I’ve been grateful for the opportunity to share a little about my faith and sexuality in generous pieces at Religion News Service and Slate. What I appreciated about both journalists was their desire to truly understand our experience as celibate gay Christians: both our choices and the heart behind those choices. It was also encouraging to see one explaining this path to the Christian community and one explaining it to a broader readership, with both demonstrating such charitable spirits.
Given the short space that I’m able to unpack the complexities of all this in brief quotes—you know, gay, ex-gay, celibacy, friendship, Jesus, and the fact that there’s way more to me and all people everywhere than our sexuality—this seems like a good time to share a little more about my season in ex-gay ministry, and to highlight why it was so nourishing when I landed in the Spiritual Friendship community.
I’ve shared previously that my overall experience with the local ex-gay ministry was very positive. As a young person growing up gay in conservative churches, I felt like I had to make a choice: walk away from experiencing a vibrant and intimate relationship with Jesus, or suppress my sexuality in a way that led to depression and isolation. When I met the gracious (and hilarious, and generous, and Christ-like) people I encountered here in the local ex-gay ministry, I felt like I finally found a place to belong. I could be honest about my attraction to women and find others who were pursuing Christ right alongside me in a similar journey.
Eventually (8 years later), I was at a place spiritually and emotionally where I could finally acknowledge that some of the messages perpetuated by the ex-gay movement were problematic: There was an overemphasis on marrying the opposite sex, on fitting into stereotypical gender norms, on explanations of causation, and same-sex love and intimacy were often framed as emotional dependency or enmeshment. I could only scrutinize those messages, however, because the people who walked with me in ex-gay ministries had loved me through seasons where I was an emotional train wreck. I will be forever grateful for the lifelong friendships I established through those ministries, and I will vouch for the hearts of the people involved in them until Christ comes back. They’ve loved me well.
It was when I was speaking for Exodus International that I had to come to terms with some of the problematic messages—particularly those that contributed to pain and alienation among countless friends I met through Exodus ministries. I also felt a tremendous amount of internal incongruence because I was trying to act like I “left homosexuality” and was “just another lady-in-waiting” when I knew I felt different than other women, and a big part of that different was related to being really gay. “You have no idea what it feels like to be a gay person speaking on the stage at an ex-gay event,” I said to an Exodus leader as I was working through how to move forward.
I had read all the books on revisionist theology and found them unpersuasive—I didn’t see Scripture affirming gay sex or gay marriage. Because this conversation was usually framed in all-or-nothing ways, I felt like I had looped back around to the fork in the road that I faced when I was 17 years old: Am I going to be honest about my sexuality so I can feel authentic and known? Or am I going to minimize and kind-of-sort-of lie about my sexuality so I can remain in the church? I would’ve chosen to remain in the church regardless, but I was grateful to land in the Spiritual Friendship community where I could relate to the church in a way that felt life-giving and authentic.
What’s so beautiful about the vision folks like Eve Tushnet, Ron Belgau, and Wesley Hill have been casting since long before I came along is this: They’re exploring the positive call to love. They see that God created each of us with unique ways of being in the world that are to be used for His glory and the good of those around us. Whatever it is that makes us relate to the world in a way that’s different from the way straight people relate to the world is something that, like every part of a person, can be redeemed and transformed in a way that glorifies God. Because homosexuality is often reduced to the desire for gay sex (which is a very small part of being gay), Christians often don’t understand what we’re talking about. But there are gifts that come with each disposition and vocation, and we’re exploring how those gifts can be embraced and celebrated through friendship and community. We’re discussing ways that the entire church can promote intimate relationships that occur outside of the context of the nuclear family or a small group that meets every other Thursday night for an hour and a half where people smile and say “Goooood!” when asked how they’re doing.
The lens through which I now see my sexuality has nudged me deeper into the life of the church. It’s helped me to understand that love and intimacy are not forbidden because of my orientation, but they’re to be expressed through rich friendships that just might lead to lifelong communities (which will hopefully have a space for hurting teens to show up for popsicles when they need a space to decompress). It’s given me hope that I won’t have to suppress legitimate parts of myself and enter into a heterosexual marriage that feels somewhat suffocating in order to experience the kind of community Christ invites us into. It’s given me the language to be open, honest, known, loved, embraced, and even celebrated as a person who loves Jesus and loves people in slightly different ways than my straight peers.
As Eve Tushnet said so well: “You can’t have a vocation of not-gay-marrying and not-having-sex. You can’t have a vocation of No.” There is a “Yes” for gay Christians, and that “Yes” involves a vibrant relationship with Jesus that overflows into love and service to those we encounter every day, many of which are hurting people who are longing to feel like they matter. The “Yes” to gay Christians can be expressed through art, worship, and leadership in a church that would benefit from having diverse voices and perspectives. The message of Christianity is one big “Yes” to human flourishing: it invites each of us into the radical vision Jesus cast for His followers—one that fights against injustice and cultivates communities marked by hospitality and generosity. So when you ask me about this celibate gay path, I start talking about this counter-cultural kind of love and end up gushing about Jesus.
