Speech-Act, Pt. 2

Having briefly explained why I’ve struggled to consistently write over the past few months, we now turn to a vastly more important/ less whiny topic: how I hope to constructively engage the conversation surrounding homosexuality and faith.

I don’t know how to describe this without devolving into some kind of horrendously embarrassing INFP psycho-babble, but I feel like I need to “rediscover my voice” (oh god it burns!). What I mean is I am distinctly aware that I must reevaluate how I speak/write about sexuality because I have changed significantly over the past year. It’s like my fifth puberty of the soul.

Before I took a break from blogging in May, my goals were primarily to help the conservative evangelical church understand something it didn’t seem to understand very well at all and to show men or women who may have been wrestling with their sexuality that they are neither alone nor doomed to isolation and pain. With a few exceptions I never really spoke much about “the conversation” as a whole or how I aspired to, in the ever-catchy phrasing of The Marin Foundation, “elevate” it.

So when I came out in July and returned to writing, I was surprised by how difficult it had suddenly become to say anything. My original desires hadn’t changed too drastically, but the way I wanted to go about pursuing them had made a few significant shifts.

This post is mostly for myself – a rhetorical measure to which I want to be held accountable – but I hope it can also incite reflection and a renewed sense of gracious commitment in anyone who feels they have something to say. Which, I might add, is everybody to some degree or another.

I don’t want to cheapen pain or suffering by using it as a crutch to maintain reader interest. Finding new, particularly potent ways to communicate the ache of being different or controversial or rejected or alone seems to be the calling card of many a blog that addresses being a Christian who is gay.

People respond well to confessions of pain, and, what is more, really treasure a description of pain that resonates with their own experience. That is a very good thing. I’ll never forget how powerful it was to encounter Henri Nouwen’s work for the first time, his words casting some alchemical spell over my despair that changed it from monstrous to human. I just wanted to do the same for others.

But when pain seems to be what increases blog traffic and reader response, it can become so easy to start peddling it like some shiny trinket. The internet rewards drama, and I must admit I’m growing incredibly weary of how often conversations or posts about sexuality and faith – mine included – are mired in agony-laced sensationalism. Though it produces (not altogether bad) results in the short-term, I think it ultimately compromises the integrity of our witness and the character of the dialog.

By all means I want to speak honestly about pain and struggle (which also requires I admit when I experience neither) and give others the opportunity to speak honestly about theirs, but I’m not sure honesty pairs well with ceaseless metaphors about “some kind of flaming/icy/abyssal/dark serpent/dagger/monster/dementor crushing/piercing/rupturing/devouring my heart/brain/bowels/soul.” Pain can be too important a thing to devalue with dramatic excess.

I want to show grace to those who disagree with me – constantly asking myself how they may hear my words and trying to avoid the ever-alluring strawman arguments.  This is obviously easier said than done, and it is difficult to feel that those who disagree really understand your beliefs or whatever (because if they did they’d totally change their minds, right?). At the same time, one of my greatest frustrations stems from seeing certain ultra-flimsy, thoroughly bankrupt ideas blindly recycled in article after article – as if the author isn’t very interested in the hard work of listening and reflecting. I hope those two powerful actions, listening and reflecting, increasingly define the way I live.

I want to communicate with clarity and nuance. At times, in order to feel like I was “clear” about what I believed, I have sacrificed patience and grace. Conversely, in an effort not to step on toes, I have sometimes been vague and noncommittal. Attempting that fabled rhetorical balance can feel as futile as smashing two positive magnet-ends together or keeping a millennial in a room without wi-fi, but striving for it, however imperfectly, is so very necessary and so very worth the effort.

I want to write with a sense of levity, when appropriate.  Many things can and should be taken incredibly seriously; human life is fraught with tragedy and lament. I don’t ever want to exploit someone’s very real suffering for a laugh. At the same time, I think it’s impossible to write accurately about sexuality without a strand of humor, and reading post after deadly-serious post can so easily make one feel hopeless about everything. Learning to laugh at myself and my absurd experiences as a sexual being, like everyone, was and is an exercise in hope.

I want each post to proclaim the gospel, explicitly or not. Because this is how it all begins and ends for me: I am only who I am because God has reconciled me to himself and has called me to live each day serving others in light of the gospel. For all the seasons of doubt and darkness, I keep coming back to that truth; I am here because I am loved, and I am here so that I can love others. I want everything to point to that reality so that others might know it for themselves.*

Certainly this list isn’t exhaustive, and there are other personal goals I intend to aim for (e.g. be at least 20% less annoying than Scrappy-Doo or Snarf, and include as many childhood pop-culture references as I can without over-saturation), but this is a start.

If you have any suggestions of your own, I’d be interested in hearing them. Uh, I mean, I’d love to listen to and reflect on them. Yes, that.

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Matt

* Pretty sure I used up my monthly quota for “Christianese” with this paragraph, and that was even after serious editing. 

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Speech-Act, Pt. 1

In an upsetting turn of events, I have recently had to admit that I’m only a human. I know, I’ve really backslidden. Over the past few months my aspirations to be an indomitable, blogging war-machine have been systematically dismantled by a resolute and immovable weariness. Like, a do-I-really-have-to-bother-putting-on-pants-today kind of weariness. If I didn’t own such awesome jeans I probably wouldn’t have made the effort

A large part of it is biological; my hormones (my actual hormones, not my metaphorical ones) are, shall we say, a crazy-making combination of hyperactive and functionally dead. In other words, my body is constantly using massive amounts of inefficient adrenaline to get me through each day because the more sustainable sources of hormonal energy are about as non-existent as unironic Nicolas Cage fans. Supplements are helping, but I still spend most of my time hovering between just wanting a nap and begging God for someone to accidentally shoot me with a rhino tranquilizer.

