Unchosen Gay Celibacy?

My latest at Spiritual Friendship:

Spiritual Friendship

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A recurring theme that shows up in many articles at Spiritual Friendship is the concept of unchosen gay celibacy. As I’m in a mixed orientation marriage, it’s to be expected that I have a complicated relationship with that idea. In this post, I’d like to share some thoughts on unchosen gay celibacy from the perspective of a gay man who has chosen marriage to a woman. This is not a refutation or criticism of what’s already been written on the topic. Rather, I see it as a sort of addendum to what I believe are excellent articles that have no doubt ministered to celibate gay Christians who face the particular challenges associated with that calling.

My marital status notwithstanding, so much of what’s written here, here, and here resonates deeply with me. That’s because I’m not just nominally gay. It’s a real part of my life. Yet the…

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A Thin Line

download-1 So many of the children’s books that I read with my daughter make the world appear so simple and straightforward. There’s a clear good guy and a clear bad guy, and you know who to cheer for and who to be against, and you can rest easy that if the protagonist does something, it’s probably good and right. And if it isn’t, it’s merely a mistake that the character will learn from by the end of the book and become an even better person. On the other hand, anything the bad guy does is wrong, and there are only unsavory motives in this character’s heart, and a necessary ingredient of a happy ending will be the vanquishing of this enemy.

But that’s not real life, is it?

Real life is messy. There are no clear good guys and bad guys, though preachers and politicians tend to tickle our ears and appeal to that insecure urge to return to our childhood worldview, telling us that we are the good guys and they are the bad guys. We are the right ones and they are the wrong ones. We are the worthy and they are the unworthy. We are the innocent and they are the guilty.

One of the great things about reading the Bible to my daughter is that scripture doesn’t paint that picture. Ironically, though so many who are vocal and zealous for the Bible’s preeminence see the world in extremely black and white terms, the Bible doesn’t edit away the gray of the human story. Far from faultless heroes or young, good-willed underdogs who learn valuable moral lessons throughout their journey, God’s people often allow pride, self-preservation, fear, hate, greed, lust, and a host of other evils to drive their actions. Meanwhile, their enemies are often shown for the multidimensional beings that they are. Esau has a tender, emotional reunion with his brother (God’s chosen, by the way) whose duplicity permanently altered the course of Esau’s life.Nicodemus, staunch and proud Pharisee by day, has secret doubts at night and comes to Jesus for answers. Pontius Pilate has an internal conflict over allowing the injustice that’s being demanded against Jesus.

Real life isn’t full of good guys and bad guys. It’s full of people, all of whom bear the image of God, however distorted by sin and brokenness it may be. The true dividing line isn’t between the good and the bad, but the lost and the found. What separates God’s people from anyone else is the grace they’ve received through faith in his son.

Most people are familiar with the popular image of the religious legalist or the puritanical moralist who lacks any visible signs of grace or humility and who thinks himself superior to those who don’t share his worldview and lifestyle. But an interesting trend, particularly in the US, is that social progressives are gaining more and more cultural clout. And whereas the traditionalists were the “Us” and they were the “Them“, the roles are changing.

Today, the moral majority are those who are speaking out for the marginalized and for the oppressed. Increasingly, they are the historically marginalized and oppressed, collectively rising up to “speak truth to power.” In a sense, you might say that I am among them.

As a white, cisgender, middle class, American male,  I nearly hit the privilege jackpot. But the whole gay thing plants me firmly in a group of people who have been maligned and mistreated throughout American history, but who are now making quick strides in the political and cultural landscape.

Like others, I am vocal about privilege and discrimination, persecution and double standards. I advocate for gay Christians trying to work out what it means for them to live faithful lives within the church, and I try to help straight conservative Christians see the injustices that their blind spots have allowed to go unnoticed, so that change can be affected.

But unlike many others, my progressivism only goes so far. I am, essentially, theologically conservative. I just happen to think that conservative theology, rightly understood, is often more accurately displayed through what are often considered elements of social progressivism.

While I think the church, as a whole, has gotten it horribly wrong regarding the lgbtq community for a long time, I stand firm in my agreement with what was the unanimous Christian teaching on sex and marriage for nearly two thousand years, and what was understood to be God’s teaching from Genesis to Jesus, those thousands of years prior to church history.

But our polarized environment makes little room for the kind of nuance that requires.

Aside from the annoyance of straight fragility that pops up here and there, I find it quite easy to speak out against the marginalization of gay people. Conservatives are slowly learning to expect that, even if they aren’t always willing to validate what I’m saying. And I have a whole cultural shift providing momentum to my efforts. In this way, the zeitgeist is on my side.

