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?
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.