When You Feel Oppressed by My Faith: A Love Letter

A man walking on railroad tracks

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

 

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

 

“I get it, man,” I told him.

 

~          ~          ~

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

When Christians Create Safe Space for the Hurting

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 God Uses the Gay to Redeem the World

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They are not of this world, Jesus said of us during his high priestly prayer in John 17. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. But before we could be sent, we had to be consecrated—set apart. In Ephesians 2, Paul tells us of a time when we were dead in our sins and following the course of this world with the rest of the human race. That is, until our Heavenly Father intervened. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved.

 

Once dead in sin, but now made alive because of Yahweh’s compassion and unmerited favor.

 

No longer of this world, but commissioned back into the world to finish what Christ started.

 

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. How do we know God’s will? How do we determine if our beliefs and actions are good, acceptable, and perfect? Jesus prayed the Father would sanctify his people in truth. Where in this universe can we find truth? Your word is truth. God’s words spoken in human history provide the foundation of living. God’s words teach us where we came from, what went wrong, the sacrifice he made to set everything right, and our role to play in the redemption of creation. We are not to be conformed to this world because we are in the process of restoring the creation to its former edenic glory.

 

So where does my sexual orientation come into the picture? What does scripture have to say about sexual and gender minorities? What role do we play in redemptive history with the rest of the church?

 

It’s personally helpful for me to look back at the beginning. God creates man and woman as two complementary parts who together manifest his image to the creation. As far as I can tell, this lifelong, monogamous union of man and woman remains God established design for sexuality throughout scripture. Man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife as one flesh. God blesses the man and woman to be fruitful and multiply and subdue the earth for God’s glory. Yet the heroes of our faith, God’s covenanted people, so often fail to submit to this sexual framework. Sometimes they don’t even seem realize their error, but God remains faithful and gracious to his children because of his steadfast love.

 

When I look at my sexual orientation in light of scripture, I understand my same-sex attraction to be a byproduct of the fall. My voice joins the groans of creation as we suffer together under this weight of bondage, as Paul describes in Romans 8. I await our emancipation and redemption in hope for God to set all things right. In the meantime, there is brokenness, but I am not more broken than any other Christian. All of us, straight Christians, LGBTQ Christians—even the Christians we’re quick to demonize like those experiencing pedophilia—experience sexual brokenness in some sense and we all stand in need of the same grace and same Savior. God works within the brokenness of this world, sending us out to bring healing and restoration to the creation—not quarantining his people in a bubble to rapture away while the world burns. Jesus taught us to pray that God’s kingdom would come and his will would be done in earth as in heaven. Do we really believe him?

Night Sky

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How does God redeem my sexual brokenness as a sexual minority? Many conservative Christians point to 1 Corinthians 6 as proof I shouldn’t identify as gay; that I should be undergoing some sort of process of becoming less attracted to men and more attracted to women or maybe even more asexual—emotionally castrating myself so I’m no longer drawn to men. Now, 1 Corinthians 6 is a difficult passage for me to interpret, but when Paul states “and such were some of you,” I think we often take this verse too far. When God’s Spirit washes, sanctifies, and justifies our lives, that doesn’t mean he wipes away a sexual minority’s gay orientation. In my case, I became a Christian when I was six years old—a couple of years before puberty and the realization I liked guys. Sanctification is a pretty key word here. Is this really a process of going from gay/lesbian to bisexual to straight? Or transgender to cisgender? Or is this a lifetime of pursuing Jesus and becoming more transformed into his image as we daily die to our selfishness and pride to esteem God and others as more important than our own lives?

 

I’ve discovered immeasurable purpose and hope in looking at my experience as a sexual minority through a disability or “differently abled” perspective (mainly due to an excellent article by Spiritual Friendship contributor Chris Damian). C. S. Lewis took this approach when writing to Sheldon Vanauken about homosexuality:

 

First, to map out the boundaries within which all discussion must go on, I take it for certain that the physical satisfaction of homosexual desires is sin. This leaves the homosexual no worse off than any normal person who is, for whatever reason, prevented from marrying. Second, our speculations on the cause of the abnormality are not what matters and we must be content with ignorance. The disciples were not told why (in terms of efficient cause) the man was born blind (John 9:1-3): only the final cause, that the works of God should be made manifest in him. This suggests that in homosexuality, as in every other tribulation, those works can be made manifest: i.e. that every disability conceals a vocation, if only we can find it, which will “turn the necessity to glorious gain.”1

