When You Don’t Have to be Extraordinary

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The world around us seems to give one consistent message: be extraordinary.  Post amazing pictures from super cool locations on Facebook or Instagram, mingle with powerful and influential people to boost your own public image, do crazy hard things to change the world or your life may not matter. Be charismatic, witty, and attractive so you can be universally adored.

It’s not a sustainable way to do life, but man, the pressure weighs on us.

When I graduated from undergrad I stumbled across writers like Julie Rodgers, Brent Bailey, and Wesley Hill who reframed my life narrative. They didn’t present their sexualities as shameful or unwanted, but either had integrated their sexuality into their identities, or at least they were making a brave attempt to find congruence between their faith and sexuality. Their words revealed the importance of my own story, and for a shy dude who had spent his life avoiding intimacy and feeling crushed with loneliness, I was hungry to share my life with as many people who would listen. Essentially, I wanted to be Julie, Brent, and Wesley, because if my life looked like theirs, then my life could mean something. And man, was I disappointed when that didn’t work for me.  So many of my LGBTQ Christian acquaintances went viral and were recognized in both the broader faith community or the LGBTQ Christian community. But for me, writing felt like an exhausting treadmill that would sometimes lead to broader attention, but mostly my words went ignored. I wrote less as it became a soul-crushing endeavor.

But even as I shifted from a blogging identity into the role of a clinical psychologist in training, I found this pattern continuing in my life. I met a gay Christian psychologist and in my hunger for direction and validation, I incorporated his interests as my own and wanted to craft my training to look like his. I processed this dynamic with one of my professors two semesters ago, and she encouraged me not to become this psychologist I idolized, but to live out my own story in my clinical training. The world already had his story, she told me, and what the world needed was my unique contribution and voice. That would only come by pursuing my own interests and developing my own personality that I’d spent a lifetime trying to hide from people.

Possibly the best cure for all the strivings of social media, public platforms, and fame is found within community. These past two years at Regent have been some of the most transformative years of my life as I’ve attempted to live transparently and vulnerably with the folks who entered this program with me, and the upperclassmen and faculty who have mentored, supported, and befriended me in the process. I’ve felt loved as I am, even when I felt so much needed to be changed in me to be accepted. They’ve taught me that my story doesn’t have to look like any of my role models, and my narrative is more authentic and meaningful when it’s being told and lived through my own words and actions.

But perhaps one of the most profound discoveries was realizing how much I can help others by swapping places and becoming the audience to my clients’ life stories. Unless my clients Google me or have a pretty decent gaydar, they don’t know I’m gay, and in this context, that’s not what matters. So much of my life I’ve needed other people’s approval and validation to reassure me I’m all right. I’ve been unsure if my love had any significance or whether people actually wanted to be loved by me. Maybe all I could hope for was the pity of others. I wasn’t sure if I could ever be an equal, and certainly not a mentor or vessel of grace and redemption to others. Becoming a student clinician has added depth to how I see myself in my calling. I can matter in a context where the focus isn’t on me, and I have seen lives transformed in both radical and small ways that provide confirmation that my presence and warmth is both wanted and desperately needed.

I may not be a public figure who writes consistently popular posts, or receives hundreds of likes on my social media accounts, but fame isn’t the goal in vocation.  Anyone who receives fame has worked through insecurity and failure, and is by no means universally adored. They do have the privilege of making a profound influence on so many people, but for those of us with far less influence, our contributions to God’s redemptive plan are just as significant. I would argue there is greater redemptive impact by the investments we make in a few people, as we reveal the love of our Heavenly Father by consistently showing up and remaining in relationship with people through the good and the bad, by maintaining healthy boundaries and modeling lives of vulnerability and humility. These characteristics create thriving therapy alliances between therapists and clients, but they also form life-giving relationships between friends and families.

So if you’re feeling exhausted and depressed scrolling through your social media accounts, remember that recognition and influence are fleeting. What endures is your love for others—given from your unique calling and voice. Whoever you’re comparing yourself to, whatever you think you must accomplish to feel like you’re enough or worthy of love, rest in your lovability as the unique human God has shaped you to be. Strive to accomplish great things as an expression of the love you already possess, because you are already deemed beloved, worthy, and enough.

