Some thoughts on chastity

We’ve been talking a lot about welcoming LGBT people who attend Christian gatherings. In the last week alone, we’ve talked about welcome in Christian traditions generallyCatholic and Evangelical traditions, and in specific local church communities. We’ve hit a record for the number of first-time commenters in a week (welcome!) and sheer volume of long comments (we’re working on responding, promise!).

As we’ve been talking about welcoming LGBT people, we’ve noticed an uptick in commenters with concerns about what LGBT Christians are actually doing. Pressing further, we have discovered the principal concerns are about lust and sexual conduct. Some readers have asked us directly to write more about chastity. We don’t want to minimize the importance of sexual morality in the Christian life, but the line of thinking that fixates on sexual behavior distorts chastity by diminishing it to genital obedience. For Christians, living chastely requires that we fix our eyes on Christ, so that we can devote our whole selves to following him. We are called to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our mind, and with all our strength. Therefore, chastity requires thoughtful stewardship of our bodies, our minds, and our hearts.

We’ve noted before that many people think first about chastity by trying to draw lines around what counts as “sex.” Defining chastity with a legalistic “Just say no” approach does not do anyone any favors. Our bodies are so much more than our genitals. Our capacity for human connection extends in myriad forms. A triune God made us for relationships with each other. Scripture bears witness to our need to conduct ourselves chastely not only in family relationships but also in relationships with our neighbors. Cultivating chastity requires that adults help children develop a healthy sense of bodily autonomy, touch-oriented people grow in their understanding of what various forms of physical contact communicate, spouses learn the nuances of mutual submission to one another, and we learn to love our neighbors as ourselves.

One of the hardest tasks for any Christian is to cultivate a chaste mind. Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk prescribed this course of action should we desire to acquire the mind of Christ:

“Let thy mind fast from vain thoughts; let thy memory fast from remembering evil; let thy will fast from evil desire; let thine eyes fast from bad sights: turn away thine eyes that thou mayest not see vanity; let thine ears fast from vile songs and slanderous whispers; let thy tongue fast from slander, condemnation, blasphemy, falsehood, deception, foul language and every idle and rotten word; let thy hands fast from killing and from stealing another’s goods; let thy legs fast from going to evil deeds: Turn away from evil, and do good.”

This exhortation starts with purifying the mind from vain thoughts, but Saint Tikhon provides further wisdom. We can make every effort to keep our mind off of evil. In our prayer life, we constantly bring concerns to God that reflect evil in the world, but we strive to follow the Psalmist’s example and think on how God is at work to restore all things. Thinking about our prayer life reminds us that our tongues make our invisible thoughts visible. We cultivate chastity by speaking kindly, compassionately, honestly, and directly.

As we work on developing chastity in our own lives, it seems to us that chastity’s true home is the heart. We are drawn by our heart to love the world around us. A heart that is full of the love of God strengthens the body in order to extend its hands and its feet in meaningful service. Service is a tricky aspect of chastity. When people serve, it’s easy for them to become disillusioned and jaded, especially if their service is motivated solely from an intellectual sense of obligation. When actions flow from a heart captivated by God’s love, Christ-centered forms of service can be particularly life-giving. It seems to us that chastity, rightly understood, involves cultivating virtues that allow people to reflect the image and likeness of Christ more fully.

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

The sermon I wish had been preached at #ERLC2014

A reflection by Lindsey

I have been a participant in the gay Christian conversation for 14 years. Sometimes, it’s a conversation. Sometimes, it’s a debate. And most of the time, it’s a lot of pontificating. I’ve been in environments where people have been actively seeking orientation change and healing from sexual brokenness. I’ve eaten many a meal with LGBT Christians waiting eagerly for the day when they would meet their same-sex spouses. And, hopefully unsurprisingly, I love talking with other people about celibacy and how LGBT people can show Christ to the world through living celibacy. Certain voices are well-known, and you can almost guarantee what a particular speaker will say. Yesterday, Albert Mohler addressed the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission 2014 Conference on The Gospel, Homosexuality, and the Future of Marriage. When I saw on Twitter that Mohler had opened up his Bible to Romans 1, something in me went off and I tweeted:

For an LGBT Evangelical Christian, these conversations are absolutely predictable. As a former Evangelical, I’m well aware of this. Yet, as I threw around the list of the Scriptures in my head… Romans 1, Genesis 3, Matthew 19, Genesis 1… some different thoughts took root in my heart. In following the same order of the Scriptures, I arrived at a very different place than “Don’t be gay.” Although I no longer consider myself an Evangelical with a capital E, I know far too many LGBT Christians screaming out to the Evangelical Church. This post is an offering to friends within Evangelical traditions and anyone else who finds it helpful. It’s deliberately written to have a preacher’s tone, and I hope you can imagine it being delivered by a sort of unknown, robust voice that carries some authority. Like any message delivered at a conference, it’s bound to miss the mark in a number of ways. In many ways, I’m trying to preach to my 22 year old self who desperately needed assurance that God had not abandoned me and had a plan for me in the part of the church I recognized.

Without further ado, I offer to you the sermon I wish had been preached at ERLC2014.

Hello, my name is Lindsey. I’d love a chance to get to know you more. I’ve been doing my best to follow Jesus in the company of friends since 1996. My faith journey began in high school and underwent significant growth in college. I met virtually all of my college friends through Intervarsity: I loved learning more about encountering Christ through intelligently reading the Scriptures and seeking to apply them to my life. I learned that following Christ is costly but that Christ alone offers the only form of life that could possibly be worth my everything. Now that I’ve introduced myself, let’s pray before we dive into God’s word.

Heavenly Father, you know each and every one of us. You created us, called us to be your own as sons and daughters in your eternal kingdom. You delight in us. You have fashioned us according to your image and likeness. Give us the confidence that we are, first and foremost, your children. Father, with the confidence that we are loved deeply and completely by you, we ask you: Search our hearts and know us. Try us and know our thoughts. See if there be any grievous ways in us, and lead us in the way everlasting. Amen.

We’re gathered here to talk about the Gospel, homosexuality, and the future of marriage. We come from many places, but we’re here because we’re deeply concerned about how we live faithful lives in Christ. I speak to you today with a firm conviction that each and every one of us here present longs for an authentic relationship with Christ. With that in mind, I’d like to acknowledge publicly the gay, lesbian, and bisexual Christians I know who have decided to attend this conference, as I know you braced yourselves for great hostility. I don’t know any transgender Christians in attendance tonight. If you are here, I’d love to meet you. I cannot fathom the depths of your courage. Tonight, I feel compelled to walk down a well-trodden road through the Scriptures. I do hope you’ll hold out for what I have to say because I hope to use incredibly painfully familiar passages to mark out a road far less travelled. For the sake of our LGBT brothers and sisters, I’m going to let you know that I’ll walk through Romans 1, Genesis 3, Matthew 19, and Genesis 1. I hope you’ll take a deep breath, and I invite you to trust me even though I’ve given you scant reason to hope that I’ll say something different from what you’ve already heard. God has set this message on my heart. And l implore your forgiveness for any ways I fall short.

Let us turn to Romans 1, beginning with verse 19:

What can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

Church, if we are going to have an honest conversation about the Gospel, homosexuality and the future of marriage, then we need to be frank: we have made an idol out of marriage. To be absolutely clear, God has imprinted His loving design on marriage. However, marriage is not the Gospel, especially when we consider how we present the Gospel to LGBTQ people both inside and outside the Church. How has it come to pass that Christians are better known for standing in a fried chicken line than we are for feeding the hungry? How has it come to pass that Christians are better known for resisting anti-bullying legislation in schools than we are for treating absolutely each and every person with the love of God? How has it come to pass that Christian parents are better known for kicking their LGBTQ children out on the streets than they are known for binding up the broken-hearted? How is it that 91% of young people between the ages of 16 and 29 who are outside of the church describe the church as anti-gay? These are our kids. And we are failing them. We are failing to show them the Gospel of Christ. We are failing to provide a broken world with hope of restoration and fullness, a promise that we Christians can only be fulfilled by uniting our lives wholly and completely to Christ.

