Pleasant Surprises

For about a year, I’ve wanted to add a little more texture to the story I started telling here. This post is my attempt at expressing the ways I have been surprised by God’s grace in my life as a celibate gay Christian.

I’ve been committed to celibacy now for coming up on 5 years. It was a decision I made for myself shortly after coming to terms with my sexuality and reconciling it with my faith tradition.

For me, celibacy has never meant denying myself of relationships. Reading the writings of Wesley Hill, Julie Rodgers, and other contributors of Spiritual Friendship, I started making intentional efforts to have a life full of meaningful and deep friendships.

I’ve been blessed to build honest, vulnerable, sometimes-messy, and often-beautiful friendships here in West Michigan. These have been the sorts of relationships that have kept me sane while I transitioned to being “out” in the public sense a year and a half ago. My friendships have taught me what hospitality actually looks like. You know, the kind of hospitality where it doesn’t matter if you’ve got laundry sitting out on the sofa or kids needing a time-out. It’s the sort of hospitality that says, “Don’t bother knocking. You’re family.”

Besides these great friends locally, another blessing from God came in the form of an online community. After I went to the Gay Christian Network Conference in 2014, I became a part of a truly unique Internet group for Christians who identify as gay or same-sex attracted and are seeking to live out their life through the lens of a tradition sexual ethic. Building friendships within this group has been truly life-giving. There’s something comforting about being among people who understand what it means to be the same kind of different as you. Within our online family, we have build actual friendships. We support each other, pray for one another, disagree with each other at times, celebrate with one another, and weep with one another. Over the last year, I’ve had a handful of friends from this community come stay at my home here in Michigan, and I’ve visited some of them, too. This community has truly been a wonderful thing.

We had a retreat last summer in the mountains of Virginia. It was a beautiful weekend where people from all over the US and Canada came together to get to know one another deeper and take off their “masks” for a few days. My friend Gabriel at Mudblood Catholic wrote about his experience at the retreat. He describes what it was like better than I ever could.

After I got home from the retreat last summer, I found myself on the receiving end of another unexpected gift. I was going about building deeper friendships within this community when I realized that I was being drawn into a different sort of relationship altogether with one of my friends. After a lot of prayer and talking with some close friends, I entered into a committed celibate partnership with Joe.

While I have friends who are in similar relationships with their partners, it was not something I was expecting, pursuing, or even asking God for when He surprised me with this gift. I have been surprised over and over again by how God is teaching me about intimacy and vulnerability within the context of this new relationship. Joe and I have been together now for 7 months, though we’re still separated by many miles. He lives down in Austin, Texas, and I’m finishing up grad school in the freshly thawed state of Michigan. We have every intention of closing the distance between us at some point so we can combine our lives together in a single home, as a family, serving together and showing hospitality in whatever ways we can. We’ve been praying to discern how God is leading us into our future together, and we ask that any of you who love and care for us would also pray that we would listen to God as he directs our next steps.

“Abba, I Belong to You”

The title of this post is a prayer that Brennan Manning encourages folks to pray as a meditation.

Brennan Manning is the author of the books Ragamuffin Gospel and The Furious Longing of God among others.  His books tend to focus on God’s relentless love and pursuit of his creation.

From reading his books, I’ve gained a much deeper appreciation of God’s love and grace.  Even though I’ve been in church my entire life, I have found it to be very easy to focus on what we need to do to please God and lose sight of how much God’s grace covers.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t pursue sanctification in our lives.  We should be constantly growing and letting ourselves be molded into what Christ has for us.  What I am saying is that when we focus on all the ways we DON’T measure up to God’s standards of holiness, it’s easy to get weighed down to the point of inaction.  Soon, we’re subtly believing that God loves us more when we are acting in moral ways and less when we screw up.  We would never say that so bluntly, but that is the belief behind the guilt that so many Christians have to fight against, including me.

Manning’s books have played a huge role in helping me let go of those beliefs.  I still have to fight them off daily, but it’s when I’m free of those debilitating beliefs about God’s love being conditional that I can truly live for Him and be present in the moment for Kingdom living.

There are many other things in our life that may get in the way of truly believing that God loves us unconditionally.  Traumatic events, abuse of any kind, addictions, depression, etc can all make it difficult to accept God’s love in our lives.

Manning recommends to his readers to pray this prayer that he has used for years.  It is a prayer that can be repeated over and over again as you breathe in and out slowly.

Breathe in while saying “Abba,” Breathe out while saying “I belong to You.”

It helps us to meditate on God as our loving Father.  The word “Abba” is a close, intimate way of speaking of God as Father.  The closest English equivalent to “Abba” is often said to be “Daddy”.  It is a loving, endearing term for the one who protects us and provides for our needs.

