A Place at the Table

For gay Christians, there are a lot of forces that can keep us from feeling that we have a rightful place at the table of the Lord.  While I have always felt allowed to partake of the life of the community, there were times when I was certain it was only if I kept wearing my mask. My straight mask. The one that hid my story. And now that it’s been a few months since I’ve shared my story broadly, I wanted to reflect on what it is like to be in this position. To be a gay Christian who is choosing to live a celibate vocation.

It sometimes feels, in this conversation about what it means to be both gay and Christian, the space for stories like mine is being squeezed out from both sides.

And speaking of “sides” it may be helpful to define some terms as they are commonly used in this conversation. These terms have been around for quite a while, and have been brought into more widespread use through the Gay Christian Network and many bloggers and authors. If you’re already familiar, you can skip this aside. (rimshot!)

Side A
In this whole conversation typically people who hold a belief that says that God affirms committed gay sexual relationships are referred to as “Side A.” Side A is becoming much more apparent in American and European churches. Many more people will become familiar with this perspective from the book written by Matthew Vines, “God and the Gay Christian.” Side A Christians have been more commonly associated with mainline Protestantism or a more liberal view of Scripture. The trends lately are that more and more Evangelicals are re-examining their theology and becoming more affirming of gay marriage for Christians.

Side B
Those who believe gay Christians can reconcile their faith and sexuality through adhering to the more traditional sexual ethic are referred to as “Side B”. Side B gay Christians have typically accepted that their orientation is not likely to change, yet believe that sexual intimacy with someone of the same gender is outside of God’s will. Thus, they choose celibacy or maybe an opposite-sex marriage. For Side B gay Christians, openness and honesty are highly valued. Relational needs are to be met through healthy relationships and positive expressions of same-sex love. Community is another shared value among this group.

Side X
A view that LGB Christians should totally denounce their orientation and pray for/pursue a heterosexual marriage no matter what. Many in the conservative Christian world are familiar with the legacy of Exodus International and reparative therapy that spawned the phenomenon of “ex-gays”. That’s where the term “Side X” comes from. The danger in Side X comes when stories of “change” are held up by certain Christians as some sort of mold that we must follow in order to be “in line” with Jesus. They would question our walk if we happened to still identify with the adjective “gay” to describe our experience and orientation. Side X tends to commonly say that orientation is changeable and that we should not acknowledge our attractions or find any positive attributes from them.

In this conversation, Side B is positioned in a sort of middle ground or “no-mans-land” between the two polar opposites.  We’re not afraid to be honest about our orientation, and what it means for our lives. But we’re also holding to the historical and traditional teachings of the Church for the last 2000 years.

When the “Culture War” heats up because some guy in camouflage with a sweet beard made some ignorant statements in a rocknroll magazine… or a global relief organization lost childhood sponsorships because they were (briefly) willing to hire married gay people, that’s when we most acutely feel what it’s like to be squeezed from both sides.

These “battles” in the Culture War get a lot of press. A lot of blogs written about them. A lot of Tweets. A lot of impassioned Facebook posts.

But in everyday life as a celibate LGBT Christian, it feels like the fighting never really stops. It feels like we’re being squeezed out from all sides, even weeks after the dust has settled from the last kerfuffle.

Whenever a gay-affirming Christian pities the plight of the celibate, we are pushed from one side.

Pity takes several forms. Regularly, I’ve been told these things, and have watched my friends get told the same:

“By choosing celibacy, you’ve been brainwashed.”

“Stop repressing your sexuality.”

“You’re hurting the LGBT cause by telling your story.”

“Stop lying. You’re not happy. There’s no way you’re content in your choice.”

“You need to repent of your conservative beliefs. They’re harmful to you and others.”

And from the other side, I hear the following:

“Naming your orientation means you’ve internalized it.”

“You wouldn’t identify as a thieving Christian or an alcoholic Christian, so you really shouldn’t call yourself a gay Christian.”

“Once I let go, and surrendered it all to Jesus, the same-sex attractions really started to diminish.”

