Self-Care When the Newest Christian Celebrity Comes Out as Affirming

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Social media chaos tends to erupt whenever a popular Christian reveals to the world they have come to the conclusion that God affirms same-sex marriage and love. We’ve felt it twice this year as Jen Hatmaker shared with Jonathan Merritt her changing views on biblical sexual ethics, and just yesterday Merritt published a similar interview with Eugene Peterson, the writer of The Message, a popular paraphrase of the Bible. Peterson told Merritt he believes LGBTQ Christians have equally good spiritual lives, and he would be willing to perform a same-sex wedding. Both instances led to a swarm of tweets, posts, and articles as traditional and progressive Christians both rushed to add their voices to the debate.

 

I don’t know about you, but in these moments I can feel like a child sitting at the table while the adults argue—invisible, unheard, and unnoticed. And like many other Christian sexual minorities, I carry the emotional scars of religious traumas that can resurface and trigger as Christians debate our legitimacy in the church without much thought of sensitivity or compassion.

 

As I’m just at the beginning stages of my dissertation on religious trauma with Christian sexual minorities, I’m drawn to our collective experience of wounds inflicted by the people we loved and trusted. Some of these people taught us about a loving God, but perhaps out of their fear for our salvation or their need to be a spokesperson for God, they used faith to instill shame and anxiety, and left many of us questioning our worthiness and lovability in God’s eyes. Repeated messages of condemnation and hell could trigger panic attacks and generalized anxiety to the point that life became unmanageable and unbearable, and for many, jettisoning Christianity became the only viable solution to cleanse their minds of suicidal ideation, while others eventually committed suicide when hope had finally been extinguished by their faith communities. Our pain as a subculture runs deep.

 

Yesterday Rachel Held Evans asked LGBTQ Christians what they needed on days when prominent straight Christians become openly affirming. After reflecting on this question more this morning, here are a couple suggestions to nurture your soul and prepare you for the emotional impact:

 

Shut off the computer or phone. There are plenty of other people who share your perspective and will advocate for your dignity and your right to belong in the fold of God. You don’t have to enter every argument. When family and friends send you articles and ask for your opinion, you’re not obligated to give them an answer. Don’t fight every battle; take opportunities to rest in the peace and comfort of Christ. Speak up when you’re ready, preferably on a day when everyone isn’t activated by the latest controverisal story.

 

Reach out. Hopefully you’ve identified safe Christians who can minister to your aching soul. Don’t carry the emotions alone. Share with someone who will remind you how much God adores you and wants to be in relationship with you. Don’t waste your energy on Christians who make your faith toxic and shameful. Spend time with Christians who motivate you to love more deeply, and see your love as good and beautiful and needed.

 

Take a mental health day. Hopefully you know the activities that lower your heart rate and silence the ruminating thoughts of fear and depression. If not, try out some new things. Incorporate physical activity, like lifting weights, running, swimming, or dancing. Get outdoors and take in the sun and the sounds and sights of nature. Go see a new movie, take an art class, try a new restaurant, or take a long, warm bath. Remind yourself of the beauty and gift of living.

 

Consider professional help. As a developing clinical psychologist, I strongly believe in the effectiveness of therapy, especially if you don’t have social supports currently in your life and you don’t know where to begin. Maybe nothing is helping assuage the worries or cut through the fog of sadness. There are so many research-supported treatment options for anxiety and depression, and if money is an issue, ask about sliding fee scales. Find someone who can be a witness to your pain and can help you navigate the tough questions so you can begin finding congruence in how you want to live out your faith and sexual identity.

 

Find role models and resources. As minorities, it can be tough when there’s no one like us at church and we haven’t seen anyone live out an example of being gay and Christian in a way that demonstrates increasing spiritual maturity. We don’t know what it looks like to thrive as complete human beings. But if you’re reading this post, then you’re already taking a step toward listening to how one gay dude is trying to navigate his own spiritual and sexual journey. Find the voices that resonate with you and better represent your story and your struggles. Remember, you’re not in this alone. The Gay Christian Network and The Reformation Project have annual conferences around the country where LGBTQ Christians can connect, and GCN also has multiple Facebook groups to foster community for different age ranges, and even for different demographics, such as females or Side B/traditional LGBTQs. Additionally, the Episcopalian church has been awesome about supporting the LGBTQ community if you want to find some potential safe friendships and spiritual mentors.

~     ~    ~

Overall, remember God’s love is steadfast for you, no matter the chaos of whichever Christian celebrity creates an uproar and renews the debate about the dignity of our lives. Find God in the stillness and pursue him in the mystery of faith, believing he is merciful, good, and loving, and that he will never leave or forsake you no matter how badly you screw up or how convicted other Christians are that you have no part in his kingdom. His voice is ultimately the only one that matters, so cling to him and don’t let him go. You’re going to make it, and God is ever at work redeeming your life.

 

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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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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.

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 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

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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

Man standing in the sunshine

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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 It’s Time to Write a New Chapter

man looking out at the water

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Much love, friends.

 

Seth

ocean waves at the beach

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When God Uses the Gay to Redeem the World

Girl walking in a field

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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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

All will be made right.

 

And we will live happily ever after.

~         ~         ~

 

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

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

 

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  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.