 

While homosexuality was not part of God’s original plan, that doesn’t mean my sexual orientation threw God off his game. “Oh, snap. Seth’s gay. What the heck do I now?!?” Lewis compares me to the blind man in John 9. Now you wouldn’t tell a blind man “Dude, don’t call yourself blind. God created Adam and Eve with perfect vision, so surely he wants you to have the ability to see. Just keep praying and believing and someday you’ll regain your vision.” That’s crazy talk, right? I’m not denying God can heal people—we serve a God of miracles. But does he usually heal people? Does he usually remove the pain, discomfort, and challenges that result from the fall? No. It’s debatable whether God predestines our difficulties and heartaches to make us better Christians (I personally think this view takes God’s sovereignty too far), but I sincerely believe Romans 8:28: We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. God is powerful enough to take whatever crap this life throws at us and transform and redeem it into something good. In Christ is life and the life is the light of mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it, as John tells us in the beginning of his gospel. So our challenge, Lewis points out, is to find the vocation concealed within our disability or difficult situation.

Woman holding a sparkler

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Growing up in the evangelical church, everyone in my little bubble framed my gay orientation as a struggle, a thorn in the flesh, and a curse. I didn’t see anything positive about my situation. Why would I want to identify with something so utterly broken? Something so… ugly?

 

C. S. Lewis continues in his letter to Vanauken and offers a compelling question:

 

Of course, the first step must be to accept any privations, which, if so disabled, we can’t lawfully get. The homosexual has to accept sexual abstinence just as the poor man has to forego otherwise lawful pleasures because he would be unjust to his wife and children if he took them. That is merely a negative condition. What should the positive life of the homosexual be?2

 

This is the question the church should be asking. As Eve Tushnet has written multiple times, “You can’t have a vocation of no.” You can’t build a thriving spiritual life off a negative foundation of “Don’t have gay sex.” The church’s lack of imagination creates a logical dead-end for many sexual and gender minorities, deepening their shame and despair, and driving many of them away from Christ to find purpose and hope that we neglected to give them amid the reality of their situation. You can’t create an illusion of heaven on earth for straight Christians while the rest of us are suffering in hell. If you dare stand up for traditional marriage, you (as individuals and corporately as the church) better be prepared to provide the love you’re denying to thousands of sexual minorities. You better be the family you tell us we cannot have.

 

Maybe my favorite answer to what a positive life might look like for LGBTQ individuals comes from Wesley Hill in his recent book Spiritual Friendship:

 

Perhaps celibate gay and lesbian Christians, precisely in and out of their celibacy, are called to express, rather than simply renounce and deny, same-sex love. And perhaps this is where, for all potential trials and temptations that come with this way of thinking, same-sex friendship represents one way for gay Christians who wish to be celibate to say: “I am embracing a positive calling. I am, along with every other Christian, called to love and be loved.”3

 

This could be why I’m uncomfortable calling myself same-sex attracted or why I feel phrases like “I struggle with same-sex attraction” fail to capture everything God is doing in my life. Yes, I experience same-sex attraction because of the fall, but God is using my situation as a means of grace and an opportunity to share the Gospel. Gay encompasses so much more than mere same-sex attraction. It’s an identity of kinship with those who have shared my experiences, borne my sufferings and struggles, and have found a home—“a sense of peace and belonging … around others whose relationship to the world was the same kind of different as mine,” Julie Rodgers wrote nearly a year ago on her blog. She entitled the post “Can the Gay be a Good?” Because I believe in a God of redemption, the Rewriter of broken stories my answer will always be a resounding yes! God can use the gay to turn the world upside down for his glory, to teach the straight majority about their own sexuality and what it means to live in the kingdom. Everything belongs to God, including my sexual orientation.

 

“How can you be gay without feeling ashamed?” readers have asked me since the very beginning of my blog. We internalize so much homophobia from the church, don’t we? We hear so many Christians like Jon from the film C. O. G. telling us we’re sick, mentally ill, demon-possessed, rebellious, attention-seeking, reprobate… It’s exhausting, right? But there’s so much freedom in accepting what we cannot change. There’s power in owning our stories and telling them honestly. I don’t personally believe accepting my sexual orientation means I’m meant to marry a man, but it does mean I’m liberated from a futile pursuit of straightness or an attempt to appear straight in church. These words from Rob Bell’s Sex God are everything:

 

You can’t be connected with God until you’re at peace with who you are. If you’re still upset that God gave you this body or this life or this family or these circumstances, you will never be able to connect with God in a healthy, thriving, sustainable sort of way. You’ll be at odds with your maker. And if you can’t come to terms with who you are and the life you’ve been given, you’ll never be able to accept others and how they were made and the lives they’ve been given. And until you’re at peace with God and those around you, you will continue to struggle with your role on the planet, your part to play in the ongoing creation of the universe. You will continue to struggle and resist and fail to connect.4

Thoughtful man in the sunlight

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

All will be made right.