You may not be adored by the masses, but I believe you will find freedom and peace by living the story God has given you. I also believe you will find an audience who both supports you and needs to hear your story to navigate their own life narratives. Life can be extraordinary not in our potential for greatness, power, and fame, but in our capacity to be vulnerably known in such a way that fosters redemption in both our lives and others.

In a world full of people who compromise the beauty of their identities to obtain attention and fame, walk in the freedom and integrity of your vulnerable self.

That’s actually pretty extraordinary.

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Weekend Prayer

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Weekends scare me. All the normal rhythms of the week to come to an end; all the little opportunities to interact with other students, my professors, and my clients cease, fading into silence. And now it’s just you and me, God.

 

It’s funny… I came to a Christian graduate program to incorporate my faith into my education. I believe that clinical work is redemptive. Brokenness pervades every crevice of our hearts, and I bear the honor of being a vessel of healing and a witness to wounds no one else sees, but you, Father. Yet the further I take this path, the more I find my own scars—scars from my perceptions of who people say you are. I study at a Christian university, and yet I avoid you in all the business of classes, clinical work, research, and meetings. I know you’re there, waiting for me to acknowledge you, but most days it hurts to look you in the eye.

 

I’ll be 30 in a little over a month, and the past three decades have taught me how little I actually know about you. Christians seem so confident about your personality and character, whether they be conservative or progressive. But I realize I don’t quite know you anymore.

 

I don’t believe I’m in any danger of walking away from you. I can’t imagine a life without you remaining a defining participant within it. I’m just finding there’s more to you than I knew before, and I haven’t found a way to process and integrate all the pieces and unknown variables. And it’s the uncertainty that wrecks me.

 

Maybe marriage feels this way when one spouse feels like the other has become a stranger. The kids are grown and gone, and everything feels awkward and out of place. What do we say? What do you even think of me now? I sit next to you weighed down by your silence.

 

I don’t know what it means for you to be holy and full of justice, and also loving and merciful. I don’t know if your grace is freely given to all or to a group of people you selected. I don’t know if your silence about lifelong, monogamous same-sex relationships indicates you’ve made a clear point either to condemn or affirm this possible option for my future. I can overwhelm myself into paralysis ruminating over all the deep questions of theology.

 

Yet for all the ways I do not know you, and the tough conversations I avoid, I realize I do not want to carry the weight of caring for others alone.

 

This is where I lean into your mystery. In all the ways I fail, I still pursue you, holding onto the slightest hope you might want me to be part of your story. It’s hard to say from my perspective if my life is some kind of ironic tragedy or a narrative of resilience. But somehow I live it anyway with all the vulnerability I can muster. I move forward even when graduate school feels like a sinking ship I won’t survive successfully. I choose to believe there’s light and hope even when I don’t know how many dark days are ahead and how many will be lost to my own mental illness.

 

Rather than shutting down in defeat, I choose to hope for my own redemption. If I believe your redeeming love journeys with my clients, I can embrace it now in the imperfection and disorder of my own life in this present moment.

 

No, I don’t know you, God. Your silence makes my soul ache with loneliness and anticipation. But I’m here at the end of a Friday night, facing you, mindful of all my fears and wounds and yearnings. But with a little faith, I once again choose to fall into your grace, trusting you will catch me—and hoping you will catch me throughout life and whatever comes the moment after my last breath.

 

Despite the uncertainty, I love you for one more day, and by faith I trust I am loved by you in return.

 

Amen.

Not Looking

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What are you looking for?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“All of my life I’ve been waiting around

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

Everything now comes easier to me

Waiting for no one

Now that I found me.”

 

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

The Cost of an Authentic Life

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I still remember the first time a group of frat guys called me a faggot. I had just graduated from Bryan College and I was working that summer in Tennessee. One particular weekend I hung out at a park in Chattanooga with one of the first gay men I’d ever met. I wore a tank top and shorts to endure the humid Tennessean air. We walked around for at least an hour as I asked questions about what it meant to be gay and how the other guy had accepted his sexuality. As we wrapped up the conversation at his car, one of the frat guys yelled from across the parking lot, “Hey, faggots!” They continued to hurl one obscene remark after another, and then they finally laughed and walked away towards the park. I felt gross and exposed, ashamed that I didn’t have manly muscles or that I hadn’t worn a t-shirt or something less…gay. I projected a little of that internalized homophobia by abruptly leaving the other guy at his car and ignoring his calls and texts afterwards.

