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?

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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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 Child of God

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There’s a scene at the end of the independent film C. O. G. (Child of God) I just can’t shake from my mind. C. O. G. is loosely based off a series of essays from American comic writer David Sedaris. The film stars Jonathan Groff (Glee, Looking) as Samuel, a pretentious Ivy League graduate who decides to move across the country to Oregon to experience life among the working class, picking apples in orchards and later taking up a third-shift job sorting apples in a factory.

 

Oh, and Samuel likes guys.

 

As Samuel works at the factory, he develops a friendship with Curly (Corey Stoll, House of Cards, The Strain), a forklift operator. Curly savors Samuel’s dry humor and educated perspective. Both friends are aware of their growing physical chemistry; a language spoken only through eye contact and flirtatious smiles. Yet Samuel’s sexuality doesn’t play a central role in C. O. G.; it’s not until the end of the film that Samuel chooses to see his attraction for men as a defining characteristic of his personality, though Samuel never seems torn about his feelings.

 

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But what makes C. O. G. intriguing for me is how Christianity weaves throughout Samuel’s story. A Bible-pushing ex-con asks Samuel on the trip to Oregon if he knows the Lord. Samuel tries to brush off the conversation, but eventually states religion is for the simple-minded.

 

“The Bible says…” begins the zealous Christian.

 

“I know what the Bible says,” Samuel interrupts.

 

“So what’s your problem?”

 

“It’s poorly written.”

 

Yet the enlightened atheist finds himself surrounded by Christianity in rural Oregon. When Samuel’s friendship with Curly goes sour after discovering Curly’s, uh, weird sexual interests, Samuel abandons his job at the factory and asks for help from Jon, another Christian Samuel meets in his journey. Jon makes clocks out of jade stone and hands out Bible tracts labeled “C. O. G.” on the street corner. He’s a veteran and recovering alcoholic with a quick temper. Jon agrees to let Samuel stay with him, keen to influence Samuel with his faith.

 

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But Samuel’s no longer the same guy as he interacts with Jon and the family from church who shelters the two of them. There’s a sense of humility we haven’t seen before, a desire to observe the world around him without pride or bias. Samuel goes to church and one Sunday Jesus just clicks. When the pastor asks if anyone in the congregation would like to receive Christ, Samuel raises his hand. The pastor beckons Samuel to the stage, asks Samuel several questions, and instructs Samuel what to pray. Tears stream down Samuel’s face as he asks God to forgive his sins and smiles as acknowledges Christ’s love. But his grin fades into discomfort when the pastor encourages Samuel to ask God for a wife and children. The satiric scene is meant to be funny, and in a sense the moment is hilarious knowing Samuel’s sexual orientation. But it’s heartrending too when you’ve grown up around straight privilege your whole life and you know this scene is more than exaggerated caricature.

 

It’s not clear whether Samuel’s newfound faith sticks or if he just got caught up in the moment (interviews I’ve read with the director seem to suggest the latter), but Samuel continues working with Jon creating clocks to sale at the upcoming fair, going to church, and handing out tracts on the street corner.

 

When the day of the fair arrives, everything changes. No one will buy Jon’s over-priced clocks, just the little boxes Samuel constructed from the leftover scraps of jade stone. Jon becomes frustrated and begins to snap at disinterested customers as Samuel tries to pacify his irate spiritual mentor. On the drive home, Jon projects his anger and failure on Samuel, needing someone to blame. Samuel remains silent as Jon berates him, a far cry from the young man we met at the beginning of the film.

 

Jon stops the truck.

 

“You know what, there’s a story I’ve been meaning to tell you, but I didn’t think I should have until now. Back in the war… One day my squad was ambushed by a—oh, a couple of local fools, just the five of us and the four of them. It was nothing serious. We took out the towelheads, but not before one of them shot one of our members in the gut. He was bleeding out all over me… Nothing we could do for him. I would have prayed for him, but this was before I knew Christ, so I didn’t do shit for his soul. And so I asked him, you know, ‘Do you know have any last requests?’ He looked me right in the eye and he asked me if I could hold him.”

 

Jon scoffs at the idea.

 

“That’s what he said to me. He goes, ‘Can you hold me?’ Jon mimics with disdain.

 

“I had both my legs then and I used them to kick the shit out of him. …There are a lot of sick people in this world, Samuel, and you gotta watch out for them.

 

Jon pauses and turns to look Samuel in the eye.

 

“You’re that way too, aren’t you? You’re sick like that man, aren’t you?”

 

Tears form in Samuel’s eyes. Samuel’s tone is soft, but he speaks with unflinching strength.

 

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I’m as sick as they come.

 

“God.” Jon turns away in disgust. “You’ve used me—my tools, my patience, and now you want me to pat you on the head like you’re a good little boy. You know what? You’re not a good boy. You’re not even a good girl,” Jon sneers.

 

“You’re a user.

You’re a taker.

You’re a faggot.

 

Christians aren’t users.

Christians aren’t takers.

And they certainly aren’t faggots.”

 

Jon tosses Samuel enough money for the bus and abandons him on the road. The camera stays with Samuel as he walks along the road ruminating in silence, an array of emotions running across his face—disbelief, rejection, frustration… Samuel looks over his shoulder one last time, sighs, and a subtle expression of quiet strength comes over Samuel face as he looks up to the sky and walks out of sight. I can’t help but wonder if this concludes Samuel’s brief flirtation with Christianity as all fades to black.

c. o. g. movie

 

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/          /          /

C. O. G.’s final scene gets to the heart of the Christian vs. Gay debate, doesn’t it? Is it possible to be both? While many conservative Christians would show more civility than Jon, they still arrive at the same conclusion—the two are always incompatible; Christians cannot be gay. But what stands out to me is Samuel’s silence; he doesn’t seem to disagree with Jon. As Samuel finally embraces his sexual orientation as an external, identifying characteristic of his personhood, it’s possible he believes he must relinquish his newfound faith to become an integrated human being. Maybe he simply doesn’t want Jon’s ugly faith. When our pastors incite shame and homophobia and Christian organizations like The Gospel Coalition urge Christians to acquire a gag reflex for LGBTQ people, the results can only be devastating for sexual and gender minorities in our congregations. The only hope of survival for many LGBTQ Christians is to run away from the faith that raised them.

 

Despite the fact many of our church denominations are seeing declines in membership and conversions, the number of LGBTQs who identify as Christian continues to grow—the Pew Research Center estimates 48% of sexual minorities now identify as Christian. C. O. G. encapsulates the conflict between the church and LGBTQ people, but it doesn’t begin to offer the nuance this conversation deserves.

 

Paul appeals to the Roman church to present their bodies as living sacrifices to God as part of their spiritual worship. He further exhorts the church not to be conformed to the world, but transformed by renewing their minds so they can discern God’s will and determine what things are good, acceptable, and perfect. What does that mean for me as a gay man? Am I conforming to the world by identifying with my sexual orientation? How do live my life as a living sacrifice to God as a Christian sexual minority? What is God’s will for me in the middle of this explosive debate?

