Weekend Prayer

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Amen.

Costly Obedience is a Two-Way Street

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Hey Church, let’s sit down for a few minutes and talk about costly obedience. It’s a concept that brings up a lot of emotions for me. I’ve been told my whole life that death is a major theme in Christianity. Coming to Jesus means putting all kinds of vices to death that interfere with our ability to relate to God. For many sexual minorities of faith, the message we’ve received from you tells us our sexuality is disgusting and displeasing to a holy God. We’ve been told to change it, suppress it, and kill it. And for many without any form of support, that death becomes literal. Costly indeed.

 

Now, I’m not denying there’s selfishness and objectification in the LGBTQ+ community that could use sanctification and redemption, but there’s sacrificial love too. There’s a community who supports each other and cares deeply for marginalized people. I’ve learned a lot about love from these people, far beyond what goes on in people’s bedrooms.

 

And speaking of what happens in the bedroom, that’s about all I heard from you in your pews as you discussed the LGBTQ+ community. Hook-up culture seemed to eclipse all other facets to sexual minority experience, and yet even within a hook-up you seemed oblivious to other motives that could be driving acting out behavior other than just sexual pleasure.

 

What if hooking up is more than steamy sex with a dude from the gay club or Grindr? What if it’s less about lust and more about loneliness? What if it’s less about craving an orgasm and more about a need to receive physical affection? What if a gay guy just wants to feel seen by another human being for a night?

 

In your call for costly obedience, what are you willing to lay down to make your vision of sexual ethics livable for sexual minorities? When I wrote about celibacy, people often told me how I brave I was for making this sacrifice for my faith. They expressed empathy for how hard this must be for me, but these individuals had the privilege to return to their families at night. They had the luxury to fit me in their schedules every couple of weeks when they could make time. I felt like I was living out some kind of tragic life story for other people to pity, and it wasn’t life-giving or redemptive. I certainly didn’t feel enthusiasm for calling other sexual minorities to live like me.

 

My perspective shifted as I moved out of state for grad school and had the opportunity to meet other sexual minorities like me. I found a lot that could be redeemed in same-sex relationships and even hook-ups. I found people hungry to connect, some going from guy to guy, perhaps unable to accept the goodness of their capacity to love and be loved by another man. Others showed commitment, kindness, sacrifice, humility, and so many other great qualities through their romantic relationships and in how they interacted with others. I saw people connecting and working towards a flourishing community.

 

So Church, how do you propose to compete with spouse and family we could have? Or even the casual lover who puts his life on hold to focus his attention to another for one night? It feels like you leave us to fend for ourselves while you have the opportunity to thrive in your families and in your churches that promote and nurture you. Where do you expect us to fit within your system?

 

From where I’m standing in the arena of my life, I see a bunch of Christians in the stands telling me how to live my life. If I make the wrong choice, then I’m a Christian who has fallen from grace. If I make the right one, you’ll put me on a pedestal as the answer to the gay problem. But that pedestal can be a lonely place to live, cut off from the LGBTQ+ folks like me while you fit me in your lives where you can.

 

People having been sending me messages the past several years asking me how to make celibacy work and how I deal with loneliness. I’ve never felt like I answered that question adequately, because I was still figuring it out for myself. It wasn’t until I read the research and heard a psychologist explain loneliness like thirst or hunger—good biological drives directing us to homeostasis. Loneliness may be a biological mechanism pointing us to our daily need to connect and look outside of ourselves. Just as we cannot thrive off one meal a week, so we cannot thrive off superficial conversations after a Sunday morning service. We are social beings who need each other to reflect God through our love. And research has suggested that lonely people are at greater risk of death than possessing physiological risk factors.

 

I’m not here to sway you one way or another on same-sex relationships, but I am asking a simple question. What are you willing to sacrifice to make the lives of LGBTQ+ people emotionally and spiritually richer? Sexual minorities can’t thrive off the crumbs of love you have left for occasional catch-ups over coffee. We need to be integrated into families where we can love people deeply and experience love from others. We shouldn’t feel as if our lives are burdens or tragedies, but just as meaningful and worthy and beloved as yours. As fellow image-bearers of God, we deserve a place at the table.

 

This is a two-way street, you see. You can’t ask everything from us and expect us to be all right on our own. I don’t have answers to all the moral questions about same-sex sexuality, but I do believe our love is a gift. We have so much to give if you could see all that we are. If you made room in your soul for an LGBTQ+ person like me, I think you might be surprised how much your life could flourish.

