When Christians Create Safe Space for the Hurting

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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 We Come Out of Our Closets

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“Everyone has a closet,” Jamal Lyons croons in the television show Empire as he contemplates whether to reveal his sexual orientation to the world or remain silent to appease his homophobic father who funds his comfortable life. But Jamal’s right; we have our own closets, LGBTQ or straight. We hold our secrets close fearing we’d lose the people who matter most if we told the truth.

 

It’s been a year since I “officially” came out to the world on my blog for National Coming Out Day. Finding the courage to be transparent and vulnerable took a 10-year process of repeated self-disclosures with family and trusted friends as I learned to trust people. There are few things more liberating than sharing pieces of your identity you’ve repressed and buried, discovering you don’t have to hide to avoid hurt and rejection. The only way you’ll truly connect and belong is to take off the mask and risk everything because you are determined to believe there’s grace and redemption for you too in God’s story.

 

I think we should be cautious of appropriating language, imagery, and other unique features of a specific culture. Some Christians take coming out language from the LGBTQ community without thinking of the significance, suggesting that a disclosure of faith in certain situations is just as anxiety-producing and difficult as the teenager harboring shame and fearing that her parents might kick her out of the house if they find out the truth. Unless you’re talking about Christians under real threats like ISIS, we might roll our eyes at you, just sayin’.

 

And yet, we humans have unifying themes that resonate person to person. In a broken world, we all have secrets. We all have a sin nature constantly at war with God’s redeeming work in our lives. If we’re self-aware, we have places in our heart we don’t want to take anyone. Yes, we all have a closet, to borrow that image from the LGBTQ community. We fester and we hurt and we wonder if we’re truly worthy of love and grace.

 

Have you ever had to see a doctor for something that embarrassed you? You put it off, hoping it would go away on its own, but eventually you had to schedule the appointment and let your doctor look at the issue. You brought the distressing matter to the light so you could be healed.

 

God made us for community. Secrets cause us to hold back, to avoid fully participating in our lives with the people who matter. Our secrets disconnect us from each other. We feel ashamed, assuming there’s no way people would still accept us if they knew the conflicts in our stories. But closets have a way of opening whether we’re ready or not—God’s too merciful to let us suffer alone forever. Light finds its way into the darkness.

 

Healing can’t come until you acknowledge or become aware of the problem. Once you’ve identified your demon, you need a community of safe people to journey with you into the darkness. I like how Rachel Held Evans contrasts healing with curing in Searching for Sunday. There probably isn’t a cure for the things that distress us about ourselves, but there is healing. As I’ve walked through same-sex attraction with the people I care about, I’ve seen God sanctify and redeem parts of my sexuality. I’ve moved past shame and fear to embrace life as a Christian who also happens to be gay. This part of my identity that some might call ashes has been transformed into beauty for God’s glory.

 

Not everyone needs to tell their secrets to the world. Honestly, it’s best to keep some things to trusted confidants. But it takes courage to make that first step and come out to someone. Maybe your secrets aren’t as weighty as my same-sex attraction, maybe they are far more broken. Regardless, freedom comes in speaking the truth so others can join you in God’s work of restoration. I can’t promise everyone will respond well, or that your transparency will make life easier—in fact, I promise you the opposite. But I believe God calls you his beloved and he will ensure at least one person in this world will stand by you as you see seek redemption and wholeness. No one is outside God’s grace and there will be people who joyfully reflect his love into your life.

 

So no more hiding. Come out and bask in the warmth of the sun, my friend.

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 We Adventure Together

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

When God Uses the Gay to Redeem the World

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They are not of this world, Jesus said of us during his high priestly prayer in John 17. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. But before we could be sent, we had to be consecrated—set apart. In Ephesians 2, Paul tells us of a time when we were dead in our sins and following the course of this world with the rest of the human race. That is, until our Heavenly Father intervened. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved.

 

Once dead in sin, but now made alive because of Yahweh’s compassion and unmerited favor.

 

No longer of this world, but commissioned back into the world to finish what Christ started.

 

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. How do we know God’s will? How do we determine if our beliefs and actions are good, acceptable, and perfect? Jesus prayed the Father would sanctify his people in truth. Where in this universe can we find truth? Your word is truth. God’s words spoken in human history provide the foundation of living. God’s words teach us where we came from, what went wrong, the sacrifice he made to set everything right, and our role to play in the redemption of creation. We are not to be conformed to this world because we are in the process of restoring the creation to its former edenic glory.

 

So where does my sexual orientation come into the picture? What does scripture have to say about sexual and gender minorities? What role do we play in redemptive history with the rest of the church?

 

It’s personally helpful for me to look back at the beginning. God creates man and woman as two complementary parts who together manifest his image to the creation. As far as I can tell, this lifelong, monogamous union of man and woman remains God established design for sexuality throughout scripture. Man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife as one flesh. God blesses the man and woman to be fruitful and multiply and subdue the earth for God’s glory. Yet the heroes of our faith, God’s covenanted people, so often fail to submit to this sexual framework. Sometimes they don’t even seem realize their error, but God remains faithful and gracious to his children because of his steadfast love.