 

As I’m winding down my blog over the next few weeks in preparation for my next adventure in graduate school, I want to consider these questions from scripture along with some other concluding thoughts.

 

Until then,

 

Grace and Peace.

 

P. S. As of July 2015, you can still watch C. O. G. on Netflix if you still have any interest in watching the film after all my spoilers. It’s rated R for strong language and sexual content, just to let ya’ know.

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.

Great Expectations

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I grew up in a large homeschooling family. We went to Primitive Baptist churches and stood out among the older congregants. Other than my siblings, I didn’t have a real-life friend until I was fifteen. I had a Mormon pen-pal for a few years and somehow made diverse friendships on message boards as the designated fundamentalist. After a devastating week at Boy Scout camp, I really didn’t know if I could do real-life friendships. Maybe I was just too sheltered and too different.

 

It didn’t stop me from trying.

 

When I became a teenager, my family joined a new church and suddenly I had connections to people in my age range. I loved to write, so I decided to create a newsletter for other Primitive Baptist youth, especially those who felt isolated like me without friends their own age. The newsletter gave me a voice and purpose; I could present myself as confident, intelligent, and maybe just a little bit cool.

 

Unfortunately, my social deprivation quickly revealed itself in church camps and out-of-town church meetings. I talked way too fast, stuttered, or just didn’t know what to say to other teenagers. I cried myself asleep many of those nights away from home, embarrassed because I felt like such a freak. I didn’t realize the only way to overcome awkwardness was to work through it, and as Elizabeth Bennett advised the reticent Mr. Darcy, “Practice.” But there weren’t a lot of opportunities to learn when most of the teenagers were hours away from home. Every time I went to a church meeting or camp, I swore I’d never go back. …And then somehow I’d find myself back again a year later.

 

In junior college, I fell in love with stories, partly because I had an amazing English Literature instructor who would let me hang out in her office and talk about characters, symbolism, and religion. I particularly loved gritty stories with redemptive endings or the sad ones that kicked me in the gut and left me depressed and haunted for days. I majored in psychology so I could hear real-life stories and take part in people’s journeys. I had two dreams: become a psychologist and an author.

 

Blogging sorta accomplished one of my goals, but it also forced me to face my deepest insecurities. It honestly didn’t matter how much progress I made, I still felt like that awkward, stammering teenager with nothing interesting to say. Worst of all was getting to know some of the writers I’d read for years. I really wanted to belong in their cliques; I hoped they would like me. But the writing community is a fickle, forgetful place. Often you have to do your time before you fit in. The disappointments often hit me hard.

 

My life has a pretty consistent theme: I depend on others to validate me. I expect to embarrass myself and prove to you how socially incompetent I am. I just know people will inevitably lose interest and concern and I’ll be right back where I started. Alone. Surely I missed out on some vital social script to maneuver through life. How can I convince cool people to teach me? What can I do to attract their attention? I’m ambitious. I work pretty hard to hide my insecurities behind my successes and I’m constantly doing something to feel worthy of your attention: create a newsletter for Primitive Baptist teenagers, start a psychology club in college, publish a blog about being gay and Christian, get accepted into a doctoral program… But success doesn’t guarantee belonging. I still have to do the vulnerable, delicate work of interacting and developing friendships. I can’t run and hide in my room whenever relationships get a little messy and complicated or when it looks like another person has ignored me or doesn’t reciprocate my interest.

 

I need another perspective.

 

Marlena Graves wrote a beautiful blend of spiritual memoir and theology last year in her book A Beautiful Disaster: Finding Hope in the Midst of Brokenness. Marlena spoke of our suffering as a wilderness, a place to practice spiritual disciplines to deepen and mature our relationship with Christ. The wilderness is a place to face our insecurities and even has things to teach us about our desire for attention:

 

“We all, every one of us, want our God-given dignity affirmed by others. We want to receive attention. We want to be valued, appreciated, admired and sought after. We want to feel cherished and adored—to be ‘in’ with others. We want to know our lives matter. We want to be loved. That’s why some of us so desperately want to be famous. It’s why we are overly concerned with our reputations, why we loathe obscurity, and why our confidence hangs on the opinions of others. When it comes right down to it, some of us believe that we matter if and only if hordes of people are fawning over us.”1

 

Blogging quickly revealed I had some unhealthy motives for writing. Sure, I wanted to help people, but I didn’t feel like I was making much of an impact if the established writing community didn’t notice my posts. Rather than staying faithful to what I loved, I allowed certain people’s lack of enthusiasm to crush my love for the craft of writing and my hopes of becoming writer—a profession that a requires a ridiculous amount of failure and disappointment and honestly never guarantees anything. And when I actually had a viral post, I felt like a deer in front of headlights. I had no idea what to do with the attention.

 

Marlena offers incredibly helpful insight:

 

“Pursuing fame and prestige will corrupt my soul and in all probability prove elusive. An out-of-control need to be seen is an addiction that will drive us to compromise the Jesus life. In the kingdom of God, being seen and pursuing fame and prestige are not to be our motivations. That’s why Jesus told us to seek first the kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33). Perhaps our endeavors will lead to fame, but that’s not what we should aim for or why we do what we do.”2

 

I’m slowly learning not to care what others think of me; i’s not my responsibility to know. All I’m expected to do is live transparently and honestly. Maybe I’m just meant to be the guy in the background. If I can be completely open with just a few close friends, that’s more than enough. Maybe I have a place in the broader discussion of LGBTQs and the church, maybe I don’t. There are already great spokespeople leading the conversation, so I don’t have to strive to be something I’m not. The word is slowly getting out there. Whatever platform God gives me will suffice.

 

My recent graduate school interview was an incredible experience. It revealed a different paradigm than the one I’d imagined. I’ve spent my life trying to win over people I found interesting, but never really believing I had anything to offer. During my interview I openly shared how my story as a sexual minority deepened my empathy and compassion for the marginalized and the suffering. I spoke up in a student panel and asked a question on the treatment of minorities on campus, revealing I was a gay applicant. In one day I had accomplished what I never would have dared do before I published my blog. My approach during the interview was completely “take me or leave me,” a perspective I’m not normally brave enough to feel. And yet, people would stop and ask me questions about my experience. They told me about gay people they knew. I was shown kindness, respect, and surprisingly, interest. Huh. Who knew?

 

I’ve built all my dreams on some fairly weighty expectations. Do more, be more and then you will be loved. But all along God has been calling me to minimalism. Do less. Just be you. I have made you enough as you are.

Write and become a clinical psychologist because you want to, Seth.

Pursue your passions because you can’t imagine doing anything else with your life.

Follow your dreams because they still matter even if no one knows your name or thinks you’re worth knowing.

The best friends you’ll have in this life are the ones you don’t have to impress, convince, or win over. They don’t care about your popularity or influence. They don’t want anything from you except your love and friendship. They like your personality, your interests, and your story.