But it’s more than that. Honestly, the whole idea of blogging exhausts me, especially in regard to so contentious a topic as the intersection of homosexuality and faith. There is little grace in the conversation, with a seemingly new explosive controversy erupting every week – one more ugly comment to become outraged over, one more person to burn at the stake, one more setback to worry about. The idealistic activist in me wants to indulge every combative reflex, the peacemaker/reformer in me cautions that real change will only come through a controlled-yet-passionate nuance, and the tired whiner in me would rather just watch funny cat videos because Mr. Mercury was right and “nothing really matters,” anyway.

So I’ve watched a lot of funny cat videos, all the while growing more and more frustrated by the tone of the online discourse and my own apathy toward it. Over and over I’ve sat down to write something to no avail, the sheer enormity and ambiguity of the situation slowly bringing my spindly fingers to a full stop.

I realized recently that I’ve felt this way before.

I was halfway through my brief tenure at a Guatemalan orphanage, living and working with eleven teenage boys just outside of the capitol. One afternoon, and I’ll never forget this, I saw footage from a nearby government-run institution that held 800 children. Underfunded and understaffed, the way the orphanage handled the large volume of kids was to try and suppress individuality and personality; at age thirteen they all began to wear a nondescript uniform, and they marched. Everywhere. A slow, rhythmic, soul-killing march.

And then I heard about the “pink room.” When a boy who had been sexually abused came to the orphanage he was put in the pink room, a special ward separated from everything else and blocked by many locked gates. Without the personnel to constructively deal with the traumatized boys, and convinced that they were all going to turn into sex-offenders anyway, the orphanage left them to waste away and suffer behind bolt-latched doors.

It’s hard to describe how utterly powerless I felt at that moment. I couldn’t sleep, so aware of such injustice being perpetuated only a few miles away and yet so incapable of doing anything about it (and I asked if I could, trust me). I was already expending all my energy to invest in just one group of kids in one orphanage in one district in one city in one country; I couldn’t handle how finite I was, entirely trapped within the borderlines of my skin cells. The myriad systemic evils that create street-kids and orphans seemed so great, and my own life so pathetic, that I lost all sense of purpose and direction.

And then, at 2AM, one of the younger boys opened my door; he’d had a nightmare and didn’t want to be alone. I walked back to his room and sat with him, not letting go of his hand as I prayed and prayed and prayed. After a couple minutes his shaking was replaced with the deep breathing of a peaceful sleep.

I started to cry.

None of my questions, fears, or inadequacies had been addressed, but I saw that they didn’t need to be in order to serve the kids right in front of me. I couldn’t do anything about the abuse occurring down the winding mountain road, but at least that night I had left my door unlocked so that this one child could know that he wasn’t alone, that he didn’t have to face the night by himself. At least this one child could know, at that moment, that he was loved.

Two hours later I dragged myself out of bed without ever having slept and began packing their lunchboxes for school. It literally felt like the least I could do, but I was going to do it, and with a greater sense of meaning than ever before. I couldn’t salve all the pain of the world, but I could still do small things with love.

In a way, I find myself in a similar place now.

I’m tired. I’m tired of the general climate of the blogosphere that is so inhospitable to gracious dialog. I’m tired of how many people are ensconced in a self-righteous blindness to the suffering of others, I’m tired of how many people respond to such blindness with an equally self-righteous vitriol, and I’m tired of how often I find myself contributing to it all.

I’ve been tempted just to call it quits. The situation seems too complex and too enormous, and we really don’t need another blog.

But a recent conversation with the incomparable Brian Gee (read all the things!) served as a helpful reminder of what I already knew: that perhaps my frustration with How Things Are should motivate me to do what little I can in my own imperfect way to improve the conversation and speak love to those who need it. Rather than simply giving up, perhaps this is worth a little bit of exhaustion.

For me, I guess it’s not so much about influence as it is about integrity – this is just one small blog in one crowded niche of one sprawling conversation, after all. But at the same time I can’t ignore how blessed I’ve been over the past year by the numerous, bewildering opportunities I’ve had to remind someone that they are loved and their story is worth telling. In the midst of questions and silences that is what is getting me through, and I’m starting to think that this may just be how life goes – beautiful in its own maddening way.

Honestly, writing isn’t easy for me at the moment. But slipping into an effortless silence doesn’t seem right, either. Not yet, at least. As always, I appreciate your grace as I try to figure out what on earth I am doing.

I will soon put up a post detailing how I hope to engage the conversation, a vision to which I want to be held accountable. I have so much to learn,* but I look forward to what these next few months will teach me as I explore the shape my speech and actions should take.

Matt

* This phrase receives the award for “Painfully-Obvious, Anthropologically-Universal Platitude Matt Has Employed the Most In His Short Life.” It would like everyone to know that it “couldn’t have done it alone.”

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A Letter to My Freshman Self

Hey everyone. Sorry I’ve been silent for the past couple months (for reasons I’ll explain later). I hope to begin writing more regularly, and the first thing off the assembly line is this post for OneWheaton’s blog relaunch (which can be seen: here). Anyway, it’s like one of those letters you write to your future self when you’re 16 saying, “Please don’t become a feminist!” which then becomes really awkward to read because you’re so aware of how sad you would have made your younger self. Only the reverse.

Though it’s pretty specific in its address, I hope this can serve as an encouragement to any young person just beginning to wrestle with what it means to not be straight. Well, I hope it encourages everyone else, too. Enjoy.

____________________________________________

Dear Freshman Matt,

Let’s just get this out of the way: I’m not going to send you the winning lottery numbers for the next five years. Please. You should have thought about the possibility of receiving letters from your future self before you signed the Community Covenant.

Also, you’re gay.

Surprise!

Hear me out. If things run their natural course, you will finally admit to yourself that you aren’t just “too mature to notice girls” right before sophomore year. (And really? You believed yourself for so long?!) By the grace of God you will somehow muster up the courage to talk about it with the small group you co-lead, and you will almost pass out. But you won’t, and as you finish speaking you will be surrounded and hugged and rejoiced over and loved and loved and loved. And so your life will change.

