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.

Saturday Symposium: Family, Morality, and Gaps in Understanding

Good morning, all. Thanks for the thoughtful engagement this week. We’ve enjoyed connecting with readers from all over the world within the past seven days. This has been one of our best weeks on the blog to date. We are looking forward to another great week of learning and sharing stories.

Let’s get to our new 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, our most viewed post was Sarah’s open letter to Cardinal Burke. In this letter, Sarah asked several questions regarding the way straight Christians ought to respond to LGBT people, particularly LGBT family members. We’re wondering about our readers’ thoughts on morality and areas of disagreement with family members. If you experience disagreement with a family member in some area of morality, how do you communicate with and show love to that family member? We’re also interested in knowing how you talk with family members about gaps in understanding each other’s viewpoints on moral issues. Perhaps you and a certain family member don’t disagree per se, but view issues from different angles. How do you initiate these conversations within your family, and how does this impact your relationships?

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.

“Why do you call yourselves a celibate LGBT couple?”

Almost daily, we receive inquiries about why we use words like LGBT and queer to describe ourselves, stern rebukes for our preferred terminology, or both. Many people caution us about how these words can be applied politically, contending that we shouldn’t be surprised when people react negatively to us because we insist on referring to each other as partners. We’ve addressed the questions as they come up, on our About page, and in our Frequently Asked Questions. But because we’ve noticed a recent increase in this type of reader correspondence, we want to provide a reasonably comprehensive answer as to why we think LGBT and queer are helpful terms for describing ourselves and our relationship.

Before we go any deeper, let us offer some important clarifications. The only places we discuss our experiences as a celibate, LGBT, Christian couple are this blog and with select groups of friends. We’re open about being partners if and when a person asks, but we value privacy in our daily lives. At church, we go very simply by Lindsey and Sarah. People are aware that we are partners without our needing to say anything. We don’t walk around with LGBT tattooed on our foreheads. However, members of any parish we ever visit tend to assume that Lindsey is gay the instant Lindsey walks into a room. Sarah frequently receives different treatment when socializing individually versus socializing with Lindsey present.

So why do we use the language we use on the blog?

We use LGBT because we are both LGBT people. We’re surprised that straight people take issue with this point continuously. There are a lot of blogs existing at the intersection of faith and sexuality. It would be false to assert that no one cares about how the Church responds to LGBT people: it’s one of the most discussed and debated issues of our time. However, we find it remarkable that despite so much work to explain sexual orientation, many heterosexual Christians insist that being gay necessitates having gay sex, and that if one is not having gay sex, then one is not gay. Neither of us came out as LGBT because of an appetite for gay sex. Both of us came out because we realized that this terminology provides useful context as to how we experience our sexualities.

Many people who adopt LGBT language do so to communicate that they experience the world differently than folks who are straight and/or cisgender. For us and others, it’s not about sex at all — it’s about a sense of otherness that encompasses far more than the question, “What kind of person pings up my sex drive?” Feeling different or other can be both a blessing and a curse. Lindsey realized comparatively early that Lindsey was not the same as other children. As a child, Lindsey couldn’t be bothered by gender norms and had a recognizably different deportment than most kids. Lindsey’s parents did a great job at helping Lindsey pursue any and all interests while allowing Lindsey ample freedom for self-expression. At 20, Lindsey started developing sexual attractions. It was hard for Lindsey to make sense of these experiences. Eventually, Lindsey realized that Lindsey had no desire for a heterosexual marriage and was not called to monastic life. When Lindsey met other LGBT Christians, Lindsey finally met people who could relate deeply to Lindsey’s own experiences.

Sarah grew up assuming that being attracted to girls instead of boys was an unusual though irrelevant experience. Because of cultural expectations, Sarah spent all of childhood and the vast majority of adolescence thinking that every young woman (except nuns) eventually met a young man to marry, marriage was a requirement for leading a full adult life, and one’s sexual attractions had little to do with the decision to enter a marital vocation. But as an older teenager, Sarah realized that Sarah had no desire to marry a man and would find heterosexual marriage a miserable and draining way of life. Equally important, Sarah had a powerful model of what a purposeful non-married life could look like in a favorite high school teacher, Ms. Chafin. All the while, Sarah had been growing in awareness of Sarah’s sexual orientation. In continuing vocational discernment, it was Sarah’s attraction to women that drew Sarah toward celibacy in the first place. The sense of a personal calling to celibacy came when Sarah could appreciate the nature of Sarah’s sexuality.

We’ve both experienced periods of extreme anxiety and discomfort because of the ways other people have tried to label our sexualities. Sarah grew up in a geographic area where young people would typically marry straight out of high school or in some cases, immediately after graduating college. When Sarah began to reach “marrying age,” Sarah couldn’t help but notice how family conversations became more and more about Sarah’s future husband. No one particularly knew or cared to know about how Sarah was experiencing sexuality differently. Coming out created space for Sarah to feel at ease among loved ones. Even being referred to as an abomination resulted in less anxiety than pretending to be someone Sarah was not. Early in Lindsey’s coming out process, it became apparent that many of Lindsey’s acquaintances believed sexual orientation could only have meaning if one was having sex. When reading Rob Bell’s Sex God, Lindsey had an epiphany that one could focus one’s sense of sexuality on a broader pattern of relating to the world — that there was more to sexuality than sex itself. Immediately, this made sense to Lindsey, who had experienced a great deal of frustration when talking with other Christians who could only discuss sexuality in terms of marriage. No one among Lindsey’s Christian friends in college seemed to have space for the idea that God might call people to live celibate lives — overseas mission work being a possible exception.