 

My journey has been long and weighed down with baggage and insecurity. I’ve lingered far too long in the desert. But Marlena reminds me that God hasn’t left me in the wilderness without a purpose. Rather, she writes, “I experience the greatest divine growth spurts deep in the wilderness, in the midst of wild and unwelcomed pain. God uses the suffering I experience in the desert wilderness to show me who I am without him, to drive me to repentance, and to make me holy and wholly alive.”3 For all the insecurity I’ve experienced throughout life, I’ve also found resiliency and optimism to keep giving intimacy another shot. The blog has shown me my fears, but also my courage.

 

Intimacy scares the heck out of us because we aren’t perfect; we screw up and reveal our selfishness, pride, and yes, our insecurities. But you have to let people show you grace rather than run. The friends worth keeping will stick around. Just love people and let them be. Lose the expectations and live. Embrace the wilderness.

 

  1. Marlena Graves, A Beautiful Disaster: Finding Hope in the Midst of Brokenness. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2014, 131.
  2. Ibid, page 132.
  3. Ibid, page 195.

 

When Church Becomes a War Zone

man alone in church

 

 

Once upon a time I took church for granted. My roots ran deep in Christian subculture, specifically a sub-subculture that most Christians have never heard of. But it was home and never seemed all that dangerous. At worst, I ended up in the emergency room after roughhousing with the other little boys and busting my forehead open on the end of a pew. Ouch. But church functioned as a normal part of my family’s weekly rhythm. I drew pictures with crayons during the sermons and picked up on bits and pieces of theology here and there. At home I often played church with my collection of stuffed animals and told them stories of my favorite biblical characters. Mom thought I was destined to become a preacher, but life has a funny way of surprising us, doesn’t it?

 

My life tends to cycle. I hit phases where I’m on fire for God, generally when I experience a perspective shift—ex-gay to gay-relationship affirming to celibate. I’m silly enough to think I’ve arrived with all the answers, but with each turn of the cycle, the old doubts creep back in, along with the depression, loneliness, and anxiety.

 

Church has never been a hospitable place during the cycles and the doubts. Friends would tell me it’s ok to question, but eventually I needed to come to some conclusions—be one of them or find somewhere else. During the Gay Christian Network’s conference this year, Vicky Beeching spoke about doubt. Christians tend to view doubt as a sign of spiritual immaturity, but Vicky firmly believed that these seasons of intellectual and emotional wrestling can—and absolutely do—produce a beautifully mature and vibrant faith.

 

When my ex-gay story unraveled, Pandora’s box opened and shook the foundations of my solid reformed theology and conservative political ideology. Passive-aggressiveness defined my relationship with the church, while my conversations with God transformed into profanity-laden rants. The latter healed with time and space, primarily from interactions with gay Christians who trusted in God’s extravagant love and grace, thoughts I had never imagined. But my relationship with the church hasn’t reconciled as easily.

 

I live in Alabama, if you didn’t know by now. This isn’t the best area for a gay boy to find a church home. I’m a few years shy of 30 and really haven’t figured out the best way to deal with my sexual orientation in church. Oh yes, I hear you, my fellow evangelicals. Why even bring it up? It’s not anyone’s business, after all. Well, thing is, you lovely nosy Christians tend to make it your business within the first conversation. Do I have a wife? Girlfriend? Kids? Seriously folks, if you don’t want me to talk about the gay, stop trying to hook me up with random single women in your church. Sheesh. Thank you.

 

Frankly, I’ve grown tired of the angst and indecision. Do I come out or not? How long should I wait to open up? Should I even go to church when this one aspect of my personhood differentiates me so sharply from everyone else? It’s pathetic that church has become this difficult. Since I came out a few months ago, it’s just easier to go into gay activist mode. If I freak you out, you’re one less church off my list to consider, one less Christian I have to analyze and worry about.

 

Here’s the thing, as a straight Christian, you don’t have to listen to me. That’s your luxury. You can stick your head in the sand and twiddle your thumbs with all the other normal families in church. It’s called privilege. You were born with it, didn’t earn it, and can do pretty much anything you like with the benefits of being straight, white, middle class Americans (especially if you happen to be a man). Most choose silence and ignorance, because well, it’s easier. Different is uncomfortable and exhausting. I would make things so much easier for the body of Christ if I would just marry a woman and shut up. But maybe you’re a little more compassionate than that; you welcome me into your church but you keep me an arm’s length. Whenever the preacher talks about gay people, it’s always to discuss politics and the sin of ho-mo-sex-u-al-i-ty (I’m totally emulating Vicky Beeching’s imitation of a southern preacher with her awesome British accent, sorry). Your church’s preaching and ministries are crafted to nurture and support the faith of “normal” families and the singles who will eventually enter heterosexual marriage, but you leave gays like me to figure out life alone.

 

Here’s another thing, brothers and sisters. The Gospel tears down privilege. The ministry of Jesus centered on “the least of these” not Caesar, Herod, and the Pharisees. Sure, if folks from the religious elite like Nicodemus and Paul want to step down from their ivory towers and get their hands dirty in the work of the kingdom, then great. But you can be darn sure Jesus didn’t preach a prosperity gospel or The American Dream. Jesus proclaimed a kingdom that would reverse the curse of sin and death and offer lasting shelter and healing. But we’ve made the Gospel about ourselves, forgetting to share the kingdom with not only sexual minorities, but racial minorities, the homeless, the mentally ill, and so many other groups we’ve ignored and neglected throughout history. It’s high time to grapple with the difficulties of redemptively loving those we don’t understand. It’s high time to open our arms to all our brothers and sisters.

 

Sometimes church makes me feel like a pawn in a game of political chess. My story is not yours to hijack, twist, or use to shame other sexual minorities, nor is my life as a celibate gay Christian a pattern that all other sexual minorities should conform to. I’m a fairly moderate Christian. I’m skeptical that God blesses gay sex, but I’m confident God can sanctify gay love—acts of self-sacrifice and nurturing concern for another human being. I’ve chosen celibacy as a vocation of love, not out of fear of a monstrous God who will banish me to Hell if I marry a man. It’s a choice of costly obedience, yet I don’t believe I’m a better Christian than my Side A friends. I believe in the legitimacy of their love and faith in Jesus Christ and count them as my brothers and sisters, even though I differ with their interpretation of scripture. I’ll freely admit I’m no one’s poster child.

 

Church often feels like a war zone. Maybe you can understand why I’ve spent so little time in a faith community these past few years. So many attitudes and misunderstandings piss me off and cause me to question the worth of community. But guess what, guys? I’m not completely off the hook. The Gospel also calls me to engage with my brothers and sisters and share my story, to lean into the tension and extend grace. That means taking many deep breaths, patiently listening and discerning where people are in their understanding of sexual identity. People don’t always respond well, and grace still calls me to love unconditionally. Last week someone essentially told me I had a demon after I discussed my views on celibacy. Sometimes grace means stepping away from pointless discussions and letting someone else have the last word. Grace means taking risks, being vulnerable, and trusting God will redeem our interactions and sharpen us like iron against iron..

