When the Ex-Gay Doesn’t Go Away

man sitting in church

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

So let’s talk.

brooklyn bridge

Where I Stand, Part Two

This is part two of my essay on Bridge Building. Click here to read part one.

 

Did it matter?

 

In a sense, nothing really happened that weekend on the lake. I didn’t have profound conversations or insights. In fact, I barely said anything at all. It was an opportunity to just be—an opportunity to embrace my inner “conscientious observer.”

 

But thinking back, a lot did happen. It’s not every day a guy pursuing celibacy has breakfast with a guy and his boyfriend. What the weekend represented fascinates me. We didn’t argue, I didn’t feel uncomfortable when Thomas showed affection for his boyfriend. I didn’t look at it as an attempt to be like Jesus and hang out with “sinners.” I came to Georgia with an open heart and without expectations. While the deep theological questions of my heart remained unanswered, I can see growth in how I socialized with people, especially people outside my cultural boundaries. I never felt forced to be anyone but myself. If I just wanted to sit back and communicate nonverbally, then that was cool with me and the people there at the party.

 

People seem to think bridge building only happens when we’re getting our point across, especially if we say it loudly and passionately. I don’t really have a side. I have a buddy who has a boyfriend. I don’t fully know what I think about that. Regardless where my perspective shifts, I love him. Time is so short and we have so little to give. But I choose to continue giving some of mine to him. Despite the differences, despite any awkwardness or tension or risk, I give Thomas my love as my brother in Christ.

 

Without agenda.

 

Without expectations.

 

Because for some reason God formed this friendship and I commit to maintaining it. Or at least as Mom says, on my side of the court.

 

It’s in God’s hands.

 

~          ~          ~

 

I don’t know what kind of a future awaits a bridge builder. I expect challenges ahead if my friendship with Thomas moves forward. Any relationship will face difficulties. Even with God’s grace we’re still proud and self-centered people. Occasionally we hurt each other; sometimes we have strong disagreements. Community is messy. I don’t expect this to be an easy life. But hopefully it will be a rich, meaningful one despite the challenges.

 

As I’ve written from the beginning, Andrew Marin has been one of my primary role models on how we minister to others in the midst of dissonance, especially between faith and sexual identity. My paradigm changed after reading his book Love is an Orientation. Ministry to sexual minorities seemed like a risky idea before reading it. People told me it was like an alcoholic trying to minister to drunks in a bar. “You’re setting yourself up for trouble.” These kind of remarks led to a lot of confusion and ambivalence. I kept visiting hook-up sites in search of something meaningful, and that always ended with bad results. Maybe they’re right. Maybe this encapsulates the gay community. But I started to see a broader perspective in friends like Thomas. And Marin helped me grasp the idea of relationships across worldviews, cultural barriers, and us vs. them dichotomies. I discovered a deeper appreciation for living out grace and humility in my life as a follower of Christ.

 

I realized a gay human being couldn’t be compared to a glass of beer. I wasn’t running towards sexual promiscuity—to self-destruction—like an alcoholic to drunkenness. I sought integration for my life rather than compartmentalization. I wanted to be around people who would say “Me too, brother” and teach me to love God and somehow do this gay thing well. I wanted to learn how my faith informs my sexual identity.

 

That path started with Thomas and writers and bloggers like Andrew Marin, Mark Yarhouse, Wes Hill, Brent Bailey, Justin Lee, David Owens, Julie Rodgers, Ben Moberg, Stephen Long and many others. People with strong, contrasting beliefs on how to approach this discussion.

 

But I’ve especially resonated with Andrew Marin and Brent Bailey’s voices. They keep their position on the gay marriage versus celibacy issue a private matter. An acquaintance I met in Knoxville earlier this year (and have quoted before, because he’s that awesome of a thinker) challenged me to consider being vulnerable to both sides and truly listen to what each side has to say. He wondered aloud if there’s a risk publicly choosing a position. Could there be pressure to maintain that belief when you already have a personal stake in the discussion? Could it lead me to potentially minimalize and ignore salient arguments and insights from the other camp?

