WIFGI 4.2: Why Hating the Church Was a Bad Thing

May 30, 2007

(continued from 4.1

(Quick note:  I’m mostly concerned with only one facet of the church in this post–the church as our spiritual family, as the local fellowship of believers who we shouldn’t forsake meeting with, the Hebrews 10:25 sort of thing.  I’m dwelling on the affection/camaraderie/fellowship aspect of the church here because that’s what I had trouble with.  I wasn’t turned off by the sacraments, or by the Word preached, or by the other aspects of corporate worship offered to God–I was turned off by the people, by my brothers and sisters.  Similarly, I’m dwelling on the local (i.e., late 20th and early 21st century American evangelical) aspect of my church experience because that’s what I had trouble with.  I didn’t have issues with the church in all the richness of her global, historical, and cultural diversity–I had issues with the people sitting on my right and on my left .    All that’s just to say, yes I know the church is bigger than the ragtag bunch of evangelicals who happened to be in my immediate vicinity, and yes I know that church is about more than just family and fellowship.  I’m just talking about what’s relevant here.)

I’m not sure when exactly I realized that the situation I describe in the previous post was a problem that was going to have to be dealt with.  I mean, I knew from the beginning that I was supposed to see Christians as my spiritual family and love them as such, and while I still could and should be friends with gay non-Christians, that I was supposed to be somehow different now, not quite as much one of them as I used to be, a little bit alienated even.  But that was just a bullet point in a long list of dogmas that I theoretically accepted but had no idea how to make real in my life.   Gradually, some little annoying problems in my Christian life grew bigger and bigger, until I was pushed to confront them.

1.  Alienation from and hatred of the church left me vulnerable to attacks on my faith.

My alienation from the church and my dislike of straight believers was a vulnerability that Satan (and my sinful heart, for that matter) exploited time and time again.  I heard lots of little whispers in my soul asking what I was doing with those stupid Christians and their Christ anyway.   “Look how shallow they are!  Look how naive and innocent they are, so out of touch with the real world!   That one actually believes the universe is less than ten thousand years old!  Look how lame they are, all the things they don’t do, all the words they can’t use, all the movies they won’t watch!  Some of them don’t even kiss their boyfriends/girlfriends!  Look at what passes for music and art in their sight!  You don’t belong with these people.  This certainly isn’t the God or the religion for you–could these pathetic people have any handle on divine truth?”

Satan never got me to flat-out doubt my faith this way, but he sure got me to waver.  He got me to lose my fire and passion for God. He got me to grow lax in my spiritual disciplines, which gave him countless more opportunities to assault and weaken me.  He got me to skip Sunday services and Bible studies and fellowship gatherings.  If he can’t make you doubt, he will settle for making you ashamed, and I found that being ashamed of my brothers and sisters quickly spilled over into being ashamed of my Father and His Son, the firstborn among many brethren. 

I just couldn’t separate Jesus from His Christians so neatly, loving Him and loathing them.   After all, He is the one who is supposedly working in their lives, so whatever I think about them and their lives reflects in some way on Him. The church is what the Holy Spirit has to show for Himself.  Worst of all, Christ has fixed his love on these fools and delights in them, and is commanding me to do the same!  If my heart is to be conformed to His, then I must love what He loves.  So hating the imperfect church and loving the perfect Jesus, while so very appealing at first glance, was not a tenable long-term policy.  Either the hatred of the one breeds a hatred for the other, or the love of the one breeds a love for the other. 

By love of the church, I don’t mean that I ought to pretend she’s better than she is, to ignore her faults and go on vapidly cheerleading no matter what.  But I mean that I ought to look at her sin maybe a little bit like how God looks at my sin–with compassion rather than disgust, with sorrow rather than schadenfreude, with a desire to see repentance and redemption rather than final judgment.  I serve a God who does not delight in the death of the wicked.  And most importantly (and here the analogy to how God looks at my sin goes right out the window), I must look at her sin as my sin.  There is no major sin in the straight church that doesn’t have a home in my own heart.  (And yes, the reverse is true as well–but the refusal of the straight church to realize that and come to terms with it doesn’t relieve me from my obligation to stand with her in humility.) 