 

And we will live happily ever after.

~         ~         ~

 

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

A Blended Family

glasses

 

“This is like needing glasses,”

 

Dr. Erica Hahn shares in a vulnerable moment of Grey’s Anatomy. Erica discovers the truth—she’s gay.

 

“When I was a kid I would get these headaches, so I went to the doctor and they said I needed glasses. I didn’t understand that; it didn’t make sense because I could see fine. And then I get the glasses and put them on, and I’m in the car. Suddenly I yell,”

 

Erica pauses as the emotions kick in.

 

“Because the big green blobs I’ve been staring at my whole life—they weren’t big green blobs! They were leaves. I didn’t even know I was missing the leaves; I didn’t know that leaves existed. And then… Leaves!”

 

With tears in her eyes, Erica looks to her friend, now lover, Dr. Callie Torres.

 

“You are glasses.”1

 

~         ~         ~

 

 

Erica’s sentiment resonates with my experience on a broader scale beyond just a night of awesome sex (I can’t say I know much about that, sorry). You see, these last few years have been a season of reframing for me, or in context of Erica’s story, of seeing the world—and myself—more clearly. It’s been a process of discovering my family.

 

I’ve always known my family of origin, the church. I grew up in the little subculture of the Primitive Baptist denomination, a world without musical instruments or Sunday school; a people of rich hospitality and sincere love for Jesus. The Primitive Baptist faith gave me a distinctive identity. As I’ve grown more nondenominational over the years, Christianity continues to matter because of its heart centered in relationship with a holy, yet loving Creator. While I can’t justify or explain all scripture’s paradoxes and complexities, I find peace knowing God welcomes my attempts to struggle and grow through my questions and doubts.

 

Christianity has been my home for as long as I can remember. And yet, the church has been an incomplete home.

 

After college, my spiritual growth hit a rough stage. I knew I was never going to be straight, nor was I going to entertain the thought of marrying a woman ever again. I waded cautiously into the void of the unknown, entering this stage of transformation by myself. I shut out nearly every friend and acquaintance, afraid, I think, that they couldn’t handle the questions on my heart or the answers I was determined to find.

 

So I introduced myself to the gay community.

 

I really didn’t know where to begin or what to say. Gay people had always been “out there,” always out of reach. So I chose less than appropriate means to meet other sexual minorities (primarily dating and hook-up apps). Yeah, I was a tad bit naïve, and I didn’t always have the best or purest motives either. But I had come a long way from the opinionated reformed fundamentalist with an answer for every question. I began listening to stories. The stories I heard weren’t always from Christians. Nearly every gay guy I met had a background in Christianity and a story of pain associated with the church. Several gay guys I befriended held varying degrees of interest and devotion to the Christian faith. I clung to their words, every explanation of why they believed God blessed gay sexuality. Repeatedly I found myself infatuated with my new friends, desperately wanting to express love and be loved in return. I wore my heart on my sleeve and eventually guys only interacted when I initiated. When I stopped communicating and gave them space, it was too late. The friendships ended. These unhealthy cycles only deepened my insecurities and sense of worthlessness.

 

Something remarkable happened through one of those short-lived friendships though. The first gay Christian I crushed on introduced me to Brent Bailey’s blog Odd Man Out and Andrew Marin’s book Love is an Orientation. I was falling apart, possibly on a course away from my faith, frustrated and lost. Brent and Andrew revealed a new path. Reading Brent’s words filled me with hope—somewhere out in this would there were people like me, gay people who want to take their faith seriously. Whenever I brought up faith around my gay friends, they would shut down; they wouldn’t respond to my texts. Reading Odd Man Out brought tears to my eyes. Someone got it.

 

And suddenly I got it. Church wasn’t complete because it hadn’t represented the full diversity of Christ’s body. There was a reason I felt different. Everyone in the church seemed to have the same general story; everyone had the same major life events. They were all a bunch of middle class, Republican, white, straight, married Americans. No wonder church felt stifling and lonely.