When it comes to our life together, we frequently say that we’re building the plane while flying it. We don’t have a lot of models upon which to build. We often hear people discuss three principal ways of life: marriage, monasticism, or living as single persons in the world. Discovering our vocation as celibate partners has involved a good deal of trial and error. We recognize that our vocation is unusual, and it is for this reason that we refer to it as a queer calling.

Some people would say, “Just get over yourselves already! You’re single people living in the world. You’re friends. You’re housemates! You don’t need any other language.” However, the same honesty that drove us towards using LGBT terminology for ourselves encourages us to call out some ways our life together differs significantly from the single people we know. The following observations are in no particular order.

Financially, we are interdependent. We share quite literally every penny. We don’t have an arrangement that is simply “Let’s each pay 50% of the rent and utilities on the apartment” or “Let’s keep our incomes completely separate.” We consider every cent we earn to belong equally to both of us. When we save, it’s an investment in our future as a pair, not in our futures as individuals. We share car insurance and health insurance, and have committed to taking on each other’s debts as our own. Before we met, not only did both of us have student loans but Sarah also has an enormous amount of medical debt. We don’t know any sets of “friends, roommates, or housemates” where one person would willingly and gladly take on joint responsibility for the other’s medical bills that reach six figures.

Our strongest sense of team spirit probably comes in the realm of looking after one another’s physical and mental health. Sarah has had an extensive medical history that Sarah managed solo before we met. Now we work on tackling issues together. Whether it’s making sure Sarah’s rescue inhaler is refilled or discerning a proper course of action for Sarah’s Meniere’s disease, we are committed to walking through the issue every step of the way as a team. We’ve mentioned before that Lindsey is learning American Sign Language alongside Sarah so that we can make sure we never lose the ability to communicate and that Sarah is never left out of any conversations. One person at our church said to Lindsey a couple of weeks ago, “Wow. You’re going above and beyond the expectations of friendship here. Sarah is so lucky to have a friend like you.” The truth is, we see such a commitment as an integral part of our relationship. This is not the sort of commitment that would be expected in a close friendship.

We share our spiritual lives intimately, and we’re committed to helping one another towards holiness. We can offer each other a new sense of perspective that comes from the day-in, day-out realities of doing life together. Both of us can tell when the other person is experiencing spiritual lows. We’re constantly reminding each other about the various aspects of the Gospel that are so important to keep our lives in context. While its not impossible that friends would do this for one another, we see it as an essential part of our daily living that we’re committed to maintaining for the rest of our lives — not merely a season of being “roommates.”

We share our emotional lives 100%. We have an absolute commitment to being honest with one another about all things. We share our highs, lows, triumphs, defeats, frustrations, joys, and everything else no matter how hard it is to discuss. We do have deep, emotionally intimate relationships with friends, but none of those relationships has the exact same sense of vulnerability as does our relationship with each other.

We share physical space and love being in each other’s presence. We go out of our way to share time with each other. Currently, we’re excited because Lindsey’s work schedule allows us to share our commute on most days. We have always made it a point to share dinner together, even when our schedules do not cooperate. And if one of us were to need to relocate for whatever reason, the other would go too. There would be no question about this, no matter what challenges were involved. Our commitment to each other does not end at an annual apartment lease.

What this comes down to is a very simple question: how are terms like “partnership” defined, and who has the right to define them? It seems unreasonable to us that straight, cisgender, conservative Christians — many of whom are married — should be the sole determiners of what constitutes partnership, celibacy, and gayness. Ultimately, we are not seeking to prove to you that we are indeed a celibate LGBT couple rather than “single housemates who both have same-sex attraction.” Our relationship is ours to define. It takes a great deal of entitlement to tell another person, “I know who and what you are better than you do.” It’s vastly inappropriate, and we would never assert that we know better than a married couple what marriage is, better than a monk or nun what religious life is, or better than a single person what the celibate single vocation is. We do understand why questions about our ways of identifying will naturally arise because of our unusual situation. All we ask is that all our readers show us the same basic respect that we show them in providing space to share share stories and learn from one another.

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.

An Open Letter to Cardinal Raymond Burke

A reflection by Sarah

Dear Cardinal Burke,

You probably don’t remember me, but we met once a few years ago when I attended Mass regularly at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis. I am a former Catholic who is now part of a different Christian tradition. I am also a partnered lesbian. Before I go any further, I want to make clear that my reasons for leaving Catholicism were in no way related to the Catholic Church’s teachings on same-sex relationships or any other aspect of human sexuality. My current Christian tradition also teaches a conservative sexual ethic, and I was aware of that upon entering. I am writing this today in response to your recent commentary on the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, specifically the talk given by the Pirolas of Australia who shared about experiences of inviting their gay son and his partner to family gatherings. But what you’re about to read is likely not what you might expect given the content of my first paragraph.