 

I was afraid.

 

We all tend to operate under invincibility complexes that shield us from the truth that we’re finite and fragile. We’re aware of death, but that’s a foggy idea somewhere in the future. Premature fatalities happen to other people, not us. But we all have moments when the veil lifts and we see our mortality. Six years ago I saw antigay hate expressed in real life and directed towards me. I saw how one aspect of my personhood could be devalued and dehumanized. I wasn’t as invisible as I had hoped, and it was a terrifying realization.

 

I felt that same sickening fear today as I read the updates on the shooting in Orlando where fifty people were killed and fifty-three more were injured. People had been out celebrating Pride Month in a club intended to be a safe shelter from homophobia and hatred, not knowing they would become casualties in our nation’s deadliest mass shooting.

 

Oh yes, the veil has been lifted.

 

There is something truly brave about living an authentic life. Brave not just because one may lose a career, hopes and dreams, and the love and support of friends and family, all of which can destroy a person’s soul. But as last night demonstrated, the bravery of living an authentic life may require an additional steep sacrifice: when people hate a part of your identity so much that they come to believe the world is a better place without you in it. ….And they act on that conviction.

 

If I had to guess, the moment I came out publicly increased my probability of being murdered in a hate crime. It’s a risk sexual and gender minorities take to make their true selves known so they can be loved unconditionally. I have heard countless stories of my friends being harassed in public as they went about life with their significant others. As a blogger, I’ve personally seen the obsessive hatred of Internet trolls who wouldn’t leave me alone, and I’ve heard worse stories from other fellow bloggers. When you risk showing a little vulnerability to the world, there will always be people who despise your unique humanity and desire to crush your spirit.

 

As I was preparing to reveal my identity on this blog awhile back, I had lunch with one of my best friends. We discussed the pros and cons of coming out publicly, and I admitted to him that this choice could result in my death by some crazy homophobe. I compared it to living transparently as a Christian in a country fueled with antichristian hatred. If God called me to live in the light so others could be helped and saved, the result could be a martyr’s death.

 

“Would it be the same thing to die as a martyr as a gay man as it would be as a Christian?” he asked.

 

I paused to think.

 

“If I can show LGBTQ people the love of Christ, I believe so.”

 

It’s a scary existence living as a minority. We live in an evil, broken world and we feel like we’re thrown into a perpetual cycle of suffering. When does it get better? Where is hope in all the darkness? My faith tells me God is working to restore all things, but so often I can’t see this process of shalom occurring in my life. Most days I’m barely standing on God’s promise. But by faith I believe I have the unique opportunity to contribute my life—my body, soul, and spirit—to God’s mission to save his creation. My voice can bring a little more life to a dying world, a little more light to extinguish the darkness. This evil world may consume me, but I am part of something larger than my individual life. I know how this story ends.

 

But tonight my heart breaks for the victims in Orlando and their families. My heart breaks for the LGBTQ community as we experience emotions of fear, anger, grief, confusion, and numbness as we realize how much hatred is still directed towards our existence and just how fragile our lives are. Yet through this pain I must believe this life is too precious and too short to be spent on safety. Safety means silence, isolation, and living without love because no one can know us. The world becomes a better place when we all risk living transparent lives. Baring our souls to one another may cost us everything, but I believe the gamble is worth all the moments of meaning, beauty, and connection with the people I love and those who I hope to spend my life serving.

 

All the homophobes in the world can’t take that from us.

The Stories We Live

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Growing up as a homeschooled teenager without real-life friends I turned to online message boards to find some sense of connection—some way to feel less alone. As a hardcore Calvinist, I could be offensive, unyielding, and closed-minded. I cared about people with other beliefs, but I wanted them to know what I thought and hoped God would work in them to see “the truth” just as I saw it. When my message board friends and I discussed homosexuality after years of talking, I opened up that God had healed me of same-sex attraction. I knew it wasn’t the truth; I had probably looked at gay porn the day before. But I believed change would happen. God couldn’t possibly keep me this way.

