Fighting Tradition

Today we’re featuring the voice of our friend who wishes to use the name Tom Merrick. Tom grew up as a gay Christian in an Evangelical Protestant home. We’ve enjoyed getting to know Tom over the past several months. At the beginning of December, we were incredibly distressed to learn that Tom’s father had told Tom he’d no longer be welcome in his parents’ house. We wanted Tom to share his perspective about living as a celibate gay Christian, entering into a celibate partnership, and dealing with his family. As always when reading guest posts, please keep in mind that everyone’s story is different, and the experiences, perspectives, thoughts, and theological ideas presented by the author will not necessarily match completely with ours. For this guest post specifically, we would like to clarify that the word “tradition” can have different meanings depending upon the context. Tom uses the word “tradition” in reference to how fundamentalist evangelical Protestants have approached questions of faith and sexuality. 

A reflection by Tom Merrick

“Tradition, tradition!” goes the debut song of Fiddler on the Roof. Tradition tells us who we are and what God expects of us. It defines us. And sometimes it binds us.

Tradition, not Scripture, holds that one cannot be gay and be Christian. Tradition says being gay is a choice. It says gay people are unacceptable to God.

That is Tradition. And breaking with Tradition means breaking with God.

That lie I have battled against. And I lost that battle.

I lost when I came out to my parents and my father counseled me to get reparative therapy to become straight, refusing to think anything but that being gay is a choice. After a long, agonizing call where I tried to convince him otherwise, I cried. I screamed. I overturned tables and desks and chairs in tortured agony, despair, and rage. All because I could not fight Tradition.

I retreated into myself, feeling abandoned, betrayed, hopeless. I drank, figuring a hedonistic lifestyle condemning me to hell was all I could do. That was, after all, what Tradition said gay people did.

I wrote, attempting to hide my writing from my parents, who were unwilling to accept me. However, they discovered I was writing, and I spent another hopeless night trying to reason with my father. But Tradition said otherwise, and, again, I lost the battle.

I found hope in a small online community of gay Christians, who welcomed me in with open arms. I found acceptance and subsequently retreated further from the unaccepting parents I lived with.

And I found love for the first time. I fell in love with a fellow man, who loved me in return, and showed me more about Christ’s love than I could have ever understood. I learned to accept myself. To look at my reflection in the mirror without seeing myself as ugly or wounded. I found what it meant to support and be supported in rough times.

But such could not be endured by Tradition. So my father confronted me about this man I loved. And again, I lost the battle with Tradition.

Two weeks before Christmas, my father asked me to choose. Choose him and Tradition, or the man I loved. I broke with Tradition and he asked me to leave.

Tradition won that battle. The stupid Tradition found nowhere in the Bible that any not straight are hateful to God. The Tradition that says cast the unrepentant from your home to their life of rebelliousness.

And so Tradition won. I spent Christmas estranged from my family and living with the man I love. And I find myself trying to make sense of a world where Tradition reigns supreme and causes me to lose the family I love. I struggle to know how I should feel or what I should do. And I try to make ends meet in the real world of job searching, loan payments and car troubles, all in a new city and environment.

Tradition has won today. But maybe someday it will lose. And maybe someday Tradition will not ruin a family like it has mine. In the meantime, I will retreat, mourn my loss, and look forward to the day when Tradition no longer defines and binds peoples’ minds and hearts.

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Differentiating between Divine Comfort and “Feel-Good Religion” Is Hard

A reflection by Sarah

Last night seemingly out of the blue, my middle school basketball coach came to mind. He had a tendency to work us harder than we were physically able and managed to suck all the joy out of the sport for many of us. He always justified his severity by saying, “If it doesn’t hurt, you’re doing it wrong.” Anyone who has experience in basketball practices knows that wall sits and ladder drills are supposed to hurt. They are normal parts of the conditioning program for basketball. But my middle school coach was never satisfied and would sometimes humiliate us by having us perform intense conditioning drills in front of the crowd at games during halftime. I recall several occasions when our team was in the lead 30-2, and because he was unhappy with how we were playing we had to spend halftime running laps after getting chewed out in the locker room. As I reflected, I wondered why these memories were coming back to me so strongly.

