Saturday Symposium: Pastoral Care

It’s the weekend again! Thank you all for the thought-provoking comments this week. We always enjoy hearing from you. The discussion and email feedback have been fantastic. Feel free to keep it coming!

Because we have been getting many of the same questions multiple times within our first month of blogging, our site now features a Frequently Asked Questions page. If there is a question you think we have inadvertently left out, you can let us know via our Contact Us form. We’re also featuring an Ask Us! form where readers can submit topic ideas.

We were also very grateful for the opportunity to write a guest post for Morgan Guyton’s blog, Mercy Not Sacrifice. Morgan asked us if we would be interested in sharing a bit more about our relationship with his readers, so we said yes, and he published Our Journey As a Celibate LGBT Christian Couple on Wednesday. Thanks for helping us to share our story, Morgan!

Now, here’s a 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, we published two reflections that dealt with the topic of LGBT Christians’ being perceived differently than straight Christians, either by clergy, lay people, or both. In Avoid Every Appearance of Evil? and Expectations of Perfection, we reflected on some double standards we have seen applied in the pastoral care of LGBT people and how these messages can adversely affect trust in spiritual directors and the Church itself. What do you think members of the clergy, lay ministers, and spiritual directors could do differently to ensure that the pastoral care needs of LGBT people are met adequately? What are some examples of times that church leaders have excelled in this area? If you are an LGBT Christian, what are your greatest fears and concerns about seeking pastoral care when you need it? Pastors, priests, spiritual directors, and church leaders: what are you greatest fears and concerns about providing adequate pastoral care for LGBT members of your faith communities?

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!


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.

Books, Buses, and Broadway: Our Matilda Adventure

“Just because you find that life’s not fair, it
Doesn’t mean that you just have to grin and bear it!
If you always take it on the chin and wear it
You might as well be saying, you think that it’s ok
And that’s not right!
And if it’s not right, you have to put it right!
But nobody else it gonna put it right for me,
Nobody but me is going to change my story,
Sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty!”

As we have mentioned before, we love to travel. Since the beginning of our partnership, there has hardly been a road trip that hasn’t included us belting out the above lyrics with exuberance. They are the last few lines of a song called, “Naughty” from Matilda, The Musical. This song seems to be our anthem in times when life is extra difficult and challenging. For those who aren’t familiar, Matilda is based on a children’s book of the same name by the famous British author Roald Dahl, who also penned James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In the story, Matilda Wormwood is a young girl of extraordinary intellectual abilities who was born into a family that not only devalues learning, but also mocks and ridicules the educated. Matilda develops a close friendship with her teacher, Miss Honey, who recognizes Matilda’s gifts and encourages her to continue developing her mind.

Both of us adored this book when we were children. Being two little eggheads who didn’t always fit in with the social environments at our schools, we found many easily relatable situations in Matilda’s story. After meeting each other, we discovered that we have both reread Matilda periodically during childhood and adulthood.

When Lindsey was living in England a couple of years ago, Lindsey was beyond excited to discover that the Royal Shakespeare Company had produced a musical based upon this beloved book. Eventually, Lindsey saw the production in London’s West End and thoroughly enjoyed it. Around the time we decided to begin our partnership, Lindsey discovered the show was going to be making its Broadway debut and shared the Matilda soundtrack with Sarah. Sarah, who had also lived in England for a time, quickly became just as ecstatic about the show’s upcoming arrival in the States. For Christmas that year, Lindsey received a gift of two tickets to see Matilda on Broadway while the show was still in previews. Eagerly, we began planning for a weekend trip to New York City for the following March.

Putting together and executing a travel plan on a budget is one of our favorite things to do together because it allows us endless possibilities for creative problem solving. We’ve had a variety of costly adventures on road trips and bus trips, so saving money where we can in advance is always a high priority. Past adventures have included everything from wheel bearing malfunctions to encounters with large deer carcasses to catching strep throat and walking pneumonia in the middle of a long drive. We never know what’s in store, and we do what we can to save money on the front end. It’s great fun for us to search for coupons, discount codes, and random travel deals together. In this case, Sarah’s knack at working the Negotiator landed us a hotel for under $60 a night, and we found a great deal on two overnight tickets in order to save us a night on hotel costs.

After getting very little sleep on our bus ride, we arrived in Manhattan around 4 A.M. on the day before the show. As we had no formal plans until the next day, we did a bit of wandering until time to check into our hotel. Lindsey suggested that we venture out to Yonkers to visit a bookstore Lindsey had been wanting to see. We went to Grand Central Station to get the requisite train tickets. New York geography is not Lindsey’s strongest point, and Sarah was amused to see Lindsey’s shocked expression upon discovering that Yonkers isn’t actually part of New York City. We acquired nearly as many books as we could carry, took some time to rest, and then headed back into the city to find our hotel in Queens.