 

One story.

 

As an undergrad, I realized my sexual orientation hadn’t changed. People told me to keep praying, maintain faith, and God would just zap me with straightness one day. I didn’t buy it anymore. If God didn’t hold out hope of healing for all kinds of other sad conditions, why should homosexuality be any different? I saw my sexuality as broken, as my thorn in the flesh that I had to endure. If I couldn’t marry a man, perhaps I could marry a woman and have a relationship primarily built on friendship. I could sacrifice my yearnings for sexual and emotional intimacy with a man to do what I believed to be right. All the while I distanced myself from developing meaningful female friendships because I would panic, fearing I was talking to “the one.” I wasn’t ready. I began to wonder if I ever would be.

 

Another story.

 

I felt lost after college. I hadn’t moved on to grad school as planned. Life seemed overwhelming, so I moved home. Friends dated and married while my future seemed hopeless. My faith fell apart and I didn’t know if I believed Christianity anymore. I made my first acquaintances with other gay men and listened to their stories with ravenous curiosity. How did they learn to embrace their sexual orientation? How did they deal with the shame and guilt and the anxiety and depression? How could I stop feeling like my insides were going to rip apart? I developed my first infatuations and felt the repeated sting of rejection as some distanced themselves and ignored me while others redirected me to friendship. I also discovered Gay Christian bloggers who showed me I could hold onto two realities—that I could be gay and Christian and experience peace within that tension. I found myself returning to God, unsure how this was going to work.

 

One more story.

 

As I returned to God, I couldn’t shake the anxiety I felt in prayer, reading scripture, or sitting in church. I felt condemned and disobedient. I was a healthy adult, yet my blood pressure became hypertensive because of anxieties of Hell. I had started reading celibate gay Christian writers like Wesley Hill and Julie Rodgers, but I just didn’t want a life of celibacy—not because sex was that important to me, but because I didn’t want a lifetime of coming home alone at the end of every day. But I couldn’t assuage the worry, no matter how many affirming books or blogs I read. If I wanted sanity, something had to go. So I gradually embraced celibacy as part of my identity. I decided I would find my purpose by becoming a clinical psychologist and sitting with others in their suffering, just as I had known suffering.

 

And many of you have witnessed that story.

 

And now I’m beginning another chapter I never expected I would live. I can’t say I’m fully convinced of revisionist theology. There is too much gray for me to have complete confidence about my beliefs. But rather than feeling weighed down with anxiety, I find assurance in grace. As I have listened to hundreds of stories over the years from sexual minorities with all kinds of convictions about sexual ethics, I’ve taken a step back. My theological background emphasized sin and brokenness and upheld a fairly pessimistic portrait of human beings. While I certainly believe humanity is fallen, I have learned to trust in redemption and hope. Each human maintains some trace of goodness that reflects God’s image. With each progression I’ve made, I’ve seen this more clearly in the LGBTQ community. So many times I’ve seen breathtaking glimpses of the gospel in the lives of sexual and gender minorities. Regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, we’re all screwed up, imperfect, struggling to be our best selves and yet falling so short of the goal.

 

But there’s grace and redemption in Christ.

 

When Christ starts a good work in us, he doesn’t let go.

 

Faith means holding on to that promise.

 

My story has been all over the map, through basically every option a religious sexual minority can consider to find congruence between faith and sexual identity. As a clinical psychologist in training, it’s a reminder to affirm the stories people are living. We’re born with different genetics, raised in different environments, and God works in us differently. No two stories look alike, and rather than fearing these disparities, we can stay in relationship amid the dissonance with respect and kindness. You can disagree with me if you can treat me like a human being—not as project to be fixed or trash that needs to be put in its place, but as a friend to journey with throughout life regardless of how time and experience transforms us.

 

Through this process we live out gorgeous and raw narratives of grit, resilience, and redemption. We have so much to learn from each other. There are so many ways to be challenged and grow; so many ways our hearts can expand, break, and repair again.

 

So sit around the fire and share your stories, friends. Recount your hilarious moments that make us laugh until our sides hurt. Be brave and vulnerable and share your heartbreaks that bring tears to our eyes and connect soul to soul. Or maybe say nothing at all, knowing your presence is wanted and you belong just as you are.

