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*

  • Ben Andrews

    Seth,

    Love this post, especially your comments about “coming out” doesn’t fix everything. I think our culture misses that point so often, and you’ve identified a commonly overlooked part of experience.

    • Thanks, buddy. Any form of self-disclosure should be considered carefully and with a realistic perspective.

  • Jonathan Elias

    Your post reminds me of a Eve Tushnet’s reflection on vulnerability and freedom:
    “The closet also offers a lot of temptations to sin; I’d say for many people it just is a near occasion of sin. There’s the obvious temptation to lie. There’s the temptation to throw other people under the bus to make yourself look more hetero, or butcher or whatever. There’s the temptation to deny or speak uncharitably to openly gay friends (or, for that matter, enemies). There’s the temptation to cut yourself off from other people so they don’t get too close–to avoid friendship, and avoid help. Being in the closet makes it harder to act rightly. To the extent that being out involves humiliation and lost opportunities (although it is also extraordinarily freeing and opens a lot of doors you may not have realized existed) I would say that sometimes you have to journey through what Spenser called “the Gracious Valley of Humiliation”.”
    [http://eve-tushnet.blogspot.it/2010_05_01_archive.html#2467963983712217188].

    When I see a soul laid bare for love, then I have to believe in God’s healing Grace. I thank Him for this honest and brave testimony on your part.

    Love
    Jonathan E.

    • Thanks, Jonathan. I love that quote from Eve Tushnet. I need to read more of her writings.

  • To belong – my greatest desires and my greatest fear. Thank you, this post really strikes a chord with me. It is good to know that I am not the only one with these struggles. I started to write a simple poem about this topic when I was younger and have never been able to finish it. Now that I am beginning to slowly break down these walls I look forward to the day when I can complete it.

    “My heart is a prison where I hold the key,
    Unable to reach out and set myself free.”

    • Awesome. I’m glad the post connected with you. We serve a great God who helps us break down walls to let light and love within. And yes, you should finish the poem. 🙂

  • Pingback: My Heart is a Prison | kenjaminicus | My Heart is a Prison()

  • referencetobridge

    Thank you for being vulnerable. Seeing someone else’s struggle also gives me a glimpse into their renewed hope.
    You said:
    “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.”

    Why do you think you still had depression and anxiety even when coming out? What factors do you think were involved? My depression began to fade the more I told my brothers. I’m curious why yours did not (there is no universal experience to this of course). And do you still cross swords with this depression?

    • Hey! Like I said in the post, coming out was a first step. I still had major issues to work through, but opening doors to family and friends led to deeper relationships that have helped tremendously. That couldn’t happen if I wasn’t honest about my experience, but there’s a lot of work to be done after coming out of the closet. I still experience depression, and probably will throughout my life. Community and the freedom to be transparent seems to be a good buffer though.

      • referencetobridge

        Gotcha! Thanks for sharing.

  • Michelle

    This is beautiful! On one hand, I am very different from you – a woman and straight. On the other, we share the same human struggle of allowing some secret that we think is too big for anyone to handle to keep us from having community with others. If only we could all be honest about our loneliness maybe we would no longer be lonely at all.

    • Hey, thanks, Michelle! I really appreciate that. I agree, as we embrace honesty we can truly let people inside to love us. We don’t like to let people in because we are wounded and it hurts for love to bind up our wounds. That’s the only way to heal though. That’s how God redeems our story.