I’m not going to argue against the Catholic Church’s theological position that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.” I received my theological training at a Catholic university, and am aware of the philosophy and theology that undergirds this statement. My personal feelings about its wording are irrelevant. Unlike many Catholics and non-catholics alike (including a large number of priests I’ve met), I do not mistakenly interpret this bit from the Catechism to mean that the Church believes I have a mental disorder or I am a lesser human being than my heterosexual brothers and sisters. I’m not going to tell you that you shouldn’t be defending the teachings of the Catholic faith. As a bishop, this is your job and it would be unreasonable for any person to suggest otherwise. Lastly, I’m not going to complain about how any of your statements — recently or in years previous — have impacted me emotionally as an LGBT person. I don’t intend on giving the reactionary internet trolls yet another reason to dismiss LGBT Christians as crybabies who are only interested in a soft, watered-down version of the historic faith.

Now that I’ve laid out plainly what I’m not going to say, I’ll get directly to the point: I believe your response to the Pirola family fundamentally distorts the conversation about LGBT people in the Church. Anyone with authority to present Church teaching needs to do so clearly and also needs to be careful not to stereotype, caricature, or misrepresent. I don’t see either of these qualities in your response to the Pirolas’ talk. I’ve looked carefully at it over the past couple of days and have engaged in a number of conversations about the issues it raises. I have some questions that I hope you will consider answering.

First, I find it difficult to understand the meaning of your statement that gay relationships, and presumably some other kinds of relationships that you do not specify, are disordered. The Catholic Church makes very clear its teaching about homosexual activity, but I’m curious as to what renders a relationship as a whole disordered from your perspective. My partner and I are intentionally celibate and committed to continuing in celibacy for the rest of our lives together. I experience no sexual or romantic attraction toward Lindsey, though I love Lindsey more than any person in the world. But it’s also true that our relationship is a queer partnership. Having written a number of blog posts about our relationship, I’m well aware that this kind of arrangement is controversial and many people refuse to believe that couples like Lindsey and I exist, but there are many other couples like us. Would you consider our relationship an example of what you refer to as disordered? Furthermore, in the case of a sexually active same-sex relationship, would you assert that there is nothing good, holy, or Christlike about the way two partners interact with and attempt to guide each other through life? Does the presence of sexual activity and romantic attraction in a same-sex relationship automatically render the relationship disordered in its entirety? If sexual and romantic attraction are not present, does this matter at all? Couldn’t it also be argued that every human relationship is partly or at least occasionally disordered, except in rare situations where perfect love is always present? I would be grateful for some clarification on where the line is between a disordered relationship and an ordered relationship, and what makes a relationship so disordered that children should not be exposed to it.

Second, I’m wondering what qualifications you believe that families should impose upon their gay loved ones before permitting them to attend gatherings, especially where children are present. If it is inappropriate to invite one’s gay son and his partner (and family members in other kinds of disordered relationships) to Christmas dinner, what questions should a parent be asking in order to determine who can come? Should every potential attendee of a family function be required to inform the hosts in detail about his or her sex life? Or should it be assumed that if the hosts have any doubts or curiosities about a family member’s morality, sexual or otherwise, said person ought to be crossed off the invitation list without further inquiry? How qualified do you think parents are to determine whether or not their adult children’s souls are in a state of grace? Perhaps I’m wrong, and if so I’m open to being corrected, but to me it seems spiritually detrimental for a person to spend any amount of time speculating about another person’s sins. It also seems to me that your advice regarding parents with gay sons and daughters encourages this unhealthy spiritual practice. I sincerely hope I am reading you incorrectly on this point because it would trouble me greatly to think that a bishop is counseling his faithful to busy their minds with imaging what may or may not be happening in a loved one’s private life.

Third, I would like to know how far along the journey to overcoming a particular sin you believe a person ought to be before he or she is welcomed, not only at family gatherings but also as an active member of a parish. In addition to working toward repentance, what must he or she do? Spiritual fathers cannot break the seal of confession, so it would be impossible for members of the parish to verify without doubt that so-and-so is no longer living in sin. Should it be a requirement that the penitent be completely free from this sin before participating in parish life in any meaningful way? Must the penitent then focus on doing everything possible to prove his or her repentance to every person in the parish? What if doing so becomes more about pandering to the neuroses of the pious than attempting to follow Christ without compromise?

As a celibate gay person, I find that more often than not, people in my parish assume that I’m committing sin regardless of what I do or say. Some would be unsatisfied with anything less than a breakup of my partnership, a firm commitment that we never see one another again in any context other than church, and assurance that both of us will spend the rest of our lives in solitude so as not to risk impropriety with either women or men. There are LGBT members of my Christian tradition and yours who desire the fullness of the historic faith, but are terrified of causing an uproar on Sunday by simply being present. For the past two days, I’ve heard dozens of faithful Catholics asserting that this is as it should be, and drawing their arguments primarily from your statement. There are Christians — both Catholic and non-catholic — who have taken your words to mean that every LGBT person who darkens the doorstep of the church should be subject to an inquisition. As a bishop, you need to be aware of this.

I could continue with more questions, but this is already getting quite lengthy. I’m curious to know your thoughts on the sufferings of children exposed to gay relationships as compared to the sufferings of other family members who would be impacted if gay loved ones were uninvited from gatherings. I’d like to know how you reconcile the fact that in many non-western cultures, people are more affectionate with each other in general. This includes men being affectionate with men, women being affectionate with women, and married people being affectionate with folks other than their spouses. I’d also be interested in knowing exactly how you think the mere presence of a gay couple, sexually active or not, will communicate to children that gay sexual activity is morally good. Presumably, young children don’t know anything about sex, and there’s no reason to believe that a gay couple is any more likely than a straight couple to begin conversing with children about sex.