 

I’ve been running from church for a very long time. I’m honestly not sure how to do church anymore. I really don’t want to play the role of the out and proud gay dude 24/7. I’m so much more than my sexual orientation. But I don’t want to feel trapped in the closet again either, waiting for some arbitrary time to come out once again. Some days I wonder if I have enough patience and grace to invest in another faith community. Let’s face it, families and couples are at an advantage in seeking out new churches. They have someone to lean on for support amid the process. Last year I thought I finally had made the transition to a mainstream church, just to realize how lonely I felt sitting in a row alone month after month, in a worship and preaching style far outside my comfort zone. Everyone seemed too evangelical and conservative to let me enter their lives. A church home felt more like a fantasy or a crushed dream.

 

But something pretty amazing happened this last Sunday. I met my friend Logan last year while spending a week in Tennessee catching up with some of my old college friends and brainstorming the concept of this blog. I had followed Logan’s blog over the past year and since I was already in a risk-taking, adventurous spirit, I asked if we could have coffee. Thankfully he said yes and what followed was one of my very favorite, cherished conversations. A year later, I had a request. I asked Logan if I could go with him to church. I had never worshipped with another gay person before, and I wondered what it would feel like. Logan was cool with me tagging along, so we caught up in a coffee shop where the church also happened to be located. It may have been the best church service I ever attended (awesome things seem to happen around Logan, just saying). The service was hip with its blend of liturgy and folksy contemporary worship, coffee and skinny jeans, but it was far more than  “sexy Christianity” as Kyle Donn has put it. For the first time in a long time, I didn’t feel alone in church, I wasn’t an isolated, individual sexual minority in a sea of heterosexuals. While I barely know Logan, it was really special to share such a symbolic moment. In that moment we were brothers united in one common love of our Savior. Sitting next to Logan allowed me to lower my walls, silence my inner critic, and worship. I didn’t know if I’d ever sincerely engage in church again, but for one Sunday I did. And it was awesome.

 

As God is maturing, sanctifying, and integrating every piece of my life, I’m slowly understanding what Dr. Hahn was saying about the glasses. Same-sex attraction used to be the dark issue that I shoved away in a closet as far from my consciousness as I could keep it. That proved as easy as holding a beach ball under water. When I finally ventured into the unknown of my sexuality, it took me a few years to find a path. I crossed physical and emotional boundaries I never should have approached. I was selfish, needy, and insecure, but through my sins and mistakes, God has revealed his tender mercies and redemptive love. I’ve learned a thing or two along the way. There’s peace in interacting with other gay people now as equals, whether online or in person. Not in pride, not desperately clawing for attention, but aware of just how beloved I am in my Father’s eyes. I also have a passionate desire to express Christ’s love to His people (gay or straight).

 

Self-identifying as gay begins internally as we recognize our differences from the world around us. But sexual identity isn’t so much an act of naval gazing for me. It’s about kinship with those who have shared similar experiences and suffered all kinds of indignities from the church and society. Christian sexual minorities struggle with questions and fears that privileged straight Christians will never have to stress about. Every option before us comes with great sacrifices and heartache. I call myself gay because I am part of a community, regardless of our differing views on sexual ethics. I am a brother to my LGBTQ family; they have my unconditional love until the end of my days.

 

I freely admit I could be wrong on so many things. But I’m certain of two things. I have one awesome Savior and one awesome family—a diverse, blended family of ethnicities, genders, political positions, varying socioeconomic classes, ages, and heck yes, sexual orientations.

 

My gay friends are my glasses. They make this world, and the church, a much more beautiful and welcoming place.

 

  1. Grey’s Anatomy, Season 5: Episode 6, “Life During Wartime.”

 

Photo courtesy of flickr creative commons, user Filly Jones

river in fall

Wilderness Conversations

Let’s take a walk out in the crisp autumn air, shall we? It’s easier to talk about the hard things when we’re moving. The silences feel less awkward, the fears less stifling. The trees are all arrayed in reds and oranges. It’s peaceful here, leaves crunching under our shoes as we duck beneath tree limbs, and shiver with the breeze.

 

Listen to the wilderness calling.

 

I’m crouching next to river’s edge, poking drifting leaves with a stick. I look up to your eyes with a sad smile. I have so little to say, so I speak with nonverbal gestures. They speak loudly if you could only read the language.