2.  I needed TO love in order to obey God and in order to grow.

The exgay literature told me that I needed the love of Christians, that I needed to be loved by them.  I never found that very motivating.    Let’s face it, the church wasn’t overtly gushing with love for me, so if I urgently needed love right then, the most efficient way to get it wouldn’t have involved her.   I’d be better off getting my love elsewhere, or just sucking it up and doing without.  The church at least initially was far more likely to provide me with relational frustration and disappointment than anything else!

What worried me more was realizing that I needed Christians in order to love THEM.  You can see this even in the quote from my residential program application at the beginning of the last post.  The Bible’s clear message that we ought to love and serve and bless our fellow believers was starting to weigh on me and keep me up at night.   Jesus’ statement about who His brother and sister and mother are.  Paul on doing good especially to those who are of the household of the faith.  1 John’s constant emphasis on the importance of loving our brothers.  The very metaphor of family and household itself stresses the importance of this relationship.     The Bible of course doesn’t suggest that we should love only believers…but it does give them a huge place of priority.    “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”  Of no other behavior or action does Jesus say this, to my knowledge.  He doesn’t say “People will know you are Mine by how you care for the poor, or by how boldly you proclaim the gospel, or by how chastely you control your sexuality.”  He says that the sign of His disciple is his love for the other disciples.   (I can’t remember who brought this to my attention first, but I suspect they got it from Francis Schaeffer.) What good was it doing me to fret over my struggle for sexual obedience if I was going to blatantly ignore the love of my fellow believer that mattered so much to Christ? 

Not only that, but I also needed the church to help me fulfill the general command to love those outside the church, to love my neighbor (as opposed to my brother) as myself.  I believe God intends for us to minister to the world corporately, not primarily as lone-ranging do-gooders.  Mt. 25:35-36 is completely overwhelming and discouraging if it’s your personal, individual to-do list, as is Mt. 28:19-20.  But to get involved with the church in doing those things, while they’re still a lot of hard work, can be somehow encouraging and even energizing.  You’re a part of the Body of Christ, alive and active, advancing the Kingdom–not a severed pinky toe flopping around trying to make the world a better place.

One of the staff in the residential program would always say to me “A step of obedience, a step of healing.”  She meant that the two were the same thing, that it was a mistake to split them as we often do.  We think (or at least I thought):  “I need to get healed and grow in the faith so I can then go obey and serve and glorify God.”  But really, it’s through obeying that I grow.  And this was no less true in this matter of loving the church and serving with her than in anything else. 

Working with the church (and I include para-church ministies here), either by ministering to those within or serving those without, did two awesome things for me.  First, it forced me to stand in identification with the church.  Doing service or “outreach” in partnership with the church to those outside, when people saw me they saw me as the church.  At first, on the inside I felt like I didn’t belong, that I was nothing like the other Christians I was working alongside, that I would stick out like a sore thumb, an obvious impostor, but in my experience the unbelievers never noticed the difference!  However I felt about myself, they identified me as one of the Christians, as one of the church people.  Not only that, but when I got involved in ministry to other believers, they also saw me as the church blessing them.  And how others saw me powerfully influenced how I saw myself.  Furthermore, serving with the church crippled my ability to indulge myself in my old ultra-alienated stance.  She was my church now, not just a group I peripherally hung out with or a building I sat in.  With work came a sense of responsibility, and with a sense of responsibility came identification. 

Second, it forced me into a daily realization of my emptiness and need for Christ.  Nothing pressed me to seek more holiness and more of God than the sense of inadequacy that washed over me when I tried to serve others as a part of the Body of Christ.  The realization that these people, whether they were neighbor or sibling, needed me to show Christ to them, to channel the love of God to them in some way, smacked me upside the head with the awareness of how feebly I reflected Christ, how little of the love God had showered upon me got passed on to anyone else.  (Uh, this is all still an ongoing thing for me, FYI.)  If you want to be spurred to grow in the faith, just try serving others with what little faith you have!  And the natural, God-ordained place to do this is in/with the church. 

3.  I needed allies who shared my faith and convictions.

For me The Fellowship of the Ring breathed new life into the word “fellowship.”  It’s not about coffee hour and chit-chat after the service.  It’s about comrades on a dangerous and difficult shared quest.  If I wanted to take the quest seriously, I had to take my comrades and my need for them seriously as well.  

