When You Feel Oppressed by My Faith: A Love Letter

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Yesterday I listened as a local affirming Gay Christian shared a little of his faith story with me over private Facebook messages. At one point he stopped and told me he wanted nothing to do with the oppressive message of the Side B/traditional sexual ethic position. The conservative church had told him his sexual orientation was sinful, a mistake, and contrary to his status as an imager bearer of God. He didn’t want to waste any more energy around it.

 

I paused as I reflected on the weight of this man’s words. It’s easy to become defensive when someone slams my personal beliefs—to feel I need to justify my faith. But I’ve been Side A and affirming. I remember what it was like. I truly know how the conservative church’s teaching on sexuality can oppress the spirit. My faith felt like trying to stay afloat in a tumultuous ocean. I fought so hard to keep my head above water, gasping for oxygen as the waves crashed over me. Does God really love me? Am I a reprobate? How do I reconcile the chaos going on inside me? As I struggled to survive, Christians would come and share Bible verses, platitudes, arguments, and their fears for my salvation. All of these felt like weights I couldn’t carry as I sunk into the ocean’s depths. If I was going to live, I needed to run. So I left the church for over a year.

 

“I get it, man,” I told him.

 

~          ~          ~

 

But I have no agenda, no expectations on friendship. You don’t have to become celibate for us to be cool. I understand if I bring up painful memories with the church and I won’t be offended if you need to walk away. But please know I don’t think you’re disgusting or a mistake. I believe you’re always within God’s grace—the same grace we all depend on as fallen creatures in need of a great Savior.

 

I know you’re doing your utmost to honor the authority and integrity of scripture. This is not a light manner. I know the depression and anxiety; I know the stakes. But I have to believe God’s grace is more efficacious than my ability to check off every correct theological box. I’m a reformed Christian, at least that’s my background shaping my interpretation of scripture. Romans 8 says that nothing can separate us from God’s love. I have to believe God’s redeeming grace covers me and my self-destructive tendencies; that it covers our blind spots and biases. I have to believe God looks at the entire story; that he’s more than an apathetic robot.

 

I’m here for the journey with you. Not to remind you of our differences whenever tensions and disagreements arise, but as a friend who supports and loves you through life’s beautiful joys and aching sorrows. I’ll have coffee with you and give you high fives when you share about the new love interest in your life. I’ll go with you to the dark places through the break-ups. I’ll celebrate with you at the wedding and I’ll hold your hand at the funeral. I’m in this with you.

 

I want your faith to thrive. I don’t want to be an obstacle keeping you from experiencing the power and beauty of the gospel. I want my friendship to reveal a little bit of Jesus and his unceasing love for you. Perhaps my friendship will reveal a celibate calling for you, but more than likely it won’t. And I’m ok with that. Maybe you can discover a deeper appreciation for friendship, learning that life can be purposeful in this present moment even without a romantic partner as you participate in God’s kingdom, assisting in redemptive work. But this I know for certain: I will learn from you. You have much to teach me.

 

I can’t change how scripture speaks to me, how it informs the way I feel called to live my life. But my life is not the standard, and I’m humble enough to admit I could be wrong. When I speak about sexual ethics, I can only speak for my own story. In stories we find common themes and resonate with similar experiences, but each story is unique. My story isn’t a weapon to tear you down or invalidate your perspective. I’m just one thread in a diverse tapestry.

 

When you feel oppressed by my faith, please know I don’t extend judgment or condemnation to you. Just grace and a hospitable heart.

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

Thoughtful man in the sunlight

Image Credit

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.

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 We Disagree Well

guys talking

We’re taught from a young age to draw boundary lines. We clearly delineate those within and those who stand without the fold. We’re expected to be cordial to outsiders, but only as long as they remain on their side of the fence. God forbid they should ever cross the line until we know they’re one of us.

 

But what happens when an outsider begins as an insider? What happens to those emotional bonds, that history of shared experiences, those vulnerable late night conversations?

 

Do you grieve like death has struck? Do you withdraw because your friend has become a stranger? The lines are crossed; your comfortable, ordered world is crumbling apart. What are you going to do?

 

You see, for many gay Christian people like myself, we’re waiting.