 

When I look at my sexual orientation in light of scripture, I understand my same-sex attraction to be a byproduct of the fall. My voice joins the groans of creation as we suffer together under this weight of bondage, as Paul describes in Romans 8. I await our emancipation and redemption in hope for God to set all things right. In the meantime, there is brokenness, but I am not more broken than any other Christian. All of us, straight Christians, LGBTQ Christians—even the Christians we’re quick to demonize like those experiencing pedophilia—experience sexual brokenness in some sense and we all stand in need of the same grace and same Savior. God works within the brokenness of this world, sending us out to bring healing and restoration to the creation—not quarantining his people in a bubble to rapture away while the world burns. Jesus taught us to pray that God’s kingdom would come and his will would be done in earth as in heaven. Do we really believe him?

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How does God redeem my sexual brokenness as a sexual minority? Many conservative Christians point to 1 Corinthians 6 as proof I shouldn’t identify as gay; that I should be undergoing some sort of process of becoming less attracted to men and more attracted to women or maybe even more asexual—emotionally castrating myself so I’m no longer drawn to men. Now, 1 Corinthians 6 is a difficult passage for me to interpret, but when Paul states “and such were some of you,” I think we often take this verse too far. When God’s Spirit washes, sanctifies, and justifies our lives, that doesn’t mean he wipes away a sexual minority’s gay orientation. In my case, I became a Christian when I was six years old—a couple of years before puberty and the realization I liked guys. Sanctification is a pretty key word here. Is this really a process of going from gay/lesbian to bisexual to straight? Or transgender to cisgender? Or is this a lifetime of pursuing Jesus and becoming more transformed into his image as we daily die to our selfishness and pride to esteem God and others as more important than our own lives?

 

I’ve discovered immeasurable purpose and hope in looking at my experience as a sexual minority through a disability or “differently abled” perspective (mainly due to an excellent article by Spiritual Friendship contributor Chris Damian). C. S. Lewis took this approach when writing to Sheldon Vanauken about homosexuality:

 

First, to map out the boundaries within which all discussion must go on, I take it for certain that the physical satisfaction of homosexual desires is sin. This leaves the homosexual no worse off than any normal person who is, for whatever reason, prevented from marrying. Second, our speculations on the cause of the abnormality are not what matters and we must be content with ignorance. The disciples were not told why (in terms of efficient cause) the man was born blind (John 9:1-3): only the final cause, that the works of God should be made manifest in him. This suggests that in homosexuality, as in every other tribulation, those works can be made manifest: i.e. that every disability conceals a vocation, if only we can find it, which will “turn the necessity to glorious gain.”1

 

While homosexuality was not part of God’s original plan, that doesn’t mean my sexual orientation threw God off his game. “Oh, snap. Seth’s gay. What the heck do I now?!?” Lewis compares me to the blind man in John 9. Now you wouldn’t tell a blind man “Dude, don’t call yourself blind. God created Adam and Eve with perfect vision, so surely he wants you to have the ability to see. Just keep praying and believing and someday you’ll regain your vision.” That’s crazy talk, right? I’m not denying God can heal people—we serve a God of miracles. But does he usually heal people? Does he usually remove the pain, discomfort, and challenges that result from the fall? No. It’s debatable whether God predestines our difficulties and heartaches to make us better Christians (I personally think this view takes God’s sovereignty too far), but I sincerely believe Romans 8:28: We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. God is powerful enough to take whatever crap this life throws at us and transform and redeem it into something good. In Christ is life and the life is the light of mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it, as John tells us in the beginning of his gospel. So our challenge, Lewis points out, is to find the vocation concealed within our disability or difficult situation.

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Growing up in the evangelical church, everyone in my little bubble framed my gay orientation as a struggle, a thorn in the flesh, and a curse. I didn’t see anything positive about my situation. Why would I want to identify with something so utterly broken? Something so… ugly?

 

C. S. Lewis continues in his letter to Vanauken and offers a compelling question:

 

Of course, the first step must be to accept any privations, which, if so disabled, we can’t lawfully get. The homosexual has to accept sexual abstinence just as the poor man has to forego otherwise lawful pleasures because he would be unjust to his wife and children if he took them. That is merely a negative condition. What should the positive life of the homosexual be?2

 

This is the question the church should be asking. As Eve Tushnet has written multiple times, “You can’t have a vocation of no.” You can’t build a thriving spiritual life off a negative foundation of “Don’t have gay sex.” The church’s lack of imagination creates a logical dead-end for many sexual and gender minorities, deepening their shame and despair, and driving many of them away from Christ to find purpose and hope that we neglected to give them amid the reality of their situation. You can’t create an illusion of heaven on earth for straight Christians while the rest of us are suffering in hell. If you dare stand up for traditional marriage, you (as individuals and corporately as the church) better be prepared to provide the love you’re denying to thousands of sexual minorities. You better be the family you tell us we cannot have.

