I do not want to be the “gay Christian” anymore

A reflection by Lindsey

There are times when certain kinds of conversations seem inescapable. In the aftermath of the Extraordinary Synod on the Family and the ERLC conference on the Gospel, Homosexuality, and the Future of Marriage, I find myself caught in a fire fight. Like many fights in the culture war, it concerns an entirely small territory. There’s a 3-letter word that gets in the way of other people’s ability to see my humanity. I don’t know anywhere I can go to possibly escape the fight. Even trying to hide out at home doesn’t shield me from people’s callousness.

I remember my first interaction with the word gay. I was 14 years old, and Kevin Kline had a starring role in the movie In and Out. Please take a couple of minutes to watch the trailer.

I remember having an uncomfortable sinking feeling in my stomach. One day, I’d have to deal with someone else making a public declaration of “Lindsey’s gay.” And then I’d be caught in an awkward limbo, feeling unable to deny the accusations and too afraid to confirm them as true. The word gay is an oddly expansive cultural signifier. When other people call you gay when you’ve not said that you actually are, they are usually suggesting that you flaunt gender norms so strongly that you’d rather couple with a person of your same sex. When other people call you gay, they are considering you a particular kind of person rather than suggesting you have a fondness for specific sex acts. Playground bullies have all sorts of vulgar language to use when it comes to sex acts that they employ liberally.

Fast forward 17 years later and I’m still feeling caught in that limbo. We have people who proudly proclaim, “I love Jesus too much to call myself a gay Christian.

But, what happens when other people in the church foist a label upon you to justify their mistreatment? What happens when people cite simple matters of hair style, clothing choice, preferred forms of sentence structure, subconscious ways of holding one’s body, and most common vocal ranges used when singing in order to declare that you’ve never given your life to Jesus, that you don’t care about the ways of Christian morality, and that you certainly have never been a part of Christ’s Church?

I long for the day when I can simply go to church, say my prayers, search my heart with the safety of knowing that I am God’s child, determine how to participate best in the sacramental life of the Church with the help of a trusted confessor, and enjoy in fellowship with all those gathered. I long for the day when people assume that I’m doing my absolute best to unite myself fully to Christ seeking support from the teachings of my Christian tradition. I long for the day when I am truly treated “just like everyone else.”

The people who tell me that I just need to find my identity in Christ fail to realize that Christ is at the very core of my identity. They also fail to realize that He alone has kept me alive even during the seasons of their most aggressive, hostile, and repeated attacks of telling me that there’s no way I exist. When I was a teenager trying to sort through why everyone else treated me as though I was impossibly different, I hadn’t had one moment of sexual experience. I was just being myself without concern for the fact that, as Lindsey, I’m quirky. As I’ve grown older, I’m stuck with a hard reality that when I look at the lives of my married friends, their relational lives are distinct from mine and there’s nothing I can do about that. The only people who seem to understand this difference are those who can appreciate that not everyone is called to heterosexual marriage, and not everyone has a pattern of relating that consistently points to the marital vocation.

A lot has changed since I was 14 years old. I can’t imagine how my life would have looked differently if I would have known that Sally Ride was gay. I’d be hard-pressed to identify a more significant childhood hero. I admired Sally Ride even more than I admired Neil Armstrong, and that’s saying something. This week, Tim Cook has decided to speak clearly about the simple fact that he’s gay. What he says here really resonates with me:

Being gay has given me a deeper understanding of what it means to be in the minority and provided a window into the challenges that people in other minority groups deal with every day. It’s made me more empathetic, which has led to a richer life. It’s been tough and uncomfortable at times, but it has given me the confidence to be myself, to follow my own path, and to rise above adversity and bigotry. It’s also given me the skin of a rhinoceros, which comes in handy when you’re the CEO of Apple.

I have to wonder if conservative Christians who tell me not to identify as gay are trying to ensure that I build that rhinoceros skin. I can’t help but wonder if people say “Don’t identify as gay” in an effort to really say, “There’s no way these hateful and hurtful comments would get to you…. unless of course, you are, you know…. living immorally.”

