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?

Telling My Story

I know I haven’t blogged in over three years. That is for several reasons. One was because I started working in social work field and two years of my time was doing foster care. Another reason is that most of what was on my mind was related to faith and sexuality and I wasn’t ready to process my thoughts publicly. However, this summer I began making preparations for talking about this openly.

This morning, at my home church in Muskegon, I shared a great deal about the journey I’ve been on the last several years. A copy of what I read this morning is below.

November 17, 2013

To my Calvary Family:

It’s good to be here this morning with friends and family. As we have been wading through what God has to say about our human sexuality, we’ve reached a topic of conversation that we as a community do not engage with very often: Homosexuality.

I have not often talked about this topic outside of close friendships, but when I heard that Calvary was spending time trying to better understand those who experience life as a “sexual minority” I felt that I needed to contribute.

I am one of you. I worship with you, serve with you, rejoice with you, celebrate with you, and weep with you. However, I am also gay.

I did not choose my sexual orientation. I did not choose to only be attracted to people of my same gender. However, this is the experience I found myself in as I entered into puberty and started growing into an adult.

As I fought through adolescence trying to ignore my growing attractions, I assumed this was something that would fall away as I grew into maturity. However, I was alone with my thoughts, feeling afraid that I could never be honest with anyone about this. The first time I came out to anyone was to my good friend Jeremy. When I finally said the words, that I was attracted to men and not to women, he showed me love and acceptance. He told me that he would always be there for me and that our friendship would not change because of this.

He helped me find the courage to talk about this with more friends and pastors. Despite great fear, I opened myself up to more believers that I trusted, and I found many loving people who accepted me and supported me. They gave me a great environment to keep processing my experience, and they stuck with me faithfully when I experienced the highs and lows of trying to figure out what it all meant.

As I stared into an unclear future I knew two things:
1) I was exclusively attracted to other men.
2) I desired to live a “normal” life with a wife and children.

Four years ago, I entered into professional counseling to talk about my conflicting desires, and hoping that maybe I could find the cause of them so I could deal with it and experience the “normal” life I wanted. A definitive “cause” never surfaced, and I don’t believe it ever will. I learned to let that part go. And, after much counseling, prayer, and reflection, I realized that my attractions were not changing. I also realized that I did not wish to bring a woman into what would surely be a complicated and difficult marriage.

I was faced with a choice of how I would live. I had grown up my entire life in the church. My convictions were strong. My faith was not simply a matter of the intellect, but was deeply rooted in my heart. Faith was not something I could simply “take off” or set aside. I continued to study Scripture and God affirmed the conviction I held that same-sex sexual relationships are not what God desires of us. In light of this, I found that the only decision I could make that would be consistent with my experiences and my faith would be one of celibacy.

Celibacy isn’t a word we use a whole lot these days. It is a ‘churchy’  word that means a person will not engage in any sexual intimacy for either a period of time or for one’s entire life. But I’ve also come to see that it’s a positive calling towards serving the Kingdom without the responsibility of a spouse. While a life of celibacy is what God has for all of us who are unmarried, it is not assumed that many believers will take on this burden for a lifetime. The assumption is that all will eventually get married and pursue a spiritually, emotionally, and physically intimate relationship with their spouse. But for me, I had to work on figuring out what it would look like to never pursue a sexual relationship with another. I had to face a future that would set me apart from my friends and peers:

I would never have that one person whom I cherished above all others.
I would not have that partner who walked with me through all of life’s good times and bad.

I was choosing a life where I would have few people to look to as my role model. I was choosing to spend many evenings alone. I was choosing to open myself up to a deep pain and loneliness that would be hard to combat no matter how strong my faith was. I still have times where it feels overwhelming to look ahead to my next 60 years. However, I have remained convinced that this is the life God has for me.

I will not lie to you. This is often a difficult road to walk, trying to be faithful to the Gospel’s demand on my life. We all are called to sacrifice much in order to best follow Christ. My sacrifice just happens to include sexual intimacy.

