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.