Cross Posted from Spiritual Friendship
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.
This post comes to you from someone who’s actually really happy. I’ve been blessed with amazing friends, a church I love, a job I’m passionate about, and endless opportunities to go on adventures that bring me to life. I’m blessed with good health and the perspective to see something hilarious every 12 minutes. I feel it in the best times though: the tug that it’s not good to be alone.
While I see people throughout my days, I find myself bouncing from circle to circle with very little overlap between the different groups. I find myself showing up at pre-set times and telling folks about the life I lived since we last spoke, about the moments that went unwitnessed. It meets the need, makes me happy, and keeps me from feeling totally lonely, but something still feels off. Something feels off because telling people about the moments that make up my life is very different than sharing the moments with them, and there’s no one to share in the moments.
It’s not just my life that I want witnessed though: I want to know the quirky little details of someone else’s life as well. Sometimes I catch myself imagining my friends’ morning routines because I’m just curious as to how their days are actually spent. I’ll wonder whether they make coffee first thing in the morning (a french press?), or turn music on and dance (which playlist?), or sing in their cars or cuss in traffic. It’s those everyday moments of nothingness that make up our lives, the time in between the times when we catch up with each other to talk about all that transpired.
What I’ve longed for more than anything is a shared history with someone, where (together) we recount the way this place or those people or that near-death experience shaped us into the people we are today. There is no shared history, though, because the places and people and near-death experiences were things I arrived at alone and left alone. Then I moved into another space where I would tell other people about those experiences, grasping for the adjectives to capture it as accurately as possible so they might come a little closer to understanding who I am and where I’ve been. But they don’t really know.
We spend a lot of time talking about “community”, but if we’re going to avoid leading lives that go unwitnessed then we need to think practically and realistically. What most of us are longing for is a lifelong commitment to sharing a home with someone else—we’re longing for family. When I say “us”, I’m referring to most humans everywhere, not simply gay people. We see it in the gay community too, because gay people are a subset of human people, but we’re all longing for it. Since this is a holy human longing, and it’s not good for man to be alone, and Christians are concerned about the ways gay people are going about fulfilling this legitimate human longing, then we need to expand our understanding of the ways this can be lived out.
Whether it’s an intentional community, best friends who make a covenant, families that open their homes to friends for a lifetime, or even a close-knit neighborhood where folks commit to one another and have open door policies: we need an avenue for intimacy in shared households. We need to be family. Christians continue to be surprised when gay people partner off with one another or pursue marriage, but we’ve yet to offer any sort of practical path for them to find family. Folks still think the answer is to schedule a dinner sometime a few weeks from now. There are rumblings of a fresh perspective here and there, and I’m hopeful many will move from the imagination to action, but it’s yet to materialize. If a positive alternative doesn’t pan out practically, we will have a generation of young people who feel they’re choosing between a shift in their understanding of marriage or leading lives that go unwitnessed.
Eventually we’ll get back to conversations about sexuality, and by the end of this post we’ll have looped back around to politics and the #bordercrisis, but it might be helpful to frame this in a more local context first.
I’ve spent the past four years working with inner city youth at an urban ministry in West Dallas. Before going on staff, I was working at a pub after college while perpetually existential crisising in my personal life. Coming to terms with my sexuality while firmly planted in the ex-gay movement, questioning all of Christendom because too many mysteries seemed too easily explained, feeling somewhat positive Nietzsche was the only one with answers but rather clueless as to what he was actually saying—it was a lot, you guys.
So I worked at a pub, paid the bills, read some books, smoked some cigarettes and did long distance running to cope with all the anxiety. Eventually, as I settled into just how grateful I was for Jesus even if I didn’t understand everything else about the faith, the thought occurred to me: “I don’t have all the answers and I’m not the prototypical role model, but I know I’ve been rescued and I’ve been given a whole lot in life. There are children—here in my city—who don’t have anyone to invest in them, to notice them, to communicate in all the small, simple ways that they matter. I might not have it all together, but I could at least offer my time: I could offer myself.”
So I became a mentor to a young girl in a low-income community. Then I started volunteering more and I met the kids’ little homies. Then their friends nestled their way into my heart somewhere between the first time a girl told me her story and the time they insisted I put Ranch on my cake. Then I ended up on staff and the kids totally changed my life.
