Avoiding Hypocrisy as the Church

Hey! Long time no me-doing-anything-remotely-related-to-maintaining-this-blog. Hope you’ve been well. I recently contributed to a series on sexuality and the church over at OnFaith, focusing on ways his current church community is modeling a traditional sexual ethic that avoids much of the hypocrisy found in more conservative churches. Some excerpts:

When I joined, I simply became a part of that redemptive movement. This is an enormous blessing, because — believe it or not — I really want to proclaim the gospel through ministry and advocacy. (And, as a white dude brimming with privilege, learning how to do this in a way that doesn’t reinforce inequality can be a challenge!) I want to be a Christian, and I want my church to urge the congregants on in our shared vocation of pursuing justice for the marginalized (which includes a sizable portion of the church population itself).

Often lgbt+ Christians are treated as if we have one job this side of Jesus’ return: don’t have gay sex. But, as Eve Tushnet so quotably stated, “You can’t have a vocation of no,” of only avoiding something. We need something to live for, and let me say that Christianity never makes more sense to me than when I am witnessing or participating in a Christian community that is unified toward imitating and proclaiming Jesus’ liberative gospel.

And:

It continues to amaze me how hard celibate lgbt+ people have to work to find space in churches that claim a more traditional sexual ethic. The social burdens experienced by sexual minorities in these communities vary widely, but usually include increased scrutiny and suspicion, painful comments from congregants who may or may not know about one’s sexuality, reduced ministry possibilities (e.g. I was once stripped of an internship and prevented from helping with a youth group because I was attracted to men), insanely exhausting language policing,**** and at times, the general ache of being single in a culture that over-valorizes marriage and romance to the detriment of the church’s calling to be family.

I’m not sure how churches decided that the best ‘defense’ of the traditional sexual ethic is to place excessive burdens on those trying to abide by it and then fail to provide the support structures that would make such an ethic intelligible and healthy . . . but, well, here we are.

I believe the traditional sexual ethic is beautiful and good — I try to live according to it for a reason! — but I also believe that the way churches have approached the topic of human sexuality has largely failed to do any justice to the scope and nuance of the doctrine and has, in fact, done injustice to countless people who should have found a home and family within the church, and this requires sincere repentance.

Read the Whole Article at FaithStreet.

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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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The New Ex-Gay

While observing the conversation about faith and sexuality over the past few years I have witnessed a depressing number of harmful and untrue words come out of someone’s mouth right after the preface, “Well, as someone with a conservative ethic…” or “As someone who is ‘side-B’…” (Side-B being clunky shorthand for a more traditional sexual ethic, for those who hadn’t heard it before.)

I understand that some of these people are new to the discussion, are becoming more aware of something that they used to not even have to think about. But…

It’s hard, sometimes, to watch people who are insulated from the consequences of their words keep saying the same harmful things over and over. And it becomes harder when these words are used by others as the example of a “traditional sexual ethic.”

“These words” range from banal prejudices that cast all gay people as exceptionally promiscuous or obsessed with any number of threatening agendas to more contextually specific comments like “Shouldn’t we, as Christians, not have to talk about this so much? Can’t they just keep it between them and a few friends or a counselor? We all have problems; can’t they just find their identity in Christ and stop whining?”

And they’re being heard.

Over the past few weeks there has been a rash of articles “introducing” the internet to celibate gay Christians. The responses have been, unsurprisingly, mixed. The most common reaction I’ve seen has been a reflexive categorization of “side-B”* beliefs as “the new ex-gay,” as nothing more than the next tool of homophobic fundamentalists to marginalize gay people.

These “response” articles – and particularly the subsequent comments – are often uninspiring, caustic, and full of caricature. I also don’t think they are entirely wrong.

Rant with me, please?

"I can admire your rampage against the hegemony much better from here, thank you."

“I can admire your rampage against hypocrisy much better from here, thank you.” “Ugh, whatever Darcy.”

As I’ve engaged the conversation surrounding faith and sexuality, one of the main sources of frustration has been the persistent sense that most conservative straight Christians are more passionate about gay people not having sex than they are about gay people flourishing in church communities and in society at large. Put more witheringly, I get the sense that when people say things like “Why do they even have to ‘come out’ at all?” what they mean is that it would be better if gay people simply didn’t exist.

This is why the ex-gay narrative was (is) so attractive – it literally removed the “problem” of gay people. As that narrative continues to unravel some people are searching for a new way to pursue their unchanged desire to pray the gays away.**

Some may balk at that claim, and maybe it’s ungracious – there are some important differences in rhetoric, and I get that. But here’s what I see: one way or another, championing ex-gay ideology or appropriating a ravaged shade of the “traditional sexual ethic,” these particular people are looking for a belief that demands nothing from them and everything from sexual minorities.