“You probably shouldn’t talk about this.”

“Stop being so negative all the time. We’re supposed to have joy in Jesus.”

“You are never going to be happy if you don’t get married.”

When these things are said, we are pushed from the other side. Our already tiny space is shrunk down even smaller. How are we to have a place at the table and fit into the church when even other gay Christians can say things like that?

And how does this impact the broader culture of the Church?

For straight bystanders and onlookers, it is not always easy to take a nuanced view of the whole conversation. Unless a straight Christian has direct experience with a close friend or family member who is gay, or they happen to have read many stories of gay Christians, it is not very likely that they understand the differences present here. For the average Christian, they see this is a two-sided conversation.

The pro-gay, affirming camp, and the ex-gay, pro-Jesus camp.

For most conservative Christians, they would love to buy into the Side X script that says gay folks turn “normal” when you just add Jesus. “Pray the gay away” is a widespread concept, and it is the simplest one for straight Christians to grasp onto when they have had limited real world experience with an LGBT person.

The flip side of this is that all of the gay folks that aren’t “ex-gay” can then be seen as the enemy. It’s “the gays” who are dismissing Scripture or destroying family values. When viewing the world through this lens, it becomes easy to view all gay people as “militantly pro-gay” or “gay rights advocates”.

It becomes clear then, how, all of a sudden, there is no room in their script for a Side B gay Christian. We have to fit the mold of either Side A or Side X. From straight Christians we can hear things like:

“Why would you identify as gay? Aren’t gay people the ones that are splitting ABC or XYZ denomination?”

“Every gay Christian I have read about is twisting Scripture to line up with their own desires.”

“If you’re not actively living the lifestyle, I don’t get why you would even call yourself gay.”

“You’re not gay gay.”

“My friend’s cousin used to be gay. There’s hope for you, too!”

“Hey, my natural orientation is to have sex with every beautiful women I see. We all have to deny ourselves. But I still don’t call myself a ‘lustful Christian.'”

“Homosexuality is a sin. It’s pretty cut and dry in the Bible.”

“You can’t be both a Christian and gay.”

“Sure, it’s not a sin to be tempted, but it seems like you’re proud of your temptations.”

“Are you still talking about this gay thing?”

As I’ve said earlier, it is difficult for us celibate gay Christians to thrive without healthy connections to the church community.

So, how do we create space for this middle ground to be widened and explored? How do we ever find the space to stop pushing back on the two sides that are squeezing us out? How could we ever possibly be able to take a rest and sit down when it feels like standing still is the same as losing ground?

We tell our stories.

We educate our friends. Our families. Our pastors. Our priests.

Not everyone is called to stand up on a stage and tell a few hundred people all at once, but I am a firm believer that our strongest tool is our stories. If our stories aren’t being told by us, then someone else is telling our stories for us.

Tell a friend. Lovingly correct the bad assumptions you hear people making. Define your terms for others. Don’t let them define them for you.  Seek community. Be vulnerable. Let the joys and sorrows of your life both be seen. This plight of ours is not a death sentence for intimacy.

So, tell your story. To someone. And then maybe someone else.

And all of a sudden, the Church will be better equipped to see the space for us where we fit into this diverse Body of Christ.

And the healthy church will protect this diversity. Maybe they’ll even scoot over to make us a little more space at the Lord’s table.

To give us some breathing room.

Isn’t that what we all want, anyways? A chance to breathe in the midst of the culture war?

Part 2: My Visit with Andrew Marin

This post is the conclusion to what I wrote in “Part 1”.

That Friday morning, I was riding the train from West Michigan down to St. Louis.  I arrived in Chicago only a few minutes late, and had a little over an hour to make it across town to meet with Kevin Harris and Andrew Marin.

