Let me jump ahead for a minute.
Imagine you are attending a beautiful worship service, your heart still aloft in that other-worldly space where you’ve just communed with God, and as heads are bowed for prayer, the pastor gets up and asks the congregation to raise a hand if they have ever seriously contemplated ending their lives…and your stomach drops as you hear the sound of hands going up everywhere. Confirming what he has just seen and what you have just imagined to be true, the pastor begins to weep and administer words of life to this vulnerable group:
Your life has value. You are wanted. You belong.
This is an affirmation that hundreds of people traveled across the country to be reminded of at The Reformation Project conference I attended in Chicago recently. These are words that many of them still have a hard time believing because they have been told otherwise by their families and churches for so many years. And yet, as LGBTQ people of faith, they have come together out of their shared love for Jesus and His church, and hold deeply to a vision of unity and inclusion, a day when nobody needs to be un-told that they’re not enough, that they are somehow unqualified to receive Christ’s love.
When is the last time your worship service concluded with a post-suicidal show of hands? It was a first for me. And it sobered me to a reality I had been seeing unfold all year: how the church engages with LGBTQ people is a matter of life and death.
Okay, where were we… back to last March…
I was finally starting to understand both sides of the “gay vs Christian debate” after reading the book Torn, by Justin Lee. This was the first book that anyone recommended to me after my 13-yr-old daughter came out as gay and I was searching for resources, and I am so glad it was. As a self-proclaimed “God boy,” Justin shares his experience growing up in the church, realizing his gay orientation, praying for years for God to take this from him, asking for help from trusted advisors, seeking permanent orientation change through conversion therapy and searching for God’s will through it all. After years of prayerful study, he explains what he sees as two reasonable positions, either of which he believes a faithful Christian might earnestly arrive at through their study of Scripture: Side A, which emphasizes Biblical cultural context and says that monogamous, equal-status, same-sex relationships can be blessed by God, and Side B, which says a person may not have chosen their orientation but should not engage in a same-sex relationship. Both sides acknowledge that the orientation is innate and largely unchangeable, but differ in interpretation on what a person ought to do with this orientation.
Side B lines up with a traditional Biblical teaching (at least, on the “not engaging” part, though not really on the “orientation” part since that is a relatively new concept), which I had been taught my entire life. There are several thought-provoking points made in defense of a Side A position, which were new to us but certainly worth the long and careful studying we pursued through this and other resources.
For purposes of this story, here is a high level, unscientific, nutshell version:
There was a lot of NC-17 stuff going on in Bible times, which often involved man-and-boy stuff, man-and-slave stuff and temple prostitution, none of which the Side A crowd is promoting. The people of ancient Rome and Greece were, shall we say, phallically obsessed. You’ll have to google “ancient phallic art” for yourself to see images (Note: Not Safe for Work or Young Eyes) and read about the unbridled eroticism that permeated culture during those days. (If you think 2017 is hypersexualized, you should see the 1st Century AD. I don’t know of any friends who prepare their sons’ anuses to receive the ‘seed’ from powerful men today.)
Meanwhile, the word homosexual was not coined until very recently – the late 1800s, and was not added to the English Bible until 1946.
So – part of the argument rests on these questions: What was the Bible referring to when it condemned “homosexuality?” Were the original authors referring to lustful, abusive and unhinged same-sex behavior that occurred among otherwise-heterosexual men, which was common in their day, or were they condemning all monogamous same-sex relationships between loving, committed adults of equal status?
If equal-status same-sex relationships have been happening primarily in the closet until the past few decades, it is reasonable to imagine that these relationships would not have been widely known and recognized in ancient times, and therefore Side A suggests that this is not the situation that Paul was condemning.
Side A leans into the core Biblical themes of love and acceptance and sees same-sex orientation as part of God’s diverse creation. Similar, they say, to how the abolition of slavery was based on core Biblical themes of love and freedom, rather than on a static reading of Scripture, which some supporters used to endorse slavery.
But we were still students here, taking this in. How did this line up with Scripture?
Here’s what Paul says in Romans 1:
18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.
24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.
26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error. Romans 1:18-27
Paul’s description of idol worship and shameful lusts certainly jived with what I had read about the culture of this time. One of Paul’s contemporaries was a tyrannical emperor in Rome named Gaius Caesar (aka Caligula), well-known for his wild sexcapades with both women and men, murderous cruelty and extravagant self-worship. He had plans to erect a statue of himself within the Temple walls in Jerusalem, which would have been a gross violation of idol worship laws, before he was brought to death by a small group of royal conspirators. According to some reports, he was pierced directly in his genitals during his assassination.
Could Paul have had him in mind when he said they received in themselves the due penalty for their error?
