Affirmation. (A testimony.)

I was fourteen years old when my church split. After years of bouncing around trying to find the right community, my family landed at one of the oldest churches in Tallahassee. I was attending a small private Episcopalian school and we joined the church just prior to some major shift in stances in the early 2,000’s. The culture of our country was changing and it was finding its way into the church. If there was a conversation about gay marriages prior to this, I likely was too young to know, and too sheltered to understand. I associated “gay” with a dig at friends who would poke fun at others by asking them to answer the question on whether or not we were “straight.” Which, I honestly thought was a middle school dick joke. That was the level of my cultural awareness. My only experiences with any gay persons was from travels to South Florida, Miami, Key West, or perhaps a glimpse of “Will and Grace” or Robin Williams in The Birdcage. It was never in the context of normalcy but instead vibrant hilarity. Gayness, as I perceived, was a joke. A loud effeminate male that was a side character to whatever sitcom. The only explanation I got was the shock and unease it gave my folks. I learned at a young age that being gay “wasn’t normal.” Gross even. And as a pre-teen, I learned it was something to mock. “Faggot” was a very common word at my Middle School. Though when I googled it I just saw “a bundle of sticks.” Middle School locker rooms took any uncomfortable situation as an opportunity to accuse someone of liking boys. “You trying to look at my junk? What are you GAY!?”

In truth I don’t recall ever having a conversation about other kinds of sexuality. It was all up to my experiences to find understanding. And I had nothing tangible. Only jokes, only mockery, only flamboyant characters in film. The conversation was forced only as an explanation to the reason we were leaving our church. Gay people, apparently, wanted to get married. It was a headline that immediately brought division in the church. Marriage was between a man and a woman. Homosexuality was a sin, the Bible says so. And some Christians (….our Christians), seemed to be open to teaching otherwise. In the early 2,000’s, while I was in Middle School, the Episcopal Church announced they would bless civil unions and were in the process of appointing openly gay Bishops, a move that resulted in what is often referred to as the Anglican realignment. My parish was one of the pioneers of the move. My first true experience on the conversation of Same Sex Relationships and Marriages was that it was so detestable to God, that it was worth leaving a church over. Nearly 800 members of my Episcopal church left with several clergy, and joined a new Anglican church. (That, before I head any further, I should say still feels like a spiritual home for me.)

Through Middle School and High School I grew up in this congregation, my faith deepened through their community. I was confirmed in this church. When I go home for the holidays, this is where we worship. I genuinely enjoy seeing these people on Christmas Eve. I remember reading their written documents explaining their stance on Homosexuality and upholding the sacrament of marriage and I trusted my Priests and my parents. Through all of this, I knew of no person affected by these decisions. Nada. Zilch. I knew no openly gay people. “Homosexuals” were the ones trying to redefine the Word of God. Trying to get us to leave behind scripture, tradition, and the will of God, because our beliefs hurt their feelings. A reason, that Liberals seemed to always rely on over the authority of scripture. I don’t recall many if any sermons patronizing any LGBTQ people. But the reason for the split was certainly a talk of the congregation…and the city. It was in my face for the first time, in the most controversial, divisive way imaginable.

In High School, I and my friends were welcomed into an amazing community that so deeply influenced my faith. An evangelical parachurch ministry called Young Life that had re-anchored my faith in my Freshman year of High School.  It had made my faith something personal, rather than guided by my parents. Through Young Life, I came to love Christ so deeply. I fell in LOVE with the Bible. Reading it and highlighting the hell out of it. (I ironically called it my Rainbow Bible.) God’s word to be read with a fork! I became a Young Life leader in college; and a passionate one at that! You would not have seen me anywhere without my Bible and whatever other Christian readings I carried with me. C.S. Lewis, Tim Keller, Rob Bell, Francis Chan. I was never without tools that would help me understand my faith more. In college, I started attending non-denominational Bible Churches. It was in this season that I became familiar with what the Bible had to say on this matter. It didn’t just speak about it in the easily dismissed Old Testament. Though Jesus never brought it up, it was in several places in the New Testament as well. A fact I realized many of my friends actually didn’t know. I remember reading Romans 1 with one of my leaders and they responding with, “Woah, well…I mean there it is. That’s pretty clear. Woah.”

*  *  *

The Secular world was fighting the Christian world, this was the spiritual battle I had always been warned of,  and the Bible was the book that gave me all the answers, it was a sword of truth, and that if I stood on the rock of its teachings, I’d be victorious. The rains may come after me, but I would not be washed away.  If I just fought for what my pastors were teaching me, I might even save a few people in the process, revealing to them the Truth that would turn them from their conformity to the patterns of this world. “Chick-fil-a controversies, Duck Dynasty stars comparing it to bestiality, well ya’ll can get pissed about that all you want, but in the 18th chapter of Leviticus the scriptures couple homosexuality with, adultery, incest, and bestiality, they all are sexual sins. They all are considered abominations. You’re not mad at Phil Robertson, you’re mad at the scriptures. I’m sorry, but you’re mad at God.”

As these controversies began to stir and be inflamed by social media, I devoted myself to the study of the Christian arguments. I knew I had spent more time with this than most of my peers, I was never shy of speaking publicly about my beliefs on controversial things. Which, to me, was all but equal to sharing with the public what the Bible taught. Because of this public speaking, people came to me often asking about the Bible and homosexuality. People came perhaps more often talking about how wrong I was. Though most of them were not Christians, and the ones that were Christians when asked why, it amounted to “I’m just supposed to love people. Who am I to say what is and isn’t love?” To which I’d quote 1 Corinthians saying “love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth.” To me the most empathetic approach was to bring up the story of a woman caught in her sexual sin. Jesus protects an adulterous woman from a mob of stoners. (Like the kind with stones.) “He who is without sin may cast the first stone.” And as you know, the mob walks away. Jesus comforts her by saying her condemners have left, and that he, the Son of God, the Messiah, also does not condemn her. (BUT WAIT, there’s more!) He also tells her to “go and leave her life of sin.” It was the hard line that couldn’t be crossed. We’re not called into a blanket condemnation of people, but sin is sin.