It’s much easier to assert that gay people are 100% opposed to Christ than it is to appreciate that “gay” and “LGBT” are used frequently as broad umbrella terms to communicate something of a shared social experience. In reporting on the experience of celibate gay Christians, Vanessa Vitello Urquhart wrote, “Make no mistake—celibate or not, these people are a part of the LGBTQ community. They share the same fears we do, experience the same stigma, and have felt the same tension, between hiding and safety on one side and openness and self-acceptance on the other, that defines the LGBTQ experience in 21st-century America.”

If you as a conservative Christian want to end my need to find value in the descriptor “Gay Christian,” please tell the Church to stop persecuting those of us who do not fit cleanly into heteronormative molds, and stop making excuses for people who behave uncharitably toward us. When you tell me that the only place I should discuss my sexual orientation and gender identity is in confession, you’re actually reinforcing the norms of the judgmental world I know as a gay person. You’re telling me that I need to hide something even though I’ve come to seek Christ, the person who knows me more intimately than I know myself. I’d welcome it so much if I could walk into a church, pursue Christ with you, and share how he is guiding and directing me to leave my unique mark on this world that has not yet fully been redeemed.

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.

On Otherness, Alienation, and “Don’t Say Gay”

A reflection by Sarah

Last night, I dreamed of myself lying on an operating table, wide awake as my own blood pooled in my open body and began to drain from it. The surgeon loomed over my torso, aware of my consciousness and abject terror but unable to see that I was dying. He tugged at my innards, working calmly and methodically, remarking several times along the way that he understood my pain but cared too much about my wellbeing to try a different protocol. Then, I woke up.

Once again, I’m writing a post on a day when we don’t usually publish. I’m doing this not to be dramatic or whiny, but because during the past four days I’ve reached new levels of spiritual exhaustion, and while I’ve attempted to reach out to others for support I still have a profound sense of alienation. As I write, I feel as though I’m bleeding out spiritually and no one from within my tradition is noticing — least of all, those whose counsel I have trusted and respected since before my conversion. And all of this began with quibbles over a three-letter word and its impact upon straight, conservative Christians.

I’m not about to give you a detailed defense of why the word “gay” is an acceptable layer of identity for a Christian who is exclusively attracted to people of the same sex. There have been several brilliant blog posts written on this topic already. I find more resonance with some of these than others. If you’re a straight Christian who is wondering why gay Christians find the word “gay” so important you should begin by reading these items by Joshua Gonnerman, Wesley Hill, Melinda Selmys, Jeremy Erickson, Julie Rodgers, Brent Bailey, and Eve Tushnet. In the future, I would like to write my own post that delves more deeply into the compatibility of “gay” as a cultural identity with “Christian” as my most important identity, but for now I’ll just link Lindsey’s and my post on why we call ourselves a celibate LGBT Christian couple and a past reflection of mine where I talked about gayness and Christian identity on a very basic level. I’ll also be completely forward in admitting that my thoughts on this topic need more time to marinate before I can articulate a full defense of the term “gay Christian.” Anyway, moving on…

I’ve noticed an increase in language policing lately, both in my parish and in the blogosphere. A couple of days ago, I found this blog post by Matt Moore who claims that he “loves Jesus too much” to refer to himself as a gay Christian. While I respect Moore’s own personal story for what it is, his post smacks of condescension, implying that same-sex attracted people who identify as gay love Christ less than those who don’t. (Gay Christians who read it and were left with a similar impression as mine should be made aware of Andrew Asdell’s response piece.) Reading Moore’s post was especially painful this week because I was (and still am) incredibly emotionally raw from a conversation that Lindsey and I were involved in after church on Sunday. If you’ve been reading our posts recently, you’re probably already aware that we’ve had some challenging experiences related to acceptance within our parish. Most people have come a very long way and are slowly coming to embrace us as part of the community, and for that we are grateful. Given that, you might be wondering, “What’s the problem? People are starting to welcome you. What more do you want?” To put it bluntly, the problem is that because we are being welcomed any instance of unwelcome we attempt to address is thrown back in our faces, blamed on the fact that we identify as “gay.” This is true even when there is some acknowledgement that Person X or Person Y was behaving inappropriately toward us.

