Monday, February 27, 2006

Exam Time

There's probably not a gay (or ex-gay) Christian alive who hasn't wondered many times what God's purpose is for the existence of homosexuals. Whether one believes it was an intentional creation or just a by-product of Adam's fall, God would not have allowed it if he didn't have a specific purpose in mind for incorporating us into his plan for humanity.

On the extreme end, some Christians still hold to the belief that it's sinful to even experience same-sex attractions and that those feelings must be eradicated before an individual can be certain of salvation. How such a thoroughly unbiblical notion (that merely experiencing temptation equals sin) ever took root among a group that supposedly takes the Bible seriously could most likely produce enough fodder for an entire book, but fortunately most in the church have moved beyond it.

The majority opinion among conservative Christians would be that homosexuality represents the same challenge as any other propensity toward sin - nothing more, nothing less. In this lifetime we may never be completely free of whatever particular compulsions have a hold over us, but enduring them indefinitely without giving in is nonetheless our lot in life.

Those who disagree with the premise that all gay relationships are wrong could still agree that there are temptations to be overcome - a partnered homosexual would face the same temptation to stray as a married heterosexual, for example. They might also point to the adversity that almost inevitably follows being gay, since rejection and persecution are possibilities even in generally affirming environments. Both gay and ex-gay Christians can testify that the issues of identity and faith they've had to wrestle through have caused them to grow in ways they might never have if they'd been straight.

Christians on the affirming side of the debate would also be likely to assert that homosexuals are specifically part of God's plan to reflect his glory through the diversity of his creation - a position that conservatives would almost unanimously reject.

But is personal adversity all that there is to it? The biblical passage that comes to mind when I ponder this question is John 9:2-3:

"Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?"

"Neither this man nor his parents sinned," said Jesus, "but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life."

Beyond that - beyond gazing inwardly at the cross that I personally bear - I think of the many verses in the Bible that tell us how we should treat "the least of these." That phrase initially brings up images of widows and orphans and the poor, all of which we are directly called to reach out to, but it also brings to mind other groups of outcasts - lepers and Samaritans and Gentiles - that Jesus ministered to despite the disdain that most Jews held for such untouchables.

And who, in society today, better fits the label of 'outcast' than gays and lesbians? Your average Christian would feed and clothe a hundred street people before giving so much as the time of day to a homosexual.

So what if the existence of homosexuality has another purpose? What if we were also placed here (or at least allowed to turn out this way) so that we could be a test of the church's compassion?

Actually, that's a rather scary thought. There are glimmers of hope here and there, as evangelical leaders like Tony Campolo and Philip Yancey demonstrate that one can believe that all homosexual relationships are sin and still treat gays and lesbians as fully human beings worthy of love and respect. Unfortunately, for every Tony Campolo there's a Repent America, three Jerry Falwells and a dozen Jim Dobsons, who at best see even our mere existence as a threat to all that is righteous and good.

So how is the evangelical church doing on this particular test? Granted, only God can ultimately assign us our final grade, but it doesn't take a Ph.D. in theology to make an educated guess as to how well our actions measure up to Christ's example:

Representatives of the Body of Christ reprimand a self-confessed sinner for his inadequate devotion to the Gospel of Heterosexuality.

Projected grade: D-

One of the Chosen Few models her unique interpretation of the Golden Rule.

Projected grade: F

An ex-gay activist who spent at least a whole week in the "gay lifestyle" as a young man demonstrates his extensive knowledge of the lives of committed gay couples.

Projected grade: F-

A ministry founded on the premise of showing compassion toward homosexuals gives us a (not-so-)rare glimpse into the depths of its compassionate heart.

Projected grade: What falls below an F?

And evangelicals wonder why they're so hated within the gay community. I can't imagine why, given the stellar examples of love in action that I've just presented. I sincerely hope that the church's final exam lies far in the future. We've got a lot of homework to catch up on between now and then...