Junior year you’ll start going to counseling, thinking that you may still be able to become straight. You will become a lot of things because of your semi-weekly visits – more confident, more gracious, more reconciled to yourself, happier, generally less insane – but you won’t become straight. Yet by then you won’t really care because you will have discovered something greater: joy.

Things will mostly get better from there, and by the time you’re me you’ll have graduated, lived abroad in various countries, become fluent in spanish, formed deeply profound friendships, started seminary, and never felt more alive. Oh, yeah, seminary. That International Relations thing isn’t going to work out for you.

Feel free to follow the exact path I did. I mean, it worked out for me, so you should be ok.

But here’s what I wish I had been told when I was you, five years ago, taking my first excited steps onto Wheaton’s campus:

1) Your attraction to men doesn’t make you a monster. It doesn’t make you less of a man, it doesn’t mean you’ll never have close friends, and it certainly doesn’t mean God loves you any less.

Don’t waste away like I did trying to be “normal.” You will hate yourself for years because you just want to be “normal,” and it will always seem out of reach. But life is never “normal.” In a few years you’ll stumble upon Stephen Holmes’ blog, and he will remind you that following a murdered Messiah is not normal, believing he rose from the dead is not normal, and basing your life upon that reality is not normal.

You want to be “normal” because you want to know that your attractions don’t single you out, don’t set you aside for a life of isolation. I get that, and they don’t, but there’s something more to this: what I’ve come to realize is that all I really wanted was to know that I was human, like everyone else. I’ve always been so jealous of people who don’t seem to have experienced the terror of feeling inhuman, of harboring difference in their bones. And yet I’ve become a more compassionate, humble, loving person because I had to wrestle through it, had to fight to believe that I could be loved. I wish I could spare you that pain, but I imagine you’ll tell me that it would all be worth it to learn how to love better. And you’ll be right.

2. Take full advantage of Wheaton, for it will be your saving grace. There will be moments of frustration, but you will leave 501 College Ave. thankful beyond words. Get to know your professors. Do it! Your friends will make fun of you for it sometimes (the godless philistines!), but the wonderful men and women you befriend will constantly challenge, console, and inspire you. They will never let you fall into self-indulgence or shallow self-pity, and will model lives of passionate, intelligent faith. I still talk with them regularly. They were, for me, the primary instruments God used to drag me out of despair. You’re only an undergraduate for a brief time, don’t let it go to waste

And did you know that, outside of college, counseling costs like a billion dollars an hour? I know. So get going, dude. All the cool kids go to the counseling center, anyway, and the receptionist is the nicest lady ever. Within those walls you will gain incredible clarity, and the lies that were choking you will slowly begin to fall away. I promise you, being gay is hardly one of your biggest problems. Counseling won’t “fix” you, but it will give you the space you need to be totally honest with yourself, and you will be changed.

Oh, and during your senior year you will help found this totally radical group called Refuge, a community for non-straight students. Really, though, it’s just an excuse to hang out with crazy friends and laugh until you begin to lose vision. Don’t miss the chance to join it when it comes around.

3.  This is the most important thing I have to tell you: never stop pursuing God. I could say so much here, but I’ll try to be brief: through all the pain, all the aching, all the uncertainty, the feelings of abandonment, the meltdowns in Gold Star chapel, the exhilaration, the silence, the madness, the beauty, and the awe – through the ups and downs of simply living life – you will find that God is very, very good and worth following no matter the cost. You will fall in love with him in a million thrilling ways, and he will be what holds your life together and makes it all coherent, somehow.

Never forsake him. You will have to ask yourself a lot of difficult questions about how your faith shapes your sexuality and vice-versa, and I promise that the answers won’t always be easy. But ask those questions. I still do, and continue to find the grace to carry on and thrive because God daily proves himself more faithful and more wonderful than I think possible.

***

Know this: you are so much more than your sexuality. It’s important, for sure, and I understand that it can often feel like the biggest, most terrifying part of you. But it’s just one strand in the web of your life. A few years from now you will be sitting in a room of friends as the night wears on, laughing, yelling, trading stories and jokes, and you will be suddenly struck by how whole you feel. Everyone in that room will know that you are gay, and none of them will be thinking about it. Because you’re just Matt, their friend and brother, and they love you. And you’ll smile to yourself because, how strange, you finally believe it.

It’s worth repeating because I still need to hear it myself: God loves you. Your friends love you. And you are worthy to be loved.

Blessings.

Matt

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Zero Sum

Written in January, 2013:

I can’t tolerate racism. Ideologically and systemically people are still subjected to injustice simply due to the color of their skin. As someone who inherited the privileges of being a racial majority in the States (let’s just say sunlight isn’t very friendly to me), it could be so easy for me to ignore the suffering of others, so simple for me to cling to the persistent lies that “we solved racism a while ago” or that “it’s not that big of a deal” or that “the real problem is the reverse racism of affirmative action and the liberal media.” I believed all of those, once. I’ve had to repent many times of my blindness and carelessness, of my stereotypes and ignorance that contributed (and, as I’m sure I’m not perfect, still contribute) to the pain of many men and women and children, including brothers and sisters in the Church.

Because of all that, I try to call out racism whenever I see it (whether in the form of overt prejudice, unexamined assumptions, or systemic imbalance) and encourage my friends to do the same, hoping that the Church, as well as our society, will become free from the scourge of such injustice. In short: I want to absolutely crush it without compromise. I may be constitutionally required (to a degree) to allow certain organizations to hold to their gross ideologies, but I want to make sure they are at least reduced to an impotent and laughable sham.

So, I get it.

While I personally hesitate to completely equate the African-American civil rights movement with the current push for LGBTQ rights (though there are definitely similarities!), I totally understand why many frame the conversation in those terms. And I understand why, for them, there can be no compromise. I may think there is no commonality between the segregationists’ acidic trash-of-an-ideology of MLK’s time and traditional Church teaching on sexuality expressed in love and grace, but of course I wouldn’t!

