Label Makers

Well, three months of pretending I had better things to do than blog have come to an end. I have a new post over at Spiritual Friendship on labels and social identity and why the energy some Christians are putting into fighting words is preventing them from truly serving others. Check it out here.

An excerpt:

‘In high school, before I ever used the word ‘gay,’ before I had even admitted to myself that I wasn’t attracted to women, I was being psychologically torn to pieces by other Christians’ (and my own) manner of talking about gay people. Even as I trumpeted things like, “There’s no such thing as a gay Christian,” “They chose to be that way,” and other homophobic aphorisms, I knew that something about me was a lot like something about them and that I could never, ever be open about it.

 

By trying to clearly maintain a linguistic boundary between gay people and people in the church, Christians not only make Church teaching unnecessarily unintelligible to non-Christian gay people (and, really, non-Christians in general) but run the risk of inflicting harm on young people in the church. Whether people want it or not, some youth in the church will see aspects of their experience reflected in the broader culture under the social category of ‘gay’ and not be able to simply divorce their self-understanding from it. Nor should they have to.

 

I choose at times to use the label ‘gay’ both to remind church communities that they cannot talk about LGBT+ people as if they aren’t sitting in their congregations or aren’t beloved friends and family and to provide a visible example that might help other sexual minorities who are wrestling with their self-understanding to avoid some of the trauma I experienced. I didn’t have any role models for this while I was growing up and I desperately needed one. Out of fear of compromising its sexual ethic the Church has inadvertently compromised its more foundational witness of God’s reconciling movement toward humanity.’

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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.

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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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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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