It seems like a legit possibility, but I don’t know, I wasn’t there. I wish I could ask him. Although, I could understand this line of contextual Side A reasoning. Imagine if someone thousands of years from now were to read a writing from our generation that said, “DRUGS ARE BAD.” It would take some cultural context to understand that this brief statement was referring to a societal problem which involved illegal drug abuse, violence and families ruined by addiction and overdose. We were not referring to Tums and Tylenol. If this is what was going on in the Bible when it came to our reading of “homosexuality,” then it seemed that a relatively simple adjustment in our understanding could help us correct course.
Until Jen Hatmaker’s interview in October 2016, I had never once heard a Christian perspective that “gay was okay.” I didn’t know that books had been written and Christian scholars had been talking about this for some time. I didn’t know that faithful believers were coming to the same conclusion and with a clean conscience. I really didn’t know how much gay people in our faith communities were struggling…though it seemed like I was hearing stories of pain and heartache on the regular. In early March, Jen shared the link to a 44-episode blog/podcast called Blue Babies Pink by Brett Trapp, which chronicles a gay Christian man’s experience growing up as a pastor’s son in the deep south. (I highly recommend!) Before reading the blog, I assumed the title was in reference to gender norms, “blue” vs “pink.” But what he was really describing was the idea of an infant in distress, blue from oxygen deprivation, becoming pink as it finally takes in breath. Moving from death toward life. This was how he described his experience as he moved from shame toward acceptance of his own sexuality. It was very eye-opening to me, and is worth a read.
Meanwhile, I had just been introduced to the Mama Bears, a moniker held by thousands of mothers of LGBTQ children, many from faith backgrounds like mine, existing as a benevolent army in private Facebook groups. Like me, they’d found themselves in an unexpected situation as parents, and wanted to love their child and love God, too. The price of admission into the groups was acknowledgement that our children did not choose to be gay and that we were not trying not to change their orientation, and with that came a backstage pass to endless content – shared articles, videos, books, talks, blogs, guest speakers, personal stories – and even better, tons of support and encouragement.
In these groups, I read a million stories about other people’s experiences and was instantly comforted by the bond we shared. “Me too” is a powerful thing. It can turn strangers into sisters in a matter of keystrokes. Many had older children and had been on this journey a while, so while I was enjoying the “omg – me too!” camaraderie I felt with other newbies, I paid special attention to the “seasoned” moms. Some of them had earned wisdom through horrifyingly tragic circumstances — things that would break your heart right this minute — and I took their advice seriously when they emphasized the importance of providing a safe environment for our children and surrounding them with love and supportive people and churches. This, they implored, was the meaning of it all. If nothing else, this was a mother’s sole responsibility to her child. For some of them, it was too late, so they sought to redeem their heartache by helping to prevent other families’ suffering.
Check out Linda Mueller Robertson’s story to see what I mean.
As it turned out, perhaps because many of our lives revolve around our faith communities, a lot of the suffering their children and families had endured was related to their church experiences. This is something I heard from so many LGBTQ Christians I’ve met, as well. We might think the line in church is drawn at gay marriage, but for many, even just coming out looked like: being removed from a staff or leadership position, being asked to step down from the worship team, no longer being allowed to work with the children in Sunday School, being uninvited from their small groups, being refused communion, denied baptism, rejected from membership, etc.
Rejection from people you love and have served with is so painful, especially when it’s disguised as embrace. “You’re welcome, but…” “We love you, but…” Hey church, could we stop being but-heads for five minutes? This is not how we talk to anybody else, and for the person on the receiving end, it feels like anything “but” love.
For others who were not publicly out, they were still acutely aware of every damning abomination message, every snarky joke, every sneer as leaders spoke with contempt about the gay agenda and the church’s duty to fight against it, and as you can imagine, all of it cut deeply.
Theological position is one thing, but posture is another; and when our “hate the sin” barrel overflows, we spill poison all over our brothers and sisters. Someone at the Chicago conference said it well: “Our greatest need is not for the church to embrace our sexuality, but to embrace our humanity.” They are not an issue, they are human beings. Can we see LGBTQ people as “us” instead of “them?” Because whatever is going on is causing deep harm to so many.
It is worth mentioning that the instances of suicide, self-harm, substance abuse, depression, bullying, physical abuse, homelessness, etc., are extremely high among the LGBTQ community, especially youths – especially in “highly rejecting families,” which could very well have been mine if not for the grace of God. LGB* youth are almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide compared to heterosexual youth. And beyond this, LGB youth from highly rejecting families are then 8.4 times MORE LIKELY to attempt suicide than their LGB peers who come from accepting families. Try to visualize that. Let that sink in. I heard one of the Mama Bears say, “No matter what your theological position is, no parent wants to open the bedroom door and find their child hanging.” If this was the alternative, who among us wouldn’t wish we had made the effort to engage? Every parent, teacher and youth leader needs to lean in here and understand that kids in their care may be at risk right this moment.
*Note: Transgender children are in a much higher category of self-harm and suicide than LGB youths. And by the way, this community deserves so much attention and TLC. < More to come on this.