Given that the ex-gay narrative placed all the weight of “faithful response” on the gay people themselves, it makes sense that prior supporters of that ideology would continue to focus exclusively on what the gay person needs to do, just in different language. Unless the switch from the ex-gay narrative to the “side-B” narrative of celibacy/chastity coincides with a shift in one’s understanding of church community and personal responsibility, then the “traditional sexual ethic” becomes a rather cruel farce, a perpetuation of unequal power structures and shame.

Those highly critical articles are responding in part, I think, to this ultra-lame permutation of a conservative ethic. So, I understand the hate; ex-gay ideologies have left so many scars on beloved people, and to see the phantoms of those ideologies take on new skins merits unequivocal response.

I’m not naïve enough to think that everyone, or even most people, will accept the differentiation of what we are trying to do at Spiritual Friendship from the ex-gay narrative in all of its forms. Or, even if they do see the difference, that it will matter at all.

But, well, here we are.

One of the things that I find beautiful about the “traditional sexual ethic” as I see it expressed by people who have thought through it extensively is how it is about so much more than just what certain people do or don’t do with certain parts of their bodies.

Rather, it is a sweeping yet grounded reimagining of what it means to be embodied beings in mutual communion with each other for the sake of human flourishing and the demonstration of the gospel in our particular contexts.

In other words, it is just as much about churches and communities addressing their trenchant sins of inhospitality and marginalization as it is about an individual’s stewardship of her mind and body.

For me, such a reframing provides motion and purpose and is far more true to the reality of the gospel than the one-sided and apodictic platitudes that characterize the rhetoric of those interested primarily in maintaining the status-quo and keeping this “problem” at a distance.

What kills me is how these Christians think they are preserving the witness of the church, but because many of them are blind to the actual lives of gay people they are unaware of the destructive character of their words and actions, how they are so profoundly corroding the beauty of the gospel*** and, in a very real way, making all expressions of a “traditional sexual ethic” culturally equivalent to ex-gay ideology and homophobia.

And I hate how I can’t escape saying “these people,” as if “they” aren’t often friends and family who I know and respect, or how, even still, my brain gets so caught up in the distressing tension of it all and becomes paralyzed by weariness and the most boring kind of despair.

But then, when I’m tempted toward total apathy, I encounter beautiful moments of community done well and am reminded how much there is to be gained from pursuing, together, a better way forward.

So I guess I want to end with this: would you, whoever you are, just examine the underlying character of your beliefs about sexuality, whether or not they have been formed in relationship with gay people, whether or not they are also concerned with whole church communities becoming more tightly knit and hospitable and responsibly sexual beings, and whether or not they manifest the fruit of the Spirit in their expression?

Because, honestly, it often feels as if the church is asking gay people to walk through a minefield as everyone else just stands back and yells instructions, and I don’t think I’m the only one who has grown a bit tired of being one of its human minesweepers.

_________________________

* I will give my holographic Charizard to anyone who can institute a better-yet-still-pithy phrase to communicate “side-B” beliefs without having to actually use that arcane label.

** High-five!

*** I’m not unaware that most affirming Christians feel the exact same about me.

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In Weakness

This was originally written in May, 2013. I have edited and reposted it as I find myself facing a similar moment in my life: starting to speak publicly about faith and sexuality.

***

There are certain words that we carry with us wherever we go. Sometimes tacked onto us by friends or strangers, sometimes dragged behind us by leashes of our own making, they follow us and seem to declare their existence at every moment.

Mine is weak.*

It’s like some indelible curse, scrawled on every mirror, sports field, tool, or disappointed face – a damning refrain of inescapable truth. I hate it. And yet I continue to grip the worn tether.

I think it’s because I have generally understood weak to be a safe word; one that demands nothing from me and gives me a reason to push away all that might complicate my life. If I’m so weak, I must protect myself. Tension and complexity and nuance become the enemy – threats to my fragile stability and brokers of an inevitable compromise. After all, I’m weak, I can’t handle it. A pious and poisonous half-truth that I’ve believed for most of my life.

But that’s changing.

The conviction that I need to speak up and step out, to move deep into the tension and dedicate myself to truly loving those around me, allowing their lives to press into mine, is overriding the base urge to shield myself from any and all pain. And as pin-prick circulation returns to my knuckles I am realizing that being weak isn’t the problem: being selfish and afraid is.

