When You Don’t Have to be Extraordinary

man typing on a rooftop

The world around us seems to give one consistent message: be extraordinary.  Post amazing pictures from super cool locations on Facebook or Instagram, mingle with powerful and influential people to boost your own public image, do crazy hard things to change the world or your life may not matter. Be charismatic, witty, and attractive so you can be universally adored.

It’s not a sustainable way to do life, but man, the pressure weighs on us.

When I graduated from undergrad I stumbled across writers like Julie Rodgers, Brent Bailey, and Wesley Hill who reframed my life narrative. They didn’t present their sexualities as shameful or unwanted, but either had integrated their sexuality into their identities, or at least they were making a brave attempt to find congruence between their faith and sexuality. Their words revealed the importance of my own story, and for a shy dude who had spent his life avoiding intimacy and feeling crushed with loneliness, I was hungry to share my life with as many people who would listen. Essentially, I wanted to be Julie, Brent, and Wesley, because if my life looked like theirs, then my life could mean something. And man, was I disappointed when that didn’t work for me.  So many of my LGBTQ Christian acquaintances went viral and were recognized in both the broader faith community or the LGBTQ Christian community. But for me, writing felt like an exhausting treadmill that would sometimes lead to broader attention, but mostly my words went ignored. I wrote less as it became a soul-crushing endeavor.

But even as I shifted from a blogging identity into the role of a clinical psychologist in training, I found this pattern continuing in my life. I met a gay Christian psychologist and in my hunger for direction and validation, I incorporated his interests as my own and wanted to craft my training to look like his. I processed this dynamic with one of my professors two semesters ago, and she encouraged me not to become this psychologist I idolized, but to live out my own story in my clinical training. The world already had his story, she told me, and what the world needed was my unique contribution and voice. That would only come by pursuing my own interests and developing my own personality that I’d spent a lifetime trying to hide from people.

Possibly the best cure for all the strivings of social media, public platforms, and fame is found within community. These past two years at Regent have been some of the most transformative years of my life as I’ve attempted to live transparently and vulnerably with the folks who entered this program with me, and the upperclassmen and faculty who have mentored, supported, and befriended me in the process. I’ve felt loved as I am, even when I felt so much needed to be changed in me to be accepted. They’ve taught me that my story doesn’t have to look like any of my role models, and my narrative is more authentic and meaningful when it’s being told and lived through my own words and actions.

But perhaps one of the most profound discoveries was realizing how much I can help others by swapping places and becoming the audience to my clients’ life stories. Unless my clients Google me or have a pretty decent gaydar, they don’t know I’m gay, and in this context, that’s not what matters. So much of my life I’ve needed other people’s approval and validation to reassure me I’m all right. I’ve been unsure if my love had any significance or whether people actually wanted to be loved by me. Maybe all I could hope for was the pity of others. I wasn’t sure if I could ever be an equal, and certainly not a mentor or vessel of grace and redemption to others. Becoming a student clinician has added depth to how I see myself in my calling. I can matter in a context where the focus isn’t on me, and I have seen lives transformed in both radical and small ways that provide confirmation that my presence and warmth is both wanted and desperately needed.

I may not be a public figure who writes consistently popular posts, or receives hundreds of likes on my social media accounts, but fame isn’t the goal in vocation.  Anyone who receives fame has worked through insecurity and failure, and is by no means universally adored. They do have the privilege of making a profound influence on so many people, but for those of us with far less influence, our contributions to God’s redemptive plan are just as significant. I would argue there is greater redemptive impact by the investments we make in a few people, as we reveal the love of our Heavenly Father by consistently showing up and remaining in relationship with people through the good and the bad, by maintaining healthy boundaries and modeling lives of vulnerability and humility. These characteristics create thriving therapy alliances between therapists and clients, but they also form life-giving relationships between friends and families.

So if you’re feeling exhausted and depressed scrolling through your social media accounts, remember that recognition and influence are fleeting. What endures is your love for others—given from your unique calling and voice. Whoever you’re comparing yourself to, whatever you think you must accomplish to feel like you’re enough or worthy of love, rest in your lovability as the unique human God has shaped you to be. Strive to accomplish great things as an expression of the love you already possess, because you are already deemed beloved, worthy, and enough.

You may not be adored by the masses, but I believe you will find freedom and peace by living the story God has given you. I also believe you will find an audience who both supports you and needs to hear your story to navigate their own life narratives. Life can be extraordinary not in our potential for greatness, power, and fame, but in our capacity to be vulnerably known in such a way that fosters redemption in both our lives and others.

In a world full of people who compromise the beauty of their identities to obtain attention and fame, walk in the freedom and integrity of your vulnerable self.

That’s actually pretty extraordinary.

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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.