But, as is a common occurrence in most revolutions, I run into roadblocks whenever I deviate a little from the script. That script reads eerily like the many children’s books on my daughter’s shelf: These people (historically marginalized groups) are the good guys, and those people (historically privileged groups, i.e., straight, white, middle-upper class, cisgender, American males) are the bad guys. And the only possible redemption for those who, to their horror, find themselves in that camp of bad guys is to take on an attitude of self deprecation and oversensitivity to, well, everything. Here’s Bill Maher’s take on one facet of this phenomenon, which aired back in April and has been making its way around social media even within the last month.

I believe wholeheartedly that things like privilege and intersectionality are valid concepts. And I believe that it’s extremely important for us to acknowledge them, learn about them, and be cognizant of their effects. But when they are used as tools to vilify people, or when they are set up as excuses to shut down a conversation or invalidate an idea that doesn’t affirm anything and everything about a particular marginalized group, we’ve stepped into dangerous territory.

Regarding sexuality, this looks like conflating homophobia and hatred of gay people with traditional sex ethics. When Christians do this, it looks like demanding a switch to affirming theology as a matter of morality and godliness, and immediately invalidating a person’s biblical, social, cultural, biological, or logical arguments for the traditional view, on the grounds that said view, in and of itself, is abusive and oppressive.

That’s not to say that the conversation isn’t being had well in a number of contexts by a number of people. Because it is. And the overcorrecting that’s being done by many Social Justice Warriors has a long way to go before it’s a bigger problem – or even as big of a problem – as the ones they’re addressing. But the troubling trend toward intellectual censorship does have real effects. So, for Christians, it’s a matter of striking a biblical balance.

There’s a thin line between standing up for the oppressed and acknowledging that God calls even the oppressed to account. Following Jesus is a beautiful thing, a liberating thing, and it is the path to eternal life. But it is also a costly thing, and Jesus warns us to count that cost in Luke 14:25-33. While God calls all to himself, and he is no respecter of persons, he calls us on his terms, not ours.  Every Christian is called to die to self, and that looks different for individuals, and it looks different for particular groups of people. Wesley Hill recently wrote an excellent article on the inclusion of the Gentiles into the early church, and what that meant for their identity as Gentiles. If we are shielded from the hard conversations, from having to consider not just that we must take up our cross, but how we must, even if it doesn’t seem fair, even if it seems like those who have oppressed us or hurt us somehow get some sort of validation from it, then we are missing a key aspect of what Jesus says true discipleship looks like.

For gay Christians, I think walking that thin line means being secure enough in our identities as God’s children to speak out and stand up for our right to be seated at the table along with all the other believers, while also being willing to be challenged on our beliefs. It means being willing to ask ourselves if, were it indeed God’s will for us to forgo our desires for a same-sex romantic partner, would we submit to that will, trusting that God is both sovereign and good.

For straight Christians, I think that looks like doing a lot of listening. It looks like self examination and genuine soul searching to see if there might be any fault in yourself or your church community, any area of needed repentance or change. I think it looks like enduring patiently with those who sometimes speak harshly out of a place of hurt. It looks like a commitment to relationships with gay people.

It’s going to be an awkward stumbling along, with no clear endpoint in sight. But the more time we spend walking this thin line, the closer we’ll get to true, God-honoring and life-giving change within the body of Christ.

My Side B Story

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In many ways, the part of my story that is being written these days, doesn’t look drastically different from that of the typical heterosexual Christian male. I have my little nuclear family, my wife is a stay-at-home mom who homeschools our daughter, and I lead a small group in our church.

And while I think our marriage is probably the healthiest it’s ever been, it isn’t without conflict. But the sources of conflict are usually things like parenting challenges, differences of opinion, personality differences, health-related stressors, or moments when one or the other of us is just being selfish. Typical, boring, mundane married-life problems. My sexuality doesn’t even make the cut.

But it wasn’t always this way.

When I started out on this Christian journey, I’d already spent a good portion of my childhood and teen years in guilt, shame, and fear over persistent and pervasive same sex attractions. But as a bright-eyed, newly born again evangelical college student, I was hopeful and determined to live whatever kind of life Jesus had for me. And as the traditional view was the most convincing to me, from a biblical and logical standpoint, celibacy seemed to be the path I’d be taking (though my evangelical self referred to it simply as “singleness”).

And after a couple of years and a few bumps in the road, I started to really find my footing. I had a strong group of likeminded Christian friends who were really like family to me. We could all be transparent with one another, and we encouraged each other in the faith. We lived together, ate together, laughed, prayed, sang, and struggled together. This is what I think of when I hear the term “Spiritual Friendship”.

But while this arrangement is quite conventional for college students and young twenty-somethings, modern American culture has little space for this kind of communal living in the long run. And besides, most of my friends had a desire to be married. And every time one of them would express interest in a girl, I’d feel a sudden wave of uneasiness come over me. Sure, the path I’d chosen was sustainable now, when I was part of a household of brothers, living out our Christian lives together. But once they all got married and cloistered off in their houses in the suburbs, their wife and kids now their “primary ministry”, I’d be left out in the cold.