 

Jeff Chu also presented an excellent keynote address at GCN’s conference this year. Straight Christians should take note. As Rachel Held Evans tweeted, “I don’t just look to ‪#GCNConf for how to better engage LGBT issues. I look to ‪#GCNConf for how to be a better Christian.” Guys and gals, Jeff casts a pretty fantastic vision for what the church could be:

 

“The table I long for—the church I hope for—is a place where we let others see where the spirit meets the bone and help heal the wounds. The table I long for—the church I hope for—has the grace of the Gospel as its magnificent centerpiece. The table I long for—the church I hope for—is where we care more about our companions than about winning our arguments with them, where we set aside the condescension that accompanies our notion that we need to bring them our truth. The table I long for—the church I hope for—has each of you sitting around it, struggling to hold the knowledge that you, vulnerable you and courageous you, are beloved by God, not just welcome but desperately, fiercely wanted.”¹

 

My hope for the church is a future of gracious inclusion, hospitality, and curiosity. God has promised that the gates of Hell cannot withstand the progression of the church, that swords will be remodeled into farming tools, and the word of God will cover the Earth as waters cover the sea. The church has an optimistic future and an important mission: the restoration and salvation of creation. Or as one of my first gay Christian friends used to say, “making a little Heaven on Earth.” For many sexual minorities like myself, church currently feels more like Hell on Earth, more like a war zone. But there’s a day coming when we will belong, when we will be desperately and fiercely wanted. It will come as we tell our stories and change the hearts of our sisters and brothers. We may never find definitive answers to the gay marriage and gay sex question, but we can find the humility and grace to trust our omniscient Heavenly Father and journey together amid the doubting and dissonance.

 

In the meantime I’ll do my best to keep building bridges.

 

1. http://doesjesusreallyloveme.com/together-at-the-table/

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

Little Lion Man: A Bryan College Story

young man standing leaning against a ledge on a city rooftop

 

LGBTQ Christians have a variety of reasons why they ended up at Christian universities. Some were forced by controlling, concerned parents. Others burned with zeal to take part in the shifting evangelical landscape. Some craved an authentic community with open-minded Christians. However, those weren’t my reasons. I needed to survive, clinging to the shattered, irreparable pieces of my worldview. I didn’t want to be gay.

 

My parents expected I would transfer to a cheaper state school. That wasn’t happening. Atheist professors would probably brainwash me and I’d likely make dumb decisions with hot guys. That would be it. I’d be gay. No sir, we had to nip this in the bud. As a teenager, I had discovered the ex-gay movement as Mom daily listened to Focus on the Family. Finally someone was talking about my situation from a Christian perspective. I dug deeper and found The National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) and Exodus International. They told me change was possible. Change. What an intoxicating thought. I could be normal and ordinary. I can fix this. I laid out my case for a Christian college to my parents, bought a thick book published by The Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, and then examined the possibilities. Bryan seemed like a good choice; it was conservative, close to home, and as I browsed through the chapels recordings, I discovered had recently invited an ex-gay speaker. Heck yes. This was it.

 

While waiting to transfer, I spent six months working with Adam, my therapist. I wanted every gay part of me expunged and forgotten. But therapy didn’t feel all that ex-gay (reconnecting with Adam this summer revealed I was right, thankfully). Adam kept coming back to my anxiety and the negative mental script playing on repeat in my head. Obviously he was missing the point. If I could just like girls then I wouldn’t hate myself. Somehow every flaw would fade away with the gay. Same-sex attraction, I assumed, barred me from living the life I wanted.

 

August eventually arrived. My heart pounded driving up to Tennessee. Could I keep my secret? Would I find a wife? How was I going to adjust away from home after home schooling and community college?

 

I latched onto my core friend group within my first week. Kyle, one of my roommates, Patrick, a guy in my orientation group, and Nathan, Patrick’s roommate. They became my people when I didn’t have the emotional strength to branch out to others. Much of my free time was spent alone in my dorm room, my place of security after all the day’s awkward failures and social growing pains. My friends often interfered with those attempts to hide; they drew me out, made me talk. They convinced me to do silly things like create dance-off videos and play hours of scum, a card game that probably wasn’t great for our self-esteem. On the weekends we often gathered late at night and worshipped in the chapel foyer; the building echoed with the strums of Patrick’s guitar and the sound of our voices.

 

Bryan was a tiny school; I’m sure many people knew of me, but I didn’t allow many people to know me. I didn’t think most people would take the truth well, so I kept my distance. It didn’t matter anyway, I told myself. My purpose was to learn everything psychology and theology could teach me about homosexuality and maybe, just maybe, I’d find the answer. I’d be straight–then I could fit in and belong. But my emotional longing to connect would often get the better of my defensive mechanisms. I couldn’t help blurting out the truth if someone told me about a gay family member or asked why I was so interested in gay people. I gave presentations, wrote research papers and short stories that often related to homosexuality. Let’s face it, for a guy trying to hide a secret, I was doing pretty lousy job.

 

And then there were the girls. As a male psychology major, I was a minority in a sea of women. Growing up, my friendships had always been with guys. My friends talked about the girls they liked and SEC Football, but they also peer-pressured me into reading and liking Jane Austen. I kinda had it good for a gay boy. In our tiny marriage-happy denomination, talking to girls implied things and we tended to segregate to our own sex, so I stuck with the guys. It was fine with me, I liked being a guy. But at Bryan it surprised me how easily I could talk to women. I would find myself sitting more and more often with them and feel completely comfortable, sometimes even animated in ways I wouldn’t be around men. That bothered me. How does this look to other people? If a particular friendship with a girl got a little too close, I’d start to panic. What if she gets the wrong impression? Sure, I eventually wanted a relationship and a wife… But. Not. Freaking. Right. Now.

 

The ex-gay narrative began to unravel my last year at Bryan. After years of pushing myself, I realized I was no more attracted to women than when I started. The research didn’t back it, and Christian psychologists couldn’t even guarantee absolute cessation of same-sex attraction for everyone who tried. All the anecdotal stories of “change” began to be outweighed by stories of failure and trauma, while Christians rebuked the latter for being too emotionally weak or just flat-out bad Christians. I felt like Linus in the pumpkin patch on Halloween, believing and awaiting the arrival of The Great Pumpkin year after year, only to be disappointed again. Just you wait, Charlie Brown. Just wait ‘til next year. But I was tired of waiting, tired of fighting a force that wouldn’t budge. I took a mock assessment in my abnormal psychology class that measured personality and psychopathology; my professor picked up on the depression and suicidal ideation that had resurfaced from my inner struggle. He encouraged me to see the college counselor. Everything seemed to be telling me to move on. But to what? I didn’t believe in same-sex marriage. And celibacy? Who the heck does that?

 

My last semester at Bryan I asked a girl if I could pursue her, being the I Kissed Dating Goodbye kinda guy I was at the time. I liked her. I didn’t feel infatuated, but I was happy around her. She always took the opportunity to affirm my existence. She was beautiful, ridiculously talented, and funny. I felt comfortable around her. Maybe it could work; maybe it was enough. So one day we talked and I told her what was on my heart (minus the same-sex attraction part, I figured we could get to that eventually). Thankfully, she turned me down (but with grace and compassion). It crushed me, even without the butterflies. I had never found the courage to ask a girl to consider a relationship, and what if I never found it again? What would happen to me then? I apologized for putting her in an awkward situation. “It doesn’t have to be awkward” she replied kindly as we continued walking. I avoided her afterwards, too mortified to keep pursuing her friendship. It’s one of those moments I wish could be redone. Rather than asking to court her, I could have shared a moment of authentic connection—an open door to an awesome friendship. But it is what it is, I guess.