After I exited the train, I rushed to get a bus pass and entrusted my destiny to the reliability of my phone’s Google Map application to find me a bus route to the north side of Chicago.  A couple of attempts later, I boarded the 22 bus northbound and waited.  I had written down a few topics and questions that I wanted to discuss with Andrew, but was still not sure what to expect.  I expected that to them, I was just some kid fresh out of college who doesn’t have a position of influence or anything to offer them.  I doubted whether or not this was even a good idea.  As I passed Wrigley Field and knew that I was getting closer to Boystown, many of my concerns were set aside when I realized the man that just boarded the bus and sat down in front of me was Andrew Marin.  I got his attention and introduced myself.  He was friendly and told me he’d walk me over to their office when we got there.

On the walk over, we discussed baseball (he’s a Cubs fan, and I’m a Tigers fan).  He told me a little bit about playing Division 1 baseball in college (on the same team as Curtis Granderson, my favorite former Tiger) and asked me a few questions about what brought me through Chicago.

When we arrived in the tiny office that Andrew shares with the rest of The Marin Foundation staff (Kevin and Nathan), he sat down to get some work done and I went out to lunch with Kevin Harris.  Kevin is Andrew’s assistant and is in charge of community relations for The Marin Foundation.  Kevin shared about some of the things they’ve been working on and about the crazy amount of attention their “I’m Sorry” Campaign has been receiving.  We shared stories with each other and then walked back to the office.

Once there, Andrew and I got a chance to get to know one another. He shared some about a recent trip to Vienna where he was attempting to assist the UN as they reach out to folks all across the spectrum on AIDS prevention and treatment.

I also talked with him about the wide range of criticism and encouragement he has been facing since Pride weekend at the end of June.  I got to share how his book had impacted me and caused me to re-assess how I love others.  Andrew often talks about “living in the tension” when it comes to the complexities of faith and sexuality, and his book has certainly made the tension a better place to be.

*****

I also asked to know more about what it looks like for the church to love the gay community in a real and tangible way.

Andrew shared with me his thoughts on faithfulness and how that plays out in our relationships with one another: gay, straight, Christian, non-Christian.  He told me he believes “Faithfulness is the new evangelism.”  In fact, faithfulness is the only thing that truly builds the Kingdom and sustains relationships modeled after the way Christ loved.  Marin said that this sort of faithfulness was characterized by sticking by somebody through it all, whether they’re in line with where you think they should be or not.  Being faithful to someone means they know you’ll “have their back until their dying day.”

When talking about this, he quotes Billy Graham.  During the Clinton scandal of the late 90’s, Billy Graham was asked why he was still offering his support to the president.  Graham responded “It’s the Holy Spirit’s job to convict, God’s job to judge, and my job to love.”

Marin takes this responsibility to love very seriously, and says that it’s really the core of what we’re called to do.  That’s our job in how we relate to everyone: gay, straight, Christian, non-Christian.

As I wrestled with Andrew’s approach to the gay community of letting God convict and change hearts, I often came back to the passage in Matthew 18 where Jesus taught us how to interact with a brother who is in sin.  Jesus lays out a process of going to a brother in sin first one-on-one to show them where they are in sin.  If he or she will not listen, then approach them with one or two others.  If they still do not listen, then take it to the entire community of believers.  From this “last resort”, the person in sin is to be treated as a non-believer.

One of the things I had been planning to ask Andrew was how he reconciled Matthew 18 with his stance of simply being faithful and loving towards the gay community.

Most of Evangelical Christianity holds that all homosexual relationships are sin.  From that position, they often create a barrier that prevents them from being able to love a gay person.  They have a fear and anxiety that if they love their gay friend unconditionally and their friend eventually meets Jesus and begins to follow Him, that they’ll have to renege on their unconditional love to “call out” their gay friend’s sin.  This creates a tension of wondering when they should “call out” their friend.  Should it be when they’re getting close to accepting Jesus, or maybe up front before you even talk about Jesus.  Maybe it should wait until after they’ve been following Christ a few months.

Marin would say that it’s not our job to convict people of their sin or to judge them.  It’s simply our job to love.

So, what do we do with Matthew 18?

As I re-read Matthew 18 on the train to Chicago, I came across something that I had never noticed before.

15“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

Did you catch it?