We can find an important piece to this puzzle if we look at Genesis 3. Now, there’s a lot that can be said about Genesis 3 if we are talking about a broken world. Given our topic tonight, I’d like to zoom in on verse 16:

To the woman he [God] said, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.

Now, let me first say something absolutely clear to the women gathered in the audience. This verse is not about you. This verse is not about your failings. This verse is not about your specific individual sins. This verse has been all too often wretched from its context and has been abused, completely and wholly and utterly abused by men seeking to demean women. We cannot have an honest conversation about the future of marriage if we deny the historic injustices of misogyny: and our churches have been anything but innocent when it comes to perpetuating the abuse of women.

At this point in Genesis 3, God delivers His judgment on the serpent, the woman, and the man. Some people will describe this passage as God cursing Creation. Yet we know that God, in infinite mercy and majesty, disciplines us as a father cares for his children. We also know that God wants all things to work together for our good and that He gives us good gifts. So here, in Genesis 3, we see that God has given the woman desire for her husband. The mysteries of attraction and marriage are both a blessing and a curse. No wonder it’s so easy for us to fail so miserably in areas of sexual morality!

Turning to Matthew 19, we read:

He [Jesus] answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”

The important thing to note here is that Jesus is talking about divorce. Jesus ups the ante even further when he says, “And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” Friends, brothers and sisters, if we’ve read the Gospels, we know that when Jesus says, “And I say to you” he is looking us right in the eye and telling us that we so easily miss the boat completely on the core issue. Marriage is a commitment that matters to Christ. It is profoundly important. Marriage reflects the world that God created, and marriage is good. Nonetheless, Christ knows that our fallenness we experience marriage as both a blessing and a curse, and he recognizes that sexual immorality has the power to destroy a marriage. That’s why we need to pray for those who are married in our midst: sin can enter in and destroy a covenantal bond. And that’s why we need the Cross because only on the Cross can Christ give Himself completely, fully, and freely to the church. Only through the Cross can Christ destroy the many forces of death that seek only to destroy God’s covenantal bond to His people.

The disciples know that Christ’s teaching on marriage is a challenging teaching. Let’s continue in Matthew 19:

The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”

And friends, here is where we really experience how we have made an idol of marriage in our society. We have made marriage an idol when we jettison its complement–celibacy. What is even worse is that we thrust this rejected way of life on gay and lesbian people expecting them to figure it out with no support when Protestants, by and large, have neglected the celibate vocation for hundreds of years. Could it be that God has whipped up such fury in the church about homosexuality so we can finally start to have honest conversations about the goodness of celibacy? Church, we need to be honest: do we even know what Christ was talking about when he said “there are eunuchs”? For my part, I have to wonder if there were people running around shouting at those on the margins of society, saying “Don’t call yourself a eunuch!” This passage from Christ is eerily reminiscent of how we talk about gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people in our cultural context. Moreover, we must be especially mindful that there are some people who do not feel like they can elect into a heterosexual marriage owing to any range of factors. How are we support these people who feel like celibacy is their only realistic option?

I don’t pretend to know the answer to that question, as I do not have the mind of God. Try as I might, I’m a sinner, I’m a fallible human being, and I know that the way of Christ is hard to find. I know that there is great promise in celibate vocations if for no other reasons than Christ was celibate, Paul was celibate, and so many heroes of faith in the modern world like Mother Teresa have been celibate. May God guide the journey, and may we have confidence to undertake this journey in faith.

And, I promised, I’d finish with Genesis 1.

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. … So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. … And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

God created us in God’s own image. As we go out into the world, whether we are married or unmarried, LGBT or straight, weak or strong, let us remember that we are created in God’s image. May God grant us the strength to be image-bearers so that we reflect Christ in all we do and say.

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

Comfort, Conversation, and Creating Change (or, Why You Should Apply for the Next Oriented to Love Dialogue)

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A reflection by Sarah

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30, NRSV)

This passage of scripture appeared in my mind as I was packing my bag for a weekend trip last Thursday. The reason was not apparent, and when it began to play on repeat for an hour as I finished my travel preparations I became slightly annoyed. At one point I stopped in frustration to ask God directly, “Why aren’t you letting me put this out of my thoughts today? You know how exhausted I am these daysWith work, research, constant doctors appointments, tension at church, and now a weekend out of town, I can’t see myself getting any meaningful rest anytime soon, physically or spiritually.”

Fast forward two days, and I’m standing over my bed at a retreat center near Philadelphia, repacking my bag and wondering how the weekend could have come to a close so quickly. I’m feeling hopeful, grateful, and rested.

Months ago, I applied to participate in an Oriented to Love dialogue. Oriented to Love, sponsored by Evangelicals for Social Action, is an opportunity for 12 people from vastly different backgrounds to come together for conversation about faith and sexual orientation in Christianity. The goal is to share stories and listen to others’ stories in order to build empathy. This was not a space for theological debate and attempts at changing the opinions of others. I’ll admit that when I first applied, pride was one of my motivators. Because the call for applicants emphasized seeking participants with diverse experiences, I thought, “As one half of a celibate LGBT couple, I can contribute a perspective that probably no other applicant can. I doubt any other celibate couples will be applying.” After having participated in the dialogue, I’m a bit ashamed to own up to that. Every person I met this weekend had something unique to contribute, and I encountered some perspectives that I didn’t even know existed.

Construction paper, torn and folded to represent where each of us was emotionally, spiritually, or otherwise at the beginning of the dialogue. Mine is the stringy green one to the far left.

Construction paper, torn and folded to represent where each of us was emotionally, spiritually, or otherwise at the beginning of the dialogue. Mine is the stringy green one at the far left.

Amongst the 12 of us who were chosen for the dialogue, multiple Christian traditions were represented. Our group consisted of Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant participants who are gay, straight, and questioning. I met parents of gay adult children, people in mixed orientation marriages who are committed to being faithful to their spouses, straight allies, and straight people who might not necessarily identify with the term “ally” but are nonetheless committed to making their churches safe spaces for LGBT members. I met people who use LGBT language and others who describe their journeys using the term “same-sex attraction (SSA).” I also met people who disagree vehemently with each other on gay marriage, same-sex sexual activity, and same-sex relationships. I wasn’t surprised to meet a couple of folks (one more liberal and one more conservative) who admitted to seeing celibate partnership as a bizarre concept. Yet my experience of the dialogue was marked by peace and comfort rather than anxiety over the possibility of being misunderstood, and within less than an hour of being in the same room with the 11 other participants I sensed a natural bond amongst us all.

This table was present in the dialogue room all weekend, and was always adorned with colorful cups, fruit, and table linens. I had to take a picture because my first thought upon seeing it was, "This is what hospitality looks like."

This table was present in the dialogue room all weekend, and was always adorned with colorful cups, fruit, and table linens. I had to take a picture because my first thought upon seeing it was, “This is what hospitality looks like.”

Because of my hope that after seeing this some of our readers will consider applying for the next dialogue, I’ll try not to give away too many of the details. Mostly, I want to tell you what I learned from the dialogue and what the experience was like for me personally. I came into the weekend anticipating that I would have trouble relating to other dialoguers. This is partly because I have never been evangelical, and thus had no idea what to expect from an event run by an evangelical organization. But during the actual experience, I was amazed not only at the ease of communication but also at the level of mutual respect we participants showed for one another. Some of my best one-on-one conversations were with people whose viewpoints on many theological and moral matters are worlds apart from mine.