Many conservative Christians exclaimed in horror when Chick-fil-A’s first amendment rights seemed to be under attack, but, honestly, I wasn’t really upset. If it turns out the founders of Burger King financially supported a White Supremacist initiative, I would seriously hope every Christian (well, everybody) would absolutely boycott them. (I actually try to avoid fast-food joints anyway, due to concerns of food quality, chemicals, and animal abuse, but for the sake of illustration…)

My concern during the whole Chick-fil-A thing (gosh I hate to bring it up again) was simply that we appeared to be on the defensive end of another zero-sum cultural land grab, which creates an atmosphere largely toxic to nuanced and peaceful dialogue. But would you want to create an atmosphere that allows White Supremacists to “nuance” their evil ideology? No, absolutely not.

So, again, I get it.

In fact, every time I think about writing a post about how I hope the zero-sum mentality doesn’t take hold of the discussion on sexuality, especially within the Church, I can never think of a convincing reason why the “affirming”* position shouldn’t want things to go that way!** It just makes a lot of sense to me.

Not everyone believes American society is headed toward complete relegation of the Church because of this,*** but some certainly are, and are sounding the alarm to take up the banner of Christ and “go to war.”

I get that, too.

This post is directed primarily at them. I am not trying to assume any particular course of future history, but if things do turn (more) against the traditional Church teaching, and the conservative Church in general, it’s not the end of the world. Unless you’ve never been exposed to, you know, anything about the historical and global Church, the idea of being marginalized should be neither scandalous nor an existential threat (though it is, I admit, highly undesirable).

Being that the Church’s existence and behavior is never, in any theologically determinative way, bound by human kingdoms (please don’t misunderstand me), it is unsurprising that, historically, persecution has come less from random prejudice and more from Christians’ occasional inability to be a good citizen as defined by the State (e.g. early Christian refusal of all military service and civic religion, which painted them as anarchist deviants unconcerned by the common good). Honestly, the fact that we’ve had such power and privilege in Western civilization probably**** means we’ve made a few serious compromises along the way.

Without advocating some sort of passive collapse or retreat from the public sphere, I do think those within conservative evangelicalism would be wrong to allow the vocabulary of “zero-sum” or “cultural land grabbing” to shade our understanding of how we must interact with those who disagree with us. Such overly-eschatological dominionist terminology has no place within a people who worship a God who died scorned and outside the city walls.

We must instead busy ourselves with becoming a community relentless in fighting injustice, proclaiming love, modeling forgiveness, speaking truth, and treating everyone with the human dignity they deserve and are often denied. Sometimes our work won’t be recognized as such. Sometimes it will be seen as societal poison or as a primitive disgrace. Sometimes our terms will be defined differently. But, with a few exceptions, I don’t think the Church has practically manifested a clear ethic of love and support for LGBTQ people that would make us totally innocent of cultural backlash.

I’m writing this because I smell fear and anger within certain evangelical circles, and I don’t think there is reason for the former nor use for the latter. I’m worried such emotions will cause leaders and laypeople to proliferate language of holy war and persecution,***** allowing the creeping film of anxiety to rob them of the clarity of Christ’s witness of neighbor-love, which never depended on the possibility of reciprocation or guarantee of respect.

I don’t want to see my community batten down the hatches and take up arms in response to recent events. Such a hardening of our hearts is antithetical to our calling and will only serve to further isolate us and harm others. And, should we reject the loving practice of meekness, whatever ground the Church may gain in this “culture war” of attrition must only be recognized as a bitter wilderness compared to the abundant inheritance of Matthew 5:5 that we will have forsaken.

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P.S. My use of the word “Church” throughout this post doesn’t do justice to the fact that I obviously think there are many within it who disagree vehemently with my sexual ethic and would see any “persecution” as totally unnecessary and a result of clinging to a misreading of the Bible and a rejection of the true calling of the gospel. Language is often inadequate, I apologize.

* I’ll take “Terminology I Dislike” for 800, Alex.

** Though sometimes I marvel at the gracelessness of some LGBTQ advocates, and hope for something better.

*** So many evangelicals assume they are being attacked only because people hate the Church. Sometimes that may be true, but I think it’s a bit disingenuous and self-serving to say that “affirming” (gah!) advocates are motivated by hatred rather than by their love of LGBTQ people and their desire for their flourishing.

**** definitely

***** And now for a Karl Barth moment: If you think you are being “persecuted” for “gospel truth” but are, in fact, simply being rebuked for hypocrisy and homophobia – you had it coming! Examine yourself! Repent!

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Framed, Part 4 (In Sanity)

Written in November, 2012:

This is the fourth and final entry in this series. If you haven’t, I would highly recommend you read the first three before continuing. Would you watch Mulan 2 without first watching Mulan? Of course not! (Actually, would you even watch Mulan 2 at all? It looks…terrible.) Anyway, moving on.

The question I keep running up against whenever I think or talk about the “gay debate” (the best-dressed debate in town) is Can we find reconciliation in the midst of a seriously divisive disagreement? Or, in my more plaintive moments, Is there any hope?

If this conversation were simply about divergent tastes in worship music or crunchy vs. soft communion bread, then “agreeing to disagree” would be a possibility. However, I think such an easy answer is not only impossible in this case, but would do great violence to the integrity of everyone involved – it would be like shouting Peace, peace! when there is no peace.

We must start by being honest about what we believe and gracious in understanding those who do not share our views, especially when the contention is so great. How can any progress be made if everyone is simply talking past each other or dealing with straw-men? The past three posts in this series attempted to recenter the debate for those who claim to take the Bible as authoritative, moving past the tired, worthless arguments that seem to be all the rage these days.

But before honesty there must come a commitment to act in love and humility even at great personal cost. Honesty not grounded in love quickly becomes little more than a barbed whip, leaving open wounds and aching scars everywhere. It is impossible to speak Gospel truth in an unloving way, for once “honesty” becomes an occasion for abuse it ceases to be truth at all. There is an enormous distinction between debating someone because I want to be proven right and speaking what I believe to be true because I genuinely desire good for the other person. The former turns all who disagree with me into obstacles to be destroyed, whereas the latter sees them as the humans they are: complex, frustrating, loved, and not to be manipulated or treated with contempt.

