Terms of Engagement

A reflection by Sarah

On January 8, 2014, one evening before the opening session of the Gay Christian Network Conference, Lindsey and I visited a small, independent bookstore in Chicago. We had spent the entire day driving to the Midwest from our city, since 3 AM in fact, and were exhausted. I was still shaken from a car accident we had experienced just hours earlier, and after meeting up with our friend Alison at the last minute for dinner at a nearby Mediterranean restaurant I was ready to turn in for the evening. Still, Lindsey insisted that we take some time to stroll around the bookstore and see what hidden gems we might find. We split off into different sections for a while. Later, Lindsey met me in the adventure books where I was perusing a copy of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues under the Sea. We began talking about all the amusing situations we’ve found ourselves in since we first met, and I noticed a positive shift in my mood. Ultimately, we ended up in a conversation about how our life together is turning out to be the craziest adventure upon which either of us has ever embarked.

That discussion was one I’m sure I’ll never forget. It was the evening when, after months of discernment, Lindsey and I affirmed to each other that we feel called to continue living our celibate vocations together for the rest of our lives. We came to a decision that after spending the next year to reflect further, we will pursue some form of legal protection and find the most appropriate way to honor and celebrate our family. A couple pursuing marriage (however one defines that term) might consider such discussions characteristic of “engagement.” But we aren’t preparing to enter a marriage, so most people we know are baffled by our discussions of commitment and share life.

As I’ve reflected before, Lindsey and I have always struggled to find the best words to describe our relationship and our way of life. The English language and societal expectations don’t make it an easy task: there isn’t exactly a concise term for “couple committed to living a celibate vocation together that isn’t a marriage, but still allows for financial security, the ability to make health care decisions for each other, etc., etc., etc.” There’s no option for “preparing to live fully into a lifelong celibate partnership” on Facebook’s “relationship” dropdown menu. Even more significant a complicating factor is that our Christian tradition offers us little language beyond “celibacy” for describing our vocation and no guidance at all for developing a meaningful way of life in our specific circumstance.

Another layer of difficulty in determining what language to employ is that people in our lives don’t always understand why we believe it important to use certain descriptors and not others. At one extreme, we have acquaintances who urge us not even to identify as being in a relationship with each other. They encourage us to describe ourselves as “best friends” and “roommates.” In most cases, these same people become uncomfortable when we use the phrase “lifelong commitment” in relation to each other, but experience no discomfort with the idea that monastics enter lifelong commitments to each other in their communities. On the other hand, we know people who have trouble recognizing why, as an LGBT couple doing life together in a committed relationship, we wouldn’t want that referred to as a marriage. Many of these folks urge us to discuss our relationship in spousal terms, and some have indicated that our disinterest in doing so sets us in opposition to the movement for marriage equality. With minimal availability of comfortable terminology and an abundant presence of people ready to tell us how we ought to define ourselves, the quest for the best words can leave a person (or a couple) feeling very isolated. Yet despite these experiences, we are heartened by the number of people who, in diverse ways, have been unapologetically supportive of us in our vocation. We have many friends who offer us encouragement daily and show interest in helping us engage with the tough questions, regardless of what conclusions we reach and how those may or may not match with their own conclusions.

As of now, we find that the terms “family” and “team” roll most naturally off the tongue when describing ourselves to others. “Partners” also seems to fit well because this word implies shared work and a shared journey. Despite the fact that many equate the word “partnership” with “sexually active relationship,” we feel drawn to the basic meaning of this term, as we do understand our vocation to be shared responsibility for serving others and serving Christ.