In a fascinating plot twist, I was the first of us to get married. And less than a year later,  our daughter was born. I was the first to break off from our little monastic settlement and start a new kind of family unit, and the transition was rough, to say the least.

In no time, I went from being a single college guy with very few responsibilities, to being a husband, parent, and a recent college grad at the height of the recession with little to no prospects, working a miserable job that paid just enough to keep our noses above the water. That’s in addition to this whole business of my being gay!

My wife and I both felt overwhelmed. And lonely. I think many married couples, especially those with young children can relate to that in our artificial, isolated modern environment. But the situation was only exacerbated by the fact that I felt I couldn’t admit that my sexuality was also a big factor.

We plunged into marriage trusting that God would make it work. Maybe he would turn me straight. Maybe he’d just take away my same sex attractions. We didn’t know what it would look like, but we had to believe that he would work it all out. So naturally, we just didn’t talk about it.

Meanwhile, we were both suffocating under the weight of American Christian cultural expectations. My wife went from reading Kurt Vonnegut and  Anton Chekhov to reading Debbie Pearl’s books about how to be a docile housewife. I was being affected by the misogynist ramblings of preachers like Mark Driscoll who propped up heterosexual self-indulgence as Godly masculinity. And of course, since my own fallen sexual appetites didn’t match those fallen sexual appetites, I secretly felt condemned. I felt like a fraud.

Fast forward a few years, after my continued inability to live into the heterosexual script, and my diminishing ability to tolerate the hypocrisy, misinformation, and lack of grace coming from Christians in the culture war, and I was an angry, bitter man who was on the verge of tossing whatever faith I had in the trashcan.

God used many things to restore my faith and redirect my life, but without a doubt, the most prominent was the growing number of gay Christians who didn’t run from their sexuality, but had come to terms with it and were talking about healthy ways to live out their convictions. Seeing gay people who hadn’t grown to despise the church or God but were sharing their stories because of their love for and need for both was invaluable for me.

And that’s why I continue to carry on this conversation. At this point, now that my wife and I have thrown off a lot of the extra burdens we’d carried in the effort to conform to “biblical manhood and womanhood,” now that I’ve come to terms with my sexuality and can approach my relationship with my wife honestly, we’ve reached a much better place in our marriage. We could blend in quite comfortably within the church’s heteronormative framework. We could just sit back and enjoy all the ways that church life and church functions are geared toward married couples with kids.

But neither of us is interested in doing that. There are couples in MOMs who are where we were a few years ago. There are those who are considering entering into a mixed orientation marriage. There are gay Christians for whom marriage to someone of the opposite sex is not the best path forward. There are gay people in our congregations trying to process what all this means for their lives and what obedience to God looks like for them.

I realize that my situation is the most palatable for straight people in the church at large, because it makes me look just like them, and it doesn’t create any cognitive dissonance. It makes them comfortable because it effectively erases my queerness, making it invisible. But that is the last thing that sexual minorities need. They need to see that gay people have a place in the church and can flourish, even in the context of conservative Christianity which still holds to the traditional teaching on sex and marriage.

At the same time, my wife and I are careful not to let anyone retell our story and prop it up as a model for gay people in the church. Just as we don’t think it’s good for my gayness to be erased, neither do we want our story to be used to dictate to gay people what “deliverance” or “overcoming homosexuality” looks like. When I say that gay people need to see other gay people flourishing in the church, I don’t mean that they need to see us married to someone of the opposite sex. I mean they need to see us living out a variety of callings, out and in the open.

The goal is not to make gays, lesbians, and bisexuals straight, and it is not to make us appear straight. The systems and the culture in the modern church make it quite easy for me to live out my calling as a married man, so long as I refrain from saying words like “gay” or “queer” or, I don’t know, “fabulous!” But I wonder: what would it be like in your church for a few gay friends who were committed to celibacy if they decided, rather than living alone, to buy a house together and live out their days as a sort of modern monastic community? What if it were only two gay friends? Would they find a place in your congregation? Would they be embraced as full fledged members to whom are open all the opportunities for service and leadership that are open to other members? Or would they be looked at with suspicion or kept at arm’s length? Would they be conveniently overlooked or even forced out of community?

My particular Side B story brings with it some unique challenges, for sure, but it also puts me in a place of privilege that many lgb Christians don’t have. When I first started writing about faith and sexuality, it was mostly a form of catharsis. It was primarily for me. At this point, I still find it cathartic on some level, but the heart of what I’m doing is advocacy. It’s ministerial in nature.

Now that I feel I can comfortably exist within the hetero privileged modern Christian culture that emphasizes the nuclear family, I don’t want to forget all those like me who can’t. I don’t want to be the palatable kind of gay Christian whose queerness can be ignored and who doesn’t challenge the status quo.  I want my story to make a difference. And so, though it is at times inconvenient and uncomfortable, I will continue to tell it.

