I pull off at the nearest exit after the accident. I find some kind of deserted recreation center and stop in the parking lot. My abdominal muscles tighten, so tight that it hurts and won’t release anytime soon. I clench the wheel and bang my head against the headrest again and again until I’m dizzy and I no longer know if the tears running down my face are from the accident, the weekend, or the headache I’m giving myself.
Stupid, stupid, stupid.
I still have to drive through Atlanta—through hell—to get back home to Alabama. I’m forgetting to breathe. I worry that I won’t be able to make it down I-20. What if I have a second accident? In the midst of a mild panic attack, other questions swarm through my mind.
You knew this was a mistake. Why did you ask to hang out? Why did you go?
Did it even matter?
~ ~ ~
I believe in bridge building. I have a diversity of friends and acquaintances with different opinions. Some are more vocal than others.
You just haven’t found the right woman.
You haven’t found the right man.
Don’t base your beliefs on your emotions.
Don’t be afraid to feel.
You’re too conservative. Wake up to reality.
You’re too liberal. Stop questioning everything.
People have strong opinions. They will fight to have the last word. I usually give it to them.
I have a generally reticent disposition to the world around me. I am, as Addie Zierman put it recently, a “conscientious observer” of life.
“The paradoxes that I’m interested in exploring aren’t the ones that make the Internet blow up. They’re the quiet, deep-down ones – the ones I find in my own messy heart: kindness and cruelty. Faith and doubt. Grace and justice and redemption and forgiveness and flesh and spirit.”
That’s the kind of guy I am most of the time. It definitely describes Seth in real life.
But if I choose to say, “Hey, this is my experience,” someone will question my faith. If I lay out my beating heart to the world, people will disregard it; some will say nasty things.
It’s not so easy when your very existence is controversial.
I do try to avoid conflict where I can. This blog isn’t the place to discuss who’s right in the gay debate. Should gay marriage receive acceptance from the church? Should the church mandate celibacy for sexual minorities? I don’t want to go there. Yes, I am a gay man and these questions shape my life, but they can also end an important dialogue. So let’s take that discussion off the table. There are other blogs and books that can address those kind of questions far better than I can. Let’s talk about what it means to be a Christian sexual minority. Let’s talk about the redemption of creation and the growth of the kingdom and how LGBTs fit into that.
Let’s talk about how we love people well with whom we disagree.
~ ~ ~
Thomas and I have been friends for more than two years. We met online and finally hung out in person once last summer as I headed back home from a friend’s wedding in Knoxville. He showed me around the little town in Georgia where he grew up. It was a fairly short meeting for driving five hours out of the way to meet him, but I didn’t care. It was nice to sit back and let Thomas open up about his past. It was nice that he cared enough to show me.
I tend to be the initiator in my long distance friendships. It stems from insecurity. Every friendship I’ve had with a gay man ended when I stopped talking. Admittedly, you find higher quality friendships in places other than gay dating apps, but that was a different time and I didn’t know where else to look. I desperately wanted to find people like me. A few guys talked to me out of kindness, not because they thought I was a cool dude (I mean c’mon, man. I think theology, psychology, and literature are pretty sweet). And they didn’t reciprocate interest in keeping things to “just friends” (and especially not if it excluded the benefits). Some were frankly just gross.
Thomas wasn’t like that. He apparently saw something in me that no one else did. At least he listened and actually opened up about his life too. He probably knows more about me than any other human on this earth. I’ve told him things via texts and Facebook messages I had never told anyone else. He’s been like a brother to me. We share a birthdate and though we don’t have much in common other than our faith and sexual orientation, knowing we’ve walked the earth for the same number of days always meant a lot to the sentimentalist in me.
Yet as a long distance friendship, Thomas was still, in a sense, a stranger to me; a blended creation of facts and pieces of conversations and the expectations of a lonely man. If I made the choice to know the real Thomas, the less my image would continue to exist. What if I liked my imaginary friend better than the real one?
I had a dream in March that I went to Georgia to hang out with Thomas to celebrate our twenty-seventh birthday. I’m a little spontaneous sometimes, so I texted Thomas and told him we should do something for our birthday this year. So a week later he invited me to a lake house party with his boyfriend and some of his friends.
Oh, Sethy. What have you gotten yourself into now?
I’m not an extrovert. My mind goes blank and I smile awkwardly and people probably think I’m stuck up. No, sir. This situation sounded like a disaster waiting to happen. Maybe this friendship wasn’t really sustainable anymore.
The day after our birthday, I told Thomas I wasn’t going. He asked why, and I simply replied I couldn’t do it. I was so sure I would shut down and I would get hurt. Thomas reassured me that he thought it would be a safe place to branch out, but he said ok.
I had guaranteed I was safe. I ensured I wouldn’t get hurt. No awkward situations for me. I –oh wait a minute. My last post had something to say about this. I told my readers to take risks, lean into the tension, fall down and get back up. Shoot.
I texted Thomas the next day and told him I had changed my mind.
~ ~ ~
Thomas and I are like day and night. We may have lived the same number of days and share similar experiences, but we have made different choices. He has a boyfriend, I’m choosing celibacy as I grapple with my questions. He’s liberal, I’m moderate. He graduated from public school and a public university, I was home schooled and graduated from a Christian college. We come from different worlds.
In other words, my friendship with Thomas crosses cultural boundaries.
Christena Cleveland wrote in her beautiful book Disunity in Christ:
“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 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
Cleveland stresses crosscultural unity because we have so much to learn from each other—across ethnicities, across denominations, and I’d add across perspectives on sexual ethics. If you look at the “Side A” versus “Side B” debate, to use The Gay Christian Network’s terms, you find two groups who desire to glorify Christ and love their neighbors. Both sides have valid points and shared interests.
I’ve chosen to submit to the authority of the church and work with the Christians in my life (conservative and liberal) to consider what my sexual orientation and sexual identity means for me as a follower of Jesus. It’s frustrating work, but it’s where I feel called to be. It’d probably be easy to grow distant from Thomas because of the differences in our life stories. The texts would eventually cease and we would forget each other. It would even be easy for me to latch onto a position and become more and more entrenched until I couldn’t hear Thomas speak anymore. Thomas would become one of them. A person I could categorize with broad, ignorant assumptions until he’s not really a complex, breathing human being—just a lifeless caricature.
I don’t want that.
While Cleveland primarily discusses the cultural differences between ethnic and denominational groups in her book, her message applies more broadly to all divisions within the church. Cleveland’s message offers a lot to consider on how we dialogue about sexual ethics in the church. It’s helpful for knowing how to build conversations and relationships with strong supporters of both traditional and gay marriage.
And Cleveland helps me consider how my friendship with Thomas moves forward.
1. Christena Cleveland, Disunity in Christ Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013, 21.
photo courtesy of flickr creative commons, user Free HDR & Photomanipulations