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/

man praying

Giving Thanks for Celibacy?

I never imagined I would become a celibate. I grew up in the Primitive Baptist faith, and we didn’t talk about singleness that much. We gossiped plenty about relationships though, and most of my acquaintances in our tiny denomination married early. Like other denominations, we esteemed marriage as the place where life naturally transitioned and progressed. Singleness was just a temporary season of life preparing young Christians for the challenges of matrimony. If we ever mentioned celibacy, it was to joke at its strangeness; normal people didn’t remain single.

 

But I’m not a normal guy.

 

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve wanted normalcy. I have moments pumping iron in the gym or worshipping alone in the back row of church wondering how this all happened to me. How does a boy baptized at age six, homeschooled in a good Christian family, become a gay man? It sounds ridiculous.

 

Sometimes life feels like a game of poker, and I was bitter for the hand of cards God gave me.

 

Gratitude doesn’t come easily for me. I’m like one of the rebellious Israelites in the wilderness—complaining and untrusting of God’s goodness and provision. I’ve seen my sexual orientation as a curse, blaming it for all my issues. If I were straight, I would be a strong man—confident, attractive, and eloquent. But I’m not that man; I’m a boy, scared and awkward. “Be thankful in all things?” Seriously?

 

I recently read Ann Voskamp’s book One Thousand Gifts. Voskamp celebrates thanksgiving, or eucharisteo, the Greek word she uses throughout the book. It all starts with a simple Greek study. The Greek word for joy is chara and it’s found right in the middle of eucharisteo; joy literally within thanksgiving.

 

Ann Voskamp One Thousand Gifts

 

So then as long as thanks is possible … I think this through. As long as thanks is possible, then joy is always possible. Joy is always possible. Whenever, meaning—now; wherever, meaning—here. The holy grail of joy is not in some exotic location or some emotional mountain peak experience. The joy wonder could be here! Here, in the messy, piercing ache of now, joy might be—unbelievably—possible! The only place we need see before we die is this place of seeing God, here and now.”1

 

Can I find joy in a sex-saturated culture as a celibate gay man? What about joy in a marriage-worshipping church? Voskamp’s message reveals a liberating truth: Yes. There’s joy to be found here if you’ll only look. Joy is not reserved for the heterosexual, but remains available as long as I choose to give thanks.

 

But an internal change of attitude isn’t enough. I could choose to remain an unknown and invisible seat-filler in church, all the while telling myself I’m thankful and content. But that’s not contentment, it’s complacency. Thanksgiving doesn’t force me to accept things I have the power to change in my life. That’s fear. God compels me to take risks to live anything but a safe life. As I learn to count my blessings I should begin looking outward towards others. Voskamp writes that we “become the blessing,”

 

Eucharisteo is giving thanks for grace. But in the breaking and giving of bread, in the washing of feet, Jesus makes it clear that eucharisteo is, yes, more: it is giving grace away. Eucharisteo is the hand that opens to receive grace, then, with thanks, breaks the bread; that moves out into the larger circle of life and washes the feet of the world with that grace. Without the breaking and giving, without the washing of feet, eucharisteo isn’t complete. The Communion service is only complete in service. Communion, by necessity, always leads us into community.”2

 

A simple Christian sacrament reveals how we live in the church and God’s kingdom. In the Primitive Baptist denomination, we include foot washing in our communion services. It can feel pretty awkward to literally humble yourself before another Christian to wash his or her feet, but there’s something moving about the gesture too. It represents how I want to live out my faith. This posture of grace and humility inspires courage to be a blessing to others. Grace calls me participate in the work of redemption and I cannot remain silent to God’s work and the cries of the oppressed. I can say with Jeremiah,

“There is in my heart as it were a burning fire

shut up in my bones,

and I am weary with holding it in,

and I cannot (Jeremiah 20:9).”

