The Cost of an Authentic Life

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I still remember the first time a group of frat guys called me a faggot. I had just graduated from Bryan College and I was working that summer in Tennessee. One particular weekend I hung out at a park in Chattanooga with one of the first gay men I’d ever met. I wore a tank top and shorts to endure the humid Tennessean air. We walked around for at least an hour as I asked questions about what it meant to be gay and how the other guy had accepted his sexuality. As we wrapped up the conversation at his car, one of the frat guys yelled from across the parking lot, “Hey, faggots!” They continued to hurl one obscene remark after another, and then they finally laughed and walked away towards the park. I felt gross and exposed, ashamed that I didn’t have manly muscles or that I hadn’t worn a t-shirt or something less…gay. I projected a little of that internalized homophobia by abruptly leaving the other guy at his car and ignoring his calls and texts afterwards.

 

I was afraid.

 

We all tend to operate under invincibility complexes that shield us from the truth that we’re finite and fragile. We’re aware of death, but that’s a foggy idea somewhere in the future. Premature fatalities happen to other people, not us. But we all have moments when the veil lifts and we see our mortality. Six years ago I saw antigay hate expressed in real life and directed towards me. I saw how one aspect of my personhood could be devalued and dehumanized. I wasn’t as invisible as I had hoped, and it was a terrifying realization.

 

I felt that same sickening fear today as I read the updates on the shooting in Orlando where fifty people were killed and fifty-three more were injured. People had been out celebrating Pride Month in a club intended to be a safe shelter from homophobia and hatred, not knowing they would become casualties in our nation’s deadliest mass shooting.

 

Oh yes, the veil has been lifted.

 

There is something truly brave about living an authentic life. Brave not just because one may lose a career, hopes and dreams, and the love and support of friends and family, all of which can destroy a person’s soul. But as last night demonstrated, the bravery of living an authentic life may require an additional steep sacrifice: when people hate a part of your identity so much that they come to believe the world is a better place without you in it. ….And they act on that conviction.

 

If I had to guess, the moment I came out publicly increased my probability of being murdered in a hate crime. It’s a risk sexual and gender minorities take to make their true selves known so they can be loved unconditionally. I have heard countless stories of my friends being harassed in public as they went about life with their significant others. As a blogger, I’ve personally seen the obsessive hatred of Internet trolls who wouldn’t leave me alone, and I’ve heard worse stories from other fellow bloggers. When you risk showing a little vulnerability to the world, there will always be people who despise your unique humanity and desire to crush your spirit.

 

As I was preparing to reveal my identity on this blog awhile back, I had lunch with one of my best friends. We discussed the pros and cons of coming out publicly, and I admitted to him that this choice could result in my death by some crazy homophobe. I compared it to living transparently as a Christian in a country fueled with antichristian hatred. If God called me to live in the light so others could be helped and saved, the result could be a martyr’s death.

 

“Would it be the same thing to die as a martyr as a gay man as it would be as a Christian?” he asked.

 

I paused to think.

 

“If I can show LGBTQ people the love of Christ, I believe so.”

 

It’s a scary existence living as a minority. We live in an evil, broken world and we feel like we’re thrown into a perpetual cycle of suffering. When does it get better? Where is hope in all the darkness? My faith tells me God is working to restore all things, but so often I can’t see this process of shalom occurring in my life. Most days I’m barely standing on God’s promise. But by faith I believe I have the unique opportunity to contribute my life—my body, soul, and spirit—to God’s mission to save his creation. My voice can bring a little more life to a dying world, a little more light to extinguish the darkness. This evil world may consume me, but I am part of something larger than my individual life. I know how this story ends.

 

But tonight my heart breaks for the victims in Orlando and their families. My heart breaks for the LGBTQ community as we experience emotions of fear, anger, grief, confusion, and numbness as we realize how much hatred is still directed towards our existence and just how fragile our lives are. Yet through this pain I must believe this life is too precious and too short to be spent on safety. Safety means silence, isolation, and living without love because no one can know us. The world becomes a better place when we all risk living transparent lives. Baring our souls to one another may cost us everything, but I believe the gamble is worth all the moments of meaning, beauty, and connection with the people I love and those who I hope to spend my life serving.