Jesus lays out clearly that this teaching is NOT about giving us the ground rules for how we can most self-righteously call one another out.  This teaching is NOT about one Christian exercising control over the life of another.  This teaching is given for when “your brother sins against you“.  This teaching is about restoring relationships when we inevitably hurt one another.  He’s laying out how to love one another when we have been wronged.

Seeing the words “against you” for the first time stopped me in my tracks.  When I was talking to Andrew Marin, I asked him about what he did with Matthew 18, but also added what I had noticed while reading on the train.  In that moment after I brought up my observation, we were both silent.  The fullness of Christ’s words and the intentions He had for us to be reconciled and to love one another unconditionally hung heavily in the room.  I considered all the ways I missed the boat in that area.  And for Marin, the simplicity of the words “against you” seemed to help one more piece of the puzzle slide into place for how we as the church relate to those around us.  These two words had been there all along, but for years I had ignored them and I had heard them ignored in countless sermons and discussions.

Actually living this out requires giving up responsibility for another person’s life.  It means that your primary concern is no longer being right but loving right.  It means that we have to trust God to be in control.  A simple, yet daunting task.

*****

Moving forward from there, we resumed our conversation talking about ways that local churches can begin building bridges with the gay community.  We talked about how many gay folks move away from rural and small town areas to come to the bigger cities where they can join a larger GLBT community.  We discussed how it seems that Christians and gay folks are starting to listen to each other more, and it’s really only the furthest liberal and furthest conservative camps who are digging in their heels.

At one point, I asked him about how he balances some of the national and international work The Marin Foundation is doing with the face-to-face relational ministry they have had going for years.  He said that it helps living right there in the neighborhood and knowing that Kevin and Nathan can be there even if he’s out of town.  His first commitment is always to the community he’s lived in for 10 years, and he plans to stay faithful to the folks there no matter how much work he does elsewhere.

Then, after all questions had been asked and stories had been shared, we prayed together.

Andrew walked me back to my bus, and I made my way back to the train station where my journey would continue down to St. Louis.  I jotted down a few of my thoughts from our conversation, and marveled at the fact that I had been welcomed in by two strangers with whom I had only Jesus in common.

We had never met before, but by the time I left, I considered them to be friends.  They encouraged me, and I tried to find ways to lift them up and encourage them.  My time filled me with a sense of hope, knowing that I had just met brothers in Christ who were living out this Kingdom life, too.  They were wrestling through the ins and outs of faith the same as I was.  Just as I am learning to do, they chose to love first without having all the answers spelled out in black-and-white.

Part 1: My Experience With The Marin Foundation

This post is the first in a series of two describing my experiences with The Marin Foundation, Andrew Marin, and his book, Love is an Orientation. This post is more of an overview of my thoughts on the book and the work of The Marin Foundation. Part 2 will chronicle my visit with Andrew Marin which took place at the end of July.

Last week, Friday, on my way to visit friends and family down in Missouri, I had an Amtrak layover in Chicago.

Knowing that this was an inevitable part of my travel day, I sought out something to kill my 6 hours in the Windy City.  But before I tell that story, I should give a little background.

A few months ago, I read Andrew Marin’s book, Love is an Orientation, and it had given me a lot of “food for thought”. Working in a Christian bookstore, I am aware of the typical fare for books talking about homosexuality and the church.  The grand majority consist of warning the church of the “gay agenda” and touting “love the sinner, hate the sin” while stirring up so much fear as to render that mantra an impossibility.  This book was different:

From Amazon.com:

Andrew Marin’s life changed forever when his three best friends came out to him in three consecutive months. Suddenly he was confronted with the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community (GLBT) firsthand. And he was compelled to understand how he could reconcile his friends to his faith.

In an attempt to answer that question, he and his wife relocated to Boystown, a predominantly GLBT community in Chicago. And from his experience and wrestling has come his book, Love Is an Orientation, a work which elevates the conversation between Christianity and the GLBT community, moving the focus from genetics to gospel, where it really belongs.

