When We Come Out of Our Closets

Man standing in the sunshine

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“Everyone has a closet,” Jamal Lyons croons in the television show Empire as he contemplates whether to reveal his sexual orientation to the world or remain silent to appease his homophobic father who funds his comfortable life. But Jamal’s right; we have our own closets, LGBTQ or straight. We hold our secrets close fearing we’d lose the people who matter most if we told the truth.

 

It’s been a year since I “officially” came out to the world on my blog for National Coming Out Day. Finding the courage to be transparent and vulnerable took a 10-year process of repeated self-disclosures with family and trusted friends as I learned to trust people. There are few things more liberating than sharing pieces of your identity you’ve repressed and buried, discovering you don’t have to hide to avoid hurt and rejection. The only way you’ll truly connect and belong is to take off the mask and risk everything because you are determined to believe there’s grace and redemption for you too in God’s story.

 

I think we should be cautious of appropriating language, imagery, and other unique features of a specific culture. Some Christians take coming out language from the LGBTQ community without thinking of the significance, suggesting that a disclosure of faith in certain situations is just as anxiety-producing and difficult as the teenager harboring shame and fearing that her parents might kick her out of the house if they find out the truth. Unless you’re talking about Christians under real threats like ISIS, we might roll our eyes at you, just sayin’.

 

And yet, we humans have unifying themes that resonate person to person. In a broken world, we all have secrets. We all have a sin nature constantly at war with God’s redeeming work in our lives. If we’re self-aware, we have places in our heart we don’t want to take anyone. Yes, we all have a closet, to borrow that image from the LGBTQ community. We fester and we hurt and we wonder if we’re truly worthy of love and grace.

 

Have you ever had to see a doctor for something that embarrassed you? You put it off, hoping it would go away on its own, but eventually you had to schedule the appointment and let your doctor look at the issue. You brought the distressing matter to the light so you could be healed.

 

God made us for community. Secrets cause us to hold back, to avoid fully participating in our lives with the people who matter. Our secrets disconnect us from each other. We feel ashamed, assuming there’s no way people would still accept us if they knew the conflicts in our stories. But closets have a way of opening whether we’re ready or not—God’s too merciful to let us suffer alone forever. Light finds its way into the darkness.

 

Healing can’t come until you acknowledge or become aware of the problem. Once you’ve identified your demon, you need a community of safe people to journey with you into the darkness. I like how Rachel Held Evans contrasts healing with curing in Searching for Sunday. There probably isn’t a cure for the things that distress us about ourselves, but there is healing. As I’ve walked through same-sex attraction with the people I care about, I’ve seen God sanctify and redeem parts of my sexuality. I’ve moved past shame and fear to embrace life as a Christian who also happens to be gay. This part of my identity that some might call ashes has been transformed into beauty for God’s glory.

 

Not everyone needs to tell their secrets to the world. Honestly, it’s best to keep some things to trusted confidants. But it takes courage to make that first step and come out to someone. Maybe your secrets aren’t as weighty as my same-sex attraction, maybe they are far more broken. Regardless, freedom comes in speaking the truth so others can join you in God’s work of restoration. I can’t promise everyone will respond well, or that your transparency will make life easier—in fact, I promise you the opposite. But I believe God calls you his beloved and he will ensure at least one person in this world will stand by you as you see seek redemption and wholeness. No one is outside God’s grace and there will be people who joyfully reflect his love into your life.

 

So no more hiding. Come out and bask in the warmth of the sun, my friend.

Great Expectations

man nature

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.

 

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.

depressed man

Learning to Pick Ourselves Up

This isn’t the post I wanted to write.

 

We love testimonials of individuals who overcome adversity. But sometimes we don’t overcome. Sometimes we take a leap of faith and we don’t catch the next ledge.

 

Sometimes we fall.

 

I spent the last four years after college avoiding the GRE. The exam slowly became something bigger than my hatred of algebra and geometry. It transformed into an obstacle that I suspected I’d never get over. Maybe the challenge would require more than I could give.

