Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Of Carpet and Character...

The hot-pink exterior is your first clue that Bayou Joe's is something special. My favorite restaurant back in Florida has mismatched furniture and gaping cracks in the floor. Tables are decorated with maps, movie stars, and cartoons of old ladies in bathing suits. Service is slow and incredibly eccentric. Joe's “trash burger” is smothered in chili and gummy worms, each bite making you feel like a daredevil. Napkins are replaced with wash cloths, and after-dinner mints are replaced with bubble gum. Some people call it sketchy. Me? I say it's got character.  

Okay sure, I know "character" is often a craigslist buzzword to sell old stuff to twenty-somethings. A couple years ago, I was trying to convince a friend to try out a coffee shop that I claimed had character. He sighed, frustrated. "See, Stephen, I'm pretty sure when you say something has 'character,' you just mean it's old." Fair point. I'm a sucker for exposed brick.

So why is "character" considered a selling point? Why would someone pay more to take a risk and eat at the local mom-&-pop instead of playing it safe with Applebee's? What is it about the aging, urban bungalow that's more appealing than the brand-new suburban cookie-cutter? Call it "hipster" or nonconformist (you might be right), but I suspect it's more than that. Could it be that we actually feel a connection with places and things that show some wear-and-tear? Do we identify with those unique, one-of-a-kind places--places with stories as complex as our own?

Maybe it's that sense of existing in a place that somehow understands your lack of put-togethered-ness. My friends and I are currently looking for a house to rent here in St. Louis. As we cruise the city's neighborhoods and investigate our options, I find myself drawn to the places that seem to "get" my to which I don't have to explain myself when I walk in the front door. I like a house with history. I want a place that's got a past and plenty of stories to tell. If there's some architectural oddities or broken fixtures or confusing layouts, that's cool. I can relate.

Similar to the hot-pink walls of Bayou Joe's, the first thing that hits you when you walk inside Redeemer Church of Knoxville is the carpet...the in-your-face, algae-green carpet. It's hard to miss. The second thing that hits you is the windows. Most of the translucent panes are also algae-green, but some are colorless. Some are broken, and a few of them have been repaired with duct tape. I remember when I visited Redeemer for the first time back in 2010, I was surprised to find a child's graffiti scrawled on the pew in front of me. "I ♥ church." It hadn't been painted over...and I liked that.

Redeemer's sanctuary certainly had character, and as I came to discover over the next three years, the church itself had plenty of character...not to mention characters. In a recent video for the church's 10th anniversary, one girl described Redeemer as "beautiful chaos." I couldn't think of a more perfect description. 

That green carpet became a reminder to me every time I walked through Redeemer's doors that it was okay to be a little out-of-style. It was okay to have some quirks. You could sit in those pews and not be worried about someone seeing your broken windows...or your patchwork duct-tape attempts to fix yourself. You didn't have to paint over your graffiti.

See, I think we love these old places with character because they remind us of ourselves. They remind us of our own humanity, with all of our quirks, beauties, flaws, and oddities rolled up in one big jumble. Some of us have our own hot pink walls. Some of us have our own dated green carpet. Some of us have mismatched furniture, broken windows, or even a rather peculiar smell. We don't have to dress ourselves up to feel at home in these old places. They get us. None of us was created with a cookie-cutter...why would we want to live somewhere that was?

I love seeing an old, historic building restored to its former glory. If it's done well, the building doesn't lose any of its original character. In fact, the most skilled refurbishments highlight and enhance those features which make a building particularly beautiful or unique. Sure, sometimes it's easier and cheaper to raze an old house to the ground and build a brand-new one, but what do we lose in that process? Do you feel a sinking feeling in your gut whenever that happens? I certainly do. Maybe that's because we know that we're all old buildings with our own unique character and flaws. We all need a lot of work. We all hope someone would take the time to lovingly restore us rather than simply replace us. 

That's exactly what our Redeemer promises to do for those who are in him. He promises to redeem us. He doesn't replace his church with a brand-new, perfect and holy army of robot clones programmed for worship. He restores us to be the beautiful, unique masterpieces that he originally created us to be. He didn't just make that promise to people, but he made that promise to all creation. He made that promise to the earth, to the critters and trees and flowers. One day, God will indeed make all things new, but our newness won't cancel out our character. I will still be me. You will still be you. Bayou Joes's will still be Bayou Joe's (and let's hope the trash burger will still be the trash burger). We'll be restored. We'll be holy. We'll be us.