What I would be most interested in hearing from you is why you have chosen to respond to LGBT issues discussed at the Synod in a way that focuses exclusively on prohibitions against same-sex sexual activity. I’m reasonably confident that you will not understand this, but gay Christians do not define ourselves primarily by our sexual attractions or sexual decisions. When “intrinsically disordered inclinations” becomes “disordered relationships” the speaker distorts the conversation. Questions about whether people should be invited to their families’ Christmas dinner tables distort Christ’s welcome to everyone. If people are expected to answer questions about their sex lives before receiving any degree of welcome, then it’s only natural to assume that the Church is incapable of seeing people fundamentally as beings created in the image of God.

I understand that as a bishop of the Catholic Church, you have a weighty responsibility to present the Gospel in its fullness. A synod on difficult pastoral circumstances will naturally spark conversations where one bishop’s approach differs from another bishop’s approach. I hope that you feel encouraged by your brother bishops while discussing these complex realities. Finding the ideal language to use after such extensive conversations is hard, if not impossible. In a world where people are grappling constantly with new challenges while attempting to avoid misunderstanding, your clarification on these matters would be helpful to Catholics and non-catholics alike. I hope that you will consider responding to at least some of these questions because I am not alone in wondering what your answers would be.

You remain in my prayers, and I would appreciate also your prayers for me.

Sincerely,

Sarah

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Changing Course, or Changing Tone? Recent Shifts in Pastoral Responses to LGBT Christians

The news cycle has a funny way of repeating itself. We first had the idea for a post on this topic several months ago when many Evangelical Christians were grappling with the implications of generous spaciousness and perhaps offering a “Third Way” when providing pastoral care for LGBT people. This morning we awoke to news regarding the midterm report from the Synod on Marriage and Family in the Roman Catholic Church. The Catholic Herald has called the document a “pastoral earthquake,” suggesting that there is a great deal of anxiety among the faithful about whether spiritual directors are changing course in one way or another.

On our blog, we focus many of our comments on these issues on LGBT people who are living celibacy or interested in exploring the possibilities of celibate vocations. Our experience is that we have discerned calls to celibacy. We also affirm the experiences of LGBT people who choose celibacy out of obedience to their Christian traditions.

When a person is trying to live a celibate vocation, often he or she cannot find any kind of meaningful support for this way of life. Many Christians present marriage as the de facto vocation for all people. Finding books that positively and practically discuss friendship, singleness, and celibacy can be impossible in most Christian bookstores. We’re aware that many LGBT Christians who are trying to live celibate vocations feel like they need to go it alone or figure out this vocation with a general sense of “spiritual” support attained by participating in the spiritual life of the Church. We can empathize with our friends who wonder if churches just starting to celebrate same-sex marriages will have any interest in continuing to support LGBT people who want to explore celibacy.

Celibate LGBT Christians have been through the wringer when it comes to finding spiritual directors. Some people counsel us (broadly, not the two of us specifically) to give up our celibate vocations, to stop denying ourselves sexual experiences, and to explore the possibility of sexually active same-sex relationships. Other people counsel us to give up all LGBT language and avoid any other actions that straight, cisgender Christians might consider scandalous. It’s difficult for us to find trustworthy spiritual directors. So many pastors default to using auto-scripts, especially around topics of sexuality and vocation. The search for a helpful, compassionate, and rigorous spiritual director often feels like a quest for a diamond in the rough.

It’s hard to think of other places outside the Church where the divide between “rigorous spiritual direction” and being an absolutely insensitive jerk is so thin. Speaking candidly, we know that there congregations we’d never visit because the pastor has made it abundantly clear that he is incapable of seeing anything good in an LGBT person. It’s amazing how many people assert that being LGBT is synonymous with having sex outside of marriage. As with many misunderstandings, it seems there’s a break-down in communication.

Relative to everything we’ve stated, people across gamut of Christian traditions — Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox — are anxious about how their pastors might change their approaches to LGBT issues in the near future and long-term. People wonder, will their pastors follow trends of affirming, celebrating, and even advocating for same-sex marriage? Will their pastors make it clear that every person should find his or her identity exclusively in Christ and that any identification with words like “gay” must be avoided at all costs? Will the pastors take approaches of refusing to engage in any of the controversies?

When spiritual directors shift course, or simply shift tone, it’s worth considering what approaches they are moving away from and what approaches they are moving toward. There’s a troubling tendency among conservative Christians to assert that any change is going to have its inevitable end in moral relativism and/or spiritual death. In reality, many Christians change tone on these issues because repentance is part and parcel of the Christian life. If pastors do not consistently wrestle with how they approach tough pastoral questions, then they are not doing their duty as pastors. Tough pastoral questions are considered tough because a pastor walks away wondering, “Did I really do the right thing there? What would I do if I encountered a similar situation in the future? How did I consider the unique circumstances of this situation?” We’re confident that any pastor reading this entry could reflect back on times where he or she truly wanted an opportunity for a do-over.