A window in the retreat center's lovely chapel

A window in the retreat center’s lovely chapel

The dialogue weekend helped me to do what Lindsey and I often wish that others would do: appreciate people as people rather than seeing them first as symbols of ideologies. As a celibate gay person who has experienced significant pain from being caught in the middle of the culture wars, I found it humbling to share insightful dinner table conversation with people who fit within broader categories that have contributed to my feeling unwelcome in the Church.

It also reminded me that my conclusions are not the only possible conclusions for a rational person to reach. Being in an environment devoid of the “no true Scotsman” fallacy was a precious opportunity. Many of the dialoguers on all sides even expressed frustration at conversations in their own churches that devolve into, “A true Christian could never possibly believe x, y, or z.” Being able to share in that common frustration side by side with people who believe very different things than I do was healing.

Last weekend, I learned that there are many sincere people at various points on the ideological spectrum who want to walk with me and encourage me in my journey toward Christ. There are liberal, conservative, moderate, LGBT, and straight/cisgender people in all Christian traditions who will readily acknowledge all the ways their Christian traditions have failed in ministering to sexual and gender minorities. And even more inspiring: they are committed to changing this and fighting for those whom their churches have marginalized.

I saw evidence of how the affirming vs. non-affirming dichotomy heightens tension and silences Christians who would otherwise be interested in supporting their LGBT bothers and sisters. I had the opportunity to listen as straight Christians holding a traditional sexual ethic listed all the ways they are ready to affirm LGBT people. There was affirmation of the importance of meaningful human relationships, the toxicity of viewing LGBT celibacy as nothing more than “God says no,” and the shameful treatment that straight Christians have doled out to LGBT Christians under the guise of “love.” I wept with my straight, conservative brothers and sisters as they shared their sadness at being depicted as heartless homophobes.

I connected with my own areas of vulnerability, came to see how our struggles connect us as humans, and allowed the other 11 dialoguers to bear my burdens with me. I was surprised at how freely I was able to share my exhaustion, anger, and sorrow from managing chronic health conditions, and also my fear of falling back into addictions as a way of coping with the unmanageableness of it all. I met others in the pain they brought into the weekend too, and now that I’m back home I will continue to remember each of them in my daily prayers. In so many ways, the dialogue has ignited my prayer life.

The bricks and stones around the table represent the greatest emotional and spiritual weights each of us brought into the dialogue.

The bricks and stones around the table represent the greatest emotional and spiritual weights each of us brought into the dialogue.

I felt an inexplicable sense of synergy during the dialogue. Most of the time I’m skeptical of the idea that individuals can make a meaningful difference toward ending a longstanding injustice. One of the thoughts I had upon entering the dialogue room was, “If everyone here is at least moderate enough to be willing to talk with others who are different from them, are we really going to accomplish anything? These people are probably already working toward making their churches safer for LGBT members.” But I was reminded that we all have blind spots, and some of those showed themselves over the weekend. It’s possible to be working toward creating safety and welcome, but to be doing it in ways that one doesn’t even realize are counterproductive and hurtful. We talked about those things, and I experienced some realizations about ways I need to change my behavior toward others. There was a great deal of creativity and challenge in those discussions, and I left with a sense that our little group can and will make a difference as we re-enter the world post-dialogue.

We finger painted! Here's my creation.

We finger painted! Here’s my creation. It’s also a teaser: I enjoy painting and drawing, and in a couple of weeks, I’ll be sharing a sampling of my art here on the blog.

My most significant takeaway from the dialogue was hope that things will not always be so painful because slowly but surely, people are changing. Christians want to be loving, but sometimes we don’t know how to live up to the two great commandments. Sometimes, we hurt people when we honestly don’t intend to do so. We think our words and actions are loving, and often we can’t see how others are receiving our words and actions. Now, more people are beginning to take this seriously and reevaluate their approaches to marginalized members of their faith communities. It’s challenging to wait around for Christians to begin acting like Christians, but God showed me during the dialogue that that statement includes me as well as the most hostile person at my parish.

We selected images that resonated with us at the end of the dialogue. These chairs reminded me of coffee hour at our parish, the struggles we face there, and the hope we have that these troubles within our Christian tradition will not be permanent.

We selected images that resonated with us at the end of the dialogue. These chairs reminded me of coffee hour at Lindsey’s and my parish, the struggles we face there, and the hope we have that these troubles within our Christian tradition will not be permanent.

To my great surprise, I was not yet ready to take a break from dialoguing after returning home. Lindsey and I spent hours that evening debriefing and processing my experience. We asked ourselves some of the same questions I had discussed with the other dialoguers and continue to consider prayerfully how we can use what I learned to strengthen our vocation and the work that we do on a daily basis in blogging. We’ve been thinking about what it actually means for a person to be “oriented to love,” and we pray that God grants us greater insight into this as we move forward in our ministry together.

I would give the Oriented to Love dialogue my highest possible recommendation to anyone interested in issues of Christian faith and sexuality. At the risk of sounding cheesy, I’ll admit that I consider it a singularly life-changing experience. But seriously, you need to apply. If you care about the Church and how her members respond to each other when it comes to tough issues, you will benefit from this dialogue. So go ahead and bookmark the call for applicants page. The next dialogue will probably be in a few months.

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

Saturday Symposium: Terminology and the Gay/Straight Gap

Happy Saturday! We’d like to extend a special welcome to our new readers and commenters. There has been an incredible amount of conversation this week! We hope that you’ve enjoyed the conversations as much as we have.

Pausing for a brief administrative moment, we wanted to let you know we’ve changed our comment settings so comments nest 5 deep. We made this decision because we wanted to improve readability. We’d encourage you to use the comment box at the end of the page should you find yourself lacking a Reply button on a particular comment.

It’s time for us to ask our Saturday Symposium question:

How this works: It’s very simple. We ask a multi-part question related to a topic we’ve blogged about during the past week or are considering blogging about in the near future, and you, our readers, share your responses in the comments section. Feel free to be open, reflective, and vulnerable…and to challenge us. But as always, be mindful of the comment policy that ends each of our posts. Usually, we respond fairly quickly to each comment, but in order to give you time to think, come back, add more later if you want, and discuss with other readers, we will wait until after Monday to respond to comments on Saturday Symposium questions.

This week’s Saturday Symposium question: This week, we have had many conversations about how the church welcomes gay people. Our most discussed post was our response to Fr. Dwight Longenecker. We especially appreciated this comment from Will Duquette, in which Will shares that his dominant experience of gay people comes from media reporting on activists working to shut down florists and bakeries. We wanted to open a conversation about how people experience words like gay, straight, LGBT, same-gender loving, homosexual, same-sex attracted, transgender, cisgender, and the gender binary. How can you have respectful conversations with a person who experiences these terms radically differently than you do? What strategies have you found helpful in bridging gaps in understanding? What kinds of things widen the gaps? 

We look forward to reading your responses. If you’re concerned about having your comment publicly associated with your name, please consider using the Contact Us page to submit your comment. We can post it under a pseudonym (i.e. John says, “your comment”) or summarize your comment in our own words (i.e. One person observed…). Participating in this kind of public dialogue can be risky, and we want to do what we can to protect you even if that means we preserve your anonymity. Have a wonderful weekend!