 

I don’t know your thoughts these days

We’re strangers in an empty space

I don’t understand your heart

It’s easier to be apart

We might as well be strangers in another town

We might as well be living in a another time

We might as well

We might as well

Be strangers1

 

I’m guarded; a chaos of emotion running through my brain. Questions, so many questions. So many things good Christians shouldn’t ask. So many things an out gay man shouldn’t bring up. Where do you turn when you’ve been walking in no man’s land for so long?

 

How do you choose between integrity and just a drop of intimacy? A glimmer of connection? When can I look into another’s eyes and find…

 

Home?

 

~          ~          ~

 

There came a day when I realized my crushes on men would never cease. The evangelicals had gotten it wrong. I didn’t know what that meant and the questions scared me. I learned to listen, but the listening only brought more questions. I processed my thoughts alone.

 

I didn’t want to believe the traditional Christian sexual ethic. I fought belligerently, actually. I despised evangelical weddings. I hated sermons on marriage. I rolled my eyes and swore silently in disgust. Bitterness and anger simmered beneath the surface. I didn’t know what to say. I just knew to smile and hide the feelings.

 

Some of the happiest times in my life occurred while I was reading Justin Lee’s Torn and James Brownson’s Bible, Gender, Sexuality. Meaningful friendships with other LGBTs were forged. This new perspective felt liberating. But doubts lingered. I struggled deeply with my reformed background and God’s goodness. I would beg my gay friends to reassure me I wasn’t a reprobate, usually after explaining what that word meant. I became convinced the gospel didn’t conclude with a happy ending. So I fought this angry, narcissistic being God had become in my mind. I stopped going to church, I avoided evangelical friends.

 

My blood pressure shot up for the first time in my life during that season. I discovered a health kick in college and never abandoned it. As I wavered between career choices after college, I took exercise science, nutrition, and anatomy classes. An exercise physiology professor told me with confusion and concern that I was nearly hypertensive. The anxiety of fighting God day after day was hurting me. I needed to rest; I needed a ceasefire.

 

I’ve only cried twice in the last ten years. I just don’t know how to; so many barriers and inhibitions stand in the way. One of those two times came after fighting with my pastor about Brownson’s Bible, Gender, Sexuality. He thought I was talking about my future, but by this point it had stopped being about me. Now, my pastor wasn’t one of those angry, shouting pastors. He was just a man trying to be faithful to his reformed interpretation of scripture. He reinforced the God I had been battling for so long. A God who would damn Christians for their blind spots and unconquerable struggles.

 

Barbara Brown Taylor brings up a fascinating question in her book An Alter in the World. “What is saving my life now?” I haven’t read the book yet (it’s on a very long list), but I often hear the question asked. It’s an invitation to storytelling. What things, ideas, or people in this world are meaningfully representing God in this moment? What keeps us holding onto hope when it would be so easy to surrender to despair? For me it was my gay Christian friends. I couldn’t deal with evangelical Christianity, the black and white answers that ignored the complexity of my life. But my gay friends challenged me to trust God. They helped melt the ice around my heart so God could touch me again.

 

Arguing with my pastor represented changes that were happening in my theology, shifts that were returning me to previously held beliefs. But I was also coming back with a new perspective. I was no longer fundamentalist, but a Christian skeptic. Every stone had to be turned over and examined. I would not go back to the old me. Those days were over. I sobbed alone in my car because I didn’t know what to do or what to believe. I haven’t cried since.

 

~          ~          ~

 

I believed the only way to remain a loyal, compassionate friend to the LGBTs in my life meant affirming same-sex relationships. The other side of the false dichotomy meant becoming a Bible-thumping jerk. As I realized the revisionist perspective just didn’t connect to my reading and interpretation of scripture, I became determined to find another way—a way that encompasses both my sexual ethics and my love for sexual minorities.

 

My friend David Owens comes to mind when I wrestle with these questions. He’s one of the most Christ-like men I know. David also has a solid relationship with his boyfriend Phil; they’ve been together for as long as I’ve known David. His faith and his relationship is not a contradiction for me, just a discovery outside the evangelical bubble.

 

I appreciated these words from a love letter David wrote for LGBTQ Christians on Ben Moberg’s blog Registered Runaway:

 

“As someone who leans admittedly Reformed in theology, I don’t believe I’ve ever had anything to do with my salvation. He is, after all, the Author and Finisher of my faith. My story begins and ends with Him. To live according to someone else’s convictions out of a place of fear and shame is hardly what I call living in freedom. Rather, I recognized that I would have to respond authentically to what He’d revealed to me. If I believed that God is good, then I would also have to trust that He wouldn’t let me remain on a path that would lead to my eventual destruction but would lovingly intervene as a good father.”

