…just like everybody else

This was originally posted in February 2013. There have been a number of great articles written recently about similar topics (Julie Rodgers wrote one today), so I figured I’d repost this. So much could be said against this kind of stigma that was and still is so pervasive in more conservative churches – how it tears into young people’s hearts and promotes a brand of poisonous neo-gnosticism – and if you’re interested Spiritual Friendship’s “Identity” tag has some further exploration.

***

I shifted my legs around to restore pin-prick circulation as the conversation stretched into its second hour. Coming-out was rarely a quick ordeal during those early stages of growth and he was only confidante number eleven, I believe. Equal parts disarming sincerity and riotous impulsivity, he had been a dear friend from the first month of college. And then, two years after he first learned my name, he learned my Deepest Secret™.*

As the conversation began to lull, he decided to change the topic a bit. Looking me in the eye he asked, in his typical here-is-a-thought-I-am-literally-having-right-now directness, “So, are you attracted to me?”

Uh. I diverted my gaze and threw out my honest answer with a less-than-natural laugh, “Ha, no, you’re safe, you don’t have anything to worry about.”

“Worry about? Dude, I don’t care if you’re attracted to me. It’s not like it’d be a bad thing. I’m attracted to, like, lots of my close friends who are girls. I just wanted to know.”

Leave it to this guy to turn such an ill-advised question into one of the most profound offerings of grace I’ve ever experienced.

You see, at that point in my life I lived in terror of being attracted to anybody, especially friends. I mean, this can be a common anxiety of coming out, right? That not only will those closest to you distance themselves because they’re afraid that you might fall for them, but also that, well, you might seriously fall for them.

But more than that, I was still in the midst of a painful war with my body. While the rest of my hormonal peers were frolicking in their dopamine-addled pairing endeavors,** I was beginning to despair of ever feeling at peace because attraction, that bewildering spatial distortion that would sweep over me when I saw him, whoever he was, made me feel abusive and criminal.

It was, I think, the inevitable result of being told, and believing, the toxic lie that this particular uncontrollable, biological response was a willful act of sin. Like most underexposed evangelicals, I equated homosexual attractions with lust; they were one and the same – dire failures of holiness to be avoided at all cost.

I remember ranting to my accountability partner (poor soul greatly to be pitied) time after time about my crush(es), “I have no right to even look at him, much less tell you his name! It’s disgusting. I just feel like such a monster.”

This was during the “stable” phase of my college career. Good times.

But this is why that friend’s comment lingered so forcefully in my mind. By saying that it wouldn’t bother him if I was attracted to him because, duh, attraction happens to almost everybody and is totally not a big deal, he offered a distinct manifestation of grace that I had refused myself:

The grace of a common experience. 

The grace of not being a monster. 

The grace of being human, just like everybody else.

In the years since we sat together in that light-filled prayer chapel, tears in our eyes, rejoicing in the goodness of it all, I’ve found profound healing as I daily live into my humanity – a lifetime of aching otherness slowly finding its place in the humbly unfolding narrative of becoming whole.

And lust? I’ve finally begun to understand what it really is. By binding that willful vice up with the inescapable neurological occurrence of attraction, I not only turned my body into an enemy of holiness but I also crippled my ability to effectively fight against lust.

I used to conceive of it as little more than excessively strong attractions, something beyond my control, something that was ultimately about me and my “purity.”*** Wrong. Lust is about ignoring the dignity and inviolable humanity of another and turning them into an object for my own personal pleasure. Lust isn’t so terrible just because it makes it harder for me not to type Google searches of questionable character, though that’s a part of it; it’s so terrible because it makes it harder for me to treat every person as the absurdly beloved-by-God people that they are, because it turns them into a “thing” and turns me into a hypocrite.

But what is more, I’m no longer hopeless in this struggle. Back when I thought it was lustful to even notice another guy, the overwhelming impossibility of “purity” haunted me. I think I knew then, even if I couldn’t articulate it at the time, that to be free from lust as I defined it – as others had defined it for me – would require me to eviscerate a part of my humanity, to deaden myself to the very real desirability of others.

But now, rather than fear I will lose my humanity in the good fight against lust, I am thrilled to see it come more vibrantly into focus and fullness as I reclaim the true purposes of the struggle and realize what is actually at stake:

that I might see each person, whether or not they possess that indefinable breath-sapping spark, as beautiful, worthy of love, full of dignity, and to be served with joy.

I’ll be the first to say that this is easier said than done, but at least now I know that I’m not a lost cause, that I’m not some exceptionally broken screw-up with an entirely different set of rules. At least now I know, and at least usually believe, that my body is good and that there are much worse things I could do than realize someone has incredible eyes and great hair.

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* Y’all, being closeted was just so unhealthy. If you ever doubt that, read my journals from college. (But actually no don’t you dare read those.)

** … or something like that. I might have been a little bitter at the time.

*** I don’t really like how we use the word “purity” to almost exclusively reference sexuality, especially as it has historically contributed to the social marginalization of women. Biblically speaking, greed and gossip and whatever else are also fraught with “impurity.”

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A Grief Preserved

I’m one of them.

You know, them, those Americans that flooded our orphanage with boundless enthusiasm and big-bright-smiles that scarred our retinas, who fueled our knowing eye-rolls and starred in our barely exaggerated horror stories for which we only felt the most comfortable kind of shame. Them.

Those people I arrogantly tried so hard not to be.

Because, my god, remember when they made that whole room full of Guatemalans sing “God Bless the USA” twice in one hour? And how they snapped pictures of the kids so frenetically that the clicking shutters could have easily been the beat of whatever peppy Chris Tomlin anthem they were probably going to use for their slideshows? And, holy crap, that one time when…

…well, nevermind, that’s not the point. See what I’m doing? Always trying to distance myself, convince myself I couldn’t possibly be like that. That I couldn’t possibly merit such damning italics.