Because I am weak. And yet as I started to see years ago, such weakness can be a beautiful opportunity to move forward in trust. That one word, weak, used to bring forth a comprehensive, anxious distrust that paralyzed me, but now it’s starting to have the opposite effect. Over the past year as I’ve blogged, emailed, met-for-coffee, and prayed, I’ve never ceased to be filled with wonder at the ways God has proven himself faithful to use my weakness to bring life…

…as a hushed confession of shame erupts into a boisterous oh-my-god-metoo! and a newfound freedom takes root amidst the shared laughter.

…as friends step up and become heroes.

…as an “issue” becomes a living, breathing, hurting human for someone and their world changes.

…as I find myself feeling more alive, more loved, more hopeful, and more passionate than ever before.

I could go on. I’ve had the chance to meet and become friends with so many incredible people as a result of that one decision to move beyond my frightened comfort zone. Friends who agree with me, disagree with me, think I’m crazy, force me to dig deep and reexamine what I thought to be true, inspire me, frustrate me, and point me to Christ. I would have never met any of them, never encountered the gospel of their lives, if I’d let my fear of pain decide it was more important to shelter myself from it all.

So you think I’d get it by now. But…

Sometimes the damning refrain creeps back into my mind.

You’re pathetic.

They’ll tear you apart.

You’re so disgustingly weak, you’ll never make it.

A year ago I was sprawled on the couch of a friend unsuccessfully trying to convince my exhausted brain that, really, it’s more fun to sleep than implode, watching tattered visions of all that could undo me flicker in an out of focus. It was my first week back in the States; DoMA and SCOTUS were still trending on Twitter and lighting up my Facebook feed. From the moment I deplaned I was confronted with the fact that I was, once again, caught in a controversy. An old anxiety started gathering around the fringes of my awareness and I couldn’t shake it off.

You’re going to fail.

I pulled the blanket over my head. I’d spent the afternoon hanging out with new friends – a warm and hilarious couple who let me tag along on a date – and I was wrestling with my tired mind about it.

You’re weak. Protect yourself.

Those old lies that would have me believe it was “dangerous” to hang out with a loving, affectionate gay couple – two passionate Christians, at that! – kept replaying because wouldn’t life be simpler if you isolated yourself from anything that would complicate your beliefs?  Wouldn’t it be easier if you spent all your effort on drawing lines and defending yourself and pushing away those who disagree? You’re going to crumble if you keep this up.

I carried these bitter thoughts with me to church the next morning. It had been almost ten months since I’d attended a eucharistic service, though I wasn’t really thinking about that as I waited in line to receive the elements. I was starting to feel a little bit crazy. The decision to begin living and writing more openly about my sexuality and faith seemed increasingly foolish in light of the mounting tension and you won’t be strong enough to help anyone, much less –

“This is Christ’s body, broken for you.”

– yourself and the controversy will consume you and you’ll be –

“This is Christ’s blood, shed for you.”

– ridiculed and misunderstood and abandoned and –

The accusations ended abruptly as I watched the chunk of bread slowly turn crimson. My mouth started to water. Then my eyes. I gently placed the elements in my mouth, and breathed deeply.

“Epiphany” is the only word I can use to describe that moment: a sudden burst of clarity that overwhelmed me and my whispering fears. The confusion of the preceding moments dissolved and in its place there appeared a calm certainty: this is the shape my life must take.

The eucharist rendered my life intelligible again.

Please bear with me as I gush:

We follow a Christ who was, and is every day, torn to pieces. He was misunderstood and ridiculed, or sometimes understood perfectly well and hated for what he said and did. He was nailed to a low-hanging plank and slowly suffocated outside the city gate. And this is how we are told to remember him.

Because this is our story. This is who we are becoming. People who love so fiercely that we throw ourselves into the midst of things so that there may be peace, so that the unloved would know the touch of a friend, so that the hopeless would see with new eyes and the neglected would discover what it means to have a family. We proclaim Christ, and him crucified.

And people may tear us apart for it. The tension will pull at our seams and always feel as if it is a second away from undoing us. We will have to struggle against the impulse to move back to safety, relieve the tension, remain untroubled, and bury our weakness.

But eucharist is the utmost display of weakness. The cross is weakness.

And this is the beauty of it.

The celebration of bread and wine is a sacrificial, destructive act. But the miracle of it is that as the body of Christ, the bread, is torn to pieces the body of Christ, the Church, is made more whole. We are nourished and drawn together and given the strength to carry on. We are empowered to boldly live in weakness.