Wednesday, February 22, 2006


I've got a wound that doesn't heal, burning out again
Burning out again
I'm not sure which of me is real, I'm alone again
Burning out again
My hope runs underneath it all the day that I'll be home

It won't be long, I belong somewhere past this setting sun
Finally free, finally strong, somewhere back where I belong

They're selling shares of me again, I'm not buying it
I'm not buying it
My wound goes deeper than the skin, There's no hiding it
So I'm not trying it
My hope runs underneath it all the day that I'll be home

It won't be long, I belong somewhere past this setting sun
Finally free, finally strong, somewhere back where I belong

Let the weak say I am strong, and it won't be long
Let the right say I was wrong, and it won't be long
Let us find where we belong, beyond this setting sun
Beyond this setting sun

-Switchfoot, "The Setting Sun"

Pain is an interesting thing. On a primal level it's an instinct that helps us to survive - placing your hand on a hot stove hurts for a good reason. But even on a purely physical level, pain isn't such a simple phenomenon. A weightlifter pushes through the pain of taxing his muscles for the long-term gain of building up those muscles. Of course, if the pain is coming from the joint instead of the muscle, that same act of persistence may lead to injury instead.

The same complexity holds true of emotional pain. The pain of rejection can teach us to avoid inappropriate behavior or to exercise better discernment in our relationships. But pain can also result from doing the right thing, whether because it forces us to face the consequences of a past mistake or because it evokes a negative reaction from someone whose opinion we care about. Life is just never as simple as the bullet points from a Sunday morning sermon can make it seem.

Instinct tells us to avoid pain at any cost. But where does that leave us when the only way forward is through that pain (or the risk of pain) we desperately don't want to face? Sooner or later, honesty leads to pain. In an imperfect world, there's simply no way to avoid that inevitability. (And yes, there are times when blunt honesty is the greater of two evils, but that's a topic for some other discussion.)

So how do we tell the difference? Just because we think we're doing the right thing doesn't necessarily mean that the pain our action causes us should be taken as validation. And there's no concrete formula, no magical combination of Bible verses, that we can employ to evaluate every possible course of action in every possible situation with perfect accuracy. Certainly we can (and should) turn to God for guidance, but even that can come back to us garbled once it's made its way through all the noise and emotion and human error that cloud our finite minds.

So in the end, every action that we take is a leap of faith - we risk not only the consequences of our own imperfect choices, but the possibility that we will become the victims of someone else's errors. But what's the alternative? Even inaction is, ultimately, an action with its own set of consequences, and attempting to avoid pain through the action of inaction can cause us even more pain in the long run.

Fear is a powerful motivator, and yet giving in to our fear of pain leads to pain. In the end, pain is unavoidable. How, then, do we deal with it? Again, instinct works against us. My first inclination is always to push the pain aside, to fill my mind instead with whatever distraction is closest at hand so that I can focus on anything else at all. But doing so comes with a high cost; not only does my pain not go away, but it slowly and quietly grows in that dark place I consigned it to until it begins to poison my thoughts and actions to the point that I begin inflicting my pain on those around me.

It's only when I set aside my distractions and let my pain come to the surface that I can finally be free of it. Only after I've experienced its crushing weight and allowed the tears to flow freely does it begin to go away. And sometimes grieving is a lengthy process of letting that pain overwhelm me again and again, until it finally begins to lose its potency. The only path to the healing I so desperately need takes me straight through the depths of my pain.

Why, then, isn't the church a safer place for those that are hurting (i.e. every last person on the face of the planet)? Where did we get the idea that accepting Jesus into our hearts was supposed to make our lives shiny and happy and perfect? When did church become a place where we feel the need to paste a fake smile on our face so that nobody will catch a glimpse of the shambles that lie just underneath the surface?

Above all else, church should be a safe haven, the one place this side of the setting sun where we know that we'll be loved and accepted exactly as we are - the one place where we can set aside our fears and be completely honest about our pain. Not that any church can completely live up to that ideal in an imperfect world, but it seems like far too few churches even try to be such a place.

The truth sets us free. Truth is far more than a list of dry, black-and-white propositions. Truth is also personal honesty - honesty about who we are in the deepest, darkest corners of our souls. It's only when we bring our wounds and fears and dark thoughts into the light that we can find healing, and with it the freedom that we long for.

Not that I do the greatest job of living up to what I advocate. But at the end of the day, when I've let my buried pain grow until life becomes intolerable enough that I'm ready to take the risk of being honest, I can come back and face my pain, and by doing the right thing find freedom once again.