 

Maybe my favorite answer to what a positive life might look like for LGBTQ individuals comes from Wesley Hill in his recent book Spiritual Friendship:

 

Perhaps celibate gay and lesbian Christians, precisely in and out of their celibacy, are called to express, rather than simply renounce and deny, same-sex love. And perhaps this is where, for all potential trials and temptations that come with this way of thinking, same-sex friendship represents one way for gay Christians who wish to be celibate to say: “I am embracing a positive calling. I am, along with every other Christian, called to love and be loved.”3

 

This could be why I’m uncomfortable calling myself same-sex attracted or why I feel phrases like “I struggle with same-sex attraction” fail to capture everything God is doing in my life. Yes, I experience same-sex attraction because of the fall, but God is using my situation as a means of grace and an opportunity to share the Gospel. Gay encompasses so much more than mere same-sex attraction. It’s an identity of kinship with those who have shared my experiences, borne my sufferings and struggles, and have found a home—“a sense of peace and belonging … around others whose relationship to the world was the same kind of different as mine,” Julie Rodgers wrote nearly a year ago on her blog. She entitled the post “Can the Gay be a Good?” Because I believe in a God of redemption, the Rewriter of broken stories my answer will always be a resounding yes! God can use the gay to turn the world upside down for his glory, to teach the straight majority about their own sexuality and what it means to live in the kingdom. Everything belongs to God, including my sexual orientation.

 

“How can you be gay without feeling ashamed?” readers have asked me since the very beginning of my blog. We internalize so much homophobia from the church, don’t we? We hear so many Christians like Jon from the film C. O. G. telling us we’re sick, mentally ill, demon-possessed, rebellious, attention-seeking, reprobate… It’s exhausting, right? But there’s so much freedom in accepting what we cannot change. There’s power in owning our stories and telling them honestly. I don’t personally believe accepting my sexual orientation means I’m meant to marry a man, but it does mean I’m liberated from a futile pursuit of straightness or an attempt to appear straight in church. These words from Rob Bell’s Sex God are everything:

 

You can’t be connected with God until you’re at peace with who you are. If you’re still upset that God gave you this body or this life or this family or these circumstances, you will never be able to connect with God in a healthy, thriving, sustainable sort of way. You’ll be at odds with your maker. And if you can’t come to terms with who you are and the life you’ve been given, you’ll never be able to accept others and how they were made and the lives they’ve been given. And until you’re at peace with God and those around you, you will continue to struggle with your role on the planet, your part to play in the ongoing creation of the universe. You will continue to struggle and resist and fail to connect.4

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Thinking back, LGBTQ people used to scare me when I struggled in vain to become straight. I’d never met anyone like me and I wasn’t sure I wanted to take the risk. What if they brainwashed me into becoming gay? When I accepted my sexual orientation as an unchanging part of my personhood, I began to discover compassion for other sexual minorities. As God opened my heart to the LGBTQ community, I started to see my life’s calling. I’ve struggled with depression, anxiety, and insecurity my whole life, but suddenly I had a purpose pulling me outside of my self-obsession and self-hatred. God is transforming me into a less self-centered man because of my experience as a sexual minority.

 

As I’ve chosen to live a transparent and vulnerable life, I’ve found greater strength in battling my personal demons like lust, pornography, and hooking up. I’m free to talk about my experience with my friends and family and can ask for accountability and prayer when I need it. I’m able to encourage other Christians who feel called to celibacy and I have the privilege of loving other LGBTQs who disagree with my theology. I’m learning to thrive in community and become truly human.

 

LGBTQ is how our culture articulates sexual and gender minority experience. It’s just our attempt to be authentic and honest with you—how we act based off our experiences is a different conversation. Paul told the Corinthians “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.” As a self-identified gay man, I have opportunities to share Christ’s love with the marginalized that many in the church will never have. It’s not my aim to convert gays and lesbians to celibacy, but to encourage sexual minorities to know and pursue Christ. Their path may not look like mine. I am not the Holy Spirit; he is quite capable of doing his own job. It’s my job to journey with the people God brings into my life; to listen and learn; to love and live out my faith.

 

To tell you the truth, I’m not a fan of the term gay Christian, though I often use it for convenience’s sake. I’m not a different kind of Christian, somehow separate from the rest of Christ’s body. I’m just a Christian who happens to be gay. I believe in the Apostle’s Creed. I love talking about Jesus and I’m still developing a love for talking to Jesus (work in progress, folks). As much as the church frustrates and hurts me, I keep returning to her. Of all the pieces of my personality and identity, my faith takes preeminence. It’s my faith that informs my sexuality, establishing an ethical foundation to build my life on. My sexual orientation has taught me to ask questions, pursue truth, and love the suffering and outliers.

 

God calls all kinds of people to participate in his redemptive narrative. He sets us apart and sends us back in our broken world with a message of good news: Aslan is moving; the winter will come to an end.

 

All will be made right.

 

And we will live happily ever after.

~         ~         ~

 

  1. Quote copied from Ron Belgau’s post C. S. Lewis to Sheldon Vanauken on Homosexuality from Spiritual Friendship.
  2. See note 1.
  3. Wesley Hill, Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2015, 76.
  4. Rob Bell, Sex God: Exploring the Endless Connections Between Sexuality and Spirituality. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007, 46.