Gay: Why I Keep Saying It

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In the world of Side B bloggers, articles about labels abound. Answering the “why say gay” question is Side B 101 material. But if one thing remains clear as I continue to have conversations with people and read things on the internet, it’s that we have not exhausted the topic.

On the What is Side B page, I’ve provided links to two of what I consider the best, most succinct and articulate articles on the matter. They’ve usually been my quick, go-to resources whenever anyone has approached me with questions or concerns, and I encourage all who take issue with a Christian’s use of the word “gay” to click over and give them a read. There’s a wealth of additional material further making the case, much of which can be found on the Spiritual Friendship website, where the aforementioned articles were posted. But with this post, I’m adding my own drop in the bucket of resources explaining why we insist on using that controversial little three-letter word.

Definition of Terms

One more time, everyone. When many Christians say the word “gay,” they have in mind the act of gay sex. To them, if you are “gay,” you are sexually active with people of the same sex, and you believe this to be a morally right thing to do.

Here’s the thing: almost nobody in the 21st century defines the word that way. Is it a legitimate use of the word? Yes. But the only definition for the word that is less widely used than this one is the one implied in the title sequence of The Flintstones.

To most people, saying that a person is gay means that he/she is attracted to the same sex. That’s it. It doesn’t say anything about the person’s worldview, values, or behavior. Would most people assume that a gay person is having gay sex? Yes, I think they would. But they would also assume that a straight person is having straight sex, regardless of marital status. That is because our culture’s view of sex is that it is necessary for human flourishing. So the thing here that’s at odds with the biblical worldview is not the word “gay”, but our culture’s sex ethic. And that’s what we need to focus our attention on.

I’ve found that non Christians never have difficulty understanding what I mean when I tell them that I am gay, but my religious convictions lead me away from gay romantic or sexual relationships. They’re not hung up on the word. Instead, they are sometimes puzzled that I would make such a choice, or that I would be happy with it. Even more surprising to them is the fact that my wife and I have a happy, healthy marriage. Again, it’s the Christian sexual ethic and view of marriage that is so counter-cultural here. The language I use is a moot point.

Identity

Even when they understand what I mean when I use the word “gay”, some warn that it is unwise to use the word because as a Christian, I am a new creation, and Christ is my identity.

This is probably one of the most popular false dichotomies among contemporary Christians. It sounds logical, and it sounds wise, and it even references a bible verse. But who said that once you’re a Christian, you can’t have any more identities?

All kinds of things work together to make up who you are. Some of those things include your nationality, your ethnicity, your race, your gender, your socioeconomic level, your family history, your religious background, your profession, and particularly in the modern western world, your sexual orientation.

Those things don’t just go away if you become a Christian. And they shape you in one way or another. And that’s ok. You can admit it. And admitting this doesn’t mean that you are making God compete with other things.

Think about it this way. Chances are, you or someone you know has been a victim of identity theft. When we say that someone stole your identity, we don’t mean that they stole the core of who you are, the most important thing about you. We mean that they stole information like your name, your race, your gender, etc. Several things that are important identifiers of who you are.

Do some gay people put too much emphasis on their sexual identity? Absolutely. But I’m certain that if you are an American reading this, you know at least a few people who put too much emphasis on their identities as Americans. There are people who put an unhealthy emphasis on their career as their identity. Others, being a parent. The same can be said for just about any aspect of oneself. If being a child of God is not a priority for you, something will fill that space.

Rather than the false dichotomy that says “nothing but Christ can define you,” I think a more appropriate way to look at it is that we are individuals whose identities are made up of myriad things, and as Christians, our ultimate identity is found in Jesus. And those  other identities don’t go away, but they are subordinate to who we are in him.

Identity, Continued

As some have thoughtfully pointed out, some of the assumptions surrounding the modern idea of sexual orientation are problematic. After all, the bible doesn’t place people into categories such as gay, straight, or bi. Such categories are part of a modern social construct that has no historical precedence. So, the argument goes, we should reject the language of sexual orientation and encourage others to do so as well.

It’s true that sexual orientation is a social construct. But like other social constructs, it is based on some subjective and objective realities that exist outside of the idea itself. The term “gay” refers to people who experience exclusive same sex attractions. Such people would exist whether or not we had the idea of sexual orientation or the word “gay”. Such people have existed in history. We have no good reason to assert that they did not exist before the advent of the idea of sexual orientation.

Those who would prohibit the word “gay” may mean well, but totally erasing the gay identity of same-sex attracted Christians often has some very negative consequences. Let’s learn from another facet of identity.

Race, like sexual orientation, is a social construct. Different countries and regions have different numbers of recognized races. For example, there are a number of racial categories in Brazil and South Africa that would all be considered black in the US. The social construct of race has been used to divide, discriminate, and persecute. If we understood that human is the only true race, the foundation of these injustices would crumble.

