Lives That Go Unwitnessed

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.

When Global Problems Become Local Opportunities

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.

 

Welcoming the Children in Our Midst

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.

 

A Civil Conversation about Discrimination

I’ve been following the discussion about the request 14 religious leaders made for a religious exemption in the executive order President Obama plans to sign: an executive order that will ban discrimination against employees on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. On the surface, with that language, the request by the religious leaders sounds alarming (Christians are asking for the right to discriminate against us?). 
 
That’s why a group of 100 faith leaders pushed back against the request with a letter to the President asking him not to make a religious exemption. Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary, told Time she was devastated to learn of the request: “[My brothers and sisters in Christ] asked that people of faith be given special permission to discriminate. It’s simply theologically indefensible.” 
 
That’s not what’s happening. I know many of the men who signed the letter asking for a religious exemption personally, and I know they would hire a Christian who lives in accord with their code of conduct. They’re not trying to discriminate against those who happen to find themselves with a gay orientation. They’re simply asking the President not to strong arm religious organizations by saying: “Change your beliefs about marriage and sexual behavior or lose funding.” Even Jim Wallis, a progressive religious leader who’s fully affirming, had similar concerns
 
Regardless of whether or not you think Christian organizations should change their views on marriage and hire sexually active gay people, we need to realize this is more complex than many care to acknowledge. Kirsten Powers wrote a nuanced piece highlighting some of the complexities: “Without an exemption in Obama’s executive order, we could see many religious organizations that provide social services to the most needy losing government contracts because they act on the dictates of their faith. Century-old Catholic Charities, which serves more than 10 million Americans a year, could lose critical government funding to help people in desperate need.”
 
There’s a lot to consider here. I’ll just mention a few things from my perspective as a gay Christian who identifies with both groups: 
 
  • 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. 
It’s sad to see the quality of conversation surrounding these kinds of situations. The word games and battle cries turn it into a contest where whoever applies the most pressure wins, but no one wins in the end. If religious organizations are coerced to step outside of their convictions because of an executive order, we’ve moved no closer to anyone seeing the value and dignity of actual gay people. Is that what we want? We’re going to have to learn how to respect our differences if we’re going to move forward with any sort of civility, and from that place of respect we can work toward valuing one another in the midst of our differences. 
  

To Lower the Volume on Anxiety

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.

 

From Fear to Freedom (and the wisdom that holds our hand)

Throughout my childhood in conservative Christian churches here in the Bible Belt, then through college at Christian universities, and post-college involvement in various Christian communities, one word stands out in my mind—underlined with bold caps—that describes much of the Christian response to homosexuality: Fear

From straight Christians I often hear things like: What will we tell the children?! Is my gay friend going to hell? What if my child sees gay characters on TV and begins to question his or her own sexuality? Do we invite our child’s partner to Thanksgiving dinner? What if they take it as a sign of affirmation? What if our friends judge us for how we respond to our gay loved ones? If we allow gay couples in our church, it will cause a ruckus. 

From LGBT (or same-sex attracted) Christians I often hear things like: What if I get too close to this friend and fall in love with him or her? If I open myself up to love and intimacy then I might have sex with this person! What will people think if they find out I’m gay? What will they think if they see me interacting with this friend? What if I seriously seek to understand the Bible’s moral vision for sexual expression and it challenges my previously held convictions?

From most corners of the conversation, gay and straight alike, fear rings through questions, comments, and angst-ridden statements. To be sure, there are legitimate concerns worth reflecting on (I’ve spent no less than thirty thousand hours reflecting on them OMG!). But fear leads us to recoil then lash out, binge and isolate. Fear removes the potential for a peaceful way of being in the world that meets others where they are with sincerity and authenticity. Fear keeps us from seeing others accurately, from knowing and being known. It ultimately keeps us from freely loving God and our neighbors because we’re operating out of a system rather than a relational foundation of trust and connection.

It’s been so healing for me to approach all these concerns with a sense of freedom. Because Christ has already covered us and mercy triumphs over judgment: we’re free to love people where they are, to love who they love, to ask questions about Scripture, to press into love and intimacy, to step out in trust knowing God’s got us in His hand and He’ll be faithful to guide those who seek Him. I feel like I finally became a real human being when I began to live out of a place of freedom rather than fear. I became a (mostly) whole, connected, relationally invested human being.

I didn’t abolish my moral standard and my core beliefs remained the same, but I could finally own them knowing I was free to ask hard questions and put everything on the table. I didn’t start having sex with people when I opened myself up to love and intimacy because sex suddenly seemed like such a counterfeit for real intimacy. My friends who are on different paths didn’t start to think I was “condoning” anything; they felt respected and supported as people in a process that looked different than mine. We can ask questions and have conversations (or go for bike rides and eat froyo) without either of us feeling pressured or secretly judged.