 

Christianity isn’t an easy religion; I totally agree with you there. But please stop making it an impossibility for the LGBTQ+ community to encounter Christ. I believe there are ways to hold your convictions and love sexual minorities well, and you are capable of doing a better job at it, Church. So let’s work on that.

Not Looking

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What are you looking for?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“All of my life I’ve been waiting around

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

Everything now comes easier to me

Waiting for no one

Now that I found me.”

 

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

Why I’m Thankful Dumbledore is Gay

albus dumbledore

This past week I gave a presentation to my clinical psychology program on resilience in the LGBTQ community. One particular demographic I highlighted was the older LGBTQ population—particularly the older gay male population. We don’t tend to hear a lot about this group of people. Media representation tends to highlight the young and sexually appealing. We focus on problems like coming out, bullying in schools, learning how to date in a heterocentric culture…but we tend to ignore the struggles of those in the last stages of their life story.

 

Anyone within the gay male community quickly learns the standards of acceptance and belonging. Gay men are expected to have perfect diet and exercise regimens and thus perfect bodies. Additionally, gay men are expected to have perfect hair, perfectly manscaped bodies, the perfect level of masculinity, and savvy Instagram skills showing off a perfect life for other gay dudes to envy.

 

The only time many gay youth encounter the older gay population comes about in sketchy ways: creepy older men hitting on guys young enough to be their sons or grandsons on gay apps. Perhaps these older gay guys seek one more chance of connection; a reminder that they can still be seen as worthwhile and lovable by someone. All the while younger gay guys shrug and scoff, ignoring the reality they too may become creeping old men someday trying desperately to cling onto their youth.

 

Thankfully the LGBTQ narrative has more breadth and depth than just its hookup culture.

 

Many conservatives became furious when J. K. Rowling announced that her beloved character Professor Albus Dumbledore had a gay sexual orientation. It’s as if conservatives automatically assumed Dumbledore spent the weekend at gay strip clubs and hooking up with dudes in the background while Harry stumbled towards answers to defeat Voldemort.

 

But what anti-gay conservatives missed was Dumbledore’s humanity. He made a terrible mistake falling for a guy who would end up killing his sister, and he carried that shame with him his entire life. Yet out of that pain and shame came redemption as Dumbledore became one of the most powerful wizards ever to exist, and the strength of Dumbledore’s power flowed from his kindness borne out of grief and guilt. Dumbledore possessed an amazing sense of humor and a capacity for great compassion and grace, and yet he also carried the heavy realization that Voldemort’s final defeat would require the courageous sacrifice of Harry’s life. Dumbledore was profoundly flawed, yet stands out as one of the greatest characters ever imagined. He exemplifies a path for aging LGBTQs–and honestly all humans—that provides hope and meaning for the final season of our lives.

 

If you’ve taken a psychology course you’ve probably heard of Erik Erikson’s eight stages of psychosocial development, ranging from birth to old age. In each stage of life, a person encounters a struggle they must overcome to effectively develop the strength to navigate the next challenge. The narratives we tend to hear in the LGBTQ community centers around Erikson’s stages of Identity vs. Role Confusion and Intimacy vs. Isolation. Erikson believed in order to form healthy relationships with other people, particularly in a romantic relationship, a person must first become secure in their own identity.

 

Yet we don’t often see the last two stages of Erikson’s model lived out well in the LGBTQ community, at least not in the gay male community. Mental health professionals are trained to be aware that LGBTQ youth and older LGBTQs are both at particular risk of suicidality, likely from similar struggles of isolation. Within Erikson’s model, he described the next two stages as Generativity (the ability to generate and reproduce) vs. Stagnation and Integrity vs. Despair. It seems that many LGBTQs tend to falter during these last tough life transitions, leaving many gay men stuck without a clear future and unprepared to evaluate the story they have lived.

 

J. K. Rowling’s decision to give Dumbledore a sexual minority identity makes Dumbledore an incredibly empowering role model to the LGBTQ community. Dumbledore is a character who has navigated all of Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development, and while he has stumbled along the way, Dumbledore demonstrated generativity as he nurtured the lives of his students, faculty, and staff, and as he made an impressive difference in the world. Dumbledore also showed integrity by living a redemptive life that transcended his mistakes and transgressions and left behind a legacy to inspire others. Dumbledore revealed you can be old and gay, and pretty damn cool too. You don’t have to be that creepy old dude hitting on guys young enough to be your grandkids. You can nurture the next generation’s development and be a role model. You can show gay youth there is more to life that lust and sex, but also love, friendship, and meaningful connection. There’s a whole life to be lived and rich purpose to be explored.