My time working in a low-income community has only further frustrated my understanding of how political solutions play out practically, though. I’ve seen single moms hold down two jobs only to barely feed their families, and I’ve seen others sell food stamps to buy drugs. It’s not true that just anyone can blaze a trail to the American Dream (or even make a living) if they work hard enough, but the solution for that mom might be a hindrance for someone else.
While it all seems pretty complicated and confusing to me on a large scale, here’s what I know: human beings are transformed through relationships with other human beings. People need to be seen. They need to be touched. They need someone to listen to their questions or give them a ride to work on a rainy day. We cannot sit around waiting for the government to come up with a solution, or for those who are “more equipped” to step in, or for that imaginary season in life when we’ll have our mess together and huge windows of time where it seems like absorbing someone else’s pain would actually be the ideal activity for that day, or week, or month, or year. That time will never come, and those people can’t carry the whole load, and that government program won’t meet the relational needs of a child wired for intimacy.
It can become super sexy to have strong opinions about whatever big situation is going on in the news. Everyone has an opinion on why so many children are showing up at the Texas border and what we should do moving forward. Government officials need to be hashing this out and I’m praying for wisdom for our leaders. But our personal opinions, however right or wrong they may be, cost us next to nothing and make very little difference in the real world of real human beings. They’re here now! The kids are here. You and I can make a difference by actually doing something tangible for the children who have lived some tragedies and likely feel invisible. That will look different for each of us, as we all have different gifts and strengths. If you’re an attorney, it might be offering your time to do some pro bono work. If you love teaching, it might be tutoring or teaching English because they’ll be far behind in school. If you’re most of us, you can provide foster care to a refugee, or mentor a teenager who’s making the challenging transition.
If time is your concern, consider binging on the Netflix shows you’ll already be watching with a refugee by your side. If safety is your concern, consider whether or not insulating yourself from the suffering of the world might be more problematic than inviting someone into your life and experiencing the presence of God in the process. In my five years in the hood, I have never felt like I was truly in danger. There were times when guys twice my size were about to throw down, and after simply saying their names I’d watch them duck their heads and say: “I’m sorry, Miss Julie.” Relationships change people. I can assure you: there’s more to be concerned about in a bubble that insulates us from the suffering in the world than among those who are in need of an advocate.
If you’re anything like me, you hear about sex trafficking in Bangkok and you feel powerless to do anything about it. You read about gangs in the hood and you “x” out the screen because you don’t know if it’s the result of racism or fatherlessness or systemic injustice. You see pictures of children flocking to our border and you don’t know if it’s because the President passed a bill or because they were fleeing violence and victimization. So you turn your head and drown out the noise because you don’t think you can do anything about these massive global problems.
But victims of violence and human trafficking end up in our cities, and suddenly we have an opportunity where we previously thought only those brave missionaries overseas could make a difference. You can do something about these overwhelming problems by entering into the lives of a few people who are in your community in tangible, relational ways. You can change one or two kids’ lives and those kids will have a future they otherwise wouldn’t have had. We can be the kinds of individuals that create the kinds of communities that make small scale moves to alleviate the suffering of those in our midst with the hours, and hands, and homes we’ve been given.
This will be a short (likely welcomed) break from the usual conversation about sexuality to discuss the thousands of children from Central America arriving on our doorstep here in Texas. Most of you are probably aware of the border crisis and political firestorm it’s created. You’re probably aware of the ideological battle over immigration and you probably have an opinion about what the government should or shouldn’t do to create a long term solution (my guess is that you’re more aware than me and you have a better solution than me).
The whole situation is really complicated and overwhelming on a macro level. On a small, individual, interpersonal level though, it’s not really complicated at all. Over 52,000 unaccompanied children have shown up since October, fleeing cities overrun by gangs that kidnap children and force them to become lookouts or spies (or just murder them instead). It’s tragic and it’s unjust and the kids are now here in our cities, crammed in facilities that weren’t created to house thousands of children. At least 2,000 of them will be here in Dallas by the end of July, and there are plenty of children near you wherever you live.
We can continue arguing over what to call them (Fox says “Illegal Alien” and the UN says “Refugee”), but they’re children of infinite value to God with no one to care for them. They’re human beings with histories and a future—packed with potential to write a story of restoration through their little lives. This seems relatively simple to me on an interpersonal level: We serve them. We go to them. We consider attending a meeting to learn more about becoming a foster parent to one or more of these teenagers for the next several years.
If you’re anything like me, you have an exhaustive list of reasons for why you can’t help in practical ways: you’re single and you think the kids need two parents, or you don’t have the time to invest in someone in this season, or you lack the resources to offer the American Dream to them. Life will slowly pass us by, though, and we’ll have dinner parties and vacations and published articles to show for our lives, having missed out on the opportunities to alleviate the suffering of those around us in tangible ways. You have a home, and you have meals, and you have yourself to offer in relationship. You can invite a child into what you’re already doing, and that child will likely expand your capacity to love where you think he or she would drain it.