Monday, February 20, 2006


I can't say that I enjoy the feeling of being in transition. The process of reevaluating my beliefs and coming to drastically different conclusions about key life issues is leaving me in a position where I can no longer stay where I'm at. First, and most obviously, I'm taking a couple of steps back from the support ministry I've been a participant in for most of the last two years. Although I don't intend to let go of most of the friendships I've made there, or even to completely curtail my involvement, I simply no longer fit in at any place that believes that all gay relationships are unconditionally wrong.

That means I no longer fit in at my current church, either. Granted, it's been a while since I felt like I had community there, beyond participation on Sundays and with a handful of events, but it's been a comfortable place all the same, and one where God is visibly at work in the lives of many people. Nonetheless, I've sensed that God is nudging me to move on to someplace where I can more fully invest myself in a church community, so I'm currently visiting an affirming church that I first became aware of last year.

This church is a far cry from what I'm used to, at least in terms of worship style; it's far more traditional in that respect than the Gen X/postmodern churches I've attended for the last decade. This week I'll be having dinner with the pastor to get better acquainted with him and the church, and to get a feel for how I might fit in there should I decide to make it my new church home. I still have my reservations, yet at the same time a part of me feels drawn there.

The next domino that will eventually need to tumble is my current job. Although I work in a comfortable environment (there's that 'c' word again) with coworkers who like me and appreciate my work, they would be considerably less friendly if it became known that I no longer toe the Exodus line (which is quite popular around here). Nothing that I might have to say in my defense would be given serious consideration, since this issue is strictly black-and-white and 100% settled, as it is for most conservative Christians. Were I to identify as ex-gay I would be fully affirmed and supported, but no other option exists for me in their minds.

So the time for me to consider a career change is fast approaching. I knew this day was coming even when I was still in the ex-gay mindset; I've simply come to the limit of how far I can grow in my current position, not to mention inside the Christian bubble. The need for me to step out, either toward a larger organization or into another line of work entirely, would eventually bring things to a head in any case.

Needless to say, such sweeping life changes don't come without a cost. I sometimes find myself feeling disoriented and disconnected, and somewhat anxious about the future. Although I have several close friends to turn to, I still find myself with far less support than I'd like to have. There's nobody who's there for me on a daily basis, and only a few who can even give me time weekly; most people in our modern, fast-paced society are just too busy to really be there consistently for anyone outside of their immediate family (if even then). So I suppose admitting that I'm feeling a little bit lonely these days would put me in good company.

So what comes next? I know that God is still in control, and that he's still directing my steps, but it sure would be nice to have a slightly better idea of what lies ahead. Or maybe it wouldn't; if you'd told me two years ago what my life would look like today, I'd have run away screaming. And yet now that I'm here, I couldn't ever imagine trying to go back to the way things were.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Limited Access

I was recently going through some old emails when I came across some reflections I wrote (for my longsuffering friends, who were no doubt relieved when I finally started my own blog) in response to hearing Joe Dallas speak last year. On Joe's behalf I will say that he seems to have a genuinely compassionate heart, but even at this earlier stage in my journey I had some major problems with his philosophy.

For one thing, his thinking is very rigidly Stage Three, and I no longer have as much patience as I should for those who doggedly cling to an encyclopedic view of the Bible that tries to reduce all of life's complexities to simple, two-dimensional propositions. For another, despite holding to such a dogmatic worldview, he seemed to demonstrate surprisingly little concern toward the theological implications of his own divorce and remarriage.

Having said that, here's what I wrote last year:

Joe's philosophy appears to be very much built around the concept of Christianity being a difficult path that only a few succeed at. And while there are scriptures that can be used to undergird that idea, there are aspects of that theology that I find troubling. For starters, it seems in practice to lead to a very elitist mindset, where God rewards those strong enough to complete His obstacle course and, well, too bad for those who don't make it. It's a very subtle thing, but there's a certain sense of pride that adherents of this viewpoint seem to take in being part of God's 'remnant,' in being part of an exclusive minority that gets to look down their noses at the rest of the world.

