When Christians Create Safe Space for the Hurting

Man praying and comforting a friend

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

 

How safe would I have been?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

~         ~         ~

 

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

When 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 It’s Time to Write a New Chapter

man looking out at the water

 

I thought my life was over when I buried my dreams in the ground. They weren’t just dreams, but a cultural paradigm. Good Christians get married, have kids, and impact the kingdom; the rest of us are just sitting around, waiting to participate in the action. …Or something like that.

 

Every time I contemplated a life of intentional singleness I’d laugh. Who does that? I’d never seen celibacy modeled. I had no idea what a celibate vocation looked like. I didn’t even know if a celibate could be genuinely happy. Near the end of 2013, I realized I’d run out of options. Celibacy was the only solution that made sense for me. It allowed me to embrace the theology I just couldn’t abandon and it provided the freedom to accept my sexual orientation with grace and without shame, somehow believing God could use my experience to sanctify and redeem my soul.

 

So I went back to the blogs that saved my faith a few years ago. Brent Bailey mostly, but then I began to re-read Julie Rodgers with an openness I hadn’t given her before. I hungered for hope in my bitterness and sorrow, and Julie presented a fabulous feast of joy and inspiration. Suddenly the idea hit me. What if I started a blog? What if I gave my life to love and serve LGBTQs like me? I needed to rediscover meaning in my life and to process what I was experiencing. So I wrote my first blog post February 1st, 2014 and began applying to Regent’s clinical psychology program that summer. The experience broke me, revealing all my deeply rooted insecurities. But God strengthened my spirit through the encouragement of a wide community of family and friends—friends from Bryan College, from local churches in my hometown of Gadsden, from coworkers, and many readers I still haven’t met in person. I stepped out in faith and every time I stumbled, my support system came to my aid. I’m convinced a community is the only way you survive a controversial blog and grad school applications.

 

So here I am, already starting a new adventure. I was just beginning to see what transparent community life could look like in Gadsden, and now I can go further and invest my time and energy into community here in Virginia Beach for the next four years. No secrets, no hiding. My story is part of me and part of how I connect to you. We thrive through storytelling.

 

A few months ago I was burned out with blogging and announced on Facebook and Twitter I would no longer publish posts once I began grad school. Public life had been hard, dealing with criticism from both sides of Christianity while never feeling like I “arrived” as a gay Christian writer after all those hours writing and editing posts, trying to network, and reading everything I could find on the craft of writing (all while working a full-time job and trying to get into a doctoral program). As much as I believed I was writing for the art form and ministry to LGBTQ Christians, I discovered how much I wanted the attention I’d never possessed before. I couldn’t enjoy my blog until I learned to appreciate the writing process more than the response I received. Sometimes a post went viral and received a couple thousand views (ok, just the one…) and then some of my favorites received less than a hundred views. It took awhile to realize page views are a fickle and unreliable measure of my worth. Tim Keller wrote a short but excellent book called The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness that helped me a lot this summer. He exhorted me not to care what others may think of me, even to let go of what I think of myself (both my self-hatred and self-esteem). All that matters is how God sees me through Christ: beloved. Rather than worrying if people like me, my only responsibility is to faithfully love others to the best of my ability. It took awhile to apply and embrace Keller’s insight to my craft as a writer, but it was liberating once I could let go of my need for validation from both gay Christian and faith writers (though some did notice my work and liked it). I’m learning not to care so much about “fame,” but to love the people God brings in my life, whether a few close friends or multitudes who receive emotional and spiritual nourishment from my written words. God simply asks me to be faithful in loving people well with whatever influence he gives me, not to magnify Seth Crocker, but Jesus, the Savior of the world.

 

I don’t know what the next chapter will look like for this blog. I may try writing during school breaks or perhaps publish a post every month or two depending on how much I can handle. I don’t have expectations. To borrow some of my favorite terms from Andrew Marin, there are plenty more bridges to be built between conservative churches and the LGBTQ community and many more conversations that need to be elevated above the gay sex question. I’m hopeful I’ll find all kinds of inspiration as I live transparently in community as a celibate gay Christian, as I study sexual identity in Dr. Yarhouse’s research team (fingers crossed I get in), and pursue opportunities to interact and befriend sexual and gender minorities on campus and in the area.

 

So for now, thank you readers for journeying with me, whether in agreement or disagreement or a mixture of both. I’ve appreciated your willingness to listen to my story and the needs of LGBTQs in the church. This is an ongoing conversation and I hope you will continue to listen and dialogue. And most of all, I’ve been honored to hear your stories. I’ve cried and laughed with you and shared your frustrations. You’ve validated my desire to minister to LGBTQs by becoming a clinical psychologist. Thank you for your trust, your many kind words and encouragements, and for your challenging questions.

 

I look forward to seeing what God has in store for the years ahead.

 

Much love, friends.

 

Seth

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