 

 

So back to Marin. He recently wrote about Jonathan Merritt’s excerpt in Christianity Today called “A Thread Called Grace” and Merritt’s choice to not label himself based on his sexuality. It’s a lovely reminder of Andrew’s heart towards Christian sexual minorities:

 

Merritt doesn’t self-identify as gay in the excerpt. He doesn’t answer any of the baseline questions around the contemporary dialogue regarding sexual orientation. He also doesn’t speak to his future. Will Merritt live his life celibate or one day have a partner? And he owes none of those answers to you, me, or anyone else. Jonathan Merritt is a person who loves God who is loved by God. And that’s all I need.

Yes, he was outed. Yes, he is a public figure and is offering his story to public critique. Yes, the questions will always abound from people from all sides who will rabidly demand answers from him until the day he dies. I could care less about any of that. And I hope Merritt never gives anyone the pleasure of knowing any of those answers. He doesn’t owe you or me or anyone any of those things. You either trust Merritt or you don’t. You like his writing, thoughts, and opinions or you don’t. No matter what he says, I’m gay and getting married to my partner or I’m celibate because I believe in a traditional interpretation of scripture, partisan activists will still have a field day with him, his story, and his conclusions no matter what.

Merritt is Brother Jonathan to me. Always will be. It is not up to Merritt for you to decide what path you will take in relation to your own worldview, his story, or others in your life.

 

You may not realize it, but there’s a ridiculous amount of pressure on every sexual minority. It’s scary to choose sides, because our choices have repercussions. It’s also scary remaining neutral. You may lose friends from both sides. But despite that risk, I will not be anyone’s pawn in this cultural war.

 

So if you require a definite answer from me, then I’m sorry. I have no answer to give you. You will be frustrated if this whole complicated conversation comes down to a single question. If you no longer wish to read my words, continue our acquaintance or friendship, or respect me as a human being made in God’s image, then I must bear that cross and bid you adieu.

 

But if you can step into the dissonance, this world of gray where I live, then come and walk with me. Come with your beliefs. Share them with me if you wish. I will listen. Let’s tell stories around the fire; tales our wounded souls and our hope for redemption. Let’s learn from each other and find the vulnerability to risk being found wrong in search of the truth. It’s all part of this glorious, messy process of sanctification.

 

It means so much when you choose to walk with me through life and its questions; when you can call me “brother” like Marin even if we disagree. I need people that remind me to rest when I’ve wrestled with God for too long, when I need to remember His compassion and goodness. You make the tension more bearable.

 

It’s my relationships that tear away my insecurities and spark courage within me to pursue my calling no matter the cost.

 

~          ~          ~

 

I never want to stop building bridges. I want to keep replicating that weekend. I want this to be my life’s work. I want to spend every day creating a little shalom on this earth, making God’s will done on Earth as it is in Heaven in my life and in my relationships.

 

I want to become a mental health practitioner (I already have the bachelor’s degree in psychology, so that helps). Maybe it’s part of being an oldest child of five, but I have this nurturing, fatherly, and pastoral quality to my personality. The career inventories in college told me I should either be a pastor or a psychologist. I think you can be both as the latter. I want to be able to “comfort those who are in affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God—for as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too” (2 Corinthians 1:4-5). I know plenty about affliction. I know much about darkness. God’s grace brought people in my life that helped me fight my demons and fight for my will to live. I’ve been the client in a therapist’s office. I know how it feels. I want to be a tangible reminder of God’s unconditional love, directing people to hope—if only to plant seeds like my therapist did seven or so years ago.

 

So I’m applying to graduate programs this fall. I’m particularly drawn to Regent University in Virginia Beach. It’s a Christian school that contains The Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity run by Dr. Mark Yarhouse. I transferred to Bryan after finishing community college knowing my goal was to go to Regent and study Christian sexual minorities, LGBT concerns, and sexual identity. But I discovered I wasn’t ready for Regent when I graduated four years ago and I’m so thankful I waited and developed my faith and identity during that time. Regent feels like the right place to further my ministry goals to the church and LGBTQ community as a psychologist and writer. So we’ll see what happens next year.

 

One reason I’m especially excited about Regent is the therapeutic framework that Dr. Yarhouse co-created with Warren Throckmorton called Sexual Identity Therapy (SIT).

