Monday, September 5, 2016

Loving Myself as a Celibate Gay Christian (Part 1).

I've always hated this video. 

My parents have a cabinet in their house filled with old VHS tapes. Most of them are movies recorded off the Disney Channel from the early 1990s, but many of them are home videos...of me...usually being very dramatic. As a kid, I loved to perform. Many of these tapes have always been difficult for me to watch without cringing, but there was always one in particular that stood out from the rest. It was the video marked "Sound of Music Concert."

I discovered "The Sound of Music" when I was in 2nd grade, and it quickly became my favorite movie (at least until I discovered Star Wars a couple years later). I was obsessed. It wasn't long before I had the entire soundtrack committed to memory. This was before I had a CD player, so my only exposure to the music was our scratchy, recorded VHS copy--which I watched over and over again. Before long, the performance bug got a hold of me, and I prepared a "Sound of Music" concert for my parents…with some hits from "Mary Poppins" and "The King & I" thrown in for good measure. As I say in the video, “that sounds complicated, but it really isn’t.”

The performance goes on for quite a while. It features me in a hooded sweatshirt--pretending to be nun—as well as a particularly schmaltzy falsetto during "Sixteen Going on Seventeen." When I dug out the tape back in December, it was probably only the third or fourth time I'd watched it. This video has always caused deep shame for me. It was a distillation of everything from my childhood that I wanted to forget as I grew older. I wanted to distance myself from this effusive child, to claim I didn't know him. I didn't want to believe that this awkward little kid belting out Rodgers & Hammerstein was really me. I was afraid he was still hiding somewhere inside me, waiting to leap out and expose my shame to the world. I was afraid he would rip apart the guise of “normalcy” and traditional masculinity that I’d been crafting for myself for years.

I was afraid of being different. 

8th Grade Talent Show
"How Do You Solves a Problem
Like Maria?"
When I first began telling people that I was attracted to other guys a few years ago, I was terrified they might start thinking of me as, I couldn't handle that prospect---that I might somehow fit "the stereotype,” that other men might somehow see me as “less than” or “other.” I'd spent more than a decade trying to distance myself from this kid who was so very different from all the other boys...this kid who had the audacity to get as fired up about musical theater as the other boys did about Power Rangers. I couldn't deal with the facial expression of someone who might now see this video and think, "Ah yes. This all makes sense." I couldn't deal with the fact that, no matter how hard I tried to mask it, I might still today be very different from the other guys. While they're all still arguing on the outdoor basketball court about who gets to be Michael Jordan, I might still be on the other side of the schoolyard, hopping from root to root, pretending to be Maria Von Trapp. 

Sure, things are different now. Far from the little boy singing "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria" by himself at the school lunch tables, I'm now a 28-year-old man. In a matter of months, I'll have a master’s degree. I have friends. I have a sense of purpose here on this earth. I'm still shrinkingly insecure in many ways, but I have an inner sense of peace and confidence that can only be explained by the transforming work of the Holy Spirit. Instead of suppressing my feelings—afraid of rejection and condemnation—I’m sharing my story publicly. I'm writing and speaking about my experience as a gay Christian man who fully embraces the goodness and beauty of traditional, biblical sexual ethic—even though it means I'm probably never getting married. There is plenty of struggle and inner-turmoil in my life (I'm a millennial and an INFJ, what do you expect?), but overall, I'm in a very good place.  

Not everyone is so sure I’m in a good place, though... 

If only there was a blue ribbon awarded at Field Day for
making rooster shadows on the ground...
I’ve often heard the accusation that LGBT Christians who don’t affirm same-sex marriage must really be self-loathing, deep down. Just within the past couple weeks, folks on social media have accused me of suffering from "internalized homophobia" and being "anti-gay,” because I hold and promote a different view of sexual ethics than they do.

Most of the time, my first reaction to these accusations is to laugh. It all seems so ridiculous! Really? Me, homophobic and anti-gay? Earlier this summer, an ordained pastor in my denomination made a stunning assertion about me on Facebook. "Thanks to you," he wrote, "the acceptance of homosexuality has now entered the PCA." Within the past couple days, this same pastor claimed I was “proud and unrepentant” of my same-sex desires, referring to me as “A man who does not struggle with his homosexual desires and thoughts. But embraces it.” Something simply doesn’t add up here.

My next reaction, usually, is to get angry. How dare these people make such assumptions about me without ever even meeting me in person! How dare these people claim that I'm homophobic or self-loathing simply because I believe the Bible authoritatively says what most Christians throughout history have believed it to say! Even when I manage to let these accusations go without response--or when I'm able to respond with grace rather than snark and self-righteous fury--the accusations remain. They haunt me. They float around my head, asking that cold and terrifying I actually hate myself? 

As much as I want to answer "NO" to that question, I'm more interested in answering honestly. It's a valid question…and I believe it’s a vitally important question. This is one thing that the "affirming" camp gets absolutely right: far too many evangelical kids grow up believing that it's a sin to like themselves. Whether or not they hear it taught explicitly from the pulpit, these kids grow up believing that humility means having a low opinion of oneself and that self-deprecation is a virtue. This is not true. This is a perversion of the gospel. 

Constantly putting yourself down or identifying yourself as "a wretched sinner saved by grace" may sound pious and humble, but in reality, this misses the whole point of the biblical narrative. When you demean and put yourself down, you dishonor the Creator whose image you bear. You deny glory to the Savior who died not only to redeem you, but also to restore you! If you are in Christ, your primary identity is no longer "a wretched sinner saved by grace." Do you still sin? Absolutely. Were you saved by grace? Yes! We depend on his grace day-by-day, and we best not forget it! But if we are in Christ, then our primary identity is "a new creation." 

We need to learn how to love ourselves well. 

4th Grade Talent Show
"Star Wars Impressions"

By "love ourselves," I do not mean indulge ourselves, fixate on ourselves, or think more highly of ourselves than we ought. I certainly don’t mean justify ourselves when we sin. When we speak of love in other contexts, we speak of love that sees the good, the bad, and the ugly in its object while choosing to keep loving. We speak of love that challenges as well as affirms, that seeks the best outcome for the one who is loved, even if that outcome is difficult.