A Child of God

c. o. g. movie

Photo Credit

There’s a scene at the end of the independent film C. O. G. (Child of God) I just can’t shake from my mind. C. O. G. is loosely based off a series of essays from American comic writer David Sedaris. The film stars Jonathan Groff (Glee, Looking) as Samuel, a pretentious Ivy League graduate who decides to move across the country to Oregon to experience life among the working class, picking apples in orchards and later taking up a third-shift job sorting apples in a factory.

 

Oh, and Samuel likes guys.

 

As Samuel works at the factory, he develops a friendship with Curly (Corey Stoll, House of Cards, The Strain), a forklift operator. Curly savors Samuel’s dry humor and educated perspective. Both friends are aware of their growing physical chemistry; a language spoken only through eye contact and flirtatious smiles. Yet Samuel’s sexuality doesn’t play a central role in C. O. G.; it’s not until the end of the film that Samuel chooses to see his attraction for men as a defining characteristic of his personality, though Samuel never seems torn about his feelings.

 

c. o. g. movie

 

But what makes C. O. G. intriguing for me is how Christianity weaves throughout Samuel’s story. A Bible-pushing ex-con asks Samuel on the trip to Oregon if he knows the Lord. Samuel tries to brush off the conversation, but eventually states religion is for the simple-minded.

 

“The Bible says…” begins the zealous Christian.

 

“I know what the Bible says,” Samuel interrupts.

 

“So what’s your problem?”

 

“It’s poorly written.”

 

Yet the enlightened atheist finds himself surrounded by Christianity in rural Oregon. When Samuel’s friendship with Curly goes sour after discovering Curly’s, uh, weird sexual interests, Samuel abandons his job at the factory and asks for help from Jon, another Christian Samuel meets in his journey. Jon makes clocks out of jade stone and hands out Bible tracts labeled “C. O. G.” on the street corner. He’s a veteran and recovering alcoholic with a quick temper. Jon agrees to let Samuel stay with him, keen to influence Samuel with his faith.

 

c. o. g. movie

 

But Samuel’s no longer the same guy as he interacts with Jon and the family from church who shelters the two of them. There’s a sense of humility we haven’t seen before, a desire to observe the world around him without pride or bias. Samuel goes to church and one Sunday Jesus just clicks. When the pastor asks if anyone in the congregation would like to receive Christ, Samuel raises his hand. The pastor beckons Samuel to the stage, asks Samuel several questions, and instructs Samuel what to pray. Tears stream down Samuel’s face as he asks God to forgive his sins and smiles as acknowledges Christ’s love. But his grin fades into discomfort when the pastor encourages Samuel to ask God for a wife and children. The satiric scene is meant to be funny, and in a sense the moment is hilarious knowing Samuel’s sexual orientation. But it’s heartrending too when you’ve grown up around straight privilege your whole life and you know this scene is more than exaggerated caricature.

 

It’s not clear whether Samuel’s newfound faith sticks or if he just got caught up in the moment (interviews I’ve read with the director seem to suggest the latter), but Samuel continues working with Jon creating clocks to sale at the upcoming fair, going to church, and handing out tracts on the street corner.

 

When the day of the fair arrives, everything changes. No one will buy Jon’s over-priced clocks, just the little boxes Samuel constructed from the leftover scraps of jade stone. Jon becomes frustrated and begins to snap at disinterested customers as Samuel tries to pacify his irate spiritual mentor. On the drive home, Jon projects his anger and failure on Samuel, needing someone to blame. Samuel remains silent as Jon berates him, a far cry from the young man we met at the beginning of the film.

 

Jon stops the truck.

 

“You know what, there’s a story I’ve been meaning to tell you, but I didn’t think I should have until now. Back in the war… One day my squad was ambushed by a—oh, a couple of local fools, just the five of us and the four of them. It was nothing serious. We took out the towelheads, but not before one of them shot one of our members in the gut. He was bleeding out all over me… Nothing we could do for him. I would have prayed for him, but this was before I knew Christ, so I didn’t do shit for his soul. And so I asked him, you know, ‘Do you know have any last requests?’ He looked me right in the eye and he asked me if I could hold him.”

 

Jon scoffs at the idea.

 

“That’s what he said to me. He goes, ‘Can you hold me?’ Jon mimics with disdain.

 

“I had both my legs then and I used them to kick the shit out of him. …There are a lot of sick people in this world, Samuel, and you gotta watch out for them.

 

Jon pauses and turns to look Samuel in the eye.

 

“You’re that way too, aren’t you? You’re sick like that man, aren’t you?”

 

Tears form in Samuel’s eyes. Samuel’s tone is soft, but he speaks with unflinching strength.

 

c. o. g. movie

Photo Credit

I’m as sick as they come.

 

“God.” Jon turns away in disgust. “You’ve used me—my tools, my patience, and now you want me to pat you on the head like you’re a good little boy. You know what? You’re not a good boy. You’re not even a good girl,” Jon sneers.