 

“SIT is essentially a client-centered and identity-focused approach to navigating sexual identity questions or concerns. It has often been contrasted to reorientation therapy and gay affirmative therapy. It is based on the idea of helping people reach congruence, so that they live and identify themselves in a way that is consistent with their beliefs and values.”1

 

Given my current position on homosexuality and my views on bridge building, this seems like a great fit. I want to practice a form of therapy that can flexibly extend grace towards sexual minorities of all perspectives. I currently affirm my friends and my future clients’ freedom to follow God in accordance with their convictions. I’m honored when my friends share and process their thoughts, feelings, and beliefs with me. I try my utmost to ensure my friends feel loved, respected, and supported regardless if I agree with them or not. I hope to have that mindset when I’m working with my future clients.

 

No matter what graduate program I attend next year, I’m excited that it will finally provide the freedom to come out publicly; to attach my words with my name and my face. I want to own what I believe. I’m looking forward to living in community completely open about who I am. I suspect it will be more redemptive and transformative than I could begin to imagine.

 

So I don’t know how my calling will play out in the future. Maybe I’ll become Dr. Seth the psychologist, or maybe God will close that door and lead me to something else. I just hope I can live life well wherever God places me in the present moment. Every relationship I enter is an opportunity to build bridges and share my story as a Christian and gay man.

 

~          ~          ~

 

T. S Eliot wrote,

 

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.2

 

I don’t know if I’ll ever feel certain about the issues that “make the Internet blow up” as Addie Zierman said. After all my life’s explorations, I may still find that I’m a conscientious observer and ever more aware of how little I know. Eliot’s words are true. The more we search for the answers, the clearer we discern we’re right back at the starting point. And yet, we see the issues from a new light. We see the “gay issue” as more than politics and sex, and as Marin would point out, as real people—breathing, thinking, loving, and hurting individuals. The cross-cultural dialogues Cleveland advocates may not produce conclusive answers, but maybe our efforts to learn from those outside our culture and comfort zone helps to silence our arrogance and ignorance. Maybe through trial and error we learn to walk together without unintentionally offending and hurting each other.

 

~          ~          ~

 

I was a little sleepy as I headed home from my weekend with Thomas. Driving down a highway heading towards Atlanta, I suddenly found myself in chaos. Some kind of large object fell out of the bed of truck a few vehicles ahead of me. Cars were crazily switching lanes, horns blaring. I didn’t have much time to react in the sudden disarray. The car in front of me switched lanes and all I could think to do was break. I was tired and rarely ever have a reason to drive on a highway or interstate back in Alabama. And I screwed up. I had nearly stopped as I ran into the back of a car stuck behind whatever had fallen on the highway. Thankfully no one was hurt, other that my bank account for the traffic citation I received.

 

As I paid the citation last week, I jokingly sent Thomas a text:

 

It’s expensive to hang out with you.

 

Sitting there in that parking lot after the accident, I didn’t feel like laughing. That same question kept running through my mind.

 

Did it matter? Has it been worth it?

 

That’s not an easy question to answer. But as I’ve written and processed this post over the last few weeks, I admire my courage for trying. And I know I won’t stop trying. I will continue laying out my heart to sexual minorities because I’m incomplete without their stories and their friendship.

 

I will keep pursuing friendships with gay people, with straight people, with Christian people, and with non-Christian people. That’s my calling.

 

Let’s build bridges.

 

 

1. http://psychologyandchristianity.wordpress.com/2010/03/10/understanding-sexual-identity-therapy/

2. Eliot, T. S. “Little Gidding.” In The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Twentieth Century and After, Stephen Greenblatt & M. H. Abrams, 2319, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006.

 

photo courtesy of flickr creative commons, user Jo_eD

bridge

Where I Stand, Part One

I pull off at the nearest exit after the accident. I find some kind of deserted recreation center and stop in the parking lot. My abdominal muscles tighten, so tight that it hurts and won’t release anytime soon. I clench the wheel and bang my head against the headrest again and again until I’m dizzy and I no longer know if the tears running down my face are from the accident, the weekend, or the headache I’m giving myself.

 

Stupid, stupid, stupid.

 

I still have to drive through Atlanta—through hell—to get back home to Alabama. I’m forgetting to breathe. I worry that I won’t be able to make it down I-20. What if I have a second accident? In the midst of a mild panic attack, other questions swarm through my mind.

 

You knew this was a mistake. Why did you ask to hang out? Why did you go?

 

Did it even matter?

 

~          ~          ~

 

I believe in bridge building. I have a diversity of friends and acquaintances with different opinions. Some are more vocal than others.