 

To my surprise I also found a lot of comfort in my reformed background. I grew up as a Primitive Baptist, a small denomination that emphasizes sovereign grace. What I remember clearly was a sharp division over whether scripture teaches the perseverance or the preservation of God’s children. Like many reformed believers, those advocating perseverance believed the Christian may have occasional setbacks, but will ultimately “persevere” in his or her faith until the end. I struggled deeply with this perspective; a traditional sexual ethic didn’t make room for Gay Christians in a perseverance framework. But my parents were part of the other faction. They held that sanctification was both the work of God and the individual. They made room for God’s children who became addicted to alcohol or committed suicide. Christians may screw up because we live in a broken world; sometimes the darkness is too great. But they firmly taught me that nothing can separate us as God’s children from His rich, abounding love. We are “preserved” in Christ and we can do nothing to earn or lose our salvation. To keep my sanity, part of my return to evangelical faith meant returning to my roots.

 

I’ve invested a lot of time interacting with gay Christians who affirm same-sex relationships. I’ve spent the weekend with one of my best friends and his boyfriend, having breakfast and spending the afternoon on the lake. In all these conversations and moments of life lived together, I’ve discovered plenty I don’t understand. When I see pictures of David and Phil together on Facebook I don’t feel judgmental or freaked out. I don’t agree with same-sex behavior, but I believe in love. You can’t reduce gay people to just sex. But that’s what so many evangelicals do. Many evangelicals don’t see the affection and concern gay Christians have for each other, nor the sacrifices that these people beautifully make.2 They genuinely want to express Christ’s love to their partners. I respect that. Amid the disagreements, I can still see God’s image within their lives.

 

~          ~          ~

 

I interact with several young guys who aren’t sure how they envision their future; they don’t know what position they’ll take. I tell them to follow Christ. Come to Christ as you are, feed on His Word, become part of a corporate body of believers who fervently love and welcome you. If the traditional position causes you to feel shame, despair, and suicidal ideation, then please don’t pursue celibacy. Be open to where God leads you. I promise God won’t abandon you. And you’ll find so many brothers and sisters in Christ from both perspectives who will still support you and love you unconditionally no matter what you choose.

 

Thankfully there are straight Christians like Jen Hatmaker in evangelical churches who speak from conviction with so much love and hospitality. Evangelicals who will listen. Jen wrote a few months ago,

 

“The gay community has been spiritually beaten, stripped of dignity, robbed of humanity, and left for dead by much of the church. You need only look at the suicide rates, prevalence of self-harm, and the devastating pleas from ostracized gay people and those who love them to see what has plainly transpired.”

 

Jen believes in a traditional Christian view of marriage. Ben Moberg wrote on Rachel Held Evans’ blog that Jen had done the impossible. “She wrote that same-sex marriage is sinful and yet left me in layers of love. It was a startling and confusing moment for me.” For those who wish to love sexual minorities better but want to remain true to their beliefs about sexual ethics, I highly recommend it. The church would be a better place for us all: straight and gay, celibates, those in mixed orientation marriages, and yes, the gay-relationship affirming.

 

There’s a lot of conflict and tension when you try to build bridges in war zones. It’s hard to remain neutral, and maybe it’s best not to be. But there are important qualities to have in this debate, primarily openness. I’m not God, you’re not God. Just because we have His Word doesn’t mean we can understand all its mysteries. So I choose to journey with my brothers and sisters in Christ regardless of agreement and disagreement. As Jen Hatmaker wrote, “I am convinced we need no more soldiers in this war. We need more neighbors.”

 

You’re welcomed in my life, neighbor.

 

~          ~          ~

 

So maybe we are strangers, me and my evangelical friends, me and my gay Christian friends. Maybe I will continue walking in no man’s land.

 

Maybe.

 

But here in this wilderness, among the trees ablaze with color or next to the chilly river’s edge, I’d like to think there’s space for us, for the questions, for the tension. I don’t expect people to always agree with everything I say or do, but I do hope for a little grace and humility.

 

And maybe, just maybe I won’t always wander the wilderness alone.

 

/ / /

 

  1. Keane, “We Might as Well Be Strangers” from Hopes and Fears
  2. Nick Roen wrote a really great post for Spiritual Friendship on this topic.