 

~         ~         ~

 

You can fairly call Glee’s Santana a word that rhymes with witch. She’s a tough, beautiful, cheerleading Latina with a knack for artistically tearing people down and putting bullies in their place. But underneath that ice queen exterior lies a deep, vulnerable secret: Santana’s gay. When she’s unexpectedly outed, there’s one person in particular she worries will find out: her conservative, Catholic grandmother—her abuela. So one evening Santana goes over for a visit. When they sit down to talk and Santana shares this part of her life that has always remained hidden, Abuela can barely maintain eye contact. Occasionally her eyes meet Santana’s, but her expression is cold, empty.

 

A few moments ago Abuela fretted whether Santana was eating enough, now Abuela can’t recognize her granddaughter. She’s no longer an insider in a world Abuela can understand. It’s a moment of dreams and hopes deconstructing and there’s nothing left to lean on but her beliefs. There’s no time to call a time out, to pause, to process. There’s just overwhelming fear, discomfort, and disappointment. Abuela does the only thing she knows to do. She tells her once cherished granddaughter to leave and never come back. As Abuela leaves the table and turns away from Santana, far too many sexual minority youths can sympathize with Santana’s tears of rejection and heartbreak. And for a couple of seasons Glee leaves it at that.

 

Silence.

 

Here’s the thing about Glee: no argument is ever finished; loose ends are rarely abandoned. Santana has come a long way in her journey since being outed as a teenager. She still has plenty of snark, but time has deepened her capacity for compassion and taught her to become fiercely loyal to her friends. She proposes to her girlfriend Brittany and Glee takes the opportunity to reintroduce Abuela as Brittany tries to reconcile grandmother and granddaughter. Abuela remains just as opposed to gay marriage as before, yet there’s a hesitant warmth and softness we haven’t seen before. As Abuela watches her granddaughter perform, she smiles and tears up. But Abuela and Santana are still at a stalemate. Abuela stuffs the warm emotions down, believing nothing has changed. But she has changed—the years have likely given her time to think. On the day of Santana’s wedding, Abuela shows up to everyone’s surprise. She has found a way to embrace the tension without violating her conscience.

 

Abuela tells Santana before the wedding,

 

“I’m not saying I agree with every decision you make… I still don’t believe it’s right for two women to get married… But I do believe family is the most important thing in the world. And I love you, Santana. I don’t want to be the person in your life that causes you pain.”

 

Glee Santana and Brittany wedding

Image Credit

 

This is a pretty amazing conversation for television. We live in a world of black and white—you’re either for same-sex relationships and gay people or you’re against them. There is no middle ground. That’s likely what Abuela had been taught. Yet she decides to cut through the politics and theological arguments and center her focus on Santana—a woman made in God’s image, a fellow human with dignity and value, her own flesh and blood. So Glee doesn’t resolve the tension, and tension makes extremists on both sides wacky. Extreme liberals might say if you don’t fully agree with them, you’re oppressing them; you’re intolerant. Extreme conservatives might say if you go to a gay family member or friend’s wedding, you’re endorsing “the gay lifestyle” (whatever that is…) and your place in the faith might be in question.

 

In fact, Christianity Today recently discussed whether the traditional-believing Christian should attend gay weddings. Three out of four said no, while Eve Tushnet offered a different view. Eve framed her answer through unconditional love: “Whenever Christians can show that our love is not a reward for good behavior, we should do so.” This is similar to Abuela’s logic. Navel-gazing conservatives may worry how others will perceive them if they attend an open celebration they deem to be unscriptural, but that was far from Abuela’s mind. Santana and Brittany knew where she stood on the issue, but they also knew that Abuela had learned to love her granddaughter unconditionally. This was an important life event for Santana and Abuela chose to attend the wedding to demonstrate her newfound commitment to journey through life with her granddaughter in times of both agreement and conflict. Tough love wasn’t going to cut it anymore.