Especially as Lindsey and I are discerning as we search for our next local parish, we hear frequent messages like, “Doing community with people hurts. It’s easy to shop around to look for a place where you’re not challenged and everyone is just like you. There’s more to being part of a Christian community than feeling good about yourself.” These sentiments, while stated with the best of intentions, remind me of messages I’ve received in the past from Christians who assail anything that resembles “American feel-good religion” — a pseudo-Christianity where God is basically a vending machine who dispenses any and all requests because God’s main role is to make people “happy.” I’ve reflected before on the importance of experiencing God’s compassion, and that feasting on divine compassion is not the same as consuming a cotton-candy spirituality. Cotton-candy spirituality is characterized as light, fluffy, superficial, and soft. Yet in attempt to avoid this, asserting that pain marks a rightly-ordered spirituality is exceptionally dangerous. Few people would argue that it is appropriate or helpful for middle school basketball coaches to berate their young players and sometimes run them to the point of vomiting.

Nevertheless, I struggle to find the balance between experiencing spiritual pain on a daily basis and encountering divine comfort that transcends my every understanding.

On Christmas Eve, I was given a wonderful gift from God. Lindsey and I attended services, and I found myself able to pray more easily than I have in a long while. I experienced a sense that God had seen me and my prayers. I began to feel that my presence mattered to God. It’s been hard for me to be present many days, especially as my physical ability level is changing. I can’t leave my bed during and after intense bouts of vertigo. Should severe attacks happen on Sundays, going to church is out of the question. I’ve felt ancillary to Christian communities and as though few notice whether I have managed to make it to service that day. Yet on Christmas Eve, I became overwhelmed by joy at the thought of Christ reaching out in a personal way to tell me that he was glad I was there, that I mattered to him, and that he was happy to receive my prayers.

Then I felt so guilty that my participation in worship that day had given me a good feeling about myself. Immediately, I began scrutinizing myself morally, asking what was wrong with me. What sort of improper attitude had I brought to worship? How had I been cultivating pride? How was it that the feelings I experienced that day in worship matched feelings I’ve frequently had after a good therapy session?

No matter what Christian tradition I’ve been a part of throughout my life, I’ve constantly been catechized that the purpose of Christianity is to worship the living God and to encounter Christ. Virtually everyone around me has made it crystal clear that the purpose of faith is not to make me feel good about myself. Going to church is not the same as going to a therapy session. And if anything, encountering Christ should make me aware of  so many ways I fall short of living fully into my Christian life. Christianity is not supposed to make me feel good. Christ does not exist to tell me that I’m a good, moral person who makes valuable contributions to society.

At that point, I started to see a problem. I have so internalized the messages that religion is not supposed to make me feel good that often I am unable to experience joy, receive moments when God decides to embrace me, and know that God loves me. I don’t think I’m alone in this struggle. Many Christians are deeply committed churches that constantly decry American feel-good religion. Sometimes, I think pastors, priests, and devout lay Christians inadvertently give the message, “If practicing Christianity doesn’t cause constant pain, then you’re not doing it right.” My middle school basketball coach justified his practice regimen by saying, “This is what we need to do to win every game.” Applied to Christianity, this philosophy teaches that daily spiritual exercises exist for one purpose and one purpose only: to get into heaven where you’ll finally receive your reward and all the spiritual suffering will have been worth enduring.

I doubt that when parents say they want their kids to understand the realities of sin and have a profound sense of awe at the God of the universe, they intend to send the message, “You are little better than pond scum.” If you’re a kid who does feel like pond scum, it can be anxiety-inducing to receive messages about being vigilant for any way that sin is creeping into your world. It’s easy to interpret these messages as, “If you’re not experiencing acute levels of pain for your sinfulness at every possible moment, then you’re doing Christianity wrong.” Since Christmas Eve, I’ve been recalling the different times when I’ve been told to doubt experiencing peace and joy because these emotions indicate the presence of a very real passion out to destroy me. At age 30, I’m flabbergasted at just how difficult it is to uproot erroneous thoughts that experiencing joy, peace, or love should have me running in the opposite direction. I have a graduate degree in theology, yet it is surprisingly challenging to affirm how God mercifully extends comfort to us amid loud cultural megaphones decrying feel-good religion and therapy culture.

I am saddened to observe that I don’t have the foggiest idea how to fix this problem. Priests and pastors need to educate people about the purpose of religion. It’s impossible to tell a meaningful story about Christ’s incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection without ever discussing sin. We can’t talk about putting on Christ and bearing good fruit without warnings about alternative costumes and bad fruit. It doesn’t make sense to proclaim Christ as the Truth if we fail to acknowledge that our own hearts can occasionally be deceptive. We are called to be like Christ. As I’ve continued to explore what it means to be like Christ, I can’t help but see the ways that I fail to live into his commands. How is it possible for any of us to teach about living fully into Christ when all of us see so dimly? To this I can only say, Lord have mercy.