 

“You’re a user.

You’re a taker.

You’re a faggot.

 

Christians aren’t users.

Christians aren’t takers.

And they certainly aren’t faggots.”

 

Jon tosses Samuel enough money for the bus and abandons him on the road. The camera stays with Samuel as he walks along the road ruminating in silence, an array of emotions running across his face—disbelief, rejection, frustration… Samuel looks over his shoulder one last time, sighs, and a subtle expression of quiet strength comes over Samuel face as he looks up to the sky and walks out of sight. I can’t help but wonder if this concludes Samuel’s brief flirtation with Christianity as all fades to black.

c. o. g. movie

 

c. o. g. movie

Image Credit

/          /          /

C. O. G.’s final scene gets to the heart of the Christian vs. Gay debate, doesn’t it? Is it possible to be both? While many conservative Christians would show more civility than Jon, they still arrive at the same conclusion—the two are always incompatible; Christians cannot be gay. But what stands out to me is Samuel’s silence; he doesn’t seem to disagree with Jon. As Samuel finally embraces his sexual orientation as an external, identifying characteristic of his personhood, it’s possible he believes he must relinquish his newfound faith to become an integrated human being. Maybe he simply doesn’t want Jon’s ugly faith. When our pastors incite shame and homophobia and Christian organizations like The Gospel Coalition urge Christians to acquire a gag reflex for LGBTQ people, the results can only be devastating for sexual and gender minorities in our congregations. The only hope of survival for many LGBTQ Christians is to run away from the faith that raised them.

 

Despite the fact many of our church denominations are seeing declines in membership and conversions, the number of LGBTQs who identify as Christian continues to grow—the Pew Research Center estimates 48% of sexual minorities now identify as Christian. C. O. G. encapsulates the conflict between the church and LGBTQ people, but it doesn’t begin to offer the nuance this conversation deserves.

 

Paul appeals to the Roman church to present their bodies as living sacrifices to God as part of their spiritual worship. He further exhorts the church not to be conformed to the world, but transformed by renewing their minds so they can discern God’s will and determine what things are good, acceptable, and perfect. What does that mean for me as a gay man? Am I conforming to the world by identifying with my sexual orientation? How do live my life as a living sacrifice to God as a Christian sexual minority? What is God’s will for me in the middle of this explosive debate?

 

As I’m winding down my blog over the next few weeks in preparation for my next adventure in graduate school, I want to consider these questions from scripture along with some other concluding thoughts.

 

Until then,

 

Grace and Peace.

 

P. S. As of July 2015, you can still watch C. O. G. on Netflix if you still have any interest in watching the film after all my spoilers. It’s rated R for strong language and sexual content, just to let ya’ know.

When the Church Makes Room for Minorities

diverse bible study

Church looked very white growing up in the Primitive Baptist denomination, but in preschool my best friend was a little black girl. We played with dolls, had tea parties with teddy bears, and imagined all kinds of adventures on the playground. I don’t think I thought of race and ethnicity much as a child; my friend was just another kid like me. A few years later my family had moved to a different part of Alabama and a black family visited my childhood church one Sunday. The black family sat in the back row while several church members looked over their shoulders as if to say, “What are you doing here?” My face reddened with shame and anger. The family never came back.

 

I discovered what racism looked like in my own church.

 

My family eventually moved to a different Primitive Baptist church where I came to see the church’s calling to demonstrate a countercultural love—a fierce love that tears down dividing walls and brings together radically different people to the table to break bread. Yet for so many of our American churches, we don’t see the rich diversity scripture models. Many are quick to shrug their shoulders and accept the status quo. Racial minorities, for example, are welcomed to attend our services, but the church isn’t going to change anything to create a more welcoming environment for them. We place the larger burden on the minority to assimilate to our community, rather than making ourselves uncomfortable to learn from Christians who are different from us.

 

When we choose to insulate ourselves with the familiar, Christena Cleveland says we’re failing to emulate Christ and we’re setting ourselves up for conflict:

 

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 up 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

 

I can’t begin to grasp what it must be like to be a racial minority, especially what it’s like to be a young black man. I’m prone to anxiety, but I suspect what I feel when a police officer pulls me over doesn’t compare to the apprehension a black Christian man experiences. Yet as a celibate gay Christian, I can resonate with feeling out of place and misunderstood. I can go under the radar if I work hard enough to disguise my voice and mannerisms and pretend to like manlier things, but I can’t fool God or myself. I understand what it feels like to be different, even if I’m the only one who knows it.

 

Unlike many LGBTQ Christians, my church experience since coming out has been positive. For small town Alabama, that’s pretty impressive. However, conservative churches still have a long way to go before their congregations will feel like home for sexual and gender minorities. That assimilation mindset still divides us: we’ll take you if you like the way we do business, but if we can’t meet your needs, you need to find another church home. But what if no church in your community takes the initiative to reach out and create a safe environment for LGBTQs to come to Christ and thrive?