As Christians, we're called to seek the good of others before we seek our own, but that does not preclude us from seeking our own good at all! Jesus tells to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, not to love our neighbors instead of loving ourselves. Indeed, if we cannot learn to love ourselves as Jesus loves us, we’ll never learn to love our neighbors as Jesus loves them. Learning to love ourselves means learning to see ourselves the way God sees us...and believing what God says is true about us. If we learn to see ourselves as the glorious new creations in Christ that God sees, we will be that much more motivated to ruthlessly fight the sin that seeks our destruction as well as the shame that seeks our defeat.

So how does this relate back to that little boy in the video? If I’m honest, I have to admit that, yes, I have struggled a lot with self-loathing throughout my life. The shame that this video has produced in me growing up should be evidence enough, but there is certainly a wealth of additional evidence that I’d rather not share on my blog. I have loathed myself simply for being different. I have loathed myself simply for being gay. This is important, because I can’t claim that I actually love myself as Jesus loves me today if I can’t learn to love myself as Jesus loved me back then. I also can’t claim to love myself now if I loathe something so deeply engrained in who I am as my sexuality, if I loathe the way I notice and appreciate the multi-faceted beauty of my fellow image-bearers. 

In my next post, I’ll continue exploring what it means for us to love ourselves well, to love ourselves as Jesus loves us. And specifically, I’ll look at what it means for me, as a celibate gay Christian, to love myself. How do I love myself, my whole self, without loving my sin? How do I love myself, my whole self, without hating my sexuality?

Friday, October 30, 2015

Intimacy Without an Expiration Date.

"Then the LORD God said, 'It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.'" -- Genesis 2:18
Everything in creation up until this point had been declared "good" or "very good" by God. There was one thing, however, which God said was "not good." Before man had rebelled and sin entered the world, the only thing declared "not good" by God was man being alone. Humankind--even in its perfect, sinless state--was never designed for isolation. 

The immediate answer to this problem of Adam's isolation was the creation of Eve--a "helper fit for him"--bone of his bone, flesh of his flesh. But did the answer stop there? Was a spouse the ultimate answer to human loneliness?

Is marriage God's ultimate answer to the problem of human isolation?

The answer certainly isn't less than marriage...but is it more? I think it is. Adam and Eve became one flesh, and in Genesis 4, their union produced children. Those children produced children, who produced more children, and so on and so forth. The covenant bond of man and wife is the God-ordained fountain from which humankind and human civilization flows, and these bonds are the mortar which hold the bricks of human society together, the support structure which provides stability and ultimately leads to human flourishing.
"It is not good that the man should be alone."
David and Jonathan also shared a covenant bond, the bond of friendship--a bond of love that, for David, " was extraordinary, surpassing the love of women." John was "the disciple whom Jesus loved." Certainly Jesus loved all his disciples, but was there a deeper connection or some closer bond he shared with John? When Naomi's husband and sons died and her daughter-in-law left to be with her own people, her other daughter-in-law Ruth "clung to her," pledging to go where she goes, worship her God, and die and be buried wherever Naomi died and was buried. In essence, she makes a lifelong commitment--a covenant--of loyalty to her mother-in-law Ruth. As the early church exploded in the book of Acts, we read that these believers--new and old--"were together and had all things in common." They were bound together.

These bonds are not bonds of marriage. They are not "one-flesh" marriage covenants...but they are close, committed, loving, intimate relationships nonetheless. The first union of Adam and Eve (and all the unions that followed) make these bonds and this kind of community possible. Those "one-flesh" unions are where people come from!

As we move from the Old Testament into the New Testament, we see the biblical authors place an increased focus and emphasis on the bonds of friendship and community within the Church--the unity that flows from union with Christ, members of the same Body, one in Christ's flesh. The New Testament does no disservice or disrespect to marriage, but rather, in the New Testament, we see more fully that covenant marriage is a picture of the great Marriage that is to come...the final and ultimate union of Christ and his Church. It points forward. Covenant marriage is a good and beautiful gift in itself--a gift to be fully enjoyed (read Song of Solomon if you're unconvinced)--but it's a gift that has an expiration date. It will ultimately give way for the final Marriage that is yet to come. In the grand narrative of Redemption, covenant marriage will find its place as a good and beautiful part of the story, but it will be part of that which is fading away--that which is giving way for something better. Friendship, on the other hand, and the covenant community that we experience now are simply the beginning of that which will grow, be perfected, and last for all eternity. Covenant marriage has a cosmic expiration date. Covenant community is just beginning, and it will have no end.

So was Eve God's answer to the problem of Adam's loneliness? Do we read Genesis 2 and find a basis upon which to claim marriage is God's solution to human isolation? Yes and no. It's certainly part of the answer. The answer is not less than marriage, but it's also a great deal more. Covenant marriage makes covenant community possible.
"It is not good that the man should be alone."
If the Church is being the Church, if the covenant community is functioning as was intended by God--functioning in way that reflects (even dimly) its ultimate glorious future--then being unmarried does not mean being alone. When Paul talks about the goodness and dignity of the gift of singleness in the New Testament, he does so in the context of assuming a Church that is functioning properly as the Body of Christ--a Church united by bonds of love, sacrifice, and radical hospitality, where all things are shared in common. In this context, singleness is neither a death sentence nor a call to isolation. It's a call to participate all the more fully in the rich blessings of the covenant community. 
"It is not good that the man should be alone."
It wasn't good, so God created Eve...and then through her union with Adam, he kept creating people. More and more people, of all shapes and sizes and colors and varieties, all created bearing His image. As humans responded to His creation mandate to fill the earth and subdue it, His plan of Redemption unfolded. God gave us Christ, in whom we now have union, one with one another--continuing to reflect the image of God, who exists eternally as Three-in-One.
"It is not good that the man should be alone."
It wasn't good, so ultimately...God gave us Himself, and He also gave us each other. He gave us the Church, united in Christ, and friends...our union with Christ has no expiration date. 