But, still, is there hope? Well, I guess that depends on what we are hoping for. I have little hope that there will be an end to the disagreement any time soon, but I do have hope that the manner in which we disagree can still proclaim the Gospel and bring about intense healing in its own way.

To that end, this particular post was written in response to the GCN’s rather wonderful Justin Lee instigating a synchroblog on the topic of restoring sanity to the dialogue surrounding homosexuality and the church. (I’m going to give you a few minutes to let the now-apparent brilliance of this entry’s title sink in.) Acknowledging the increasingly manic nature of this conversation, Lee and others of vastly differing opinions hope the synchroblog will sound a clear call to return to Christian sanity.

Such a simple call, of course, does not magically eliminate the pain and struggle that will continue to define the experience of many men and women caught in the middle of it all; it does not give any answers to the most tortured of questions; it does not change the fact that, even at their most moderate, we are confronted by two mutually exclusive visions of community. But it does give me hope for future progress and reconciliation.

Christlike love, says William Placher in his ultra-phenomenal book Narratives of a Vulnerable God, is demonstrated when one is willing to make oneself vulnerable to pain and rejection so that the Gospel might be proclaimed. A return to sanity, for Christians, would be a return to that kind of love in relationship with one another. On a broad, ecclesial level, I’m not sure what that would look like; I wish I could offer something more concrete. But it probably isn’t a bad idea to start with person-to-person interactions. Here’s how it might play out in my own life:

As I hold to a more conservative sexual ethic, my convictions are inherently painful to my side-A brothers and sisters. I hate that. Not a day goes by that I don’t wish text and tradition would unilaterally bless same-sex unions, not just for my own sake as a gay man but so that this horrible tension would be dissolved. But, as Walter Brueggeman once wrote, “Wishful thinking is inadequate theology.” So I’m stuck with the reality that I personally have yet to be convinced that the Bible sanctions faithful, monogamous SSUs. I’m stuck with the reality that I represent something deeply traumatic to countless people.

And yet I have side-A, gay friends whose friendships I treasure dearly. I hope they know they are free to talk about their crushes and significant others without fear of condemnation and that I am genuinely happy for them. But I’ll admit, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows and celibate unicorns for me to hear/watch affirming gay Christians pursue romance. I often find myself awash in intense desires and confusion, especially because, you know, I still think they’re Christians.

Being in community together will cause both of us pain. It is inevitable that there will be moments in which I simply cannot be the friend or support they need me to be. I can only hope that, in those moments, our friendship, our mutual pursuit of God and his glory, will be able to bear our tears and anger, that we would somehow have the clarity to see where the other is coming from, to feel the weight of their beliefs, and to receive the wound in love and move forward. If we are unwilling to be hurt by others even in friendship, then the only “safe” course of action is to continually manipulate or coerce them to do our will, which is antithetical to the vulnerable love of Christ.

Now, I’m a white, gay male, so the pain and tension I face is going to vary from those of straight Christians of a different gender and ethnicity, and thus I am hesitant to suggest what their struggles could be. Though for the majority of conservative Christians, I imagine the greatest challenge will arise from having to relinquish the power that comes with being a cultural majority and peel off that protective shell of privilege that effectively insulates them from the serrated arrows of others’ marginalized experiences and the whole range of complexity they introduce into previously “simple issues.” I’ve found that, for myself, even though I’ve been exposed to countless examples of poverty and alienation not my own, I am still constantly surprised by how much that tacit privilege blinds me to the suffering of others whose experiences I’ve never shared.

To be clear, I do think those within the conservative evangelical church should be the ones to take the first blows on behalf of affirming brothers and sisters. LGBTQ people have been on the receiving end of religious violence, stigma, and shame for so long… and even with four huge legislative victories this past election [and the two recent SCOTUS rulings] our societies, especially our churches, are far from safe.

I’m sorry, my words feel empty and there is so much more that I want to say. I struggle endlessly with this. I don’t blame anybody who reads this and sees nothing but a refusal to make the necessary compromises to really bring about reconciliation, who only hears vacuous calls for a mutual understanding that does little to remove the root of oppression. I can’t force anyone to believe that I love them.

But maybe that’s ok, for now. Maybe it’s time we stop requiring others to “understand” us before we show them grace. Maybe if we hope to display the exhilarating love of God through the unity expressed in John 17 we must become better at existing in the tumultuous, maddening tension so definitive of this broken world we call home. I don’t have any hope that things will be easy or clean, but the more I get to know men and women of various stances, the more I receive love and acceptance from those who disagree with me, the more I dig deep into the profound mystery of Christ and his body, the Church, I become more hopeful that this borderline obscene call to community amidst fractious pluralism will, by the power of God, be transformed into a clarion beacon shining forth with the furious radiance of the Gospel.

It seems like an insane hope, but, well, sometimes insanity is the sanest option we have.

Thanks for bearing with me in grace.

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Going Public, Part 2

The first post in this series briefly explained some of the potential dangers and pitfalls of writing openly about that bewildering intersection of my faith and homosexuality. I’m here again, so apparently I did a terrible job of dissuading myself.

This post will focus on a few of the reasons why I believe the good that can come from being fully “out” overwhelms any fears or negative responses, and compels me toward a life of openness.

So.

Pros: On a personal level, not having to cover up my sexuality is a blessing. Or, stated more profoundly, not having to hide the full breadth of the grace of God in my life is tremendously freeing. If my testimony is the story of how I have come to know God more intimately and powerfully, then integral to that witness is his process of bringing an intensely confused and hurting son of his from the depths of denial about his sexuality to a place where he feels increasingly reconciled to himself, where he is surrounded by friends and mentors who form a rich community of laughter and rest, and where he can say – and this is no small thing – that he knows he is loved and that he knows he is worthy of love.