I have continued along this path as I have served among you and share life with so many of you. Several close friends have been there every step of the way. They’ve cried with me, encouraged me, welcomed me into their families, and allowed me to pour out onto them all the extra time and love I have to give.

Some of you may be wondering right now why I would feel the need to share so much of my story with everyone here today. Trust me when I say this was not a decision I came to lightly.

While I have several “safe spaces” where I can talk about the joys and sorrows of my life, the broader Church has been very much a “don’t ask, don’t tell” environment. I read a sermon this summer that explained this really well.

Pastor Dan Scott from Christ Church in Nashville preached on homosexuality back in June or July. Some of you may have read or listened to this same sermon as Pastor Bill and a few others shared it on Facebook. I appreciated the entire thing, but a couple of points really stuck with me. Allow me to highlight them:

“It would be far healthier for a church and its people if a homosexual person were able to appropriately reveal their struggle than to force him or her into a “don’t ask, don’t tell” situation. When congregations quietly accept a person’s contribution to their church while suppressing the reality of their struggle, it corrupts the integrity and witness of that church. It also creates denial mechanisms that disillusion individuals who grow up in that church.”

“The bottom line then is that many people we love are attracted to members of their own sex. Just like the rest of us, they struggle to live godly lives. If they are not welcome among us, or if we must shame them into an unreasonable silence about the nature of their struggle, we simply don’t have much to offer the world except condemnation. For all these reasons, we must become more mature in the way we deal with our friends, family and brothers and sisters in Christ who experience same-sex attraction.”

It’s as if what we communicate by our silence is that I will remain a welcomed part of this community as long as I don’t talk about this aspect of my life. I would not say that this is intentional, but it is an unhealthy dynamic that exists within the church. I came to see that one of the only ways to help make the church a safer place was to step up and speak. That’s why I’m up here sharing this morning. That’s why I’m opening myself up to answer any questions you all may have. I don’t have all the answers, but I’ll gladly share my heart with you all and keep the conversation going.

I stumbled upon this quote from Tim Keller last month and found it to be profoundly relevant as to why I felt I needed to share this morning.

“To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything.”

Another great thing that I found was a blog post written by a man named Matt Jones. He recently came out publicly and wrote some beautiful articles about the reasons why he chose to begin talking openly. I found that I resonated with these reasons and wanted to share a few of them with you.

Matt says, “This isn’t just about me. There are still countless men and women whose knuckles turn white when the pastor mentions homosexuality because, suddenly, he’s talking about them, who feel like they are walking this path alone and are haunted by anxiety that someone may discover their secret. I know they are there because I’ve been one of them.”

He continues, “Living out of the closet as a celibate, gay Christian gives me the opportunity to speak to a world that has lost its mind when it comes to sex and relationships. The culture at large (including the Church) has drunk deep the lie that sexual activity is essential to being human and that true joy or flourishing are impossible to find outside of a romantic relationship.”

After all that, Matt says, “As I stand up and speak out, reminding the Church what it is called to and how it could love more fully those in and outside itself, the Church will do the same for me. I’m choosing to live openly because I love the Church too much to let it love LGBTQ people so poorly, and because I know that as I press into it I, too, will learn to love better.
“And so we will all become a little bit more like Christ, together.”

For ALL of these reasons, I felt it was important to help open up the dialogue at Calvary by sharing my story.

And to the Church family that has mentored me and encouraged me these last 12 years, thank you.

In Christ,
Andrew Asdell

PS: A word on causation. 40-50 years ago, a common psychological theory was that homosexuality is caused almost exclusively by very dysfunctional parenting. The popular theory attributed male same-sex attraction to a distant father and over-bearing mother. Social research has by and large disproven this theory. Many who experience same-sex attraction do not come from these dysfunctional homes, and conversely, many who have had traumatic or difficult childhoods have grown up to be straight. I want to clarify that I, in no way, believe that my upbringing created these desires within me. No unifying theory of causation has been determined. It is likely a very complex combination of factors, and knowing the exact cause of same-sex attraction does not make a difference in how we in the Church are to love others and treat those who are different from us.