river in fall

Wilderness Conversations

Let’s take a walk out in the crisp autumn air, shall we? It’s easier to talk about the hard things when we’re moving. The silences feel less awkward, the fears less stifling. The trees are all arrayed in reds and oranges. It’s peaceful here, leaves crunching under our shoes as we duck beneath tree limbs, and shiver with the breeze.

 

Listen to the wilderness calling.

 

I’m crouching next to river’s edge, poking drifting leaves with a stick. I look up to your eyes with a sad smile. I have so little to say, so I speak with nonverbal gestures. They speak loudly if you could only read the language.

 

I don’t know your thoughts these days

We’re strangers in an empty space

I don’t understand your heart

It’s easier to be apart

We might as well be strangers in another town

We might as well be living in a another time

We might as well

We might as well

Be strangers1

 

I’m guarded; a chaos of emotion running through my brain. Questions, so many questions. So many things good Christians shouldn’t ask. So many things an out gay man shouldn’t bring up. Where do you turn when you’ve been walking in no man’s land for so long?

 

How do you choose between integrity and just a drop of intimacy? A glimmer of connection? When can I look into another’s eyes and find…

 

Home?

 

~          ~          ~

 

There came a day when I realized my crushes on men would never cease. The evangelicals had gotten it wrong. I didn’t know what that meant and the questions scared me. I learned to listen, but the listening only brought more questions. I processed my thoughts alone.

 

I didn’t want to believe the traditional Christian sexual ethic. I fought belligerently, actually. I despised evangelical weddings. I hated sermons on marriage. I rolled my eyes and swore silently in disgust. Bitterness and anger simmered beneath the surface. I didn’t know what to say. I just knew to smile and hide the feelings.

 

Some of the happiest times in my life occurred while I was reading Justin Lee’s Torn and James Brownson’s Bible, Gender, Sexuality. Meaningful friendships with other LGBTs were forged. This new perspective felt liberating. But doubts lingered. I struggled deeply with my reformed background and God’s goodness. I would beg my gay friends to reassure me I wasn’t a reprobate, usually after explaining what that word meant. I became convinced the gospel didn’t conclude with a happy ending. So I fought this angry, narcissistic being God had become in my mind. I stopped going to church, I avoided evangelical friends.

 

My blood pressure shot up for the first time in my life during that season. I discovered a health kick in college and never abandoned it. As I wavered between career choices after college, I took exercise science, nutrition, and anatomy classes. An exercise physiology professor told me with confusion and concern that I was nearly hypertensive. The anxiety of fighting God day after day was hurting me. I needed to rest; I needed a ceasefire.

 

I’ve only cried twice in the last ten years. I just don’t know how to; so many barriers and inhibitions stand in the way. One of those two times came after fighting with my pastor about Brownson’s Bible, Gender, Sexuality. He thought I was talking about my future, but by this point it had stopped being about me. Now, my pastor wasn’t one of those angry, shouting pastors. He was just a man trying to be faithful to his reformed interpretation of scripture. He reinforced the God I had been battling for so long. A God who would damn Christians for their blind spots and unconquerable struggles.

 

Barbara Brown Taylor brings up a fascinating question in her book An Alter in the World. “What is saving my life now?” I haven’t read the book yet (it’s on a very long list), but I often hear the question asked. It’s an invitation to storytelling. What things, ideas, or people in this world are meaningfully representing God in this moment? What keeps us holding onto hope when it would be so easy to surrender to despair? For me it was my gay Christian friends. I couldn’t deal with evangelical Christianity, the black and white answers that ignored the complexity of my life. But my gay friends challenged me to trust God. They helped melt the ice around my heart so God could touch me again.

 

Arguing with my pastor represented changes that were happening in my theology, shifts that were returning me to previously held beliefs. But I was also coming back with a new perspective. I was no longer fundamentalist, but a Christian skeptic. Every stone had to be turned over and examined. I would not go back to the old me. Those days were over. I sobbed alone in my car because I didn’t know what to do or what to believe. I haven’t cried since.

 

~          ~          ~

 

I believed the only way to remain a loyal, compassionate friend to the LGBTs in my life meant affirming same-sex relationships. The other side of the false dichotomy meant becoming a Bible-thumping jerk. As I realized the revisionist perspective just didn’t connect to my reading and interpretation of scripture, I became determined to find another way—a way that encompasses both my sexual ethics and my love for sexual minorities.

 

My friend David Owens comes to mind when I wrestle with these questions. He’s one of the most Christ-like men I know. David also has a solid relationship with his boyfriend Phil; they’ve been together for as long as I’ve known David. His faith and his relationship is not a contradiction for me, just a discovery outside the evangelical bubble.

 

I appreciated these words from a love letter David wrote for LGBTQ Christians on Ben Moberg’s blog Registered Runaway:

 

“As someone who leans admittedly Reformed in theology, I don’t believe I’ve ever had anything to do with my salvation. He is, after all, the Author and Finisher of my faith. My story begins and ends with Him. To live according to someone else’s convictions out of a place of fear and shame is hardly what I call living in freedom. Rather, I recognized that I would have to respond authentically to what He’d revealed to me. If I believed that God is good, then I would also have to trust that He wouldn’t let me remain on a path that would lead to my eventual destruction but would lovingly intervene as a good father.”