 

It was like time stopped during those four years. Nothing really happened; I slept a lot and worked various jobs. I took random college classes like Shakespeare, Chemistry, and Exercise Physiology trying to find a new career path that didn’t involve LGBTQ issues or anything that might be considered too controversial (English professor, doctor, physical therapist, personal trainer…). I just wanted God to make life clear; to help me find my purpose. At least a purpose that fit snuggly in my comfort zone. But really I was just delaying the tough questions; I avoided conflict; I closed myself off from others, trying to figure out this gay thing alone.

 

My life shifted after reading an insight from Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Cain went to law school and began a successful career as a lawyer on Wall Street. And yet she found herself unsatisfied. She discovered her envy indicated the life she actually yearned to live. Cain didn’t crave opportunities to argue cases before the Supreme Court like some of her colleagues. She discovered she envied two groups of friends: those who had become writers and those who had become psychologists.1 Whoa, me too, Susan…

 

I envied my psychology friends pursuing clinical psychology degrees, becoming instruments of shalom, binding emotional wounds—speaking words of hope and redemption. I envied Gay Christian bloggers ministering to the marginalized through words of vulnerability, building connection and community for the spiritually isolated and outcast. I fell in love with the spiritual memoir genre; I wanted to weave words and universal themes that transcended the topic of sexual orientation—creating words of art from the mundane and ordinary. I envied some of those people too. I wanted to be a combination of all those things.

 

Nearly every Fall I’d tell people I was going to apply to graduate school. And every Fall the GRE represented what I believed I couldn’t do. I’m not smart enough to make a good score. Even if I made a good score, I’d have to make the difficult transition into adulthood. I’d have to speak up, and one excuse led to another. I’m too awkward. I don’t know what to say. I’m a terrible communicator.

 

But something changed this year. Time hadn’t stopped during those years of aimlessness. I was ready to commit to something and give it everything I had, risk everything, and participate in God’s redemptive story. So the idea of this blog came to life. The time had come to open up and find opportunities to manifest courage amid my fears.

 

I’ve learned a lot about failure through that process. This has been a crazy year. I’ve said a lot of stupid things. I’ve struggled too hard for attention. I’ve defined success far too narrowly. I’ve been anxious and depressed. I’ve wanted to give up and never publish another word again.

 

But what then?

 

I come alive when I write. I come alive when people tell me their stories. My passions reveal a deeper design crafted by my Heavenly Father. How can I walk away from that?

 

I’ve spent four years fearing I would fail the GRE. And my fear came true last week. But so what? I’m still alive, still just as beloved by my Savior and Creator. I’m still loved by friends and family.

 

I can try again.

 

Through failure I learn. It strengthens my resolve to fight for my life. I’m not going to give up on my passions and my calling. If mathematics is the obstacle standing in my way, then so be it. I’ll work harder this next month. And now that I’ve taken the real thing, it’s not so intimidating. The GRE is nothing more than a test. There’s no wizard behind the curtain, no monster underneath the bed. I’m not afraid.

 

“Why do we fall?” Thomas Wayne asks a young Bruce. It’s a question that recurs throughout Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. Alfred later echoes the question as everything burns around them. The conclusion remains the same.

 

So we can learn to pick ourselves up.

 

And with God’s grace, we can.

 

/ / /

 

Photo courtesy of Doug Shelton at Creationswap

 

  1. Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. New York: Crown Publishers, 2012, 218-219.
pencils

Hiatus

I don’t know about you, but this year is rushing by for me. I’m beginning to enter the stage of graduate school applications and GRE studying. I loathe this part of the process, but it’s a necessary one to move forward. I’m eagerly anticipating the freedom to come out publicly in graduate school and then work through the challenge of balancing academics and building community along with blogging.

 

But for now it’s time to take a break.

 

…At least until I take the GRE exam September 13th. I haven’t had a math class since 2006 so I need to reopen some of those neural pathways again, and that means hours upon hours of studying. Guess who’s not excited about that? …Yeah

 

But before I say goodbye, I wanted to share a little with you about this blogging experience.