And yet, choosing to ignore race and insist that we refer to people only as people and not as black, white, asian, etc. doesn’t help solve the problem. What it serves to do is silence minorities and make it more difficult to address racism and to achieve genuine racial reconciliation.

Likewise, the word “gay” is a social construct, but the people that it describes are not. And their shared experience is not. The attitudes toward them and the ways in which many people have misunderstood them and sometimes even sinned against them in Jesus’ name are not. The unique challenges gay Christians often face as they try to live faithfully and be an integral part of the church are not. And by limiting the conversation to dictating how gay people should describe themselves, we further ensure that these problems will not be addressed.

In other words, wholesale rejection of sexual orientation language is this conversation’s “I don’t see color.” “Don’t say gay” is this conversation’s “all lives matter”.

Engaging The Culture

Still, I understand the fear that giving credence to the notion of sexual orientation might lead people to a fatalistic perspective concerning sexuality. That’s a real issue that we need to deal with. What I have found to be a better approach than language policing is to take a page from Paul’s book.

Paul encountered many extra-biblical ideas on his missionary journeys. In his interactions with the Greeks, he engaged with philosophies, religious beliefs, and superstitions that were quite foreign to the teachings of the Hebrew Bible. Aratus meant something very different when he wrote of Zeus, “In him we live and move and have our being” than Paul did when he quoted him before the men of Athens in Acts 17. Hades was the Greek underworld, and very different from anything taught in the scriptures. Yet Paul used the word as a reference point when talking about hell and judgement. The idol to the unknown god was meant to appease any overlooked deity that was more or less average, as far as gods go, but again, Paul used it as a reference point to proclaim the gospel of the one true God.

Time and again, Paul’s way of engaging the culture was not to reject the extra-biblical terminology they used. Instead, he used the language and ideas that the Greeks understood and could relate to, and he put them in proper perspective in light of the gospel and the revealed truth about God as found in the Bible.

That is what people like me are trying to do. We are saying, “Yes I’m gay, but that is not the most important thing about me. I’m gay, and while that has important implications for my life, it is not the deciding factor in my life choices. I’m gay, but following Jesus is more important to me than pursuing a relationship with a man. I’m gay, and though our culture says that sexual and romantic fulfillment with someone of the same sex is necessary for me to experience a fulfilled life, I am more than willing to reject that for the surpassing worth of knowing Christ.” And in my case, I’m saying that a gay person, as our culture understands it, can in some cases have a real and thriving marriage to a member of the opposite sex. I know several others who are saying the same thing.

I think this is one of the best ways that we have to present the kingdom of God as a treasure hidden in a field, that it’s worth selling all one has in order to gain it. (Matthew 13:44)

Conclusion

I recognize that this is a complex issue. I know that some Christians who experience same sex attractions don’t feel comfortable describing themselves as gay. I wouldn’t want to force a label onto anyone who doesn’t want it. But for the reasons mentioned above, I have found it to be a useful tool. For me, the pros of the Side B gay approach far outweigh the cons. And I would hope that those who don’t use the same language as I do would come to see that we are ultimately saying the same thing, and that debates over terminology are a distraction from the real issues. I also hope that those who are new to the conversation will take time to hear me out and try and understand where I’m coming from and why I use the words I do. Perhaps this post will help to that end.

On Straight Fragility

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Sometime last year, I began reading about White Fragility. The phrase was coined by Dr. Robin DiAngelo, an accomplished academic whose work has been featured in various publications over the years. You can read her seminal piece on White Fragility here.

Below is a synopsis of White Fragility taken from DiAngelo’s aforementioned paper:

“White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. This insulated environment of racial protection builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress, leading to what I refer to as White Fragility. White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium…”

Learning about this helped me to understand what so often happens when conversations about race go awry. Many white people of upstanding moral character, even many whose religious convictions lead them to abhor racism, quickly become defensive at the slightest suggestion that they may be – even unknowingly – morally culpable for or benefiting from societal racism, to one degree or another. And I came to see that White Fragility explains, in part, the inability of many to even consider the idea of White Privilege.

This helped me in very practical ways. Not only was I able to identify this phenomenon in other people, I could see it in myself as well, and understanding a little about it, I was better able to stay grounded in conversations about race that got pretty tense and uncomfortable.

But it helped me in other, unexpected ways too. Just as I was now able to recognize White Fragility at play when conversations about race ran up against brick walls, I was seeing a lot of parallels in conversations with straight people about sexual orientation. The concept of fragility helped me to make sense of what was happening when many straight people became defensive, angry, or disengaged when homophobia entered into the discussion.

I reasoned that, just as “white” isn’t the only variety of privilege, it’s not the only variety of fragility either. So I began referring to this phenomenon, jokingly at first, as “Straight Fragility.”