 

All the homophobes in the world can’t take that from us.

When You Feel Oppressed by My Faith: A Love Letter

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

 

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

 

“I get it, man,” I told him.

 

~          ~          ~

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

When We Come Out of Our Closets

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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.

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.

When the Church Makes Room for Minorities

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Church looked very white growing up in the Primitive Baptist denomination, but in preschool my best friend was a little black girl. We played with dolls, had tea parties with teddy bears, and imagined all kinds of adventures on the playground. I don’t think I thought of race and ethnicity much as a child; my friend was just another kid like me. A few years later my family had moved to a different part of Alabama and a black family visited my childhood church one Sunday. The black family sat in the back row while several church members looked over their shoulders as if to say, “What are you doing here?” My face reddened with shame and anger. The family never came back.

 

I discovered what racism looked like in my own church.

 

My family eventually moved to a different Primitive Baptist church where I came to see the church’s calling to demonstrate a countercultural love—a fierce love that tears down dividing walls and brings together radically different people to the table to break bread. Yet for so many of our American churches, we don’t see the rich diversity scripture models. Many are quick to shrug their shoulders and accept the status quo. Racial minorities, for example, are welcomed to attend our services, but the church isn’t going to change anything to create a more welcoming environment for them. We place the larger burden on the minority to assimilate to our community, rather than making ourselves uncomfortable to learn from Christians who are different from us.

 

When we choose to insulate ourselves with the familiar, Christena Cleveland says we’re failing to emulate Christ and we’re setting ourselves up for conflict:

 

People can meet God within their cultural context but in order to follow God, they must cross into other cultures because that’s what Jesus did in the incarnation and on the cross. Discipleship is crosscultural. When we meet Jesus around people who are just like us and then continue to follow Jesus with people who are just like us, we stifle our growth in Christ and open ourselves up to a world of division. However, when we’re rubbing elbows in Christian fellowship with people who are different from us, we can learn from each other and grow more like Christ. Like iron sharpens iron.1

 

I can’t begin to grasp what it must be like to be a racial minority, especially what it’s like to be a young black man. I’m prone to anxiety, but I suspect what I feel when a police officer pulls me over doesn’t compare to the apprehension a black Christian man experiences. Yet as a celibate gay Christian, I can resonate with feeling out of place and misunderstood. I can go under the radar if I work hard enough to disguise my voice and mannerisms and pretend to like manlier things, but I can’t fool God or myself. I understand what it feels like to be different, even if I’m the only one who knows it.

 

Unlike many LGBTQ Christians, my church experience since coming out has been positive. For small town Alabama, that’s pretty impressive. However, conservative churches still have a long way to go before their congregations will feel like home for sexual and gender minorities. That assimilation mindset still divides us: we’ll take you if you like the way we do business, but if we can’t meet your needs, you need to find another church home. But what if no church in your community takes the initiative to reach out and create a safe environment for LGBTQs to come to Christ and thrive?

 

Even if we strive to make our churches more welcoming to diversity, Christena Cleveland warns we can still unintentionally signal how unwelcomed Christian minorities are in our congregations:

 

Many people of color who attend predominantly white churches and Christian colleges and seminaries talk about feeling explicitly welcomed by the majority group but implicitly excluded and disempowered. On the surface (and for the most part), members of the well-intentioned white majority are really, really nice to them. People of color are greeted warmly in the hallways, on the bike path and in the pews. They are explicitly told that they are welcome at the church or school. They are even invited into the homes of colleagues, classmates, and fellow church members. However, despite these welcoming individual actions, people of color often report that their experience at these Christian organizations is marked by feelings of disempowerment, loneliness, marginalization, exclusion and misunderstanding. This response both befuddles and discourages the well-intentioned white people and leads people of color to experience a seemingly unshakeable feeling of what [Miroslav] Volf calls ‘psychological homelessness.’ They feel out of place, on the edge of the circle, disconnected from the life-giving heartbeat of the community.2

 