 

Beloved one, your story matters. Live it well.

Stories of Faith in the Dark

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Holy Saturday, the day before Resurrection Sunday, represents a time of questioning, of doubt, and of darkness. Hope seems lost by the cruelty of a broken world. Christ lies in a tomb; the light of the world extinguished, abandoning us in darkness and silence.

 

Where are you God?

 

How do I know you are real?

 

~          ~          ~

 

My friend Addie Zierman focuses on these questions in her new memoir Night Driving: A Story of Faith in the Dark. Addie bears the weight of clinical depression, and if you’re familiar with her writing, Addie’s depression tends to follow a seasonal pattern, worsening with the coming of winter’s chilly temperatures and the loss of sunlight. Addie began sharing her story of depression and loneliness in her first memoir When We Were on Fire, opening up about her complicated relationship with alcohol and her craving for attention from men that threatened to destroy her marriage with her husband Andrew.

 

Night Driving A story of faith in the dark

 

Night Driving doesn’t provide readers with tidy answers to the emotional wounds Addie exposed in her previous memoir. Rather, Addie invites us to go deeper into the brokenness of her heart, exploring the cynicism, the loneliness, the escapism, the doubts, the hurts, the need for attention, and the absence of God’s presence. Addie’s suffering is raw, sometimes uncomfortable to process, but so vulnerable.

 

Most days it feels like I’m still dealing with the same old struggles. Some days I feel so frighteningly close to being the most desperate version of myself—drunk-driving toward something that feels like love … but of course, isn’t. Most days I feel like I might—if asked too many questions—find myself curled into the fetal position by some fence, sobbing over all the unhealed places. Like a Believer who is still not really sure what it means to believe.

 

While we trust God is sanctifying us, redeeming us, making us the best version of ourselves, we often default to our brokenness. We gain something from our unhealthy patterns that hinders us from moving forward. We lack the faith to lower our walls and trust God and other people to meet us at the ache and mitigate its sting. We run.

 

And that’s just what Addie did for a few weeks one winter.

 

Night Driving is a travel memoir. Addie packs up some belongings and her two adorable boys Dane and Liam and makes her way south to Florida, visiting family and friends along the way and promoting her first memoir, all in pursuit of the warm rays of sunshine on the Florida coast and an escape from the cold darkness of Minnesota. For Addie, the cold and darkness can be felt deep down into her soul. God feels like he has moved away and she can no longer feel him like the girl on fire for Christ she once knew within herself. There is a void that Addie is learning to live with—sometimes consuming too much alcohol or holding eye contact with an attractive man a little too long to fill the ache in her spirit. And like any human, Addie fails to always be the woman she wants to be.

 

“All sins are attempts to fill voids,” Addie quotes Simone Weil. Sin is one of those complicated words filled with shame-inducing content from our fundamentalist pasts. But one of the ways I’ve come to frame sin is anything that separates me from relationship with God because I have shifted my hope to an inferior substitute. I am hurting myself, denying myself abundant life, because I don’t trust God to meet me at my suffering. And maybe I’m mature enough in my faith to know he probably won’t take the pain away, and I desperately don’t want to feel the pain and lean into it, because I’m afraid it will consume me. Like Addie, I’m running. Like Addie, I’m pursuing cheap replacements to convince myself I’m okay.

 

The darkness Addie writes about resonates with my experience of my first year of graduate school. There has been so much anxiety and depression this year. So many fears of being an imposter, feeling paralyzed with the work, and feeling isolated every time I return home to an empty house and left to wonder if this is all my life has to offer. I’ve discovered over the months that I’ve changed: my theology and politics have become increasingly progressive. At times I realize I don’t recognize myself. I’m a dude learning to become an adult at the end of my twenties and I’m discovering just how broken and yet how strong I am. I’m realizing all my plans for my life are shifting and embracing the uncertainty scares me.

 

I’ve learned over the years to extend grace to those in same-sex relationships or those pursuing them, but I’ve gradually developed the self-compassion to extend that grace to myself. I’ve treated God like he’s holding a gun to my head, commanding me to love him by remaining celibate for life, and always worrying if I gave in, God would pull the trigger. I believed God is loving and gracious, but just in case, I wanted to make sure I was on his good side.