From sorrow, toil, and pain,
And sin we shall be free;
And perfect love and friendship reign,
Through all eternity.


Monday, August 10, 2015

5 Ways that my PCA Church is a Place to Belong for LGBT Christians.

[This is the 3rd in a 3-part series called, "A Place to Belong." The 1st and 2nd posts can be found here and here.]

Everybody wants a place to belong. In some way or another, I think all of us are looking for home.

More than places that feel like home, I think we especially long for people who feel like home to us—people who are safe, with whom we have a sense of mutual belonging. There’s a line from “Beauty and the Beast” (the stage version) that I’ve always found especially poignant. As Belle cradles the dying Beast in her arms, she sings to him, “I found home…you’re my home…stay with me.” Belle’s home is not her poor, provincial town. It’s not the Beast’s enchanted castle. It’s him.

Wesley Hill describes this longing beautifully:
 “I need people who know what time my plane lands, who will worry about me when I don’t show up when I say I will. I need people I can call and tell about that funny thing that happened in the hallway after class. I need to know that, come hell or high water, a few people will stay with me, loving me in spite of my faults and caring for me when I’m down. More, I need people for whom I can care.” 

The question I’ve been dealing with for the last couple weeks is whether or not churches that embrace the traditional sexual ethic can actually be places of mutual belonging for LGBT believers. Can Christians who are gay* ever actually find home in such communities, or must we look for it elsewhere in communities that affirm and celebrate same-sex relationships?

It’s true: communities that hold to the traditional (and I believe biblical) sexual ethic have often been places of shame and alienation for gay Christians rather than places of grace and belonging. It should come as little surprise that many gay Christians abandon these communities—and the sexual ethic that these communities seem to embrace at their expense—as they search for home.  However, as I have said the past two weeks, this is not the whole story. There are many church communities holding firm to the traditional sexual ethic that are bearing very good fruit for the LGBT believers finding home in their midst. These stories should not be ignored.
Last week, I shared how my Christian friends communicate unequivocally that I belong in their brotherhood—without compromising their biblical convictions on sex and marriage. This week, I want to address a question that Fred Harrell raised in the letter to his congregation:

“If Jesus were the pastor of City Church, what would he say to the [LGBT members of our community] who are asking if they can belong?  […] What is a Christ-like response?”

As I’ve said, I disagree with Fred that affirming same-sex relationships is the Christ-like response. However, his question still deserves an answer. How can a church—for our purposes, a church that embraces the traditional sexual ethic—communicate to its LGBT members that they do indeed belong in the Body of Christ?

Belonging in the Body

“The church needs to be a nest for those inside & outside the framework of the nuclear family…an integrated community of single people, married people, families, widows, the elderly, college students, those of racial and sexual minorities, and all those I’m too naive to name.”Jeb Ralston

In the first part of this post, I mentioned the difficulties that men and women who are attracted to their same sex often face within churches that embrace the traditional sexual ethic—including my own denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America. There’s still a long way to go, but I do believe that many conservative, Reformed churches (particularly within the PCA) are heading in the right and biblical direction…and we’ve already come a long way.

Today, I want to focus on one congregation in particular—Memorial Presbyterian Church—and just a few of the [many] reasons why my theologically-conservative, traditional, PCA church has been such a good place for me to call home.

1. Singles in positions of leadership:

As a congregation in the city, it makes sense that Memorial is more than 25% unmarried. Many singles, like me, have found Memorial’s community to be the kind of “nest” that Jeb described above. However, beyond being a place where it’s not odd to be unmarried, singles also hold positions of influence in every level of our church leadership—from community group leaders to church officers to the pastoral staff…and everywhere in between.

This is important.

Two weeks ago, I asked the question, “When churches continue to idolize marriage as an ultimate human experience …is it any wonder that lifelong singleness starts sounding like a lifetime sentence?” I firmly believe that one of the best ways a church can avoid idolizing marriage is to make sure that the positions and voices of influence within their community include wise, godly men and women who are not married. Leadership affects the ethos of a church, and when wise singles have voices of influence, they can help their churches become communities where one’s full inclusion and status do not depend on one’s marital status. 

While we rightly celebrate the joy and beauty of marriage, we must also communicate that marriage is not a necessary ingredient of spiritual maturity—nor is it a necessary ingredient of joy and beauty. Certainly, ministry to married couples and families is a big part of what God is doing at Memorial. However, as a church Family, unmarried people have an active role even in these ministries! Married couples and singles are not pit against each other in a competition for resources and attention, but rather, we serve one another in community.

2. Sexual minorities in positions of leadership: **

In addition to having many singles in leadership, Memorial is also a place where wise, godly believers who are sexual minorities hold positions of influence and leadership. It’s hard to fully describe how much this communicates to me regarding the heart of my church family and my place in her community. I’m no more broken than anyone else. Believers who are gay are able to use their gifts and serve our church community like anyone else—and they are held to the same biblical standards.

Personally, I’ve had the opportunities to teach children’s Sunday School, lead an adult Bible study, as well as lead portions of our “More About Memorial” membership class. I don’t take these opportunities for granted, especially when I hear from so many other men and women who are denied these opportunities simply because, like me, they are primarily attracted to their same gender (or simply because they’re honest about it).

3. Having the conversation:

Memorial doesn’t shy away from conversations about sexuality. Refraining from the divisive rhetoric of the culture war, our leaders address the issue of homosexuality with humility and pastoral care. The real people and real lives involved—both inside and outside our walls—are not lost in political debate…and neither is Truth.   

This past spring, the adult Sunday school class spent 9 weeks covering such topics as “God, Gays & Grace,” “Supporting SSA/Gay Believers,” and “Transgender Issues.” These classes were led by a local ministry with expertise in issues related to sexuality, and many of the speakers were themselves sexual minorities. I was encouraged to see the congregation unite around this opportunity to better understand those whose experience of sexuality (including the broken aspects of their sexuality) might look different from their own—as well as how to respond biblically and compassionately.