This is how the power of Christ is made perfect in weakness: that although we are vulnerable we press deep into the suffering of the world and make it our own, although we may receive blows from every direction we refuse to let our capacity to love and forgive be beaten out of us, and although we are silenced and misunderstood we never disdain the sacred act of listening to another and seeking to understand. It seems like I will never cease having to relearn this most basic of truths, and I imagine that is why celebrating the eucharist will never cease to astonish and amaze me.

The fears that plagued me on my friend’s couch are still with me. Honestly, despite there being many incredible men and women who have gone before me, the idea of opening my life and sexuality to the scrutiny of others is terrifying. I mean, gosh, public discourse in the States has proven itself to be a rather volatile thing.

Pictured: healthy dialogue

Pictured: healthy dialogue

And yet as I have committed to serving with my local church and growing in community with the wonderful not-like-me people I am blessed to know, I find I am more aware of the living grace of my God who offered himself to the world and more in love with his Church that sustains me and inspires me to act in truth and humility. I am seeing more clearly what will enable me, enable us, to proclaim the gospel of hope to an understandably cynical culture, and I am praying that we will allow that gospel to take hold of us in new and profound ways.

Please pray with me.

Peace, friends.

__________________________________________________________________

* Like, if Harry Potter and all that were real (deep breaths deep breaths) my patronus would probably be an asthmatic woodland rodent of some kind.**

** Just kidding, I’ve actually thought about this a lot and it would totally be an otter, which is, according to trustworthy friend-sources, my “animal personality” (i.e. playful, creative, smelling of shellfish and brine, intelligent, et al.).***

*** It is also, I’ve been told, my gay bar body-type classification. Layers, you guys, layers.****

**** No, mom, I’ve never been to a gay bar. *****

***** I’d rather not end on that note, so here’s 2 Corinthians 12:9 – “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” (NRSV). Blessings.

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A Church of Pure Imagination

I’ve been asked multiple times in the past month why I am still side-B, why I am still pursuing celibacy as a gay 23 year-old in these United States of America. What is interesting to me is how, with each inquiring friend, it was implied that we weren’t discussing theology or the interpretation of certain notorious texts. The “why” was really more of a “how.”

It’s a refreshing change.

One of the more frustrating things about the current conversation is how it so easily gets sucked into the myopic quicksand of “what the Bible says.” Please don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of the authority of scripture and the importance of right interpretation, and I probably wouldn’t be celibate if I didn’t think the Bible taught it, but there is a dangerous attitude of “the Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it” running rampant in many churches.

The idea that the conversation straight up ends with interpretation is, honestly, lethal to true religion, strangling the imagination out of faith and poisoning the endlessly complex “how then shall we live” of the Christian life. I think the rate at which gay Christians are abandoning celibacy is a pretty good indicator of that fact; though not always the case, the majority of people I know who have made the switch do so not because they’ve been convinced by “affirming” theology but because celibacy and an abundant life seem mutually exclusive, which, I need to add, is a kind of theological reason in its own right.

I think what this is revealing about conservative American churches, and perhaps churches in general, is that they are deeply mired in a failure of imagination.

When churches neglect to preach and model the good of singleness and celibacy, when they glut themselves on the opium of romance or oversell marriage to the detriment of both married and single people, they aren’t just straying from the truth of the Bible – they are corroding and constricting the imaginations of those in the congregation. What the men and women and children sitting in the pews can or cannot imagine as possible or good is greatly affected by what the church speaks of as possible or good.

At its redemptive best, this imaginative proclamation allows aching and isolated people to believe that there is a God who loves and desires them and that they can know his transformative grace and be welcomed into a community of hospitality and passion. But, tragically, that proclamation is often drowned in a flood of toxic sentiment, leaving many unsure of their worth and unable to form healthy relationships with other people or even God. The callousness I have seen some church-goers display in response to this pain is incomprehensible.

So I am no longer surprised when a friend of mine “switches sides,” and I am beyond tired of the way some Christians demonize them as simply weak or selfish or histrionic.* Do I find my friends’ reasons for switching entirely satisfactory? Rarely. But I also don’t find most churches’ reasons for not switching satisfactory, either. Unless a community is seriously modeling a commitment to hospitality and grace for all stages of life, its sexual ethic, no matter how “orthodox” it may sound, will never seem viable or good in any meaningful way. This imaginative failure is also a moral failure, with churches leaving their gay members with little to no ability to actually live – or god forbid thrive – within the rich tradition of church teaching.