 

It’s hard to feel close to God when you can’t fully trust him. I gradually realized I didn’t want to live out my faith that way. And now I’m walking in the uncertainty of what that means. Maybe that means having a husband and children one day, maybe it doesn’t. My identity, worth, and purpose still centers on Christ. But there is still darkness to journey through, particularly knowing my faith and salvation will be questioned. But ultimately it’s a matter between God and me to process.

 

This decision obviously doesn’t impact my life for a couple of years, seeing I’m a student at a politically conservative evangelical university. But it does invite me to wrestle with these tough questions in an environment where not everyone will agree with me. If my journey has taught me anything, it’s grace amid tension. I will grow from it, and likely my classmates and professors will too. The journey is often dark, but I’m learning that’s not a bad thing. I’m surrendering the idol of black and white certainty and trusting God to lead me through the gray, knowing whether I’m right or wrong he will continue working in me and will not abandon the work of grace he started.

 

Addie writes,

 

…What the darkness asks of me is different from what the light does. In the darkness I am asked to listen. To wait. To allow myself to be folded close to the heart of God. It is good in a way that terrifies me. It is the other side of hospitality—and I am not the one with anything to offer here.

 

Can darkness and silence be a form of God’s hospitality to his people? There is so much we don’t know, so much we can’t know on this side of time. We fight for answers, for certainty, but in a broken world we’re often left with little resolution. But if the wilderness experience reflects God’s desire for us to pursue him even when he can’t be felt, or when he seems less satisfying than the inferior substitutes of this world, then maybe we can still make meaning out of the darkness. Maybe we can remember he hasn’t left us when he can’t be felt or when he doesn’t make our aches disappear. He walks with us in our dark seasons, when we don’t know what we’re doing anymore.

 

He’s still here, no matter how far we try to run.

 

~          ~          ~

 

Addie ends her second memoir months later as winter approaches again. She sits outside and feels the sharpness of the cold air, but she has been learning to accept the changing seasons. “This time I’m going to let it be winter,” she writes.

 

I don’t have any rituals, rites, escapes, or solutions this time around, except to let my heart become still. I will drive Liam to preschool and go to church and do the dishes. I will get up in the mornings and open my Bible, and if I feel nothing, I’ll stay still anyway.

 

We’re all running from something. We all carry wounds. But God is calling us to be still and be transparent. He may not cure our suffering, but he will heal us, slowly, through his gracious work of redemption. We often feel like we’re moving through life like driving in a thick fog at night. It’s terrifying and uncertain, but God is here. There’s grace here.

 

How do you know God is real? Addie repeatedly asks this question and often recalls a pastor stating, “Because we have felt him.” But like Addie, I haven’t felt God most days of my life. I simply choose to come back to Christ again and again because no story resonates with my spirit quite like the Gospel.

 

The darkness is an invitation to practice faith.

 

Night Driving Addie Zierman

When Jesus Redefines Masculinity

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Since coming out you might notice I cross my legs. When I’m animated or struggling to find words, I wave my hands around. I communicate primarily through my facial expressions, and when I do share my thoughts, my voice tends to be tentative and soft. I’m passionate about relational and artistic subjects like social politics, theology, psychological and spiritual flourishing, literature, spiritual memoirs, the craft of writing, film, and music. Culturally speaking, I’m no man’s man. By many churches’ standards, I’m a failure as a Christian.

 

I’m not a biblical man.

 

Or am I?

 

One of the many aspects I enjoy about blogging is the opportunity to interact with other writers. Over the past year I’ve become somewhat acquainted with Pastor Nate Pyle after he shared a lovely post with me about his intention to stay in the LGBTQ conversation. Nate recently published a book on masculinity called Man Enough: How Jesus Redefines Manhood. I despise most books on biblical masculinity and gender roles, but Nate’s message resonated with me.