 

You just haven’t found the right woman.

You haven’t found the right man.

Don’t base your beliefs on your emotions.

Don’t be afraid to feel.

You’re too conservative. Wake up to reality.

You’re too liberal. Stop questioning everything.

 

People have strong opinions. They will fight to have the last word. I usually give it to them.

 

I have a generally reticent disposition to the world around me. I am, as Addie Zierman put it recently, a “conscientious observer” of life.

 

“The paradoxes that I’m interested in exploring aren’t the ones that make the Internet blow up. They’re the quiet, deep-down ones – the ones I find in my own messy heart: kindness and cruelty. Faith and doubt. Grace and justice and redemption and forgiveness and flesh and spirit.

 

That’s the kind of guy I am most of the time. It definitely describes Seth in real life.

 

But if I choose to say, “Hey, this is my experience,” someone will question my faith. If I lay out my beating heart to the world, people will disregard it; some will say nasty things.

 

It’s not so easy when your very existence is controversial.

 

I do try to avoid conflict where I can. This blog isn’t the place to discuss who’s right in the gay debate. Should gay marriage receive acceptance from the church? Should the church mandate celibacy for sexual minorities? I don’t want to go there. Yes, I am a gay man and these questions shape my life, but they can also end an important dialogue. So let’s take that discussion off the table. There are other blogs and books that can address those kind of questions far better than I can. Let’s talk about what it means to be a Christian sexual minority. Let’s talk about the redemption of creation and the growth of the kingdom and how LGBTs fit into that.

 

Let’s talk about how we love people well with whom we disagree.

 

~          ~          ~

 

Thomas and I have been friends for more than two years. We met online and finally hung out in person once last summer as I headed back home from a friend’s wedding in Knoxville. He showed me around the little town in Georgia where he grew up. It was a fairly short meeting for driving five hours out of the way to meet him, but I didn’t care. It was nice to sit back and let Thomas open up about his past. It was nice that he cared enough to show me.

 

I tend to be the initiator in my long distance friendships. It stems from insecurity. Every friendship I’ve had with a gay man ended when I stopped talking. Admittedly, you find higher quality friendships in places other than gay dating apps, but that was a different time and I didn’t know where else to look. I desperately wanted to find people like me. A few guys talked to me out of kindness, not because they thought I was a cool dude (I mean c’mon, man. I think theology, psychology, and literature are pretty sweet). And they didn’t reciprocate interest in keeping things to “just friends” (and especially not if it excluded the benefits). Some were frankly just gross.

 

Thomas wasn’t like that. He apparently saw something in me that no one else did. At least he listened and actually opened up about his life too. He probably knows more about me than any other human on this earth. I’ve told him things via texts and Facebook messages I had never told anyone else. He’s been like a brother to me. We share a birthdate and though we don’t have much in common other than our faith and sexual orientation, knowing we’ve walked the earth for the same number of days always meant a lot to the sentimentalist in me.

 

Yet as a long distance friendship, Thomas was still, in a sense, a stranger to me; a blended creation of facts and pieces of conversations and the expectations of a lonely man. If I made the choice to know the real Thomas, the less my image would continue to exist. What if I liked my imaginary friend better than the real one?

 

I had a dream in March that I went to Georgia to hang out with Thomas to celebrate our twenty-seventh birthday. I’m a little spontaneous sometimes, so I texted Thomas and told him we should do something for our birthday this year. So a week later he invited me to a lake house party with his boyfriend and some of his friends.

 

Oh, Sethy. What have you gotten yourself into now?

 

I’m not an extrovert. My mind goes blank and I smile awkwardly and people probably think I’m stuck up. No, sir. This situation sounded like a disaster waiting to happen. Maybe this friendship wasn’t really sustainable anymore.

The day after our birthday, I told Thomas I wasn’t going. He asked why, and I simply replied I couldn’t do it. I was so sure I would shut down and I would get hurt. Thomas reassured me that he thought it would be a safe place to branch out, but he said ok.

 

I had guaranteed I was safe. I ensured I wouldn’t get hurt. No awkward situations for me. I –oh wait a minute. My last post had something to say about this. I told my readers to take risks, lean into the tension, fall down and get back up. Shoot.

 

I texted Thomas the next day and told him I had changed my mind.