 

Eve Tushnet wrote, “You can’t have a vocation of No.” It’s not enough for the conservative church to tell gay Christians that marriage is defined as one man and one woman. It’s not even enough for the church to exhort its congregants to “be nice to the gays out there in the world.” Many of us queer folks who hold the same traditional convictions on sexuality aren’t going to make your life comfortable by entering heterosexual marriage and pretending we’re just like you. …And many in mixed-orientation marriages are speaking up too. As a demographic of the church, we have unique spiritual and emotional needs. The church shouldn’t cultivate a thriving environment for the majority to the detriment of its outliers. The church has a responsibility to know the heartbeat of the congregation, to know if life-giving blood is circulating to all members of the body. The church needs to creatively find ways to make the church a home for all its members. There’s plenty of work to be done; there’s prejudices, privileges, and sins to be mortified and surrendered to God as a corporate body. Matt Jones wrote, “Unless a community is seriously modeling a commitment to hospitality and grace for all stages of life, its sexual ethic, no matter how ‘orthodox’ it may sound, will never seem viable or good in any meaningful way. This imaginative failure is also a moral failure, with churches leaving their gay members with little to no ability to actually live–or God forbid thrive– within the rich tradition of church teaching.” Thanksgiving partly fills the gap between how things are and what we hope the church will become. Community requires grace, or charis, the root word for eucharisteo. Sexual minorities need to exhibit forgiveness, mercy, and patience with straight Christians. The church as a whole needs to learn the ability to listen with humility and empathy.

 

It’s here, within my experience as a gay man and my convictions as a traditional evangelical Christian, where I find the most difficulty expressing gratitude. This path means no spouse and no awesome, hot sex (not gonna lie, that’s a bummer).  The traditional sexual ethic is costly, an aspect of Christianity we’ve forgotten in Western Civilization. Historically, Christians have suffered great sacrifices for their faith and convictions, some choosing even to die rather than to renounce their relationship with Jesus. And sometimes I can feel bitter. Why do I have play super-Christian, while other evangelicals analyze my faith and determine if I have a right to sit at the table? Why do I have to hurt this deeply and this much? When I apply Voskamp’s model of eucharisteo to my situation as gay and evangelical, I find another perspective.

 

“The act of sacrificing thank offerings to God—even for the bread and cup of cost, for cancer and crucifixion—this prepares the way for God to show us His fullest salvation from bitter, angry, resentful lives and from all sin that estranges us from Him. At the Eucharist, Christ breaks His heart to heal ours—Christ, the complete accomplishment of our salvation. And the miracle of eucharisteo never ends: thanksgiving—giving thanks in everything—is what prepares the way for salvation’s whole restoration. Our salvation in Christ is real, yet the completeness of that salvation is not fully realized in a life until the life realizes the need to give thanks.”3

 

I can’t speak for other Christian sexual minorities, just for myself. Ingratitude closes off my ability to connect to my Heavenly Father. My bitterness closes off possibilities to experience abundant life and the good gifts God gives His children. I have experienced legitimate grief through the process of accepting the traditional sexual ethic. It’s led to the death of hopes and dreams of a husband and family I wanted. It was a grief I couldn’t ignore and couldn’t suppress. While I’m always open to God’s Spirit and where the truth leads, I’m learning to find a place here in the evangelical church. At some point you have to move on, at some point you have to heal. I’m back where I began, but from a completely different perspective.

 

The gospel radically shifts how we approach sexuality, whether we affirm gay relationships or not. God calls us to kill lust and self-centeredness that characterizes sexual desire. God’s message of sexuality is countercultural—it’s not about me, it’s about the love I give to another. Celibacy extends that belief. Rather than an abandonment of love, celibacy is a lifetime, a calling to love. I’m learning to give myself in intimate friendships to diverse people: Christians and nonchristians, the gay relationship affirming and the traditional, non-affirming. I’m a firm believer that God will provide for my emotional needs as long as I have the bravery to reach out.

 

Celibacy feels like an experiment, but one I can’t really fail. My life’s purpose is to know Christ. Regardless of marriage or singleness, no one can exclude me from that pursuit. “What makes the gospel offensive isn’t who it keeps out but who it lets in,” Rachel Held Evans proclaimed at this year’s Gay Christian Network Conference. The gospel reaches all kinds of people with all kinds of convictions. Conservatives and liberals, Caucasians and ethnic minorities, Side A and Side B. It even lets in quiet, awkward gay guys like me.

 

If you asked me to choose one book the most radically shifted my perspective this year, I would point you to Ann Voskamp. She challenged me to live fully right where I currently find myself. I’m challenged not to live in complacency, but in thanksgiving and joy for the opportunities and relationships I currently have. I’m not waiting for my life to begin—it’s happening right here, right now.

 

And it’s glorious.

 

/ / /

 

  1. Ann Voskamp, One Thousand Gifts. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010, 33.
  2. Ibid, 192-193.
  3. Ibid, 40.

Featured photo courtesy of Jeremy Binns at CreationSwap.

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