 

I’m insecure. That’s no surprise if you’ve read my posts or known me for years. I’m not the guy who has it all together. I’ve honestly taken many unannounced “mini-breaks” from the blog because I couldn’t deal with the pressure. I’ve had days when I felt everything I’ve written was crap. I’ve wanted to quit and go back to hiding where no one could see me and my brokenness.

 

I want to be loved and respected. I want people to think I’m a cool guy. But you can’t effectively minister to others with that mindset. And as much as I try to combat my people-pleaser disposition, it’s always there. Good art incorporates our brokenness and insecurity. We resist sentimental art that lacks some sense of realism–a good story must have its conflict to capture our attention. There is always tension within living. Bad motives taint our good deeds; all our righteous acts are filthy rags before a Holy God. But our Holy God purifies and repairs filthy, torn rags and uses them to clean up a messy world nonetheless.

 

I’ve learned that I’m just a messenger. My story points others to Christ, not to me. I’m freely admitting to the world that I’m a screw-up. I don’t have all the answers. But this Jesus I serve is saving me now. He’s sanctifying and liberating me from my self-destructive behaviors, thoughts, and beliefs. This blog is so much bigger than me. And when I don’t feel attractive enough, or smart enough, or funny enough, or articulate enough, I’m finding that’s okay. I don’t need all those things to love you or to love Jesus. I create all these expectations for being a “Good Gay Christian Blogger.” But there is no standard. I can just be me; flawed, wounded, but in love with God’s people. If you resonate with my story, great. If you don’t, that’s fine too. God will lead you to another story that will touch your heart and minister to your needs. That’s what makes this community of writers so amazing. We’re working together to glorify God and help others through our stories. We’re not against each other competing for attention and readers (those kind of blogs won’t survive). I’m not an outsider in this little niche of the blogging world. I have value even if many of the writers I love don’t know I exist. I’m just filling my God-given role, however big or small. And that matters.

 

I don’t have to push a brand day in and day out. I don’t have to clamor to be seen and respected. I can rest and embrace silence some days. I can live beyond the weariness of Facebook likes and page views—because my worth isn’t defined by them. Fame is an empty pursuit. I will never be satisfied with the amount of readers who visit my blog. There will always be some cool person I want to befriend who won’t have time for me. But I’m learning to always have an open heart and do what God calls me to do. Rest in His provision; be content. But also love and take risks within the rest Christ has provided.

 

I wrote my last post about my struggle to pursue celibacy basically on a whim. I published it not knowing if I was making a stupid mistake. It connected with a lot of people, gay and straight. More people read it than any other post I’ve written so far. And then Stephen Long republished it Thursday on his blog Sacred Tension. Crazy. But life remains pretty normal. I’ve learned to direct the praise to God. Just when I think I’m a pretty cool guy, I’m quickly reminded Um, no you’re not, Seth. I’m just a gay dude who loves Jesus and writes about it. The cool thing is watching God work in my life.

 

So I hope you’ll return in September. I have some exciting projects coming up and blog post ideas I’m eager to write when the GRE isn’t sucking away my time. If you’re forgetful like me, feel free to subscribe to the blog.

 

Thank you for taking this journey with me so far. It has broken me many times over the months, but I am a better Christian for processing my pain and loneliness with you, and my transparency and vulnerability are opening doors to real community. I’m so grateful for my friends and family who read this blog to better know and love me, and I’m thankful for all the new people I’m meeting and befriending through my story.

 

Until September,

 

Shalom.

 

photo courtesy of flickr creative commons, user smoorenburg

running away

Learning to Belong

We are designed to belong, to reflect the community found within the Trinity. But community takes work. It requires patience and fortitude to keep giving when we feel we receive so little in return. When we enter community we bring our insecurities, wounded hearts, and unmet desires.

 

Finding home isn’t easy.

 

I’ve hesitantly searched for safe people to become my community. I’ve spent even more time running away from opportunities. Vulnerability requires great risk. I admire a lot of the Christian friends and acquaintances I’ve made over the years, and let’s face it. I like to be liked and I worry about rejection. I fear that most Christians wouldn’t understand (and don’t want to understand) my experience as a gay man in the body of Christ.