 

To my surprise I also found a lot of comfort in my reformed background. I grew up as a Primitive Baptist, a small denomination that emphasizes sovereign grace. What I remember clearly was a sharp division over whether scripture teaches the perseverance or the preservation of God’s children. Like many reformed believers, those advocating perseverance believed the Christian may have occasional setbacks, but will ultimately “persevere” in his or her faith until the end. I struggled deeply with this perspective; a traditional sexual ethic didn’t make room for Gay Christians in a perseverance framework. But my parents were part of the other faction. They held that sanctification was both the work of God and the individual. They made room for God’s children who became addicted to alcohol or committed suicide. Christians may screw up because we live in a broken world; sometimes the darkness is too great. But they firmly taught me that nothing can separate us as God’s children from His rich, abounding love. We are “preserved” in Christ and we can do nothing to earn or lose our salvation. To keep my sanity, part of my return to evangelical faith meant returning to my roots.

 

I’ve invested a lot of time interacting with gay Christians who affirm same-sex relationships. I’ve spent the weekend with one of my best friends and his boyfriend, having breakfast and spending the afternoon on the lake. In all these conversations and moments of life lived together, I’ve discovered plenty I don’t understand. When I see pictures of David and Phil together on Facebook I don’t feel judgmental or freaked out. I don’t agree with same-sex behavior, but I believe in love. You can’t reduce gay people to just sex. But that’s what so many evangelicals do. Many evangelicals don’t see the affection and concern gay Christians have for each other, nor the sacrifices that these people beautifully make.2 They genuinely want to express Christ’s love to their partners. I respect that. Amid the disagreements, I can still see God’s image within their lives.

 

~          ~          ~

 

I interact with several young guys who aren’t sure how they envision their future; they don’t know what position they’ll take. I tell them to follow Christ. Come to Christ as you are, feed on His Word, become part of a corporate body of believers who fervently love and welcome you. If the traditional position causes you to feel shame, despair, and suicidal ideation, then please don’t pursue celibacy. Be open to where God leads you. I promise God won’t abandon you. And you’ll find so many brothers and sisters in Christ from both perspectives who will still support you and love you unconditionally no matter what you choose.

 

Thankfully there are straight Christians like Jen Hatmaker in evangelical churches who speak from conviction with so much love and hospitality. Evangelicals who will listen. Jen wrote a few months ago,

 

“The gay community has been spiritually beaten, stripped of dignity, robbed of humanity, and left for dead by much of the church. You need only look at the suicide rates, prevalence of self-harm, and the devastating pleas from ostracized gay people and those who love them to see what has plainly transpired.”

 

Jen believes in a traditional Christian view of marriage. Ben Moberg wrote on Rachel Held Evans’ blog that Jen had done the impossible. “She wrote that same-sex marriage is sinful and yet left me in layers of love. It was a startling and confusing moment for me.” For those who wish to love sexual minorities better but want to remain true to their beliefs about sexual ethics, I highly recommend it. The church would be a better place for us all: straight and gay, celibates, those in mixed orientation marriages, and yes, the gay-relationship affirming.

 

There’s a lot of conflict and tension when you try to build bridges in war zones. It’s hard to remain neutral, and maybe it’s best not to be. But there are important qualities to have in this debate, primarily openness. I’m not God, you’re not God. Just because we have His Word doesn’t mean we can understand all its mysteries. So I choose to journey with my brothers and sisters in Christ regardless of agreement and disagreement. As Jen Hatmaker wrote, “I am convinced we need no more soldiers in this war. We need more neighbors.”

 

You’re welcomed in my life, neighbor.

 

~          ~          ~

 

So maybe we are strangers, me and my evangelical friends, me and my gay Christian friends. Maybe I will continue walking in no man’s land.

 

Maybe.

 

But here in this wilderness, among the trees ablaze with color or next to the chilly river’s edge, I’d like to think there’s space for us, for the questions, for the tension. I don’t expect people to always agree with everything I say or do, but I do hope for a little grace and humility.

 

And maybe, just maybe I won’t always wander the wilderness alone.

 

/ / /

 

  1. Keane, “We Might as Well Be Strangers” from Hopes and Fears
  2. Nick Roen wrote a really great post for Spiritual Friendship on this topic.

 

photo courtesy of flickr creative commons, user ChattOconeeNF

  • Kim

    Very good post but I’m a little confused about one section so hopefully you can explain further. You say that you can see God working in the lives of a same-sex couple but still believe their relationship is sinful. If you can actively see God in their lives, why do you still consider it sinful?

    • Thanks Kim! That’s a very fair question. I am more inclined to the traditional view of sexuality, which is why I’ve chosen celibacy. But I see homosexuality as an incredibly complex discussion. I think all Christians are in a process of pursuing Christ amid our brokenness and fallen condition (to bring in my reformed background), yet God can still work in us and through us even though everything is not in perfect agreement with His plans. I think if evangelicals were more honest, we would realize how dependent on grace we all are. When my gay friends in relationships express their faith and show fruits that evidence God’s work in their lives, I believe it. It doesn’t contradict my theology. But since I personally believe the traditional model of sexuality, I have chosen celibacy. I’m not a better Christian, it’s just how I find peace in my relationship to God and how I feel God has called me to love others. I hope that helps. I’m planning to write more in the future and continue the discussion.

  • Beautifully and graciously written. Also, bonus points for the Keane reference!

    • Thank you, Leigh! And yessss. I love Keane. That’s probably my favorite of their songs. I’m all dramatic like that. 🙂

  • Ben Andrews

    Thanks for writing, Seth. I know these words come out of deep, profound wrestling. There is no cowardice in what you’ve written, and yet there is no obnoxious, aggressive strength. Thanks for trying to find a middle way, to model gentle love – and a strong love – to all. Blessings.