Blessings,

Sarah and Lindsey

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

To my friends at my baptismal parish

A reflection by Lindsey

I always start thinking about my baptism in October. I was baptized in my current Christian tradition on 31 October 2009. It’s a movie that I can replay in color immediately as I start reflecting on it. I invited friends from virtually every season of my life. It was an incredible day, and I’m immensely grateful of how God graced me with community, hope, and Himself in the sacraments.

Over the course of the last few days, many friends from my baptismal parish have gotten in touch with me. They’ve seen our posts about how we’ve been welcomed in our church here; and they’ve been contacting me to tell me that they’re sorry Sarah and I are having to endure these things. Some have even made their first comments on the blog in an effort to show me that they love me and that they want to support me, Sarah, and the relationship we have together.

To my friends at my baptismal parish: I’m sorry.

I’m sorry because I had no idea how to share my celibate vocation with you. I’m sorry that when you now click on my Facebook profile, you can see that I’ve shared every post we’ve ever published on A Queer Calling. Until today, I had the vast majority of you on a special Facebook list in order to try and preserve my privacy. I’m sorry for determining that I’d be taking far too great a risk if I shared our writing here with you.

I’ve decided to write to you today because some of you took the bold step of reaching out to me before I reached out to you. You could tell that I was struggling to figure out how to get myself to church on Sunday, and you reached out to me. Even though we’re separated by hundreds of miles, you managed to reach out and touch my heart. Thank you.

I’m sorry I’ve been so terribly gun shy about discussing my sexuality, my vocation, and my relationship with Sarah. I’ve taken to hiding in a hermetically-sealed cage because I have come to expect “welcomes” like the one I received on Sunday. I hid because I was afraid. I was afraid that the moment I actually confirmed the rumors that I am, in fact, a part of the LGBT community, I would be asked to leave the physical premises of most churches. I’ve developed a lot of coping strategies for when Christians discuss LGBT people as Public Enemy #1 or that it’s impossible to be gay and Christian. I’m constantly afraid that if Christians see me doing anything to help other LGBT people deepen their relationship with Christ, then they will demand that priests deal with me swiftly and decisively. The walls have been up for a reason, but I’m so grateful for every small way you’ve tried to edge just a bit closer to me.

Writing to you today is hard. So many priests have cautioned me against ever saying anything remotely public about my sexuality lest I cause a scandal. However, some of you have arrived at the doorstep of our comment boxes only to assure me of your prayers, love, and support. I hope I’m right in guessing that you’ve already let the cat out of the proverbial bag. I keep trying to take big deep breaths to reassure myself that some of you have commented on the blog precisely because you’re trying to let me know that I can reach back. But I’m scared, terrified even, because I’ve been told, time and time again, that I need to be incredibly cautious when I talk about these topics.

<Exhale. Deep breath. It’s going to be okay.>

I’m a celibate LGBT Christian who is one-half of a celibate LGBT couple.

I’m writing to you today because I want you to know that, yes, you actually do know someone who is LGBT and striving to cultivate a celibate vocation. I’ve learned so much about my vocation by watching how you live your lives. I’m still asking God for the grace necessary to run the race set before me; I’d covet your prayers. I know you are praying for me because you reached out to me before I reached out to you. I’ve been trying actively to keep my writing from some of you; however, you still found your way here, and I’m grateful.

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Welcoming Gays: A Response to Fr. Dwight Longenecker

Yesterday, Fr. Dwight Longenecker published a post called “Welcoming Gays: How Do I Do That?” We appreciate how he used a question mark in his title, and we hope he won’t mind us giving some honest feedback about welcoming LGBT people in Christian communities. Our goal in writing this post is to make some concrete suggestions about things pastors can actually do. Yesterday’s post had a reasonable litany of things best avoided.

When we welcome people, we usually want to know their names. We want to know them personally. It’s hard to feel welcome when people aren’t willing to come up to you, shake your hand, tell you their names, and ask you yours. On a similar note, welcoming a group of people means respecting how they see themselves as a group. We’ve known many a confirmation class from the United Methodist Church that has visited parishes within our Christian tradition as a part of their faith formation. We are always incredibly excited and supportive when our clergy decide to host a forum for these visitors after services to help them make sense of what they’ve seen in the Liturgy. In doing this, we’re treating them as candidates for confirmation in the United Methodist Church. There would be some differences in the ways our parishes would welcome an inquirer who is considering converting, a parishioner’s parents who are visiting from out of town, or visitors who are part of our tradition but come from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

If you want to welcome gays, it’s important to know and respect what the word gay means within the LGBT community. Specifically, the word gay is “a word describing a man or a woman who is emotionally, romantically, sexually and relationally attracted to members of the same sex.” We deliberately took this definition from the Human Rights Campaign’s Glossary of Terms because we wanted to use a definition from clearly within the LGBT community. If we look at the American Psychological Association’s website, we’d see sexual orientation defined as, “an often enduring pattern of emotional, romantic and/or sexual attractions of men to women or women to men (heterosexual), of women to women or men to men (homosexual), or by men or women to both sexes (bisexual).” It’s important to note that within the LGBT community, LGBT modifies people and homosexual modifies sexual orientation. Swapping the modifiers to get homosexual person is indicative that the person doing the labeling is using a clinical definition of homosexuality.

Fr. Longenecker, people who are gay cannot be described accurately as: “those who are sexually active and committed not only to sexual relations with a person of the same sex, but also to what might be called ‘gay activism’. In other words, their ‘gayness’  is more than sexual activity. It also involves political activism and an ideological stance.” Equating being gay with engaging in specific forms of political activism makes it easy for conservative Christians to assume that every LGBT person is a menace to congregations and must be opposed at all costs. When parishes perceive LGBT people as a carriers of a social plague, they’re just as likely to welcome an LGBT person at church as they are to let an Ebola patient hang out with them at home. And we know that Catholics are taking in the families of Ebola patients: Catholics help people because Catholics are Catholic, not because these families are necessarily Catholic.

If you want to welcome gays, it’s best to use language that is not deliberately inflammatory. Talk to LGBT people about the Gospel; about Christ; about His incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. Talk to us about love and sacrifice, grace and truth, mercy and justice. Teach us how to pray, to fast, to feast, to serve, to worship. Guide us as we seek to follow Christ and to grow in our understanding of him. Hear our confessions. Sin is not a dirty word, but please do not assume that you know our sins before we tell you. Resist the urge to say, “The gay lifestyle is repugnant to any right thinking Catholic. The gay ideology is anti-Catholic and the gay manifesto is manifestly un Christian.” As LGBT people, we’re really confused about what you mean by “the gay ideology” and “the gay manifesto.” And honestly, publicly describing the lifestyle of any and all gay people as repugnant isn’t exactly going to offer us any assurance that we will be greeted with a handshake if we have the guts to walk through the door of your parish. Please know that we’re not crying “Persecution!” We’re concerned that people in your parish will take it upon themselves to speculate and query about how we’re abominations before God.

If you want to welcome gays, affirm where you see goodness within us. So many LGBT people have been called “repugnant” by Christians that it can be hard for us to see ourselves as “first and foremost brothers and sisters, fellow human beings created in the image of God and therefore good and precious eternal souls.” Many Christians treat us like we’re part of “certain pressure groups” out to get the Church to “change her basic stance on homosexuality.” We’d love the opportunity to be people who are assumed to enter the door in good faith. It’s really fantastic when pastors take time to say something positive they see in our spiritual lives.