 

I’m perpetually stuck in a revolving door, connecting but then running when it looks like I may get hurt.

 

I refused to let anyone in. I feared if I opened the door, it would slam back in my face. So I learned the art of loneliness. A line from a song in The Phantom of the Opera aptly described my youth, “Never dreamed out in the world / There are arms to hold you / You’ve always known / Your heart was on its own.” So I walked through life as a loner not really expecting to be loved. It ensured safety because no one could hurt me. But no one could know me either. I was just a guy in the background without anything to say.

 

God said it wasn’t good for man to be alone. As a loner, I withered in anxiety and depression, hating the façade I wore. But I still liked people; I liked listening to them talk and I couldn’t help opening the door occasionally throughout life. Usually, I’d become paranoid or get hurt, and then would slam the door. I’d get upset and beat myself up for being stupid and oh you know, hoping someone would notice my existence and like what they saw. I can handle this by myself. Get it together, man. If I had seen Frozen back then, I would have been telling myself, Conceal, don’t feel. Yeah, sorry about that.

 

Despite all my attempts to hide, my heart refused to stay held in the dungeon of its captivity. I placed it there to keep it safe. It just wouldn’t stay put. My heart would sneak out when I wasn’t looking, when I was just trying to mind my own business. Suddenly I would have a crush out of nowhere or simply a desire to connect to someone I couldn’t help but find fascinating. And maybe I’d indulge my heart one more time, but then I’d usually freak out, and my heart would go back to the dungeon. I told it that love doesn’t work for people like us.

 

It didn’t listen. Silly heart.

 

And then one day in introductory psychology, it decided enough was enough.

 

It’s time, Seth.

 

“Whoa, time for what?”

 

Time to tell someone the truth.

 

“Heck no! There’s no going back if I do that! They’ll think I’m some sort of monster!”

 

But you’ll be free. Maybe you won’t have to carry this alone anymore.

 

So I told a friend. Then my pastor. Then my psychology instructor. Then my parents and siblings. And so I began my ex-gay journey (that’s a story for another day). I had taken a sledge hammer to the walls around my heart and made the first real attempt to tear them down.

 

~          ~          ~

 

We tell Christian testimonies in two parts. On one hand, you have the broken, messed up, miserable excuse for a life. But you can’t have a Christian testimony without an amazing transformation finale. The Christian proclaims how God brought freedom from sin and sorrow and now everything appears happy, rosy and perfect. Ain’t God great, y’all?! Well, that’s not real life. Beauty forms from struggle and suffering. The Christian life isn’t an easy one. We frustrate our brothers and sisters by whitewashing the difficulty that comes after committing our lives to Christ. No one, Christian or nonchristian, receives the “get out of jail free” card when it comes to trouble and problems. God promises to walk with us and work in us through the suffering to gradually transform us into Christ’s likeness.

 

When I hear coming out stories from other gay Christians, I feel a little torn. Sometimes they can feel like those cheesy, unrealistic Christian testimonies. Just come out and you will feel fantabulous. Goodbye, miserable closet life. Now, I don’t regret coming out to the extent I have so far. But gay Christians can feel pressured to gloss over the tough stuff we still face. We can trade one mask for another just like the broader Christian culture.

 

As I came out to friends and family and began processing my sexuality, I would feel frustrated and a little depressed reading Christian coming out stories. It seemed like opening up had solved all their problems. But I was still insecure. I was still a little socially awkward. And I still felt very broken. In a lot of ways, I was still basically a loner afraid of meaningful, intimate friendships.

 

Coming out didn’t fix any of that.

 

When you spend so much of your life stifling emotions, walling up your heart, and avoiding friendships to keep a secret hidden, there will be repercussions. Psychologists call it learned helplessness. You shock a dog so many times without a way out, eventually when an escape from the pain appears, the door opens, the dog will just lie there and whimper. He has accepted the pain and no longer believes in freedom though the opportunity stands right in front of him.

 

Coming out is an important step, but it’s just the first step on a long, winding road. Some of my lowest days came after opening up about my sexuality to friends and family. I’ve had major depression and anxiety since starting this blog. But through the process of self-disclosure you learn resilience. You fall down, and you get back up. You find you’re tougher than you think. You learn to lean on Christ for the strength to get through the current moment.