It’s regrettable that people in various types of relationships aren’t always free to define those relationships such that all involved parties feel comfortable with the language used. Language around relationships is highly politicized. How one identifies one’s relationship can raise all kinds of associations for other people. In America, both religions and the government define marriage. In the eyes of a public audience, one’s willingness or unwillingness to define a particular relationship as a marriage often carries ideological connotations, regardless of whether one actually identifies with said ideologies. If any freedom to define one’s relationship and not be pigeonholed into a political category ever did exist, it seems that freedom is now gone. The terms of engagement for discussing our own life situation do not belong to us, and that will never change unless we make an active decision to take them back. With this post, consider it done. Lindsey and I are a team, a family, and a partnership, even if those words don’t have the same meanings for you as they do for us.

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When vocation doesn’t come naturally

A reflection by Lindsey

One of the hazards I encounter is that Christians talking about celibacy frequently speak of the gift of celibacy. The gift of celibacy is treated on a level much like the gift of teaching or the gift of administration. If someone says he or she has a spiritual gift of teaching, then we often assume that means he or she is good at teaching. It stands to reason then that people might assume I’m good at celibacy, it comes naturally to me, and I don’t have to work especially hard to cultivate a celibate vocation because I feel called to celibacy. In many people’s eyes, I must have the gift of celibacy coupled with an odd human constitution that allows me to experience a great deal of joy even if I’m not having sex.

We’ve reflected elsewhere on our blog about how we regard the “gift” of celibacy, but what I’d like to do today is to reflect on what happens when one’s vocation doesn’t come naturally. We regard radical hospitality as the first defining virtue of a celibate vocation. But honestly, practicing out that virtue is a tremendous struggle for me. Practicing hospitality can be exceptionally draining the vast majority of the time; and, practicing radical hospitality only ratchets up the demand.

A continual commitment to hospitality is hard for me because I’m an introvert. To make matters even more difficult, social skills are definitely not my forte. Everything I know about relating to other people has been learned through hard fought lessons. So many things that people take for granted in social situations, I’ve had to learn. I have my fair share of embarrassing moments with one crowning example being when our couples therapist asked me in front of Sarah how I might start to get to know someone I’m just meeting. I was beyond clueless, struggling to get past my first tentative reply of, “You ask them their name?” knowing full well that our therapist had slightly more advanced social skills in mind. I have to work hard to muster anything remotely like confidence in social situations, and truth be told, I’d rather curl up and hide in my room most of the time than meet new people. If my friends were to think about the first words they associate with me, hospitality would be virtually absent from the list.

Yet, I regard radical hospitality as a core virtue of my God-given vocation. As such, I’ve made an active choice to try and cultivate hospitality even when it does not come naturally to me in the slightest. I find some refuge in trying to practice a radical hospitality centered on Christ, His Incarnation, and His example, but I certainly am not pretending for an instant that I have it all sorted.

When I’m practicing radical hospitality, I try to leverage my personality as an introvert as much as possible. I’d rather focus on building rich, meaningful, and deep relationships with a few people as opposed to perfecting the gentility associated with being an ideal host, a social butterfly, and a person who can attend to the most minute aspects of social cues. If radical hospitality necessarily had to involve the latter, I might as well be trying to sail a ship from a completely landlocked country. Instead, I work with what I have: my natural tendency towards generosity, my complete appreciation for the realness of human experiences, and my almost canine sense of loyalty. I live as simply as possible to try and always have a little bit more I can give to another (even if that gift is as immaterial as a smile and a kind word to the person collecting my toll money). I’ve worked through a lot of my own issues associated with trying to be human in this fallen world, so I can appreciate the authentic spiritual journeys of others. And I’m always looking at building my list of friends rather than transitioning away from friends after a season of closeness. The more vulnerable a person has chosen to be with me, the much more likely I am going to be his or her friend in a decade’s time.

I do not have a gift for small talk, and equally, I have zero interest in seeing how small talk could ever be a gift that I should work towards cultivating. Instead I spend a lot of time asking God to show me which people I should try to get to know better. I look for opportunities to be around the same group of people over time to give myself time (and space) to figuring out how to practice hospitality as best as I know how. I’ve been incredibly surprised that God keeps putting people in my path in a meaningful way, but I know that it’s not for an instant a relational network of my own building.