To be clear, we are not claiming to be victims or martyrs. We are members of the Body of Christ, just like every person at our church, and our stories matter. Our lives matter. No one in our Christian tradition would argue otherwise. Many would likely cite how much they love us and care about our lives as their primary reason for admonishing us to find identity in Christ and reject terminology that’s easily associated with sin. What goes unnoticed — sometimes willfully ignored — is the spiritual toxicity of this admonishment when it’s offered to gay Christians. We’re all different, and it’s true that some Christians with same-sex attraction don’t find it helpful to use the word “gay.” I don’t advocate forcing anyone to use the same language as I use for myself. I believe that the best way to understand a person’s individual needs is to have a candid conversation with that person. In that spirit, here is what I have to say to Christians who think policing LGBT language is a good idea:

If you tell me to turn away from the word “gay” because it keeps me from finding my identity in Christ, you are refusing to believe me that the most sacred, treasured layer of who I am is my identity as a follower of Christ. If you tell me this in one breath and state in the next that I’m an exemplary person (which is far too high a compliment for me), you’re sending me mixed messages. Is something in my behavior leading you to question my commitment to Christ and my willingness to make sacrifices in order to follow him? If so, why are you calling me exemplary? Cognitive dissonance much?

If you imply a hope that at some point in my spiritual journey I will grow out of using the word “gay” and come into a holier form of identity, you are not hearing me when I tell you that understanding myself as “gay” has only increased as Christ has drawn me nearer and nearer to himself over time. You are communicating to me an assumption that people only begin to see themselves as gay when they have fallen away from God. That is not my story. Though I have been through periods of living as an especially bad Christian, I had never yet been sexually active at the time when I came out as gay. If I thought it would do any good, I would explain in detail how much I’ve changed for the better since coming out. I would tell you how strange my family and peers thought I was as a child, how I began to notice in the 3rd grade that my perception of beauty was different from that of other girls, and how at that age I experienced my first crush on the teenage girl playing the lead role in a community theatre show. I’d fast-forward to the 7th grade and tell you how baffled I was to realize that the feelings I had for other girls were the same feelings all my female friends had for boys, and how I dated the same boy throughout high school to force myself into opposite-sex attractions that would never come. I would tell you how devastated I was when we broke up because I truly believed that he was the only person in the world who would put up with such a freak. Then, I’d detail my journey of self-acceptance. I’d glow while sharing with you the peace and connectedness to Christ that I felt when I could finally say, “I’m not a mistake. I’m just gay. God didn’t mess up when he created me.”

If you say that my using the word “gay” might cause a weaker brother to stumble because the majority of straight people think all gay people are sexually active, you are making excuses for my brother’s sin and asking me to take responsibility for it. This tells me that you care more about my brother’s welfare than mine, and you’re not fully willing to remind my brother that behaving hatefully and judgmentally toward others is a sin. Or perhaps you’re willing to talk to him about this — now that I think about it, you probably are. But you’re still blaming me to an extent for another person’s moral failing, and frankly I have enough moral failings of my own to keep track of without worrying about someone else’s. Not that I want to be a source of scandal, but obsessing over other people’s neuroses is not spiritually healthy. And let’s be honest: people in the Church have a nasty tendency to be scandalized by things that are not scandalous, then respond by scandalizing the person who was supposedly the source of scandal in the first place.

If you tell me that “gay” is an inappropriate word for a Christian to use for herself, you are communicating to me that there is nothing that makes my experience of life different from straight people’s experiences, and that any discrimination I face in the Church is not real. You may not be intending to do this, but you’re creating more space for even greater hostility by minimizing my experiences and telling me that offenses I experience must be projections of past hurt onto a current situation. In saying that I might encounter less hostility if I stopped identifying as gay, what you’re really telling me is that the easiest way to deal with discriminatory behavior is to ignore it and tell myself that I’m no different from anyone else. Bring on the pat answers and generic solutions for real instances of cruelty: “Someone talked about you in uncharitable ways at coffee hour? If you stop saying ‘gay,’ maybe he won’t do it anymore.” Reminds me of my fourth grade science teacher who advised that if only I’d cut off my long hair, maybe little Justin wouldn’t be so tempted to yank at my braid every five minutes.

