When I was ex-gay

I spent much of my life clinging onto an “ex-gay” narrative. The story went like this: Being Christian and being gay are incompatible because the bible “clearly” teaches that homosexuality is a sin. Since we all know that sin separates us from God, ultimately sending us to hell, those of us with “same-sex attractions” have one option if we want to be accepted by God. We have to reject being gay. We have to interpret every “homosexual temptation” as having the potential to destroy us and our relationship with God. We have to pursue true healing of our sexuality – meaning, we have to become straight. Straightness is the evidence of a right relationship with God. Anything less sets us up to backslide into damnation.

I first became aware of my attraction toward women when I was 14. I wrestled with shame and tried to hide my feelings. I deeply feared being found out. (I’m an enneagram one, and my basic fear has been “of being corrupt/evil, defective”.) I finally admitted my feelings to myself in my journal. Shortly after, my mother went through my journal and confronted me. “Satan has a hold of you.” Her anger and disgust confirmed my fear. She turned to the church to save me. Sitting in those wooden pews week after week, I heard one message loud and clear: You are totally depraved. You are a sinner. God cannot stand to even look at you. He will throw you into a burning lake of eternal punishment if you do not repent. I spent the next 17 years trying to be “good enough” for God’s love and my parents’ love by not being gay.

In 2011, I reached a point of desperation. I was trying to date men because I realized how deeply I wanted a lifelong partner (a desire I hadn’t allowed myself to feel for most of my life). I was so depressed that most days I wished I wouldn’t wake up to see another morning. Life had become mere survival, and I did not have much hope that things would get better. In a conversation that probably saved my life, a wise friend said, “Maybe you should spend some time honestly examining your sexuality and theology.” She saw the connection between my depression and conflicted sexuality and encouraged me to do some soul searching. I did. I spent the next two years digging into scripture, reexamining my theology, considering diverse scholarship, working with my therapist and meeting with a pastor-friend. In 2013, I emerged into a place of peace I had never known before. I reconciled my faith and sexuality and hope flooded back into my life. I saw a future with potential for thriving open up before me.

Bethel instagram post.001Since Bethel Church’s (Redding, CA) recent social media support of CHANGED and use of #oncegay, conversations about sexual orientation change have exploded. Matthias Roberts of Queerology and Kevin Garcia of A Tiny Revolution are teaming up for a joint podcast episode called, “90 Seconds of Truth: Stories from the Rest of Us” to be released this Tuesday. They issued a call for submissions, but I missed the deadline (moving and settling into a new city and space has kept me quite busy). Instead I’m sharing here and encourage you to listen to this episode when it releases.

90 seconds.001When I was “ex-gay,” I could not engage with my deepest feelings and beliefs authentically. I was blocked from God’s vision for human flourishing. I was not satisfied or full of life. Since reconciling my faith and sexuality, I have experienced freedom in my life and have encountered the love of Jesus in ways I have yearned for since I first learned of Jesus as a teenager. It is as a queer Christian that I have looked deeper and gone beyond the labels and expectations of non-affirming Christianity and have found lasting fulfillment.

If you or anyone you know needs support on this complicated yet beautiful journey of sorting out faith and sexuality, please reach out. I am happy to listen and connect you with stories and resources that are life-giving.

Lord, may you guide your LGBTQ children into safe and affirming faith spaces that will embrace, nurture and celebrate them as your image-bearers. May you protect them from the physical, emotional and spiritual violence perpetuated by non-affirming theology. May you bring your church out of its exclusionary beliefs, attitudes and practices. May you awaken us all to the invitation to your table where love nourishes us and produces abundant life. Hear our prayer.

 

Through the lens of love

Yesterday on my morning commute, I listened to an episode of The Bible For Normal People. This podcast has provided me a way to regularly engage a question I’ve been exploring for many years. Pete and Jared pose it this way: What is the Bible? And what do we do with it? The episode’s topic was “Reading the Bible Through the Lens of Love” featuring Jonathan Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Professor of Religion and Society at Harvard.

Walton advocates for “responsible biblical interpretation… trying to use Scripture to heal broken hearts, to heal communities, to speak to injustice and evil.” Pete sums it up so eloquently – “Reading the Bible in ways that humanize other human beings… something that promotes love.” Jared points out that Walton draws his idea of love from the biblical texts – “Love that is rooted in the justice passages of the prophets and Jesus.”