Our situation as a celibate LGBT Christian couple is certainly uncommon. We’ve been so grateful to meet pastors who can affirm our desires to grow into the fullness of faith in Christ. However, when we consider the moves for more space in some traditions, we can’t help but be afraid of reactionary impulses within our own Christian tradition. We wonder if we constantly push our priest to his very limits, especially as our pastoral care needs get more complicated with Sarah’s health problems. We do our best to talk to our parish priest, to pray with him and for him, and to consider his counsel carefully even if we end up pushing back on some of it. Additionally, we both seek direction from our individual confessors. Amid the screeching of the culture war, we can’t help but feel like we and our priests walk on a razor’s edge.

Recognizing that razor’s edge, we think that many people confuse changing course with changing tone. Churches can teach on Christian maturity, vocations, sexuality, and relationships without sounding like drill sergeants or dictators. Pastors have options to help people grow towards Christian maturity that do not involve threatening to shun them at every possible opportunity or treating them as though their very presence is a liability to the community. It’s possible to talk with LGBT people rather than simply talking at us. As we sit back and read the midterm report of the Synod for Marriage and the Family, we can’t help but hope that maybe as a result of these conversations among bishops, celibate LGBT Christians who are part of the Catholic tradition will have an easier time finding compassionate spiritual directors. We wonder what things might look like if everyone encountered a church community that is capable of seeing the gifts they bring rather than assuming they are only present to create controversy.

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.

Choosing a Letter is Complicated

A reflection by Lindsey

Today is National Coming Out Day, so we decided to modify our usual Saturday Symposium routine by starting with a bonus reflection for this week.

I have a love/hate relationship with National Coming Out Day. On one hand, I know many people who have used the day to be honest with family and friends about sexual orientation and gender identity. October 11 is still 6 weeks before Thanksgiving (unless you’re in Canada), and I appreciate how some people value having a bit of space for the dust to settle amongst family members before the holidays. On the other hand, talk around National Coming Out Day frequently assumes that once a person has decided to come out, disclosure is comparatively straightforward.

As Sarah and I have been blogging, I’ve noticed that many people feel comfortable assigning labels to my sexual orientation and gender identity based on things they have figured out about Sarah or things they assume about me given my first name. That bothers me because lesbian has never been one of the words I have used when it comes to my own sexual orientation. I can see why it’s easy to assume that I identify as lesbian, but it still bothers me when people do because labeling others assumes that you know more than they do about how they experience attraction and gender identity.

Beginning to come out is like getting on a roller coaster of self-understanding. I cued up to this roller coaster while I was part of a Christian community that asserted every person created by God is not only clearly male or female, but is also heterosexual. There was no such thing as a “gay Christian” because that was an impossible juxtaposition of terms. In 2007, I started meeting other gay Christians and found myself surrounded by people who understood why I hated the tradeoffs between trying to adhere to cisgender, heterosexual social norms and doing my best to follow Christ with my entire self.

However, any label comes with a script of its own. I felt blessed to be negotiating my journey in a community with Christians who could affirm different vocations. As a community, we robustly affirmed that people needed freedom to seek God’s direction. I have friends from a wide swatch of Christian traditions on the journey, and we negotiated various tensions associated with being an ecumenical community. My current Christian tradition has a rich history of exalting both married and celibate vocations. For a while, I was definitely most comfortable describing myself as a celibate gay Christian. It’s a clunky enough phrase that I only deployed it in specific situations. Most of the time, I didn’t have any need to say anything. Coming out was nicely personal, and I could make the decision whenever I felt the need to say anything. I worked on growing into my celibate vocation and became more and more comfortable in my own skin.

When you’re more comfortable in your own skin, it’s easier to identify when other people misread you in society. I started noticing that people were frequently misguided, even to the point of being patently wrong, when they tried to gender my motivations or experiences. I picked up on how the friends closest to me have always held me in a category of my own when it comes to gendered treatment. I’ve developed an absolute disdain for how many people use pronouns, and I become more and more aware of the reality that my own experiences of sexuality and gender are not always understood even in the gay Christian community. Unlike sexual orientation and vocation, gender is an entirely public reality. It’s difficult to know how and when to correct people about various things when gender is often used to indicate socially polite behaviors.

Choosing a letter can be especially complicated when people everywhere have expectations of what certain labels mean. Many people assume that if a woman is in a relationship with another woman, then both people are necessarily lesbians.  If you are a person who enters into an opposite-sex relationship, then many people assume that you were never a member of the queer community after all because you’ve realized that you’re straight. Using specific relationships to label people’s sexual orientations does a lot to erase bisexuality. Many people will assert that if you’re on the transgender spectrum but you’re not interested in any form of medical transition, there’s no way that you’re transgender. Very few people have any idea about what words work best when a transgender person is in a relationship with a gay person. Sometimes people don’t know the best language to use because they know that none of the available scripts associated with existing language fit their experiences.

Every National Coming Out Day, I hope that people experience freedom to be honest about the unique elements of their story. I pray that the conversations started today continue in love and charity. I recognize that opening a conversation on sexual orientation and gender identity can be hard work, and I respect people who make plans to begin a conversation today only to conclude that the conversation is still just too hard.