 

Even if we strive to make our churches more welcoming to diversity, Christena Cleveland warns we can still unintentionally signal how unwelcomed Christian minorities are in our congregations:

 

Many people of color who attend predominantly white churches and Christian colleges and seminaries talk about feeling explicitly welcomed by the majority group but implicitly excluded and disempowered. On the surface (and for the most part), members of the well-intentioned white majority are really, really nice to them. People of color are greeted warmly in the hallways, on the bike path and in the pews. They are explicitly told that they are welcome at the church or school. They are even invited into the homes of colleagues, classmates, and fellow church members. However, despite these welcoming individual actions, people of color often report that their experience at these Christian organizations is marked by feelings of disempowerment, loneliness, marginalization, exclusion and misunderstanding. This response both befuddles and discourages the well-intentioned white people and leads people of color to experience a seemingly unshakeable feeling of what [Miroslav] Volf calls ‘psychological homelessness.’ They feel out of place, on the edge of the circle, disconnected from the life-giving heartbeat of the community.2

 

As a gay man, I can walk into nearly any church and be greeted with warm smiles, firm handshakes, and casual conversation. That’s not difficult. But most churches are structured in a way that automatically marginalizes me: they cater to married parents through sermon illustrations and series, church events, Sunday school classes and/or small groups geared to stages of life. When gay people are discussed, we’re usually reduced to political issues threatening religious freedom. We’re repeatedly told what we cannot do, but churches use little imagination to envision a vocation and purpose with sexual and gender minorities. Sure, it’s nice for individual Christians to notice my existence, but that’s not enough. Inclusion needs to be holistic. Christena continues:

 

A focus on explicit, individual actions can lead people in the majority group to ignore the implicit, collective actions that communicate to people of color that they are not at all welcome and they are not equal members of the group. Even though these actions often go unnoticed by the majority group, they ring loud and clear to people of color.3

 

One systemic issue I’ve noticed is the church’s negligence to affirm minority lives and talk about topics like racial reconciliation and sexual and gender identity from a pastoral, rather than a political, perspective. The privileged have the luxury to say nothing, to avoid tension and controversy. Straight Christians can pretend gay people like me aren’t already in their pews; white Christians can ignore the racism that still lingers in our congregations in subtle forms. The majority has the freedom to overlook minority needs by upholding a one-size-fits-all policy, leaving many marginalized. We want church to be easy and comfortable, but Christ never promised a church without challenges. He calls the privileged to share the kingdom—to listen, to empower, to grow and thrive together in our diversity.

 

So how does the church majority help minorities to belong? Christena introduces a fascinating concept from Nancy Schlossburg: a continuum of mattering vs. marginality.3 Schlossburg believes five elements must be in place for minorities to feel included and empowered in a majority culture. If any of these factors are missing, outsiders will feel marginalized:

 

Identification Feeling that other people will be proud of your accomplishments or saddened by your failures
Attention Feeling that you command the sincere attention or interest of people in the group
Importance Believing that another person cares about what you want, think and do, or is concerned about your fate
Appreciation A feeling of being highly regarded and acknowledged by others
Dependence Feeling integrated in the community such that your behaviors/actions are based on how others depend on you

 

This shouldn’t be all that surprising or difficult to grasp. We’re humans with universal needs and experiences that unite us as image bearers of God. We all want to be part of a community. Perhaps when all Schlossburg’s pieces are in place we can uncover another important factor: safety. When we create tolerant, open-minded, and compassionate communities, we provide sanctuaries for the weary and outcast to talk, rest and grow. The Apostle John says perfect love casts out fear: fear of differences, fear of losing power and influence, and fear of change. In order to love God, we must love our brothers and sisters. There is no “us vs. them,” just one messy, broken, and beautiful family in need of the same Savior.

 

I may be the only gay celibate in my church, but I am not the only gay person in my community. If the church genuinely wants to help people like me, Christians must rise above the culture war and begin talking with gay people as God’s beloved rather than at gay people as enemies to religious freedom. We must begin meeting people where they are and meeting needs rather than winning arguments. If you believe same-sex marriage is wrong, create an environment for gay celibates and gays in mixed orientation marriages to thrive in your church, while welcoming gay couples and their children with respect, love and grace amid your disagreements. Don’t ignore our existence; make it known that your church is a safe and gracious place for people to talk about anything, including same-sex attraction or gender dysphoria without shame or condemnation. Let your church know that all minorities are valued for the unique perspective and gifts they can contribute to the life of your church community.

 

Christena Cleveland’s Disunity in Christ has taught me so much about racial reconciliation and the needs of ethnic minorities. But I’ve also found as I listen to people of color like Christena, I better understand myself as a sexual minority. Jesus prayed that the church would be one so the world would know God had sent him. The church body has different theological beliefs, different cultural practices and different backgrounds, but we’re still one church and we have so much to learn from our diversity: black and white, gay and straight, married and single (and so much more).

 

God’s prepared a table big enough for us all and someday our local churches will model that love for all the world the world to see.

 

disunity in Christ christena cleveland

 

///

 

  1. Christena Cleveland, Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013, 21.
  2. Ibid., 167-168.
  3. Ibid., 168.
  4. Ibid., 168-169.

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.