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When asked for an example of “source material” for his “lens of love,” Walton turned to the parable of the Good Samaritan. In a way I had not before, I imagined myself as the “man [who] was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead” (Luke 10:30).

“My neighbor is the one who is able to, when I have been beseiged by thieves along life’s Jericho road… It may be someone from my neighborhood who comes by and keeps on walking. It may be someone of the same racial identity. It may be someone of the same sexual orientation who walks by. But if they all keep walking along, concerned about ‘What will happen to me if I stop to help him?’ then they are not my neighbor. My neighbor is that person, regardless of the differences between us… who stops and says first, ‘What will happen to him if I do not help him?’ And that is what this lens of love I’m taking about, this is that ethic of love. Leading with that, leading with the question ‘What do I owe this person as a child of God?'”

I’ve always read that story to challenge myself to be a neighbor. Will I be the insider who walks by to preserve my own position? Or will I model myself after the outsider who risks himself to demonstrate love? This time I imagined myself laying on the side of the road, beaten and left on the margins. I imagined myself, but it was clear I was imagining the LGBTQ community in general. There I am, watching good religious people walk by. Surely these people with the “right” theology I’ve heard preached time and time again about love, peacemaking and justice, about gender equality and inclusion, will stop for me. They will interrupt their important work, their good deeds and pick me up out of the dirt. They will disrupt their comfort and risk their privilege and reputation to tend to my wounds. Surely they won’t leave me to die. Surely, they won’t leave us to die. But they do walk by, they do avert their gaze, they do rush off to their religious jobs, their missions and ministry, and they leave us there. After all, what if stopping to tend to our wounds means those thieves will come back and beat them and leave them for dead? After all, what if stopping to tend our wounds means being deemed contaminated and having to join our exclusion? Isn’t it better they sacrifice us to preserve themselves?

June is pride month. Pride marches and parades and other celebrations are happening all around us. I’m seeing so many different reactions to these pride events as I browse social media. There are plenty of those who would gladly walk by us on the side of the road ridiculing our beaten and left-for-dead plight. There are plenty of those who would pity us, yet walk by for reasons of fear or discomfort or self-preservation. There are also those who would be moved with compassion, kneel down before us, bandage our wounds, bring us to a safe place, and generously give the resources necessary for our healing.

When we read the Bible, the lens through which we interpret it shapes the way we allow it to shape our lives. Do we use scripture to heal, to speak to injustice and evil? Do we read through the lens of love? Do our families, churches and communities bear the fruit of reconciliation and human flourishing? Yes? For whom? Is our healing and justice work and love and reconciliation and flourishing actually inclusive? Are we brave enough to be honest about the casualties suffered by those on the margins – the ones we pass by, the ones we scapegoat, the ones we deem too costly to love?

May the life of Jesus, the one who shared this story to demonstrate what it means to “love your neighbor,” inspire us to more expansive and bold love. Because love is the way toward all things being made new. Love is the good news.

Anabaptism & LGBTQ Inclusion

Recently I had the pleasure of being a guest on the MennoNerds podcast to talk about how my engagement with Anabaptist theology shapes my thoughts about LGBTQ inclusion in the church.

By drawing from central emphases within Anabaptist theology, I believe churches within the tradition can navigate a way toward fully affirming and including LGBTQ Christians. I’d love to hear your thoughts and questions.

Inclusive Justice, part 1

Being shaped by the Anabaptist tradition, I have always resonated with “peace” and “justice.” Shalom. That which is the fruit of God’s kingdom “on earth as in heaven.” Human flourishing. All of creation flourishing. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matt. 5:9).

Along my journey I have seen time and again injustice perpetuated even within communities theologically committed to peacemaking. Sometimes these communities are not aware of harm done within; other times, harm is covered up in order to protect the reputation of the community and its good work. Too often “peace and justice” are only experienced by those most privileged within the community (or organization), and the wellbeing of those with the least power is sacrificed to “keep the peace.” Exclusion becomes a way of maintaining control. This kind of power dynamic predictably functions hierarchically along the lines of gender, race, socioeconomic status, sexuality, etc. This is not peace. This is not justice. This is not flourishing. Anytime one group benefits at the expense of another, God’s will is not being done and we have work to do.