“Love the sinner, hate the sin.”

I would later articulate, “Gay or straight your sexual sin is the same. Marriage is between a man and a woman. I know that seems unfair, but it’s how God established it. It’s not fair that we so passionately stand against your sin but not our sin. That we don’t share that we are caught up in the same sinful acts of sex and lust outside of marriage. Sex outside marriage is sin, and same sex couples are not permitted to be married.”

The division I saw talking about these things did break my heart. In my heart, in my gut, I couldn’t care less if gay people had civil unions that gave them the benefits our nation grants marriages. I began to see how discriminated against gay people were and I hated that. It seemed unfair and especially un-Christian to be so mean. “Love is patient, love is kind.” The things I’d heard people saying behind closed doors would have never come out of my mouth. “They’re trying to destroy Christianity” some would say. But I knew that wasn’t true, they just wanted to be welcomed, valued, and loved.” I still believed it was  sin, but I began to grow so weary of how venomous the church had become in handling this conversation. Of course I understood why Christians were fearful of the angry “gay agenda” but I also understood that we gave no reason whatsoever to not be angry at us. We were too fearful and paranoid to be welcoming.

To sit through Easter Sunday services and hear pastors rail into the gay community made me sick. EASTER! EASTER SUNDAY! We didn’t speak this way of divorce! Wasn’t that adultery!?  I agreed with not being swayed into affirmation, but empathy began to take hold. In our fight for the sacrament, and meaning of marriage, I began to hear stories of how excluded our words made people feel. How unwelcome people felt into our churches. I adopted the stance “It’s the Spirit’s job to change you, not ours, not mine. All are welcome.”

In 2011 Rob Bell released a book called Love Wins. (I swear this is relevant.) The book rocked my world because it revealed that all those sneaking suspicions I had carried all my life, about the character of God, weren’t insane. It validated several things I had long believed about God, salvation, the cross, heaven and hell, but that I was too afraid to voice. This didn’t just reveal I wasn’t alone in these thoughts but that there was actually a long VALID history in the Church of understanding things in ways different than how I was raised or taught in Young Life. I read the damn thing about five times cover to cover. I couldn’t shut up about the book. Just about everyone I respected was talking about or reading it themselves. One of those Anglicans priests reached out to my mother and said “He’s reading Heresy!!!” hahaha! I didn’t care. It was liberating. And it fired me up about exploring my faith in a totally refreshing way. I dug deep. I quadrupled my book intake. I dug deep into the scriptures. I read and re-read and became a Bible thumper like you’d never imagined. Finding new ways to understand things, but more importantly to find that so many things I’d been taught growing up actually weren’t present in the Bible. My beliefs started to change. I became a bit of a black sheep in my evangelical circles. I read and re-read books by Rob Bell. And followed closely as the book and the controversy pushed him out of his church in Grand Rapids. I found what happens to people who don’t fall in line when teaching contrary to the church. The difference was, I saw the depths to what Rob was teaching. He actually gave me background the others did not. When I brought up these things with my friends and faith leaders, they’d never heard of them at all. And yet when I did my own research I was finding the same background Rob did. Just how much had I been duped on? How much of my faith was just generational affirmations of spoon-fed bible thumping without the rooted context to support it? A veil was torn with that book and I shifted my major from Film to Religion. My faith was secure. I didn’t want to study at a seminary and just get boxed in like I assumed so many others before me had; making them hard to seeing anything contrary to their certainties. I wanted to hear an academic approach. I wanted to hear why people DIDN’T believe.  That, in and of itself, was such a transformational journey. In 2011, I ordered some “Love Wins” bumper stickers and put them on my car, my bike, and my bible.

I began 2012 in an interesting way. If you knew me, you’d know I’m a massive fan of the Dave Matthews Band. (Again, I promise this is relevant.) I’ve traveled all across this country seeing them live over 30 times. And over the years I’ve made some remarkable friends who have kept in touch over social media. One such friend, saw how often I talked about Jesus. He reached out to me towards the end of 2011, asking if we could talk about Jesus. Claiming he was a wreck, going crazy, and needed Jesus and Bible in his life. I gave him my number to call, He called and he came out to me. We shared stories of lost sons, and lost sheep, and God’s embrace. And he wanted to give his life to Christ. But over the weeks that followed, as we talked more and more, the questions came up, He came to me with brokenness, stress, and fears about his inclusion and finally he asked, “does this mean I have to give up a homosexual lifestyle? Because I don’t know that I can.”

“This is going to be hard to hear…” I said,

…but it does.”

{Devon you fucking idiot.}

I explained the differences of “homosexuality” and “homosexual acts.” That the Bible didn’t necessarily condemn the attraction but it did condemn the act. That in Roman’s 1 the Bible says that people traded natural desires for “unnatural” ones with people of the same sex. He asked questions about Leviticus, and I shared stories of adulterous women.

I began 2012 with this post: Hope. (A discussion on Homosexuality.)

I had never written anything that had received more interaction. Hundreds of comments on my Facebook page and on the blog itself. It became a huge discussion. In retrospect, I am both appalled by it’s content and thankful that I did my best to absorb my beliefs in empathy and as much objectivity as I was capable of.  I treaded very lightly but sincerely, trying to explain my beliefs with as much balance as possible. That I’m not just lumping same sex relationships into some lonesome category, like so much of the church often does. But explaining sexual sin has a hold on all of us, and that sexual acts are only permissible within a marriage, which God has established between a man and a woman. Any of us acting outside of this God ordained institution, are practicing sin. That was my point. I argued that we cannot redefine marriage if we believe in the authority of scripture. It was unfortunate, and my heart broke for what I believed God was asking, but it wasn’t just difficult for same sex partners, it was difficult for me too. It’s challenging to not have a physical relationship outside of marriage. I knew that meant that unless they changed, honoring God meant they live a life of celibacy. Void of the physical intimacy of a partner they were attracted to. But still, I believed this was God’s will. I couldn’t find any way around the scriptures that said so.