Having to omit the agonizingly slow (and still continuing) journey toward understanding what it means to be attracted to men diminishes the gospel of my life because I have fallen more in love with God in the crazy, messy midst of it all. And it leaves me with the chore of trying to convince listeners that the cause of my (now-mostly-resolved) perpetual anxiety, crippling fear of rejection, general lack of trust, self-loathing, and throwing-journals-at-pictures-of-Jesus-hugging-people tendencies was just “daddy problems” or playing too much Pokémon as a kid (like such a thing is even possible).

So, for myself, it’s a healthy move. But I think the more important reason is that coming out can contribute to the well-being and mission of the Church.

A major weakness of American (conservative) Christianity has been the tendency to respond to LGBTQ people and their stories with bloodless dogma. LGBTQ people are often kept at a distance, which I guess is what makes it so easy for some Christians to fire away with their sniper rifles of “truth-telling.” So long as there is distance, beliefs can remain undisturbed and comfortable.

But I want those Christians to know that I brush legs with them as I slide into the row. I shake their hand or hug them as we pass the peace of Christ. I share the communion cup and broken bread. We are one body.

There is no distance.

Contrary to common pulpit rhetoric, there is no LGBTQ “they.” If I want the American Church to come to its senses and realize that this isn’t something that is “out there,” I should stand up. And if I want the American Church to understand that if it focuses primarily on espousing ideologies and abstract generalizations it will damage and drive away the very real and very vulnerable people sitting in its pews, I should speak up. The fear that kept me rooted to my seat and tight-lipped prevented me from fully caring for my brothers and sisters. I simply cannot be passive anymore.

Churches move slowly, but my physical presence makes it harder for them to drag their feet or speak brashly. At my own church the fallout from my testimony, which wasn’t pretty, ultimately resulted in the elder board getting together and hashing out what they actually believed about sexuality and how they should respond to gay people in their congregationa very good thing. That experience, as painful as it was, is when I became convinced that I needed to stop being closeted.

Because this isn’t just about me. There are still countless men and women whose knuckles turn white when the pastor mentions homosexuality because, suddenly, he’s talking about them, who feel like they are walking this path alone and are haunted by anxiety that someone may discover their secret. I know they are there because I’ve been one of them.

I remember the incredible relief I felt when I found books or blogs written by people who shared that piece of my story, and it is a privilege to be a part of someone else’s journey toward wholeness.

I want them to know peace. And the only way they will know that peace is if their church body becomes a community of grace dedicated to loving them and listening to them, understanding that the life ahead of them will certainly not always be easy, and committing to be there for them each step of the way.

This is what the Church should always be for everyone – and I’ve found being out gives me the blessed opportunity to remind it of this calling.

And, lastly, living out of the closet as a celibate, gay Christian gives me the opportunity to speak to a world that has lost its mind when it comes to sex and relationships. The culture at large (including the Church) has drunk deep the lie that sexual activity is essential to being human and that true joy or flourishing are impossible to find outside of a romantic relationship. My existence, the fact that I’m more passionate and excited about life than I’ve ever been without being “gifted” for celibacy (just… just trust me on that), stands as a modest counterpoint to an off-balance world.

Now, I’m young – young enough to barely remember those dark years when shoulder-pads were “fashionable” – so I have plenty of time to fulfill the expectations of many and dissolve into a prudish heap of ash because of my sad and sexless life; but I don’t think that will happen.

Because as I stand up and speak out, reminding the Church what it is called to and how it could love more fully those in and outside itself, the Church will do the same for me. I’m choosing to live openly because I love the Church too much to let it love LGBTQ people so poorly, and because I know that as I press into it I, too, will learn to love better.

And so we will all become a little bit more like Christ, together.

Matt

P.S. I do recognize that many people, due to contextual circumstances, simply cannot afford to be so open. I get that, and wish you the best – that you would be strengthened by some form of community and covered in love. This post was not meant to be an indictment of your experience in any way.

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Going Public, Part 1

If you would have asked me four years ago whether or not I’d consider writing publicly about my experience as an evangelical Christian guy who is attracted to other guys, I’m not sure what I would have done – except maybe stare at you awkwardly for ten seconds then leap into the nearest hedge and try to escape.

I had just begun to acknowledge and wrestle with the fact that I really wasn’t anywhere close to being straight, that the feelings I experienced in the pit of my stomach whenever I saw him (which felt nothing like butterflies and everything like an explosion of spastic badgers) actually meant something that I should have understood long, long before, but didn’t. But couldn’t. I was afraid and deeply ashamed.

Now, however, if you would ask me the same question I’d be all “I can’t talk to you right now, I’m busy writing publicly about my experience as an evangelical Christian guy who is attracted to other guys.”

So things have changed.

But is it for the better? Has this decision to move into the open been the right one? And, perhaps most importantly, why? Why does the internet need to be witness to my existence and growth as a gay (celibate, side-B) Christian? Is it dangerous narcissism, an exercise in humble vulnerability, or a little bit of both and a whole lot else? The point of this two-part series is to work through, briefly, the pros and cons of, well, this, of offering up a generally misunderstood part of my life to the scrutiny of the generally misunderstanding world.

Today, let’s take a look at the downside of “going public.”

Cons: Have you ever read the comments section of a widely shared article, from any perspective, about faith and homosexuality? I did once, and I was blind for a week. People can be mean, you guys, and the internet seems to encourage otherwise kind men and women to exercise their powers of self-righteous proclamation, sarcastic name-calling, and ignorant assumption-making.

What is more, writing under my real name (I’ve previously done some pseudonymous stuff) invites such attitudes to creep out of my computer screen and confront me in the flesh. Now, I’ve had people say hurtful things about my sexuality before, but usually in the context of intentionally trying to work through theological differences. Writing publicly about this has the feeling of climbing onto the Sacrificial Altar of Unsolicited Opinions. I expect to lose some friendships. I expect to be stared at. This scares me. It’s hard to describe the unique ache of making eye contact with someone you know who finds you, ideologically and ontologically, wrong.