No matter what we are facing, to have that close and intimate of a relationship with God is a special gift that can ground us and help us to remember that God is loving and is in control.  For me, praying this prayer and meditating on the truth of it has really helped me trust God in times when I am scrambling to keep all my plates spinning.

Paul speaks of this Father-child relationship that we have with God in Romans 8.

14For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. 15For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.

It can be difficult to give up our Spirit of slavery and fear, but what we gain is a Spirit of sonship.  That is a beautiful exchange, and one that I never want to lose sight of.

Lately, I have had a song stuck in my head by Jars of Clay. It’s called “Boys (Lesson One)” and the band has mentioned that it’s about the Father-son relationship.  While they meant it to be written from themselves to their sons, it obviously has a deeper connection to the relationship that we have with our Abba.

Here are the lyrics:

Lesson one – do not hide
Lesson two – there are right ways to fight
And if you have questions
We can talk through the night

So you know who you are
And you know what you want
I’ve been where you’re going
And it’s not that far
it’s too far to walk
But you don’t have to run
you’ll get there in time

Lesson three – you’re not alone
Not since I saw you start breathing on your own
You can leave, you can run,
this will still be your home

So you know who you are
And you know what you want
I’ve been where you’re going
And it’s not that far
it’s too far to walk
But you don’t have to run
you’ll get there in time
Get there in time

In time, to wonder where the days have gone
In time, to be old enough to
wish that you were young
When good things are unraveling,
bad things come undone
You weather love and lose your innocence

There will be liars and
thieves who take from you
Not to undermine the consequence
But you are not what you do
And when you need it most
I have a hundred reasons why I love you

If you weather love and lose your innocence
Just remember – lesson one

We have received a Spirit of Sonship, and because of that we can trust that God is a good, loving Father who knows where we’re going, and will be there no matter what we’ve done or how far we’ve run.

Abba, I belong to You.

Standard of Living

Disclaimer: This post is fairly long, and it rambles a bit, but please stick with it. I would love to hear your feedback, no matter where you have landed on these questions or how confident you are in your answers. Thanks.

The title of this post really says it all. One of the biggest questions I’ve been entertaining for years is “What standard of living should I aspire to?” Worded another way: “What standard of living is appropriate given my commitment to follow Christ, love God, and love my neighbor?”

For as long as I have been considering this question, I’ve never once heard someone make a definitive statement. I understand the nature of this question needing to be answered on an individual basis, but I feel that too often we are simply dodging the real answers.

I’ve mentioned before that I read The Irresistible Revolution a few years back and that this book has radically changed my outlook on what it means to follow Jesus.  In the book, Shane Claiborne tells his story of living among the poor and giving up his middle class lifestyle to serve “the least of these”.  He does it selflessly and calls others to find their own way to follow his example.  It was probably reading this book (combined with my very limited experience of serving the poor) that made me first re-consider my ideal of making enough money to “live comfortably”.

At this point, I was still planning to be a research biologist or possibly even a medical doctor. I knew that I could make a very comfortable living this way. A small part of me that was ever growing wasn’t content with this ultimate destination for my life.

I worked at a summer camp for 3 summers making very small amounts of money. I believed that the amount of money wasn’t important as long as I was serving Jesus. Because of this, I wasn’t saving very much throughout college. I wasn’t building my credit or establishing myself financially as I know some of my peers were.

Then, I decided 3 years ago, to change my major. I had been very unsettled in the field of Biology for quite some time, and eventually everything came together and I felt that I was supposed to get my degree in Social Work. I wasn’t thinking about money when I made this decision. Of course it would be somewhat less, but I was far more motivated to change my major because of where I felt God was leading me.

As the reality of how little money I’d be making settled in, I began reasoning out that I would simply further my education by getting my Masters Degree. Once I had my Masters, I could make enough money to live comfortably.

Well, now I have my Bachelors degree, and I still want to get my Masters, but I have chosen to delay going back to school in order to get some work experience first. When I consider my financial future, there is still a part of me that wants to go back to school just for the chance at more money.

I desire to ultimately make this decision based on factors other than money, but before I can, I feel I need to have a better grip on God’s desire for his followers when it comes to their finances.

More recently, my small group has been reading and discussing the book Crazy Love. Throughout the entire book, Francis Chan has been challenging the reader to fully follow Christ and love others in such a way that we have to trust God to take care of our needs. He is encouraging us to love unconditionally and to give sacrificially as an outpouring of our love for the Creator who has pursued us relentlessly. He poses some of the more difficult questions about what this means for Christians and their financial affairs.

