My best friend and I found ourselves in the middle of a crowd of artsy lezzies with our communal gaze fixed on one of our favorite musicians. There was nothing particularly gay going on, but something in the female folk singer happened to draw a certain crowd and that crowd happened to be a bunch of lesbians. My friend and I were both trying hard to be something other-than-gay at that point in our lives, but that night in that venue we felt a freedom we rarely felt: the freedom to stand at ease and release the tension in our shoulders because for one night we could cease to play the straight part and still belong.
We were surrounded by women who knew a slice of our experience: feeling giddy with delight around middle school girls instead of boys, sensing a need to keep it secret if we hoped to be accepted, praying to God to take it away because we wanted so badly to be good, and apologizing for our existence without knowing what we’d done wrong. There was an unspoken solidarity in that space. Just as I was settling into the peace of knowing I was surrounded by others who shared my way of being in the world, I was flooded with a sense of shame. I felt so GAY. The concert brought out my inner lesbian. I wasn’t doing anything wrong, but I felt guilty because I felt so at home.
As I prayed, studied, listened, and introverted in the months that followed, I began to acknowledge that what I was experiencing that night was something I had experienced (and tried to suppress) throughout my entire life: a sense of peace and belonging when I was around others whose relationship to the world was the same kind of different as mine. We were gay. We had been different for as long as we could remember, and regardless of where it came from or how we would choose to express it in the future, it seemed obvious that the self-flagellation we felt the need to indulge in simply because we felt safe and secure in a group of lesbians was not the path to flourishing.
It hurts the most after spurts of laughter. For instance: I was recently working out in my apartment and heard the Free Willy theme song. Naturally, I started singing because somehow I knew the entire Free Willy Theme song, and by the end of it I was raising my hands and singing (Throwback 90s Praise Band Style) in between reps of bicep curls. By the time I was doing tricep kickbacks, I could barely sing the words because of the lump in my throat created by the memory of how the kid saved the whale and the whale saved the kid. When I suddenly realized how ridiculous and hilarious the whole thing looked—the singing, the raised hands, the lump in my throat and the Free Willy Theme Song—I started laughing hysterically. By the time I got to shoulder presses, the sharp pain of loneliness set in: another moment gone unwitnessed.
Sometimes I feel it when I arrive at my destination after a long road trip. I pick up my phone with an urge to text Someone that I got where I was going, and it occurs to me that no one knew I left. Sure, some friends knew I’d be out of pocket at some point, but they didn’t know when I was leaving or when I’d be back. They weren’t aware of my existence in real time and space. Sometimes I turn to social media to let The World know I made it somewhere they didn’t know I was going—to let them know I still exist—and the “likes” calm the subconscious fear for a moment. Of course I call and text friends to talk of my excursions and hear about theirs, but that’s what’s disconcerting: I increasingly find myself telling them about my life rather than sharing it with them.
I got the chance to spend some quality time with Matthew Vines earlier this year at a conference, and it was clear through both our interactions and his writing that Matthew is a sincere man who engages this conversation with grace. Matthew takes Scripture seriously, and he argues for affirmation of same-sex marriage because he truly believes that is the redemptive vision of Scripture and the most loving posture the church can have toward gay people. I want to say from the outset of my review of his book, God and the Gay Christian, that it’s obvious Matthew has been deeply troubled by the way the church has mistreated the gay community, and he feels it can’t reflect God’s heart toward men and women made in His image. I believe he’s correct in that analysis, and while I disagree with his answers to the problem, I believe the church would do well to listen to the concerns he raises because they’re concerns that need to be taken seriously if we’re going to demonstrate love and compassion toward this group of men and women loved by God.
When many of my friends moved toward a theology that affirms gay sexual relationships, they did so because they grew weary of saying “no” to love. Several of them described an experience where they were fully committed to the church’s traditional teaching on sexual ethics when they grew to deeply love someone of the same sex. They remained chaste for a season and prayed for direction, then eventually sensed the Lord saying: You’re free to love.
While many Christians considered their shift an act of rebellion—a plunge into sin—they saw it as the only path to love and intimacy. They recognized that “It’s not good for man to be alone,” and they longed to serve the one they love, share their lives with the one they love, and mutually draw energy from that love to better serve those around them. Many felt like the traditional ethic required them to cut off fundamental aspects of being human in order to be chaste: they felt saying “no” to sexual relationships meant saying “no” to love, and that saying “no” to love meant saying “no” to any intimacy, and that saying “no” to intimacy meant saying “no” to feelings altogether, which eventually led to detachment and isolation. The burden felt unbearable.
Jesus brings the Sermon on the Mount to a close with this illustration:
Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it. Matthew 7:24-27
Jesus lays out what’s of vital importance for His followers to understand: What you build your life upon matters, and what you do matters. The foundation upon which we’re built will shape our convictions and values, which determine what kinds of people we become. When I think about the foundation a person is built upon, I often think about identity. An identity is what internally sets someone apart from others—what defines a person—and it often says something about their values and convictions. It’s how we say to ourselves and others: “this is who I am,” and Jesus seems to be saying that if “who we are” is rooted in anything other than Him and His teaching, then (like the foolish man) we’re building our lives on sand.