If you want to welcome gays, be willing to listen to our stories of how we have been hurt by pastors and other Christians. We honestly wish it were true that in most churches “the homosexual person is welcomed without prejudice if he or she truly wants to be part of the family of faith.” Surveys indicate that while over 70 percent of gay adults identify some connection to Christianity, 42 percent don’t attend church. We find this incredibly sad. Many LGBT people have grown up hearing that it’s impossible to be a gay Christian. Lindsey was 29 years old before a pastor had ever said to Lindsey, “You are welcome in this parish.” It remains a singular experience but Lindsey makes a habit of replaying that memory when feeling discouraged. It’s important for priests to know how to respond if one of their brother priests denies a celibate gay person absolution because of the gay person’s sexual orientation. Yes, this does happen even if it’s not supposed to happen. Too often, straight Christians behave like ostriches when LGBT people tell stories about experiencing discrimination in church. One can dismiss these stories easily by saying, “Well, that priest was wrong to deny you communion if you weren’t sinning. That’s not what the Church teaches. Surely the priest had other reasons to deny you communion.” This kind of response accuses LGBT Christians of lying and gives straight Christians an excuse to keep their heads in the sand.

To answer your question, Fr. Longenecker, “Do [gay people] want to be assured that simply because they experience same sex attraction they will not be vilified, ostracized and excluded?” The answer is Yes. We would also like it if straight Christians could stop ignoring how LGBT Christians have been mistreated by clergy and laity alike. It would be awesome if an LGBT person could tell a story of hurt and be greeted with empathy, reassurance, and perhaps an apology if one is warranted. Speaking for ourselves as a celibate LGBT couple, we’d love it if clergy in our Christian tradition could help us sort legal matters to ensure that we’re able to care for one another. There’s been a lot of ink spilled over the question of gay marriage where many Christian traditions have concluded that it’s inappropriate for a couple like us to enact a civil marriage. However, we’re still wondering about how best to sort issues of health care, financial interdependence, and other practical matters. Not always, but often in the past when we’ve raised these issues with priests and others we trust at church, we’ve been accused of being over-dramatic and looking for an excuse to call our relationship a “marriage.” We’re grateful to have a priest now who sees us as people rather than as problems. Nonetheless, it would be nice to have some assurance that we would be treated as people if we went to a different parish within our Christian tradition. It would also be fantastic if we had a sense that our fellow parishioners felt like they could give us an authentic welcome.

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

When the Church’s “Welcome” to LGBT People Hurts

In the last several weeks, we’ve noticed an uptick in messaging that churches do not need to extend a special welcome to specific groups because churches follow Christ’s example and welcome everyone. We believe that any time a local church extends a special welcome to any group, that welcome has its roots in past hurts. Even a celebration like Mother’s Day came after society realized it was not particularly appreciative of mothers. Neither of us has ever attended a local congregation that has explicitly identified itself as a community that welcomes LGBT people. On occasion, we’ve attended churches that are generally regarded as places that are willing to journey alongside LGBT people even if they don’t say so explicitly. At present, we feel blessed to have a priest who appreciates and respects our desires to live celibacy while assuming the best about our intentions. Nonetheless, this past Sunday was probably the most traumatic experience we’ve ever had in a church environment, even though we had done our best to prepare for the worst.

Churches that teach traditional sexual ethics tend to be traditional in other areas as well. Traditional churches often recognize places where the Gospel praises seemingly disparate approaches to life. They strive to find a good balance between extremes. They see it as important to proclaim both Love and Truth, to have space for both Justice and Mercy. They value both right belief (orthodoxy) and right practice (orthopraxy). We firmly believe that churches need to present a balanced view of the faith. Like many Christians, we know that the way of Christ is indeed a narrow way that can be hard to find. Like many Christians, we’ve experienced seasons of needing to be reminded of God’s law and other seasons of needing to be reminded of God’s grace. Growing spiritually can sometimes be two steps forward and one step back as we frequently overcorrect along the way. It seems fitting to suggest that maturing in Christ is a lot like bowling with bumpers where all things good and holy try to direct forward progress.

Just as individuals can struggle to find the narrow way of Christ, many church communities teaching traditional sexual ethics do struggle with welcoming LGBT Christians. Every week, we experience a mixed bag of “welcome” when we attend church. You could think of it in terms of our necessary adaptation to a certain undercurrent. On a typical Sunday, we might experience between 1 and 3 interactions that indicate a person feels considerable animosity towards LGBT people. We know to expect it and even truly welcome the occasional presumptive “understanding” of what our lives are like. It doesn’t offend us when people try to be welcoming, but struggle. We’re glad to educate those who want to be educated. People asking almost-stupid questions directly can be a sign that they trust us enough to let their guards down and open up to learning more. However, while we’re used to hearing questions that contain some arguably innocent misconceptions, a particularly pointed discussion about LGBT issues in the Church has the potential to rip our hearts out through our noses. It’s especially bad when misconception stacks on top of misconception, and discussants drift away from considering LGBT people first and foremost as people. We’ve seen this trend in multiple local church communities, so we wanted to take the opportunity to say what not to do if you are trying to “welcome” LGBT Christians:

  • Use the first possible opportunity to ask the pastor publicly to clarify teaching on homosexuality because you suspect that there are LGBT people among your church’s membership.
  • Explain that LGBT people are welcome only because all sinners are welcome, assuming that all LGBT people struggle with lust.
  • Zoom in on a vague sense of “sinful behaviors” when discussing LGBT issues without offering any discussion about what said behaviors are.
  • Defend conservative reactionaries who have been “hurt” by gay activists before acknowledging the emotional and spiritual strains on LGBT Christians who are constantly accused of any number of outrageous activities.
  • Permit cisgender, heterosexual people space to talk openly about LGBT issues while telling LGBT people to remain “discreet” about their sexual orientations and/or gender identities.
  • Discuss the sexual orientations and perceived sins of specific members in the congregation with a priest or pastor while less than 6 feet away from those members.
  • Glare over your shoulder directly at suspected LGBT people while talking about them.
  • Accuse celibate LGBT people of a well-crafted charade to corrupt a perfectly good congregation with a hidden “liberal” agenda.
  • Suggest that LGBT people are secretly flirting with one another at church.
  • Demand proof of exactly how pastors know celibate LGBT people aren’t having all sorts of sex.
  • Accuse celibate LGBT people of lying about their celibacy.
  • Inform LGBT people they’re being “too sensitive” if they give examples of people saying hurtful things.

To be crystal clear, we’ve directly experienced all of these things in multiple congregations. Moreover, we know other celibate LGBT people who experience comparable “welcome” from their congregations. Enduring this litany seems to be part and parcel of the parish experience for many LGBT Christians, both celibate and non-celibate, who attend churches teaching a traditional sexual ethic.

The natural next question is, “So why don’t you just find a different church?”

Short answer: it’s not that easy.

Longer answer: These experiences are shockingly common. Especially within conservative Christian traditions, it’s challenging to find parishes where several items on the above list don’t happen on a regular basis. Seeking a parish and a priest is emotionally taxing beyond description. It’s like dating while knowing full well that 8 of your 10 first dates will involve verbal, emotional, and spiritual abuse. It requires being willing to try out a specific church, actually going, meeting with the pastor, being prepared for the severe condemnation that usually follows, taking a week or two to recover from that encounter, then repeating the process again and again until finally landing in a parish that seems not ideal, but survivable. Both in the past when we were single and now that we are a couple, we’ve found that it can take months or years of searching before finding even one priest in our tradition who is willing to see us as people instead of pastoral challenges. At this point you might be wondering, “If the two of you are celibate, why are you encountering such problems?” When it comes to our presence within a parish, our celibacy matters very little to culture warriors who see us as nothing more than incarnations of a political agenda.