Since my upbringing predisposes me toward a largely evangelical understanding of the Bible, it's not difficult for me to accept, on the surface, most of what Joe's philosophy espouses: the road to heaven is difficult and narrow, and not everyone is willing to walk it. Many people will find God's standards offensive, and many more will simply find it too hard and fall by the wayside. But why do we show so little concern for that latter group? The attitude I generally discern from those who speak for Exodus and its allies is that anyone who becomes ex-ex-gay has given themselves over to Satan, and that's their loss, so forget about them. Little time is wasted reflecting on whether the church (and/or Exodus) is actually doing its part to support the struggler, and whether our approach to these issues is truly in line with God's heart beyond our adherence to the apparent letter of the law.

But does God really care as little for them as we apparently do? The same Jesus who talked about narrow roads and taking up our crosses also said "my yoke is easy and my burden is light," and "whoever believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life." So where is this light burden? It seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle as we condemn to hell anyone who doesn't successfully carry this much heavier burden all the way up the long, steep, narrow path to the eternal reward we apparently now have to earn.

Many of the people that we've written off spent years crying out to God and wholeheartedly trying to do all the right things to find the freedom they kept hearing about on Sunday mornings. Whatever errors in their thinking may (or may not) have contributed to their failure, it merely begs the question: where did they pick up their mistaken notions? And while we're busy rationalizing away the four fingers that are pointed back in our direction, let's also ask whether the God we serve is so callous and nitpicky that He will eternally condemn anyone whose understanding and implementation of every last facet of the truth is less than perfect. If God truly looks on the heart, if He truly loves us more than we can fathom, and if He's truly all-knowing, then surely our salvation isn't contingent on whether we have every one of our theological ducks lined up straight and in the correct order, as the Exodus/Focus on the Family types seem to advocate.

And I know, we don't really believe that we have to earn our salvation - or so we say. Yet we still get mired down in the idea that those who fail didn't have enough faith, or they didn't rely heavily enough on God, or they otherwise did the wrong things. And we don't even see the contradiction! It's not based on our works, but those who fail didn't work hard enough. We want to have it both ways, while at the same time pretending that we're not. Rather than acknowledging the divine paradox that's staring us in the face, we try to reduce God's truth to something we can completely define (and therefore control), and by doing so reduce all of life's problems to simple, black-and-white, one-size-fits-all formulas.

Salvation comes through works, with faith trailing behind. Grace is dispensed once we have followed the letter of the law. God predestines us retroactively after we've exercised our free will. We would deny those falsehoods if confronted with them, but they're the very lies we live by. We continually fail to embrace the paradox, settling instead for whatever half-truths we can wrap our finite minds around even as we pay lip service to the truth. And that's quite understandable; we're only human, after all. God forgives us our frailties. Too bad we can't do the same for others.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Defending 'Truth' By Telling Lies, Part 3

One of the most interesting (and telling) aspects of this debate is how conservative Christians are always very quick to pick up and endlessly repeat any negative statistic or stereotype they can find and use as a weapon against openly gay individuals. Once introduced, these notions take on a life of their own and persist long after they've been thoroughly debunked and exposed as falsehoods.

And even if you manage to get through to someone who's been spreading such a falsehood, you're not likely to get any more of an acknowledgment than "Well, it doesn't matter. Homosexuality is a sin, and sin is sin even if it seems like a good thing." Which would be an acceptable answer, quite frankly, since it would be consistent with the speaker's belief system. But it only begs the question: If you have the truth on your side, why would you ever feel the need to bolster your case with shoddy research and discredited theories? Do you really think that people are going to be impressed by your interpretation of God's will for their lives once they realize you've lied to them?

As I've said before, I think that individuals at the lay level are primarily guilty of putting too much faith in their human leaders. The average person doesn't have the time or resources to carefully research complex issues like this one, not that they're completely off the hook for their failure to even consider that there might be other valid perspectives out there.

Their leaders, on the other hand, have no excuse. The pastor or author or televangelist who fails to verify whether the 'statistics' he's repeating about life expectancy or pedophilia or whatever else are actually valid is guilty of leading others into error and untruth. There was a time when there was little information available to counter these myths, but that time is long past.

Having said that, it's time to lay to rest another of the popular myths that the religious right likes to repeat again and again, namely the notion that all gay men are wildly promiscuous. It would be hard to find a Christian who's not familiar with the "fact" that gay men have an average of 500 sexual partners (or some equally high number).