But here I am, sitting in my overpriced IKEA chair, writing about a place/people/life that is slowly shrouding in fog. I didn’t realize how dull my memory of working in Guatemala had become until a warm twilight rain brought it all back into startlingly sharp focus. Does rain hold all of your memories, too?

It barely rains here in Los Angeles, so I’m forgetting things.

I’m one of them because I left.

I had to, of course. I knew I couldn’t stay forever; I was enrolled in grad school, was starting to feel restless and cramped, was confident God was calling me back to the States. And yet…

Do you ever wonder if maybe you made a huge mistake? How are we supposed to know? Does it even matter?

I’m sorry, those are stupid questions. It’s just that a few months ago I watched a documentary about this disaffected American guy who, in every sense of the phrase, found himself in an AIDS orphanage in India. He’s still there; he couldn’t leave the place in which he learned how to truly give and receive love, couldn’t ignore the broken systems he would reinforce by going home, couldn’t be just another fading photograph haphazardly glued into the orphanage’s book of “visitors” – those who came and went and forgot.

Thirty minutes outside of Guatemala City, on a dusty closet shelf, there is a book with my picture in it.

I’m being pathetic, I know. Life is complex, I am finite, we all need to have patience, untempered passion will just consume me and weaken my ministry where I am now. Yes, of course, I believe all of that. Maudlin nostalgia is useless. Leaving wasn’t a sin.

But even if I didn’t sin I still think I need to be forgiven.

I need to be forgiven for the inescapable self-centeredness of coming and going with all the impermanence of one of Guatemala’s innumerable summer storms.

I need to be forgiven for asking the kids and staff to live with me, to be my family, to pretend four months could last forever.

I need to be forgiven for being just another opportunity for the kids to believe that growing attached to someone isn’t worth the trouble.

And I need to forgive myself for leaving the place that made me feel fully alive.

A year ago I wrote that the only way I could adequately say “thank you” was to become the kind of man whose life does justice to the hospitality and grace I was shown. Over the past few months it has also become the only way I can adequately say “I’m sorry.”

I am slowly learning that gratitude and grief bloom with the same flush of color, the way rising and setting suns are equally astonishing, each drawing me out of myself in aching wonder.

I don’t know if any of this makes sense. Maybe it shouldn’t.

Either way, I hope you are well and that you have grown in warmth and passion, daily encountering the hidden graces of this absurd thing we call life. And I hope, for both our sakes, that somehow in the midst of this process of learning to mourn our limitations we will dare to believe that we are more forgiven than we could ever imagine.

Your friend,

Matt

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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.

37812379

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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Wake-up Call

Remember how I once said that I kind of enjoyed (in an ironic sort of way) the early morning mental haze and the creeping exhaustion of getting up before nature intended? Boy, those were the days.

Three weeks in and my life now resembles a war of attrition with energy. My morning routine, which starts at 3:55, usually involves groggily snoozing both of my urgent alarms with a whisper of the perennially convincing lie that “I’ll get up in just a second,” and then flailing out of bed in a semi-aware panic a few indeterminate minutes later unsure if I overslept. After the blood drains from my head and my heart-rate comes down from “hunted rabbit” to a more sustainable “moderately apprehensive mid-sized domestic animal” I shuffle around in the dark trying to figure out where those thrice-cursed gnomes hid my flip-flops. Once successful, I throw a blanket over my shivering shoulders (inevitably hitting the low-hanging light fixture and scaring myself) and step into the hall – a shambling nightmare with plaid pajama bottoms, a striped hoody, a shroud of chaotic fabric, and, the coup de grace of my ensemble, socks with flip-flops.

I get my stylish self to the kitchen where I am faced with the moral dilemma of having to decide if it’s more important to provide orphans with food or to make myself coffee.

Ten minutes later, thankful for an endlessly forgiving God, I make some sandwiches and warm up breakfast. Then I put on some upbeat music and prepare to go to war.

The kids’ morning-personalities range from basically-levitates-out-of-bed-with-sunshine-and-smiles to might-have-a-knife-under-his-pillow. It doesn’t help that my spanish abandons me during the night so my first few sentences are always, shall we say, more on the “creative utterance” end of the communicative spectrum. I don’t really blame the kids who refuse to get out of bed; if I woke up to a pale, babbling manifestation of fashion-unawareness I would decide I’d rather not be conscious in such a world, too.

But thanks to some kind of operative universe-magic the kids make it to school on time, and I have some empty space on the schedule to fill as I want. I’ve started to write poetry. Sorry, world.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, however, I head down to the on-campus school to engage in some good-ole neo-colonialism: teaching english to fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh graders.  I’ve never taught ESL before, so it’s been quite a learning experience for me. I can’t say the same for the kids. But there have only been three classes so far, and I guess I’m moderately hopeful about the whole thing.

My respect for school teachers is definitely increasing with each session. I don’t understand how they do it, day after day after day. But thank God for them, seriously, brave and crazy and possibly masochistic sociopaths that they are.

I think it requires a certain possession of grace that I don’t yet have. I still find myself unpracticed in the blessed art of meeting people, especially kids, on their own terms. I marvel at my selfishness, wondering why I keep reflexively demanding people prove themselves worthy of my love and affection and attention when it’s not my decision in the first place. I am not the border-guard of grace, I’m the courier, and my little occupational delusion needs to end. I’m seeing some encouraging signs, and praise God for that, but I have a ways to go.

Oh, life, you maddening, wonderful thing.

Please pray for my house. We’re undergoing a change in leadership and the smoother it goes the better. My job will be the same, but the house dynamic will be different (in a good way, I think) and sometimes the kids take a while to adjust. Fun times await!

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