We’ve never made a public statement about our LGBT status. People simply assume that we’re public sinners because we have committed the unthinkable act of showing up for Liturgy. We’ve had to recalibrate our sense of welcome and what it means to have realistic expectations about acceptance. To us, “welcome” frequently means that there are at least two people present who won’t scowl at us for every person who does. That’s not the kind of welcome other groups of people receive at church, yet so many parishes where members behave in the ways described above seriously think they’re doing all they can and all they should need to do in order to welcome LGBT Christians. How is it welcoming to foster an environment where parishioners are constantly suspecting other parishioners’ actions and motives? This is why thinking about exactly how we experience “welcome” hurts. It hurts a lot. 

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

Confessions of a Former Bad Catholic

A reflection by Sarah

Another surprise blog post today. We seem to be in a season of life where the need for these is popping up quite often. After a very intense response to my ear injections yesterday which kept me riding an evil tilt-a-whirl all night, I’m spending the day working from home. Usually my vertigo episodes continue steadily for minutes to hours until coming to a sudden end, but last night I had about an hour of respite around 3am, during which time I read this article by Aaron Taylor at Ethika Politika. Taylor cites the story of Louise Mensch — a divorced and remarried Catholic who is not currently receiving communion due to her own convictions — as an example of the quickly dying (perhaps already dead) “bad Catholic” archetype:

Reactions to Mensch’s piece fell predictably into two camps. On one side, “liberals” decried Mensch for being self-loathing, for not dancing to the beat of the modern, sexually enlightened drum. On the other side, “conservatives” were baffled as to why, if Mensch really believed the Church’s teachings, she would not abandon her lifestyle as an “adulteress.” What both critics share is the belief that Mensch’s situation makes little sense because one cannot simultaneously uphold a set of moral standards and fall short of those standards.

Yet, until fairly recently in Catholic history, women and men like Mensch were easily understood by others in the Church as conforming to a particular type: the type of the “bad Catholic.”

“Bad Catholics” knew the moral rules taught by the Church, and they broke—even flouted—them, particularly when it came to sex. They did not, however, argue that the rules should be changed to confer moral approval on their behavior. Despite their moral failings, bad Catholics also tended to maintain a high regard for the Church’s sacramental and spiritual rules and practices. They attended Mass, were devoted to the Virgin Mary, and expressed love for the Blessed Sacrament precisely by not receiving it in Communion when in an unworthy state to do so.

Taylor goes on to point out that Mensch’s story is not representative of what generally happens to today’s “bad Catholics,” who usually end up identifying as “liberal Catholics” or leaving Catholicism altogether. Without judgment upon anyone’s faith journey and without intending to stigmatize anyone who identifies as a liberal Catholic, I am inclined to agree with his basic point. This is what becomes of today’s bad Catholics. I’ve seen it myself more times than I can count. As I’ve already outed myself on the blog as a former Catholic, I can say openly that this article struck a strong chord with me. My own reasons for leaving the Catholic Church for a different Christian tradition are completely removed from any moral teaching or behavioral expectation. (If you must know, the final nail in the coffin was my inability assent to papal supremacy after significant theological study on this doctrine’s development, but perhaps that’s a post for another time.) However, after reading the article I spent the rest of the night — at least what time I wasn’t focused on asking God to save me from falling off the floor — in reflection. I suppose I ought to thank Eve Tushnet for this as well. Somehow I’m feeling both unusually brave and extra vulnerable after my recent read of her new book.

Confession time: not only am I a former Catholic, but I’m also a former “bad Catholic.” And today, I’m still entirely capable of being a bad Christian within my current tradition. Yet despite this awareness, most of the time I don’t feel free to admit it to anyone other than Lindsey and our parish priest. I don’t have permission to be a bad Christian, and when I think seriously about it I realize that this was also true during my years as a Catholic.

Let’s back up a bit…

Though sexual sin has never been a serious struggle for me, I’ve experienced seasons in which I’ve been unable or unwilling (or both) to behave morally in other ways. Everyone who practices rigorous honesty can identify with this to an extent. But somehow, it’s still easy to presume that if a person is engaging in unchristian behaviors, his/her spiritual life is nonexistent…or alternatively, that if a person engages regularly in spiritually healthy devotional practices, he/she must be living in a way that is fully aligned with the teachings of the Gospel.

As I thought about this last night, I was taken back to my college and early graduate school days. Without hesitation, I can say that I was a deeply devoted Catholic. I attended Mass almost every day, not out of compulsion but because I woke up each morning with an eagerness to hear that day’s Gospel proclaimed, to be present with the very small daily Mass-going community in my college town, and to be in the same chapel where bread and wine mysteriously became Christ’s Body and Blood despite my inability to see this happening. I had a consistent daily prayer rule and engaged regularly in theological conversations with friends. But quite often, my most profound spiritual moments were intertwined with my most immoral behaviors.

I was a very good student and never had trouble maintaining excellent grades, and during my freshman and sophomore years everyone in my residence hall knew me as the girl who would sit in the lobby and study for hours into the night. As I immersed myself in the works of Aristotle, Tertullian, Shakespeare, and Virginia Woolf, I would take frequent mini-breaks to say a Chaplet of Divine Mercy and snort an Adderall, crushing it beforehand with my copy of the Langenscheidt German Dictionary…or the Daily Roman Missal. There wasn’t an evening that passed without my calling out to the Theotokos, whom I referred to as “Mom” at that point. On weekends after I had finished all my homework, I would load my pockets with prayer cards, a rosary, some cash for cocaine, a fake ID, and head off to a party with my sorority sisters or friends from work. I remember one night when after my eighth jello shot and an untold amount of Bacardi and diet coke, I sat in the backseat of one of my sisters’ cars, pulled a rosary from my pocket and began praying it loudly on the way back to campus. My sisters all found this quite amusing, and I remember one requesting jovially, “Pray one for me too, Sparky!” Then, there was also bulimia — the “good girl’s addiction” that I had developed by age 12. Saying the Litany of Loreto or part of Vespers/Compline on my drive to the grocery store and between binge/purge sessions was a common practice of mine for several years.

I have no doubt that some readers are horrified by this point in the post. I’m anticipating getting some nasty comments and emails from pious individuals demanding to know what possessed me to engage in such appalling and irreverent behavior. Sometimes, I wonder that myself. I wondered about it at the time too, which is why despite going to Mass almost every day, more often than not I didn’t commune. And while I always took these matters with me to confession, I never attempted to approach this sacrament if my attitude was, “I know what I’m doing is wrong, but I’m not ready to repent and amend my life.” During these times I always held onto the hope that God would eventually guide me to a place of desiring repentance. I was a bad Catholic, and I knew it and accepted it as the present reality.

I’m sure my reflection today will also receive many responses from readers who are wondering, “Why are you beating up on yourself? Why can’t you see that these behaviors you’re describing are indicative of mental illness, not sin?” I’m not beating up on myself. I’m calling a duck a duck. Sin and illness are not mutually exclusive. Yes, there’s a level at which my culpability for some of these actions was compromised. Identifying these actions as results of sin is not the same as blaming, shaming, or implying that struggles with substance abuse and behavioral addiction are my “fault.”

Coming full circle to the article’s discussion of what happens to bad Catholics, I’ve seen stories similar to mine play out very differently in the lives of other people I’ve known. There are folks who leave Catholicism or Christianity altogether because of the pressure to be perfectly free from sin before ever approaching the church’s front stoop. They know that they can’t be perfect, so they stop trying. There are others who experience pressure from secular society to ease up on themselves to the point of dismissing Christian teaching altogether, or picking and choosing the parts that are gentlest. They hear from friends and mental health professionals that thinking about their struggles in any way related to sin is pathological and masochistic. Because issues of sin that are directly related to mental health can be highly sensitive topics, these people may find that the only way they can move forward in life is to reject the moral expectations of traditional Christianity and replace them with whatever counsel is helping at the moment. I’ve noticed that these things happen frequently when a person struggling with serious sin attempts to discuss it with a priest or pastor who is more concerned with quoting dogmas than attending to the needs of a deeply wounded soul. Another common instigator is members of the parish who do not trust their priests to steward the chalice, so they take it upon themselves to protect the Church from sinners. Such people use passive aggression or sometimes direct confrontation to inform the sinner that his/her lack of repentance is scandalous. And fellow parishioners who encourage abandoning truth in favor of grace also contribute to the problem.

