This is the manuscript I spoke from when I gave a talk last Friday, February 6, in a chapel service at Houghton College in New York.
This morning I want to talk about before and after.
We often tell our stories using those words—before and after.
It’s the language we are given in church. “I once was lost, but now am found / Was blind, but now I see,” we sing.
Before and after.
It’s the language of our “testimonies,” if you grew up in a church that had those. “Before I came to faith, I was wandering far from God. But now, after I met Christ, I am different.”
It’s also the language of the Bible. Jesus tells a story about a young man who bilked his father for his inheritance, burned through it on wild parties and rebellious behavior, and then came to his senses, having hit rock bottom. He gets up and begins to walk home and before he can even utter an apology, his father is already stringing up the “Welcome Back” banner and catering a big feast in his honor.
Before and after.
I’d like us to spend a few minutes looking at one of the stories in the Gospels. I want to tell you my personal “before and after” story, but before I do that, I want us to hear from Jesus.
In the Fourth Gospel, chapter 9, there is a character who was born blind. And Jesus sees him on the side of the road. Turning to him, Jesus says, “I am the light of the world,” and then, memorably, he spits on the ground, makes a paste of mud and applies it to the man’s eyes, and then tells him to go and wash in the pool of Siloam. “Then,” the Gospel says, “he went and washed and came back able to see.”
This is a very famous “before and after” story. But the “after” part isn’t exactly what we might expect.
In other places in the Gospels, when someone is healed or converted or “saved” in some way, there’s often rejoicing and proclamation of the happy event and thanksgiving. But here, things are a bit different. Here the man is immediately thrust into a sort of persecution. He’s dragged in to see the Pharisees. He’s rejected, in a certain way, by his own parents. His parents were afraid, the Gospel tells us. The religious leaders “revile” him, and, at the end of the story, they “drive him out” of the synagogue.
I was listening to one of my students preach on this passage recently in a chapel service at the seminary where I teach, and he made the observation that we Christians don’t talk enough perhaps about the complexity of “being healed.” Although of course we celebrate healing and give thanks for it, do we ever stop to think how hard it may be to be healed? It’s not the same thing as just turning back the clock to the way things were before you got sick or injured. It pushes you forward, sometimes, into something challenging and difficult and costly. It’s a new chapter of life, not a simple return to an imaginary original one.
I’m coming to you today as someone who identifies as a Christian. And I’m someone who also identifies as gay. I grew up trusting and loving Jesus. And I also spent my teenage years desperately trying to keep it a secret that I was sexually and romantically drawn to men, not women. I didn’t know how to hold those things together—being a Christian and being gay.
The Christians I knew at my church didn’t talk much about homosexuality or what it meant to be gay, and I felt at a loss as to how to bring it up with them. Privately, in my own thoughts, I just wanted to make it to college (a Christian college, as it happened), meet the Right Girl, and hopefully have all this turmoil fade away like a soon-forgotten dream.
To my frustration, that didn’t happen.
When I was a student—when I sat where you’re sitting now—I finally began to own up to the fact that I needed to face my sexuality, not run away from it. I needed to be able to live before God without fear and without shame. I needed to be able to talk with my fellow Christians about what I was thinking and feeling. I needed help to figure out what godly flourishing and hope looked like for me in my circumstances.
One of the things about people like me is that we’ve spent a lot of our lives hearing from people in the church about how we ought to live. A lot of people have a lot of opinions for us about what our discipleship should look like.
And often that advice takes the form of before and after. One of the counselors I met with one time looked me in the eye and said, “Wesley, I promise you that you can be free of your same-sex attractions.” He went on to tell me that I needed to get in touch with whatever childhood emotional wounds I may have received from my father and ask Jesus to come into those places and heal me. After that healing, my counselor felt confident that I would no longer be attracted to men.
Another friend, a very compassionate and gracious friend, also looked me in the eyes and said, “Wes, maybe you should find a man to marry.” He went on to tell me how his own views on sexuality had shifted, and he was now in favor of same-sex marriage. And he wanted me to be able to have that happiness.
Before and after.
There are a lot of “before and after” stories that people like me are told. I want to tell you one that’s a little bit different than what you may have heard in the past.
I too have a “before and after” story. But it’s not the usual one. Mine goes like this:
The best way I know to tell you the “before” part is by telling you a story. Picture me in high school, sitting in a circle of chairs in one of the Sunday School rooms at church. It was a Monday or Tuesday night, the church was quiet, and not many people were in the building. There was just this small circle of us teenage guys, plus our Bible study leader, and we were meeting to pray and “keep each other accountable,” as the saying goes.