If you read the comments of my post above, you’ll see my arguments at the time. You’ll also see a man named Alex Haiken and I going back and forth in debate. Alex was challenging my exegesis. Something I thought I had done by studying these six passages, and how they had been understood in various commentaries, but I had not in fact gone outside the Bible in any way to inform my belief. My belief was informed by the scripture alone. Everything else was just noise. This man introduced me to the act known in the ancient world as Pederasty as well as many other cultic expressions of sexuality. Suggesting Paul was rebuking the sexual indulgences of many men of power who either raped or indulged in sexual acts with young men or even young boys. I ignored him because Roman’s 1 clearly stated that “natural desires were given up for unnattural ones.” You want to tell me that homosexuality doesn’t mean what I think it does? (Which, pause, is a very reasonable thing to suggest because the English word “homosexual” did not appear in English Bibles till 1946. I, however, did not know that then.). That it actually means something like pederasty? Even if you were to say this is true, you still have to explain Romans 1. Explain how the Word of God calls it unnatural.  I so easily wrote him off because he was gay. And yet, these ideas he introduced stayed with me.

*  *  *

I so deeply loved Rob Bell’s way of teaching and all he gave me; the ways he shaped me and affirmed that I wasn’t losing my sanity. So when people turned on him after his book “Love Wins”, and everyone began warning me about him, I saw in real time how passionately certainty fights to preserve itself from alternative ways of understanding. Tribalism became ultra-clear to me. Similar things began happening to me as I explained what I was learning in my secular Religion department that was really challenging how I was so foundationally taught things were. I held his influence with great caution, because I wanted my faith to be based on my seeking, not Rob Bell’s. Not anyone’s. But there was very little that I was learning that didn’t align with what I was getting from Bell’s sermons, books, and interviews. That was until one of his first events after leaving Mars Hill. A webcast that took place at The Viper Room in L.A. where at the end there’s a Q&A. A man asked him about his views on the gay community.  Rob looked this person in their eyes and said, “you are our brothers and sisters, and we love you.” (if you search for the clip on Youtube look for “HERETIC “Pastor” Rob Bell Approves of Homosexuality- FALSE TEACHER ALERT!”) When I heard him say this, I was so conflicted.

Bell didn’t explain in any way how he had gotten there. He just was there. He basically just said “We love you, I’ve always known God loves you and that you’re great and passionate disciples. It’s important that we get together on this, because we’ve got some big problems we need to face together.” Which is fine and valid, but can you explain away these Bible verses? I wasn’t really surprised he was there, but I was devastated because for so long when people warned me about him, I could explain what he was saying and why. This was one of the first times where when I said “I love Rob Bell, but obviously I don’t agree with him on everything,” was actually true. I didn’t agree with him on this and that made me sad. Unsure if I should trust him on other things. Maybe those who warned me about him were right. His vocality however revealed something I hadn’t bothered to consider. How can a Christian I have trusted so deeply, come to this conclusion?

I had spent all my energies reading online posts and studying Bible commentaries and talking with pastors about why I was right and the liberals were wrong. The best explanations from affirming people I had received seemed to be too dismissive of the Bible. “The Bible also says not to eat Shrimp! Do you believe that?” Well yeah, but that was OT.  I had never found someone so passionate about Christ that could explain how they came to be affirming of same sex relationships. And I had never asked. I had never sought out those answers because I liked my certainty. I liked my Bible. I liked knowing who was in and who was out. I liked my ego. And I feared what it would mean to change my mind. For the first time I realized I had not been fair in my beliefs about this. That I was ignoring an entire side of the conversation.

We Christians, especially on the topic of same-sex relationships, spend far more time studying ways to continue to be against it than we ever have studying ways to be for it. If you defend the view that the Bible is against it, you are championed in your communities. But if you share the research that suggests this issue is actually far from black and white,  you are met with: “Are you sure? Are you positive that we should affirm this? Have you REALLY thought about it? What if you’re wrong?”

Our questions to keep us as a people against seem to far outweigh our questions that would make a people for.

We put people through Hell because many of us believe we’re saving them from Hell, but shouldn’t we be sure before we do such a thing?

If we are truly a loving group of people, we should make EVERY effort to make sure we’ve got things right before putting something as heavy as eternal damnation on another person. Have we studied these six passages? Have we dug into the Greek and the Hebrew? Are we possibly bringing in modern understandings of sexuality to ancient pages? Or did we just read the English word “homosexual” (Which again, didn’t appear in English bibles until the 1940’s) and assume “Op! That settles it. Done deal.” Because if I’m really being honest, that’s what I think most of you have done. Because that’s what I had done.

When I wrote my article on Homosexuality in 2012, I hadn’t actually dug in. I simply saw the passages (something that in my experience most non-affirming people can’t even cite) and made my own conclusions. There was nothing academic about it. Merely logic based conclusions that were built upon decades of pastors informing me on the topic. And people shared my article like wild-fire. To this day I still think it was one of my more shared articles because “Hey! Look someone being nice about it for a change!”

I am incapable of writing that same article today because I think I was incredibly off-base. Like Alex warned, there was nothing academic about my views. Just: there’s the Bible verses and here’s what I think they mean. I didn’t even care what he was teaching me because all I saw was an agenda to try and make it work out for himself. No humanity. Just a pure and desperate agenda. But the more time you spend in scholar land and in textual criticism land, you actually find so much information that makes this topic less secure. Which sent me into silence and self-pity.