I googled the term to see if it was already in use. I found an article that was mostly about the trans-bathroom controversy that had “Straight Fragility” in its title, and another about homophobic violence that alluded to the term. But they both came at it from a somewhat different, albeit related angle.  So it seems at present, this isn’t a thoroughly explored concept, but I think it’s one that will resonate with many lgbtq people right away, as they’re likely intimately familiar with its outworking.

It’s true that many Americans today have shifted in their thinking regarding gay marriage, trans rights, etc. In fact, the majority of Americans now support gay marriage as well as other lgbtq rights. Many conservatives would point to this as evidence of the nation’s continual moral decay. I disagree. I think it is evidence of growing empathy.

Most Americans have had an unbiblical sex ethic for a long, long time. The only thing that has changed now, is that many of them have come to see the hypocrisy in the double standard with which lgbtq people have been treated. Gay people, and increasingly, trans people are more visible than ever, and it’s much harder for the dehumanizing stereotypes that have been so prevalent throughout much of history to stick.

Likewise, many Christians are shifting to a gay-affirming theology (sometimes called Side A). I’ve made it clear that I believe them to be in error. But I don’t think the shift can be chalked up simply to a caving to societal pressure to adopt worldly beliefs. There are many  thoughtful Christians who are willing to stand opposed to the culture on a number of other issues who have come to believe that God blesses monogamous same-sex unions.

There are many elements that lead some Christians to adopt the Side A position. It’s a complicated issue made all the more complicated by our cultural and historical distance from the biblical authors. And it’s not just a matter of simple right vs. wrong. There are some serious problems with much of the conservative church’s approach to homosexuality, and really, to sexuality in general. And it’s not just a lack of empathy. I’ve said before, that it seems a lot of Christians’ sex ethic is just the world’s sex ethic with a ring on it. In many cases, the journey that leads Christians to switch to gay-affirming theology begins with the lack of empathy they often see from those who hold the traditional view, and it is helped along by these other discrepancies.

Fortunately, many conservative Christians are starting to realize this. And they are ready to have conversations. This is great news, but there’s a long way to go. Because while they are ready to extend long-overdue empathy and compassion to the gay community, they’re not always ready to hear some of the hard things.

They’re not always ready to hear that some of their biggest heroes in the faith have caused deep pain and damage to gay people. They’re not always ready to hear that the political leaders they’ve always respected and the likes of which they wish we had in office again, were startlingly indifferent to the horrible deaths of huge numbers of gay men, and in some cases were actively opposed to helping them, determining that it was God’s judgment. They aren’t always ready to hear that this shocking animosity, or close affiliation with it, on the part of evangelicalism’s favorite politicians isn’t entirely a thing of the past. 

They’re not always ready to hear that the church’s exaltation of the nuclear family isn’t biblical, but cultural. They’re not always ready to hear that the importance we place on marriage and the relegation of celibacy to an afterthought is expressly unbiblical. They’re not always willing to hear that the systems we have in place and our preoccupation with the nuclear family and marriage make celibacy (which is something that many, if not most gay Christians feel obedience to God looks like for them) seem like a bleak, lonely road – a being left behind, so to speak.

They’re not always ready to hear that Christians have been grossly hypocritical in their treatment of divorce and remarriage and of heterosexual sin. They’re not always willing to hear that many straight Christians enter into marriage with a sinful, self-gratifying attitude toward sex, and it’s often glossed over because it’s seen as natural, and as long as it’s in the context of marriage, perfectly acceptable.

They’re not always ready to hear that the church – not just fringe groups and cults, but the mainstream church – has a history of propagating outright lies and dehumanizing stereotypes about gay people. They’re not always ready to hear that, even if they weren’t the ones saying those things, they were complicit by their silence. It was as much as approving what was said.

And they’re not always ready to offer love and compassion without qualifiers. They’re certainly not always ready to offer apologies without qualifiers. “I love you but… I’m sorry for how you’ve been treated, but… I grieve with you in this horrible tragedy, but…” is never appropriate. But Straight Fragility, perhaps more particularly religious Straight Fragility demands it. And when a straight conservative Christian does show unqualified remorse and compassion to the lgbtq community? Well, it’s time to reel him back in and get him back in line and demand more clarification.

In short, there are many, many Christians who are happy to adopt a kinder, gentler conservatism. But when the conversation turns to things that may be uncomfortable, things that require some self examination, some reassessing, and perhaps some painful changes on the part of the church as a whole, and straight Christians individually, that number drops considerably.

But if we Christians really want to make things right, it’s going to take action, not platitudes. It’s going to take some owning up to our huge failures, and to the really bad things that we’ve done, and our leaders have done in the name of Jesus. It’s going to take repentance, patience, and humility. And it’s going to take a change of course.

To my straight Christian friends who’ve been trying to navigate this conversation that’s been thrust upon you by the changing tides in our culture: I know it’s uncomfortable. But I’m asking you as your friend and a fellow believer, to step into that discomfort and stay there for a while, knowing that those of us who are gay and Christian have been living in it for most of our lives.