There’s a certain gift in not being interested in small talk. I look for places to hang out where it’s much more likely that people are engaging in deep talk. As such, I’ve seen that virtually every human being is staring bravely into the face of some very hard battles. Being present as people share what assails or ails them, I find myself frequently moved into prayer and encouragement. Encouragement unlocks my own excitabilities in such a way that some people don’t even realize I’m an introvert because I could play an extrovert so convincingly on television. But more to the point, in trying to get to know people in their hidden-away spaces, I increasingly feel the spark of prayer rise up in my heart as I try to present their concerns to Christ.

I don’t know where I’d be without trying to cultivate a celibate vocation. It’s the demand my vocation places on me to be radically hospitable that has pulled me out of my own shell and into a rich network of relationships with others. It’s been my natural cluelessness about how other people establish friendships that has led me to ask God for help. It’s been my desire for guidance that has spurred me to seek out men and women living celibate lives to ask them how they pray for the needs of the entire world even if they live intentionally detached from the world. It’s been my own battles with social anxiety and depression that have shown me that none of us have life as figured out as we think… and that many people are open to receiving an authentic dose of encouragement from a generous heart along the way.

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The Freedom To Be Wrong

A reflection by Sarah

“You think you’re never wrong, Sarah.” My mother would say that to me at least once a week for my entire upbringing. Upon remembering this, my first instinct is to retort, “I do think I’m wrong sometimes. I just don’t like to be. And Mom isn’t so keen on being wrong herself.” But that’s my pride talking, and it’s Lent, so I should probably spend some time praying about this attitude. Anyway…

I don’t think many people are comfortable with being wrong. One doesn’t have to look very far on the Internet to find evidence of this. Almost every popular news article, blog post, photo, or meme a person can find online will be followed by a string of angry, vitriolic comments aimed at the author/creator or other commenters. Civil dialogue is becoming a lost art, and there are many reasons for this, but I think one of the most significant is that no one wants to be wrong. And not only do we want to avoid being wrong, but in the process of proving that we are right, we pat ourselves on the back for our ability to crush, slander, and decimate those with whom we disagree.

I enjoy winning an argument just as much as the next person, and that’s probably not a good thing…but I don’t think intellectual vainglory is the only reason humans behave like this. I think more often than most of us would like to admit, we fear the possibility of being wrong. Or at least I do. Sometimes, being wrong comes with a high price–losing friends, respect from others, or even the ability to engage fully with one’s faith community. Rarely in life have I found a space where being wrong has felt totally safe. As a child, I found that wrongness carried with it the consequence of being pointed at and ridiculed, whether by a teacher or by other children. In church, I learned that being wrong meant being marked as a troublemaker. As a university student with a severe lack of self-confidence, I wasn’t sure I belonged there in the first place and was terrified that if I said something incorrect in class, my professors would think I was stupid. So despite my general tendency toward chattiness, regrettably I remained silent in several courses. Now as an instructor of university courses in theology and religious studies, I still feel a small twinge of anxiety mounting inside me if I accidentally make an incorrect statement and a particularly smug nineteen-year-old member of the class calls me out on it. I‘ve learned that it’s best to acknowledge my incorrectness and move forward rather than justify to the students why I made the error, but that doesn’t do much to alleviate the embarrassment when I receive my end-of-term evaluation report and see that a student has commented, “This professor shouldn’t be teaching theology because in class on April 26, she mixed up the definitions for dulia and latria.”

Because of my own experience with the fear of being wrong, I empathize with my students who display the same fear. When we’re discussing controversial theological issues in class, I strive to create an environment in which all voices are welcomed and respected, but that doesn’t stop some students from clamming up after hearing a self-assured freshman proclaim, “You’re a heretic and an idiot!” before I can call a halt to his impending diatribe. It is neither comforting nor helpful to get that sort of response from another student if, for example, you’re a young woman who has experienced mistreatment by men within a church community, and as a result you’ve come to the belief that women’s ordination would solve this problem within your Christian tradition. Every semester, I try to teach my students that discussing theological issues is not about winning arguments; it’s about exploring the questions and coming to a greater understanding of one’s faith…and that rarely is a person converted from heterodoxy to orthodoxy while cowering in fear and anxiously waiting out a sanctimonious theological tirade.