As a gay man, I can walk into nearly any church and be greeted with warm smiles, firm handshakes, and casual conversation. That’s not difficult. But most churches are structured in a way that automatically marginalizes me: they cater to married parents through sermon illustrations and series, church events, Sunday school classes and/or small groups geared to stages of life. When gay people are discussed, we’re usually reduced to political issues threatening religious freedom. We’re repeatedly told what we cannot do, but churches use little imagination to envision a vocation and purpose with sexual and gender minorities. Sure, it’s nice for individual Christians to notice my existence, but that’s not enough. Inclusion needs to be holistic. Christena continues:

 

A focus on explicit, individual actions can lead people in the majority group to ignore the implicit, collective actions that communicate to people of color that they are not at all welcome and they are not equal members of the group. Even though these actions often go unnoticed by the majority group, they ring loud and clear to people of color.3

 

One systemic issue I’ve noticed is the church’s negligence to affirm minority lives and talk about topics like racial reconciliation and sexual and gender identity from a pastoral, rather than a political, perspective. The privileged have the luxury to say nothing, to avoid tension and controversy. Straight Christians can pretend gay people like me aren’t already in their pews; white Christians can ignore the racism that still lingers in our congregations in subtle forms. The majority has the freedom to overlook minority needs by upholding a one-size-fits-all policy, leaving many marginalized. We want church to be easy and comfortable, but Christ never promised a church without challenges. He calls the privileged to share the kingdom—to listen, to empower, to grow and thrive together in our diversity.

 

So how does the church majority help minorities to belong? Christena introduces a fascinating concept from Nancy Schlossburg: a continuum of mattering vs. marginality.3 Schlossburg believes five elements must be in place for minorities to feel included and empowered in a majority culture. If any of these factors are missing, outsiders will feel marginalized:

 

Identification Feeling that other people will be proud of your accomplishments or saddened by your failures
Attention Feeling that you command the sincere attention or interest of people in the group
Importance Believing that another person cares about what you want, think and do, or is concerned about your fate
Appreciation A feeling of being highly regarded and acknowledged by others
Dependence Feeling integrated in the community such that your behaviors/actions are based on how others depend on you

 

This shouldn’t be all that surprising or difficult to grasp. We’re humans with universal needs and experiences that unite us as image bearers of God. We all want to be part of a community. Perhaps when all Schlossburg’s pieces are in place we can uncover another important factor: safety. When we create tolerant, open-minded, and compassionate communities, we provide sanctuaries for the weary and outcast to talk, rest and grow. The Apostle John says perfect love casts out fear: fear of differences, fear of losing power and influence, and fear of change. In order to love God, we must love our brothers and sisters. There is no “us vs. them,” just one messy, broken, and beautiful family in need of the same Savior.

 

I may be the only gay celibate in my church, but I am not the only gay person in my community. If the church genuinely wants to help people like me, Christians must rise above the culture war and begin talking with gay people as God’s beloved rather than at gay people as enemies to religious freedom. We must begin meeting people where they are and meeting needs rather than winning arguments. If you believe same-sex marriage is wrong, create an environment for gay celibates and gays in mixed orientation marriages to thrive in your church, while welcoming gay couples and their children with respect, love and grace amid your disagreements. Don’t ignore our existence; make it known that your church is a safe and gracious place for people to talk about anything, including same-sex attraction or gender dysphoria without shame or condemnation. Let your church know that all minorities are valued for the unique perspective and gifts they can contribute to the life of your church community.

 

Christena Cleveland’s Disunity in Christ has taught me so much about racial reconciliation and the needs of ethnic minorities. But I’ve also found as I listen to people of color like Christena, I better understand myself as a sexual minority. Jesus prayed that the church would be one so the world would know God had sent him. The church body has different theological beliefs, different cultural practices and different backgrounds, but we’re still one church and we have so much to learn from our diversity: black and white, gay and straight, married and single (and so much more).

 

God’s prepared a table big enough for us all and someday our local churches will model that love for all the world the world to see.

 

disunity in Christ christena cleveland

 

///

 

  1. Christena Cleveland, Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013, 21.
  2. Ibid., 167-168.
  3. Ibid., 168.
  4. Ibid., 168-169.

When Friendship Feels Like a Fairytale

depressed man

 

I don’t really believe in friendship.