This oft-cited statistic has two primary sources: Alan Bell and Martin Weinberg's book Homosexualities, and The Gay Report, written by Karla Jay and Allen Young.

The Bell and Weinberg study was a survey of gay men in San Francisco. Conducted in the late 1970s, it was never intended to be taken as a scientific study, and ultimately it is only reflective of the narrow population group its numbers were derived from. As documented here and here, survey responses were taken from volunteers recruited from local bath houses, gay bars, public parks, personal referrals and gay-oriented mailing lists. Respondents were not randomly selected, nor was any effort made to find participants outside of the visible gay scene in a single city (San Francisco). Furthermore, the survey is nearly 30 years old and pre-dates the AIDS crisis. To cite such a study as "fact" and to generalize it to populations not represented in the original survey is both irresponsible and disingenuous.

Jay and Young's survey, conducted during roughly the same time period, is no less flawed. Jim Burroway has already done an in-depth analysis of this study, but here are a few highlights:
-Nearly half of the respondents were subscribers to Blueboy, a gay 'adult' magazine. Surveying such a group is the equivalent of polling Penthouse subscribers and extrapolating the results to the broader heterosexual population.
-The vast majority (95%+) of the "hundreds of thousands" sent surveys did not respond. By making no effort to ensure a truly random sampling of the broader gay population, the results were skewed toward that group of individuals most naturally inclined to divulge the details about their sex lives - i.e. those predisposed toward a promiscuous lifestyle.
-The authors themselves admit that they "do not claim to have a scientific or representative sample of lesbians and gay men."

Anecdotally speaking, it's not a stretch to recognize that there's a lot of dysfunction within the gay community. Obviously these surveys got their numbers from somewhere, and the continued existence of bath houses and other hook-up venues belies the fact that some individuals are very promiscuous. But anecdotally speaking, it's also true that many of the men who frequent these places are closeted, and quite a few of them are married to women. Low self-esteem plays a large role in fueling sexually addictive behavior, and the church has done more than its share to instill feelings of shame and worthlessness in its same-sex-attracted members.

And there's a far larger population of gay men and women (funny how lesbians almost always get overlooked in these debates) who aren't interested in having anything to do with the seedier aspects of the "gay scene," individuals who live quiet, ordinary lives either as singles or in stable relationships. This silent majority doesn't even exist, according to many Christian activists.

And all of that doesn't even begin to touch on the issue of heterosexual promiscuity, which is ultimately just as widespread. The professional research that has been done on this issue suggests that a similar percentage of heterosexuals and homosexuals engage in highly promiscuous behavior. The gay men on that end of the spectrum tend to have more sexual partners than their straight counterparts, but that would seem to be more a byproduct of the availability of willing partners than it is a sign of restraint on the part of promiscuous heterosexual men.

When all is said and done, it's a shame that more hasn't been done to conduct usable research on this subject. Of course, if such data contradicted the dismal picture of the gay community that Christian advocacy groups have painted, those groups would most likely try to dismiss it as politically motivated while simultaneously denying their own political motives, but in the long run the truth will speak for itself.

Friday, February 03, 2006


I recently came across a statement by Alan Chambers on a discussion about homosexuality at another blog. Alan's position was stated with grace and provided a refreshing contrast to the hostility and general nastiness of most of the conservative posters. At the same time, though, it contained the usual ambiguous promise of "change" coupled with 1 Cor. 6:11 (which, for the last time, does not contain any promises of heterosexuality).

What made his statement noteworthy was this one comment: "I believe it is a sin that God hates MOSTLY because it hurts those who are involved in it. It isn't that homosexuality is so bad; it is that it isn't best. In that light, it falls short of the Creator's intent for sexuality. Good is the enemy of God's best."

What first stands out in that statement is that he would go so far as to use the word "good" in association with "homosexuality" (which is actually a misnomer here, since very few Christians would still support the unbiblical proposition that the orientation itself is sin), even indirectly. It is true that one can see good flowing out of many committed gay relationship, and it's refreshing to hear someone on that side of the debate acknowledge that fact, but nonetheless I suspect that Alan may want to reconsider his choice of terms.