Likewise, I’ve never felt unwelcome to talk about my own experience as a gay person or my own sexual brokenness. On the contrary, in all my interactions with church leadership and fellow members, it’s been clear that my perspective is seen as valuable rather than as a nuisance. In fact, I was encouraged to share this part of my story when I led the portion of our membership class about being a community of grace and repentance—a community without the need for masks.

Churches don’t need to be vocally offensive or insensitive toward sexual minorities for LGBT believers to feel like they don’t belong or are unwelcome. Silence can often be deafening.

Thankfully, my church has been anything but silent.

4. Not forcing the conversation:

As open as Memorial is to conversations about sexuality, no one is ever pressured to be a poster child. As free as I feel to share about my experience as a Christian who is gay, I don’t feel like this experience is the only thing I bring to the table, and neither are my ministry opportunities limited to issues of sexual brokenness.

I have freedom to speak, and I have freedom to remain silent. I don’t walk around with a label on my forehead. My church family does not define me by my sexuality.

At my church, I’m not Stephen Moss: Gay Christian.

At my church, I’m Stephen Moss: Child of God…Brother in Christ.

That’s incredibly refreshing.

5. Environment where it’s okay not to be okay: 

 I still remember the first Sunday I walked through the doors of Memorial’s old historic sanctuary and sat down amidst this eclectic (and slightly eccentric***) group of people. I immediately knew this was a place where I didn’t have to pretend I had it all together. This wasn’t a place where I needed to fit a certain mold, because…well…there was no apparent mold to fit. Very quickly, Memorial began to feel like home.

At Memorial, I’m free to take off my mask and let my own quirks and eccentricities show. I don’t have to hide my vulnerability and brokenness, because at Memorial, the fact that we’re all broken isn’t just a theological proposition that we recite…it’s on display. Now, if our brokenness is where we are left, we have no hope. We don’t revel in our brokenness, but our brokenness drives us to the Cross. The gospel—the good news that, when we were rebels and helpless to save ourselves, Jesus came to pay our penalty and restore us to glory—is the only foundation upon which such a community can stand.  

This gospel is preached clearly from Memorial’s pulpit every Sunday, as well as in our liturgy and the sacraments. Our pastors feed us a steady diet of radical grace rooted solidly in the truth of God’s eternal and unchanging Word. As a community, we are called to repent of our failure to meet God’s holy standard, our failure to love as He loves. As we learn each other’s stories, we see the rich diversity of means God uses to accomplish his purposes of bringing about His Kingdom on earth and transforming his Church more and more—not into the likeness of good religious folks—but into the likeness of His Son.

All in the Family

“The answer to loneliness is not marriage, but rather the new-creational community that God is calling into being in Christ, the church marked by mutual love, as it is led by the Spirit of Christ.” -- J. Louis Martyn, quoted here by Wesley Hill.

In Mark 10, Peter says to Jesus, “See, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus responds, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.

Taking up my cross to follow Jesus as a man who is primarily attracted to other men means giving up my desire for a same-sex romantic relationship—but it doesn’t mean giving up my desire for intimacy. More and more Christians (like Julie Rodgers and Fred Harrell) seem to imply that the ultimate answer to our loneliness is marriage, but could it be that the answer to our loneliness—regardless of our marital status or sexual orientation—actually is this new-creational community? When we are united to Christ, we are united to his Body here on earth. The Church becomes our Family—our broken, awkward, messy, and beautiful Family.

I believe God has said “no” to my desire for a same-sex romantic relationship. I don’t know what God has yet to say about my desire for a wife and children, but I do know this: regardless of whether or not I ever have a family of my own, I will not be alone. I will always have a Family. In the Church, I have many brothers and sisters. I have many mothers and fathers. 

Regardless of whether or not I ever have biological children, in the Church, I will have children. That vow we take every time an infant is baptized actually means something.

My church does not need to affirm same-sex romantic relationships in order to love and care for me well. My church needs to be my Family. My church needs to be the Church.

Perhaps you still believe this vision of a church that’s just as committed to the joy and flourishing of its LGBT members as it is to the traditional sexual ethic is an impossible, pie-in-the-sky dream. I understand. I know there’s been a lot of epic failure…and many burned bridges. Let’s keep talking.

But I hope I’ve demonstrated that epic failure is not the whole picture. My Christian friends and my church have set a beautiful example of what it looks like to unashamedly embrace LGBT believers while embracing the traditional, biblical sexual ethic. I pray that these stories will indeed become the norm in the Church. I pray that more and more of those who sit on the fringes of our communities will find their belonging in the Body of Christ—and I pray that Christ will be glorified.


*     For the sake of clarity, when I say “gay,” I simply mean “attracted to the same gender.” I use it as a descriptive adjective, with no other implications regarding behavior or identity. When we have these conversations, I think it’s helpful for us to use language that our neighbors can understand and to which they can relate. However, I understand that some remain uncomfortable using “gay” even as a descriptor, and if this is you, I humbly ask for your patience as we continue this conversation. Similarly, when I refer to "LGBT" or "sexual minorities," I am referring to those whose experience of sexuality is something different than "heterosexual." 
**     If there are no sexual minorities in church leadership, I at least think it’s important to ask some diagnostic questions: Is our church a place where wise and godly men or women who are open about their experience of same-sex attraction would be encouraged to serve and teach? If there was a gay person who fit the biblical requirements for church leadership, would he or she ever be selected for a position? Do we seek the wisdom and input of sexual minorities—whether in our church or in other churches—when we teach about sex and marriage? Can we even imagine these scenarios? If the answers to these questions are negative, LGBT believers are very unlikely to feel like they belong in that church community. (The same can all be said for singles in leadership as well).
***     In a recent profile compiled by our church, I was encouraged to see the following listed as one of our strengths: “People describe our church as “quirky.” We have embraced and delight in our eccentricity and are happy to be a place where people feel the freedom to be who they are as created in God’s image.” Amen.