I have always had close non-Christian friends.  Truly awesome people, in whom God’s common grace shines brilliantly.   Friends of whom I most definitely have not been worthy.  I get pissed off when lifelong Christians who have always been cozily ensconced in the church declare that unbelievers are basically crappy people not worth getting to know. (Until you’ve saved them, of course!)  This is just ridiculous.  I don’t want to deny the power of the Holy Spirit and the work of God’s special grace in the lives of believers, but at the same time I refuse to deny the love and the goodness in the unbelievers I have known.  If you like having me around, sure you can thank Jesus, but you’d also better thank my heathen friends for saving my sorry ass on more occasions than I care to count. 

And unbelieving friends are a special blessing on this path because they can give you a sort of “reality” check.   So, for example, when I started dating Mr. DM, I was really anxious.  It sure felt like love to me…perhaps with a slightly different tint or flavor than love as I’d known it before…but powerful nonetheless.  But how could I know?  Maybe my mind had finally cracked, maybe I had fallen to desperate self-deception and denial.  It seemed unlikely, as the months and years immediately preceding had been ones of increasing peace and contentment in celibacy, but the heart is deceitful and desperately wicked, so who knew?  My Christian friends were so excited for me and were sure it was the real thing, but they were hardly unbiased.

Then I got together with an old friend (like, since-my-pre-conversion-days old friend) who knew me incredibly well, but who had been out of town for a while and didn’t know the whole Mr. DM thing, which had happened so fast.  Over lunch, as she inquired what was new with me, I said, “Well, I kind of met somebody.”  “Girl or boy?”  “Uh, boy.”  As I stammered out a brief description of him and what he was like, she scrutinized my face, my mouth, my eyes.  And all of a sudden she squealed and interrupted me, “Oh my God, look at you!!! You’re IN LOVE!!!!!” 

The point is, her random exclamation did more to reassure me than anything a fellow Christian could say.  In general, when I’m doing crazy things related to my faith, I like having one of the heathen to process it with.  A second opinion, an outside perspective, etc.  Even if they think I’ve completely lost my mind.  (Which I suspect they mostly do, although they’re very nice about it.)  So yeah, hip-hip-hooray for the unwashed!

But…when unbelievers were pretty much the only friends I had, it was too easy to escape from the pressure of my convictions.  I could take off my “Christian hat” around them, and they wouldn’t care.  In fact, I was eager to set my faith aside, so I could feel closer to them, just like we used to be–I hated having that sliver of difference between us.  I only needed to put on my “Christian hat” for church and the exgay group and possibly for campus fellowship meetings when I bothered to go.  Those scant hours of superficially playing the Christian could not compete with all the rest of my time spent engaging energetically and authentically with unbelievers.  The company I kept influenced me.  They weren’t trying to, but it was sort of inevitable.  I wasn’t growing much in the faith, I wasn’t becoming much of a Christian.  It was sort of like trying to diet by eating salads for lunch and junk food the rest of the day.

As someone who felt convicted that homosex is sin, and trying to live that out in obedience to God, I needed friendship, community, and fellowship that made me stronger in living the life I felt called to, not weaker.   I don’t merely mean the specific and intentional things Christians could do to help me:  pray for me, offer spiritual counsel, talk about the Scriptures, etc.  All they really had to do was to just be with me to have an effect, just as my non-Christian friends just had to be in order to influence me the other way.  Being the sort of relational chameleon that I am, just hanging out with Christians helped enormously to strengthen my faith.   It encouraged me to wear my “Christian hat” more of the time.  And specifically regarding this struggle, it was great to have people who were on “my side.”  I didn’t need them to be experts on homosexuality or anything.  But it was a relief just to be able to look at the faces around me on certain occasions and know that each one thought I was doing the right thing.  Maybe that means I’m too much of a people-pleaser, but I don’t think so.  It’s just that when you’re constantly under a barrage of opinion that tells you you are making the biggest mistake of your life, it’s reassuring to know that some people think that what you are doing is sensible and right.  It took the edge off the isolated lunatic feeling that haunted me.  Sometimes we might have to go it alone in life, take on the world as a minority of one, but why put ourselves in that position when there are allies to be had?