One of the greatest benefits I’ve reaped as a result of beginning this blog with Lindsey is that I now have a space where it’s safe for me to voice what I’m thinking and be sharpened by the constructive criticism we receive from readers. It’s okay for me to make mistakes, to be wrong, and even to be stupid…and I’m glad for that, because some days I feel as though I’m making more gaffes than a presidential candidate on debate night. Last week, I was reading a post from my friend Eve Tushnet’s blog, and nearly jumped out of my seat while shouting, “YES!!!” as I came across the following bit:

“So much of the ‘conservative’ Christian world seems terrified of anything which might be misinterpreted as saying gay sex is OK. The fear is always, always that we might say something wrong, and not ever that our silence might itself cause despair, scandal, and loss of faith. My favorite variation of this approach is, ‘Well, I know what you’re saying, but other people might misunderstand.’ I am pretty sure that ordinary people in the pews are already interpreting–and, I hope, misinterpreting–the huge echoey nothing they hear from their churches about gay or same-sex attracted Christians’ futures.

I know that I will say dumb stuff about this issue and mess up. So will everyone who speaks about it. The response to our acknowledgment of universal, unavoidable failure should be humble willingness to retract and at times repent, not unwillingness to ever act.”

Within our past two months of blogging, I’ve seen the content of that first paragraph playing out in spades, but not just from conservative Christians. Friends with a traditional sexual ethic have told me, “I’d be more willing to support your writing project if you would state in most of your posts that you agree with the Church’s teaching that gay sexual activity is sinful. If you don’t start doing that, people are going to start doubting what you say about your own commitment to celibacy.” People on the opposite end of the spectrum seem just as concerned about not saying anything that could be construed as lack of support for those with a modern, liberal sexual ethic. Some friends have said, “You should make a statement of loving acceptance for couples in relationships like mine. Otherwise, people will see you as just another hateful, judgmental, Side B blog. You wouldn’t want anyone to see you as self-righteous.”

We can’t stay true to ourselves while making everyone happy, but we can try to foster meaningful conversation among people who really care about these issues, no matter where they stand ideologically. But in order to do that, we need the freedom to be wrong. We need to know that we can write from the place we’re at right now, even if that means two years down the road we look back at some of our posts and say, “Golly ned, that was a problematic statement.”

I’m grateful to have learned since my days on the other side of the university classroom that being silent is far worse than being wrong, and–thanks again to my struggle with pride–I’m still in the process of accepting that retractions, apologies, and repentances are all part of being human. I’m well aware that many of our readers think that we are wrong, or that I, personally, am wrong about one thing or another. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a positive thing. Your challenges are good for me, and my responses are probably good for you too. The expectation that everyone (or anyone) who discusses issues of sexual ethics is going to do so in the most perfect, kind, non-alienating, and theologically orthodox manner 100% of the time hinders dialogue. Sometimes, I wonder how much more productively we might be able to talk about this if everyone involved would drop the pretenses and accept that God and the Church are strong enough to withstand all our blunders.

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.

This video ends with a hug!

Within the past two weeks we’ve been discussing celibacy, marriage, language for describing celibate partnership, the value of listening to diverse stories, and much more. To give ourselves a break and our readers a chance to catch up, we are taking a day off from our usual kind of blog entry. Today, we would like to share with you a short video titled “The Power of Empathy.” We think it’s good to get a refresher every once in a while on the differences between empathy and sympathy because none of us is the perfect listener. It can be easy to forget that when a person is experiencing something difficult, he or she might just need to hear, “I’m glad you were able to share that with me.” Both of us are fixers by nature–when someone has a problem, we want to find a solution and make it better. We appreciated the reminder that attempting to remedy the problem and searching for “silver linings” aren’t necessarily the most helpful or welcome approaches. We hope you will enjoy this video as much as we did. Our favorite part is that it ends with a hug!