If most of your questions about something divisive are about how you can continue to condemn it, but you haven’t also spent ample time researching how affirming groups have come to their conclusions, then I have to just say, there’s something evil about that dualism. It says so much about our heart if we are more inclined to condemn than understand. But it really speaks to the conceptions of God we’ve been given.

We try and spare people from the wrath of God by warning them of what may be their sin. But I can’t be the only one who is actually far more concerned with God’s wrath towards the Church if we have been turning away an entire group of people that He was passionately and lovingly inviting to the table. (Thoughts on Hell discussed at another time.)

Now Jesus never mentions homosexuality. But He says an awful lot about this. Seeing this pattern in my communities and myself made me feel shame. That so much harm may have been done and that it was possible, perhaps even likely that we were wrong about it.

I quit talking about this with peers because I didn’t know what I believed. Or rather, I wasn’t brave enough to face what I believed. I had to be sure because so much was riding on my mind changing on this. And in truth, the thought of what it would mean for my future in the ministries I loved terrified me. I thought I’d never be able to work for YoungLife or a church again. So I went into a season of silence. When people asked me I would share the two perspectives and give background to both. Trying not to vocalize my personal thoughts. Though sometimes I would say “I’m not sure, I might can get to the place of “the Bible doesn’t talk about this the way that most people think it does,” but  “I also don’t think it affirms it. And I still feel like the Bible’s position on marriage is clear.”  Stuck in the middle.

*  *  *

Prior to graduating college I entered into a spiral of deconstruction. The Bible, worship, Church, Salvation, the Cross, Christianity itself, all of that became subject. My Religion major broke me. My questions unraveled me. Things were not as they seemed. I wasn’t sure what I believed because most of what I had been taught had been unraveled by scholarly criticism or archaeology that I tried and tried (AND TRIED) to avoid. It finally won out. How, with all of these denominations, with all of these different tribes, and now all of this revealed gray area, could one possibly know when they are conforming to the world? How could I trust the authority of anything when there is so much disagreement between us? I tried to see things how I once had but I couldn’t. There are some things you cannot unsee. You’ll likely fight it for a season before you come to accept it. I’ll be forever grateful to authors like Peter Enns, Bruce Feiler, Benajamin Corey, Richard Rohr, and Rachel Held Evans who I found in this season. (And yes, okay fine, Bell as well.) They helped me put my broken pieces back together. They helped me put the Bible back together. In a way that didn’t ignore textual criticism, history, or science, but welcomed it. In fact that made the Bible all the more real and colorful. Because if something is true, it belongs to God.

“If your faith is threatened by something that’s true, then it wasn’t much of a faith to begin with.” (Rob Bell, What We Talk About When We Talk About God)

I hope I don’t lose some of you here.

I might, I know this.

I hope me being honest about what I’ve seen doesn’t invalidate other points I find far more important. I imagine for some these ideas are insulting and for others quite obvious. Wherever you fall on that spectrum, I hope you’ll stay.

Rohr, Bell and Enns invited me to see the evolution of human consciousness that’s present in our Scriptures. It’s living because it’s increasingly expansive. Nothing came about in a vacuum. We have to start with the humanity of the scriptures to reach the divine. It was all shaped and influenced by surrounding cultures and beliefs and yet it often transcended it; pointed beyond that. Our problem is we often come to the scriptures making them, as Enns often says, “behave.” When we make the Bible “behave”, or act the way we think it should, we often fail to be honest with the text. We often fail to see it’s complexities, growth, expansive understandings, contradictions, historical retellings. I bring this up because being able to re-look at everything made me more honest with God than ever. And in that honesty I lost a lot of chains.

What influenced this passage? How did the surrounding cultures understand these things? What might I be bringing into the text? Have we learned new understanding since? Does science explain something once unknown by the authors of scripture? Did cultures have preconcieved ideas about the way things worked? What fears are blinding me?

It was no longer just what did the author believe, but also what influenced the author? What cultural understandings might have limited their ability to understand things we now understand because of science and reason? (Bias alert, I think God wants us to use those things.) We eat shrimp now! (Thank God!) We don’t sacrifice goats (or kids.) The institution of slavery is a bit frowned upon these days. We know that the earth is not 6,000 years old. We know that the sun does not revolve around the Earth. We don’t murder adulterers with rocks. Our women don’t wear head coverings. We seem cool with that. Many (Evangelical) Churches have lead pastors that are women…because yeah, that’s obvious. Female Pastors, peers and women on Young Life Staff have so aggressively shaped my faith. They’ve grounded me, supported me, taught me, calmed me, and lifted countless burdens off my shoulders. To suggest they shouldn’t have would be so nonsensically bonkers. Progress seems to have taken place. Why? Expansive understandings are part of our DNA because that’s called maturity, and maturity is good.

*  *  *

Let’s just call this the season of cowardice.

In May of 2015 I accepted a job that would move me out to Austin, TX to work for a Bible Church as a year long intern for a Young Adults ministry. In June, the SCOTUS recognized the fundamental right for same-sex couples to legally marry across the nation.  In August, I was working my first day on the new job and was handed the book “Is God, Anti-gay?” written by Sam Allberry; a man who “struggles with same-sex attraction.” (Quick summary, yeah. But not like, in a mean way). It’s ethic was very similar to the blog post I had written. Due to the recent SCOTUS decision “Our Young Adults were asking questions and it was important for our leadership to be on the same page.” I was told. I don’t remember what I said at the retreat that followed, but I remember feeling uncomfortable. I know I didn’t lead people to see any ambiguity. I’m sure I tried to lead people to not see others as lower than them and to realize the reality of the expectations they were placing on people. I received jokes from folks and even cautious skepticism because on my car and my Bible were the words “Love Wins.”