So when I am asked why I’m side-B, my first thought has little to do with how I interpret Romans 1. Instead, I think about how I was surrounded by a loving group of friends who gave me the space and freedom to process through the initial fear and confusion of realizing I wasn’t just “temporarily-not-straight;”

I think about how I was blessed with mentors and counselors who were constantly feeding me and challenging me and supporting me and blowing my mind with the truth of the gospel, who called out the lies that had been choking me for most of my life;

I think about the months I spent working in a drug rehab center in South Africa or an orphanage in Guatemala and how unbearably full and alive I felt, how enmeshed I became in those vibrant communities that taught me so much about hospitality and service.

I think about how all these experiences enabled me to imagine a future of abundant life as a celibate person.

For most of my college career I was haunted by a singular image that I thought would define the entirety of my existence: When I closed my eyes I saw, I felt, myself closing the door to a cold and dark apartment, entirely empty, devoid of anyone who would witness my life and show me that I was known and loved. The frozen silence of it all was terrifying.

That I thought this was my inescapable future after a lifetime of sermons and biblical education is unequivocally depressing. That this vision is hardly unique to me is even more so.

But then two years ago, while coming out to some of my closest friends as we prepared for graduation and all that lay beyond, that image of despair was finally replaced. As I finished up my story one of my friends looked at me and said, “You know, Matt, as you were talking I just had this picture in my head of you surrounded by laughing children, and you were so happy. Maybe that means something.”

That was a gift of imagination, my brothers and sisters joining with me to envision a better future, an abundant future, one that has empowered me to live more joyfully and passionately in the present.

But I’m one of the lucky ones. The number of stories where loneliness and isolation remain the dominant themes, where the message of the church is bound up with shame and hopelessness, is staggering. More truthfully, it is infuriating.

So I’m praying that churches would rediscover their blessed ecclesial witness. I’m praying that, in my own journey, I can do justice to the vision of abundant life the gospel and my community have helped me believe is possible. I’m praying that we would really listen to the numerous testimonies of pain, that we would repent, that we would learn to love better, and that together – because we can only do this together – we would become the kind of people that Jesus imagined we could be when he lived and died and rose again for all.**

Matt

* If you have come to find your capacity to feel hope and joy oppressive, take a peek at the comments section of any number of Christian publications about homosexuality and let the sweet, sweet darkness sweep over you.

** I am not saying that if everyone had my experiences they would have come to the same conclusions I did, nor am I saying that my anecdotal evidence can be applied even close to uniformly for every LGB Christian. But this imaginative chasm between “celibate” and “happy” is incredibly prevalent – evident in the number of times people say to me, “You’re celibate? But… you seem so happy…”

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Home-makers

One of the unfortunate realities of life is that the best time to really think about something is often when you no longer have access to it, the oddly formed hole it leaves behind an easier way to understand its shape.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about friendship recently.

I wasn’t so naïve as to imagine that I would arrive in Los Angeles, step out of my car and magically be surrounded by a glorious cabal of soul-mates. (Well, ok, wasn’t so naïve as to seriously believe that would happen.) But I think I’ve been a little bit surprised at how intimidated I am by the whole process of making new friends, of weaving together the fabrics of our existence in profoundly life-giving ways.

Now, this isn’t to say I don’t have friends here. I do. And I am sure, over time, they will become good friends, and best friends, and lifelong friends. But it takes a while to be truly known, and in the interim I’ve become weary. I find I forget who I am. Not in some amnesiac-crisis kind of way, but in the quiet moments of fury when I screw up an important task or fail, again, to really devote time to nurturing my relationship with God or simply lay on my couch and mentally admire how well I wear labels such as failure or hypocrite or whatever.

Those struggles aren’t novel by any means – in fact they’ve been faithful companions throughout most of my “adult” life – but as I’ve most recently encountered them again on my high-wire of existence it has distinctly felt as if there were no net beneath me. It’s just me, the monsters, and the empty, beckoning air.

It’s been in those moments that I have started to understand what the presence of intimate friendship had meant to me, and I’m increasingly convinced that one of the greatest blessings of friendship is that it reminds me who I am. And I need to be reminded.

After having only lived in Los Angeles for two weeks, there was a night when all I wanted was a hug. And yet, as time wore on, I realized that it wasn’t the hug that I wanted so much as the reminder that I was enmeshed in community, that I was known and still worthy of love; just any old hug wouldn’t be able to communicate that.

When I lived with my two closest friends, every interaction was based upon a deep understanding of each other, an enduring web of shared experiences. They had seen me in almost every conceivable light, so when they talked to me, joked with me, played with me, prayed with me, they did so while knowing me better than anyone.