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.

Whose story counts, anyway?

A reflection by Sarah

In semesters when World Religions is part of my teaching load, the question “Who has the right to claim a particular religion as his/her own?” emerges regularly. When it does, students are always quick to draw lines regarding who should and shouldn’t be allowed to identify with one religion or another. My Muslim students insist that the terrorists who planned and carried out the attacks on September 11, 2001 weren’t truly following Islam. Likewise, my Christian students passionately declare that members of Westboro Baptist Church and the Ku Klux Klan aren’t true Christians. One student will assert, “Only people who follow the teachings of [holy text] are the real followers of [religion],” and the others begin nodding vigorously. I’ll ask my usual follow-up: “Who determines how to interpret [holy text] properly?” For the better portion of the class period, we’ll discuss who has ownership of certain religious texts and terms. Can Mormons rightly claim the label “Christian” while believing that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit exist as three separate personages rather than an undivided Holy Trinity? Is it appropriate for a white American who has never visited India and has no Indian heritage to become a self-proclaimed Hindu? What are the boundaries of these terms, and who gets to decide in the first place?

On the day this discussion arises, each semester, without fail, I spend my evening commute pondering an unrelated, yet similar question: who has the right to claim the terms lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, genderqueer, and so forth? Whose story counts as a legitimate expression of an LGBT experience? This question may appear unnecessary, even ridiculous. On some level, I’m inclined to believe that it is both. But nevertheless, I feel the need to ask it.

Over the years since coming out, I’ve experienced a lot of people in a lot of different contexts telling me, “You aren’t really gay/a lesbian.” A young gay man I knew in college said this to me on the grounds that I was neither “butch enough” nor “femme enough,” and he couldn’t see me ending up in a same-sex relationship long term. My mother uttered those words to me when I was in my early twenties, using the fact that I had dated a boy all four years of high school as evidence for her claim. A number of priests have stated this upon seeing me in confession, asserting that in using the terms gay and lesbian, I am labeling myself by desires rather than by my identity in Christ. One even told me that use of these words marks me for Cesar instead of God. An acquaintance in graduate school informed me that he would not be convinced I was a lesbian unless I was willing to recount having a previous sexual experience with a man, thereby proving I am not attracted to men. And with some regularity, I hear from other members of the LGBT community (and sometimes allies too) that if I’m celibate, I’m not “one of them.” In other words, being celibate means “denying” my sexual orientation. My story doesn’t fit normative expectations, so according to some, I shouldn’t be allowed to use the terms “gay” and “lesbian.”

Not long ago, Lindsey and I received an email from a reader stating the following: “You people have no idea what it means to be gay. If somebody doesn’t support my right to have sex, they aren’t a real gay person. You’re trying to get people to think we can all be gay and not have sex. You’re going to make all of us be held back in the world.” Sometimes, people go so far as to tell us that we’re actually anti-gay. We’ve also received Facebook messages like this one: “Despair to all gay, anti-gay persons. Verily I say! DESPAIR to all gay, anti-gay persons!” I can’t say I was surprised by either message because I’ve heard such claims and exhortations time and time again. Lindsey and I hear almost weekly from people who consider us hypocritical for supporting legal recognition for same-sex couples while not calling our own relationship a “marriage.” Those of us who feel called to celibacy, celibate partnership, or mixed-orientation marriage have to defend ourselves against this judgmental rhetoric constantly. Our supporters, regardless of their own sexual orientations, face these claims—and sometimes the associated dangers—as well. A few weeks ago as I read Nate Craddock’s response to the death threat he received, tears filled my eyes and my heart began to ache. I wondered, how could someone who has undoubtedly endured rejection, bullying, and discrimination of all kinds be so quick to subject others to the same cruel treatment? Doesn’t this person realize that many of the same folks who have harassed and degraded him or her probably do the same to all LGBT people, regardless of life situation?