I know that one day, maybe one day soon, Redeemer Church will probably have to replace its carpet. Honestly, I won't blame them if they choose a less-aggressive color. Still, I will always remember that endearingly obnoxious green carpet with a smile. That green carpet made me feel like I was home, and more importantly, it reminded me I was with people who had just as much "character" as I did.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Being Known...

"To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything." -- Tim Keller

What does it mean to know someone? I don't simply mean knowing of someone...but what does it mean to truly know him?  I think we'd all agree that knowing someone is more than knowing a collection of facts about that person...but it certainly can't be anything less.

If you know me, chances are that you already know the basics: I grew up in Panama City Beach, Florida. I'm an only child of two parents who love Jesus. I grew up attending school and church in the same building, and my faith has always played a significant role in my life. I majored in journalism at Samford University in Birmingham, and after college, I served on campus ministry staff with Reformed University Fellowship (RUF) at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. I'm currently a student at Covenant Seminary in St. Louis, pursuing a call to full-time ministry. When I have free time, you can usually find me writing in a coffee shop (ahem), hiking the nearest mountain (no easy feat in Missouri), or following my Florida State Seminoles (ditto). 

That's the short biography. That's the basics. If you know me, surely you know most of that information. But let's be real, you could also piece much of that together from a cursory glance at my facebook.

Beyond these basic facts, what else does it mean to know me? What would it mean for me to know you?

As I'm sure you could say for yourself, there's a lot more to that answer than could ever fit in a blog post. In fact, the majority of that answer probably doesn't even belong in a blog post. It belongs in the safe, intimate conversations of close friendships and community. It's impossible to truly know someone through a blog.

I could share my hopes and my dreams here on this blog. I could share what makes me feel the happiest or the safest. I could share what makes me laugh uncontrollably or what inevitably brings me to tears. I could share my deepest fears and anxieties, those gut-wrenching insecurities that gnaw at my peace and keep me up at night. I could share the careless words that have been spoken to me and that I've spoken to others--words that seem to play in my head on endless repeat. I could share all that, but I won't. Not here. That sharing is meant for living rooms and coffee shops, over good food and drink, with real laughter and real tears...with real, in-the-flesh people.

[Another thing to know about me: I write long and meandering blog introductions...]

But let's get to the point. [aha! there is a point!]

There is something I want to share with you all here. It's something you may not know, even if you've known me for a very long time. It's something that I've decided needs to be known if I am going to be known--a decision made after much prayer and counsel from people far wiser than myself. It wasn't an easy decision.

You see, friends, for as long as I can remember, I've been same-sex attracted.

[wow. there it is.]

Okay. [exhale] What does that mean? Again, like what it means to know me, it means a whole lot more than I could possibly fit into one blog post...but I will try.

First of all, and maybe most obviously, it means I've always been more attracted to guys than I have been to girls. It should go without saying that I didn't choose this. There was never a point of decision for me, but rather, it was a slow process of realization. [read: denial]

What does this change? Well...nothing really. None of my beliefs regarding the Bible's teaching on sexuality have changed. I still believe, as I always have, that the marriage covenant, as instituted by God, is designed for one man and one woman. I also believe the Bible is clear that sex is a gift reserved exclusively for covenant marriage. For this reason, it is my firm conviction that there are only two options for me to honor God with my sexuality: I can either marry a woman, or I can remain single and celibate. Either way, I will need strong friendships and intentional, Christ-centered community. Either way, I know God has a perfect plan.

This isn't my first time sharing this part of my story. That's been a long process too. The first person I ever told was Jason Sterling, my RUF campus minister at Samford, during the summer before my senior year. As I began to process what all this meant for me, Jason's compassion and encouragement were so important in keeping my eyes fixed on my Savior. In the years that followed that first conversation, I've been able to share this with a growing number of friends and family.