On the day of the show, we spent most of the morning meandering about the subway trains and streets, meeting up with Lindsey’s friend Evan, and trading lyrics to our favorite Matilda songs. We had fun imagining ourselves being half as talented as these kids:

With the showtime finally drawing near, we made our way to the theatre. Our tickets were for the upper balcony, which usually isn’t a problem. However, after 30 seconds in our seats, it was clear that Sarah’s vertigo was not going to cooperate to allow Sarah to enjoy the show. Lindsey clicked into high gear problem solving, coordinated with the ushers, and managed to negotiate a plan where we would sit on folding chairs at the back of the mezzanine level, one flight down.

The show was absolutely incredible in a way that only a Broadway show can be. We sat next to each other, each squeezing the other’s hand whenever the show was about to have reach a “good part.” Because we knew the London soundtrack backwards and forwards, we got many chuckles at how the show had been translated for an American audience. We’re so glad that Dr. Who has come to the States so the show could keep the line “But maybe your largeness is a bit like a Tardis, considerably roomier inside” during the scene where Bruce Bogtrotter eats the Trunchbull’s massive cake.

We’re both incredibly excitable people at times. The best part of sharing the show together was having an experience where it was legitimately acceptable to be 110% excited. When you want to bounce with exuberance, you should be able to bounce. When you want to squeal with delight, you should be able to squeal. When you want to dance, you should be able to dance. When you want to review the experience play-by-play with someone else who knows what happened, you should be able to provide your commentary. We continue to sing Matilda lyrics with exuberance because we both absolutely loved the show.

After the show had ended, we made our way back to the Megabus stop to catch a 1:15 A.M. bus bound for home. We had an important engagement the next morning and wanted to do everything humanly possible to get back from New York City. Sometimes you need to be creative to make an adventure work… and sometimes you just need to be a little bit naughty.

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.

My Grandmother’s Pistol: A Lesson in Love from the Appalachian Foothills

A reflection by Sarah

I’ve heard it said that the stories of ordinary people are the ones that teach the most extraordinary lessons. Generally, I find that to be true. But my maternal grandmother, Hester, is far from ordinary. I have never known her to blend in with a crowd, whether it is due the bright colors she enjoys wearing regardless of season, her extroverted nature, or her unusual name which she insists sounds like one that might be given to an old horse. (In reality, her parents chose it to rhyme with the one they assigned her twin brother, Lester.) Though raised in a culture that tends to value women’s domestic skills over contributions to serious conversation, she’s never bashful when it comes to voicing an opinion. My grandmother is willing to try almost anything at least once, jovially poking fun at her own mishaps along the way. As children, my sister and I tested this frequently by challenging her to games we invented. When I was very young, she would cut old grocery bags into paper dolls for me, embellishing them in permanent marker with the zaniest dress designs imaginable. And when I played center for my elementary school’s girls’ basketball team, she rarely missed a game and could out-cheer even the loudest and most obnoxious rebel yells emanating from the other side of the gymnasium.

But irrespective of these realities, my relationship with my grandmother hasn’t always been the best or the closest. In part, this has been a product of my own sense of peculiarity relative to the rest of my family. For as long as I can remember, I’ve felt—as my mother would put it—like the “odd duck.” This is true even without accounting for sexual orientation as a factor. As a child, I never fit very well within the cultural norms and expectations surrounding me. Though born and raised in Eastern Kentucky, I suppose I’ve always been more of a city person at heart. Almost every man in past generations of my family, especially on my mother’s side, has made his living through manual labor or some kind of skilled trade. Almost every woman has been a homemaker, though a few have worked as secretaries and in similar positions. From early on, it was clear that I was bookish and my aptitudes in these other areas would be sparse. One would never know it now, but I used to believe that I was shy and introverted simply because at large gatherings, I could never determine a topic of conversation that would last more than a couple of minutes with most other members of my family.

Even as delightfully unusual as my grandmother is, she has a lot in common with my other relatives. There are many ways in which she has lived the life of the average Appalachian woman of her time. She is the only daughter who survived into adulthood in a large family of Irish ancestry. Her mother, my great-grandmother Maudie, was a homemaker. Her father, my great-grandfather Leroy, worked and provided for her family’s basic needs, but spent most of his life consumed by alcoholism. Due in part to the instability of her home environment, as a teenager my grandmother received permission from her mother to marry my grandfather, a coal miner, who was 21 at the time. A little more than a year later, she gave birth to my mother. My two aunts came along three and thirteen years later. A devout Baptist for decades now, my grandmother came to faith as a young woman who had grown up unchurched. She has spent almost her entire life in one Eastern Kentucky town, and her worldview is not very different from that of most people in the local area. Because of this, I haven’t always known how to be myself around her.