Monday, August 3, 2015

A Place to Belong: Belonging in Brotherhood.

[This is the second in a three-part post called, "A Place to Belong." The first part can be found here.]

Can churches that embrace the traditional sexual ethic actually be places of belonging for LGBT believers? Is it possible for a Christian who is gay* to feel at home and even flourish in such a community?

Last week, I agreed that conservative churches and Christians have far too often dropped the ball when it comes to loving and including gay members and providing the necessary support for the difficult road they are being called to walk. Paul calls those of us who are in Christ to bear one another’s burdens. Instead, the Church has often resembled the Pharisees, tying up heavy burdens on the backs of gay believers without lifting a finger to help. I have seen this. I have experienced this. It is wrong.

However, as I also said last week, this is by no means the whole picture. There is much to affirm and mourn in what Julie Rodgers, City Church San Francisco, and others have said regarding the failure of many Christians to love their LGBT brothers and sisters well. But it’s the part of the picture they leave out which gives me real hope that Christian communities can be just as committed to the joy and flourishing of their gay members as they are to the traditional sexual ethic. It’s that part of the picture I want to begin sharing with you now in these next two posts. Today, I want to share how my friends have unashamedly embraced and included me as a brother without letting go of the traditional sexual ethic. 

Belonging in Brotherhood

When I moved to St. Louis in June 2013, I hadn't told many people that I was attracted to other guys. I was still figuring out what it looked like to share that part of my story, and I was still terrified that opening up about that would instantly relegate me to second-class status in my community and amongst my friends--that I'd become "that gay guy" that everyone needed to keep their eye on. I didn’t think I could deal with that kind of suspicion and discomfort. Julie described this exhausting fear so well:

"It’s easy for straight Christians to underestimate how exhausting it is to simply exist in communities that feel uncomfortable with gays: we're constantly wondering if we should tell the truth when asked that question, or sleep on the floor when there’s room in the bed, or cut that hug short, or voice that question, or publish that post, or write that tweet, or curb that mannerism, or run from that friendship, or shut down those feelings or leave the church altogether."

I remember when I first started telling friends that I was same-sex attracted. I had told pastors and mentors before, but sharing this part of my story with my straight guy friends had always seemed out of the question. It wasn't so much that I thought they would outright reject me. That wasn’t what I was afraid of. What will they think about me? I wondered. What will they feel about me that they would never actually say? How will they look at me?  I couldn’t bear the idea that I might make my friends feel uncomfortable. I couldn’t bear the thought that every word I said from then on and every move I ever made might be processed through the filter of that knowledge. Friendship might never be the same.

Despite my fears, I knew that I needed to let my friends into this part of my life if I was ever going to experience a sense of true community with them. I had known most of the guys I decided to tell first for a number of years, and I trusted them. I knew they wouldn’t reject me, yet my fear and anxiety remained. Would I go from being their friend to being “that guy?”

I started getting together with friend after friend, having countless conversations over breakfast, coffee, lunch, dinner, and drinks. All of them, without exception, were incredibly encouraging. However, one conversation in particular** stands out in my memory.

All of my friends responded with encouragement and support, but when I told this guy, his response was immediately different than all of the rest.

He smiled.

He smiled the whole time. Sure, he was just as surprised as anyone else, but his first reaction was to smile. He wasn't being insensitive or callous. He didn't think anything was funny, but he was instantly moved by the power of what I was sharing. He knew what it meant that I was telling him this. When I saw his smile, I didn't see someone glossing over the weight of my story...I saw someone grasping the full beauty of my story, difficulty and pain included. His smile said that he was glad I was sharing this with him, that he knew God was sovereign, that he was hopeful about my future—that this wouldn’t change the way he saw me at all.

This brother listened, he smiled—occasionally he'd shake his head in amazement. He asked questions—good questions. He wondered aloud how hard it must have been for me to live with that secret.

I told him about the impact Wes Hill's book, Washed and Waiting, had on me, and before I ever thought to suggest it, he asked me if it would be a good book for him to read—to help him gain a better understanding of the struggles faced by gay Christians. He wanted to learn more, to read more. This showed me his support. It let me know just how valuable he saw my story to be.

My friend’s simple, authentic response communicated so much to me in that moment. It said that he loved me, but it also said that he respected me. It said he wanted to enter into my story's framework rather than try to fit my story into his framework. It said he didn't see me as someone to be pitied, but rather, someone he could learn from. It said he wasn't weirded out by what I'd just told him—and that I was free and safe to share more.

As I shared my story with more and more of my friends—and as I “came out” more publicly in St. Louis—this experience played itself out over and over again in different ways. I shared with my friends; they listened to me, laughed with me, wept with me, prayed with me, embraced me…and then proceeded to demonstrate to me through various means that I belonged with them. These demonstrations weren’t over the top, like they had something to prove. They weren’t patronizing. They didn’t make me feel singled out for special attention. Like the simple response of my friend who smiled, they were authentic. They revealed the true heart of my brothers.  

I realize that this is not the case for many LGBT Christians, and I mourn with those who long for even a taste of such warm, inclusive friendship from their fellow believers. I cry out to God on their behalf, that my stories of friendship and brotherhood would become the norm within Christian churches rather than the exception. I have heard from many same-sex attracted Christian men whose friends seem to hold them at arms’ length, apparently afraid that their brother in Christ might be attracted to them or fall in love with them. Other guys describe a general sense of seriousness or unease amongst their close male friends, causing them to feel more like liabilities than brothers. This ought not to be. I challenge my fellow believers to pray and consider ways that their words and actions could powerfully express this blessing of belonging to their brothers and sisters who sit on the outside, gazing longingly into the circle of brotherhood or sisterhood. I challenge us all to follow the example of Christ, who offered belonging to those who sat on the margins of society, even those who did not yet believe—those whom the religious elites deemed unworthy.

