A Call to Empathy

 

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Copyright 2015 Gregg Webb

It has been a difficult season for me. I’ve been transitioning cities, working through heartbreak, living with nearly constant heartache, beginning the long-term career job hunt, and learning to live life without the basic structure provided by classes and coursework. Many of my friends are also struggling through difficult break-ups, divorce, depression, addiction, and deep loneliness. Life is difficult and it is messy, but it also has profound moments of beauty and restoration woven between the pain and lament.

Much of my current struggle and difficulty is connected with my continued decision to forsake pursuing a physical and romantic relationship with another man. Often it seems that  God is calling me to rip my heart out and offer it up as some kind of Aztec sacrifice. Many of my friends walking alongside me in this season believe that my heartache is a sign that my calling is false and my convictions need to be reevaluated. Other voices in my life would encourage me by reminding me that not even our very lives are too much for God to ask us to surrender in his name. I find myself asking, though, if the truth doesn’t lie somewhere in the midst of these two perspectives. Perhaps my calling and convictions are true, but much of my pain seems unnecessarily aggravated by an overall lack of support within the church and an overwhelming lack of any real dialogue that attempts to enter into the reality of my calling.

I want to avoid what I’ve perceived as a weakness in the more affirming view, which views suffering in singleness and loneliness as something that is somehow too much to be asked  and therefore a theology to be rejected or reformed. This often seems to forget the millennia of martyrs who were called to give their very lives for their faith. I want to also avoid the easy route of dismissing my pain and loneliness by reducing it to simply the cost of me remaining faithful to the teachings of scripture and the church. Whenever I see those with a traditional sexual ethic who themselves are straight and usually married speaking about LGBT people and singleness in a dismissive or politicized way I want to ask them something. I’d ask them to remember back on when they met their spouse for the first time, that first season of falling in love and being caught up in the hope of a future together, of a family and a home. I’d ask them to imagine stopping there, just across the threshold of their future life together and then ask them to imagine that God was calling them to stop there and to give it up. Not just the partner but the whole hope and dream of a life lived in companionship. The heaviness you experience thinking about that is the very thing that you are asking when the church calls gay men and women to celibacy.¹

What I’m seeking is this: Instead of trying to either dismiss my pain and my loneliness either through laying aside the burden altogether, or by remarking that it is simply the cost of doing what I’m supposed to do, you (the church) should come sit beside us in our collective grief. My hope is that you meet us in empathy, connecting our experiences of longing and heartbreak with your own. Help us to grieve that our good desire for a spouse must be given up.  What often makes my own loneliness more acute is when I feel an unwillingness to simply join me where I am. Here I am reminded of Nicholas Wolterstorff’s invitation to his friends in Lament for a Son,

If you think your task as comforter is to tell me that really, all things considered, it’s not so bad, you do not sit with me in my grief but place yourself off in the distance away from me. Over there, you are of no help. What I need to hear from you is that you recognize how painful it is. I need to hear from you that you are with me in my desperation. To comfort me, you have to come close. Come sit beside me on my mourning bench.

I have no more patience to listen to voices from within the traditional church who speak about LGBT issues as just that, issues, things to be solved or an ideology to fight against. Political dialogue and discussion do nothing for those of us still within the church feeling that we are alone in our unique calling. Fearmongering and constant attempts to bolster traditional views of the family and marriage without listening or including the voices of those directly impacted are no comfort to those actually affected by these discussions.

Some of the simplest ways a friend has sat with me in this is when they emotionally resonate and relate to my own loneliness or heartache. Once while the man I was crushing on was traveling, a friend whose girlfriend at the time was also traveling made a simple comment just saying how it must be hard having them away. He didn’t have to explain his sexual ethic, or state that his relationship with his girlfriend looked different than mine with my crush, he just spoke to the common emotion connected to their absence. This was a simple comment by a friend that wasn’t thought about or processed before they shared but it made me feel understood and validated. In a similar way during my final year of graduate school my internship group reflected much of the sadness over being unable to pursue what my heart deeply longs for in a way that I hadn’t let myself express before. They helped me to know that it was ok to weep over my unmet desires and to grieve it, that it wasn’t something I had to simply courageously accept.