One of the guys, a very kind and sincere young man, finally blurted out, “Come on, we’re all red-blooded American males here, let’s quit pretending and admit that we all struggle with lust. We’re all mentally undressing girls and fantasizing about having sex!” It was a risky thing to say, and I admired his courage. He wanted to talk openly and honestly.
But what caused my heart to start pounding and my neck to turn red is that I realized he wanted all of us to open up and talk. And, in that same moment, I realized that I had no idea how to say what I needed to say. I didn’t know how to respond, “I think I’m just as much of a red-blooded American male as all of you. But I don’t ever have fantasies about undressing women. All my fantasies are about guys my age.” I didn’t know how to say that, and—more importantly—I didn’t know if I even wanted to say it. I was afraid of how they might react. Would they think I chose to feel this way? Would they worry that I was attracted to them, and would that lead them to withdraw their friendship from me? Would they decide that this meant I couldn’t be a faithful Christian anymore? Would they judge me to be less godly or prayerful or committed than they’d thought I was?
And so I decided to lie. I made up some vague anecdote about being attracted to a girl I knew. I tried to make my report of lust sound authentically heterosexual. I wanted to fit in, to seem like I knew firsthand what I was talking about. But I didn’t.
For the next several years, that scenario played itself out again and again. I remember sitting in a beloved professor’s office in college, wanting so badly to talk with him about how confused and bewildered I was about my romantic feelings for men. But instead I did what I’d done in high school: I lied. When he asked me about whether I was dating anyone or interested in any particular girls, I made up a story. I added details that I thought would make my story sound real. And, as I told it, I felt the gulf between the real me and the me that was talking grow wider and wider.
That was before.
Sometime in the middle of college, something changed. What happened is that, through a series of circumstances, I came to feel the force of these words from the first epistle of John: “[I]f we walk in the light as [God] himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.”
Notice that phrase: walking in the light.
Jesus, in the Gospel story I told earlier, said, “I am in the light of the world.” We are invited to walk in the light of Jesus, in the light of his love.
What happened to me in college is that I realized I didn’t want to have to hide anymore.
My gay Catholic friend Eve Tushnet has said that for people like me to be “in the closet” means that we face some strong temptations. “There’s the temptation to cut yourself off from other people so they don’t get too close,” Eve writes. “[There’s the temptation] to avoid friendship, and avoid help. Being in the closet makes it harder to act rightly.”
I decided I didn’t want to be in the closet anymore. I wanted to step out of the darkness and walk in the light. And so I did—cautiously, at first, and little by little. First I told one of my professors that I was gay. Then I told my pastor. And then, more and more, I found the courage to tell my friends and eventually my family.
But here’s the thing. What I found when I started being honest and open wasn’t “healing” that left me all smiles and joy. My experience was more like the man born blind: I felt that I had been healed and transformed. I felt that I was, for the first time, beginning really to walk in the light. But I also felt that I was thrust into a new set of tensions and difficulties and challenges. I did feel that I was in a “before and after” story. But the “after” part was more ambiguous than I wanted.
To my frustration and confusion, I found myself more and more convinced that my same-sex desire wasn’t going away. Contrary to the promises of my counselor, it seemed stronger than ever, and so embedded in every facet of my personality (not just in my moments of “lust”), that I couldn’t even begin to imagine what it would look like for it to go away. Gradually, and with a sort of wistful feeling of seeing a door close, I decided that traditional, heterosexual marriage was an unlikely prospect.
At the same time, I was also slowly coming to feel that the newer Christian discussions of same-sex marriage weren’t shedding much light on my life either. Just at the moment when many of my friends were shifting their views and embracing revisions of classical Christian teaching on marriage, I found myself becoming convinced of that teaching. According to the historic view, marriage is the union—or the reunion—of male and female, estranged at first in the Fall (see Genesis chapter 3) but reconciled to one another through the death and resurrection of Christ (see Ephesians chapter 5). Same-sex sexual unions, even the most tender and faithful ones, can’t display this fundamental created-and-redeemed difference between male and female, and thus, Christians have believed for ages, are outside the bounds of God’s will for our flourishing (see Romans chapter 1).
What does it look like if that’s your after? If you finally come out as gay, if you hold on to your Christian faith, and your faith’s traditional teachings about sex and marriage, what does life look like after you do that?
Again, I think the best way for me to answer that question is by telling you a story.