Yoweri Museveni recently based his decision to sign the bill outlawing homosexual expression in Uganda on the fact that he understood homosexuality to be largely influenced by environmental factors. If homosexuality could be proven to be genetic, then he said he would consider not signing the bill. But if research pointed to the environment, then he believed they could make changes in the environment to suppress homosexuality. I personally don’t understand how proof that it’s caused by environmental factors would mean it can be eradicated, as it seems clear that people don’t choose their orientation either way, and that homosexual desires have been present among some people in most cultures throughout history, but aside from that: the research doesn’t seem nearly as clear as he concluded.
That got me thinking about how this idea—that homosexuality is the result of childhood wounds or societal influence—is predominate in many Christian circles as well, and it often leads to different problems. I’m not an expert here, but scientists who have devoted their lives to these questions say the research indicates that a gay orientation is likely caused by a number of factors. Both biology and the developmental process likely influence a person’s sexual orientation, and the extent to which one is more influential than the other probably differs from person to person, as sexuality is so layered and complex.
I’ve been following the events surrounding Rosaria Butterfield’s recent visit to Wheaton College, where over 100 students held a demonstration prior to chapel demanding more than a single story be shared.* The students seem concerned that others might use her story prescriptively to say all gay or same sex attracted people should experience a similar transformation that leads to heterosexual marriage. A number of the students also seem concerned that Wheaton is not open to acknowledging the larger conversation regarding the morality of gay relationships, and they want to see Wheaton interacting with more progressive interpretations of Scripture on this point (which I won’t get into here).
I’ve been fascinated by Rosaria’s story since I read it last year. The first few chapters of her book gripped me with sentences like: “This word—conversion—is simply too tame and too refined to capture the train wreck that I experienced in coming face-to-face with the Living God.” That resonates with me—her entire story of coming face to face with the Living God (and being transformed from the inside out) resonates with me. Then she marries a man. She marries a man, has children, home schools her children, and now leads a radically different life than the one she led as a “queer activist” and professor at Syracuse. That doesn’t resonate with me.
I wrote a post earlier this week that highlighted some of my fears for the future related to loneliness. As some of my closest friends have moved away, I’ve caught myself coming home to an empty apartment more often than I’m used to, more often than I would like. People responded with such thoughtful feedback: encouragement, challenges, pertinent questions and words of solidarity.
It seemed fitting to respond to some of the questions in a consolidated manner, and this one opens the door to exploring some related questions about how exactly we might all come alongside one another: “Julie, when you put on your hoodie and stare into space in your apartment, what are you really longing for?”
“I’m lonely”, I said a few weeks ago in a phone conversation with a friend. I wore my favorite grey hoodie with the hood pulled over my head as I leaned against a bookshelf in my empty apartment. A few of my closest friends recently moved away, and not only are they top-notch folks that I miss for who they are, they’re also glue-like folks who bring people together.
When they left, they left a hole significantly larger than the size of their lives because the relational dynamic they created dissolved along with their physical presence. “I know I just feel lonely tonight, and that when I wake up tomorrow I’ll be bright-eyed and chipper, but I can’t keep from blowing this moment up into an entire future strung together by thousands of nights like tonight until I become an 81 year old sitting in a cold cabin with cats scurrying around while I listen to Lesbian Campfire Music and reflect on the tragedy of a long life shared with no one.”
I can be dramatic. But few things are as adorable as elderly intimacy. Whether it’s lifelong friends laughing together or an old couple holding hands, elderly intimacy wins the Most Adorable award in my mind. The laughter and hand-holding tell stories of years of intimacy created over witnessed embarrassment, shared silence, long rants, quotes read aloud, being let down, saying “I’m sorry”, choosing forgiveness, choosing vulnerability, choosing “Yes” day in and day out for a shared lifetime. It looks sacrificial and painful and comforting and boring and beautiful and—when it’s shared with the same person for tens of thousands of nights in a row—adorable.
Five years ago, my friend Darrel started a church in Fort Worth called Southside City Church. The church’s primary focus is serving men and women living with HIV/AIDS, and they developed these relationships through a partnership with a local non-profit that provides housing and resources to homeless individuals living with HIV/AIDS. A significant percentage of the men and women involved in life at Southside are LGBT individuals who, alongside heterosexuals from all walks of life, have finally found a place to belong. Darrel has a day job. He doesn’t earn a living through his role as a pastor, yet Darrel and his family have devoted their lives to the church, which ends every service with a meal so folks from all social classes and every corner of the city can enter into one another’s lives in a meaningful way.
I lived closer to Fort Worth when the church was launched so I would attend every Sunday evening. What drew me there were the vans of previously homeless men and women that rolled up every Sunday. What drew me there were the children of all ethnicities who worshipped Jesus alongside me, Chaplain Jerry, and teens who showed up off the streets. Everyone played a part in preparing the food, creating the clothes closet, setting up for Sundays and cleaning up the kitchen. You didn’t know who was HIV positive and who wasn’t, who had a criminal record and who didn’t, who had a college degree and who dropped out of high school. Everyone was equally invested—with no distinctions—and the relationships were mutually transforming.