Continuing my list from yesterday, here are some characteristics of the kind of ministry that has most helped me navigate life as a gay, sexually abstinent Christian. The ministry that has proved most important for me has been:
- ministry that shows a passion to engage Scripture and Christian theology in a deep, rigorous way.
Talk to virtually any gay or lesbian believer, and I predict that within five minutes you’ll be hearing a tale about long, anguished wrestling with Scripture, with church tradition, with books of exegesis and psychology. Unlike some of our straight peers, we same-sex attracted folks don’t have the luxury of remaining neutral on “the issue.” We’ve had to make concrete choices about how to “glorify God in our bodies” (1 Corinthians 6:20). And many of us have therefore learned to crave serious, deep, searching engagement with Scripture and Christian theology. We’re impatient with hasty arguments and shallow Scriptural reasoning. We’re frustrated when our fellow Christians want to slap a quick answer on our questions. We want to know if the church’s historic opposition to gay sex is just about cultural prejudice or whether it really is rooted in the Bible’s basic view of human nature and redemption.
A while ago Rod Dreher published a letter from a millennial who left the church because of her church’s refusal or inability to offer a serious theological case for its ethical stance:
In all the years I was a member, my evangelical church made exactly one argument about SSM [same-sex marriage]. It’s the argument I like to call the Argument from Ickiness: Being gay is icky, and the people who are gay are the worst kind of sinner you can be. Period, done, amen, pass the casserole. When you have membership with no theological or doctrinal depth that you have neglected to equip with the tools to wrestle with hard issues, the moment ickiness no longer rings true with young believers, their faith is destroyed. This is why other young ex-evangelicals I know point as their “turning point” on gay marriage to the moment they first really got to know someone who was gay. If your belief on SSM is based on a learned disgust at the thought of a gay person, the moment a gay person, any gay person, ceases to disgust you, you have nothing left. In short, the anti-SSM side, and really the Christian side of the culture war in general, is responsible for its own collapse. It failed to train up the young people on its own side preferring instead to harness their energy while providing them no doctrinal depth by keeping them in a bubble of emotion dependent on their never engaging with the outside world on anything but warlike terms. Perhaps someday my fellow ex-evangelical Millennials and I will join other churches, but it will be as essentially new Christians with no religious heritage from our childhoods to fall back on.
The upshot? Theology matters. Serious, sustained reading of Scripture is vital to those of us who are trying to figure out what to do with our baptized bodies. We need ministry that recognizes that.
- ministry that tries to imagine the difficulty of being gay (regardless of one’s “position” on the issue) and the costliness of staying single.
The ministry that has meant the most to me is ministry that doesn’t try to whitewash or downplay the sheer difficulty of the discipleship I believe I’m called to. Sometimes straight Christians have tried to comfort me in my loneliness by reminding me that marriage is no cakewalk either—and, in many cases, marriage can exacerbate loneliness. “I’m in a very good and happy marriage,” a friend once said to me, “and I still battle loneliness.” I appreciate that perspective very much, and I need it, since I have an inveterate romantic streak that I’m always trying to temper. But, frankly, the more lasting consolations have come from people, like my friend David Mills, who are willing to say things like this:
We ask our homosexual brethren, and our divorced brethren without annulments, to deny themselves something almost everyone else can have: a marriage, two people forming a haven in a heartless world, with someone they actively desire, with all the pleasures of romance that sexual desire brings. We ask them to live as celibates in a sexually-sodden culture where they may never find the alternative of deep, committed friendships. We ask them to risk loneliness we don’t risk.
Naming and honestly facing the depths of the risks and the burdens I’m asked to shoulder is a hallmark of the ministry that’s meant the most to me. The way I’m trying to live often seems very hard, and I appreciate it when my fellow Christians acknowledge that.
- ministry that seeks to imagine and implement creative avenues to spiritual kinship and friendship.