In the spirit of our usual Saturday Symposium questions: we’d love to hear about your experiences with National Coming Out Day. What does National Coming Out Day mean to you? Do you know anyone who has used National Coming Out Day to start a conversation about sexual orientation and gender identity with their friends and family? Have you encountered situations where a person’s experience does not fit into existing language about sexual orientation and gender identity?

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!

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 Sounds of Silence

Two weeks ago, we had the opportunity to attend a silent weekend for an immersive ASL experience. Lindsey found out about the weekend first and immediately forwarded the information to Sarah. There was no question in our minds that we would go. We registered ourselves so quickly that we nearly forgot about another obligation for the same day. Our sense of team spirit kicked in, and we decided that Sarah would attend the entire weekend with Lindsey joining in on Saturday activities. And what a weekend we had!

All participants of the silent weekend signed a pledge to keep our voices off. Even at the end of the retreat, no one used voice. We found ourselves imagining how each person must sound. It was actually quite fun to have that remain a mystery. The two of us took the pledge a bit further, swearing off of using English in any form as much as possible. We worked around the challenge of necessary “I’ve arrived and I’m safe” text message updates by sending along pictures. Taking a weekend to use non-verbal forms of communication exclusively challenged us to see the world a bit differently. If you’re a hearing person who hasn’t experienced silence often or at all, have you ever wondered what silence feels like?

In the silence, we felt energy. What would you do if you wanted to get a person’s attention without shouting? What if you wanted to get an entire group of people to pay attention? Over the weekend, we saw a great variety of strategies. Sometimes, things worked like phone trees with everyone getting the attention of 2 or 3 people immediately nearby. Other times, the facilitators would flick the lights on and off. Our favorite strategy was dancing around the room while waving both arms to say, “Hi! Hello!” In the silence, there was movement everywhere.

In the silence, we found community. Everyone present wanted each and every person to be successful communicating in ASL and meeting individual goals for the weekend. It didn’t matter that we have only been studying ASL seriously for a few weeks. People helped us to tell them our story of Sarah’s hearing loss and our efforts at developing alternate forms of communication. They identified the progress we’ve made in a few weeks and gave us insights into how this language works. We loved learning about classifiers and other grammatical concepts. Sarah also learned a heap of new vocabulary just by being immersed in the language for a few days. It was Lindsey’s first fully immersive experience, and Lindsey left Saturday feeling much better equipped to have voice-off conversations in ASL. In the silence, we could dialogue about our hopes, our fears, and our feelings as we negotiate the complex elements of rapidly progressing hearing loss.

In the silence, we experienced joy. When everyone had their voices off, Lindsey heard sounds that neither of us had ever noticed before. A smile after two people successfully move past a struggle to communicate has an up s sound when the air held as bated breath gets released through the lips. We observed that other hearing people try and carried themselves more lightly so they didn’t  unintentionally interrupt a conversation by stomping their feet. Lindsey heard clothing crinkling as people enthusiastically used their bodies in various ways to interact with the entire retreat community. And best of all, Lindsey heard the laughter of the group much more robustly. Sarah experienced joy in an entirely different way. On Saturday of the retreat, Sarah was having a particularly low hearing day. But for the first time, it didn’t matter. No one noticed because there was no expectation that talking with another person requires being able to hear. Our experience of silence that weekend was vastly different from Sarah’s other experiences of silence: it wasn’t terrifying or distressing. Instead, it was totally normal. It was the reality of that moment in time, and we embraced it. In the silence, we realized that being silent changes how a person interacts with the world. The silence is neither better nor worse than noise; it’s just different.

In the silence, we experienced the beginnings of healing. The silent weekend provided us with a blessed 48 or so hours of feeling understood and loved. We met lots of people: others who have lost their hearing, family members, interpreting students. For the first time ever, we met people who could say to us, “I get it. I really do. And it’s not always going to be so hard.”

The past several months have brought about many challenges for us, and it has been difficult for us to find spaces where others appreciate those for what they are rather than assuming what they must be. While we’re deeply appreciative of all the emotional support that friends and readers have extended to us, Sarah has been surprised at how often we’re told, “I’m so sorry about the hearing loss. That must be frightening,” and how infrequently our loved ones see that vertigo–not a hearing problem–is the disabling part of Sarah’s Ménière’s disease. Being wiped out and flat on the floor for hours at a time is what keeps Sarah from living fully, and in some ways the hearing loss itself is a blessing. It’s been hard for us to talk with others about this because the vast majority of people we know see deafness as a disability rather than a different but equally valuable way of life. Granted, Sarah is experiencing some grief over not being able to interact with the hearing world in all the same ways as before, and is still figuring out how to cope with feeling stuck between two worlds. But we’re finding that there are positive aspects of hearing loss. Sarah has begun to notice visual details more acutely, and is also starting to recognize that there are wonderful nonverbal ways of being an extrovert. We’re taking in mounds of information about Deaf culture that we never would have known otherwise. And learning ASL is so much fun. It’s not a chore or an obligation. At the silent weekend, all of this was accepted and valued. There was no “poor deaf girl” or “you’re such a hero for facing this” rhetoric. We were just two regular people existing with other human beings and letting the silence apply its balm to our souls.

Because of our experience at the silent weekend, we’re noticing with every passing day that silence is a gift from God. Hesitant as Lindsey was at first about learning ASL, we’ve begun to develop a love of silence. We have our own silent evenings at home now, and those are some of our most precious times together. We love going out in our city and being able to hold basic conversations with each other from across large rooms and in environments with lots of noise. Though we couldn’t have imagined this before we actually went, our silent weekend experience was not simply a resource or a practice session. It was the start of a new adventure in our life together as a family.