Mind you, when I say kids, I mean kids. Children. Not long ago, I wrongly assumed that same-sex attraction was something only adults and maybe older teenagers could really be susceptible to, but if we believe many gay adults today, they often say they knew when they were in elementary, sometimes sooner. This was certainly the case for my daughter, who is still young even now and says she knew this from her earliest memories.
I count myself very lucky that my daughter is healthy today and I am not sitting by her bed in the ER wanting to turn back time, begging God for a second chance at all of this, as many parents are. But still, I sometimes wish I could go back to my MOPS days, when she was in preschool and I was starting to notice things…and say what these seasoned mothers with valuable perspective would tell me – that it’s okay: she wants to wear ‘boy shoes?’ Okay! She says dresses hurt her? Believe her! She thinks that friend is really pretty? Be thankful that she has two healthy eyes that can appreciate beauty! A life without beauty, without love, would be a tragedy.
I got to thinking about love and how it is expressed, even at a young age.
“I made you a card”
“I’ll carry that for you”
“You can have my seat”
“I don’t mind waiting”
“I thought of you when I saw this lovely thing”
“You can have the last cookie”
What is the motivation that drives us to put others before ourselves? Love? Attraction? Think about your early crushes. Was there anything you wouldn’t do for the object of your affection? Whatever the drive was internally, it promoted us to be the best versions of ourselves: more patient, more kind, more longsuffering, more thoughtful, more creative, braver, happier, lighter…and perhaps even the thought of “dying for” that person would not have given us a moment of hesitation. That is goodness, and undeniably self-sacrificial.
Now imagine hating yourself every time you caught yourself feeling those warm thoughts, giving that goodness away to the wrong people, people who looked like you. Living in fear of love. Imagine the constant turmoil for a person who cannot turn off their attraction orientation but believe they might be sinning against God every time they are tempted to love someone. Julie Rodgers, a former “ex-gay” speaker, and the first openly gay staff member at Wheaton College, spoke about this in a keynote speech at The Reformation Project in 2016. I watched it on YouTube and it is so good. Describing a gay Christian’s struggle against their own loving nature, she said: the very best part about us is how we give our love away, and we are told this is our sin.
How does someone even reconcile this? We are taught as children, we are commanded as Christians, and we are drawn every day of our lives, to LOVE. We all agree that LOVE is the answer, LOVE is the greatest commandment, God is LOVE. And yet, “LOVE” is what gets LGB Christians into trouble, and leads many down a dark path of self-loathing and destruction as they fight this inclination toward goodness. I can barely comprehend this.
Recognizing that this was the struggle for many gay Christians, a fire began to grow in our bellies. My husband and I felt we had been so focused on the “right or wrong” question of same-sex relationships (ultimately a decision that was for our daughter to make anyway, not us), we failed to notice a much more urgent issue, one that we could actually, hopefully, do something about. The more we were confronted with this impossible idea of love as sin, and the more we became aware of acute human suffering happening right under our noses within our faith communities, the more we began to look at this entire situation in a new way.
Imagine you are driving down the freeway and you come upon a disastrous, flaming, multi-car wreck. This crash has just taken place…paramedics have not yet arrived on the scene. You quickly jump out of your car to find bodies strewn about. It’s obvious that many have not survived the impact. This is a horrifying scene, but you hear cries and know that some people are still alive and are desperate for help. Without hesitation, you follow the sound of the cries and pray for supernatural strength as you pull bodies out of the wreckage to safety and attend to immediate wounds. You are steadfast in holding them in your arms until help arrives, and they have hope because you have found them when they were trapped, alone and frightened; you tell them that they’re going to be okay and you believe it because you know the God who holds them in His loving hands.
This is where my husband and I have found ourselves after months of searching for support and accidentally getting to know LGBTQ Christians who are suffering. As first responders on the scene within the church, we have been given new eyes for this community, eyes that see so much pain, vulnerability, longing, sadness, loneliness, rejection, and risk. This is not the time to talk about the dangers of texting and driving or fighting for stricter seat belt laws. This is the time to roll up our sleeves, look for survivors, and tend to their wounds. You might even find a face you recognize among the wreckage.
As we approach the holidays, I want to encourage anyone reading this to look for the pain around you and do whatever you can to soothe it. You might have LGBTQ relatives that you’ll be seeing; please acknowledge them, please look them in the eye, please hug them, please ask them about their lives, please don’t treat them as other, please lean in, please be happy if they are happy, please love the people they love. If you have never asked them what their journey has been like, perhaps this is the year you can ask.
And if you are the person tentatively walking into the holiday scene this year, anxious about how your family will receive you, please remember:
Your life has value. You are wanted. You belong.
Let’s keep the people we love out of the wreckage, and give the pastor no reason to ask for a show of hands. As for my family and I, we will keep on looking for survivors. ❤