Fast forward five years from when I graduated from college. I was now living in England, and I had been “out” to my new friends Jono and Megan for a few months. I wanted to “walk in the light” from the very start of this friendship. No hiding anymore. No ignoring or burying my secret. I was looking for relational closeness, and I knew that honesty and vulnerability defeats shame and invites reciprocal vulnerability.
As I was washing dishes at my house one night, the phone rang. I dried my hands on the dishtowel and answered. It was Jono. Would I consider, he asked, being his daughter Callie’s godfather, a witness to her baptism and a help to her parents as they sought to raise her in the Christian faith? I didn’t know how to answer at first. I was so moved by the request. I instantly felt wanted and loved.
“Think and pray about it,” Jono suggested.
A few days later, I wrote the following email to Jono:
Not being married myself or having kids, I have often thought of Jesus’ words to Peter, when Peter says, “See, we have left everything”—including wives and children?—“and followed you.” And Jesus replies, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.” I take comfort from this—that, in Jesus’ economy, leaving the prospect of being a husband and father myself does not mean being without a family. Surely part of what Jesus means is that in following him we discover a new family: In the church, I as a single person can have new brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers and children…. I can say that I’m very happy, and very honored, that part of God’s surrounding me with new family is his bringing you two and your kids into my life.
Several weeks later, I stood near the baptismal font in a small Anglican church, warmed by the cascade of sunlight pouring through the windows behind me. The priest lifted Callie, dressed in her new white dress, above the font, dipped his hand in the water, and made the sign of the cross on her forehead. “Parents and godparents,” the priest said, “the church receives Callie with joy. Today we are trusting God for her growth in faith. Will you pray for her, draw her by your example into the community of faith, and walk with her in the way of Christ?” Alongside Callie’s godmothers, I answered, “With the help of God, we will.”
Or take another snapshot. Around the same time, one night during Holy Week, Jono called me again. “Want to come with Meg and me to the Great Easter Vigil service at St. Margaret’s Church?” he asked. The Easter Vigil, for those of you may not be lucky enough to know it yet, is one of the treasures of the Christian calendar. It’s usually held close to midnight on Holy Saturday, or in the wee hours of the morning on Easter Sunday, beginning in darkness and then erupting into light and clanging noise to ring in the day of Resurrection.
Together with my new friends, I sat in a pew in the dark, huddled against the chill of the nave. Then, in the silent, dense darkness, the priest lit the Paschal candle.
“The light of Christ,” the priest chanted.
“Thanks be to God,” we chanted in return.
In a short time, light flooded the room, noisemakers appeared, and everyone was smiling and hugging one another, passing the word of hope: “The peace of the Lord be with you.” I hugged Jono and Megan, and they hugged me in return. Although we none of us had forgotten the painful, still-hurting places in our lives, we had also remembered the One who overcame all sorrow and who would one day wipe every tear from our eyes.
Before and after.
My story doesn’t match up with some common gay Christian before and after stories. I wasn’t trapped in a lifestyle promiscuity and debauchery, then dramatically rescued and delivered from my same-sex feelings. My encountering the Light of the world has not meant that I’ve become “not gay.” Nor have I suddenly become convinced of the rightness of same-sex marriage and shed my allegedly oppressive traditional sexual ethics. My encountering Christ has not meant that I’ve become “gay affirming,” at least as that idea is often understood.
My “before and after” story is different. It’s filled with what seem to me like fissures, challenges, places of tension and ongoing searching—and also, honestly, joy and hope. I think often about what Eve Tushnet describes as God “chang[ing] our problems from less-Christian problems to more-Christian ones.” Sometimes, it seems, that’s exactly what “healing” means. It’s not that God makes all our difficulties go away. Sometimes, as in the case with the man born blind, Christ restores sight and, in the same breath, commissions the newly-healed to a life of costly, uncomfortable evangelism. Or God takes an ashamed, frightened, withdrawn teenager like me and—without making me “straight” or “affirming”—makes a more honest, committed friend to those He’s placed in my immediate circle. Sometimes God takes a closeted gay kid and makes him someone who loves his community and is loved by his community in return. It’s not the “before and after” story I would have asked for, but I can tell you now that I’m grateful to be a part of it.
I can’t predict this morning what your own “before and after” story might look like. But what I can promise is that, when you meet Christ, you will have one.
Jesus, the Light of the world, is stretching out his hand to you today. His love will change, heal, and transform you. He will meet you on the road.
Beautifully said, Wes.
God bless you, Wesley. I could use some “more-Christian problems” myself.
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Amen to everything you’ve written here, Wes. This was a crucial message for your audience to hear.