soul continued to decay from emotional and spiritual isolation.

Addie wrote about one church service they attended,

 I think, I am lonely. The Church People say, “Let God be your Friend.” The piano swells. A guy with long hair strums the guitar while the congregation sings “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” Jesus seems unresponsive. God is a million miles away.5

Reading Addie’s story, I was reminded of a beautiful, symbolic film I watched last year called To The Wonder. The character Marina experienced a similar feeling of isolation as she relocates to the USA from France to be with her lover, Neil. But separated from the setting where their love began, the relationship suffocates and crumbles. Marina is limited by language barriers and the ability to make meaningful relationships with other people besides Neil. What Marina needs, what Addie needs, is community.

In our modern romantic and sex-driven culture, we think that love for one person will solve all our problems. Many LGBTs (and heterosexuals) end up on a relationship treadmill, desperately seeking “the one.” Christians who are lonely are told to find a spouse. But what if you’re like Addie—married, beginning the American dream—but still drowning in loneliness, depression, and alcoholism? Addie’s marriage hits rock bottom. She has an emotional affair with another man. Is it enough to tell the hurting in the church like Addie–like me– “let Jesus be your friend?” How does that work?

Scripture describes us as image bearers of God. John writes, “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and this love is perfected in us” 1 John 4:11-12. I don’t know what God looks like, yet every day I see God in flesh. I see Him when I love others and others reciprocate love to me. The community that Addie and Marina desperately seek is a taste of Heaven on Earth. They long for a tangible reminder of God’s affection and affirmation that they have worth as human beings. This is what I want from the church. Know me. Love me. See my dark side and don’t run away, to paraphrase a Kelly Clarkson song (don’t judge).

I’ve grown up understanding that the church isn’t where you show your brokenness. Keep your family issues at home. Wear a façade. Smile, shake my hand, worship, go back home to your dysfunctional life. Jesus called the Pharisees white-washed tombs–pretty on the outside but harboring dead people’s bones inside. That’s basically what church has become. It’s funny. People feel sad for LGBTs who choose celibacy, fearing they will live a life of isolation. Yet as units, our families in the church have become exactly that. Hermits. We keep our problems to ourselves. We can take care of it. Alone.

The struggle that Christian LGBTs experience is the tip of the iceberg for the American church. I would guess there are a lot of Addie Ziermans out there, alone and needing a community (not just a spouse) to promote spiritual nourishment and growth. We need to see, feel, and hear God now in meaningful relationships. Plural. Christianity isn’t a personal religion. It’s communal.

So how do we create community? The Civil Wars released a powerful song last year about loneliness. It’s a love song to the isolated. It’s what I think Addie yearned for someone to say.

It’s not your eyes

It’s not what you say

It’s not your laughter

That gives you away

You’re just lonely

You’ve been lonely too long

All your acting

Your thin disguise

All your perfectly delivered lines

They don’t fool me

You’ve been lonely too long

Addie wished she could tell someone in the church “I am falling. I am dead weight, and there is no one to catch me.”6

You’ve held your head up

You’ve fought the fight

You bear the scars

You’ve done your time

Listen to me

You’ve been lonely too long

Like Addie, I’ve wanted someone to see me; to understand how much it hurts sometimes. There aren’t sufficient words to articulate this messy, broken situation. There are no magic words you can say to make it better. But it’s not the words that matter, but your presence and your relationship that makes all the difference as we walk together through this life.

Let me in the walls

You’ve built around

We can light a match

And burn them down

Let me hold your hand and dance ‘round and ‘round the flames

In front of us

Dust to dust

Addie and her husband Andrew began to work on their issues. She reached out to childhood friends. She became a mother. Addie let go of some of her cynicism towards the church and returned with a different, stronger perspective. From what I can see, Addie found a community. Through Addie’s story, I see a bit of my own. We’ve all bought into the lie that no one understands our pain; that we’re experiencing this life alone. While our stories are unique, elements and themes weave throughout all our narratives that bind us together. As we tell our stories, we burn down the walls that have kept us from living–that have held us back from community. As the dust and ashes clear, we discover a home. We’re not alone.

Addie Zierman also blogs at How to Talk Evangelical

P. S. I highly recommend this memoir. Chapter 21: Born Again is especially wonderful. I pretty much highlighted the entire thing.

 

1. Anna Miller, “Friends Wanted,” Monitor on Psychology 45(2014), 56-58. 

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Addie Zierman, When We Were on Fire (New York: Convergent, 2013), 162

6. Ibid., p. 157