 

Those were the words echoing in my mind as I wrote draft after draft responding to Wesley Hill’s new book Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian. Don’t get me wrong, Wesley’s written a beautiful, brilliant book. The church needs to read it. But parts of Wesley’s book felt too good to be true, more fairytale than reality. Maybe the best thing we can hope for in our busy lives is just friendly acquaintances—moments of connection to get us by. Maybe we should just take the advice of a song in The Phantom of the Opera: learn to be lonely.

 

I tell myself I’m good with the solitude. I’m not a great communicator; sometimes when I’m around people I feel clingy, awkward, unwanted. Whatever. I’ve lived most of my life emotionally alone. I generally accept complacency and apathy over risk and disappointment. Who cares anyway?

 

Apparently I did.

 

After college I developed a bad habit of flirting with guys to feel wanted and seen. I craved being the center of someone’s attention, even if I knew it wouldn’t last for more than a few days. Over the years I’ve tried to make social media and long distance “text-pals” replace the adventures and face-to-face conversations I was missing in real life, often because I avoided vulnerability with the people I knew locally. I’ve sent out too many texts and Facebook messages at existential low points and received far too many I’m sorry, buddy and Praying for you responses to last me a lifetime. They did little to assuage the hurt.

 

This is not enough.

 

I’ve had some great friends over the years (and still keep up with many of them), but as a gay celibate, there never seems to be anything permanent and immutable about friendship. Friends move on to new priorities and new rhythms of life; they marry and have kids, they move up social ladders, and they move away. Nothing stays the same. Can I really bear the losses again and again? Is life just a cycle of inevitable abandonment?

 

Perhaps it depends on the relationship.

 

Wesley discusses two kinds of relationships from Catholic writer Maggie Gallagher in Spiritual Friendship.1 “You’re mine because I love you” and, “I love you because you’re mine.” The first doesn’t include any serious attachments or commitments; convenience and feelings of endearment are all that bind the relationship together. Either person could walk away when the friendship is no longer easy, comfortable, or uncomplicated. But Wesley elaborates on the more hopeful alternative:

 

“In this latter type of friendship, my love for you isn’t the basis of our connection. It’s the other way around: we are bound to each other, and therefore I love you. You may still bore me or wound me or otherwise become unattractive to me, but that doesn’t mean I’ll walk away. You’re not mine because I love you; I love you because you’re—already, and always—mine. We’ve made promises to each other; we’ve committed to each other, in the sight of our families and our churches, and in the strength of those vows, I will, God willing, go on loving you.”2

 

Christians expect this level of commitment from husbands and wives, but Wesley offers a compelling question: what if friendships could contain some level of this fidelity and structure? What would that look like?

 

Maybe we’d see more nontraditional homes—families practicing communal living with other families or with singles like me. Maybe we would be more intentional about extending hospitality and creating regular routines to hang out. Maybe we wouldn’t be so quick to shrug our shoulders and put old friendships in the rearview mirror when people move away; maybe we would make more sacrifices to keep investing in the people who matter.

 

Yet it’s these same sentiments that feel so unrealistic and hollow. Of course it sounds great, but right now I find myself caught somewhere between neediness and reticence—never able to find a happy balance. It hurts too much to hope for more.

 

See, I can embrace a life of service to others, that’s not a problem. It’s not hard for me to show kindness to everyone while keeping them at arm’s length. But accepting another person’s love? That’s terrifying; the risks are so great. It’s easier to remain closed off to everyone around me. True, no one can hurt me, but to paraphrase C. S. Lewis, a life without love is just a living Hell. Christ came so we could experience abundant life—including the ability to experience intimacy and belong to a spiritual family. Unfortunately, the abundant life doesn’t liberate us from the crosses we must bear to walk with Jesus. In order to thrive, we’re going to suffer like Jesus did. No prosperity gospel can shield us from a broken world. Maybe loneliness is my thorn in the flesh I will bear to the end of my days. Perhaps God is teaching me to see his power made perfect in my weakness, in my emotional pain. Maybe an insecure guy like me can find strength to persevere another day, knowing it isn’t only me, but Christ working in me to will and do of his good pleasure. My Heavenly Father promises his grace is somehow sufficient. I freely confess I don’t know what that means, but I have to believe I’m going to be ok.