Unfortunately, freedom and wisdom are often seen as mutually exclusive when we’re operating out of fear. Freedom is often framed as an occasion for sin where we basically become libertines overnight, destined for orgies and debauchery. But if we’ve built our lives on Christ and lost ourselves in His story of restoration, He gives us wisdom moment by moment to discern the best choice between two options. He gives us wisdom to discern how to practically demonstrate love toward those in our lives. He gives us wisdom to know when to press into a relationship and when to set some boundaries. He gives us wisdom to see what leads to life and what will trip us up. He guides us right into those (occasional) tough conversations we prayed about long before we opened our mouths. All the things we obsess about in our anxiety become clear when we loosen our grip and begin to trust that God’s got us in His hand and He’s for our good.

flat,550x550,075,fOur lives might look a little different when we begin to shift toward this way of being in the world (in creeps fear). But when we listen to Scripture and live in community, it seems to be less of a sign that we’ve been derailed as it is a reminder that many of the norms are born out of a culture of fear, so we naturally live in a different rhythm when we’re operating out of freedom. There are, of course, other wise believers we can look to (and listen to) for feedback: those who exude maturity and grace, integrity and wisdom, who love in active and costly ways. Living in the balance of freedom and wisdom—or grace and truth—isn’t some new thing that no one has ever done before in the history of Christianity: it’s just a difficult tension that requires sincerity and intentionality born out of humility.

It’s for freedom that Christ has set us free. That freedom is not an occasion for sin, but an invitation to risk relationship and love boldly in trust that God will be faithful to hold our hands along the way. We can all go ahead and exhale because we’re utterly and completely loved by our Father in heaven right where we are, and His love isn’t dependent on our perfection. It’s that kind of love that compels us to lose ourselves in His vivacious story of restoration.

 

A Place of Restoration

It’s been a minute since I last posted! I accidentally took a hiatus from blogging for a couple months because life outside the internet has just been so rich. The gay Christian shouting matches conversations can take up too much space if I’m not careful, and sometimes I need a little distance from it to recalibrate. So I’ve been present with the people in my life and spent the best kind of time on novels, bike rides, naps in the grass, and Canadian escapades. It’s been a restorative spring season.

The time away created the space for me to remember the kind of contribution I hope to make through the blog: to humanize what often seems like an abstraction in hope that each of us will be inspired to love our neighbors in more tangible ways. One of the greatest challenges to engaging in this conversation (or just being gay in the Christian world) is the way homosexuality is often seen as a problem to be solved: A theological debate or charged political agenda, a war on families or sign of God’s wrath. Meanwhile, the actual gay person is thinking: I just want someone to eat ice cream with in my fat clothes on Tuesday night. Then the church says: “Community groups!” And the gay person thinks: “I’ve bopped around to 20 different groups, and it’s great to meet up with folks for an hour and a half once a week, but the group ends and the people move and I still wake up alone every morning.” I hope to help other Christians feel the weight of these gaps.

Theology is important. I read every book that’s released on this topic and pray more theologians will thoughtfully engage these questions in our context. But I personally hope to humanize some of the questions because a theology divorced from the people seeking to live into it is a theology of the imagination. As I’ve sought to submit my sexuality to the Lord for the past decade, I’ve been surprised by grace and lived a life of vitality. I’ve also run into many practical problems that we’ve yet to address. For instance, many gay people shut down important parts of their hearts for fear of where love might lead, but you can’t selectively shut down. If you cut off the capacity to feel and express one form of love, you cut off the capacity to love in other ways as well—it’s all connected. These are the kinds of questions we need the church to help us address if we’re going to flourish as relational people. We need our church families to care as much about the lived reality as the systematic theology.

I’ll sum this up with a scene from Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow, where he describes his experience of the church in his town. It’s beautiful because of it’s humility and simplicity, and it reminds me the “problems” the church often sees as central don’t need to eclipse the beauty of what happens when we gather as a community to worship God. We don’t need to have all the answers in order to be a place of healing and restoration:

What they came together for was to acknowledge, just by coming, their losses and failures and sorrows, their need for comfort, their faith always needing to be greater, their wish (in spite of all words and acts to the contrary) to love one another and to forgive and be forgiven, their need for one another’s help and company and divine gifts, their hope (and experience) of love surpassing death, their gratitude.

restu_k.hurleyThis is what most of us long for when we gather with other believers. We want to worship God and thrive as humans who see in part before a God who sees in full. We don’t want to cause problems or engage in more debates; we simply want be together in wonder before God. When I read that Jesus said things like: “Come to me, all you who are thirsty, come drink from the river of life,” I feel restored by the words themselves. I feel restored by the existence of a God who welcomes me and offers a place of rest. My hope is for the church to be a vibrant community that represents God’s healing presence to every person here on earth, with attention to the lived reality of the people who come in all their complexity and beauty.