Last year at Christmas, Lindsey and I were in Eastern Kentucky visiting my parents. My sister and her husband had also come in for the holidays. As all of us were relaxing in my parents’ living room, the telephone rang and my mother answered. It was my grandmother, and she wanted to see us—all of us. She had expressed a desire to meet Lindsey. Immediately, my protective instinct overshadowed any feelings of gladness for the opportunity to see her. I began searching my mental Rolodex for every memory I could recall that would give me some expectation for what might happen when she would meet Lindsey. I remembered that I hadn’t even needed to come out to my grandmother years ago—she had asked my mother point blank if I was gay. She had stated matter-of-factly and without judgment that the possibility was revealed to her in a dream. But I also remembered a smattering of incidents from when I was much younger. If anything related to the gay community ever made the news, nearly every member of my family reacted by ranting about “homosexual perversion.” I couldn’t remember if my grandmother herself had ever spoken those words, but my anxiety escalated when I thought about how much she loves Duck Dynasty, as it was only a couple of days after Phil Robertson had come under fire for his crude remarks about gay sex. I began to dread the visit with everything in me.

As we piled into my mother’s car and made our way toward my grandparents’ house, I prepared for how I would defend Lindsey if necessary. I practiced the words in my head, seeking the most appropriate tone that would communicate disapproval without being rude. I had told Lindsey that the visit would hopefully be brief, and would likely be unpleasant. It was neither. Never in my life have I been so thankful to watch myself eat crow. We arrived, and from the moment my grandmother opened the door to let us in, her face was lit with elation. She wanted hugs from everyone, greeting each of us as enthusiastically as she possibly could with her oxygen tank trailing closely behind.

By the time I realized she was welcoming Lindsey without reservation, she had already taken out a notepad and pencil to record Lindsey’s birthday so she wouldn’t forget what day to send a card. Ever gregarious, my grandmother began discussing her usual favorite topics: happenings around the community, how many souls were saved at her church’s Christmas pageant, and her late father’s rifle. The pinnacle of our time together came when guns entered the conversation and my grandfather decided it was time to show off his gun collection to my brother-in-law (who, ironically, has never used a gun). Not wanting to miss the action, my grandmother reached swiftly behind her recliner and brought forth a large revolver, which she brandished high into the air. “Here’s my pistol!” she declared with gusto as Lindsey’s eyes became increasingly saucer-like. I couldn’t recollect the last time I had laughed so hard. My grandmother thought Lindsey’s stunned reaction was brilliant and hilarious. I chortled while explaining to Lindsey that in Appalachian culture, showing one’s daughter’s (or granddaughter’s) significant other a gun is just a way of saying, “I like you, and you’re going to be welcomed as part of the family, but you had better not hurt my kid!” Once Lindsey saw that this was a sort of acceptance ritual rather than a threat to life or limb, both of us realized that in this space, we felt completely at home and incredibly loved.

I think it was the transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson who once said, “Every man is in some way my superior, and in that I learn of him.” Though I believe in theory that these words provide good wisdom for cultivating the virtue of humility, I must admit that I struggle with where this applies to my family. To say that we’ve had difficult points in our interpersonal relationships would be the understatement of the century. But today, I thank God for bringing me to cognizance of one respect in which my grandmother is very much my superior. As I observed the pure, unconditional kindness and love she showed Lindsey that day last December, I could think no other thought than, “This is what it means to love your neighbor as yourself.” That day, my grandmother’s understanding of sin and how that might apply to us was not her primary theological concern. The question of whether we are celibate or sexually active wasn’t important to her. She only cared that we were there, offering her the chance embrace us warmly in her home. I imagine that when my parents share this piece of writing with her and she finds out for the first time that we are celibate, this fact will continue to be irrelevant in her determination of how best to love us. Through a simple visit with a simple, country woman, I received a priceless gift: a reminder of the two great commandments Christ gave us in Matthew 22. I had already known my grandmother Hester to be a dedicated practitioner of the first. Her witness to the second has made an imprint on my heart and mind that I hope will remain forever.

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.

Expectations of Perfection

As LGBT Christians in our late 20s and early 30s, we’ve seen many differences in the way people are urged to develop healthy senses of sexuality. Throughout our own journeys in uniting faith and sexuality, we’ve observed time and time again the way many Christian traditions assert that if an LGBT person is sincerely a Christian, then he or she simply will not make any mistakes in the area of sexual morality. This line of thought might come from a belief that it’s adequate to tell a faithful, LGBT Christian to avoid every appearance of evil and give no further counsel.