The kind of ministry that has most consistently given me hope is ministry that doesn’t end with bemoaning the difficulty of celibacy, though, nor with a negative. It’s been ministry that majors on the positive: what kind of life, what kind of future, what kind of relationships am I being called towards? We’ve beaten this drum a lot here at SF, and no one has said it better than Eve Tushnet. “[I]nitially,” she’s written, “I conceived of my task, as a lgbt/ssa Catholic, as basically a) negative (don’t have gay sex) and b) intellectual (figure out why Church teaching is the way it is). I now think of it much more as the positive task of discerning vocation: discerning how God is calling me to pour out love to others.”
Part and parcel of this kind of ministry is a refusal to look down on celibacy as “second best.” Too often the possibility of chaste, committed friendship has gone unexplored because of our determination to get as far away as possible from singleness. If we’re on the left side of the spectrum, we want same-sex marriage rather than celibacy, and if we’re on the right, we’re often interested in ex-gay approaches that hold out the promise of opposite-sex coupling rather than celibacy. But ministry that has been the most helpful to me over the years is ministry that, without dishonoring marriage in the least, has encouraged me to imagine a single life overflowing with familial ties and hospitality and “thick” kinship commitments.
- ministry that seeks to recognize and nurture the gifts of gay and lesbian believers.
One of the dangers of the whole notion of “ministry to LGBT Christians” is that it neglects to talk much about the “ministry of LGBT Christians.” The kind of ministry that has been most important in my life has been ministry that doesn’t simply look on me as pitiable or “broken” or the perpetually needier, more fragile party in the relationship. Rather, it’s been ministry that sees me as a complex, in-the-process-of-being-redeemed person—a “glorious ruin” (in Francis Schaeffer’s fine phrase)—whose experiences of temptation, repentance, grace, and growth have equipped me with unique perspectives and have forged a certain sensitivity in me that can be drawn out for the good of the church.
Honestly, my gay and lesbian Christian friends are some of the deepest, most thoughtful, most compassionate believers I know, and the ministry I’ve received from them has been some of the most caring I’ve experienced. As Misty Irons has written,
So many times when I encounter a song, a performance, or a piece of art [or, I would add, an act of service or kindness in the church] that strikes me as so true and subtle and poignant and uplifting I feel almost a spiritual connection with it, I later learn the artist behind it is gay. It’s happened so often I now take it for granted. Maybe there’s something about being gay that enables an artist to see more clearly what it means to be human, to identify certain truths about us all. Maybe it is the ones who are forced to the margins who truly understand what it is we all have in common.
Maybe, as C. S. Lewis has said, there are “certain kinds of sympathy and understanding [and] a certain social role” that only gay people can play in the church. Maybe we are “called to otherness,” and the church’s ministry to us is in large measure about cultivating the ministry we can offer to the church.
- ministry that revolves around the basics of the gospel and the “normal means of grace.”
I often tell people that the best “gay ministry” I have benefitted from has been ministry that only rarely mentions anything “gay” at all. It hasn’t been a gay small group or support ministry or gay-themed Bible study or anything like that (as good as all those things may be for some people!). Rather, the ministry that has proved most stabilizing and encouraging has been garden-variety gospel preaching that has held the Cross and Resurrection constantly before me.
When I was in the throes of the coming out process and struggling with more loneliness than I felt before or since, I belonged to a church that emphasized, over and over again, how suffering and tears and struggle were normal parts of the Christian experience. As the New Testament scholar Richard Hays has written, commenting on Romans 8:23 (“not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies”), “Anyone who does not recognize this as a description of authentic Christian existence has never struggled seriously with the imperatives of the gospel, which challenge and frustrate our ‘natural’ impulses in countless ways.” More than anything else, it was that kind of ministry that provided the framework, the plausibility structure, if you like, that made my own frustration and struggles seem bearable and maybe even beautiful.
As I’ve gone on in this “gay Christian” life, I’ve come to see that the kind of ministry I most crave, the kind that most helps, is the regular, bog-standard ministry of Word and Sacrament. Sitting under preaching that points me to Jesus and receiving Communion (which is “Jesus placing himself in our hands so we know exactly where to find him,” as one of my Lutheran colleagues has put it)—that’s the kind of ministry I need. Kneeling at the altar rail is where I receive the strength I need to keep going on this journey.