A few months into the residency, I was invited into the Executive Pastors office. He told me that someone had complained about my stickers and I was asked to remove them. My “Love Wins” stickers that had been on my car for years. The “Love Wins” sticker that was on my Bible as a reminder of the message that made that book come alive. I fought it. He asked if this was the hill I was willing to die on. (Which “Love Wins” is a damn good hill for a Christian to die on but, moving on.) I told them I would ultimately do what they asked me to do. And so I peeled off Love Wins from my car. (And taped “Love never fails.” over the sticker on my Bible. Suckers.) That’s a pretty clear example of what I was up against.

I didn’t speak up to my leadership about my differences. I told some friends I trusted. Lots of people assumed I might see things different when I was being “such a liberal” and advocating that we take care of refugees. Couple that with my bumper stickers and a few asked me my thoughts. The strange place I was struggling with was that 1. I represented my church and felt it wasn’t right for me to teach contrary to their statement of faith. (Which I just had so many issues with, but I didn’t know there were communities that taught those things differently. I just figured it was the cost of vocational ministry. I told myself that I’d never find a community I agree with everything on.) 2. I couldn’t give a Biblical reason towards affirmation that they would think was valid or good enough. 3. I didn’t know anyone in Austin who was gay. & 4. I was insecure in my beliefs, and afraid of them. 

In one rather political sermon on Pharisees and Sadducees I even stated, “We don’t get to redefine marriage.”  EVEN THOUGH I WASN’T THERE ANYMORE! Even though with certain friends I gave more complex answers. I was teaching things I didn’t believe because to be honest was to be wounding. To be fired. Without a home (provided by the church), and without a paycheck. And because this is what I’m supposed to teach. Isn’t it? That’s what honesty would cost me. I let my job security get in the way of a peoples humanity. I was the Priest that walked by the beaten man on the way to Jerusalem. If I speak up for them, what will happen to me? If I tend to their wounds, will I be wounded?  If I stand with them, will I be treated the same? By family? By friends? By my church? By my only community?

I hated the place I was in. I hated that I couldn’t give a clear enough answer to explain myself. And you’re allowed to be angry at me. Because I’m angry too.

*  *  *

A friend had texted me about meeting up to discuss a “difficult decision.” We went to lunch, and over some chips and queso, she asked if I thought it was okay if she attended a Gay Wedding. She had been invited, and couldn’t decide the most godly approach. I think I immediately laughed and said “HELL YEAH!” but knew that didn’t help with her decision. She was worried what some friends might think, and didn’t want to have to explain herself to them. But also wasn’t entirely sure that she should go. So she asked my thoughts. I think I said something like this:

I’m not convinced the authors of Scripture had any sort of grasp on sexual orientation. I don’t think gay and straight were categories for someone like Paul. I think often we do something very Biblically illiterate and we read in our understandings of sexuality into the ancient scriptures without understanding that this discussion has evolved throughout history. That if we understand this issue in its context I think it’s much more gray than some people want it to be. The authors of scripture are likely talking about the men who would be intimate with younger boys and then go home with their wives (Pederasty). Or possibly they were discussing that men should not take on the passive gender role of women. (It was a cultural belief that women were so inferior and weak that to be the receiver in intimacy was to liken yourself equal to a woman and this was viewed as an abomination. In fact some scholars argue that Romans 1 doesn’t condemn female same sex relationships but rather condemns women taking on the active role in sexual intercourse and making the men behave effeminately.) ” I said “not everyone views the scriptures these ways. Some think that Romans 1 is as specific as anyone needs. I said I disagreed that it was specific personally, but that very smart people have wrestled with both and come to different views. But also we have to think about creation, are we designed certain ways that affirm only one kind of sexual relationship? Sure it may be easy to make the Biblical case grayer than most believe it is, but just because I have doubt about a Biblical stand against our modern conceptions of sexual orientation, that doesn’t mean I can necessarily give you a Biblical reason to affirm it. And I think we all just have to pray and wrestle with that ourselves. I’m not likely to convince you one way or another. But I think all of it is welcome at the table. Don’t wrestle with it alone. Wrestle with the community of the church.  Ask your pastor questions. Ask your Bible study questions. Hang out with people who actually live this. Share the things you’re learning or doubting or experiencing. Put it on the table and eat the meal of doubt with other believers.”

It was in this conversation that I noticed in the fullest way, where I was headed. Just saying that much openly took some fear away. I wanted nothing to stand in the way of LGBT people. Least of all faith. If uncertainty was my posture, then of course the more threatening approach was non-affirming. I believed that if anyone really dug into this they’d find that this wasn’t as clear as they had been taught. And if I didn’t believe something, well then I wouldn’t teach it. I made a vow that if I was uncertain one way or another, I would always explain why I was uncertain or what was holding me back.

* * *

Often Christians assume that if I just read the Bible more, pray more, or study more, then the answers will be clearer. But this has almost LITERALLY never been the case. The more I study any topic, the more clouded it always becomes. You think the cross has only been understood one way? You think Baptism and the Eucharist are cut and dry? You think everyone agrees on what and how salvation works? You are profoundly misinformed if you think so. Why is it like this? Because God is a mystery and our understanding of truth is profoundly limited. The only common thing that happens in these journeys is that I often move further from what I originally thought and have even more questions. (You think those millions of denominations come simply from a different taste in worship music?) Maybe all we need is more teachers to be honest about this? Even if it doesn’t build the biggest churches at least there would be less reason for division. Because we all knew things were grayer than we hoped. But we found the truth in the tension and the wrestle. And our priority, our single clarity, was that loving people, and loving God is a winning combination.

And loving people, makes their pain more concerning than your correct beliefs.

It was two things that tore me into pieces.