I know some amazing people who have been denied ministry positions or lost jobs because their sexual orientation came to light. I was once restricted from helping lead a high school Bible-study because of mine. I chose to wait until now to come out so publicly because, well, I love working with teenagers, especially orphans and street kids, and I was afraid I’d be barred from an opportunity I desperately wanted because of somebody’s baffling, entirely unfounded, and distressingly hurtful fear that because I’m gay I’m also likely to be a child molester. The first time someone implied that connection, it did something horrendous to my soul.

But perhaps the greatest danger is found within me (sort of like Alien, you know?). There’s a kind of mania that comes with writing something and putting it on the internet, and it directly threatens to undermine the very reason I came out in the first place. A central part of my decision to be honest about my sexuality is the desire to foster authenticity. To be closeted usually requires a constant and exhausting self-awareness, a meticulous and intense image-management that can only be maintained through various forms of manipulation, half-truths, and, at times, outright deception.

I found such an existence to be increasingly antithetical to my faith and thus I “stopped lying.” But the internet poses a similar problem. Suddenly, that dimming impulse to assess everything I say and how it might affect my image begins to flare up again, and “authenticity” is infected with sensationalism to increase reader interest. Writing becomes less about sharing my story so that others may be encouraged and more about others listening to my story so that I can feel affirmed. It is a rather magnificent perversion that what should be an important step toward healing and wholeness can just as quickly plunge me back into the very sins I’m running from.

Being human is crazy.

Simply acknowledging these drawbacks to coming out doesn’t really do much to minimize them. They’re just a part of my life now, and that makes this whole process a little bit scary. And yet, as I’ll talk about in part two, I think the pros outweigh the cons, the reality of redemption overwhelms the fear of rejection, and that something truly good can come from this small step into the open.

Blessings.

Matt

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What Is Love?

Let’s just get this out of the way.

Now, on to business.

A sentiment I often hear within the evangelical church is, “If we want to love people, we must be willing to speak the truth about their sins. To ignore or sugarcoat them would be the most unloving thing we could do, even if other people don’t see it that way.” The basic idea is that sin, separation from God, is the greatest tragedy, and if you really do care about someone then you will want them to be free from that blinding, oppressive weight even if they refuse to acknowledge it – you will want them to know God. So we must preach the Gospel.

This is all true. But I’m beginning to wonder if the way that sentiment is commonly played out misses the mark of true love, especially when it comes to the church’s interactions with the LGTBQ community.

When someone raises a concern like the one above, my first thought is usually, The LGBTQ community probably doesn’t need to be reminded, again, of what the evangelical church generally thinks about about homosexuality. I’m pretty sure, actually, that the first thing that comes into most LGBTQ people’s mind when they hear the word “evangelical” is the anti-gay rhetoric that seems definitive of conservative Christians’ public discourse.

What strikes me as odd, and dangerous, is that somehow the message of “We don’t think you should be having sex” is considered more essential to the Gospel than “God loves you and so do we.” How the heck did that happen?

Why is it that any message to an LGBTQ person is not considered to be true, or truly loving, unless it contains a litany of his/her/their sins, and yet a message that is only about sin, devoid of any mention of God’s grace or a commitment to fight injustice on their behalf, somehow passes as an acceptable proclamation of the Gospel? As if, from the start, we don’t think LGBTQ people deserve anything better than judgment.

It’s like the church is chasing after them, hurling spears of condemnation and prejudice, all while shouting, “We love you! God loves you! No, seriously! Come back!” And when they keep running we just shake our heads and attribute their retreat away from us as a sign of their gross sinfulness, a refusal to accept the “Gospel-centered” kind of love we’ve offered them.

What the hell is wrong with us?! We treat them like crap throughout history and expect a different outcome? Maybe they reject us because we’ve never really loved them in the first place. Maybe they reject us because we are continually rejecting them.

Where were we when they became victims of abuse, hate crimes, disease, stigma, and bullying? We were either perpetuating their pain or apathetic toward it. And for those brave few who dared to stand beside them and model a different kind of love? We yelled across the chasm of our fear, “While you’re over there, make sure you tell them they’re sinful, otherwise whatever you’re doing doesn’t count!” Then we patted ourselves on the back for being “missional.” It’s maddening!

Ok, wow, deep breaths. The whole thing is just very frustrating for me. I once asked a gay man I was sitting next to on a plane what it would take for him to know he was loved by the evangelical church even if it never became “affirming.” It’s a question I had been dying to ask someone, and after I had so intently listened to his impassioned monologue about his spiritual connection to Diana Ross (who he’d seen over two-hundred times in concert), I figured he owed me. His short answer has stuck with me for the past two years: “I might believe it,” he said, “if you would at least fight the stigma that claims so many lives. But you don’t.”

If the only examples we have of showing the LGBTQ community “love” are the sermons where we preach the “truth” about the sinfulness of that community, then I would humbly propose that we repent of our anemic understanding of love, our exceptional failure to be consistent with how we live out the Gospel, and then to actually do something – not because we need a new conversion tactic but because we are Christians, and it’s simply how we have been called to live.

Read this article. Please, please read it. I’ve posted it so many times on Facebook and Twitter because it stands as a soul-crushing indictment of the loveless rhetoric so common in conservative evangelicalism. We cannot pretend we are blameless anymore, we cannot go on as we always have.

This is not an “easy solution” to a complex problem; it’s a reminder of what we have forgotten, what we have forsaken. How this will manifest in individual lives and church communities will vary, but it must be made manifest. Otherwise, honestly, I don’t think we have anything more to say.

Matt

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A Step into the Open

The first time I came out to anybody, my hands were shaking.

I was sitting in a dark room, accompanied only by the sound of my increasingly panicked breathing, typing out the e-novella of pain and triumph, confession and terror that would change my world the instant I hit “Send.” I doubt if I have ever experienced, simultaneously, such fear or such boldness since that night.