At this time, I am (mostly) in a positive space with regard to the spiritual issues I’ve discussed in this post. But I am still a bad Christian, and still capable of fitting the “bad Catholic” archetype at times. I can’t speak for anyone else, but seeking space where I can be accepted as a “bad Christian” or “bad Catholic” has been necessary for my spiritual growth. Such spaces are woefully rare, and I can’t say that I’ve ever belonged to a parish where the community fully appreciates what it means to accept those who believe, have committed to being obedient, but do morality poorly most all of the time and are willing to admit it. It troubles me that at our current parish, neither Lindsey nor I feel free to abstain from communion when necessary. If we do, the culture warriors begin imagining that we must be having sex. Sometimes people indicate to us that they know exactly what our sins are, and if we aren’t ready to repent of them we shouldn’t even show up. If we aren’t able to commune for whatever reason on a given Sunday, we’ve taken to visiting a large parish where we can be invisible. It also troubles me that when I’ve been a member of parishes with more “liberal” members, I’ve not felt free to abstain from communion. In these settings, everyone — no matter how much or how little he or she knows about my spiritual life — has been eager to tell me that whatever is bothering me, I should approach the chalice because God loves me and nothing else matters. What’s a person to do when he or she feels caught in the middle of all this? I ask myself that question at least once a week, usually on our drive to Liturgy. But like Taylor, I am convinced that until we all make room once again for the “bad Christians,” the entire Church will suffer from their absence.

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

A Review of Gay and Catholic by Eve Tushnet

We are so excited to be featuring Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith by our friend Eve Tushnet. We’ve been eagerly awaiting this book for several months.

As with our other reviews, our review of Gay and Catholic will focus on two primary questions: What does this book have to say to LGBT Christians who are living celibacy or exploring the possibility of celibate vocations? How does this book contribute to conversation about celibacy as a way of life that LGBT Christians might choose?

At the risk of being too causal, we’re going to begin by stating that this book is awesome. Seriously, it’s great. We’d even encourage you to go buy yourself a copy right now and check out the book extras on her blog in the meantime. Keep reading to see why we’re recommending this book so enthusiastically.

Tushnet takes a fantastically conversational approach to discussing faith and sexuality. The reading pace of the book reminds us of a stand-up comic’s routine. We simply couldn’t put it down. It’s whimsical, it’s fun, it’s engaging, and it broaches intense topics with compassion and lots of dry humor. Gay and Catholic can journey with you whether you’re relaxing at the beach or trembling before the meeting with your pastor when you intend to tell him or her that you’re, uhm…er…uhm…<deep breath, exhale>… gay.

If you’re looking for a book that makes an argument for a traditional sexual ethic, we’d recommend searching for an alternative. Unlike many books written by people who hold conservative beliefs on Christian sexual morality, Gay and Catholic isn’t an apologetic. Tushnet takes the traditional sexual ethic as a given and admits that she doesn’t always understand the Roman Catholic Church’s teachings on human sexuality, noting that one can strive to live in accordance with teachings while still having a lot of questions. We find it absolutely refreshing that this book is not an argument for LGBT celibacy.

We found ourselves cheering as Sarah would for the St. Louis Cardinals or Lindsey for the Boston Red Sox when we read Tushnet’s description of how her approach to sexual ethics has changed:

When I first entered the Catholic Church I thought of my role–a lesbian-gay-bisexual-queer-same-sex-attracted Christian–as having two parts: the negative act of not having gay sex and the positive act of intellectually understanding the Church’s teachings. I now see my task much more simply, as the discernment and living out of my vocations: figuring out how God is calling me to love and then pouring myself out into that love. p.4-5

A great deal of our life together as a celibate couple has been seeking God’s will for how we are to love the world around us. Tushnet emphasizes what happens when celibate people say “Yes” to God and offers an authentic discussion of the various ups and downs associated with celibate ways of life. LGBT people exploring the possibilities of celibacy will be inspired by this book’s focus on all the ways God says, “Yes.”

Tushnet is exceptionally candid about how she did not have any role models for a faithful gay Catholic life. The process of discerning one’s vocation is neither a linear process nor without struggle, and she has plenty to say about its joys and sorrows. Tushnet’s candor includes her disclosing about how struggles with alcoholism shaped her understanding of vocation.

As I’ve said, when I first converted, I basically thought that chastity for a gay Catholic was purely a negative rule or outer boundary: don’t have sex with girls. Over time I learned that you need to structure your life in such a way that you are living out a positive vocation to love. You are called to something, not merely away from something. And similarly, I don’t think sobriety is the same as not drinking. I don’t think my task is best understood as a negative one of avoiding drunkenness or avoiding alcohol. My project right now is to build a way of life in keeping with my God-given vocation. pg 59

We appreciated how Tushnet discusses her struggle with alcohol alongside comparatively easy acceptance of her same-sex attractions. As a person in recovery from multiple addictions, Sarah found this aspect of the book especially relatable. Many who will read this book are well aware of how ex-gay ministries and some denominations as a whole counsel gay Christians to say that they “struggle with same-sex attractions” instead of “identify as LGBT.” Those who have experienced such language policing will find comfort in Tushnet’s clear message that all Christians struggle to live our vocations, and it’s unhelpful to limit the challenges celibate gay Christians face to “lust.” As we read, we kept coming back to the reality that similar problems manifest differently in different people, and we did a lot of reflecting on our own areas of spiritual difficulty. Noting Tushnet’s observations of her struggle with alcoholism, celibate LGBT Christians might find it beneficial to consider individual spiritual struggles rather than assuming that same-sex attractions are necessarily at the root of their spiritual difficulties. Tushnet’s writing has pushed us to think more deeply about how pride, anger, envy, greed, and other passions impede purposeful living. She rightly describes the spiritual struggle as searching for paths aligned with your God-given vocation.

We found Chapter 6 “What Vocation Is and Is Not” one of the most helpful sections of the book. To give you a taste of how Tushnet defines vocation:

A vocation is a path or way of life in which God is calling us to pour out our love for him and for other particular human beings. Vocation is always a positive act of love, not a refraining-from-action. So celibacy, in and of itself, isn’t a vocation in this sense, although it can be a discipline that frees one up for one’s vocations. pg. 75.

Tushnet defines vocations holistically where most people have more than one vocation. There is a great diversity in how we can pour out our love for God and for other people. We can pray. We can teach Sunday School. We can spend hours in theological study… and we can care for the sick, we can design buildings that maximize their ability for social good, we can teach, we can play with children…She offers many insights into what it means to live a vocation. According to Tushnet, vocations emerge at the intersection of our choices and God’s call. Rightly discerning vocation requires a realization that “every vocation has a cross as well as a crown” (pg. 78). Tushnet says that learning to love people is the key to doing one’s vocation well. Our vocations should draw us towards God.