I found a book titled UNFAIR by John Shore. It was a collection of short essays from LGBT persons sharing their stories about their experiences in the church. I dare you to read one letter without becoming a sobbing mess. It ruined me, the pain that so many have carried because of this. The suicide, the self harm, the broken families, the loss of jobs, being forced onto the streets, split churches.

The other was The Liturgist Podcast: LGBTQ. They humanized conversations that too often are simplified as issues to debate instead of real people with feelings, hopes, love, and hurt. This isn’t just an issue to me anymore, its people. I listened towards the end of the episode as a Pastor talked about how his church moved to affirmation. He shared that we gave them crumbs. We gave them crumbs and even still they came to our churches. And as I drove I broke down and cried. It was through tears that I decided I can’t be silent about this.

After Austin, I returned on staff with Young Life. I was placed on a bit of an island in charge of a community. I struggled with the fact that Young Life had such a clear stance on sexuality but figured I would just try and fly under the radar. Because again, I didn’t know communities that would welcome me as I am with all my chaos and uncertainty. I loved loving people. I loved serving with other Christians. I loved leading people to see bigger than they ever had before. I loved entering the lives of teenagers and leading them through such difficult years. I loved justice and firing people up to care about what Jesus actually invited us to do. But all my faith insecurities, my differences in beliefs, I just assumed this was the way it had to be if I wanted to be in vocational ministry. That I had to tread lightly about my beliefs if I wanted to serve for this ministry.

That they were firmly, non-affirming and would not hire any person that acted on their same sex attractions angered me. I often brought up that I thought this was deceptive. We welcome any and all kids loving them wholly, and naturally many want to give to others what their leaders had given them. But some of those who wish to give back, we don’t allow to do so. Because they’re more messed up than we are? I thought this was such bullshit but the issue never came up. I never had any leaders or kids talk about their sexuality.  I know this was probably my first sign that I should be somewhere else, but if any kid had come to me about their sexuality I would have tossed that statement of faith right out the damn door. But that never happened. I was told there were conversations happening “high up” but I was never a part of them. And just truth be told, I wasn’t trying to get fired and knew I would be. I didn’t want my honesty to mean that kids in my community wouldn’t have a ministry that so profoundly changed my life. And that was such a bastard to carry. Nobody should have to carry that. But I ended up being right.

I had already set off a few red flags in my community when I posted a picture of another book on this topic that I had been reading: Matthew Vine’s “God and the Gay Christian.”  I went to the Women’s March, was constantly protesting for Standing Rock, was vocally not a fan of Donald Trump and his profoundly un-Christian platform; though I tried my best to avoid the use of his name and make it more about what Jesus and the scriptures taught. People obviously saw through that. I championed Black Lives Matters and universal healthcare, spoke up about systemic injustices, and confronting white supremacy you know all that Jesus…I mean LIBERAL stuff. This alone alienated people in my community and likely because of this, we were running out of money. Money wasn’t coming in. And the passion to go out and raise it was faltered by “who is this liberal teaching our kids and what does he actually believe?” Which I understand. I get their concerns because I once shared them myself. I knew their story well enough because it was my story at one time. I’m sure there are ways I could have handled this better, or have been more upfront in the hiring process. (Though these things don’t typically come up in those interviews. And again I didn’t believe I had a place in vocational ministry without sitting back and holding back that I had reached different conclusions than my evangelical upbringing.)

Living in D.C. and near Charlottesville in 2016 revealed in the strongest sense the cost of our silence. The destruction that was happening was so evil and seemed so rooted in the missteps of the White Church.

Taking a stand has a cost, but so does silence.  I just finally cared about people more than that cost.
Going to marches I began to meet the people that I had excluded and dismissed for so, so much of my life. Watching these powerful people stand up for justice made me a different person. Hearing their testimonies of abuse and exclusion made the tolerance I had been living in fade away. My concerns of self-preservation dwindled when I found communities that…affirmed me. That made me feel whole. Not like the black sheep identity I had been carrying for so many years. How could I live in communities, CHRISTIAN communities, that didn’t do that for others?

Activism pushed me to a place where I was less interested in sitting in the shadows. D.C. opened me up to communities that shared my understandings. That had traveled similar journeys. Christians that actually shared my beliefs. They existed. And I began looking for a new home.

*  *  *

I had shared the picture of Vine’s book and a quote explaining that other texts in the ancient world had also used this “unnatural” word that had me hung up for so many years. And those texts were talking about the reversal of gender roles in intercourse. (Basically societal gender roles dictated who was on top, and to reverse such a thing, or for a man to take on the passive role of a woman, why…that was “unnatural.”) I thought others would enjoy this insight. I thought wrong. My mother called me concerned saying she didn’t think I had considered how others would see it. I didn’t care because if they can’t handle something like that then they aren’t concerned at all with truth. Like, if a fact about the ancient world so disturbs your faith, your faith is incredibly insecure.

And a week later I was sitting across from my regional director talking about my posts. I decided I wouldn’t hide anymore and we talked for about two hours. I shared everything you’ve read here. That I didn’t think the Bible talked about what we are. And that the bulk of our argument is built on modern understandings of sexuality and costly assumptions. That I don’t think there is any biblical argument that the purpose of marriage was for procreation and not companionship. Marriage was clearly about companionship and fidelity. Being alone wasn’t good enough the story says. Loneliness seemed to be a problem to God. Celibacy, Biblically speaking was a calling, it’s never forced on someone. Paul’s ideal state was singleness (cause the world was going to end soon) but that he taught if passion so burned it was best to commit it to a relationship. And I said that I think it’s crazy that we would teach something that if anyone really dug into, they would realize is more gray than our statement of faith suggests. I said I’m open to talking about what the Bible says about affirmation but only if we consider what the Bible says about fruit. Christ said we will be known by our fruit. And what is the fruit of this teaching and communities that abide in it.