 

But I did find rare moments of courage to open up. The first time I came out at Bryan was in my psychology advisor’s office. I was adjusting to the increased difficulty of my classes and failing the first half of his physiological psychology class. He intimidated me at the time, but for some reason I didn’t care that day. I broke down and told him why I wanted a future as a psychologist and my fear that I had made a terrible mistake. My advisor responded with kindness and openness, encouraging me to keep going and to work harder. Eventually I opened up to my other professor in the psychology program. While I hid from most of the campus, I spent hours in my professors’ offices talking about theology, psychology, and sexuality. They became my second fathers away from home, mentoring and challenging me to become the man God was calling me to be. My senior year, I finally found the courage to share the missing piece of my story with Kyle, Patrick, and Nathan. Each initial disclosure was like jumping off a cliff blindfolded–exhilarating and terrifying–no telling what would result once I landed. I have many defensive mechanisms to help me bear the loneliness and isolation, but even today I haven’t found a healthy way to cope with rejection. Well, other than time. To my relief, none of my close friends abandoned me. Some people have become distant through my emotional and spiritual growth (which may have nothing to do with my sexual orientation), but my buddies stuck with me through the years, no matter how many miles apart.

 

My story began with a falsehood. I can change my sexual orientation if I work hard enough. The ex-gay movement reduced the gospel into a pursuit of straightness. I wasn’t accepted unless I had a wife or was at least working towards that outcome. As I learned to let go, some Christians chastised me for giving up. Keep praying; homosexuality isn’t God’s intent for your life. But what kind of life is that? There’s kingdom work to be done, other people who need the love and grace of Christ. The ex-gay approach is terribly self-centered. Healing comes from without, out in the light and out in the open. Trying to change our sexual orientation shames us from embracing intimate, authentic community as we currently find ourselves. We desperately need the redemptive love of the church to touch our lives, but many gay Christians choose to suffocate in isolation because they can’t meet the unfair and callous demands of the evangelical church. The church needs to be clear: life is happening now, and abundant life is available to all who seek it. Life doesn’t wait for marriage, and isn’t limited to the heterosexual.

 

When I realized nothing was going to change, I thought mixed orientation was my only option, a marriage lacking sexual attraction. Gay men and women who hold a traditional sexual ethic can be happy and thrive in mixed-orientation marriages if transparency, honesty, and sacrificial love characterize the relationship. But when I became honest with myself I realized the truth: I just didn’t want it. Since I have a choice in the matter, I’d rather just have a woman’s friendship. I don’t think I’m a better or worse Christian for that. It took a couple of years vacillating between affirming theology and the traditional perspective, but celibacy is how I eventually and personally reconciled my convictions with the circumstances I found myself in.

 

My sexual orientation remains a part of me, a part I didn’t choose or even want. It’s kinda funny, I became the man I worked so hard not to become. I’m gay, and I’ve gained a broader perspective of what that means beyond sexual behavior and lust. I wish the old Seth could see the freedom it offers. My focus isn’t on my works, my ability to make myself straight. It’s not even a life waiting around for God to zap me with straightness so He and the church can accept me. I am acceptable as I am, covered in the blood of Christ. I am beloved because of my Heavenly Father’s unmerited favor and generous, steadfast love. No ignorant Christian can take away the rest and peace of the gospel from me.

 

/ / /

 

Bryan College has had more than its fair share of conflicts since I graduated. The controversial clarification statement on man’s origins and evolution has torn a community of students, faculty, administration, and alumni. I can imagine Bryan currently feels like a scary, uncertain place for its sexual minority students. When Christians tighten the leash on orthodoxy, the marginalized and misunderstood often feel the impact. People forget to acknowledge our humanity and reduce us to political issues. It’s isolating and dehumanizing. For all sexual minorities on Christian campuses, I’m so sorry you bear that burden on top of all the normal stresses of college. When I was a student at Bryan I thought I was alone, the only one like me. Blogging has revealed that wasn’t the case. I’ve connected with old acquaintances and found shared experiences and struggles. I suspect you aren’t the only one either. I also believe you’ll find safe allies among your fellow students and faculty. Allies who will gladly journey with you through your frustrations, sorrows, and loneliness. You aren’t meant to carry this alone, brothers and sisters, so please don’t.

 

Bryan was a crucial part of my spiritual growth. I’m not happy with many of the decisions my alma mater has made recently, but I’m thankful for the people who touched my life and continue to encourage me. Some of my closest friendships have developed after graduation when I reconnected and opened up. This blog has also helped me reestablish ties to many of my former acquaintances, and while I regret the opportunities lost, I’m thankful for the chance to build relationships from where we find ourselves now. We serve a God of second chances, a God who redeems our stories.

books

When Our Stories Become Weapons

I am a storyteller.

 

I’m not great with small talk, nor am I all that funny. I certainly don’t have all the answers.

 

But I tell stories anyway.

 

I’d rather tell my story than argue. I don’t see much point in a debate. I say something, you pick out what you don’t like, and then I get mad that you aren’t really listening. What a waste of time. Arguing reveals our pride. We think we possess superior logic compared to others and we’re merely enlightening the ignorant. But debates only make people defensive, closing people off. Unless people feel safe and heard, they won’t have an open heart. Without a posture of openness, people remain shut off from new ideas.

 

So I’d rather just share my story than fight over sexual ethics.

 

But in this discussion of sexual orientation, I’m missing something if I focus solely on my own story. You’d be missing something too if you only listened to my story. Our individual tales need to interact like iron sharpening iron. We need to be challenged, to feel a little uncomfortable from time to time. We don’t have all the facts, and we haven’t stopped growing. Storytelling requires more than one perspective.

 

Rachel Held Evans wrote an important response a year ago to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story.” I resonated with Rachel’s application of Adichie’s talk to the discussion of homosexuality. Rachel primarily focused on one statement:

 

“The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

 

Rachel added,

 

“It occurred to me recently that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people are often subjected to this single-story treatment, both from myself and from other people.”

 

I’ve been around enough Christians to know the truth of Rachel’s observation. It feels like someone is always getting thrown under the bus in church. We develop assumptions in a vacuum, not knowing anything about the people we attempt to characterize. And often when people meet a sexual minority, they unfairly make this individual a representative of an incredibly diverse group of people. We allow certain stories to filter all other ones, to the point that stories cease to be stories.

 

Stories become weapons.

 

People so often hijack our moments of vulnerability to shame those who would be audacious enough to disagree. We all do it, conservatives and liberals. The debate around homosexuality is heated and we want real life examples to stoke the flame. Amid the fighting we don’t take many opportunities to walk in another person’s shoes. We don’t consider what another human has had to endure, or what flow of logic and conviction has led them to their current identity and position.