 

Man Enough by Nate Pyle

 

Nate stresses multiple times throughout his book that there isn’t one single biblical definition for masculinity, but multiple ones. Rather than restricting men to a narrow definition of manliness, Nate offers a far more liberating, countercultural perspective:

 

“It is time to stop defining masculinity by what men do and start defining it by who men are. It is time to stop pushing men to fulfill a role and start focusing on helping men become human. Rather than focusing on making men breadwinners, warriors, or even better husbands, it is time to focus on encouraging men to be fully human and alive. If men can learn to be courageous—and not a ‘run into a burning house’ courageous but a ‘be authentic about who you are’ courageous—then men will be better husbands, better fathers, better coworkers, better neighbors, better friends. Better humans. Embodying characteristics such as vulnerability, integrity, gentleness, and courage will serve men far better in a changing world than forcing them to accept some predetermined role.”¹

 

At first, Nate’s message felt obvious for me. I’m nearly 30, and I’ve journeyed far enough in my story to care little about how others perceive me. I’m never going to be the guy who likes sports or hunting or understands the mechanics of a car. I’m never going to date a girl, get married, and have kids. But truth be told, I feel pressure to act more masculine. I lift weights most weeks and in my early twenties I trained myself to say “Man” and “Dude.” If I want to be recognized as a writer, speaker, and activist in a heteronormative culture, then I’m going to feel pressured to act “normal,” meaning masculine. Gay culture, even Gay Christian subculture, values masculinity in gay males. It’s seen as more attractive, confident, and strong. I once pursued a guy I liked during my brief Side A experience. He told me I was cute but not enough of a “bro” to be his boyfriend. I wasn’t good enough; I wasn’t man enough.

 

What I appreciated most about Nate’s message in Man Enough was his call for men to become authentic human beings. It’s a message that doesn’t bash masculinity or femininity, but recognizes of our unique personalities that suffocate under rigid gender role designations. Nate offers a strong warning: “Using the gospel to reinforce gender roles and ideals redirects our attention away from its central goal: that men and women will become like Jesus.”² This goal of developing Christ-like qualities lays the foundation of Nate’s argument. Popular culture and even church culture divides our humanity, esteeming some characteristics while minimizing others. But in Jesus we see complete humanity. We see a man who experiences righteous fury in the temple but also weeps when a friend dies. We see a man willing to face death, but is also comfortable when John lays his head on his chest. We can see great might and courage in Jesus’ personality, but also countercultural tenderness and intimacy.

 

The queer community has a lot to offer the church. Sure, it means pushing people outside of their comfort zones, but why is that such a bad thing? When the church can esteem my masculinity for who I am in Christ, not for my ability to perform certain cultural expectations, the entire church benefits. Straight men are given freedom to be Christ-like without being seen as pathetic and women are elevated as equal image bearers of God and not seen as inferior or a symbol of weakness. I cannot, and will never fit within any kind of biblical masculinity mold, and I don’t have to. God intends for my life to reflect his son, not some hollow macho ideal I could never attain.

 

Most days I don’t worry how masculine or effeminate I appear to the world around me. It’s subjective and not worth my time or energy. Grace establishes the foundation for the Christian faith. It’s not what I do, but what Christ has done. As Ephesians 2 notes, salvation is not of works lest we should boast. So I don’t need bulging muscles, sporty cars, wilderness survival skills, or an impressive career to matter. I’m thankful for Nate’s reminder that I’m man enough right now and I don’t need to prove anything to God or to the world. I’m free to be vulnerable and I can rest knowing who I am: a beloved son of God.

 

  1. Nate Pyle, Man Enough: How Jesus Redefines Manhood. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015, p. 61.
  2. Ibid, p. 157.

When We Find Our Resilient Selves

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I’m not ready.

 

Words I’ve said too many times over my lifetime. I’m not ready for adulthood and responsibility. I’m not ready to risk rejection within community. I’m not ready to pursue my ambitions because maybe I don’t have what it takes.

 

I spent five years after college waiting for some spark of bravery to ignite my life and burn away all the fetters that kept me from moving forward into adulthood. I would start a goal and panic when the struggle became too intense. I learned to run from my problems and retreat within an inner prison where no one could reach me or know me.

 

Blogging became one of my first steps out of the shadows. I wanted connection with the Gay Christian subculture, and if I could befriend the writers and speakers who represented it, then maybe I’d finally be someone. Maybe my voice could matter. Many established Gay Christians did become aware of my existence and then moved on. I doubt their disinterest was personal, but I took it as another crushing reminder that I wasn’t good enough—that I would never be good enough for any community.