 

Youth is fleeting, and maybe that’s a good thing as we learn to foster the inner beauties of kindness, respect, compassion, humor, grace, mercy, humility, wisdom, and so many other virtues. There is nothing wrong with physical beauty and we should steward our bodies and health so we can make the most of the time we’re given. But we should also work on developing our inner self. Our lives should have meaning and so much of that meaning comes through loving other people well. Dumbledore was beloved not because he had an awesome body and tons of sex appeal, but because his life revolved around extravagant love for other people and his conviction to make the world a better place.

 

Albus Dumbledore is the kinda gay man I hope to be at the end of my story.

When Jesus Redefines Masculinity

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

 

I’m not a biblical man.

 

Or am I?

 

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

 

Man Enough by Nate Pyle

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

When We Find Our Resilient Selves

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I’m not ready.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Not so much.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Find your most resilient self, Seth.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Resilience only requires one step at a time.

When Christians Create Safe Space for the Hurting

Man praying and comforting a friend

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

 

How safe would I have been?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

~         ~         ~

 

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

When The Loneliness Keeps You Up at Night

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I couldn’t sleep last night. Anxiety pulsed through my body, and for hours I couldn’t determine the cause. I stayed up past midnight reading P. D. James’ take on Jane Austen and binge watching Empire while wondering what was bothering me and keeping me up way past my bedtime. By 2 a.m. I was exhausted but refused to call it a night. A strange question popped in mind. Are you afraid of dying, Seth? No, I didn’t think so. A simple statement followed: You are afraid of aging alone. BAM. My eyes welled up with tears.

 

Celibacy never felt all that costly for me. I moved back in with my family after college and pressed pause on life for five years. I have four younger siblings, so there was always someone at home, always someone to remind me I’m not alone.

 

In childhood psychology, we learn that children go through developmental forms of play. One stage is called parallel play, where children play in the same space, but don’t really interact with each other. I joke sometimes that my introverted family is a little like that. But there’s comfort in living in communal space, knowing you’re free to interact when you have something to share.

 

But now I live in Virginia with my roommate from church. He travels a lot for his job, and there have been a few weeks where I’m on my own. I joked about his absence on Facebook earlier in the evening last night, but it didn’t hit me how much this empty house impacts me emotionally. Coming home for the evening to the emptiness chips away at something in my soul; it feeds a paranoia which tells me this is all I can expect for the future.

 

So I avoid sleep to hold onto one more day that included friends and laughter and happiness. The next day doesn’t guarantee any of those things. In fact, I may blink and grad school could be over. What happens then?

 

I reread a chapter Philip Yancey wrote about Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest and prolific writer who experienced same-sex attraction. Nouwen’s deep insecurities and craving for meaningful connection always resonates with me. Yancey describes Nouwen’s conflicted life:

 

“He would give inspiring addresses about the spiritual life then collapse into an irritable funk. He would speak of the strength he gained from living in community, then drive to a friend’s house, wake him up at two in the morning, and, sobbing, ask to be held. His phone bills usually exceeded his rent as he called around the world, disregarding time zones, in desperate need of companionship.”¹

 

My two o’clock breakdown didn’t involve driving to any of my cohort’s or church friends’ homes, because I would never want to impose my emotional mess on anyone else. Honestly, my breakdowns are usually over as soon as they begin: I’ll laugh at how silly I’m being and repress my deepest emotions. I’m fine. I got this. How are you?

 

Sarah Bessey wrote a must-read this week on the traumas we gloss over and refuse to process called “The Sanitized Stories We Tell.” I think she provides a brilliant analysis of our human inclination to cover up our hurts:

 

“It makes me wonder how much pressure we feel to sanitize our stories so that they don’t make people uncomfortable, how we anecdote our experience with the lightness or the healing or birth or new life alone in order to make it acceptable. We simplify and sanitize and so we miss the healing we could have if we only spoke the whole truth.”

 

I would love to tell you I eventually experienced some profound sense of peace or realized some comforting insight about my celibate vocation or God’s goodness, but nothing came in the silence of the night. Celibacy has its sucky moments. A lot of the time God doesn’t feel present in my suffering. That’s probably not what the church wants to hear, but that’s the truth. Nothing about obeying my convictions is easy. Sometimes I’m just a mess like Nouwen, going through an existential crisis and desperately wanting to know I’m not journeying through life alone. And sometimes I just need to sleep, hoping my neurochemistry will reset in the morning.