 

photo courtesy of flickr creative commons, user ChattOconeeNF

depressed woman

When I Fear God Is Not Good

God sometimes feels something like Sid from Toy Story.

 

A sadistic kid with evil plots for his toys.

 

I grew up in a denomination that emphasized God’s sovereignty over history and our salvation. God chose some through predestination to Heaven, while abandoning others to their fate in Hell.

 

We had proof texts like

 

“For his dominion is an everlasting dominion,

and his kingdom endures from generation to generation;

all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing,

and he does according to his will among the host of heaven

and among the inhabitants of the earth;

and none can stay his hand

or say to him, ‘What have you done?’”

Daniel 4:34-35 ESV.

 

I believed in God’s absolute sovereignty without question like any good Reformed Christian. I believed scripture was black and white. God is good because He promises I can trust Him.

 

But there came a day when I didn’t trust God. I realized at Bryan College I was never going to become straight and I didn’t have a clue what that meant for my life. It scared me. Celibacy scared me. The idea of marrying a guy scared me.

 

I had invested all my hope in healing my sexuality. I am not gay. I cannot be gay. I AM NOT GAY. I just had to figure out God’s secret plan to make myself straight. I felt at home among conservative, straight Christians because I believed eventually I was going to be one of them. Beautiful wife. A couple kids. The American dream.

 

I woke up.

 

What now? The church hadn’t prepared me for this reality. I didn’t feel like God had prepared me to be gay in the church. Suddenly the safe, familiar home amid conservative, straight Christians felt foreign and threatening. Everything I believed was called into question.

 

Who are you, God?

 

C. S. Lewis wrote amid the grief of losing his wife “Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.’”¹

 

After college I developed friendships with other gay men. I didn’t want to freak anyone out, so I kept my new friends a secret from my family and church. Secrets kill the soul and damage relationships. I made a lot of mistakes and got hurt multiple times. But over those years I made a few friends and acquaintances I still care about. Out of a lot of men driven by lust I found a few who loved Jesus or at least had the maturity to value friendship.

 

I found myself in a tension of old beliefs and new ideas I wanted to believe. The God I had known was one who loved the elect, not every single human being. I didn’t want to get on His bad side. How could I reconcile this image with the Jesus who came in grace and truth and hung out with sinners? But I also felt like a man looking into two storefront windows. One, the conservative Christian church; the other, the lives of my gay friends. Some of my gay friends were very dear to me. One pastor had told me that not only were gay Christians going to Hell, but they had an even worst place in Hell prepared for them because they knew the truth and used Jesus to cover their sins. That really helped my anxieties.

 

Could I be more righteous than God for loving those He refused to love?

 

Suddenly my faith fell apart. I felt that in order to be a Christian, I needed to give up my compassion. It made sense why so many evangelicals stick to their own. They have certainty that the people they love will be with them in Heaven. You don’t have to be stressed out, anxious, depressed, and angry all the time. You can coldly tell someone, you’re a sinner. Repent or get the hell out of my life.

 

I was mad at God. I could totally relate to Lewis when he wrote, “Sometimes it is hard not to say ‘God forgive God.’”² Scripture told me not to be anxious, but how can you surrender your anxiety to God when you can’t trust your Heavenly Father?

 

I was mad at Christians. Their ignorance and lack of concern for the marginalized infuriated me. I ranted on Facebook. A lot. My friend count dropped as I offended my evangelical acquaintances. I drifted away from church. I didn’t go most Sundays, and if I did, it was only out of obligation.

 

God felt silent. I could only read scripture through the paradigm of my denomination and it hurt. I had questions and the answers Christians gave me were hallow. The answers closed off my spirit. If I wasn’t working or in a class, you would likely find me in bed. That’s all I had energy for those days. When awake, my mind would go back to the same questions. They repeated over and over. I preferred sleep over the migraines I gave myself worrying about others. Worrying what this all meant for my life.

 

“Go to Him when your need is desperate,” Lewis wrote, “when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence.”³

 

It’s one thing if you’re conservative and believe in complete free will. Maybe you can convince a loved one to change. But if you’re convinced that God predestines all things, then you’re powerless. If everything is preordained, why pray? God’s made His choice. Why feel? I might get attached to a Hell-bound sinner. Maybe I had chosen to be a Christian because I feared Hell more than I loved Jesus. Maybe that’s what God wanted—my fear rather than my love. I finally assumed this must be what it means to be a reprobate; incapable of accepting the harsh reality of God’s nature. I was a bad Christian. Bad, Seth. Bad.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

So here I am today. I’m still a Christian. I’m still in love with God. And many of my questions still remain.

