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?