 

But falling down still hurts. My former pastor used to say that people are like porcupines trying to snuggle up. Inevitably we’re going to poke each other. Relationships hurt sometimes. Pain is part of life. No matter how much we try to medicate it, hide from it, or delay it, pain exists. Is love worth it?

 

C. S. Lewis wrote,

 

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in the casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.”1

 

There’s no easy way to become part of a community. It’s awkward. You make mistakes—sometimes embarrassing, bad mistakes. Tension always exists between safety and risk. Lean into the risk; let it burn as the flames of vulnerability engulfs the dross of your fears and insecurities. You won’t be the same, but you will be something better; someone stronger. You will be a person loved by a community in this world. It may take some time and heartache before you find it, but I believe God provides tangible reminders of His affection if we’ll seek them.

 

When I focus so much attention on my own heart and self-worth, I reveal something far more complicated and broken about myself. I’m self-centered. When I’m only worried about myself, I don’t see the situation going on around me. John Ortberg describes it as living in an antique shop:

 

“Every day you and I walk through God’s shop. Every day we brush up against objects of incalculable worth to him. People. Every one of them carries a price tag, if only we could see it. Lepers and AIDS patients, children and gray panthers, the wise and the foolish, saints and prostitutes: Worth the life of my Son, the price tag says. Will you respect the value of those you touch? Are you willing to pay the price? When you reach out to the untouchables in your world, you are signing up for pain. Love means disappointment and heartache.”2

 

Love does involve risk and occasionally it wounds our souls through the journey of life, but as C. S. Lewis pointed out, to escape the pain and loss we must abandon living and embrace Hell. To experience Heaven on Earth, we must accept that the good, beautiful moments are but a taste of what’s to come. The bitter, broken pieces also point to the truth that we’re made for a better world that’s not here yet. And in the process of shalom, the Hebrew word for prospering and peace, we’re ever making the Lord’s Prayer a reality; where the Lord’s will is done in Earth as it is in Heaven. As the Kingdom of God expands throughout history, it culminates with the return of Christ after all enemies have been placed under His feet, the last enemy being death.

 

God’s kingdom expands as we push past our insecurities and self-centeredness and jump enthusiastically into community. Redemption and restoration comes through intimate, close friendships. As we build flourishing communities of love where evil is vanquished and the captives are set free, we live out the Lord’s Prayer.

 

John Ortberg continues his antique shop illustration:

 

“…God’s shop is full of signs that say please touch. We may not want to. We are afraid or shy or busy. But it is only when people are touched in their brokenness that healing comes.”3

 

The Church, in my opinion, is the fulfillment of Revelations 22. Scripture says there are trees that produce leaves for the healing of the nations. I believe this describes the church’s work now. As we touch the lives of those around us, healing occurs and the kingdom advances. This should motivate me to love others without regard to risk and pain. This is why I should share my story with the world. Healing comes when we feel free to be vulnerable and transparent, knowing our community accepts and loves us, and values our contribution to the work of the kingdom. This is our vocation, no matter who we are or what we do. We all have a role to play in God’s redemptive narrative. And as I participate in shalom, I find a home.

 

This loner is ever learning to belong.

 

1. C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves. Glasgow: William Collins, 1960, 111.

2. John Ortberg, Love Beyond Reason. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998, 57

3. Ibid.

 

photo courtesy of flickr creative commons, user *Passenger*

heart on sleeve

Hiding Behind a Label

photo courtesy of flickr creative commons, user Scott Garner

 

I can be a little needy. There’s a little boy in my soul that screams “Love me! See me! Don’t leave me!” I tend to look for validation from others rather than listening to myself, or more importantly, God. I sometimes feel like I missed out on something as a home school kid growing up in a church with only older people. If I’m honest, I feel very uncool. I’m quiet and slightly awkward. I depend a lot on my gay identity, especially how it interacts with my religious faith. It defines me. My sexual orientation pinpoints my differences from other people. It gives me purpose; it helps define a core aspect of my personhood. But my world is shrinking. I’m no longer the only gay Christian person I know. I’m not all that different.