 

I met a new acquaintance earlier this year. He said something in a coffee shop that shifted my perspective. Maybe when God leaves a question unanswered, the problem is that we’re asking the wrong question.

 

C. S. Lewis came to agree with this concept.

 

“When I lay these questions before God I get no answer. But a rather special sort of ‘No answer.’ It is not the locked door. It is more like a silent, certainly not uncompassionate, gaze. As though He shook His head not in refusal but waiving the question. Like, ‘Peace child; you don’t understand.’

 

Can a mortal ask questions which God finds unanswerable? Quite easily, I should think. All nonsense questions are unanswerable. How many hours are there in a mile? Is yellow square or round? Probably half the questions we ask—half our great theological and metaphysical problems—are like that.”4

 

I lost sight of grace. I’d been drenched in Calvinism for so long, I had forgotten what grace feels like.

 

I believe salvation is all of God. It’s not what I do, believe, say, think, or feel. It’s what Christ accomplished and finished on the cross. It’s not of works. It doesn’t demand perfection, because I can’t meet that standard.

 

I don’t know exactly how grace works. Where does God’s regenerating work end and man’s freedom of will begin? I don’t know.

 

“He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” John 1:11-13 ESV. Awesome. That clears up everything.

 

I know many Christians want to have their I’s dotted and their T’s crossed, but I’ve realized if I want to have a thriving relationship with God I don’t need to have perfect doctrine. I need Jesus. I need His relationship. I need to discover Him in scripture, prayer, and community to shape me into His image. I don’t have to know everything.

 

There will always be a tension between passages like John 3:16 and Romans 9. You can choose either side and use one to interpret the other. We can get lost in debates over which perspective best glorifies God. And it’s a major issue for some Christians. It’s all scripture though. And maybe we’re supposed to wrestle with these questions. It’s nothing new for me as a gay Christian—spiritual wrestling and questions.

 

The Bible is more than systematic theology. Scripture is a narrative of how God redeemed us from our depravity and brokenness. We don’t want the Bible to be a story. We want to know the basics. Tell us the rules. Give us a life manual. How do we avoid Hell? But the Bible is so much more. It’s His love letter. It’s our history. It’s our vision for the future. If we strip it down to doctrinal points, we lose the hope of the gospel. We lose the opportunity to know God.

 

Lewis continued from the quotation above and wrote, “And now that I come to think of it, there’s no practical problem before me at all. I know the two great commandments, and I’d better get on with them.”5

 

My compassion is not weakness. I need it to live out God’s overarching commands. I fell in love with the people the church ostracized; the ones who may never come to the “right” conclusions. That’s real agape love. I don’t love people with an agenda. I don’t have a timetable for you to conform to my beliefs by a certain length of time. I just love people. And I love Jesus.

 

I’ve found comfort from a passage of scripture as I’ve returned to God:

 

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 4:43-48.

 

I’m thankful for this passage. If God calls me to love my enemies, what does this say of His heart? Would God call me to a higher standard than He can meet? God is the standard. I am to love my enemies because He loved His enemies. When I fear God is not good, I turn to one act, God’s substitutionary death on the cross, and it reveals something of God’s character. Rather than Sid, an immature, evil brat, I see Aslan. Fierce, dangerous, and holy. But most definitely good.

 

I don’t really have a position on homosexuality. I’m not “Side A” or “Side B.” I’m a man who wants to walk alongside the church and LGBTs and get my hands dirty with love and grace. I’m not positive what God thinks on the subject. I’m not God. But as I’ve encountered my Father apart from hardcore Calvinism, I’ve found a God of mercy and compassion. He’s not so much wrathful as He is concerned with justice in a corrupt world. I have held my gay friends tightly in my fists. I had to solve the questions for them. And I finally trust God enough to let go. They’re in good hands. Whatever eternity reveals, I know my responsibility in this life. Love God. Love my neighbor.

 

I’d better get on with that.

 

photo courtesy of flickr creative commons, user Yuliya Libkina

 

1. C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (New York: HarperOne, 1961), 18.

2. Ibid, 40.

3. Ibid, 18.

4. Ibid, 81-82

5. Ibid, 82.