And I needed to be in touch with believers who were having their own struggles, both similar to and different from my own.  I needed to be reminded that I wasn’t the only one fighting a spiritual battle, the only one trying to swim upstream against a ferociously swift current.  Sometimes it helped me to think of us as taking on sin as a team.  I was more encouraged to make holy choices in my own life if I knew that my brother D was fighting hard in his struggle against pornography and my sister K was confronting her spiritual apathy and laziness and my brother T was making war on his own greedy lust for Stuff.  Satan would have to fight us on many fronts!  More importantly, I needed the constant reminder that other believers struggle to avoid sinking into a morass of self-pity, the kind that says:  My own struggle is special, unlike anything recorded heretofore in the annals of Christian experience.  Resistance is impossible.  A cruel God has put me in this situation in order to laugh at me and finally doom me. Might as well give up now and go back to sinning, so I can at least have some fun on my way to hell.    What I realized from fellowship is that other people with other struggles could often see my situation more realistically and more hopefully than I could see it myself.  Similarly when I observed them overreacting and overdramatizing their own difficulties and struggles, it helped me realize that my own dark take on my struggle was distorted by despair, not an accurate perception.

4.  What mattered most to me?

I didn’t just come to worry about my gay identity and the inability to connect with Christian community that it caused for these practical reasons.  It also bothered me in principle.  What did it say about me and what mattered to me, that I found shared sexuality such a more powerful common ground and source of connection with other people than shared faith? 

I used to pay lip service to the doctrine that other Christians were my brothers and sisters.  But I didn’t feel it, and I sure didn’t live it.  On the other hand, while I accepted theoretically that gay people were no longer my tribe, my family, it still felt like they were, and I still lived like they were.  .  Homosexuality was far more important to me than Christianity in determining who counted as “kin,” who I enjoyed socializing with, what I liked chatting about.  I began to worry that this was an accurate barometer of where my heart was at, of what mattered to me.  (Isn’t that true in general?  What kind of Patriots fan would I be if all I wanted to do was hang out with Colts fans and rhapsodize about Peyton Manning’s brains and arm???)

There was a flash of recognition and excitement when I met a gay person, but nothing comparable when I met a Christian. I was generally unimpressed by those who shared my faith, especially if they weren’t gay or exgay.  It didn’t strike me as very interesting or significant that we believed the same things or worshipped the same God.   I remember complaining once that I couldn’t be expected to hang out with Christians when all I had in common with them was Jesus, as if He were somehow trivial, unfit to serve as a basis for conversation, connection, family. 

I’m not trying to repackage the exgay claim that people need to “grow into healthy relationships” with the hetero-attracted.  I’m just saying, if someone’s sexuality is always more important when it comes to determining how close you feel to them than their faith, I think it may say something about what matters to you; namely, that your sexuality matters more to you than your faith.  I understand that many people have mitigating and complicating factors—some have been abused and rejected by straight Christians, which would obviously make Christian fellowship harder for them, even if Jesus is way more important to them than their queerness.  But I know for myself it was a worthwhile question to ask.  I know for myself that as Christ and living a Christian life became more important to me, that my appreciation of the fellowship of believers (regardless of their sexuality) increased commensurately. 

If you had asked me seven years ago (i.e., a couple years after my conversion) whether I would rather be stranded on a desert island with 20 random gay non-Christians, or with 20 random straight Christians, I would have chosen the gays in a heartbeat, without any qualms.  If you asked me the question today, and if I were choosing purely based on comfort, I would ultimately choose the Christians, though probably not in a heartbeat.  It’s not that the gays are less appealing to me–heaven knows they aren’t!  But it’s just that the thought of living without Christians nowadays seems awful to me.  No one to pray with?  No one to study Scripture with, or to ask “Hey, what do you think this means?”  No one to sing hymns with?   No one to talk about God with, or the same God anyway?  No one to share my spiritual struggles with?  I’m not saying this should be a universal law or litmus test, but in my own life I think it was importantly revealing. 