Within my own tradition, the Eastern Orthodox Church, I’ve mostly seen the subject of homosexuality talked about as a political movement to be fought against. If sermons are preached about LGBT people they are preached against gay marriage rather than helping their communities understand and more fully engage with those LGBT people both inside their congregation as well as outside. Equally frustrating is silence, where homosexuality is seen as something to be only discussed between a parishioner and their priest as a particularly troublesome spiritual ailment. I am the only publicly out gay Eastern Orthodox Christian who still affirms the Church’s sexual ethic that I know of, and I haven’t received a speaking or teaching invitation in years. This tells me that the conversation is just simply not happening, or if it is, the conversation is being had without including the voices and experiences of sexual minorities.

I do not believe that my God who exists in a perfect trinity of persons in a relationship of pure love is asking me to rip out my heart and offer it up on some stone altar. Our God tells us that he desires mercy and not sacrifice (Hosea 6:6). I believe that my God is calling me to use my life, my story, and the stories of countless other sexual minorities, as a witness for the church and a call for deeper and deeper forms of community. I am called to pour my life out as an act of mercy in the lives of my community through friendship and service. In turn, as Stanley Hauerwas puts it, we as the church must become a community capable of absorbing grief not merely dismissing it or excusing it. Come alongside those of us trying to live out this difficult vocation and help us find our unique place in the church and within our communities. Help us find places where our unique gifts are celebrated and encouraged rather than feared. Where our unique witness helps lift up other minority voices and brings the church into a deeper knowledge and understanding of what it means to be a diversity of persons living in a community of love and friendship. Eve Tushnet describes the ache of celibate gay Christians as a deep desire to “come first” for someone. How can the church begin to enter into that longing and desire to help us as gay and lesbian Christian men and women know and feel that in Christ and his church, we are deeply loved?

-Gregg

I am especially grateful for the input of Wes, Eve, and Brent in writing this post.


¹ It is important here to note that marriage is not a cure or end to loneliness or longing. I have many married friends who have struggled with deep loneliness within their marriage. Some of my loneliest friends are married due largely to them having fewer contexts to experience close friendship apart from their spouse. Likewise, for a celibate gay person a romantic partner is not the only form of deep and meaningful companionship. Intimate friendships and mutual commitments within friendship can be sources of deep good and joy in our lives. Close friendships and roommates can go a long way towards providing that sense of companionship and mundane intimacy that may more traditionally be found in marriage. The lack of a structure of commitment or social support for lifelong companionship outside of marriage can make it difficult to feel as secure in these other forms of companionship, but it can be possible.

13 thoughts on “A Call to Empathy

  1. Instead of focusing on our differences, we must learn to focus on what we have in common. Your feelings of mourning over a dream lost are the same as the woman going through a divorce. That mourning isn’t the focus of life every moment, but it returns in different seasons. It returns for the divorced woman when the empty nest season begins. All this to say, as a lover o Jesus I am choosing to focus on what we have in common. To mourn with those who mourn and rejoice with those who rejoice. May the Holy Spirit comfort you this day.

  2. Pingback: A Call to Empathy — Spiritual Friendship | Eleison

  3. Thoughtful post … I think much of the church’s problem is a lack of definition. Because she follows society/media in reducing homosexuality down to mere sexual expression/perversion, the body of Christ is missing the big picture – a swath of humanity quietly suffering with a kind of hidden, emotional leprosy. We need more honest people from every battle: alcoholism, porn, depression … balance out the myopic focus on ssa. At the core, struggles are very much alike.

  4. Thanks for this post Gregg. I particularly appreciate your openness and I think your footnote is a super-helpful qualification. If marriage is looked at as THE thing that brings security in relationship (and thus Christ is not considered THE tie that binds) then marriage is lonely and broken too. Thankful for this website and the shots across the bow of my own heart as I consider all of my brothers and sisters in Christ, especially those whom are forgotten about and marginalized.