 

~          ~          ~

 

Thomas and I are like day and night. We may have lived the same number of days and share similar experiences, but we have made different choices. He has a boyfriend, I’m choosing celibacy as I grapple with my questions. He’s liberal, I’m moderate. He graduated from public school and a public university, I was home schooled and graduated from a Christian college. We come from different worlds.

 

In other words, my friendship with Thomas crosses cultural boundaries.

 

Christena Cleveland wrote in her beautiful book Disunity in Christ:

 

“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 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

 

Cleveland stresses crosscultural unity because we have so much to learn from each other—across ethnicities, across denominations, and I’d add across perspectives on sexual ethics. If you look at the “Side A” versus “Side B” debate, to use The Gay Christian Network’s terms, you find two groups who desire to glorify Christ and love their neighbors. Both sides have valid points and shared interests.

 

I’ve chosen to submit to the authority of the church and work with the Christians in my life (conservative and liberal) to consider what my sexual orientation and sexual identity means for me as a follower of Jesus. It’s frustrating work, but it’s where I feel called to be. It’d probably be easy to grow distant from Thomas because of the differences in our life stories. The texts would eventually cease and we would forget each other. It would even be easy for me to latch onto a position and become more and more entrenched until I couldn’t hear Thomas speak anymore. Thomas would become one of them. A person I could categorize with broad, ignorant assumptions until he’s not really a complex, breathing human being—just a lifeless caricature.

 

I don’t want that.

 

While Cleveland primarily discusses the cultural differences between ethnic and denominational groups in her book, her message applies more broadly to all divisions within the church. Cleveland’s message offers a lot to consider on how we dialogue about sexual ethics in the church. It’s helpful for knowing how to build conversations and relationships with strong supporters of both traditional and gay marriage.

 

And Cleveland helps me consider how my friendship with Thomas moves forward.

 

Click here to read Part 2.

 

1. Christena Cleveland, Disunity in Christ Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013, 21.

 

photo courtesy of flickr creative commons, user Free HDR & Photomanipulations

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lit candles

A Reignited Faith

There was a time I doubted God’s goodness. The flames of my love for Christ had burned out. I still maintained a Christian worldview, as I was drilled at church and Bryan College. But after too many unanswered questions and masks worn to hide my doubts and frustrations, I drifted from Christ. All my spirituality had become a set of routine practices. Go to church. Read the Bible. Pray. It’s what I was supposed to do, so I kept up the façade because I knew I should.

 

But I really didn’t want to.

 

Eventually I didn’t go to church most Sundays. I usually worked late Saturday nights, and I made excuses on Sunday morning. I stopped reading my Bible. I filled my schedule with anything to avoid it. I prayed once before going to bed, and usually I fell asleep before I could finish it.

 

I. just. didn’t. care.

 

I could relate to Jonathan Merritt when he wrote, “My heart was hardened, clogged by the traditions of religion and the cardboard God I had created. As a result, church attendance became a feast on a stale cracker: dry and unfulfilling.”1

 

I was angry and stressed all the time. I felt alienated from God and the church. I had eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. My eyes had been opened to what the church did not see. There was no going back to Eden.

 

But the Good Shepherd never stops pursuing His sheep.

 

God brought people and circumstances in my life that softened my heart. Over a couple months before I started this blog I could slowly feel my perspective changing. I stopped worrying that my life would be a failure and I took a risk. I wrote.

 

Gradually my faith reignited as I found purpose for my life.

 

“Is it possible that the God who created me is better than the God I’ve created?

 

Could it be that the true God—that Jesus—is better than I imagined?”2

 

I honestly hadn’t heard of Jonathan Merritt before March. Christianity Today released an incredible excerpt from his new book Jesus is Better Than You Imagined that went viral, flooding my Facebook and Twitter feeds. When I read “A Thread Called Grace,” I was so moved by Jonathan’s emphasis on grace after being sexually abused as a child and after being outed by a gay blogger. Jonathan revealed a powerful gift for storytelling, for redemptively narrating the trauma and shame he had experienced while pointing to the Savior who continued to restore shalom in his life.

 

 jesus is better than you imagined by jonathan merritt

 

Merritt spoke of a Savior who takes the broken pieces of our lives and recreates us into beautiful vessels of service for His kingdom. Vessels that are even more valuable and useful because of the suffering they’ve endured.