Last month The Gay Christian Network held its yearly conference in Chicago¹. A lot of gay Christians I knew were there. I told a couple of folks I was so jealous. It would have been incredible to meet a lot of the people I respect and follow in person. But I wasn’t entirely honest either. The idea of going to the conference scared me. I had a lot of obvious excuses why I couldn’t go (and they will probably not change next year for Portland—sorry guys), but nonetheless, I did not want to be there. I feared an identity crisis. The thing that defined me in Alabama would become suddenly meaningless among hundreds of gay Christians in Chicago.

rhe dwebb

GCN Conference

When I come out to compassionate and open-minded straight Christians, there is curiosity. People may see me as brave, interesting, and well, cool. Kyle Donn, a Christian blogger, refers to this as “Sexy Christianity,” radical faith that can be glorifying to God, but can just as easily be a way to promote ourselves. Donn writes, “This kind of Christianity is dangerously cool. And that’s the thing… It’s dangerous. Here and there, it’s spot on; but my fear is that it flirts with the edge and settles for the empty satisfaction of a cultural ego-trip –- thirsty to hear cool people say: ‘Wow! You’re doing great things for God!’” As I processed by thoughts for preparing and launching this blog, I realized I had made an idol out of my sexual identity. I wear my heart on my sleeve, and I was trying to cover it up with an edgy label. Being gay was my ticket to the attention and validation I crave.

If I went to the GCN conference, that would mean leveling out the playing field. I didn’t want to be around gay people who naturally exude confidence and coolness that just doesn’t come naturally for me. I didn’t want to enter a new world of cliques, striving to get the “cool kids’” attention. What a Christian attitude, right? I envisioned looking into a storefront window, seeing all the amazing activity inside and feeling unable to participate–wishing desperately I was back in Alabama instead of freezing in Chicago.

If my identity centers on me, on this silly pedestal I’ve formed in my mind, it will fall over. If you didn’t notice earlier, I’m a broken guy. I’m gradually coming out publicly to encourage people (gay and straight) to live without masks. If my focus centers on pleasing others to maintain the applause, then I will only trade one façade for another. I’m going to screw up. But failure is part of growing, and abundant grace flourishes despite my clumsy attempts of reflecting God’s love.

I was reminded in a phone conversation recently with another gay Christian blogger that it’s ok to recognize my own need for love and validation. I tend to vilify this yearning, fearing I won’t be able to tame it. But a balance can be found somewhere between my unhealthy neediness and isolationist individualism (the very American mindset that I can deal with my problems by myself). One person cannot meet all my needs. Husbands and wives who place all their chips on a spouse for their joy and contentment in life will be severely disappointed. We are designed to thrive in a rich, diverse community, not an isolated family unit.

My concern about the conference makes me laugh now. On the one hand, I’ve had gay friends for a number of years since graduating from Bryan College. While our shared experience as sexual minorities originally drew us together, it is far from the only dynamic that makes our friendships work. One gay Christian friend in particular has been a dear brother to me for several years though we’ve only met once in person. He’s been my rock through many emotional and spiritual struggles. I don’t feel pressured to be anything but who I am when we interact. Certainly not some kind of perfect super-gay-Christian.

Wherever this blogs leads. I hope that feeling will continue to be my framework of ministry. No mask, just Seth–but at the same time I don’t want to lose myself in a black hole of self-obsession. I don’t have to prove anything to anyone. If there are people I feel drawn to befriend but they don’t reciprocate my interest in friendship and/or connection, that’s fine. God will provide for my emotional needs. If I’m seen as cool for ministering to LGBTs as an openly gay Christian man myself, great. More props to God. If people ignore or hate me for what I have to say, then this is still worth doing. The truly cool people in this world are the ones who seek to humble their hearts, slay their pride, and love without worry of how they’re perceived by their peers. That’s the kind of man I want to be.

 

1. The Gay Christian Network promotion pictures taken from HeyoDavo