    I might have one word of encouragement for you as well. Part of this post (and the discipline of writing it) is an act of empathy with THOSE within the church who DO marginalize you. I would simply encourage you, even while you call the straight-thoughtless-masses to empathy with their single/SSA brothers/sisters, continue to practice the discipline of patience and empathy yourself towards the thoughtless-majority, even as our Lord did for each of us.

    Thanks Gregg, and may God bless you with deep relationship(s), self-giving loving, and with the continued grace to help guys like me along that same path.

    Yours ever,
    Chris

  5. Hello Gregg, and thank you. Your post moved me to tears in recollection of my own days/months/years of seeking those who would simply “be with” me (an old/new posture you are calling the church (institutionally) and believers (individually) to adopt. I share your sense of the alienation, yet also believe that we are essential to keeping alive the koinonia. Two poems follow that help me daily in that recollection and in the re-membrance Jesus’s calls us to in Eucharist. I will be praying for you.

    There are nights that are so still
    that I can hear the small owl calling
    far off and a fox barking
    miles away. It is then that I lie
    in the lean hours awake listening
    to the swell born somewhere in the Atlantic
    rising and falling, rising and falling
    wave on wave on the long shore
    by the village, that is without light
    and companionless. And the thought comes
    of that other being who is awake, too,
    letting our prayers break on him,
    not like this for a few hours,
    but for days, years, for eternity.
    R. S. Thomas

    Leaning back with a tree
    Looking up, seeing how it grows out of me;
    From within me where I can never see.

    The tangle and maze, a canopy,
    A heavy weave crowding;
    Entangled, twisted, like the sinews of my mind.

    Convoluting darkness against gray
    In a thousand directions points that tree;
    No end to anyone I see, a thousand people, places, me.

    Amid the web, the upward surge, silver light
    Extending spine without roots to fasten to;
    I walk away, seeing a thousand others who, like my tree

    Will ask one day to be set free from kind hearted
    Approving bodies and our life giving stories;
    Killing time without injuring eternity.
    Michael Tessman (1972)

  6. This reminds me of the Christian Scientist who complains of chronic illness. I can totally empatize – even respect and admire the exercise of faithfulness that keeps him from the doctor’s office. I cannot sympathize – foreswearing God-given potential remedy to his malady.

      • In constructing a nurturing Church environment, most of the persons involved will be straight. Some (more and more) straight people are comfortable with same sex attraction/romance and PDA (physical displays of affection). Others feel (very) uncomfortable with these things.

        Over time the former group will note gay couples outside the Church who are married. They are likely to think, “Well why CAN’T Dave and Joe be together?” They will drift to side A and have the view of Ford1968 above–empathizing, yes, but viewing side B’s sacrifices as unnecessary.

        The latter group’s discomfort (in some, disgust–a powerful emotion) with same sex attraction/romance/PDA will lead them to avoid such people (at best) or scrutinize/quibble for reassurance that nothing sinful is happening/might possibly happen. Often they will want to “shield” their children from such people, and, if the Church acknowledges gays’ existence among us, they migrate out to another Church. They are not really side B because they lack the acceptance the GCN (which originated the “side” terminology) presupposes.

        They may not be many straights outside these two categories–especially as time goes by. Where are supporters of celibate gays to come from to constitute this supportive Church home?

        There may

  7. Pingback: Unchosen Gay Celibacy? | Spiritual Friendship

  8. You are not the only one. I know another. Surely, the audience is small–or appears small. My Orthodox friend walking in your shoes has taught me to think about your situation in a clearer way than I otherwise would have. Thank you for telling your story. I am an evangelical Christian. I feel much the same as you do about how my tradition handles this issue. Christians must reach out to hurting Christians who want to be holy without regard to the reason they are hurting. Holiness is our calling–no matter our inclinations.

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