It’s one thing to be known generally, but it’s another thing to have yourself made known in every hug, every word of advice, every conversation about global politics or God or vegetarian Dementors, every disagreement, every affirmation of love and support. And so, in a way, I continued to be reminded of who I was because of how they simply were with me. As someone who is prone to fits of doubt or low self-esteem, it is these small reminders that make all the difference.

I don’t think I really appreciated how much these friends had become home for me.

@$^%$ ninjas and their onions.

@$^% ninjas hiding onions around my house.

It takes a while for someone’s words/eyes/arms to become filled with those kinds of memories, and I honestly don’t know how long it will be until my friendships here in this utterly bizarre land of Los Angeles take root.

But I must admit, re-experiencing what it means to be a “stranger” has allowed me to witness embarrassingly profound displays of hospitality from innumerable people. It has made me hopeful. Not just hopeful for myself – that one day I’ll find that fabled soul-mate cabal – but hopeful for churches and the life-giving communities they are supposed to be.

So even as I mourn the absence of those few who make me feel the most like myself, I will happily repeat the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, that

“Christ plays in ten thousand places,

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”

And sometimes I think that, maybe, this creeping growth of friendship is really just learning to see the way each person uniquely embodies that welcoming presence. And then sometimes I think that such a thought is unforgivably saccharine and my life is probably forfeit, but I still kind of hope it will be proven true.*

I’ll let you guys know when I find out.

Peace.

_________________

*And then I think about how badly I wish I could control the elements with my mind because honestly three consecutive thoughts without a wild flight of imagination is beyond me.

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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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“…is this the real life?”

(From June 19, 2010)

We live on a planet called Earth. On a daily basis we interact with thousands upon thousands of material objects, whether it be a crunchy piece of gravel beneath our feet or another human being. We sense things, we know things. This is real life. This existence of ours is true and good; it is not an illusion from which we must break free in order to reach some spiritual existence beyond our mortal chains. I am not arguing for the rejection of this reality in favor of another. Rather, I am arguing for the transformation of this reality by the truth of another, namely (and solely) the eternal kingdom of God and the inauguration of the Church through the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

This is more than just a moral transformation. The purpose of Christ’s coming was not to change us from bad people to good people upon our conversion which then allows us into heaven (or more popularly, saves us from hell). His coming changed the very nature of our existence. In an admittedly limited sense, our conversion is akin to transplanting ourselves into a foreign culture. If you wake up some day in Uganda, it would be remarkably foolish to assume that adhering to the norms and cultural rules of America will get you anywhere. It would also be remarkably foolish to assume that you are no longer American now that you are in Uganda. A posture of humility and learning must be adopted as you try to understand this new context. You have a cultural reference book that seems strangely inadequate in some situations and a native guide who you wish would be a little more direct. You mess up. A lot. But your hosts are gracious and you continue to become more accustomed to your daily life. There are some things that you were able to do in America that are simply impossible now, some things that are strange and bizarre to the Ugandans that you should probably avoid, and some things that are acceptable and good.

Such is our arrival into the kingdom of God, only completely different and multiplied by infinity. It is our tendency, at least in America, to assume that our conversion only changes our character and moral axis instead of transporting us wholly (or opening our eyes) to a new kingdom, a new reality (which really is not very “new” at all) that functions entirely uniquely to anything we have previously experienced. We are now first and foremost citizens of the all consuming kingdom of heaven, manifested on earth as the global body of Christians as one unified and unbreakable Church, bound together by the love of Christ poured out for us as a sacrifice upon an altar composed of sin and constructed by our own hands. This kingdom is not something we are journeying toward nor is it something we are trying to create on earth; we are already in it and it is already established. It is not yet a complete kingdom, however. It cannot be because then we would not so desperately long for the return of Christ, nor would we need Him any more. We who have entered through the narrow gate could only have entered by passing through Christ who now stands between us and the world.

The implications of this are, of course, rather daunting, as events which demand of us everything tend to be. Some people have called Christianity the “upside-down kingdom”, but I don’t think that’s correct because it makes our mundane, secular existence the normative experience and the kingdom of God a radical departure from the apparent. Instead, the kingdom of God is the truest truth, the most real reality, the basic actuality by which all humanity must measure its existence. We do not, we must not begin with our secular lives and from there gauge how we should act. We, as Christians, begin and end with obedience and submission to the reality of Christ’s call on our lives. This call will often (in fact almost always) demand that we act in defiance of what we and the world perceive as real. Our defiance will bring persecution upon us because it is so thoroughly distressing to be confronted by the revelation that everything we have accumulated and striven for on this earth is ashes and dead weight that drag us willingly to hell because we did not first have Christ, in and through whom alone we find the redemption of our being. As the anointed bearers of this glorious reality, we gain the added benefit of no longer fearing what the world may do to us because it will never be able to change the eternal reality that Christ has called us into communion with Him.