Reason for Hope

I wish that my stories were not the exceptions, but still, they give me hope. They set a beautiful example of friendship and brotherhood in the face of these very real fears and anxieties that Julie has described. My male friends do not simply tolerate my presence among them. These brothers proactively fight against my fears. 

They make sure I sleep in the hotel bed with them—even when there's not a lot of room (I’m no small guy). When I try to cut a hug short, they refuse to let go…hugging even tighter. When I'm afraid how that vulnerable blog post will be received, they repost it and send encouraging feedback. When everyone is discussing their middle school celebrity crushes and I cautiously mention the guy from that Disney Channel original movie, they smile and tell me they can understand why. 

When I try to shut down my feelings, they ask me how I feel...and they listen. When I try to run from their friendship, they run after me. When I express my frustration with the Church, they weep with me and repent for the ways they have contributed. When I am struggling, they pray with me and for me—any time, day or night. When I don’t know how to express the way I feel about them in a way they’ll understand, they look me square in the eye and say, “I love you.”

Don’t hear me saying that my friends are simply yes-men. They challenge and confront me when I’m in error. They ask questions. They fight alongside me in my battle against sin and temptation. If I were ever to change my own convictions and pursue a romantic relationship with another man, they would lovingly and graciously—yet boldly—call me to repentance. For this, I am incredibly thankful. I would have it no other way.

My brothers never try to remove my burden of obedience, but they help me carry its load.

They don't just help me carry my burden by asking me hard questions and providing accountability--although that's part of it. The primary way they help me carry my burden of obedience is by being not letting me live a life devoid of not letting me be alone. It's not good for man to be alone. 

Julie’s quote from above goes on to say, “Those fears subside around friends who simply delight in who we are as whole human beings made in the image of God.” This is true. My friends don’t just tolerate me or treat me like a charity case. They delight in who I am—as a whole human being made in the image of God. Together we mourn the brokenness in my story. Together we rejoice over the beauty and redemption in my story. My experience of sexuality doesn’t give their love an asterisk.

My brothers in Christ have actively fought against my feelings of illegitimate shame and alienation due to my sexuality, making sure I never have a doubt that I belong in their brotherhood. They don’t hide from me. They don’t isolate me outside their boundaries of self-protection. They don't nitpick my language and terminology, insisting I share my experience in a way that might make them more comfortable. They ask me good questions, they listen, and they want to understand. Their words and their actions regularly communicate to me that I belong.

These brothers unashamedly embrace the traditional, biblical sexual ethic. They also unashamedly embrace me. In doing so, they communicate the love of Christ to me in a real and tangible way. When my brothers love me like this, it helps me believe that maybe Jesus really loves me like this too…and maybe I really do belong with his people.

[Being embraced by your friends as an LGBT believer is one thing, but what about being embraced by your church? Surely that’s where the real problems will arise. In the third and final part of my post, I’ll share some very encouraging ways that my church community (as well as my presbytery and denomination) have loved me well and communicated to me that I belong. Stay tuned!]


* For the sake of clarity, when I say “gay,” I simply mean “attracted to the same gender.” I use it as a descriptive adjective, with no other implications regarding behavior or identity. When we have these conversations, I think it’s helpful for us to use language that our neighbors can understand and to which they can relate. However, I understand that some remain uncomfortable using “gay” even as a descriptor, and if this is you, I humbly ask for your patience as we continue this conversation
** I borrowed significantly here from a post I wrote about this conversation back in August 2013 on my pseudonymous blog, "Behind the Mask." You can read the original post here: 

Monday, July 27, 2015

A Place to Belong: Too Good to be True?

[This is the first in a three-part post called, "A Place to Belong." The second part, "Belonging in Brotherhood," can be found here, and the third part, "Finding Home in the Body of Christ," can be found here.]

There's been a lot of talk recently about the "demand" of life-long celibacy for Christians who are gay.*

Fred Harrell, pastor of City Church in San Francisco, and Stan Mitchell, pastor of GracePointe Church in Nashville, have each recently announced the shift of their evangelical congregations away from the traditional sexual ethic--which Harrell described as "demanding life-long celibacy" for non-heterosexual members--and towards the affirmation of same-sex marriage. Each pastor used language that described this prior "demand" of celibacy for non-heterosexual members as discriminatory and ultimately harmful. (For full context, click here for the City Church letter and the GracePointe Church article.)

Similarly, a couple weeks ago, Julie Rodgers--a former contributor at Spiritual Friendship and someone whose work I've frequently quoted and recommended to others--revealed on her personal blog that she has "quietly supported same-sex relationships for a while now." I've only met Julie in-person once, but I've had a great deal of admiration and respect for her ever since I started reading her blog a few years ago. Her passion is infectious, as well as her love for Jesus and for the marginalized. I continue to respect Julie and value her contributions to this conversation, but I'm disheartened and disappointed in this shift on her part--a shift, like the churches mentioned above, into serious biblical error. It's particularly interesting, however, that this shift seems to have very little to do with a change in Julie's biblical interpretation.

There are certainly biblical and theological arguments that are often made in support of same-sex relationships. Indeed, City Church cites its own reevaluation of Scripture as a basis for its shift. However, even when appeals are made to a new understanding of specific passages, most changes of conviction on the matter of same-sex relationships also seem to depend heavily on casting celibacy (or as some of us like to call it, “living faithfully as an unmarried Christian”) as a demand**—an expectation imposed upon gay Christians by the Church that causes unreasonable hardship—rather than a personal decision made by those who are specially gifted.