So why this post? Why share this with the world? Why now? Why decide to share something so personal and potentially confusing in such a public setting?

It all goes back to the quote I included at the top. What does it mean to be known? Keller is  specifically addressing marriage here, but it has a great deal of significance for friendships and other relationships too. I've always been loved. I've been blessed with family and friends that have all loved me so well. That's not the problem.

You see, I've grown up wearing a mask. You probably did too. We all have parts of our stories that have brought us shame. We all have things that we try to hide. For me, my mask hid the fact that I was attracted to other guys. It was a mask I crafted carefully, and I guarded it obsessively. For years, my deepest fear was that someone might discover the secret that lay behind that mask and my life would be over. Yes, I was loved--loved deeply, loved well--but I could never really believe it. "Surely they just love my mask," I told myself. "If they knew the real me, it'd be a whole different story."

The terrible lie I had believed--that my family and friends wouldn't love me if they really knew me--was sinister enough, but far worse, I started to believe the same thing about Jesus. See, I believed that homosexuality was one of the worst and wickedest of all sins. I knew Jesus had died to save me, but how could Jesus really love me if this was what I struggled with? 

I'll be sharing more of my story in future posts, and I'd love to talk more with any of you about it! Seriously. But for now, this is why I'm sharing my story: Jesus has done some crazy awesome things in my life, and I want to be able to talk about them. He's given me this story; who am I to hide it under a bushel? I don't claim to be any kind of expert on sexuality. Far from it, but I do have a story to tell. It's a story of a Christian kid growing up in the Church, a kid who's too scared to talk about what's really going on, a kid who believes deep down that no one could ever love him. It's a story that's far more common than you may think.

God has been so gracious to me. He has provided me with loving, encouraging friends, a wonderful family, and a seminary community that reminds me every day that Jesus loves me. He has called me into full-time ministry, and my heart and passion is to share the good news of Jesus with college students, especially those students who believe that no one could really love them...least of all God.

I understand this may be a lot to process. Maybe it isn't. I don't know where you stand on this. This may be a shock to you, or you might not be all that surprised. You might be excited, or you might be dismayed. Wherever you are, I want you to know you have the space to process this however you need to. I want you to know I'm open for discussion. There is no question you can ask me that will offend or upset me. If you cross a line, I'll let you know with a smile. If you want to talk, great! If you don't have anything to say, that's fine too. Here's the thing: I'm still Stephen. I'm still me. Nothing has changed; you just know more of my story now.

Jesus is Lord, my friends. There is nothing in this world which he does not declare, "Mine!" He calls us to follow him with every part of our being, and that includes our sexuality. Jesus is Lord. That may be hard for us to hear sometimes, but here's the thing about our Lord: He's good. "Come to me," Jesus says, "All who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."

The old hymn "I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say" has been particularly meaningful to me in the past few years, especially the last lines of the last verse. "I came to Jesus, and I found | in Him my Star, my Sun | and in that light of life I'll walk | 'til pilgrim days are done."

These are indeed pilgrim days. The journey may be long and incredibly difficult, but he gives rest. I may be weak, but "a bruised reed he will not break." I don't necessarily know where I'm going, but I know who I'm following. This blog in an attempt to walk in that "light of life." Because of Jesus, I don't have to be ashamed to tell my story. In fact, because of Jesus, I can share my own story of redemption, one small story in the grand Story of Scripture, the story of Christ redeeming his Church and his Creation. Walking in this light of life, I can find healing in the community of believers, and I can be a part of other's healing as we walk together.

I invite you to join me in this journey. Please feel free to engage and ask and challenge along the way. I'll be writing some about same-sex attraction, but I'll be writing a lot more about other things...other parts of my story that are far more important. Same-sex attraction does not define me, and it won't define this blog. Mine is a story of brokenness, redemption, and ongoing repentance. Really, it's a story that's more about Jesus than it's about me. I hope you can find encouragement through this story to share your own story, and I'd love to be a part of that.

"O Love that will not let me go, I rest my weary soul in thee | I give thee back the life I owe, that in thine ocean depths its flow | May richer, fuller be."

Grace to you, my brothers and sisters, and the peace of Christ that passes all understanding,

In His Matchless Love,

Your brother,