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: Light Shining in Darkness

Hello readers. Merry Christmas! We’ve been enjoying some low-key days around our city with Lindsey’s parents. This year, our Twitter feed is full of people who have decided to marathon Harry Potter movies over the holidays. We’re still trying to decide the best ways to dance with a hippogriff.

Now it’s time for our weekly 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 year, we’ve noticed that many friends are struggling with hard things this Christmas season. Lindsey reflected yesterday about how observing Christmas can leave us longing for Christ’s Second Coming even as we remember his first coming. We’re curious to know: what do you do when you feel immense sadness during times of joyful celebration? How have you been able to gift others with ministries of presence? How have others been able to minister to you through their presence? How have you found light in the darkness? 

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.

Celebrating Christmas when the world doesn’t feel right

A reflection by Lindsey

This year I have found myself thinking a lot about why we observe Christmas. So much in the world feels terribly wrong, and it’s hard to see God at work in any of it. I marked much of Advent hoping to see what would happen to Sarah’s vertigo after Sarah had ear surgery. I’d be hard-pressed to think of a location where one could feel more helpless than waiting for a loved one to come out of surgery. I found myself constantly reflecting that Sarah’s surgeon is an expert in the field who knows exactly what to expect and what to do as different things arise. Trying to distract myself wasn’t the most effective, and I found myself keeping a prayerful vigil throughout the procedure.

A lot was wrong on that particular Advent day. Sarah was in surgery. A friend’s Christian parents had given him a week’s notice that he was no longer welcome in their home. These parents had reasoned that it was inappropriate for Christians to shelter a person who “identified” as gay. Ferguson protesters decried police brutality while simultaneously seeking some recourse for the family of Michael Brown. I found myself dealing with all sorts of crazy emotions while looking at the sea of humanity gathered in that hospital waiting room. Many times, I couldn’t help but think, “Stop the world! I’d like to get off!”

Enter Christmas.

I think there’s a big temptation to look at Christmas as the day everything changed. Christmas is supposed to be the day where the light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it. Christmas is supposed to be the day where we experience Christ as Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, and Prince of Peace. But, still Christmas remains amid some rather incredible darkness. Christ was born, yet Herod still ordered the slaughter of the innocents. Christ was born, yet Joseph still lead his family into hiding.

In the microcosm of my own world, Christmas arrived this year with Sarah enduring more vertigo attacks, the two of us beginning the difficult process of seeking a new local church home, and a friend getting a call to report immediately to a hospital for further medical testing. I have watched as others have lost jobs, homes, and loved ones. I continue to be more aware than ever that the American justice system needs serious reform. There are structural levels of injustice in society that manifest in all sorts of -isms such as racism, ableism, and classism. The world is broken.

Isn’t it supposed to be Christmas?

As a Christian, I find myself hoping and longing for the day when everything is truly set right again. I want to see that day when tears, death, crying, pain, and illness pass away. After all, has it not been proclaimed that we should “behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away”? I can’t help but notice that I’m longing for the Second Coming of Christ even as I remember his first coming.

Until the Second Coming, I note that the only thing I can do is opt into remaining present. Being present can be exceptionally mundane. I didn’t expect to have a Christmas Day full of doing laundry while waiting for Sarah’s vertigo to subside. I don’t think anyone expects spending the Christmas season by keeping vigil over a dying loved one or visiting gravesides. I can’t imagine experiencing the Christmas season huddling with my friends and family in a war zone. There are many ministries of presence.

Christmas challenges us to value presence. As a baby lying in a manger, Christ could do very little to “fix” the world. He had made deliberate choices to empty himself of divine power. He became one of us to proclaim, “God is with us.” As an engineer, I find that admitting there’s very little I can do to “fix” the world is hard for me. I’d love to make Sarah’s vertigo disappear, but I know that’s not within my skill set. My skills look even more paltry against the larger problems plaguing people around the world. Yet, this Christmas I’m seeing that maybe there’s a kind of power present in just saying, “I am with you.”

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

A Change of Season: When It’s Time to Seek a New Church Home

Christmas is a time that brings truly epic surprises. Who could have guessed that the God of the Universe would be turned away from lodgings? Who would have thought that the first people to encounter Christ would be shepherds? Who would have known that myrrh — the funeral spice — would be a perfect gift for a newborn? Christmas is a time where God changes the story in ways that are both predictable and completely mind-blowing at exactly the same time.