 

I appreciate Stephen Long for his honesty in how celibacy failed him. His attempts to honor his beliefs harmed him deeply—spiritually, psychologically, and physically.

 

Stephen wrote in response to Julie Rodgers’ “Surprised By Celibacy,”

 

I had trusted the life of celibacy to be similar to what Paul described: ‘We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.’ But this leads me to the question I often find myself asking of the church these days: what happens when we are afflicted and crushed? What happens when we are perplexed and driven to despair? Persecuted and forsaken? Struck down and destroyed? What happens when it doesn’t have a happy ending? What happens when it ends in drug abuse, or addiction, or a suicide, or an STD? What happens when people’s spirits are broken? How is that good? How does that purify and refine and bring glory to God?

 

Julie had written how celibacy had surprisingly sustained her faith, while Stephen wrote that it had nearly destroyed not only his faith, but his desire to live.

 

My story resonates more with Julie’s than Stephen’s. Embracing affirming theology only intensified my anxiety. I discovered peace in gradually submitting my life to a vocation of celibacy. So yes, there’s dissonance in our stories, but Stephen has been an encouraging friend as I’ve struggled to find my way as a blogger this year. His story matters to me as I tell my own as a celibate gay Christian.

 

In this heated debate, it’s not hard to find stories to back up our positions. We live in an age of social media where we constantly share blog posts and YouTube videos to reinforce the validity of our beliefs. We take a person’s story—a creative work of art—and transform it into an instrument of oppression that can induce shame in others.

 

See? This lady found a husband and had kids. It’s not impossible. You just need to have more faith in God. Just keep trying.

 

This guy left his wife and kids for another man. Mixed orientation marriage NEVER work. You can’t possibly be happy in one.

 

Look at this woman, she’s going through life without a spouse and still has a thriving relationship with Christ. If she can do it, so can you! You just need Jesus, man.

 

Hey, this guy nearly killed himself trying celibacy. Celibacy doesn’t work.

 

Adichie reminds us of an important point,

 

Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.

 

When we talk about sexual orientation and sexual ethics, we must remember that we’re talking about real people. People like me. Our biblical paradigms tend to cloud our assumptions. If a man in a gay relationship says he loves Jesus and his husband, many would question his faith. He can’t really love God like I love God. Christians may feel convinced it can’t really be love. Surely it can’t demonstrate the same fidelity and sacrifice as a heterosexual marriage. But then you open your heart to a gay couple committed to their marriage and their relationship with Christ and something changes. The interactions and moments of life shared together obliterate your preconceptions. Maybe your beliefs shift, maybe they don’t. But you see the complexity far more clearly.

 

I believe Christians can thrive in a pluralistic society. We need patience to listen with grace, humility, and compassion amid the messiness and misunderstandings. We must also develop a love for stories. We have our own path to tread in this life. We shouldn’t assume others are farther behind us when we don’t see eye-to-eye. God may have us on different roads. We don’t have to be gatekeepers. We can embrace the simple commandment of scripture: love God and love our neighbor. We can rest knowing our brothers and sisters are in far more secure hands than our own.

 

My story is not a weapon, it’s an invitation of hospitality.

 

So come in from the cold and sit by the fire. I want to hear your story.

 

/ / /

 

If you missed Adichie’s incredible talk last year, please watch it. There’s a reason it went viral.

 

Featured photo courtesy of flickr creative commons, user Bravo_Zulu_

Seth Crocker

And The Walls Came Tumbling Down

It was cold outside. At least I think it was cold. My body shook as I tried to form sentences, to express what my mouth had never uttered. My best friend and I had stepped outside of church, a storefront sandwiched between a Christian bookstore and a store that sold shoes. We sat on a nearby bench next to the street as cars passed by. It took me awhile to get to the point. Every time a pedestrian walked by I’d stop talking and examine my fingernails or my shoes. I made little eye contact as I spoke, occasionally glancing at my friend to study his expression. “Is he getting it? What is he thinking?” His face looked serious with concern and concentration, nodding every now and then. I inhaled deeply.

 

I struggle with same-sex attraction. I’m drawn to guys the way other guys are drawn to girls.

 

My stomach was in knots saying those words. Roots of shame ran deep in my heart. I was suffocating. I was tired of the conversations about girls; how my heartbeat quickened from the lies. I was tired of having to remember to stick my hands in my pockets so I wouldn’t wave them around and look so, well, gay; tired of remembering to deepen my voice, a silly paranoia for a baritone.

 

How do normal people react when you share something taboo? Growing up, churches never talked about homosexuality. They honestly never talked about sexuality at all. I learned that Christians saw sexuality as something dirty and inappropriate to talk about in public. And that made me feel dirty. Everyone else seemed so pure; no apparent signs of sexual brokenness, while I cycled through gay porn, shame, depression, and suicidal ideation. How could God look at me? And how could He still love me? Sure, we’re all broken. But maybe some of us are too broken for God to repair.

 

I felt helpless confessing my secret for the first time. The air left my lungs, formed into distinct sounds by my tongue and lips, and registered in my friend’s brain as language. Those words could never go back; they could never be forgotten. This was my only close friendship at the time and I risked dashing it to pieces with the truth.

 

But God was gracious to me. Many of my brothers and sisters in the LGBTQ community have been deeply wounded when they risked this level of vulnerability and transparency. It damaged their perception of God and they walked away with heavy baggage.

 

Many Christians are quick to fill the tension with words of biblical counsel and admonition. They feel a need to speak scriptural truth and make their positions known (like it’s some kind of surprise to us gay folks). In these moments, intimate relationships are often severed. We wanted you to listen, to let us process our feelings and convictions with you, to let us know we’re safe to ask questions and think aloud in your presence. If you rob us of that opportunity, we may never let you in again.

 

But my best friend didn’t rush to speak or vehemently reject me. His response was short and simple. “I don’t know what to say, Seth.” But that was alright because he continued to be my friend. He’s journeyed with me, despite sharp disagreements that have arisen over the years. He’s been an example of Christ in flesh for me. And that coming out experience strengthened me to continue taking more risks. It was a defining moment that likely saved my faith and quite possibly my life.

 

It was a moment of shackles loosening and new abundant life forming.

 

A slow death of negative self-talk and self-hatred; a slow building of confidence in Christ at work in my life.

 

A process of emotional walls tumbling down.

 

~          ~          ~

 

Today is National Coming Out Day, a holiday celebrated by the LGBTQ+ community to encourage the “closeted” to open up about their lives and experience freedom in the attempt to live life honestly and with integrity. I think it’s a beautiful concept for the church to embrace in a Christian subculture of smiling, perfect facades, especially here in the Bible Belt. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for being white washed tombs; nice to look at it on the outside but full of rotting corpses and bones on the inside. I believe Christian sexual minorities are in a unique place to call others to a better way of living, a way we as the church may have forgotten. We’re inviting the church to join us in the light, in the freedom of the gospel, in the knowledge that the cross covers all our sins and rejects no one. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest (Matthew 11:28, ESV). We find rest when we stop investing our energy in perpetuating lies—to others, to God, and especially to ourselves. God can work mightily when we open every door of our heart to the truth. That’s where sanctification happens. That’s where shalom begins.