Please hear me when I say that I’m not trying to demonize or vilify you. Instead, I’m trying to do the painful, difficult job of showing you that that is exactly what so much of the conservative church has done to gay people. And people like me can write article after article, give talks and lectures, and have conversations with straight people until we’re blue in the face. But it’s going to be up to people like you to affect change. So I have a vested interest in your hearing me out. And that’s why I’ve highlighted this thing I’m calling Straight Fragility.

My hope is that if you are aware of it, you can recognize it when it surfaces, and you can resist it, choosing instead to remain humbly engaged, moving toward real progress and reconciliation. And when you recognize it in others, you can humbly come alongside them and help them do the same. I know that it sometimes doesn’t feel this way, as you’re increasingly harangued by our culture for some of your deeply held beliefs (beliefs that, by and large, I share with you), but you are in a place of privilege in this situation. And your voice matters. Please use it responsibly.

To Those Queer and Dear To My Heart: An Apology

1024px-Rainbow_flag_breezeHi there. Remember me? It’s been a while. At least ten years.

This is a difficult post to write. More often than not, the audience I have in mind when writing about faith and sexuality are conservative Christians. And even though I use words like “gay” and “sexual minority” that make so many of them uneasy, I’m typically careful to avoid certain other terms and ways of talking about things that they may find deeply troubling or could lead to substantial misunderstandings.

But this post isn’t for them. It’s for you. It’s for those of you in the lgbtq community whose paths crossed with mine sometime between 2004 and 2006. It’s for those who knew me well and were friends, as well as those who were only acquaintances. By extension, it is also for the gay-affirming straight people from whom I distanced myself or whom I otherwise alienated. And ultimately, I suppose it may even be for the greater lgbtq community, whether or not we’ve met.

I am ashamed that it took the shooting in Orlando to finally prompt me to write these things. I do hope that if you see this, you’ll take the time to read to the end. I can’t anticipate what anyone’s reaction may be. But I’ve never needed to express these things more than I do now. Perhaps I’ve not been ready to before now.

In my freshman year of university, when I first saw real-life lesbians, gays, and bisexuals daring to live unashamed and to throw off self-loathing, who dared to think that they were worthy of the same dignity as other people, and who lived in a level of freedom that I had never known, I wanted what they had. It was like the “Jesus-shaped hole-in-your-heart” narrative I’d always heard, but instead of straight-laced guys and gals with polished Christian smiles, those who had that special something were strong, proud queers who were living their lives rather than doing their best to be invisible. And they, as a community, were reaching out to those of us who hadn’t yet found the strength and courage to do so. Some of you were among them.

I remember the first time I shuffled into the back of the room at a Gay-Straight Alliance meeting. The atmosphere was so much more welcoming and so much more genuine than that of many of the campus ministry worship services I would go on to attend. Certainly more than many church gatherings I’d been to growing up. The people there knew that they were a family and that they were a haven, and that if someone new walked through the door, they were likely coming in as emotional and psychological refugees from a culture war zone, trying to find respite and peace and a solid footing. Some of you were there that night.

And even outside the safety of their own gathering, at an open-forum debate about gay marriage, I saw these young people defiantly standing up for themselves in the face of vile comments from several members of a certain campus ministry. Some of you were among those courageous enough to defend your own worth and dignity. I was there. But I was in hiding.

I was scared and insecure and still living with a lot of shame. But I was hopeful about what life might look like if I stepped out of the shadows and into the welcoming arms of the gay community and their allies. Slowly, I began taking steps in that direction. This is when I met some of you.

And then, I became a Christian. I mean, really became one. Though we weren’t a church-going family when I was growing up, it was still small-town Georgia, and I was influenced enough by devoutly Christian relatives for one to consider me “churched.” But I don’t know that you could’ve honestly called me a Christian any more than you could’ve called me a football fan, despite the Georgia Bulldog paraphernalia that I owned, and my periodic trips to Athens with my uncle’s family to see the games. (I never really had any idea what was going on and had to feign excitement when everyone around me started standing and yelling – it was an exhausting experience.)

So now that I was a Christian, it immediately complicated things. I set out to find Christian friends, a task I found somewhat difficult, but I managed. But I still needed my gay friends. I still needed people like you who understood. And it was at this time, after I’d already become a Christian that I met most of you. And I brought into our friendship, from the very beginning, the internal conflict I was experiencing between my faith and sexuality.

There I was, now with these two identities, and I just didn’t know how to live into them both well. So for a while, I just vacillated between the two.  I knew I couldn’t continue on that way. And the only thing I knew to do at the time was to just pick one and abandon the other, and every remnant of it. And if I had to pick one, however painful, I knew which one it had to be.