I am going to list off some of the questions he has asked and some that he has inspired me to ask:

How much money should a Christian keep back for their living expenses?

How should a follower of Christ go about planning for their retirement?

When it comes to saving money, what is the difference between being a good steward of our resources and hoarding?

Should a Christian’s giving to the church and to the poor be based on an income cap, or a percentage of income?  For example, Chan suggested that a possible way of setting our standard of living would be to give away all of our income above the median US income.

If Jesus told the rich, young ruler to “sell all that you have and give to the poor”, what does this mean for the rest of His followers?

If Jesus sent out his disciples without any extra supplies to go and bear witness to Him, where should we draw the line in our abundance?

Why do we put up with so much inequality within the church if the early church sold their possessions so that no one was in need?

If we are to be servants of Christ within an American context, there are certain luxuries that are almost commodities in order to serve effectively. How do we live counter-culturally when we are still connected to so many things that set us apart as wealthy? (ie Internet, television, movies, music)

Why is the church so reluctant to believe that Jesus really meant what he said about sacrificing our material comfort to follow Him?

Why do some segments of Christianity balk at the idea of giving to the poor when they have an abundance?

When those who are more socially-minded try to focus our attention on helping the poor, why are they deemed radical?

Shouldn’t those who are trying to follow Jesus more fully be an example we try to follow rather than an exception that we talk about as if they are impossibly out-of-touch with reality?

Why do we most often consider God’s blessing a financial thing?

What was the last thing you (or I) did that actually required that we have faith in God’s provision?

On top of reading Francis Chan’s book, I was also upset by another source:   Glenn Beck.  In a segment of his show where he was attempting to debunk “Black Liberation Theology” to protect his viewers from the socialists, he said a few things that I disagreed with strongly.  He was very clear that he “earned” his wealth and “earned” the job that he had and it was his

right as an American to hang onto it as tightly as he wants.  This angered me because as someone speaking to Christians, he seemed to be more concerned with them being good Americans than with them being good followers of Christ.  Christ was never about hanging on to what we have earned.  Every time the early church is spoken about or instructed in the New Testament regarding money, it seems to always be about giving freely and supporting one another.  Besides the familiar passages in Acts 2 and 4, we have this one in 2 Corinthians.

2 Corinthians 8:13-15

For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness. As it is written, “Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack.”

In all of this, I am still trying to discern what this means for my own life.  I feel guilty at times for how I spend my money on entertainment and fast food when I could be finding much cheaper alternatives to enjoy my free time and feed myself.  Yet, it’s so hard to make changes in these areas of my life when I look around at the church and see Christians living in extravagant houses with new cars, sailboats, jet skis, etc.  (The notion of comparing the way I follow Christ to others is a separate post).  I am not making a ton of money right now, and there are many people who would advise me right now to save as much as I can and look towards providing for my future and the future of my family (which I don’t have yet).  And this message seems to be fine if I want to live comfortable and achieve the American Dream.  However, when I listen to Scripture and other voices that I respect, I hear a different message of sacrificial giving and sacrificial living that seems to be the opposite of comfortable.

I would greatly appreciate your discussion and input on this topic.  I asked a lot of questions in this post, and after having read back through all of it, I believe I have captured many of my thoughts and have represented them as scattered as they are in my own mind.   Whether you tackle one question, two questions, or all of them is up to you.  Maybe you will offer an entirely different perspective than I have entertained.  Either way, I hope you won’t let that stop you from sharing.

The question that sums up all of this post, and the question that I aspire to ask any time I approach the Bible is this:

How then should I live?

Final Disclaimer:  This post is meant to be about how a Christ-follower lives out Kingdom values.  If any of my questions or ramblings seemed to make it into a political / economic discussion, I apologize.  This is meant to be about how we choose to live our lives as an expression of our love for God, not about how we vote or pay taxes.

God’s Irony

Ironic: Coincidental, unexpected

So, it’s been a week and a half since I last blogged. The morning after I wrote the blog post about being content, I woke up to hear that my great-grandmother who lived with us wasn’t doing very well and she was rushed by ambulance to the hospital. In the midst of the EMT’s getting her situated, I received a phone call calling me back for a second interview. My first interview with this organization had been back in March, and in many ways I had lost hope that I would hear back from them about a job.

Talk about irony. The day after I say that I’m content to let things happen in God’s timing and that I will serve Him right where I am, God moves.

I counseled at the summer camp where I used to work last week. I had to check out of camp for a few hours Monday morning in order to go down to Grand Rapids for my interview.