 

~         ~         ~

 

I flipped through Spiritual Friendship again and discovered Wesley had already anticipated a response like mine. He knew his words would come across hollow to those who had not tasted the richness of intimate companionship or those who had lost close friendships. But I think Wesley had people like me in mind too, people with beautiful friendships that occasionally dig deeper into the things that matter, yet people who still feel the sting of dissatisfaction. The sting feels especially potent when the best form of connection some of us can attain most days is through texting, email, or social media. But at friendship’s best, even marriage’s best, there’s no way to escape the pain of loneliness. No one will ever feel fully understood or like they completely belong. I love this quote from Wesley:

 

“Friendship … doesn’t solve the problem of loneliness so much as it shifts its coordinates. Just as marriage isn’t a magic bullet for the pain of loneliness, neither is friendship. It does, we hope, pull us out of ourselves, orienting our vision to our neighbors. But no, … it’s not enough. It’s never enough.”3

 

This is where the Gospel steps in to redeem our stories. Yes, the fall severed the perfect unity we experienced in Eden with each other and God, but Christ came to restore all things, and that includes our relationships. We still face conflict and misunderstandings, we get busy and neglect the people God has entrusted us to love and nurture, but God is still redeeming his people and still building his kingdom. One day the work will end, all will be made right, and all our suffering will cease—including our loneliness.

 

In the meantime we need faith—faith God will accomplish all he has promised and will provide for our emotional needs. Faith supplies the motivation to risk disappointment and heartbreak to develop and maintain intimate friendships in order to thrive as social beings. It takes a lot of faith not to become cynical when attempt after attempt has only resulted in rejection. And it takes faith to keep digging with patience when those attempts have only led to superficial acquaintances—while trying not to stifle the potential friendship.

 

Friendship requires a delicate balance. As the Christian boy band Plus One sang, “If you need love / Take the time and be love / Breathe it out create love / See how things can turn.” Sometimes we need to be more intentional about loving others and proactively pursuing their friendships. But sometimes we have to realize we’ve done all we can do; love can’t be one-sided. We have to step away and give people space believing some will return. And believe me, I know how scary that is when you’re convinced people will forget your existence if you don’t consistently remind them. God help my unbelief, I guess.

 

I don’t pretend to have this all figured out, nor do I present myself as some poster child for celibate gay Christians. Celibacy sucks, but I think there’s beauty in the pain, any form of pain, when our suffering drives us to each other and to our Savior. There’s something so powerful when we can say, “Hey, me too.” Rachel Held Evans says church should look more like an A. A. meeting than a country club, and I think we’d be far healthier and more joyful if we’d all take more risks and show more vulnerability rather than trying to impress others and pretending like we have our you-know-what together. I feel a sense of connection when Rachel Held Evans talks about her doubts on her blog, when my friend Addie Zierman writes about the darkness of her depression, or when several of my local friends share their struggle to hold onto God’s goodness in their infertility. The loneliness doesn’t hurt so badly when we hurt together.

 

Most days friendship feels like a fairytale. But you know what? I still choose to embrace Wesley’s vision of friendship in faith. I still believe it’s a model the church needs to rediscover for the benefit of the entire Body. Jesus said not to be anxious about the future, and for me that means not worrying if I’ll end up old and alone because I chose celibacy to reconcile my faith and sexuality. God will provide. Life will never be perfect, but God will never stop offering little reminders to smile and remember how much he loves me. Those reminders often come from the people in my life. Yes, I am scared of disappointment and rejection, but I will continue pursuing friendships until my last day because I intend to thrive.

 

 

  1. Wesley Hill, Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2015, 41-42.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid, 98.

What The Doctor Teaches Me about Vocation

man reading his Bible

 

I live a somewhat isolated life as a gay celibate. I’m ravenous to find countercultural examples of love—examples not dominated by romance and clothes-stripping. In other words, Nicholas Sparks makes me gag. Sorry, gals.

 

Frankly, the American Christian’s imagination sucks. We’re narrow-minded; ignorant of a wide variety of callings and gifts God has given His children. We act as if life follows the same linear path for all sane, well-adjusted people. You know, American Dream and all that jazz, right? Go to school, get a job, climb the social ladder, get married, have kids, then grandkids, retire, and die. The end.