And so I unceremoniously exited people’s lives. Gay friends. Gay-affirming friends. I just left. And I surrounded myself only with people who I felt would reinforce my faith in God.

In truth, some version of that really was the necessary thing for me to do at that point in my life. But the way in which I did it was cowardly and hurtful to some. And it communicated something that wasn’t really true: that I no longer valued any of you,that you were expendable, and now that I had my little God squad, you were nothing more than interesting characters in my “testimony.”

I don’t regret everything. I don’t regret placing faith in Jesus and in submitting to what I believe his will is for sex and marriage. I don’t regret marrying my wife. Though we’ve gone through some very dark times, I wouldn’t give up our life together for any other life. But I regret that I swallowed all the false dichotomies and all the implicit homophobia and heteronormative assumptions that informed so much of the church’s posture and position on so many things beyond a prohibition on gay sex. I regret that I acted as if I was not, in any way, one of you.

The truth is, as one writer put it, I can’t just “opt out” of the gay experience. Not wholly. And for some time now, I can say that I wouldn’t want to. I’ve come to see my being gay as a blessing in so many ways. For one, it has helped me to be more empathetic to marginalized people – something that Jesus was and is very passionate about – than I otherwise would be. Being a gay Christian in particular has helped me to see the need for and to be an advocate for the fostering of strong, intimate friendships. (I think the church could learn a lot by just observing a group of gay friends.)

I still hold my same convictions about sex and marriage. But I don’t reject the truth of my gayness; I just have a different idea about how it is best lived out than you do. I know that’s confusing, but it is what it is.

What I really want to say is that I’m sorry that I wasn’t a better friend. I’m sorry that I didn’t treat you with the respect you deserved. Some of you may have forgotten all about me. We make a lot of fiends and acquaintances in college, and inevitably, we move on or just grow apart. But I haven’t forgotten you. Because the choices I made and the way I handled my friendships with some of you have come back to haunt me.

I know that being a gay man whose convictions lead me away from gay romantic relationships puts me in a complicated position with the gay community. But I’m no less gay than others who don’t share my beliefs. And like all of you, I too felt the sting of what happened in Orlando recently, in a very particular way.

One day earlier this week, I clicked on a link to a news story highlighting some of the victims. I scrolled down, looking at each face, reading about each person, each beautiful life that was taken, and  I just sat there in front of my computer and wept. I felt a flood of emotions, and the one that was the most disquieting was anger. At myself.

I was angry that I had estranged myself from the gay community – from the gay people who were once in my life. I was angry that for so long, my life communicated, at best, indifference to the community that once stood more ready to extend love and acceptance to me than many in the community that I left them for.

In the aftermath of the shooting, I instinctually wanted to reach out to the gay people I knew. To be sure, I appreciated and needed to see the mourning and outpouring from other people in my life. But there’s just something about grieving alongside someone who is feeling it in the same way as you, for the same reasons.

I’m thankful that there are once again many gay people in my life, even if most of them live thousands of miles away. Nearly all of them are Christians, and most of them have the same perspective on biblical marriage as I do, so I can relate to them all the more. And I found solace in mourning together with them. But I also wanted to reach out to the other gay people who’ve been in my life, those of you who aren’t Christians, and those who don’t share my convictions.

I’ve lost touch with some of you completely, and I wouldn’t even know how to go about finding you. I think you may be the only two people in America who aren’t on Facebook. I still have some semblance of contact with some others of you. (Social media is weird like that.) But I know I can’t just approach you after having been totally absent from your lives, without even acknowledging it.

The reality is that at this point in my life, I don’t have a significant relationship with any of you. In some cases, I never did. For some of us, even if things had been different, we wouldn’t have any more of a real connection than we do now. But for others, the only reason that we’re not close friends with more than a decade of memories to look back on is because I chose, half-way through college, to make sure that we wouldn’t.

So I want to grieve with you over the tragedy in Orlando. But I know there are things I need to say first. And this is my attempt at doing that.

With love and a heavy heart,

Mike

In Memoriam

Don’t think I have the emotional energy for an Orlando post. Not even sure what I would have to say. But this post by Ron Belgau says so much that I want and need you to hear.

Spiritual Friendship

Sunset on a country road

A month ago, just before sunset, I was out walking along a quiet rural road near my home when my phone rang.

“Are you sitting down?” My mother asked in a voice that clearly wasn’t normal. I wasn’t, but there wasn’t anywhere convenient to sit nearby, so I asked what was wrong anyway.

“Trent was killed in a car accident tonight.”

Trent is—I typed is out of habit, but now realize I must say was—my 18-year-old nephew. He was on his way home from studying with friends, and would have graduated from high school in just three weeks.

The day he died was also, as it happened, his mother’s birthday. Two days after Mother’s Day.

There is a before and after to grief: one minute, your life, and the lives of your family members are humming along in the ordinary way; the next moment, you enter a new and very…

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