 

But some Christians will still ask, “Why come out? Why is it so important?”

 

Chris Damian wrote at Spiritual Friendship,

 

Some people argue that sexuality is something that shouldn’t be discussed publicly, especially for gay people. This point comes up especially in Christian circles, where critics remark that gay people shouldn’t be so ‘out and proud’ but rather discreet, while at the same time making sweeping remarks about my experiences that are anything but discreet. They would insist on talking about my sexuality, while also insisting that I cannot talk about it myself.

 

This really speaks to the heart of the issue. Gay people are more than a controversial issue; we’re people who breathe, think, and feel. We’re made in the Image of God. We have dignity as fellow human beings. Homosexuality is in many ways the defining issue of our time, and it’s unfair for the church to leave out its own members who experience same-sex attraction and have stories that should be weighed in the discussion. The other extreme is when churches choose to ignore the issue altogether. They bury their heads in the sand like ostriches or stick fingers in their ears and scream “I CAN’T HEAR YOU!” But the honest truth is that LGBTQ people aren’t a demonic, militant group somewhere out there in New York City or San Francisco—we’re in your churches, we’re in your families. We’re people you know and love. Maybe we’re just waiting to see if you reveal a little grace in your heart. Maybe we’re looking to see if there’s safety in your eyes.

 

Brent Bailey wrote for The Marin Foundation,

 

I want the people in my community of faith to know I’m gay, then, because I want them to know me. I want to welcome them into the reality of my experience of the world to enable them to walk with me, to support me, to challenge me, to confront me, and more than anything, to love me, but these all remain idealistic principles until an environment of fearless vulnerability makes them tangible realities. It’s much more difficult to do justice to the profundity of God’s work in my life if I’m only letting others see a portion of my life. At the same time, of course, I want to know them in the same way, and I shouldn’t always be so surprised when my openness inspires similar openness from others, as it often does. In that context, gay pride is not about asserting my sexuality; it’s about our shared humanity, our mutual giving and receiving love, our need to know and be known. In other words, it involves sharing how I’m different in order to remind us how much we all share in common, beginning with our shared reception of God’s overwhelming love.

 

Last year for National Coming Out Day, Julie Rodgers wrote:

 

When I first began sharing more vulnerably with those who knew me (because that’s essentially what coming out is), it was often received as a declaration that I was an entirely different person than the one they thought they knew so well. But I wasn’t a different person and I hadn’t been living a lie; they just hadn’t previously been invited into some of these deeper areas of my life because I hadn’t felt safe enough to invite them. I was still the same person: still the Jesus-loving-gypsy who grew up homeschooling and reading Great Books on rooftops for thrills. I hadn’t departed from the faith, declared a new identity, shined light on dark secrets—I had simply invited those I loved into a vulnerable part of my life. Especially in those early days, it was an expression of courage personally, and trust in those I loved, because I was finally confident enough in the Lord, my community, and my own sense of self to risk being known and believing I’d still be loved.

 

These resonating themes of vulnerability, transparency, honesty, openness, and intimacy speak forcibly to the church. I can only humbly ask that you will listen with compassion and curiosity; there is much to learn for us all. We need you, and I’m bold to say you need us. Together we are the body of Christ.

 

~          ~          ~

 

A lot can change in a year.

 

Last year I thought it would be pretty sweet to start a blog on National Coming Out Day. But my parents weren’t comfortable with the idea of me writing publicly. They worried I would get hurt and they didn’t know if they agreed with how I expressed myself as gay. I had moved ahead in processing my sexuality over the years, and they still needed time to sort it out. A language barrier separated us. I believe in respecting my parents, so I tucked the dream away. Life continued aimlessly until I just couldn’t take it any longer. A new year approached and I didn’t want to surrender another year to fear and procrastination.

 

So I wrote.

 

I shared it with people mostly outside my parent’s sphere of influence. I kept my name a secret and that worked for the most part. But I just didn’t like the feeling of writing anonymously. I’m not ashamed of my words or what God is doing in my life. My voice is just as legitimate as the opinions of Straight Christians. I’m certainly not one of the best Gay Christian thinkers or writers, but that doesn’t disqualify me from speaking either. For every sexual minority who courageously speaks up, many more are encouraged and reminded they aren’t alone and there’s a community waiting for them if they will fight for it. As we speak up, the church learns more about us; it learns about our unique needs and struggles. The church can more effectively minister to all its members when it realizes cookie cutter solutions don’t apply to all of us, and in fact do great harm in alienating minorities from the Body.

 

This summer I shared my blog with my Mom and later my Dad. I invited them to see that ministry to LGBTQs is my life passion. Opportunities began opening up through the blog; opportunities that required identifying myself. I didn’t want to wait until graduate school anymore to open up. And my parents listened; they understood me, and perhaps after all the writing I’ve done this year I could better articulate the jumble of thoughts and feelings inside my head.

 

And they said ok.

 

So from now on, I’m writing openly. There will be risk of emotional and physical harm; I’ll probably run into plenty of trolls and gate keepers; I’ll likely experience a whole new level of insecurity. With God’s grace and the support of awesome friends and family, I know I’ll get through it. I believe an open, unfettered life is the only life worth living.

 

So hello World. My name is Seth Crocker. I’m a Christian, an Alabamian, a lover of people and stories, and an openly gay man. I’m a sinner saved by God’s mercy and I look forward to a time that N. T. Wright calls “life after life after death.”

 

I intend to give all the love that’s within me and participate in God’s redemptive story.

 

Seth Crocker

shoes rainy pavement

When I Suck at Celibacy

I spend a lot of time trying to stress in my writing that sexual orientation is more than sex. I like the word gay because it doesn’t contain the word “sex” to describe itself (like homoSEXual or same-SEX attracted, or even SEXUAL minority). “Gay” does a better job of expressing a vocation apart from sex, at least I think so.

 

I compartmentalize the discussion of sexual orientation so much that I tend to avoid talking about sex itself. I can almost make myself sound asexual or a spectator in the discussion. In actuality, this conversation affects my life just as much as the lives of the Christian LGBTs I write about.

 

So why hide the fact that I’m just as much a sexual being as any other gay man, or for that matter, pretty much any other human being? It’s safe, I guess. I don’t like to admit that I struggle maintaining my purity. I don’t like to admit that I’m occasionally a screw up.

 

Good Christians just don’t talk about that.

 

Secrets fetter us. A gay friend once told me that Satan holds power over the things we keep in the dark. It’s only when we bring our secrets to the light that we find freedom in Christ. …But it’s still frightening. When I admit I struggle with lust, pornography, and hooking up, I’m saying I don’t always do a good job of living out what I believe.

 

I’m saying I’m a hypocrite.