Good, after all, is the word God uses to describe his creation in Genesis 1. In fact, contrary to popular misperception, the Bible never describes Eden as perfect. The assumption of perfection stems largely from the influence that Plato and other Greek philosophers had on early theologians. So if good is, in fact, the enemy of God's best, then we've got a theological dilemma on our hands.

And that still leaves us with a rather problematic term, namely "God's best." Does the Bible really tell us, in encyclopedic fashion, what God's best is for every individual? Assuming, for the moment, that it does, and that one size fits all, it's a pretty safe assumption that Alan would have Genesis 2 in mind as evidence that heterosexual marriage represents "God's best" for everyone.

But does being married to an opposite sex partner automatically mean that a person has found God's best for his or her life? Should an individual with an abusive or chronically neglectful spouse remain in that marriage since leaving would mean abandoning "God's best" for them?

Does it ever represent "God's best" for an individual to marry someone that they've never been attracted to? Real life experience would suggest otherwise; the primary byproduct of most marriages where one spouse is exclusively same-sex attracted is pain and grief for both, even if the homosexual partner remains faithful. Speaking for myself, the idea of marrying a woman sounds more like hell on earth for both me and her than like something God-ordained - not because I dislike women (I have some wonderful female friends), but because, even setting aside the whole issue of having to have sex with her, I'm incapable of bonding with a woman on the deep levels that a heterosexual man could. And this understanding remains despite having spent the majority of my life trying to convince myself that marrying a woman would be a good thing.

Exodus, of course, would advocate that I could "change," even though their most optimistic numbers show that only one third of their participants actually achieve "change" (which is always very nebulously defined and ultimately has far more to do with managing external behavior than with any real shift in one's attractions). All I have to do is want it enough ("name it and claim it," anyone?). But not too much, since wanting it too badly can reportedly sabotage the process as surely as not wanting it badly enough.

So, barring any actual change in my orientation (which is roughly as likely to happen as hitting a jackpot in Vegas), that leaves celibacy. Celibacy can be described as a good thing; it's specifically treated as a positive thing in the New Testament. But we can't call it God's best, since Genesis 2 (in conjunction with numerous other passages) has already defined that for us as heterosexual marriage. And the misery experienced by many (heterosexual as well as homosexual) who have been forced to celibacy testifies to the fact that they aren't experiencing God's best. Which makes sense, since we've already established that "good" is the enemy of "God's best." Thus, while some may be called to celibacy, it doesn't appear to be something that the rest of us should settle for.

Of course, that leaves us with a serious problem: we have an entire group of people who are incapable of experiencing God's best for their lives, and God has shown little interest in making his "best" a possibility for them. Could it be that translating ideals into absolutes creates an "all or nothing" situation in which many will ultimately end up with nothing?

It brings to mind Jesus' illustration of the servant who buried his talent for fear that he might lose it. Yes, he preserved what he had been entrusted with, but his master was not pleased by his inaction. Perhaps, instead of telling people they should put their lives on hold until God comes through with a change he has never actually promised, we should encourage them to make full use of the gifts that he has given them, here and now.

Regardless of where one ultimately stands on the issue of same-sex relationships, the good news of the gospel is God's "yes" to us, not another list of "no's." It's extremely easy to become focused on avoiding and/or overcoming sin to the point of paralysis. Not to excuse or downplay the dangers of sin, but in our preoccupation with the things we shouldn't be doing, we quickly lose sight of the greater requirement of God's law, namely that we freely give of ourselves for the benefit of others. Love carries with it an element of risk, and an emphasis on risk avoidance all too frequently becomes an exercise in love avoidance. How much power might the church have to change the world if it truly loved with abandon?

But back to the subject at hand. I feel like I'm beginning to repeat myself, but it's worth saying again. We rob people of their humanity when we try to impose two-dimensional ethics onto complex issues. While "God's best" is certainly worth holding up as an ideal to be aspired toward, it becomes a tool of death and destruction when wielded as a club against those who have no hope of achieving it.

Perhaps God wasn't just blowing smoke when he gave us two simple rules to live by. Loving God and loving others is necessarily going to look different for different people. And the best way of measuring the quality of a person's love is by examining its byproducts.