 

Yawn.

 

So, ok. I’m a little weird. Maybe I’m desperately grasping at anything that will make me feel a little more normal. Something to remind me my life has meaning even though I don’t have a girlfriend (which would appease the church) or a boyfriend (which would appease the gays). But if you filter through enough film, TV, literature, and music, you’ll find some surprising illustrations.

 

I recently found a surprising one in Dr. Who.

 

My family had watched the show from season 1, but it wasn’t until Matt Smith’s portrayal of The Doctor in Season 5 that I was hooked. To my surprise I found that pieces of dialogue and storylines resonated with me on an emotional level. While I live a fairly ordinary life, there’s still a sense of something “different” about my experience that sets me apart from the average Christian. I felt like The Doctor understood that feeling as a humanoid alien spending most of his time around humans.

 

So, yes, if I haven’t lost you by this point, The Doctor is an humanoid alien known as a Time Lord. The Doctor is somewhere around a thousand years old and regenerates into a new body and personality when one body gets old or suffers a fatal injury. He travels in a time machine called a TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension in Space), which looks like a British police box on the outside, but turns out to be much larger on the inside. The Doctor travels through the universe (past, present, and future), drawn to danger and adventure—rarely with a plan, but usually saves the day in the end (he’s a very clever old alien). And most importantly for the purpose of this post, The Doctor rarely travels alone.

 

The Doctor’s “companions” are selected for a variety of reasons and serve different purposes. In many ways the companion helps The Doctor witness the wonder of the universe like a parent seeing the world through a child’s fresh, untainted perspective. And he probably won’t tell you, but The Doctor gets lonely too. Road trips are far more fun with company.

 

Matt Smith’s Doctor primarily travels with Amy and Rory, a married couple. We first meet Amy as a child, the first living being this version of the Doctor beholds in his newly regenerated form. The Doctor tells “little Amelia” that he will return in a few minutes, but minutes turn into years, and The Doctor returns to find Amy a grown woman. The Doctor develops a strong bond with Amy, a bond that eventually extends to her husband, Rory.

 

dr. who

from BBC

In one scene, the Doctor returns for Christmas a bit sheepishly after a long absence from Amy and Rory. Amy is justifiably peeved with more years waiting on the Doctor to re-enter her life (and squirts the Doctor with a water gun for good measure). But during this particular period of absence, Amy and Rory begin a tradition: every Christmas they await The Doctor’s return by preparing a third place at their table. You see, the Doctor is more than just a friend; he has become family. He is a person wanted, a person who has become part of Amy and Rory’s normal rhythm of living. The adventures have become more characteristic of real life for Amy and Rory than their normal, monotonous tasks and responsibilities.

 

This little, perhaps insignificant, Christmas tradition was incredibly moving for me. I have a wonderful family who loves and supports me, but someday I will have to move out and become an adult. God’s call for my life may take me far from my family of origin, and that’s when celibacy may become difficult. I hope for friendships like The Doctor and Amy’s. Their connection is a beautiful thing to watch, but something I don’t always trust to find in a busy world and a busy church. Unlike The Doctor, I don’t have a time machine that can whisk people away and bring them back to the places and times their schedules demand. And yet for all the disappointment likely awaiting me, I can’t help but hope we’ll find a way. God hasn’t called anyone to live without a family. I have to believe He’ll provide.

 

~         ~         ~

 

Now The Doctor is far from celibate: at one point in his time-stream he has a wife, River Song. Yet The Doctor lives on for centuries, while River Song and all his regular companions eventually have their endings. They’re human after all. Over and over The Doctor finds himself alone, but with each loss he takes another risk, needing a new friend to share the miracle of existence. The Doctor needs his companions to witness life with him. I couldn’t help but think of a great post Julie Rodgers wrote about the tragedy of going through life alone, unwitnessed:

 

“What I’ve longed for more than anything is a shared history with someone, where (together) we recount the way this place or those people or that near-death experience shaped us into the people we are today. There is no shared history, though, because the places and people and near-death experiences were things I arrived at alone and left alone. Then I moved into another space where I would tell other people about those experiences, grasping for the adjectives to capture it as accurately as possible so they might come a little closer to understanding who I am and where I’ve been. But they don’t really know.”