I think early on my attitude was, “Hey, who cares how much I grow or how great a Christian life I end up living?  I’m saved by grace, aren’t I?  And sanctification is a lifelong process anyway, so what’s the rush?  I’ll live my Christian life as half-heartedly and half-assedly as I please!” But the problem I found is that the Christian life, lived half-heartedly, just plain sucks.  It’s the worst of both worlds–you end up losing the pleasures of the flesh (oh you can try to taste them again, and yeah there’s some fun there, but they just aren’t the same anymore), and you don’t get the joys of the Spirit that only come with a relatively pure and earnest devotion to Christ either.  I slowly learned the hard way that the world with its enticements had been ruined for me by my conversion, so if I was going to ever truly delight in life again, I was going to have to try the Christian way more seriously.  My life as I knew it had been lost, more or less; my only hope was that perhaps by losing it completely, Christ’s promise that I would find it again might be borne out.   Once I realized this, and consequently started to care more about my walk with God, I found myself naturally looking for spiritual brothers and sisters to grow with and learn from. 


What Has Stuttering To Do With…?

January 5, 2007

The Internet Monk has a post up called “Remembering the Stutterer.” When I started to read it, I was like, “Ho hum, why exactly am I reading this? Who cares about stuttering anyway?”

But then I got into his discussion of what he learned from his experience as a stutterer, and found it startlingly relevant to the subject matter of this blog. Here are the point headings within his discussion.

1. I’ve learned what it’s like to have your imperfections unavoidably noticeable.
2. I’ve learned what it’s like to live with a problem for a lifetime
3. I’ve learned that a problem or flaw can become the occasion for sin.
4. I’ve learned about human cruelty and the power of love.
5. I’ve learned about the fellowship that exists among the those with persistent flaws and problems.

The whole thing is very much worth reading, but I was especially struck by his reflections on his point #3 (emphasis below is mine)…

Yes, believe it or not, my stuttering didn’t entirely work for my good. At times, it became the reason I excused and tolerated sin in myself.
One of my co-workers was, for many years, a missionary to a particular disabled population. He had worked at a school for this disability and always pointed out how this disability made those who had it particularly difficult, bossy, selfish and aggressive. When I first heard this, I thought, “How mean!” But he was undeniably right, and not just about that particular disability.

All of us who have to live with an imperfection need to face up to the fact that our “suffering” isn’t automatically redemptive. Satan comes to us and presents particular kinds of sinful choices that are tied to that flaw.

Are you overweight? From a dysfunctional family? Poor? Single? Are you old? Neglected by your children? Not compensated appropriately for your work? All of these are occasions to trust Christ and move forward in his grace…or opportunities to sin, be demanding, self-pitying and manipulative.

He is so right about this. I don’t know about you, dear reader, but this was me in spades, and it still is me a lot more often than I’d care to acknowledge. There’s a part of me that felt a tiny bit robbed after falling for Mr. DM, going “straight,” and getting married, because it really took the wind out of the sails of my self-pitying pose. There is an ugly part of me that so loved playing the “nobly” tragic sufferer, destined to never have what her heart longs for. There’s a part of me that loved to imagine that people who saw me thought, “Wow, isn’t it amazing that she’s following God so faithfully in the face of this difficult struggle? Even though she’s going to probably end up spending her whole life alone, never again knowing romantic love or physical intimacy, all because of her love for God?” Now, in retrospect, I can mostly laugh at the ridiculously self-obsessed arrogance in that. But I’d be lying if I said that I don’t feel a twinge of sorrow at my newfound ordinariness every now and then. Who could possibly be impressed by my love for God now, after He’s blessed me beyond my wildest imaginings, after I’ve hit the ex-gay jackpot? To that insidious part of me, being happily married is almost something of a letdown. My struggle with homosexuality has spawned all kinds of prideful and self-centered thoughts like these.

And boy did I ever use my struggle as a reason to “excuse and tolerate sin in myself!” I too often fell into a terrible attitude: If I have to give up my sexuality and any hope of a future relationship, well, that’s all I’m giving up. If God’s asking this hard thing of me that He isn’t asking of all these other people, then He has no business holding me to the same standards as He’s holding them in other areas. I would use my struggle as a way to try to shame my heterosexual brothers and sisters into silence when they tried to hold me accountable regarding other areas of sin in my life. What do *you* know about difficult obedience, little straight Christian? What do *you* know about counting the cost? What do *you* know about suffering for righteousness’ sake?