 

Yancey wrote more on Henri Nouwen’s thoughts about loneliness:

 

“He once described the wound of loneliness as resembling the Grand Canyon: a deep incision in the surface of existence that has become an inexhaustible source of beauty and self-understanding. That insight typifies Nouwen’s approach to ministry. He did not promise a way out of loneliness, for himself or for anyone else. Rather, he held out the promise of redemption through it.”²

 

Faith tells me there’s redemptive hope, even in a lonely, late night. My suffering connects me to my Savior, with humanity, and the creation. Together we yearn for God’s restoration of all things. Faith promises God will provide the friendships I need for my entire life.

 

But for now, I think I’ll take a nap.

 

  1. Philip Yancey, Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church. New York, New York: Doubleday, 2001, 301.
  2. Ibid, 303.

When We Adventure Together

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Today in class we talked a little about ethics and values in therapy, sparking a lively discussion about what happens in the therapy room when our moral convictions conflict with our clients’ values. We live in a pluralistic society, so there’s no way to avoid differing worldviews outside of our safe church bubbles. God calls us into the world to redeem his creation and part of that work includes interacting with those who see the world from a different angle.

 

Our instructor shared two common ethical approaches Christians take in the mental health profession as they navigate areas of tension. One solution is to refer clients to other professionals who share the client’s worldview and values. The other recognizes that the client is on a journey, and we as therapists have the privilege of walking with our clients during some of the darkest moments of their adventure.The client’s journey is not our own, we’re simply present to be an instrument of God’s grace.

 

Conservative Christians often cite their religious convictions as justification to avoid working with the LGBTQ population in any capacity, Christian psychologists and counselors included. That’s their prerogative, I guess. Yet my faith draws me to sexual and gender minorities because I esteem the Imago Dei in every human being. These people are my people, whether we share similar sexual ethics or not.

 

It will never be my ethical place in the therapy room to tell LGBTQ clients what choices they should make for their lives, whether they decide to pursue same-sex relationships, celibacy, mixed-orientation marriages, hormone therapy, sexual reassignment surgery, or a less invasive choice. The responsibility of such weighty decisions lies solely between the individual and God, and to paraphrase Billy Graham, it’s God’s job to judge, the Spirit’s job to convict, and my job to love.

 

I don’t think this means approaching therapy without my own values, though I’m not sure how that will work (especially since my future clients will be able to read what I’ve written). I’m still a traditional believer who has chosen celibacy to find congruence between my sexual orientation and faith. So when a client asks me how to find peace with God in a same-sex relationship, I won’t be able to share from my personal experience. But I will fully inform my client of all positions and respect the autonomy of my client to make his or her own decision.

 

My philosophy of therapy flows into my writing. My blog’s only agenda is to help Christians understand the LGBTQ community and to provide support to fellow sexual and gender minorities who may resonate with some of my experiences and thoughts. I am a storyteller, narrating one perspective of life as a Christian who also happens to be gay. I would never want anyone to feel pressured by me to adopt a vocation of celibacy. It’s not an easy choice, but it’s the only option that makes sense for me. We may disagree about what the Bible teaches on sexuality, but it doesn’t change my commitment to journey with you until my dying day. I will love, respect and value you; I will advocate for your dignity and humanity. You matter to me, Side A or B or whatever.

 

One of my professors describes clinical psychology as redemptive work. I’m in total agreement. There’s no dichotomy between the sacred and secular; it’s all for Christ. It’s my hope as I develop a deeper relationship with my Heavenly Father, his love will radiate through my words and actions in the therapy room—even if I don’t explicitly talk about God in session. Loving LGBTQs is my calling; it’s a major part of how I glorify God with my time on Earth. I’m still in a process and I have much to learn over the next five years in grad school and for the rest of my life.

 

In Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Sam couldn’t carry Frodo’s ring, but he could walk with Frodo when the road got rough and all hope seemed lost. Sam could carry Frodo when the weight of his calling had drained him of all strength.

 

I want to be a Sam to my friends and clients. For whatever time our lives intersect, I want to adventure with you through the good and the bad. I will walk with you through the fires of Mount Doom because I believe in a God who redeems, and I will share my hope when you cannot find your own. I’m in this with you.

 

When the Ex-Gay Doesn’t Go Away

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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.