At the close of the book, Tushnet includes three appendices to assist people along their journeys. The first appendix provides additional resources, most of which are specific to the Roman Catholic Church. The second appendix features Tushnet’s responses to frequently asked questions where answers didn’t fold neatly into the rest of the book. The third appendix — which we found especially helpful — muses on what churches can do to be more welcoming to LGBT Christians. Given some of our own recent experiences at church, we wanted to point out a paragraph from that section, where Tushnet urges church communities to reflect on what “be more welcoming” actually means:

Be honest about what you’re praying for. It’s easy to say that we want our churches to be places of refuge and welcome for gay and same-sex attracted people. But then somebody takes us seriously! Somebody shows up with her partner and wants to get their kids baptized, or somebody seeks to become a member of the church and wants to have tough conversations about Scripture. Maybe the pastor asks your newly welcome churchgoer to give a testimony of how Jesus rescued him from homosexuality, but he points out that that isn’t how he sees his life at all.

Everybody wants to wants to take in a shivering kitten. Not everybody wants to deal with a grown up cat. (pg. 209)

In sum, Tushnet’s book is awesome, but it makes no claim of being perfect. We did have some trouble relating to Tushnet’s discussion of her childhood, relatively easy acceptance of sexual orientation, and minimal experiences of discrimination. She admits that especially regarding the latter two, many LGBT Christians have had more difficult experiences. Because of this, there are parts of the book where some readers will find themselves unable to relate to Tushnet’s story. Still, Gay and Catholic has arguably the most thorough discussion of how an LGBT person might discern his or her celibate vocations…and it’s fantastically fun to read. Get your own copy, and drop us a line in the comments about your thoughts. We have plans to interview Tushnet in the near future and publish her responses on the blog. Please feel free to submit your questions for our consideration.

Happy reading!

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

In Which We Decide to Go to Church

We don’t want to make a habit of posting on Sundays, but late Saturday evening we found ourselves needing to work ourselves out of an emotional funk. This post is our best attempt at that.

For LGBT Christians, the news cycle can be vicious. Many media outlets are primed to look for any way particular churches may be increasingly open to people in same-sex relationships. Last summer, World Vision made news in Protestant circles when it briefly signaled a move toward potentially hiring Christians in same-sex marriages. This week, controversy has abounded after a mid-term report from the Synod on the Family signaled that the Roman Catholic Church might shift to more welcoming language regarding gay people. We, like many people in the English-speaking world, were rather astonished to see a Catholic document that said,

Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community: are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities? Often they wish to encounter a Church that offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?

Fast forward to just a few hours ago, and it became clear that many bishops viewed the welcoming language as inviting too much compromise of Catholic teachings on marriage and family. Even though our Italian isn’t that great, it seems that the newly ratified document treats the mere presence of LGBT people as a challenge to the family. According to the approved version, some perfectly faithful families headed by married heterosexual people may have to deal with the presence of a gay person in the family…and that’s pretty much it. The new document does not have any words for LGBT people themselves. It seems talking directly to LGBT people is just too scandalous. Apparently, it requires much less trouble to talk to their parents who have the parental obligation of staying close to their wayward children. And of course, the Roman Catholic Church will be there to help the prodigals “move beyond the confines of the homosexual label to a more complete identity in Christ” provided that the prodigals are willing to take Step 1 of admitting they were powerless over homosexuality.

We’re not writing this post because we have a horse in the race when it comes to LGBT Catholic issues. Though Sarah was once a member of the Roman Catholic Church, we are not Catholic. But we do feel a great deal of solidarity with our friends having to make the choice about whether and where they’re attending Mass tomorrow. Honestly, most of the time when we see this much news coverage about LGBT people in the Church, we decide it would be a great week to visit a different parish even though our specific Christian tradition rarely makes headlines. However, today we’ve spent a lot of time wrestling with the reality that we’ll be with our home congregation tomorrow. We’re serving coffee hour, and we both felt knots in our stomachs this Saturday as we made plans for our chicken pot pie, lasagna, and chocolate chip cookies.

Coffee hour is always tricky for us. We’ve grown accustomed to it being a staging area for a number of folks deeply involved in culture war issues. The hour right after Liturgy can be challenging even during tame news cycles. This week, it’s been nearly impossible to find anywhere in the English-speaking world that does not have all eyes fixed on Rome. [We would have preferred joining one of our Twitter followers and spending the week brushing up on our Spanish instead.] But given the conversation we know we’ll observe this Sunday, we can’t decide what scenario would be worse: 1) rantings about the Vatican being on the verge of radical apostasy for including a paragraph that welcomes gay people specifically, or 2) proclamations of relief that the Vatican’s courageous conservative bishops saved the Catholic Church from heretical teachings on sexuality. We’re bracing ourselves for a good dose of the latter because one hears everything when one serves coffee hour. Of course, Sarah might be somewhat fortunate to have a low hearing day, or conveniently forgetting hearing aids is a strong temptation…

Or we might have another day like Saturday where Sarah wakes up with some intense vertigo and other symptoms. Meniere’s disease is extremely unpredictable. But, no matter what happens, we’ve decided that Lindsey will certainly be at church. After all, it’s our turn to serve coffee hour.

Sometimes, deciding to go to church requires a whole heap of grit and determination. It’s especially hard to go to church on days when we feel the weight of having to police our language. We avoid certain topics of conversation altogether. Some members of our parish seem absolutely scandalized to know that after coffee hour, we’ll be going home (or somewhere else) together rather than going our separate ways as single people do. Around the holidays, we see a fair amount of awkward blushing from folks who ask us about travel. When we say, “This year, we’re heading to Minnesota to see Lindsey’s family,” instead of telling them that we each have individual plans, they never know how to reply. Very often, church people will end an interaction with us by stammering something like, “You two are really good friends to each other,” as if to assure themselves that there’s nothing especially meaningful about our relationship. A few readers on the blog have suggested that by claiming to be partners, we devalue the term “friendship.” But at coffee hour, we’re reminded every week that when people refer to us as friends it’s usually not because of a willingness to honor the beauty of love between friends — it’s to downplay the idea that our relationship has any sort of significance beyond “close roommates.”

During coffee hour, the two of us face similar yet different sets of problems. Lindsey, whose physical appearance pings straight people’s gaydars without fail, experiences universally awkward interactions with culture warriors. Sarah, whose appearance is very traditionally feminine, experiences the frustration of being viewed as any other member of the parish until Lindsey pulls up a chair and sits next to Sarah. Though it’s not always direct, there’s an impulse among our fellow parishioners to “protect” the Church from public sinners, and coming up against that every week is exhausting. Part of the reason it’s exhausting is that heterosexual people at our church tend to treat all other heterosexual people as though their virtuousness can be assumed. Being in an environment where one is not heterosexual and is therefore assumed to be a public sinner becomes taxing. Oftentimes, we wonder if there’s anything we could possibly do that would lead the skeptics to see anything even slightly virtuous in our relationship. All of this becomes heightened each time the news cycle includes extensive coverage of controversies involving LGBT Christians.

If you’re wondering at this point why we don’t just leave our Christian tradition and join an Open and Affirming denomination, read this post where we’ve already answered that question. As for this Sunday (and we hope all Sundays in the future), we have decided to go to church. No matter what will await us at coffee hour, we plan to wake up in the morning and join the other members of our parish for Liturgy because we — sinners, public and private — are all the Body of Christ. We will go to church because always and especially at times as uncertain as these, we have a desperate need to receive grace through the sacraments. We need the peace and wholeness that only Christ himself can offer, and challenging as it is to commune with people who find our presence inconvenient at best and scandalizing at worst, every soul who stands before the altar needs God’s love just as much as we do. When we go to church, we are faced with the reality that — in the words of Dorothy Day — “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.” And after Liturgy has ended, the food has been blessed, cups are filled, and conversation starts to get messier than the dishes, we will do the same as we do every sixth Sunday: we will serve coffee hour.

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

After writing this post, we noticed that it fit nicely into the theme of Coming/Going of the Queer Theology Synchroblog.