That was four years ago.

Things are a bit different now. I am writing this in a gently sunlit room to the swirling melodies of an electronic indiepop playlist I’ve had on repeat for a few days, and I’m at rest. And the only reason my hands are unstable is that I haven’t had coffee in a while and my body would like to kindly inform me that I’m about to shrivel up and die from withdrawal. I didn’t even like coffee four years ago.

For those of you who don’t know me, I should probably introduce myself; for those of you who do know me, a little reintroduction may be helpful:

Hey. I’m Matt Jones, 23, from Portland, Oregon, which means that rain simultaneously depresses and excites me and that I’m so pale I could die naked in a snow-drift and nobody would find me until Spring. This is why I avoid Canada. Anyway. I am a Wheaton College graduate, a Fuller Seminary student, and if Hogwarts were real I’d be in Ravenclaw. I love poetry and magical realism, I’m addicted to tennis/ping-pong/badminton/soccer (Real Madrid and Manchester City), and I slightly prefer staring up from the shadows of a mountain to hiking it, but both are great ways to spend a Saturday. (For those of you from the Midwest, read this.) I’ve spent some time traveling and volunteering and would consider a Guatemalan orphanage to be my second home. I am passionate about social justice, can hardly sing, try to live out a grounded ethic of nonviolence and peacemaking, generally struggle to embody any of my own ideals of faith and life in Christ (by, in, and for whom I exist and find joy), and I’m attracted to men.

For some people, only four of those words really matter. Usually it’s not the Ravenclaw part.

The instant myopia that can result from the statement “I’m attracted to men” is one of the reasons I considered not writing this post. Wiser people than I advised me against making myself captive to the chains of people’s preconceived notions of what it means to be a guy attracted to other guys. It goes without saying that the current social climate regarding homosexuality is a little bit volatile – so why throw myself into it? Why put myself out there?

Why can’t I just be content to keep this between close friends and family? Certainly strangers don’t need to be involved, and certainly there doesn’t need to be another blog. What is, ultimately, the point?

I hope to address those questions more specifically in a separate post, but I figured it was probably a good idea to, you know, “come out” first and then discuss the pros and cons of the process, otherwise everybody would be all freaking out in suspense over how the series would end.

But before I wrap this up I guess I should probably give a brief sketch of how I understand and interact with my sexuality. So:

I’m trying in my own imperfect way to live with integrity, wisdom, and nuance. For me, this means first and foremost processing what I know to be true about myself in light of what I believe has authority over me – in my case my relationship with Christ and the Church. However, I don’t think such a hermeneutic is as one-track as some people make it out to be. Thus, although I have chosen to pursue a life of full and dynamic celibacy, I spend about as much time explaining why I think my brothers and sisters who possess and even practice an affirming theology can still be Christians as I do explaining why I’m not a self-hating homophobe. Thanks to the cultural furor, I am generally unsuccessful in both endeavors.

This isn’t something shameful for me – I don’t think my homosexuality compromises my humanity, masculinity, close relationships, or faith-witness (in fact I think it brings something beautiful to all of them), and thus I see no reason to hide it or lie about it. I can’t ignore the testimonies of a few people who claim to have made some sort of shift in their sexual orientation through “therapy,” and I don’t want to silence them or disparage their stories, but I find the practice of trying to make someone switch from “gay” to “straight” (via reparative therapy or some forms of “biblical counseling”) to be misguided and harmful in almost every conceivable way, damaging to the gospel and those involved. Therefore, I generally condemn it. If the only hope the church thinks it can offer non-straight people is the possibility of heterosexuality, then it offers no hope at all.

That said, I’m also not particularly interested in trying to construct a personality or “identity” around my sexuality. It’s an important part of my human experience and I am who I am because of it, but it’s just one strand in the web of my existence and it’s not even the most interesting one.

So, yea, that’s that. It’s a lot to process, and I realize some of you may be confused, concerned, upset, or various combinations of those (upfused, for instance), and that’s fine. I am more than happy to dialogue or whatever via email or Facebook. But it may be helpful to wait a bit, as I will continue to blog about various things that may answer some of the more common questions. Or, if you just can’t wait, you can check out a blog I wrote pseudonymously throughout the last year. I grew a lot over the months, so maybe start with the most recent material. My name was Jordan.

I hope you all are well.

Peace,

Matt

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Genios

My boys are all geniuses, apparently.

The past few weeks they’ve had end-of-term exams, which are always the prelude to end-of-term grade reports, which result in end-of-term anxiety.

But they passed. They did better than pass, actually. They succeeded and excelled against some serious odds. The school these boys attend is one of the best colegios in Guatemala; it’s a fairly rigorous, demanding school with reasonably high standards. To do well in school is one thing. To do well in this school is another. And they did it while needing to overcome some real social obstacles that come from not having spent much time outside the orphanage’s walled, 13-acre compound for much of their lives.

So we’re unbelievably excited. When we got the report cards and saw the good news, the other American volunteer and I felt like proud parents. All the late nights we’ve spent cutting paper, teaching fractions, explaining english pronouns, helping with the computers, feel like they’ve been given a retroactive injection of purpose and value.

And, simultaneously, all the struggles and frustrations that come with sending sheltered, hormonal, slightly rebellious teenagers to a new environment seem more manageable and worth it – because to see these distressingly passionless boys actually reach for something, actually want something and set their eyes on it, and then achieve that goal is exhilarating in a unique way.

It’s thrilling to see these solid manifestations of hope start blooming through the thick asphalt of these past few weeks that have been, at least for me, a bit difficult. And even though I’m leaving before I can claim any sort of significant influence, it’s nice to know that they’ve made a pretty great start for themselves.

And I’m praying each boy will realize his arms are a bit longer than he may have thought, and that he’ll become aware of the host of beautiful things that have been within his reach all this time, shrug off the numbing apathy of his past, and stretch far and high and defy the bitter odds.

 

 

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