Christ’s call does not lead us out of the world, but rather directly into the heart of it. We must not reject the world and its troubles because we have found something better. If Christ had done that we would all be in hell right now. We must follow Christ into the darkest reaches of the world (which are never far away), armed not with judgment or condemnation but with renewal and transformation, healing and acceptance, love and love and love and more love that flows through us from the fount of the Cross and empowers us to do all things.

This is Christianity. It is not an institution, a moral guideline, a secluded retreat, a facebook note or a comfortable existence. It is the eternally present reality of our complete and total bondage to Christ and His kingdom which frees us to joyfully and powerfully seek restoration in all the earth to the glory of God. It is a reality that not only extends beyond borders but destroys them, not only reaches through socio-economic differences but renders them unimaginable, not only gives us a reason to live but makes life everlasting. It is a reality to which God has drawn us. It is Himself.

And we reject it, we reject Him, every day. We reject Him for the things of this world. We reject Him because the world has told us to act a certain way, to see a certain way. It has told us that our allegiance is to arbitrary and divisive political systems, that our brothers and sisters, fellow members of the kingdom of God to whom we are inextricably linked, are “others”, different from us. It tells us that the demand of Christ to live entirely for Him, to serve with our whole lives, to cling to nothing except to Him, to go to the poor and needy, to seek peace with all, is not really what the Bible says, or that it does not matter what the Bible says because current “reality” seems to say something different and God most certainly could not demand something impractical of His children (such as dying on a cross).

I reject God every day because I just cannot yet accept the full demand of my conversion. I’m scared, I’m weak, and I love too much that which I should not. And yet the pursuit of this reality has been the most life-giving aspect of my entire existence. God is so faithful and is forever with me and my broken, failing, beautiful brothers and sisters in Christ all over the world.

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A Modest(y) Proposal

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(This is in response to an article by the lovely Emily Maynard, titled Is a Woman Responsible For a Man’s Lust? It’s a great piece that deserves to be read. She was incredibly bold to write what she did, and I admire the sincerity and truth behind much of what she says. Check it out. Even if you don’t read what I write in response, you should read what she has to say.)

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I’m pretty sure nobody knows what the word “modesty” means anymore, especially within the context of the evangelical church. And when I say “nobody” I include myself. Over the years my understanding of the word has always seemed terribly shallow and distressingly tangential, as if its charged and controversial outer layer denies all attempts to comprehend its blessed center.

But we sure think it’s important to talk about it! Well, at least for women. It seems that modesty has become, primarily, the rope with which the evangelical church hopes to pull each junior high girl from the deep-v abyss into the light of unassuming crew-necks and inner adornment.

This is important, the common rhetoric goes, because to reveal “flesh” or dress to enhance the feminine figure is just asking the male masses, dominated as they are by uncontrollable sexual urges, to lust. It’s inevitable because men are “visual” creatures (as opposed to the tactile and verbal females), and can’t help themselves. By dressing immodestly, women are causing their vulnerable brothers to stumble, striking a critical blow to their pursuit of purity. This has been the standard discourse on modesty for some time.

But things might be changing. Courageous women are coming forward and opening up about the harm they have suffered on the receiving end of this kind of rhetoric. In the linked article above, and in the subsequent comments, we hear numerous stories from women whose relationship with their bodies, with men, other women, and even God, have been vitiated and filled with poisonous, painful lies.

Implicit in the rhetoric of “modesty” is the idea that women are responsible for male lust. In a nutshell: (straight) men lust because women dress immodestly. There’s more, obviously, but that is the consistent emphasis. I know I thought along similar lines growing up, and it’s taken the testimonies of brave friends and strangers to open my eyes to the horrible consequences of “modesty” as we know it. (Again, read the article for greater detail.)

For the sake of space and time, I simply want to ask some questions and throw around some ideas that may help us move forward as a loving community dedicated to mutual responsibility. I don’t claim to have answers – I’m new to this discussion – so bear with me.