 

It also helps when you can see a gay relationship as more than just sex. As any married couple will tell you, and I’m sure gay couples would agree, sex is not the center of the relationship. I particularly liked this quote from Eve (and whole-heartedly concur):

 

This decision about attendance is easier for me, because I believe God calls some people to devoted, sacrificial love of another person of the same sex. Let me be clear: I don’t think that that love should be expressed sexually. But some people who marry a same-sex partner are doing so out of a call to love, even though they misinterpret the nature of that love. We should support as much as we can. When a woman forgives offenses and humbly apologizes for her own wrongdoing, cares for children, listens, comforts, and learns to put others’ needs above her own preferences, those are acts of love—which do not become worthless or loveless when they take place within a lesbian relationship.

There are a lot of gray parts in the discussion, such as the selfless love and service Eve noted. I personally believe scripture affirms sexuality exclusively between a man and woman in marriage, and as much as I’ve tried to convince myself of revisionist theology, I still don’t feel compelled by many of the arguments (I still recommend conservative Christians check out folks like Matthew Vines, James Brownson, and Justin Lee and grapple with what they have to say). However, it bother me when Christians question the legitimacy of my friends’ faith who feel convicted God affirms same-sex marriages. I disagree with their position, but I fiercely believe they deserve a place at the table, that they are my brothers and sisters in Christ. If they want to worship Jesus, I’m not going to discourage them from seeking Him where they are. I’m not God who can examine the heart, nor the Spirit who sanctifies and softens the heart. I’m not the gatekeeper to the Kingdom. I refuse to stand in the way of anyone desiring a personal relationship with Christ and the power of the gospel. How that works out in the lives of sinful humans who have the freedom to participate in their sanctification will vary. At our best, we remain imperfect no matter how close we are to the goal. So my friends have my respect, my love, and my support. As the years go by, I expect to gladly attend multiple gay weddings because I’m in my friendships without conditions, expectations, or an agenda.

 

I believe in building friendships with all kinds of people. I’m close to a few Mormons. I have friends who are Agnostic and Atheist. Some of my friends are Black, Hispanic, and Asian. I like being one of the guys, but I can just as easily mingle with the ladies. I relate to progressive Christians, but I also appreciate what I learn from conservatives. I’m politically and theologically moderate, so no one likely agrees with me 100% of the time. There are opportunities to examine our different points of view—a time to ask questions, to listen, to share our perspectives, but then to put the discussion back on the shelf. Diverse friendships aren’t centered on our conflicts. That’s unhealthy. I don’t harass my gay-affirming friends about celibacy every time we talk. They know what I believe. We’re too busy talking about great books, watching movies, going to concerts and art exhibits, exploring nature, eating good food (that I’m not allergic to), maybe worshipping Jesus together, and just enjoying the gift of life. Diverse friendships work when we disagree well, when we learn from our differences, when we share life together.

 

~         ~         ~

 

We spend our life drawing boundaries lines in the sand, defining “us” versus “them,” and making sure we stick to friends who keep our lives comfortable and unsurprising. But isn’t it amazing when we can step across the line and unconditionally love those who are different from us? It’s not that our beliefs don’t matter, that we shouldn’t try to seek truth, or ascertain standards like sexual ethics. What I’m talking about is a call to humility, because we’re fallen, finite and biased. Scripture gives us the big picture, the “metanarrative” of redemption, but we can’t see all the threads God is weaving together to form His tapestry. We simply know our call to love God and our neighbor, to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly before our God. Yes, we have much to stand for. …We just don’t have to act like jerks to share it. I love Abuela’s example; she didn’t compromise her convictions, but Abuela didn’t let her beliefs rob her of Santana’s relationship.

 

In a perfect world we wouldn’t all agree. Rather, we would respect our differences and have enduring grace and patience amid our conflicts and tensions. We wouldn’t have selfish agendas or abandon friends because they haven’t made progress toward our point of view. We wouldn’t have to hide our faith or our convictions; we could be transparent and honest about who we are and what we think. We would be open-minded, open-hearted, curious, and kind. We would gather at one table and it would be messy, loud, and uncomfortable, but oh so endearing and safe. Everyone would have a voice; everyone would belong.

 

And while we live in a world of haters and zealots, I like to believe my friends can envision that table when we sit down to talk. I will not shove my faith down your throat; I will listen more than I speak. We may not agree, but you will be respected. I simply offer my faith and my friendship as an invitation.

 

The ball’s in your court.