Inclusive justice. This phrase has captured my imagination since I participated in The Reformation Project’s 2018 Leadership Development Cohort. Last month I presented a bit of what I learned during the three months of the cohort at the church I attend, Willow Avenue Mennonite Church. I highlighted three voices that have reverberated in my mind and heart, and given me language, concepts and practices that I deem critical to moving us closer to inclusive justice – flourishing for all people and all creation.

The first voice is that of Dr. Cheryl B. Anderson, Professor of Old Testament at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. She worked with the Leadership Cohort when we met in Chicago for a 4-day intensive training. From her I see “inclusive biblical interpretation” as foundational to the project of inclusive justice.

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Anderson, in her book, Ancient Laws & Contemporary Controversies: The Need for Inclusive Biblical Interpretation, identifies exclusion as a core problem within Christian tradition. Too often “orthodoxy” and “biblical ethics” are used to control and oppress others in order to gain or maintain a privileged position of power. This is done by narrowly interpreting scripture only from the privileged perspective: if alternative or marginalized voices are not heard, it becomes easier to draw lines and make rules that benefit those on the inside by taking from and/or harming those on the outside.

I have seen [a] relationship between “authentic” Christianity and exclusion… For traditional (conservative) Christianity, different perspectives are not acknowledged, and the consequences for targeted groups cannot be considered… Basically, the exclusion of certain groups and perspectives has become equated with the church’s concept of right doctrine (orthodoxy). As a result, we have come to define ourselves by that which we exclude. (Anderson p. 5)

Many Christians so closely identify “right belief” or “true faith” in terms of what they exclude. For example, many evangelicals equate being a “good Christian” with their anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ positions that those points of exclusion become the litmus test for evangelical identity. As long as you’re on the right side of the line on this or that issue, you can confidently identify with the “right” group. In my experience, however, those who build a sense of Christian identity on an “anti” foundation, are unable to listen to those voices their “anti” position excludes. There is too much at stake (a secure sense of identity), and so, for example, LGBTQ perspectives are attacked, dismissed, and/or silenced instead of heard and understood so that they might be integrated into discernment processes regarding sexual ethics or a definition of marriage.

Anderson proposes “inclusive biblical interpretation” as a way toward greater justice in our relationships as individuals, churches and as a society. Listening to our neighbor is a critical step toward loving our neighbor. If we are to be gospel people, we must break free from an exclusion-based faith identity and practice. An inclusive approach to biblical interpretation, simply put

seeks to include persons and insights that are usually ignored. More specifically, “inclusion is a discipline of extending our boundary to take into consideration another’s needs, interests, experience, and perspective, which will lead to clearer understanding of ourselves and others, fuller description of the issue at hand, and possibly a newly negotiated boundary of the community to which we belong.” (Anderson p. 8-9)

To some, this idea of inclusion may trigger severe anxiety generated by a sense of threat to biblical authority. One understanding of what makes the bible authoritative is that it is “God’s word,” and as such, it is above human subjectivity and fallibility. If the bible is God’s unadulterated guide for drawing lines between who is in and who is out and has provided a sense of security about how to be on the inside, then considering any perspective that does not match with those lines could call into question the whole system. This creates a desperate need to “protect and preserve the truth.”

The popularity of podcasts like The Bible for Normal People demonstrates a growing interest in revisiting the questions: What is the bible? How do we use it? People are experiencing greater openness to explore ideas of biblical authority and biblical interpretation beyond those rooted in exclusion. Many times this is because they have had close encounters with people who have been harmed by exclusionary and oppressive beliefs and/or practices. Wrestling with the real life impact of biblical teaching and ethics prompts many people to search for alternatives that actually produce the kind of flourishing promised in Jesus’ gospel.

As part of inclusive biblical interpretation, Anderson is committed to a concept of biblical authority yet recognizes the need to redefine that concept:

[A] new concept of biblical authority must accompany critical biblical interpretation… biblical authority does not have to be synonymous with authoritarianism. Rather than authority as domination, a critical and liberative approach to biblical interpretation defines authority as partnership, where the voice of God emerges from Scripture in the context of dialogue within faith communities. From this perspective, authority is relational rather than hierarchical. (Anderson p. 8)

What potential for peace and justice might be unleashed if our faith was shaped by voices regularly excluded? How might churches find greater strength from inclusive discernment practices? What are some concrete steps individuals and church communities can take to explore the idea and practice of inclusive biblical interpretation?