I realized on the way back home that I was spending a lot of my mental energy on evaluating the interview and speculating as to whether or not I was going to “get the job”.

Knowing that I had to go back to my 10 campers by lunch, I had to consciously choose to live in the contentment that I’d claimed to have found. I chose to live in the moment and to be faithful with where I was, which was camp.

To not worry and stress about whether or not I would get the job for the rest of the camp week was incredibly freeing. I got to live in the moment and be present with my campers. I got to encourage them on the zip line and climbing tower. I got to invest in their relationships with God by encouraging them to follow Him more closely. I got to develop relationships with some of the other staff members and spur them on for the rest of their summer ministry.

If I had been my “old self” and had been worried and anxious, I would have still done those things, but wouldn’t have been fully there. I wouldn’t have been able to stay focused on my mission with the campers and the staff. My mind would have been too much on my job prospects.

I’m grateful that God gave me a chance to put into practice what He’d been teaching me. When the rubber hit the road last week, I stumbled around at first, but then realized that God simply wanted me to trust Him in the ways I’d been claiming to.

As my great-grandma still is gaining back her strength from her time in the hospital and I am still awaiting to hear back from those who interviewed me, I hope that this lesson of contentment will be something I continue to hold on to, in the peaceful times and the turbulent times.

I know that life has far more difficult things to throw at me as I move forward from here. But I know that God will be faithful through everything and that I can choose to rest in that and be content.

I am Here.

In the past week, I’ve come to the realization that I am simply content right now.

For all my life, I’ve been a planner.  I have enjoyed knowing plenty of details of the next month, next week, next hour.  Without enough details, I faltered.

I can’t explain what’s changed, but over the past few months, I’ve gradually become more at peace with the moment.  Instead of having to know all the details, I have found that I am content to let things happen as they will.  To live in the present.  To trust that God’s best for me is better than any amount of planning I can do.

When I realized last week that somewhere along the way I began to accept where I am, a part of me wanted to rebel against it.  To draw a line in the sand and come up with a definitive 5 year plan for my life, career, relationships, ministry.

While I’ve always described contentment as an ideal, finding that I was actually moving in that direction, created some discontent in my life.  In some ways, I was fighting off the thought that being content with my current “transition” phase meant resigning myself to be stagnant and lazy.

In some segments of Christianity, the concept of “God’s will for my life” is idolized.  This is the idea that God has a very specific task for you to do that is huge and important and only you can do.  So, until you’ve finished college, got married, bought the right house, and had kids, you find yourself waiting for the time you can finally get settled into exactly what God has for you.

While I worked at Grace Adventures summer camp, Steve Prudhomme, the president of the camp, used to talk about God’s will.  Except Steve didn’t talk about it in the ways that I described above.  He said we were asking the wrong question if we were seeking out “God’s will for my life”.  The right question to ask is “What is God’s will?”  God’s will is far more broad than where I should go to school, what job I should take, who I should marry, etc.  God’s will is what God desires for all of creation.  It’s big picture.  It is the story of the redemption of the world.  God’s will is to restore the world to its pre-fall condition.  To make everything new.

God is achieving this through His Church.  He invites us all to join in with Him in setting things right in the world by ushering in the love of the Kingdom now.  This is something that God started with Christ and is continuing up until that glorious day when everything has been set right.  From a right view of “What is God’s will?” the only next step is to find ways to join Him in what He’s already doing.

This means that no matter where we are, we can be in God’s will.  Simply by loving others and finding ways to live out that Kingdom love, we are freed up to no longer need a 5-year plan from God.  We don’t have to be anxious about getting to this place where we will finally be doing God’s will for our lives.  We can do that HERE.  Now.

RELEVANT Magazine had a great article about this a few months ago.  The article was simply called “You are Here” and encouraged those of us living in the mundane to be content where we are.  We don’t have to go somewhere far away or start some giant new project in order to be serving God.  We can do that HERE. Now.

As all of these thoughts have rushed in to combat the lie that being content means I am somehow less productive, I have found peace.

Sure, I have plenty of reasons to worry, fret, and be anxious, but I am not.

I’m on the “job hunt”, unsure of what exactly I’ll be doing once the job I’ve been waiting for comes along.  Will I still be in my hometown?  Will I find something a little further away?  A lot further away?  Will it be part time, full time?  Will I go back to school to further my career options?  Will that be in a few months, a year, a few years?

I don’t have the answers to those questions yet.  But it’s OK.  There are plenty of things I can’t answer.  For the first time in my life, I’m fine with that.  I’m fine without having a detailed plan.  That doesn’t disqualify me from serving God.  I can do that HERE. Now.