Let us not simply love the world in our imagination—let’s love individuals with our lives.
- Most Christian organizations would hire someone like me if I lived within their code of conduct. Most aren’t discriminating based on sexual orientation; rather, they want the freedom to maintain their beliefs about marriage and sexual behavior.
- If I were not celibate, and an organization could not hire me in good conscience, I would not want them to go against their convictions in hiring me only because they were forced to do so by the government. I would rather go work for an organization whose beliefs aligned with my own. Every organization should have the freedom to follow their conscience, even if that negatively affects me (and it does sometimes negatively affect me because many organizations would currently not hire me because of my convictions about sex and marriage).
- Many Christian organizations would not change their hiring policies based on this sort of order, and they would lose government funding to do things that contribute to the common good. We need to keep the common good in mind, which means respecting one another’s differences.
The whirlwind of confusion called The Gay Christian Debate was swallowing me whole by the time I was a junior in high school. I had coaches and trusted mentors who said God created me gay and that He was glorified in the sexual expression of that through same-sex relationships. They were nurturing women who walked me through books on revisionist theology and shared stories about their personal experience shifting into a new understanding of their faith and sexuality. Meanwhile, I was involved in more traditional Christian communities with mentors who spoke of the beauty of God’s created order, the rhythm He spoke in motion that—when it came to sex and marriage—involved a man and a woman in a lifelong covenant.
Both sides sounded compelling for different reasons, and the argument itself created more questions than answers: Was this even a debatable issue? If so, was my response to it simply a matter of conscience? What if it really wasn’t a debatable issue and the consequences to my decision were more severe than I realized? What if I chose to live by my convictions—what would it mean for future relationships? What about the longing, the loneliness of it all?
The questions had become suffocating. I was so consumed by them that I lost sight of all the facets of my life that had shaped my way of being in the world throughout my life: My passion for the Lord, my curiosity about every person I met, my delight in literature, joy in the outdoors, love for basketball and lifelong quest to alleviate some of the suffering in the world.
That year, my junior year in high school, a wise and gracious woman showed up in my life and created space for me to exhale. She sat with me in my anxiety and listened to my cries for answers for months. We went for evening walks or cooked meals, and sometimes she’d just cart me around while she dropped her kids off at hockey practice or volleyball games. I will never forget the evening when we sat on her back porch in large chairs with comfy cushions and she looked at me with the kindest eyes, then calmly said:
“Jules, what if you just kind or bracket these questions for a bit? The world is so big and your life—who you are—is so much bigger than this one conflict. What if you just seek the face of Jesus, not for answers to these questions, but to know Him and grow in intimacy with Him? You’ve got the rest of your life to figure out some sort of path in response to Him, but you might need to give yourself permission to just set them aside so you can enjoy God’s goodness and pursue an overall life of flourishing—a life of worship.”
I took a deep, long breath and slowly exhaled the Texas air. That was precisely what I needed to hear at that time. Her words resonated with my spirit and spoke peace into all the anxiety that demanded all the answers and every single one of them right then in that second. What I didn’t realize was that as much as I needed to hear it at 17, I would need to hear it again at 19. I would need to hear it at 20, 22, 25, 28, and I’ll likely need to remember it the rest of my life.
The questions surrounding our sexuality look gigantic at times (particularly at this time in history): they shape how we read Scripture, what relationships we’ll pursue, what the nature of those relationships will be, what kind of community we’ll join and what we hope or fear for the future (even though we’re clueless about our future regardless). The questions strangled me in seasons and threatened to smite every last bit of joy flickering in my spirit. The debate, in itself, often robbed me of life.
Over the past 10 years, the reminder that I can turn down the volume on all those questions has been vital to my emotional, spiritual, and relational health. In giving myself permission to expand the scope of my attention, I’ve remembered all the beauty in the world—all the invitations to engage in the fullness of life. I’ve been freed up to focus my energy on absorbing some of the pain of those immediately around me, something that’s difficult to do when I’m consumed by my own struggles.
It’s given me the space to marvel over the goodness of God: to worship Him for who He is and to begin to know at a heart level that He’s a faithful Father I can trust with my whole life. Since nurturing that relationship has become the foundation of my life, questions to the answers that used to consume me have been answered along the way. Questions about the future will be answered along the way. What I know is that I have much less anxiety about them now because I’ve experienced firsthand the faithfulness of God to surprise me when I was positive my only options involved despair.
If you feel consumed by the questions or confused by the debates, I encourage you to give yourself permission to turn the volume on them down. Get in touch with the rhythms that stir you to worship and wonder, seeking to know the Lord in all His goodness. While the immediate questions surrounding our sexuality can feel pressing, there are more important places we can invest all our energy: to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God.