Why are so many people who are gay wary of people who are Christians? Do GLBT people need to change who they are? Do Christians need to change what they believe? Love Is an Orientation is changing the conversation about sexuality and spirituality, and building bridges from the GLBT community to the Christian community and, more importantly, to the good news of Jesus Christ.

Andrew Marin has been living in the Boystown neighborhood of Chicago for the last 10 years.  First on his own, and now through The Marin Foundation, he has been helping those who have rejected the church find Christ and work out what it means to follow Him.

When I first started to read Marin’s book, I was looking for the chapter when he would answer those hot-button questions.  However, the book didn’t lay out simple yes/no answers to any of the yes/no questions that both the church and the gay community tend to ask of someone who stands in between.

  • “Is homosexuality a sin?”
  • “Do you think gays and lesbians were born that way?”
  • “Can a GLBT person change their sexual orientation?”
  • “Do you think someone can be gay and Christian?”
  • “Are GLBT people going to hell?”

When Marin does address these questions, he answers them not with a yes or no answer but with deeper discussion that attempts to elevate the conversation.  He has experienced that when someone asks these questions from either side of the fence it’s because that person wants to know which “side” you’re on. They want to know if you are an ally or an enemy.  As long as we are thinking in terms of allies and enemies, then we aren’t building bridges and we aren’t loving those around us.

By the end of the book, I realized that I didn’t need to know Marin’s exact stances on all of these questions.  Rather, I was left to keep thinking and wrestling with these ideas for months after I closed the book and passed it off to a friend. So often we desire books that will tell us what to think, what to believe, and how to believe it.  Love is an Orientation is the rare book that encourages discussion and dialog to continue after you’ve set it down.

Since I finished this book at the end of May, that’s exactly what I’ve been doing.  Through reading posts and interacting with folks from all across the spectrum on Andrew’s blog, I have had the chance to keep working out what this means for how I live and for how I love others. The blog has also been a good way to keep up with what The Marin Foundation has been doing in Chicago.

At the end of June, The Marin Foundation showed up at the Chicago Pride Weekend with a message that they were sorry for how the church had treated them.  Their signs had messages like “I’m sorry for how the church has hurt you” and “I used to be a Bible-banging homophobe. Sorry.”  You can read more about the “I’m Sorry Campaign” here.

While it was not their intention, this simple message from The Marin Foundation to the GLBT community gained national attention.  In the time since then, Andrew and The Marin Foundation have received a lot of support and encouragement from folks world-wide who believe in what they are doing.  They have also faced some criticism from both Christians and the gay community. Some in the gay community have accused Marin of being a wolf in sheep’s clothing seeking to lure them in and then force them to change their orientation.  Some Christians have said that he is too liberal by not expecting orientation change from those he interacts with.

You can’t blame either side for being skeptical of what Andrew and The Marin Foundation are doing in Chicago.  The gay community has been scarred by Christians who have treated them poorly and dehumanized them.  The church is afraid that the things they believe in are under attack.  However, Andrew’s goal is to build bridges between the church and the gay community where both sides can learn to relate to one another outside of the rhetoric of the culture war where both sides demonize the other.

As someone who has been a part of the church my entire life, the stories found in his book were eye-opening.  Andrew loves gay people.  He also loves Jesus, and he longs for those he meets to come to know Jesus in a life-giving way. This kind of love for the gay community is rarely expressed well, and I wanted to know more of what it looks like for The Marin Foundation to put this into practice.

This is why, when I realized I had plenty of time to kill in Chicago, I contacted The Marin Foundation to sit down with them face-to-face. I got in touch with Kevin Harris, a staff member of The Marin Foundation, and we set up a time to meet during my afternoon in Chicago.

To Be Continued…

Since this blog is always meant to host discussion, and I realize that a “To Be Continued…” is more likely to cause people to hold their comments until later, I’d like to add a few questions to this post.

  • For those of you unfamiliar with Marin’s work, what are some of your first thoughts or first impressions?
  • For those of you who have heard of The Marin Foundation or read Love is an Orientation, what are some of your thoughts on what they’re trying to accomplish?