 

I’d write a post and sink into depression for weeks because I had no idea what I was doing. Clearly I wasn’t ready to write publicly and connect to readers and other writers. Most of my life I’ve convinced myself I’m trash: useless, worthless, and undesirable. The more I spoke, the more I revealed how pathetic I was. I just wanted to quit and go back to my invisible life.

 

But then I’d write again and slowly my posts became less about obtaining the attention I’d never possessed, and more about the art form. I began to feel life through my story. I experienced moments of growth as I took another step of faith through one more blog post, one more vulnerable conversation, one more deep breath.

 

Every month I cycled through depression, refinement, and redemption.

 

Studying under Dr. Mark Yarhouse had been my dream since transferring to Bryan College to study psychology in 2008. I intended to apply to the clinical psychology program every year since graduating, and every year I would tell myself I wasn’t ready. But blogging changed something in me; it provided a sense of courage I’d never known. Surviving a year of blogging had taught me readiness would never come. I could only try and wait for God to make the next step clear.

 

And then to my delight and terror, Regent accepted my application.

 

Like blogging, I arrived in Virginia Beach with many unrealistic hopes. I thought I’d left my depression back in Alabama because now I had purpose. I was out as a gay man in a Christian academic community that valued diversity and I even found quick support in my new church. I would belong, God would fix all my issues, and everything would be perfect for the rest of the semester.

 

Not so much.

 

It didn’t take long for my doctoral studies to overwhelm me. When I freak out I shut down, and when I shut down I isolate myself from others, and when I isolate myself I begin to self-destruct. The melancholy would sink in every Thursday evening after classes ended for the week. I would spend my weekends in bed, weighed down by anxiety and sadness because I wasn’t connecting. I’d worry if the loneliness would define the rest of my life and maybe I’d just made a stupid, super expensive mistake. I started turning in homework late and I declined offers to hangout with others. By midterms I ruminated about dropping out. I had set my ambitions too high; I’d flown too close to the sun.

 

I am trash. I am nothing. I am invisible.

 

The week after midterms I initiated a meeting with one of my professors about my late work. She empathized with my pain and fears, but also challenged me with compassion to receive the help I needed to continue moving forward.

 

Find your most resilient self, Seth.

 

An old friend from Bryan encouraged me to open up to a few people in my cohort. It wasn’t easy. I didn’t want them to see me as unstable or to further alienate myself if I somehow managed to survive the semester. But I finally brought my depression, anxiety and other self-destructive tendencies into the light to a few cohort mates and upperclassmen. I learned telling people I’m gay doesn’t mean I’m out of the closet—emotionally I’m still there. But by lowering my walls just a bit I could receive my friends’ grace and lay the foundation to meaningful relationships that provided the support I needed.

 

The first night I knew I would be okay happened as I went out for drinks with a few cohort mates. We walked across the street to a club and I danced for my first time in public as the music blared. I mimicked the other dancers and laughed at my terrible dance moves. I didn’t feel like the depressed, crazy guy for one night. I was with friends and I was wanted and I was okay.

 

Redemption happens in unexpected places. God is everywhere, even on a dance floor.

 

I found my first moment of purpose towards the end of the semester transcribing an interview of a sexual minority student at a Christian university. The interview reminded me how grateful I am for this honor to tell our collective story—even statistics and research data reveal an art form; themes that resonate and unite our individual narratives. I love moments when I feel part of this beautiful and diverse community of sexual and gender minorities—a community who has so much to offer the body of Christ. I needed this reminder. There’s a reason why God wants me at Regent and it’s worth the stress, tears, all-nighters, loans, and five year commitment to fulfill this calling.

 

God has already enabled me with the ability to pursue my calling. I will never be ready until I step out in faith, fail, and pick myself back up. I’m still learning how to be human; it’s an awkward, painful growing experience. I’m a man lost and thirsty in the wilderness, but like Hagar, I’m finding my salvation in El-Roi—the God who sees me. Not seen as trash, but as a beloved child. Transformation is happening, and slowly I’m becoming the man God is shaping me to be. Slowly I’m allowing people to touch my life.

 

Resilience only requires one step at a time.

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.