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 High Cost of the Conventional Sexual Ethic

A reflection by Lindsey

I’ll admit it; I’m a child of the 80s. Courtesy of Nancy Reagan, I learned how to “Just say ‘No.'” The slogan taught me that any number of choices I could make as a teenager where peer pressure might be an issue. Drugs? Just say no. Alcohol? Just say no. Sex? Just say no…

Somehow, some way, “Just say ‘No'” snuck into how Christians have taught their kids about sexual ethics. This now-conventional sexual ethic asserts that sex belongs exclusively in a marriage. If a person is tempted to have sex in any other kind of situation, he or she should just say no.

Before I go further, I’d like to point out that I’ve intentionally used the word conventional to describe this kind of sexual ethic. I chose the word conventional because I think that both traditional and progressive sexual ethics can, and should, have much more substance. Christians across the theological spectrum consistently extol the virtues of saving sex until marriage. We know strong advocates for same-sex marriage who also deliver consistent messages about the importance of saving sex for marriage.

I’ve noticed that many adults will default towards presenting the conventional sexual ethic when talking to teenagers. I get that it’s all too easy to portray teenagers as hormonally-driven maniacs, but truth be told, teenagers are human. Everyone has their war stories about surviving puberty. The “crazy teenager” trope goes a long way in helping people make sense of a few very confusing years in life. However, reducing sexual ethics to a tweet rarely does anyone any favors. Teenagers can handle complexity. Just as teenagers are growing physically, they are also developing their abilities for ethical reasoning. When we fall back on the conventional sexual ethic, we’re unintentionally communicating that white-knuckled abstinence suffices as responsible use of one’s sexuality.

The conventional sexual ethic posits that all questions of sexual morality boil down to obedience. Even as I think about the Scriptures used to justify the conventional sexual ethic, I can’t help but hear the guilt and the shame associated when the only Scripture cited is:

“Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.”

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard well-meaning married people telling unmarried people something to the effect of, “Seriously, Christ bought your body through his death on the cross. Surely, you can wait until you’re married before you have sex.” For such people, sexuality morality is nothing more than checking the boxes that you’ve lived your life rightly and noted your various indiscretions. This line of thought makes it incredibly difficult for people who have followed the rules as they’ve entered into their marriages. The conventional sexual ethic zooms in on how unmarried people should conduct themselves rather than helping married people understand various mutual sacrifices that should define marriage.

The conventional sexual ethic can create an environment where legalism prevails. If you’re a Christian teenager growing up in a community that emphasizes the conventional sexual ethic, being a good Christian can be measured by two things: 1) having a daily quiet time to connect with God, and 2) saving sex until marriage. Everyone understands why praying every day can be hard, but very few people have space to talk about why it might be difficult for some to just say no to sex. These churches assume that everyone is getting married. If you mix the conventional sexual ethic with a view that marriage is necessarily between a man and a woman, you are likely to default to a simplistic variant of mandated celibacy for LGBT people.

When I think about how Christians might want to talk about sexual morality, I keep going back to the idea that all people are created in the image of God. It’s hard to see the image of God in every person you meet. I’m consistently jarred by the fact that God has made every person in God’s image. It’s a message that sticks with me, especially when I reflect on my reactions to this particular advert dedicated to the theme:

It’s so easy for churches that teach a conventional sexual ethic to call attention to how various people of every stripe have simply made “bad choices.” Sometimes I wonder if we frame everything in terms of individual choice because we’re not quite willing to look into the mirror to see where we personally fall short. A conventional sexual ethic can go a long way in helping people feel like they are “good” Christians who are doing all of the “right” things.

Seeing everyone as being created in the image of God should have considerable effects of how we decide to treat people we meet. We can reflect on how Christ’s love was so expansive that it included people on the margins of society. In the Kingdom of God, we find space not only for people who love and serve the world through their Christ-centered marriage but also for celibate people who love and serve the world differently.

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.

Don’t Throw out Compassion with the Cotton Candy

A reflection by Sarah

“Christianity isn’t supposed to be easy. If I wanted light and fluffy pseudo-Christianity, I would’ve stayed in my former denomination.” Rarely does a week pass without my hearing  this at coffee hour on Sunday. In my Christian tradition, particularly in parishes where the majority of members are converts, there’s no shortage of people who view other Christian traditions negatively. Since becoming part of this tradition, I’ve heard much from others about the deficiencies of their former denominations and very little about the positive and formative aspects of their time in those denominations. I can appreciated the stories of folks who have trouble identifying anything good about their prior Christian experiences. That’s not my story, though I do my best to take in other people’s narratives and express empathy. But I’ve noticed that when phrases like “light and fluffy pseudo-Christianity” enter the conversation, anxiety mounts within me. I become tense and have difficultly engaging further beyond, “Yes (nod)…uh-huh (nod)…that sounds like a challenging experience (furrowed brows).”

For a while, I had trouble putting my finger on what was making me so uncomfortable. Last month, it occurred to me that I have a similar response to, “True Christianity has no room for fluff” as I do to the assertion that childhood behavior problems, insufficient work ethic, and even crime would decrease if only people would “hit their children like they used to in the old days.” I hear these opinions expressed, and something inside me hurts. I also become fearful, and from that point on I have trouble imagining myself ever opening up to the other person about the difficult aspects of my own life.