I love this line especially: “All of us who have to live with an imperfection need to face up to the fact that our ‘suffering’ isn’t automatically redemptive.” I know it sounds dumb, but I used to sometimes think that just because I was miserably celibately same-sex-attracted, I was getting closer to God. I was, obviously, wrong. It was an opportunity to get closer to God, but an opportunity that had to be seized and put to good use, by a holy (i.e., not self-pitying) response to my predicament. My difficult situation was an invitation to loosen my grip on the things of this world, and turn my longing and attention toward the things that are eternal, but it was an invitation that I chronically declined. My struggle opened the door to a deeper reliance upon the grace of God, a deeper trusting in Him, a deeper thirsting for Him, but more often than not I refused to walk through that doorway. Looking back, I realize I wasted a lot of time and treaded a lot of water because of this confusion.

I also liked the iMonk’s thoughts under his point #4:

Of course, at the heart of Christianity’s story is the cruelty of those who humiliated and executed Jesus. He had prepared his disciples for this by repeatedly teaching the power of forgiveness and love towards enemies and persecutors. Those of us with public flaws and imperfections will have opportunities to see these kinds of people with the eyes of Jesus. Jesus taught that it was a great privilege to suffer for him. It’s our privilege to take cruelty aimed at us over lesser things and to transform it into opportunities to be like Christ in forgiveness and grace to others.

I’m not going to talk about my middle school experiences as a queer kid, because I can’t talk or write about it without shaking, and I’m just not really in the mood to shake right now. I’ve worked up the nerve twice in my life to tell the whole story, once to a psychiatrist, and once to a staff member in the residential program. I think I could probably die happily without ever telling that story again.

But recently, one of my lesser tormentors from that era has come back into my world (though rather peripherally), so I’ve had occasion to casually and superficially meet him again, after all these years. He has turned out to be a normal and nice guy, as I expect most of them have. Somehow I doubt he even remembers what he did, or even remembers me at all, although I haven’t asked so I don’t know for sure. (I don’t plan to, either.) In any case, I find myself needing to remember this: It’s our privilege to take cruelty aimed at us over lesser things and to transform it into opportunities to be like Christ in forgiveness and grace to others.

Memorizing Scripture, Part II (Memorizing Longer Texts, Using What You’ve Memorized)

July 25, 2006

continued from here
Memorization Type #2: Long-text memorization (paragraphs, psalms, chapters, books)

The other kind, and in my opinion the more fruitful kind, of memorization is to memorize longer passages of Scripture, even up to whole books.

I am certain that the method I am about to describe is not the slickest or most glamorous way of memorizing longer passages of Scripture. But it’s what I stumbled upon in my own efforts to try to get more of God’s Word into my heart, and being a creature of habit, I’d have a hard time switching to a better method, of which I am sure there must be many. Again, a googling of Bible memorization or Scripture memorization will turn up abundant results, most of them superior, I’m sure.

After briefly surveying some of the alternate methods, one of the striking differences between my approach and theirs is that I do not bother trying to remember the chapter-and-verse references for each verse in the case of “long-text” memorization. My reasons for this are threefold.

1. I personally don’t find knowing all the exact references very valuable, except for showing off. If you’re memorizing a whole chapter or book, you’ll have a pretty good idea of where each verse fits in relatively speaking. Who cares about the exact numbers?
2. The chapter and verse divisions, while invaluable for reference, are not part of the original text, and can get in the way of reading it and hearing it. We rely too heavily on the numbers to parse the text for us, rather than the logic and flow of the text itself.
3. (most importantly) I memorize longer passages of Scripture in part so I can recite them (either aloud or silently) as a devotional practice. So for me it significantly defeats the purpose if I have to recite a verse number before every verse.

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Memorizing Scripture, Part I (Why Memorize, Memorizing Individual Verses)

July 25, 2006

A reader asked that I say a little more about Scripture memorization, which I mentioned fondly as part of my experience in the residential program. So, with some trepidation, I interrupt your regularly scheduled All Exgay All The Time programming to bring you my thoughts on that subject. Exgay-obsessed blogging will resume tomorrow (God willing) with a post on the “healing” talk.

I’m a little wary of writing about it, because I’m not an expert. These are just my crude trial-and-error experimental efforts which have borne fruit for me. Many smarter, wiser, more experienced, and holier people have written on this subject, and I encourage you to Google “Bible memorization” or “memorize Scripture” or anything like that to REALLY learn how it is done. A great starting point would be this pdf of an excerpt from John Piper’s book When I Don’t Desire God posted online. (Chapters 7-10 are in the excerpt–chapter 8 deals specifically with Scripture memorization.) All I have to offer here is my own experience of mucking through with it.