 

And sometimes I’m ashamed to talk about sexuality because it reveals some of my ugly insecurities. I’m not attractive enough. I need a man to affirm that I am handsome and valuable and loveable. Sometimes I wonder if I’m more comfortable with celibacy because I have an excuse to be “just the friend.” I can beat rejection to the punch. And that’s a really lame excuse for such a rigorous and beautiful vocation.

 

Confession is hard. We want people to think we have it all together. We don’t want others to see the dysfunction and the messiness. We want love and respect. Choosing vulnerability can strip us of the friendships we treasure. …But if they’ll stick with you, you will find a way of living that’s abundant, life-sustaining, and healing.

 

~             ~             ~

 

To state the obvious, lust feels great. Our brains reward us with all these lovely feel-good neurotransmitters that keep us coming back again and again. It doesn’t matter that we have our nice, organized biblical sexual ethics. Or that we know nothing good will likely come from another eight minutes of stupidity. Lust is a drug and a darn addictive one at that.

 

Sometimes we don’t want to be accountable because we’re not quite ready to give up the high. We’re hesitant to say no to instant gratification.

 

One of my favorite books on Christian sexuality continues to be Lauren Winner’s Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity. Winner had difficulty embracing the biblical sexual ethic of chastity until marriage after she converted to the Christian faith.

 

There’s this quote I love as Winner describes her progression of thought about scripture and sexuality. She writes about a confessional with an Episcopalian priest:

 

I was there to confess a long litany of sins, not just sexual sins—lies I’d told, ways I’d screwed up friendships, a whole host of mistakes and missteps. Somewhere in the middle of confession I came to the sexual sin, and my confessor said, gently but firmly (which are the two adverbs I believe should apply to Christian rebuke),

 

“Well, Lauren, that’s sin.”¹

 

Sin’s not one of my favorite vocabulary words. It makes me uncomfortable. And that’s the point—it’s a word that reveals I’m not perfect. It reveals my dependency on Christ to make things right. It’s God’s grace working in me to will and do of His good pleasure. I’m not really interested in becoming a Bible Thumper. And maybe that’s my issue with this three letter s-word. I’m accustomed to hearing the harsh judgmentalism from the pulpit. I expect prejudiced, gossipy, and unmerciful remarks from Christians. Sin sounds like a word they would say. It’s Aramaic or Hebrew translation seems foreign on Jesus’s lips.

 

But when I read Winner’s view of confronting sin, I see something a bit different. After all, it was Jesus who said not only to forsake adultery, but also lust. Jesus came to the world to reconcile us to God and emancipate us from the slavery of evil. Sin is a serious problem with the world; it’s a serious problem in my own heart. It’s definitely not a light issue. This freedom that the Messiah purchased for us leads to the restoration of the original creation, and that starts in me as I battle my selfishness with God’s aid. And yes, sometimes we need gentle but firm reminders from good Christian friends when our ways are out of alignment with God’s awesome design for His kingdom.

 

So what is this design that God has crafted for our sexuality? Stephen Long recently published a post that included one of my favorite quotes from James Brownson’s book Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships. It offers amazing insight into this discussion.

 

We cannot say with our bodies what we will not say with the rest of our lives. Bodies are not indifferent, and what we do with our bodies is not indifferent. Sexual union is deeply metaphorical, and when we strip sexual union of the wider metaphorical kinship meaning intended by Genesis 2:24, we cease to live in the ‘real world’ governed by God’s purposes and decrees.²

 

Scripturally, marriage is the only place where God blesses sexual intercourse, though we may differ on how to define marriage. Brownson writes from a perspective that affirms same-sex marriage and critiques gay culture through the lens of scripture. There just isn’t a theological case for promiscuity, and Brownson believes that’s an area that needs to be sanctified through marriage. As gay believers, we can’t just accept everything that gay men do and tack on the label “Christian” to justify our behavior. God’s Word must take preeminence.

 

But if premarital sex is consensual, why does scripture condemn it? Brownson points out that our bodies manifest striking symbolism. Sex is a sacred act—an act of culmination that symbolizes the joining of two separate people as one unit in the work of God’s kingdom.

 

The Apostle Paul writes,

 

“…Do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, ‘The two will become one flesh.’ But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” (1 Corinthians 6:16-20 ESV)

 

As a single Christian man, my body belongs to God. The Spirit dwells in my body as an instrument of grace to minister to others; to be Christ in flesh to my brothers and sisters and continue the work of the incarnation. But when I’m hooking up with some random dude, more stuff is going on than just sex itself. Obviously I can’t minister to this guy when I’m sexually objectifying him and using him for my own pleasure (and vice versa). You can’t seriously and explicitly share the good news of the gospel in a promiscuous lifestyle. And you can’t implicitly live out the gospel either, which is more often my style for sharing Christ.

 

Rather than advancing shalom in the world, I’m resisting it, particularly in my own sanctification. Love is giving and transformative. Lust is destructive and selfish. In both marriage and celibacy we learn to kill our selfish desires and put others before ourselves. Promiscuity promotes destructive self-love that characterizes many marriages in our culture, even in our own churches. You must please me, rather than I am called to serve you. Which sounds like a better way to glorify God with our bodies?

 

~             ~             ~

 lost man

photo courtesy of flickr creative commons, user Vincepal

 

So I suck at this celibacy thing. But it remains my personal conviction for how I should navigate this journey of faith and sexuality. I have friends (gay and straight) who feel the biblical prohibitions against premarital sex are antiquated—and I still love and respect them. I have gay friends who are trying to live out Brownson’s vision of chastity until marriage. They seem to do an impressive job without some or all the support that straight Christians have available. Ultimately I’m not the final judge; that’s between the individual and God. I’ve long given up determining my view on Hell. It joined a long list of other theological subjects that if asked I will politely respond “I don’t know.” I know my calling to love God and my neighbor and that’s hard enough.

 

Christians tend to fuss about Hell more than the emphasis of scripture itself. Sure, you can find plenty of passages about it, I won’t deny that, but sometimes we make it sound like the whole point of Christianity is the avoidance of eternal punishment. We make a big deal about when we got “saved.” But saved to what? Surely there’s a bigger story in the Bible than an escape plan from Hell.

 

There’s one book that I think should be mandatory reading for every Christian. You must read N. T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope. It’s one of the best articulations of the kingdom of God. And it’s one of the best motivations to go to battle with lust day in and day out. Our personal salvation and sanctification is a piece of a greater puzzle. By choosing chastity, I’m choosing life and affirming true love. I’m creating shalom. That’s partly how we make God’s will done on Earth as it is in Heaven.

 

~             ~             ~

 

When I screw up, grace and redemption restores me. Gentle but firm people walk alongside me and encourage me to try again. And courage says to speak when I’d rather hide in my shame.

 

 

Come everyone who thirsts

Come to the waters

and he who has no money

Come buy wine and milk

Without money and without price.

Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread

and your labor for that which does not satisfy?

Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good

and delight yourselves in rich food.

Isaiah 55:1-2

 

Come, love. There is healing here. Your Father is making all things new. You can always begin again.

 

Featured photo by Laura Merchant at Creationswap

 

1. Lauren Winner, Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2005, 13.

2. James V. Brownson, Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2013, 102.