The idea that only a certain type of LGBT person’s story actually counts is troubling. It contributes to the “us vs. them” mentality that is already far too pervasive in the conversation about LGBT issues in the Church. It harms relationships amongst LGBT people and the few conservative straight Christians who are genuinely interested in the LGBT Christian experience. It vilifies and even dehumanizes members of the LGBT community who hold to a traditional Christian sexual ethic (or support those who do), casting such people as enemies of gay rights, who don’t know what it’s like to experience discrimination or judgment within the Church and society. It assumes that celibacy and mixed-orientation marriages provide some magical form of protection, and that we who choose these ways of life are motivated by self-loathing and fear of the Church. Forget the possibility that some of us might have chosen our vocations freely and find them sustainable, fulfilling, and joyous. And perhaps most strikingly, it leads the LGBT community, a community that prides itself on acceptance of all kinds of diversity, dangerously close to becoming just another elitist clique, where some people are welcome and others get the door slammed in their faces.

Not long ago, a group of students at Wheaton College made headlines for protesting their school’s unwillingness to host LGBT speakers who have reached more liberal conclusions on questions of sexual morality. I commend the students for speaking out on this issue because I believe all stories are worthy of being told and heard. It’s entirely fair to ask why a speaker like Justin Lee would not be permitted to engage students with his story while speakers like Wesley Hill and Rosaria Butterfield are welcomed. After reading several reports, I do not think the students were trying to suggest an interest in hearing only from LGBT Christians who will present modern interpretations of scripture and sexual ethics. It seems what they wanted was appreciation for diversity. I think the LGBT community could learn a great deal from these students and their protest. Willingness to hear just one type of story places an arbitrary limit not only on LGBT experiences, but also on the broader experience of being human. It doesn’t matter whether the story being silenced is about a lesbian couple whose church wouldn’t baptize their son, a gay man who feels called to a celibate vocation in a Roman Catholic religious order, or a woman who chose to marry a man even though she knew that in general, she wasn’t attracted to men. To silence one type of story is to place the freedom to tell any story in jeopardy.

What makes us so uncomfortable with hearing stories different from our own? I’ve been pondering that over the past few weeks of blogging. I don’t have the answer to this question, but I’ve wondered if perhaps, “Your story threatens me,” actually means, “There are people who aren’t willing to listen to my story, but are willing to listen to yours. I’m afraid they will use yours to try and squelch mine.” I could respond flippantly, “That’s not my problem. I’m just telling my story.” But truthfully, it is my problem. When one of my brothers or sisters is being silenced, mistreated, and abused, it is my responsibility to take a stand against these injustices. If someone does use my story against another person, does that obligate me to stop telling it? Not at all. But at the moment I close my mind to that person’s experience of life, I become a rank hypocrite. Christians, myself included, need to do better at listening to other people’s experiences, regardless of whether we agree theologically.

Six days a week, I write with Lindsey as we use this blog to share our own varieties of LGBT experience. My story, and our story together, might not fit within the boxed set of expectations that other people assert as “normal.” But I am who I am, we are who we are as a couple, and we aren’t going to stop writing because there are people in the world who aren’t willing to give us the time of day. I am a celibate, partnered, lesbian woman who attempts to be a faithful Christian and fails daily. I am, as a prayer in my tradition says, the chief of sinners. I am a teacher, a doctoral student, an extrovert, and a gentle person who can easily turn into a bulldog if I learn that a friend or loved one is being mistreated. My life isn’t perfect, but there’s nothing I’d ever consider trading for what I share with Lindsey—every aspect of it, celibacy included. That’s my story, and it might not resonate with your own LGBT experience, but I hope we can leave enough room under this umbrella for both of us.

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.