  1. Modesty is not just a female virtue, and lust is not just a male vice. So often the relational dynamic is framed as “Men struggle with lust, and women struggle with a desire to be lusted after.” This goes hand in hand with the lie that porn is just a male problem, and contributes to the sinful stereotype that women are naturally designed as “responders” rather than “actors.” What is more, I, as a male, never had a message on modesty addressed to me. Bluntly, that is ridiculous. How can we reclaim modesty as a non-gendered virtue that is integral in the life of the church?
  2. The sin of lusting is not merely the presence of “dirty thoughts,” but exists, primarily, in the act of stripping someone of their inherent dignity and worth before God. Emily Maynard’s article addresses this point beautifully. It’s impossible for a woman to be responsible for male lust defined in this way. The question needs to be asked, however, When does “natural, non-sinful desire” end and “lust” begin?
  3. Modesty as an ecclesial virtue (akin to humility and an awareness of one’s value before Christ) is not a cultural construct. Modesty as an apodictic shopping list for women is a cultural construct, and means vastly different things all around the world. Topless women in rural Africa are not being immodest; Victorian-era women showing ankle are. Women’s hair in 1st century Palestine was considered sexual; now, we are totally fine with whipping it back and forth in public.
  4. I worry that the truth of #3 too often leads critics of “modesty” to say standards are arbitrary and therefore theologically irrelevant. I don’t think this is the case. Paul’s understanding of modest dress in his letter to the Corinthians and elsewhere is certainly culturally bound (head coverings, anyone?), and yet transgressing those cultural constructions was still a sinful transgression. Are current standards the problem, or is it found primarily in the rhetorical failings of those who speak about them? Are we past the point of being able to deal with the two separately?
  5. Paul’s culturally bound instructions, however, do not primarily frame modesty in terms of sexuality and lust, but in terms of power and excess and a failure to live into one’s status as a new creation. Though we cannot ignore the present reality that modesty intersects significantly with sexuality, we need to reclaim it’s broader purpose of challenging the selfish use of wealth, the refusal to consider the good of the community more important than your own desires, and the maintenance of unchristian power dynamics (e.g. to wear the ignomious “braided hair” Paul references would require the tedious labor of a servant).
  6. Emily Maynard says, “…nothing you do or do not do can influence lust in someone else.” This is, I think, incorrect. Temptation is influence. You can’t force someone else to lust, but you can sure make it harder not to! Women have been the locus of blame for so long, that I understand (in a limited way) the desire to be totally blameless. But autonomy has never been the modus operandi of the church, or of Christian morality.
  7.  She continues, “…you’re only responsible for taking your own heart to Jesus.” In the sense that we are not responsible for the salvation of others, and that women must be freed from the crippling guilt of male lust, this is true. But, as I said above, the Church is built upon mutual responsibility to the other. The solution to the problem of “modesty” will not come from emphasizing individualism, autonomy, or freedom from responsibility, but from reclaiming a just mutuality that requires men to bear the weight of their own sin and to acknowledge their role in the suffering of women and to strive alongside them to eradicate the stigma and shame. This won’t be resolved by “men doing something” or “women doing something” but by the Church doing something. What this looks like, I’m not sure yet. But it certainly wouldn’t be a mistake to begin by giving women a safe space to tell their stories and be heard, as they always should have been.
  8. Romans 15 (“Do not cause another to stumble…”) has been used incessantly to charge women to be modest. But it also mentions that if we unduly cause others in the church pain, we are accountable for it. It’s about time we realize that the old rhetoric is causing many women and girls incredible pain, and that this pain has been largely ignored or demonized by those in positions of cultural and ecclesial power. Whatever male “need” there is for women to dress certain ways may have to take a backseat to the female need to know their bodies are good, beautiful, loved, and their own.
  9. Women need to be listened to, more and more. Their voices have been historically muted in the Church, and we must do everything in our power to acknowledge the worthiness and truth of what they have to say, especially in regard to (though certainly not limited to) their own bodies. If I hear another sermon with someone “mansplaining” to a woman about her body, I may go crazy.
  10. The radical love and mutual submission taught by Christ must be the posture we assume as we move forward. To continue on as we have been would require us to blind ourselves to the demands of the Gospel.

There is so much more to this, and I have this nagging, dreadful feeling that, even still, I’m perpetuating some of the same terrible binaries, stereotypes, and inconsistencies so prevalent in this discussion. I had hoped to write more constructively about what modesty actually is, how it must also be articulated as an essential virtue for men, and how American culture generally devalues and abuses women’s bodies, but living in an orphanage with a crazy schedule and a lack of resources has made that a bit more of a task than I could manage right now.

Please, let’s talk about this. Any ideas? Thoughts? Rants? Stories? It’s about time we create a space to have this discussion in love.

Matt

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