But why is this? Certainly, I agree with the basic idea that Christianity is (or should be) demanding. It should be challenging. Choosing to follow Christ requires far more of us than showing up for an hour or two on Sunday and putting a few dollars into the collection basket. Growing closer to God means examining all our actions and relationships, making sacrifices that come at high costs, and giving up false beliefs that may feel very comforting. I agree with all of this. I’ve also heard my fair share of homilies that have left me feeling as hungry as I’d be after eating cotton candy for dinner — many within the context of my former Christian tradition. I’ve always come away from those disappointed and exasperated. It does me no good to go to church every week and hear only, “God loves you. You’re a good person. We all need to love ourselves more.” However, I reap no greater benefit from being smacked across the face every week with reminders about each item on my very long list of shortcomings, or my pathetic failures at resisting passions.

When Christians react against cotton candy Christianity by emphasizing rigor and the reality of sin, sometimes a danger emerges. It’s akin to taking too many vitamin supplements and avoiding all carbs in an attempt to be extra healthy. Acknowledging and repenting of sin are essential components of the Christian life, but fixating on these and forgetting about compassion also leaves us unhealthy. I’ve see this happening quite a lot in Christian communities that have rejected a steady diet of junk food in favor of, “You’ll eat what the tradition sets before you and be grateful for it.” Unkindness and coldheartedness toward the sufferings of others are far too easy to frame as “challenging them to live more fully into the tradition.” Especially if those others represent life experiences foreign to one’s own — perhaps life experiences that symbolize ideological positions one opposes — it’s less complicated to dismiss them in favor of pat answers containing the correct theological buzzwords. Cue self-righteousness and vainglory.

As I ruminate on this, I keep coming back to the possibility that all-vitamins-no-carbs Christianity is somewhat classist. (Soon, I’ll be writing a piece on LGBT celibacy and socioeconomic status. Stay tuned.) It assumes that everyone lives and has grown up living a comforted, middle class, white, suburban American lifestyle and struggles with a tendency to resist Christianity’s more rigorous demands. It assumes that if given the choice and both options were equally Christian, everyone would naturally gravitate toward parishes and traditions that serve cotton candy because it’s pleasant and requires no sacrifice…thus, the need to reinforce awareness of our failings and our need to overcome passions.

I think the primary reason that rantings against cotton candy Christianity evoke fear in me is my upbringing was very different from that of most people I’ve attended church with as an adult. There was absolutely nothing soft or comforting about the Christianity of my childhood. The majority of my home county’s population was (and still is) part of the working poor, or lower middle class at best. My parents worked their fingers to the bone for every dime my family had. I don’t want to overplay our financial state because many families had only a fraction of what we did, but I can say without hesitation that as a child my opportunities were minimal when compared to what my suburban Midwest and East Coast friends had at their fingertips from birth. It was inconceivable to think that any Christian in my home county viewed Christianity as light and fluffy: there was nothing light and fluffy about life itself. I remember that when talking with other seven-year-olds about God after Sunday school, I heard “God tells me when I’m bad” and “God tells us to give everything up” arising regularly. I can’t imagine my childhood self ever being ignorant of the reality of sin. If a local pastor or priest had offered a homily proclaiming, “God just wants us to love ourselves more,” he would’ve been laughed away from the ambo or shouted down as a heretic. It wasn’t until graduate school that I encountered cotton candy Christianity at all.

Many people who grew up like I did don’t benefit much from reminders about the rigor of true Christianity. I’ve always struggled with scrupulosity and am hard enough on myself that even the most traditional of priests often tell me I should show more compassion to me. I don’t intend to compare my sufferings with those of others, but some of my own difficult life circumstances such as sexual abuse, addiction, eating disorders, depression, and chronic illness have only added to this beat-up-on-myself tendency. My own scrupulosity coupled with my congregation’s clear rejection of fluff regularly leaves me afraid to share my whole self with other Christians. Part of this is my problem, and I hope to continue working on that with God’s help. Still, I think others bear some responsibility. When a person is already well aware of all failings within his or her first thirty years of life, offering a few quips from the Church Fathers about the passions can come off as callous. It can also leave that person feeling unwelcome, unworthy, and unloved. When fighting a particularly tough battle in life, being alone isn’t ideal…but when your brothers and sisters direct their clubs and maces toward you while insisting that it’s the enemy they’re beating, going solo can seem preferable.

“If Christianity is easy, then you’re probably not doing it right.” I heard those words from the local bishop while on a retreat during college, and I believe he was right. But I’d like to suggest that this also applies if your version of Christianity is all sin and no salvation, all fasting and no feasting, all rigor and no compassion. There’s nothing unorthodox about embracing a suffering brother or sister and assuring him or her, “I know what you’re going through is difficult, but I’ll be here for you. I’ll pray for you and help you in whatever way you need. You shouldn’t have to bear this on your own.” Speaking of God’s mercy to a person who needs comfort does not require adding the disclaimer, “but God is wrathful too.” Giving up junk and fluff does not mean filling yourself with vitamins and rejecting every food that has even one common macronutrient with cotton candy.

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