Why might cisgender, heterosexual Christians expect LGBT Christians to be perfect? Perhaps these expectations come from cisgender, heterosexual Christians trying to get their heads around the idea that “Yes, it is possible to be a gay Christian.” People willing to extend a gay person the benefit of the doubt at times draw what seems to be a razor-thin line that differentiates the “good” gays from the “bad” gays. “Good” gays don’t have sex. When some conservative Christians draw these lines, anything less than perfect abstinence falls short and is understood as evidence that the Holy Spirit is not at work in the life of that gay “Christian.” Here, we see indications of a bit of neo-Pelagianism creeping into the forefront: a faithful gay Christian should be able to provide ample evidence of faithfulness because that person is capable of reigning in his/her sexual energies.

An unhealthy obsession with perfection enters because the LGBT person trying to live a faithful life in the Church zooms in on doing whatever it takes to prevent sexual sin, no matter how extreme. This kind of expectation puts insurmountable pressures on LGBT Christians and leads many of them down the road of questioning their commitment to Christ, their suitability to be in a church community, and their right to continue to draw air. LGBT Christians live on a spiritual fault line where one action has the potential to separate them from the Church. The expectation of perfection creates indescribable fear where they can become terrified to talk with their spiritual mentors, dreading interactions as one would dread a terrorist attack. LGBT Christians can develop practices of rehearsing their parts of the conversation when approaching spiritual direction, if they go at all.

To cope with this pressure, LGBT Christians can acquire a lexicon of various code-switching phrases to try to discuss sexuality safely… but may consistently feel under attack when a member of the clergy decides to read more into that choice of words than the person intended. For example, if the LGBT Christian is talking about concerns involving a close friend, some spiritual directors might assume the person has a sexually active relationship without ever asking if this is the case. Additionally, we’ve noticed that many spiritual directors are more comfortable with particular lexicons. These spiritual directors might encourage people to say they “experience same-sex attraction” rather than saying that they are “gay” or “lesbian,” sometimes going so far as to tell them, “Identifying as ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ is denouncing your identity in Christ!”

Expectations of perfection may also emerge because many providers of pastoral care tend to view sexual sin as a type of sin that is around forever and must always be carefully contained. Some of this attitude may stem from how Christian traditions emphasize purity and virginity, especially when encouraging youth to wait until marriage before having sex. Any sexual sin in an LGBT person’s life can lead to extreme consequences within his/her faith community. Once as a young college student, Sarah sought counsel from a priest about how to develop a healthy relationship with a woman after they had experimented with some above-the-waist touching. The priest provided a stern directive that Sarah should never speak to this woman ever again and avoid her in every situation possible because Sarah’s salvation was at risk. Within the same week, one of Sarah’s heterosexual male friends sought advice from the same priest after engaging in sexual intercourse with his girlfriend. Sarah’s friend later told Sarah that the priest’s counsel was simply, “Obey the Church’s teaching that sex is reserved for marriage, and avoid situations like this one with your girlfriend in the future.” When LGBT people have spiritual directors bellowing over them that failure to be perfect endangers their salvation, it should come as no surprise that LGBT Christians can become so focused on trying to be perfect that they begin to hate themselves for being human.

Cisgender, heterosexual people can (and should!) encounter a lot of grace in navigating questions around sexuality, gender identity, and gender expression. Most LGBT Christians are not so fortunate. Part of adolescence involves exploring, finding yourself, and figuring out how to get up when you fall down. No one expects a teenager to have instant control over the hormones raging through his or her body, and everyone can acknowledge the need for gracious support as young adults work to discover themselves in Christ. There’s a certain collection of behaviors that we tend to associate with people at different stages in sexual development. It’s good to match our words of advice with a healthy understanding of a particular person’s likely stage in sexual development. LGBT people need to be afforded the same courtesy as cisgender, heterosexual people. To expect LGBT Christians to prove their faithfulness over and over and over (and over….) again by remaining without sexual sin is to tie up heavy burdens on people without any willingness to lift a finger to help them manage the load.

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.

My Failed Celibate Relationship

A reflection by Lindsey

I’ve had a lot of different opportunities to learn about my vocation to celibacy. My partnership with Sarah provides a fantastic place to discern how God is calling me to live a celibate life. Additionally, I spent time cultivating celibacy as a single person. But the first place I explored living a celibate life was in a romantic relationship.