 

I pre-ordered Jonathan’s book as soon as I finished the excerpt.

 

Jesus is Better proclaims the truth that I need to hear at this point in my journey with Christ. The book begins with Jonathan’s longing for something more. His faith languishes from a narrow view of God’s character and how the Heavenly Father interacts with His children. Chapter by chapter, Jonathan points to ways Jesus became real and alive through various life lessons. He found Jesus in silence at a monastery, while being held by bandits at gunpoint while doing relief work in Haiti, amid losing a friend to a random disease, in being outed to the world, and yes, even in church with other imperfect saints.

 

I’ve spent years trying to make my old theology work. But it doesn’t fit anymore. And I don’t have to feel guilty because my perspective of God and scripture has changed. I still believe the essentials; I can affirm documents like the Apostle’s Creed. And all the questions and doubts can remain unanswered as I pursue an intimate relationship with Christ. The more I know who I am, the easier it is to be around the Christian subculture I grew up in. It deepens my appreciation of the diversity within the church body.

 

Looking back, it’s not too surprising that my faith burned out. I carried a heavy burden. I felt like I needed answers for every question. I thought I needed to become the perfect straight Christian. I had a Messiah complex around my gay and/or liberal friends.

 

You can rest in my provision, Seth, God’s Spirit whispered to my heart.

 

I fell in love with this quote from Jesus is Better:

 

“Jesus is better than I imagined because He shatters my strivings for sterility with a radical invitation to live free. Free from sinful patterns, but also free from moralism, free from legalism, and free from condemnation. Free to love the unlovable, to use your gifts to serve those in need, to share the great story of redemption through Christ with others. Jesus liberates me from the ball and chain of religion and releases me from a cold life of moralistic perfectionism. This kind of God is almost too incredible to accept, and yet there He stands nonetheless.3

 

Christianity sometimes doesn’t feel very liberating. I love that Merritt points out what God has both freed us from and what this liberty opens us up to. This is the gospel. This is good news. This kind of perspective allows love in and creates community and intimacy with our Heavenly Father and the people around us. This freedom sustains us, frees us from shame, and allows us to rest in our Savior amid all the injustices and suffering in our fallen world.

 

~          ~          ~

 

I was initially drawn to Jesus is Better after discovering that I could relate to Jonathan’s story as a sexual minority. But interestingly, he refrained from self-labeling himself by his sexual orientation.

 

“When people today ask me how I identify myself, I never quite know how to answer. It doesn’t feel authentic to label the whole of my being by feelings and attractions, and my experience has been that those parts of me tend to be somewhat fluid. One day I may feel more one way than another, and the next I feel a little differently. I am far more than my feelings, so I don’t answer that question. Not because I want to evade others but because I want to stay true to myself.

The essence of who I am is far more shaped, influenced, and guided by my spirituality than by my sexuality. I am wholly wrapped up in my pursuit of Christ and His amazing grace.”4

 

[And if you haven’t read the excerpt, you should go back and finish that last paragraph. I tear up every time.]

 

While I have chosen to identify a part of my experience as a gay man, I have so much respect for Jonathan’s choice to not self-label. Either way, we both have the responsibility to place Christ first in our hearts. My sexuality doesn’t dictate my spiritually, but rather my faith informs and channels my sexual orientation. I am so thankful for all the sexual minority voices that I have discovered over the last few years who take scripture seriously. They come to different conclusions, but they also have a unifying desire to glorify Christ in all facets of their lives.

 

~          ~          ~

 

I really needed to read this book. It was encouraging, insightful, and hopeful. I felt like something fell into place as I read Jonathan’s words.

 

I feel a desire to do something, to devour scripture, to pursue community in church, to keep writing even when it feels discouraging. I have a reignited faith that I appreciate so much more after all I’ve seen and learned and experienced. Jesus feels more real than ever.

 

And Jesus is better, far better, than I ever imagined.

 

____________________________________________

 

Jonathan Merritt writes at http://jonathanmerritt.religionnews.com/

 

  1.       Jonathan Merritt, Jesus is Better Than You Imagined (New York: FaithWords, 2014), 11.
  2.       Ibid, 14.
  3.       Ibid, 144.
  4.       Ibid, 96.

 

photo courtesy of flickr creative commons, user Pasukaru76