When the Ex-Gay Doesn’t Go Away

man sitting in church

My social feeds have been buzzing with discussions on ex-gay or conversion therapy lately. President Obama recently lent his voice to advocate for the ban of all LGBTQ+ conversion therapies for minors, which Alan Chambers, former President of Exodus International, praised and journalist Jonathan Merritt noted received little notice or protest from the Christian Right.

 

Speaking of Merritt, his recent piece does a brilliant job discussing the rise and fall of conversion therapy within Christian culture. The support for ex-gay therapy now remains mostly with fringe groups and seems to receive little credence among those interested in ministering to sexual minorities. Ex-gay therapy looks a lot like the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain. The curtain no longer conceals the secrets, failures, and self-deceit. We see the Wizard for who he is—just a man.

 

Out of the broken dreams and false promises of the ex-gay movement, we discover two increasingly popular narratives in mainstream Christian culture. Writers and speakers like Justin Lee and Matthew Vines discuss how these failed stories point to a need to reframe how we approach scriptural sexual ethics, re-envisioning new possibilities for gays and lesbians in light of what we now know about sexual orientation and its apparent immutability for most sexual minorities. Other writers and speakers like Wesley Hill maintain a traditional sexual ethic while seeking to be realistic about their situation as sexual minorities, often choosing celibacy while promoting friendship, communal living, celibate partnerships, and possibly mixed-orientation marriages.

 

While these two approaches rapidly gain ground within the church, I’m not positive either position could be called the dominant perspective, at least in the evangelical church where I grew up and continue to call home. Ex-gay therapy may be seeing it’s last days in mainstream culture, but the ex-gay movement seems alive and thriving in the subculture of the evangelical church. Rosaria Butterfield is an incredibly popular voice among evangelicals who lack nuance on sexual identity and reduce LGBTQ+ people to their sexual behavior. Butterfield’s conversion story (liberal, feminist, lesbian professor to a conservative home schooling mom and wife of a reformed Presbyterian minister) sets her, and those like her, on a pedestal in the evangelical community. We love Christian testimonies, especially if they remove the ickiness and tension of any residual sin struggles we don’t understand. Butterfield validates the church’s assumptions about homosexuality, and the church readily weaponizes stories like Butterfield’s against anyone who would dare offer a competing narrative. Even major Christian publications like World Magazine seem hesitant to abandon the ex-gay paradigm. World recently featured a story about Wheaton College’s openly gay and celibate employee Julie Rodgers. Most of the discussion featured not celibate voices like Julie’s or those sympathetic to her position, but ex-gay advocates who believed Julie had given up on her spiritual development by accepting a gay identity. Major evangelical organizations like The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) and popular blogs like The Gospel Coalition seem incredibly hesitant to feature sexual minority voices who openly identify as gay.

 

I recently noticed David Platt, a popular Christian writer and former pastor of one of my home state’s largest churches, sharing a post featuring a piece Denny Burk had written for the ERLC. Burk argues sexual orientation is sinful in and of itself—even if sexual minorities like myself refrain from extramarital sexual intercourse and lust. Sadly, I don’t think this is a marginal perspective in our churches. Many believe God’s original design for sexuality between one man and one woman establishes heterosexuality as the standard for all believers. In my experience, some evangelicals believe by becoming a Christian, a gay person simply shakes off the “gay lifestyle” and everything is dandy from that point. Many more Christians see sanctification as a process of becoming more whole, and thus “straighter,” as one develops a deeper relationship with Christ. Just keep fighting; just keep praying. Don’t give in.

 

As a Christian studying the field of psychology, I’m not all that surprised when Jonathan Merritt reports the Christian Right didn’t rise in outrage over President Obama’s call to end conversion therapy for minors. The evangelical church still harbors suspicions about the Christian counseling and psychological community, questioning the methods and philosophies used to produce healing and provide assistance. Many pastors are partial to Jay Adams’ biblical counseling approach, believing the Bible has all the answers we need to address mental health concerns. So what if therapy can’t cure someone of homosexuality? We already knew that. This is the job of God’s Spirit, not a therapist. Nothing really changes for the average evangelical church and the isolated LGBTQ Christian in need of help.

 

It’s at this point we’ve arrived at the heart of the issue. On one side we have conservative Christians standing with nothing but their scriptural understanding of homosexuality, divorced of any meaningful relationship with transparent sexual minorities—conservative Christians who fail to grasp the reality and nuance of our situation. Then there’s us, the folks who have tried the ex-gay programs, have spent years believing and praying and wanting change to happen, but nothing has changed, other than maybe a deeper faith or a faith that has become brittle, if it hasn’t already shattered into irreparable pieces.

 

Nothing really changes until the church is willing to listen. It won’t come through new laws, bullying, or name-calling. Change comes gradually through relationships and conversations, through tension and discomfort, through gracious and patient hearts. Change happens as we break down our language barriers and examine how sanctification really works. When we dialogue with curious and open hearts, we sometimes discover we need to adjust our assumptions and expectations.