This transition from Advent into the Christmas season has brought some uncharted terrain for us. After doing our best to be church with one particular community for nearly two years, we find ourselves experiencing clear confirmation that it’s time to move on. To clarify, we’re not moving from one Christian tradition to another, but to a different parish. We value our Christian tradition, and we intend on continuing to seek Christ within it until we draw our last breaths. Nevertheless, sometimes one needs to make some changes for one’s spiritual welfare. We’ve had seasons where it has become essential to seek different confessors and attend events at multiple parishes in search of some spiritual balance. Coming to these decisions is difficult for any person. Because we are aware that some of our readers are also struggling to find church homes, we decided to reflect a bit on what we’ve noticed about and in ourselves as God has directed us toward seeking a different parish.

At times, emotions, can be an important indicator that one would benefit from discerning the possibility that God is calling him or her elsewhere. In our case, we had started to notice that sadness set in just about every time we had the opportunity to go to church. We love our Christian tradition and all of the ways it invites us to shape our entire lives around Christ. Yet, we noticed that when we went to services at our parish, we couldn’t move past the sadness and it was becoming overwhelming. We had been regular attendees at our parish for over a year, but the atmosphere was full of (mostly) unspoken awkwardness. The feelings that inspired us to write 10 Things We Wish Our Church Family Knew lingered, and several months later we wrote In Which We Decide to Go to Church. We had experienced occasional hints that the atmosphere could have been changing, but only to see that those breaks in the ice were disappointingly fleeting. As this continued, our sadness shifted towards frustration. We noticed that we were constantly examining and re-examining ourselves to discern what we were doing wrong. Every time we queried ourselves, we arrived at the conclusion that all we wanted was to come to church and pray, and our expectations were entirely reasonable. We wanted to pray, go to coffee hour, and be part of a local church family during good times and bad. But the good almost never came. Our emotional experiences of church moved from sadness to frustration and eventually to anger. We reached a point at which we couldn’t imagine a Sunday with anything but awkwardness.

Especially as Sarah’s health has been steadily declining over the past four months, we’ve found ourselves asking, “Why are we trying so hard to get to church anyway?” Under normal circumstances, we enjoy going to church. We love praying with a community focused on encountering Christ, and we do our best to prepare ourselves to participate fully in the services. However, we started to notice that our Sunday preparations required steeling ourselves emotionally. We never knew what people were going to say or do around us, so we had to be prepared for almost anything. Preparing ourselves for Sunday began drifting more and more into the week, often resulting in high levels of anxiety. Once we started noticing feelings of dread intruding regularly into our Wednesdays and Thursdays, we had to ask “Are we going to church to encounter Christ, or are we enduring an emotional survival course to fulfill our Christian obligation?”

We started to take inventory regarding our spiritual growth, individually and as a couple. When one finds oneself in survival mode, it’s hard to thrive. Lindsey found it difficult to anchor solidly within our Christian tradition, branching out more broadly to other Christian spiritual practices that have been constant in Lindsey’s life. Sarah was able to engage in spiritual practices from within our tradition, but felt alienated from others in our parish community in terms of prayer life. In some ways, it felt as though any spiritual progress we were making was coming from sources apart from attending our regular parish. Chance conversations with friends developed into times for shared prayer. Visiting a different parish on occasion offered an opportunity to relax in an environment where we found ourselves able to pray. Once we began considering all of this with rigorous honesty, it became clear that our experience of spiritual life at the local parish level did not match with our spiritual experiences the other six days of the week.

Eventually, other people from our parish started to approach us to discuss how we were experiencing parish life. Especially within the past couple of months, some have dropped by to see how we are. Sometimes, great conversations happen over casseroles. We’ve been blessed to have two or three families in our lives who are willing to go the extra mile to walk with us. Over the last several months, some of the friends we’ve made at church have been confirming that we did not invent or imagine the concerns we’ve expressed about how we fit into our parish. They have recognized and affirmed that we’ve been trying different things to alleviate the awkwardness, and that it hasn’t been improving.

We’re incredibly blessed to live in an area where we do have other options. Searching for a parish is challenging. We notice different things when we visit a new parish. Our individual spiritualities are quite distinct, and we never know what features will combine to allow a place to feel like a spiritual home. We are aware that a perfect church exists nowhere, and we are not seeking perfection. We’re not looking for a Christian utopia where no one ever experiences hurt, disappointment, sadness, or anger. We do not desire a parish where we can avoid being challenged and never have to face our sins. We just want to be part of a growing, vibrant spiritual community within our Christian tradition that challenges us to grow closer to Christ.

This Christmas season, we’ll be praying for all who are without a church home regardless of circumstances, and especially for those making the difficult step of exploring new Christian communities. We would be grateful for your prayers as well. Blessed Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord to all of you.

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.