Julie continues along these lines [bold emphasis mine]:

"I’ve become increasingly troubled by the unintended consequences of messages that insist all LGBT people commit to lifelong celibacy. No matter how graciously it’s framed, that message tends to contribute to feelings of shame and alienation for gay Christians. It leaves folks feeling like love and acceptance are contingent upon them not-gay-marrying and not-falling-in-gay-love. When that’s the case—when communion is contingent upon gays holding very narrow beliefs and making extraordinary sacrifices to live up to a standard that demands everything from an individual with little help from the community—it’s hard to believe our bodies might be an occasion for joy. It’s hard to believe we’re actually wanted in our churches. It’s hard to believe the God who loves us actually likes us."
It's important to say here that I agree with much of what Julie has to say in her blog post. I think her diagnosis of the problem in our conservative evangelical churches today is pretty spot-on. I've seen the hardships that many same-sex attracted believers face within my own denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America, illustrated in disturbingly bold colors for me even within the last few weeks. I’ve spoken with a number of men recently—men who hold firmly to the traditional sexual ethic—who live in constant fear of rejection by their friends and their church, who regularly deal with the shame of hearing their attractions compared to dangerous sexual behaviors and pedophilia, and still others who are denied the opportunities to teach or disciple younger men simply because they are same-sex attracted. This is wrong.

Yes, the situation has improved dramatically over the last few years. More and more evangelical conservative churches--including PCA churches--are learning how to care for their LGBT members and love them well. I have experienced this firsthand—in the churches I’ve been a part of as well as my presbytery. I think we’re heading in a good direction. However, Julie's diagnosis remains largely true: conservative evangelical churches have far too often dropped the ball when it comes to loving and including gay members and providing the necessary support for the difficult road they are being called to walk.  When churches continue to idolize marriage as an ultimate human experience—as something one needs to be happy and fulfilled, even sanctified—is it any wonder that celibacy starts sounding more and more like an unreasonable demand? Is it any wonder that Christians start to believe that God actually owes them earthly happiness and fulfillment? Is it any wonder that lifelong singleness starts sounding like a lifetime sentence?

So yes, I believe Julie has identified a very real problem. However, it must be said: the solution arrived at by Julie, as well as City Church and GracePointe--to be supportive of same-sex romantic relationships--is the wrong answer entirely.

So what's the right answer? 

First, whatever can be said about the followers of Christ and the ways we often fail to love as our Savior loved, our only rule for faith and life remains the eternal Word of God.

Don't get me wrong. Our experiences are important. They must never be ignored or discounted...and Church, you have a long history of ignoring and discounting the experiences of gay Christians. I am frustrated that many Christians will get more upset about the fact that I just said "gay Christians" than they will about the illegitimate shame and alienation that I and so many others have felt within the Church--even those of us who hold firmly to the traditional biblical sexual ethic.

However, our experiences can never, must never be used as a basis for softening or ignoring that which is taught in the words of Scripture about sexuality: sex is a gift designed exclusively for the covenant of marriage, and the covenant of marriage is designed exclusively to unite one man and one woman. Let that be said, and let the record show.

So okay, if affirmation of same-sex relationships is not the answer to the problem of unwelcoming and unsafe churches, what is the answer?

Churches must learn how to unashamedly embrace the traditional biblical sexual ethic while also unashamedly embracing the gay believers trying to walk faithfully in their midst.

What would that look like? Scott Sauls engages our holy imaginations here:

"What if we embraced a renewed biblical vision for the church as a surrogate family where every person, married and divorced and single, hetero attracted and same sex attracted, has access to spiritual friendships as deep as that of David and Jonathan, whose mutual accessibility, transparency, and loyalty rivaled the love between a man and a woman?"

That's powerful stuff. Essentially, churches must learn what it truly looks like to be a family. Church communities cannot simply tell gay Christians “don’t have gay sex” and then continue on with business-as-usual, but neither can church communities tell gay Christians “you can get married too” and then also continue with business-as-usual. The first option ignores the problems of loneliness and isolation. The second option tries to fix the symptoms without addressing the root problem (while also violating God’s created order). Our answer must go deeper, and our answer must be biblical. The Church must stop seeing herself as a collection of family units and start seeing herself as one Family, one Body—the Bride of Christ.

Too good to be true? 

Now you might be thinking, "This all sounds swell, Stephen, but it will never happen." Maybe it sounds like a pie-in-the-sky dream that a church could ever be just as committed to the thriving and flourishing of its gay members as it is to the traditional sexual ethic. "That's been tried," you may be thinking, "and it doesn't work. One will always win out. Churches can talk a big game about their 'loving community,' but at the end of the day, the gays will be left out in the cold."

Maybe you’ve heard this all before. Maybe you’ve been burned and disappointed—repeatedly. You are not alone.

Is this vision really possible? Is it too good to be true? Can churches that embrace the traditional sexual ethic actually be places of inclusion and belonging for LGBT believers? Or should we just admit that we're fighting a losing battle, abandon the "demand" of the traditional biblical teaching on marriage, and simply make sure that people are growing "to love Jesus more?"

If the picture of churches that embrace the traditional sexual ethic was truly as bleak as Julie and others have painted it--we might be tempted to answer "yes."

But friends, while I do agree generally with Julie's diagnosis of the problem, there is more to the story—a lot more. Her diagnosis is by no means the whole picture. And the part of the picture which has been left out is precisely the part which gives me hope. See, I don’t think the vision we've described here is just a pie-in-the-sky dream…and I look forward to telling you why.

[In the next two segments of this three-part post, I hope to bring that pie down from the sky and onto our dinner tables. I look forward to sharing some real-life ways that my Christian friends as well as my church here in St. Louis are actually living out this vision of Christian communities that are just as committed to the "belonging" and flourishing of gay Christians as they are to the traditional sexual ethic. I hope you will be as encouraged as I am.]


* For the sake of clarity, when I say “gay,” I simply mean “attracted to the same gender.” I use it as a descriptive adjective, with no other implications regarding behavior or identity. When we have these conversations, I think it’s helpful for us to use language that our neighbors can understand and to which they can relate. However, I understand that some remain uncomfortable using “gay” even as a descriptor, and if this is you, I humbly ask for your patience as we continue this conversation.

** I actually don’t believe God demands life-long celibacy from anyone—and neither should His Church. But I do believe that God requires life-long sexual faithfulness from all of His children, whatever their orientation or marital status, and I believe this requirement precludes any consideration of a same-sex relationship. For Christians who marry (and many same-sex attracted Christians are happily married to people of the opposite gender), faithfulness means abstaining from sex outside the bounds of that covenant. For Christians who remain unmarried (whether because they are same-sex attracted or for any other reason), faithfulness means sexual abstinence. God does not demand celibacy, but He does require faithfulness.