The fruit is suicide. The fruit is bullying. The fruit is self-harm. The fruit is exclusion. The fruit is broken families. The fruit is homeless teenagers. The fruit is split churches. The fruit is bad.

I was asked to refrain from writing controversial things and entered a season of discernment about whether or not I would stay on staff. I was listened to. I was respected. I wasn’t told to stop advocating or challenging, I was just told to stop doing it as someone on Young Life staff. That this wasn’t our work, and that if my passions were leading me to this work then I should go and do this work. People need it. Which I both disagreed and agreed with. As a Christian, I believe this is the work. It cannot be divorced from our ministry. But as a person on staff for an organization that upheld many beliefs that I no longer did, my presence probably was a ticking clock, and it likely wasn’t helping anyone. I was told these things weren’t just going to change overnight. It was handled as well as it could have been, and I respect how well something so difficult was handled. They gave me space to sort things out, they didn’t try to change my beliefs, they just made it clear that there would be no change on their end overnight. And I knew this was true. I loved this ministry. It gave me the world. It gave me relationships that will last a lifetime. It loves people so well. It has a humor and welcome for kids in ways unmatched in the entire Kingdom of God. I still support my friends and all who participate in this ministry. It is a huge piece of me, and yet I knew I had been avoiding the fact that I was not the right person for it. I love the philosophy, I love the people, I love the community, but I no longer aligned on important things to me. And it wasn’t fair that my presence would tank an area. I hated that. It was like removing a piece of me. But I knew it was true.

I immediately began looking for another job. I now knew they existed. I had found churches at the marches that were all in. Advocacy, liberation, confronting oppression was seen as the work of the body of Christ. The Gospel was not just a story to be shared but a tool for the liberation of all people. That we were in the justice and reconciliation business. That our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.

And this mattered. As I saw it, it was life and death.

As Dr. King so poignantly stated in his Letter From a Birmingham Jail, that the great stumbling block on strides towards freedom was “the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice;  who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

Christians need to welcome tension. Because without it, we never mature.

I had been this person for many years. I couldn’t live with it anymore. Non-affirming theology hurts people. I was no longer interested in being okay with “both sides.” One was filled with bad fruit and it created violence. And that is injustice. And God hates injustice. He hears the cry of the oppressed.

I lived so greatly into Rick Warren’s words, “Debate the worthiness of the idea without infringing the worth of the person.”

Which is the right direction, unless your idea is in fact about the worth of a person.

“The gospel isn’t offensive because of who it keeps out, but who it lets in.”-Rachel Held Evans

I looked for a church that affirmed.

*  *  *

A week after that initial conversation, a friend in Austin, TX messaged me saying a church she thought I would love was looking for a Youth Director. When I interviewed with them the church body was voting on marriage equality. And not the way that you think. As United Methodists they were not permitted to perform same-sex marriages. However the congregation (older than the state of Texas) was a reconciling church. They affirmed the LGBTQ members of their congregation wholly. They voted that, as a church, they would not perform any marriages until the United Methodists recognized same-sex marriages. I was offered the job and moved back to Austin three months later.

I vowed to not hide my beliefs in the interview process. I vowed to affirm myself.

I found a church that I otherwise thought didn’t exist. A church that not only understood me, but welcomed me, and truly actually, welcomed others. And because of this, draws those who too often are “othered” by churches.

My family struggles with me being on staff here. And many peers think I’ve moved the wrong direction away from Christ. All I can say is that the Spirit is roaring in this community. That our leadership is made up of those who weren’t welcome in my former communities. And it should go without saying that they are some of our most passionate and devoted members.

This is not one of those “If I could do things over again I wouldn’t change a thing” stories. I would change so many things. I would be braver. I would sit in that pain instead of spout my religion. I would hug rather than cure. I would listen more. I wouldn’t merely read things and stop there. I would make sure. I would not vilify what I do not understand. I would not let surface level reasoning dictate who I valued and welcomed. Who I actually welcomed without cost. I would listen to that uneasiness screaming within me. I would say “I don’t know.” I would understand that the lives of others are worth more than my career or the opinions of others.

I would understand that Love wins.

 “I can’t for the life of me imagine that God would say, ‘I will punish you because you are black; you should have been white. I will punish you because you are a woman; you should have been a man. I punish you because you are homosexual; you ought to have been heterosexual. I can’t, I can’t for the life of me believe that that is how God sees things.” – Desmond Tutu

 *  *  *

So what compelled me to write this? And why have I written such a novel?

Over the weekend I found myself in the middle of many conversations about Shane Claiborne, a man that I so deeply admire, who has done so, so much to challenge my faith for the better, but who has flown a bit under the radar when it comes to this conversation. Many progressive Christians, and many LGBTQ Christians responded with the belief that we should be exclusionary with those who do not affirm LGBT Christians. Which, to me, meant not partnering with the meaningful prophetic work he is always up to. Work that I believe glorifies the Kingdom of God. And I really wrestled with this. Because I know my story, and I know their story.

To not share space with people you don’t agree with and who don’t agree with you, to me is exactly how I was treated for so much of my life, and it didn’t lead me to see things their way. In fact it gave me the freedom to go the exact other way. (Which, in fairness, is something I’m thankful for.)

I think of Trump’s base and my role in their radicalization. My role in our current state of social regression. Progressives are terrible at insulting ignorance instead of patiently informing it. And more often than that, we say the right things the wrong ways. Ways that push out those we disagree with. Furthering the gap of division. Hurt people, hurt people. That actually goes both ways a lot of the time. We are rarely concerned with the well-being of those who reject and harm us. We struggle deeply with inviting people into our spaces because we see the harm of their ignorance and usually almost always, they don’t. We don’t want to invite people in that hurt people we care about, perhaps it has even hurt us. We don’t want to make space for people who perpetuate systems of injustice. And that’s fair.