When I was first beginning my journey of reconciling my faith and sexuality, I found myself inexplicably drawn to a person I shall call Carey. Carey was several years older than me but lived a life richly connected to Christ in a local faith community. Carey’s pastor was supportive and accepting, encouraging Carey to pursue life in Christ. Despite our age gap, we seemed to be in similar life stages and exploring closely related callings. We could talk easily, and we grew closer and closer. It wasn’t long before I found myself desiring a relationship with Carey.

But there was a problem… or so I thought. Carey was earnestly and stridently convicted that gay sex is a sin and could not be approved under any circumstances. How in the world could a relationship work out? My own views on how to reconcile one’s faith with one’s LGBT status were in flux, and I didn’t want to be trespassing on Carey’s ethical conscience. We had several conversations about the perceived tension and came to the conclusion that it was possible to pursue a relationship that didn’t involve sex. Through a series of unlikely events, I ended up flying to visit Carey a few weeks later. We hit it off with a good deal of instant chemistry.

Carey and I started a strong relationship forged on mutual respect and shared commitment to Christ. We explored different ways to share a prayer life that worked even when we were separated by many states. Our common faith tradition anchored our time spent together. Carey had a bit more experience within our tradition and taught me quite a lot about how to live a way of life aligned with particular aspects of our tradition. We tried to pray early and often, ever growing towards a more complete prayer life in our tradition.

Our discussions about celibacy involved a lot of boundary work. We thought about the counsel given to unmarried heterosexual couples and tried to implement that in our lives. We also talked a lot about what dating heterosexual couples did with each other that did not count as sex. I found myself constantly right up against the boundaries. But I wasn’t driven to the boundaries because I wanted more; I was driven to the boundaries because they defined our limits about what we were willing to share together.

However, from my perspective, our boundary work related to defining sex seemed to bubble over into boundary work in other areas. Every bit of additional boundary work seemed to pull us apart rather than bring us closer together. Night prayer became attached to going to bed, specifically to Carey’s bedtime, a boundary that didn’t work very well with us living on different schedules in different time zones. We started praying separately. Our own tradition became an exclusive marker of faithfully living a Christian life. It became very easy to devote large chunks of conversation to being critical of people in other Christian traditions. We experienced even more conflicts when we talked about politics, especially as we started reading authors referenced by politicians from the other side of the aisle. Fighting politically is never fun. Towards the very end of our relationship together, our boundary work also expanded to only being friends with other LGBT couples in which both parties earnestly believed gay sex is a sin. For my part, I struggled mightily with this idea because I couldn’t see how boundaries in our relationship manifested any differently from those of dating LGBT couples who earnestly believed in trying to save sex until marriage.

I’m not sharing the unraveling of my relationship to point fingers at Carey, or to point fingers at me. I think both Carey and I found ourselves in over our heads because we had never stopped to think about what it might look like to cultivate a celibate vocation together. We had a pretty good handle on what abstinence entailed. Yet, over a year after we broke off our relationship, I had experienced a great deal of conviction that my relationship with Carey did not serve me in cultivating a celibate vocation. We never broke our rules about physical boundaries set to make sure we remained abstinent, but I felt slightly betrayed by my body and its capacity for surprising sexual connection.

I also felt misled by my Christian tradition. Early on in our relationship, Carey found a small book that detailed some of the authoritative teaching discussing LGBT people and their relationships. The practical counsel of the book boiled down to a belief that as LGBT people grew in their capacity to love one another, they would then make the God-honoring choice to refrain from homogenital acts. In the aftermath of my failed relationship, I found myself rather angry. How could the wisdom of my Christian tradition give me but two commands? There was the lofty call to “grow in love” and then the very specific directive to “avoid homogential acts.” I felt that in my relationship with Carey, eventually we tipped the balance towards the latter rather than the former.

Since failing in my first celibate relationship, I’ve become ever more convinced of the need to define celibacy in the positive. I have tried to live my life by the axiom, “Human beings have meaningful relationships with other human beings,” trusting God to show me places of rich connection. I began visiting different vowed celibate people to learn a bit more about how they lived their lives. I learned how to take myself out on dates, exploring different ways to appreciate myself as a beloved child of God as opposed to thinking that every significant friendship would eventually blossom romantically. I’ve become a big advocate of the idea that it’s worth spending time discerning what the vocation of celibacy might look like in a particular individual’s life before encouraging that person to jump into a celibate relationship. I’ve known other people who have experienced failed celibate relationships, and it’s almost uncanny how my friends’ relationships have mirrored the relationship I shared with Carey. I do not wish a failed celibate relationship on anyone, so I speak out about the need to be mindful when cultivating a celibate vocation.

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.