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: 

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