Monday, April 6, 2015

On Resurrection and Longing...

It was the second wedding in which I've been a groomsman. It was the second wedding in which I've cried.

I'll be the first to admit that I can be a little crusty and cynical about marriage sometimes. It's not a fact that I'm proud of. If I have any defense, it's that my cynicism is a defense mechanism--an easier and less painful way to deal with my longing than actually diving in and feeling it.

But my cynicism is no match for that moment when the doors swing open, that radiant bride steps into view, and my dear friend--the groom--absolutely melts into a mixture of joy and awe.

There aren't many other moments I can imagine in this world that are more beautiful than seeing your friend so much in love, so happy and terrified and excited--and having the honor of standing up there next to him, wordlessly confessing, "this is good." 

[Cue the waterworks.]

It is these moments--these few, but treasured, moments--which dissolve my armor of pride and independence and expose these beautiful longings I try so hard to stifle. There's no hint of jealousy or bitterness--no jokes and no defense. Rather, I'm overwhelmed by the beauty of God's gift of marriage--the beauty of a man and a woman pledging themselves to one another in covenant faithfulness. In these moments, I know I couldn't possibly imagine a moment that could ever be more beautiful than the one I'm witnessing...and then I do imagine that moment. I imagine myself as the groom, melting in joy and awe as my bride appears. I imagine my friends standing in approval of my wedding. I imagine making the commitment, before a church filled with people, to lay down my life for somebody besides myself.

And then the longing comes. And it hurts.

It's not a sharp, stabbing pain. It's not debilitating or disorienting. It's a dull ache, somewhere deep and ambiguous. It's a soreness that can't be massaged away. It simply must be carried.

And it's confusing! How can one feel such contentment and such emptiness all at once? How can one be so fully satisfied and yet so profoundly unsatisfied in the same moment? Is it covetousness? Is it ungratefulness? Surely it must somehow be wrong...

So it gets buried...just like that. As quickly as it was revealed, it gets a fresh coat of cynicism. Because it's easier to scoff than it is to long.

- - -

I felt it again, a few days later. I was talking to an older friend--a father. He told me how his three boys have always charged into his room on Saturday mornings and jumped on his bed to wake him it always devolves into a wrestling match. It was one thing when they were little, he said--when he had the advantage--but now they're in middle school and high school, and they can do a lot more damage. We laughed as he talked about the minor injuries he regularly receives from his growing sons, because it was clear that he wouldn't have it any other way.

Again, I was filled with that warmth and wonder that comes when you witness something beautiful--in this case, a father whose teenage sons still jump on his bed on Saturday mornings...a father who is more than willing to put up with the noise and the bruises because that's how his sons tell him they love him.

Again, I was filled with that ache...that emptiness...that longing to be a father.

That fear of never having sons or daughters of my own.

Again, it hurts.

Again, it gets buried.

Because it's easier to distract oneself than it is to long.

- - -

On Easter, we celebrate Resurrection.

Of course, we celebrate Resurrection every Lord's Day, but we are seasonal creatures. In the same way that winter's waiting makes spring all the more sweet, the simplicity of Ordinary Time and the longing of Lent only prepare us all the more for that victorious joy of Resurrection Sunday. We need the power of Christ's resurrection every moment of our lives, but our souls thrive on the extra celebration that comes once a year--the long anticipated feast of victory-won and victory-to-come.

In winter, we long for spring.

In Lent, we long for Easter.

In the midst of life, we are in death--and in the midst of death, we long for new Life. 

Longing is part of the human experience. We glimpse beauty. We taste it. We brush up against it. Our souls stir with the irresistible feeling that true Beauty lies just behind the curtain--just barely out of our reach. Like Tom in his never-ending pursuit of the elusive Jerry, we chase after this beauty--not even entirely sure what we would do with it if we ever caught it, if we could wrap our arms around it and once-and-for-all call it ours.

On Easter we sing about Resurrection. We sing about that Sunday morning when Jesus conquered death, and we sing about that day to come when this world will be made new. We glimpse the beauty. Like an AM radio struggling to pick up a distant broadcast, we catch bits and pieces through the static. We hear the pastor talk about good news and new life, and we long for that to be experience this resurrection in full.

We are no strangers to longing. Even the new husband longs for deeper intimacy, for affirmation, for fulfillment. Even the seasoned father longs for more time, for the right words, for the lasting legacy. Those of us who long for spouses and long for children know deep down that spouses and children will never fully satisfy our longings--yet still we long.

The Resurrection doesn't promise me that one day I will watch my bride walk down the aisle. The Resurrection doesn't promise me that one day I'll be rudely awakened by teenage sons joyfully jumping on my bed. The Resurrection doesn't promise me that the longings of my heart will be fulfilled here in these pilgrim days. 

The Resurrection promises that one day, every tear will be wiped away. Every sorrow. Every ache and pain. The Resurrection promises that one day, the longing will be no more. The curtain will be lifted. That irresistible feeling will be proven true. Beauty will no longer elude will envelope us. We won't be the ones wrapping our arms around it. It will be wrapping its arms around us. 

And this promise is already coming true in part. The LORD is near to the brokenhearted, writes the Psalmist. He saves the crushed in spirit. He will answer those who long and who sigh. Indeed, God does not leave us alone in our longing. He gives us His Spirit. He gives us His Church.

We don't need to run from our longing. We don't need to bury it or hide it. We don't need to medicate it. We can enter into our longing; we can name it and we can feel it. But we can't do this without hope of the Resurrection. If Jesus was not raised from the dead, and if He is not coming again, then our longings will go unmet and unfulfilled, and we might as well do our best to stifle them.

But Jesus was raised from the dead. He is coming again. Our longings will ultimately be fulfilled, more abundantly than we can imagine, and now, in the in-between times, our longing is where Jesus meets us. 

That is good news.