If you are worried about what words I use to describe myself when I don’t even use them at church anyway, you are telling me that celibacy is not enough. Our Christian tradition teaches that sex ought not to take place outside of marriage, and marriage was intended to unite one man and one woman in an eternal commitment that is open to children. Okay. My partner and I are celibate and draw much of our model of doing life from monastic patterns of living. Our relationship does not include anything that our Christian tradition teaches as reserved for marriage. The tradition recognizes two types of vocations: married and celibate. We’re trying our best to figure out what a celibate life in the world ought to look like, and I think we’re not doing too terribly considering that non-monastic celibacy is a relatively new topic for discussion. Why isn’t that enough? How is it that I can be making every possible effort to live into the vocation to which God has called me, and a three-letter word has the power to diminish what I’m doing? Somehow, I just can’t see Jesus caring as much about the word “gay” as Christians do.

If you will not even consider my words when I tell you that I see being gay as a kind of “otherness” that is just as beautiful and valuable as other kinds of human differences, you are denying my experience of life. You are denying that I exist. This is perhaps the most detrimental, alienating, soul-crushing aspect of shaming a gay Christian for how he or she self-identifies. No, it doesn’t help to tell us that we do exist, but as people made in the image and likeness of God, not as gay people. I’ve yet to hear a convincing argument that gayness couldn’t possibly be a kind of otherness that is good and meaningful. Until I do hear one, I’m going to continue saying that straight Christians ought to listen to those of us who describe our experiences in this way. Not to suggest that racial minorities experience life in remotely the same way as sexual minorities, but saying to a gay person, “We’re all the same in Christ” is like saying to a black person, “The Church should be colorblind.” Try telling a black person that there is nothing good in the black identity, a poor person that there is no good in the poor identity, a Deaf person that there is no good in the Deaf identity, or an addict that there is no good in the addict identity. Try telling a Russian, Romanian, or Greek person that there’s no good in any form of ethnic identity. The reactions would not be pleasant. By telling me, “Don’t say gay,” you are attempting to strip me of a different yet equally meaningful cultural identity.

If you insist that “gay” means only what you — a straight, conservative Christian — think it means, you are closing yourself and your parish off from a vibrant, committed, faithful group of people who are eager to serve Christ. Instead of showing us love, you’re showing us the exit. You are telling us that you would rather we bleed out on the operating table than give us the support we need to heal from past wounds that other Christians have caused. You’re implying that policing the language of the LGBT community is more important to you than leading LGBT people to Christ. Don’t you realize that there are LGBT people who would love to be part of your church community if only you would help us with our real spiritual problems and stop assuming that the gay identity is a spiritual problem? You need to know that even celibate gay Christians feel unwelcome at church — even forced out — by your inability to consider how we understand identity. It might be easier to think after we’ve left, “They’ve fallen out of the faith. They’ve gone back out into the gay lifestyle because they love their homosexuality more than they love Christ.” I don’t know a single gay person who has left church because of a desire to have sex. Not one. But I know hundreds who have left because of alienation.

Speaking of alienation, that’s the emotional space I find myself in at present. In the spirit of our value vulnerability, I’ll admit that right now the idea of setting foot in church makes me feel hatred toward myself and anger at God and the Church. I don’t understand how it’s possible that the Church has failed so miserably to minister to such an expansive group of people. It makes no sense to me that even the best parish experiences I’ve ever had have come along with undertones of authoritarianism, spiritual abuse, and stubborn refusal to hear the cries of wounded parishioners. I don’t see why it’s so difficult just to be loving, and to reevaluate one’s approach when someone else points out, “I know you’re saying x, y, and z out of love, but these assumptions are causing harm to people who are different from you.” I have no idea what I’m going to do this Sunday, or any Sunday in the near future. When the options are 1) risk triggering depression and addiction in order to receive the Body of Christ at Liturgy, or 2) spend Sunday at home with Lindsey, God, and the angels and saints in our prayer corner, the decision is not straightforward. I have no intention of apostatizing. I love Christ far too much, and no matter the negativity I experience at church I simply cannot stop loving him. But I might need to be an inactive non-communicant for a bit. At the moment, it may be the best survival strategy I can pull together.

(In case anyone is about to tell me that I should “just go to an open and affirming church,” read this first. Also, stay tuned. Lindsey will be reflecting tomorrow on the same topic I addressed today.)

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.

Some thoughts on chastity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The sermon I wish had been preached at #ERLC2014

A reflection by Lindsey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turning to Matthew 19, we read:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A reflection by Sarah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A window in the retreat center's lovely chapel

A window in the retreat center’s lovely chapel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We finger painted! Here's my creation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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