Where does my understanding of how difficult it is for people to move from non-affirming theology and my pain for the hurt it causes LGBTQ people intersect? That’s the tension I’m holding as I write out this post.

The anguish I feel at how long this is taking challenges my belief that love is patient.

Such patience means continued harm. Such patience means more death. Such patience means continued darkness, continued exclusion, continued dehumanization, and yet, I have to believe Paul understood the cost of his patience as well as any of us could.

The man was beaten, thrown off a cliff, imprisoned, hated and somehow still stayed in the fight.

Patience is not passivity. Too often Progressives are passive with their patience.

Progress is usually a messy thing because it’s new. People don’t resist change, they resist loss.

I understand why appeals to grace towards non-affirming people feels like abandonment. It feels like we’re not standing for you. That the fact that they don’t affirm isn’t a big enough deal to us. That we could compromise that for other causes.

I understand that it feels like an appeal to “grace towards your oppressor” is permitting the harm done to you. Or that by giving grace we are not being tough enough against those who do not value you. And this awareness has put me in corners all weekend.

Because I believe grace is the big idea of Christ. And yet, who I am to dictate what harm is allowed to come your way for whatever greater good?

I’ve never been subjected to what you have. I couldn’t possibly know and I feel it wrong to assume. In trying to understand, I’m led to the fact that my entire professional life up until now, has been working with people who disagreed with me. Who thought I was wrong and who tried to bring me back to their ways. Who made me feel “other” because I wasn’t like them. I also know how much was working against me in my move to affirmation. How much interfered with my seeing with clarity. I don’t want to invite you into pitying those like me, because your trials are of far more concern to me. It’s not apples and oranges. But if I may, I would invite you to never fail to realize just how difficult it is to unlearn things. Especially when a person believes God’s will is attached to it.

Some people are so close, but institutional blindness and yes, fear and uncertainty is keeping them from that last and biggest step. And if people, not necessarily you, do not make space for them, we risk prolonging their transformation. Sharing space with those unlike us, is important for progress. People being confused by our shine is a healthy antidote to blindness. I think it’s important for people to see that. Especially our enemies. It’s the kindness that pours hot coals on our enemies.

I was so encouraged when I saw Bernie Sanders speak at Liberty University; the Evangelical Conservative breeding ground. He did not forsake his advocacy and began by saying “We do not agree on many things. I believe in a woman’s right to choose, and I believe in gay marriage and the rights of LGBTQ people.” He didn’t compromise those whom he believed in, and he appealed to causes he believed those Evangelical students might join him in so that some things, despite all our differences would move forward. Which is always good. Seeking common ground, by seeking higher ground together. Any movement forward should be celebrated.

There’s a lot of Christians I love deeply who think I’m a false teacher. Who think I’m on the wrong path. But could we still move some things forward together? I believe we could and I believe we have.

One of the things I really picked up on in the film Selma, was that we can’t just lift the consciousness of those like us and stick it to those who do not fall in line. Some build walls, others open doors.

It is the dance of empowerment and grace.

There’s the fist of Malcolm and the grace of King. Both undoubtedly work in their own ways, but as a follower of Christ, to me, grace is the entire point. We killed Jesus and still we are taught that he responded “Forgive them, they know not what they do.” We turn away from God and yet God still brings reconciliation and salvation.

When Piper & Co. released the Nashville Statement I was fuming. I couldn’t calm down for the entire day, and I know that this is only a fraction of the feelings you are constantly being met with. Clearly their influence felt so threatened that they doubled down in the sand and drew a line.

Should we respond by doing the same?

We are called to “spur one another on towards love and good deeds not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another.” We’ve become dismissive of those who haven’t reached the destination we expect because we fail to realize that we all are on an arch of an unfinished enlightenment. This arch, is why I believe Paul says “Love is patient.” Because we all are caught up in it and every knee will one day bow. The oppression of an idea, can be a hard slave to set free. But the idea is always my enemy, never the person that holds it. And that’s a hard word for me. I struggle there daily.

I believe its healthy and necessary and good to create boundaries that protect ourselves, and foster our health. I also believe transformation is found in the messy places.

It’s not my job to tell you that you are called to engage those who do not affirm you. Because some of us aren’t. And if that’s you, you’re okay, right where you are.

I was a real close-minded sonofabitch to Alex who commented on this blog six years ago. I wouldn’t wish me upon you. But I know that Alex helped me. Because he gave me a foundation that I would need at a later date. He endured his anger that day, and it took me YEARS, YEARS to come around.

I don’t know if you’re patient enough, or if I’m patient enough. But I know my story. And it leads me to grace.

And I hear your story,

and it leads me to fight.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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4 thoughts on “Affirmation. (A testimony.)

  1. Thanks for writing this. It’s good to hear stories like this and see so much of my own struggle in it. I’m also glad to see someone else who’s passionate about justice and ending oppression, but who is also trying to make room for people who aren’t there yet. Also, don’t beat yourself up too much about the things you said back then. I was just as bad and I’m gay ;p

  2. I really appreciate all you say here and how difficult this journey of discovery has been for you. I find it contradictory, though, that you “wanted to hear an academic approach” and yet so highly regard Rob Bell and Matthew Vines. Both are gifted communicators, but neither is a scholarly, credentialed theologian.

  3. I don’t know how I got here, but I am glad I did. I cried my way through this beautiful mini-saga. I felt so strangely at home and connected with much of what you said. I too left my YL role, something so influential and important in my life because as you said “As a Christian, I believe this is the work. It cannot be divorced from our ministry.” NAILED IT.

    Please keep writing. I don’t follow any blogs, but I promise I will follow yours. Pretty please. It has been a gift to me. Thank you. I also hope you put that sticker back up. 🙂

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