 

The ex-gay movement is not an issue the government can ultimately fix or solve; it’s for us in the church to come together and address. And it’s time we put away the politics and discussed the needs of the sexual minorities in our pews.

 

So let’s talk.

Letter to a Bitter Celibate

girl watching camp fire

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You’ve never been here before. Celibacy. You dabbled with the idea, but it never really stuck. A life without a spouse seemed hollow, frightening, and desolate. Kinda like living in tomb separate from the land of the living. Celibacy felt like death and you desperately wanted to live.

 

But here you are at the end of all your exploring. You’ve arrived at where you started, and as T. S. Eliot wrote, you know the place for the first time. “Not known, because not looked for.” But now your eyes are open. You have bitten into forbidden fruit and now there’s no longer room for you in the garden.

 

You wanted this transition to be easy, effortless. No more panic attacks. No more rejections from the men you wanted to love. No more secrets. You pictured God with a frown when you prayed, mostly wondering if He even listened anymore.

 

Are you happy, God?

 

You’re attending more weddings as the years pass. Tears tend to well up in your eyes, but they aren’t tears of happiness for the bride and groom. The tears are for all your dreams crumbling before your eyes.

 

Church used to feel like a family. Everything felt right, every ritual routine. Hymns, prayers, a sermon, and a potluck lunch every Sunday. But now you’re sneaking in late, sitting in the back. You stare at the back of people’s heads and feel overwhelmed by the gulf between them and you. You’ve become a stranger and the awkwardness hangs thick in the air. You internally argue with the pastor; his every criticism feels aimed at you. You want church to work again, but you don’t know how.

 

You’re fairly convinced God is a tyrant and you’re like his battered wife. You love your husband when he’s gentle, but you never know when he’ll slap you across the face and strangle your neck until there’s no air to breathe. You resent him, but you stay. That’s another thing about abused wives. They can’t seem to visualize any other options. That’s what celibacy feels like. And that’s how twisted your reformed theology has become.

 

“Sometimes it is hard not to say ‘God forgive God,’” C. S. Lewis’ audacious declaration rings true to your tired, bitter heart. Some days you’re almost waiting for an apology from your Heavenly Father. But there’s only silence.

 

You don’t talk to people because they won’t get it. They’ll try to fix you because your pain makes them uncomfortable. They’ll probably tell you to get over it, repent, move on. Words. But words don’t help much. Lewis said it well, “Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.”

 

You’ve done what God and the church required. On one hand, you breathe a little easier without the guilt weighing you down. But that doesn’t make living any easier. You’ve traded anxiety for bitterness. You’ve submitted to what you believe is right, but you fear you’ve sacrificed any hope of a life worth living. But here you are, willingly choosing to embrace the pain like a man needing surgery without any available anesthesia. This will either heal or kill you; you can’t be certain of which yet.

 

You take your Bible off the shelf for the first time in a long time. Only one thing seems to take your mind off the chronic ache of your soul: the pain of others. You see suffering everywhere in scripture, in every character. You see it so strikingly in Christ until it sinks in. God seems so distant, so angry, so disappointed with you. But in Christ you feel his heart. The God of the universe humbled himself and became a suffering servant to reclaim you, to woo you, to make right what life had made so wrong. He knows misunderstanding, rejection, and isolation.

 

He gets you.

 

When you were a senior at Bryan College you wrote a thesis on C. S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed. You examined Lewis’ grief and anger over losing his wife and compared his agony to the process you perceived gay individuals suffer when they lose their sexual identity to become Christians. True, you were still a bit ex-gay back then and didn’t quite understand the complexity of the issue or the complexity of your own sexuality. But you learned something valuable from Lewis that would matter immensely years later when you cycled between depression, anger, and apathy.

 

This is a process of grief.

 

“I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow. Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process. It needs not a map but a history, and if I don’t stop writing that history at some quite arbitrary point, there’s no reason why I should ever stop. There is something new to be chronicled every day. Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape.”

 

People respond differently to grief; several of your gay friends gave up on celibacy while you were in the process of finding it. It wasn’t a matter of who had the stronger faith or who was the truer Christian. There’s no telling what really made the difference. But you’ve never thought less of your friends. You had your own path to take and your own convictions to uphold. The daily, costly act of obedience required more than you thought you could give, and you came with plenty of hesitation and doubt. You slowly began cleaning up your disheveled theology, gradually embracing celibacy not as an avoidance of Hell but an affirmation of God’s calling for your life. Slowly the bitterness diminished; the melancholia couldn’t last forever. You genuinely laughed again.

 

You are loved well. If you have a little grace and patience, people will begin to come around. They will slowly cease offering unsolicited, unhelpful advice and platitudes. They’ll probably never fully understand, but gradually they will listen. And when they listen well, they provide much better feedback and suggestions.

 

But here at the beginning of this long, winding valley of sorrow, I know no words will help. Words won’t assuage the pain. Yes, time will heal the ache, but it’s the agony of waiting for every second to pass. So I’m going to sit here with you. We don’t have to speak. You can cry or swear, break things or sit still. I won’t walk away or judge.

 

I’m here.

 

~         ~         ~

 

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