 

This “shared history” is exactly why The Doctor continues to let more love in when, as River Song says, he hates to say goodbye. He wants someone to share in his adventures, to share his life with. Julie craves it, I crave it, we all do. And honestly, it’s how God has designed us to thrive. As Julie points out in her post, “It’s not good to be alone.” And as I’ve seen Julie and many others write, we can live without sex, but we can’t live without love and intimacy. We were made to connect.

 

It’s this core element of love that unites and encapsulates our various callings. We’ve been uniquely gifted by our Father to love the world around us. Maybe it makes me a complete nerd, but I think that’s why I’m drawn to superhero characters. The superhero must undergo a rigorous emotional and spiritual journey to accept his or her gift to help mankind. The hero wrestles with whether to embrace the vocation or ignore it and live a normal life. There’s sacrifice; often romance and a personal life are put aside for the greater good of humanity. But the hero bears the loneliness and sacrifice out of a desire to do good, to set an example, and to love. In the Superhero genre, we don’t call it crazy or necessarily depressing, but noble.

 

The Doctor can’t help but assist those in need. He’s wired to work that way, to be a savior to the universe. Settling down is not an option for this Time Lord. It’s not that married life is a bad thing or a weak thing, it’s just not his calling (at least not for his overarching story). The Doctor belongs to the universe, to whoever happens to be in his company and needs him in that moment of time. He lives a vocation of love.

 

I can’t begin to express what impact Eve Tushnet has had on the Side B, celibate gay Christian niche (Wes Hill does a far better job here). Perhaps her greatest contribution has been in articulating the concept of vocation. There’s no telling how many times her famous line “You can’t have a vocation of no” has been quoted (me included). Eve, and the writers who expanded her vision, taught me my vocation as a celibate gay man is not a life excluded from love, but actually quite the opposite. I live a life devoted to love.

 

Eve writes in her book Gay and Catholic, “You are called to something, not merely away from something.”¹ How foreign is that concept from what the church preaches about homosexuality? The church tends to take gay people down a dead-end road. Don’t have sex. Well, ok. What then? Blank looks and silence usually follows that question. That’s why we need trailblazers like Eve—who in reality are just dusting off old traditions and teachings we’ve forgotten as we’ve pursued The American Dream and Western individualism.

 

Eve continues, discussing the solution to both her struggles with alcoholism and chastity: “My project right now is to build a way of life in keeping with my God-given vocation. And thinking about sobriety in this way helps me to see that I need to be more connected to others: more honest with my friends, and therefore more intimate with them, and closer to my family. Not having gay sex and not drinking are things I can do on my own, at least for awhile. Living out my vocation is something I can only do with the people I’m called to love”²

 

The Doctor would have no story apart from the people who need him. He would just be a crazy man in a box, doomed to a long, lonely life. But The Doctor chooses to share his life with his close friends, and his friends provide meaning for the short time their lives intersect. I learn so much from that. Some people assume I will live a sad, lonely life without a husband or wife, yet I think it all depends on how you look at it. If I were to live as a hermit, cloistered from the world, then yes, that would be terribly depressing and a waste of the time God has called me to steward. But when I think of people like Mother Teresa, a real-life superhero, I see something powerful and inspiring. Every day of my life can be given in love to the people God places in my sphere of influence right now. Everyday I can choose to serve, to give, and to help those in need. Our Father saves us so we can assist in saving His creation, because that’s His ultimate goal—to make right what we made wrong, to heal what this callous world crushed, to make even better what was once deemed merely “good.” That’s why Christians continue to marry and have babies in the face of evil and suffering, that’s how singles, celibates, widows and widowers can participate in the formation of shalom. We’re all working together to push back the darkness, to create new life and new love, and redeem this fallen, cursed planet. And one day when we have played our role and done our part, our Father will call us home, beaming as He proclaims, Well done, my good and faithful servant! The gospel gives us one goal, but many–so many–callings to achieve the goal.

 

And I think it’s pretty cool Dr. Who reminds me of all that.

 

1. Eve Tushnet, Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith. Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2014, 59.

2. Ibid.

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/

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.

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*