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Responses to Responses on Ex-gay Stuff (Celibacy, interpreting the Vatican, etc.)

July 17, 2006

Quoth Noli Irritare Leones :

On the one hand, I do tend to default to assuming that people are struggling sexually, they weren’t meant to be celibate.

I think in a lot of cases this is true. I think most people are supposed to be married. I think far more people should get married than actually are. I don’t think everyone is cut out for celibacy. I think that Paul guy was onto something when he wrote to those people in Corinth on the subject.

But I just worry that for too many evangelicals, this idea that if you’re struggling you weren’t meant to be celibate is a driving force behind bad theology and worse decisions. On the one hand it is taken by some pro-gay Christians to mean that gay people who don’t enjoy celibacy should form same-sex partnerships. (i.e, “I am struggling, so I am not supposed to be celibate. I am not interested in hetero marriage. Therefore, I should enter into a gay relationship, regardless of those other verses. It’s not ideal, but it’s the best I can muster. If it is better to marry than to burn with lust, then surely it must be better to be in a committed monogamous same-sex relationship than to struggle so precariously, right? Even if it’s not “God’s best” for me.”) On the other hand, it is taken by certain exgays and their allies to mean that God absolutely WILL change anyone who’s having a rough time with celibacy or will miraculously take aware their sexual desires, which I think fosters a whole range of false expectations and resulting disappointment or worse.

What we need to remember to balance all of this, I think, is that God’s commands are His enablings. We need to trust, as Augustine prayed, that God will grant what He commands. When we see commandments and moral teachings in Scripture, we don’t need to ask, “Gee, am I really cut out for all that?” If He commands it, by His grace He will strengthen us to do it if we seek to obey. It may not be pretty, but it will be possible. We need to embrace strenuous spiritual struggle as part of life. I do not believe that God will call someone to celibacy if they are absolutely incapable of it. But I think we all far underestimate what we are capable of with the grace of God working in us. It’s kind of like exercising, when you’re running or doing situps or whatever and you’re feeling like you’re at your limit, and you think, “I absolutely cannot do any more!” But if you have a friend encouraging you and pushing you onward, you find that you can often do a lot more than you thought you could. Our limits are rarely where we think they are.


From And Also With You:

Where things get tricky is with her comments on the ex-gay movement as a Protestant phenomenon. First, she characterizes the recent Vatican document on homosexuals in seminaries as declaring that “homosexual attractions are necessarily a manifestation of spiritual and emotional immaturity.” I’m not sure that the Vatican document says that; on the other hand, I’m not sure it isnt true.

Perhaps I’m erring in the conclusions I’ve drawn. I must admit that I do not read many Vatican documents, nor am I as up-to-date on Catholic discussion of homosexuality as I might be.

But it seems to me that the logic of the statement was: A certain degree of maturity is necessary to be a priest. Therefore, men with non-transitory homosexual attractions should not apply for the priesthood. Now, there’s a missing premise needed to make the argument make any sense, and that premise is: Men with non-transitory homosexual attractions lack the necessary maturity. I don’t know how else to read it. I’ve read the statement several times. I’ve read a few commentaries on it and discussions of it. I understand that this topic is soooo last December, so I’ll refrain from posting abundant quotes to support my interpretation. But that’s how it looks from this outsider’s vantage point. If I’m missing something that I should be getting, I’d be grateful for explanation, either via the comments or email to disputedmutability (at) yahoo (dot) com.
I don’t object so much to the Vatican’s decision to bar gays from entering the priesthood, given the circumstances. But my own opinion is that the real reasons for doing so, the possibly legitimate reasons, have nothing to do with this Freudian stuff. Readers of this blog will soon discover (if they haven’t already) how deep my antipathy for that stuff goes.  To elucidate my position a little bit, it’s not that I deny that parental issues or other environmental factors may play a role.  For all I know they might.  What I do deny, with every fiber of my being, is that persistent homosexual attraction is conclusive evidence of stunted development.  I say this not because of myself, but because of others.  I have known people who through therapy and/or spiritual practice have healed whatever issues they may have had, and yet remain as same-sex attracted as they ever were.  And besides that there’s the fact that I’ve never really noticed much of a correlation between sexual orientation and maturity of any sort.

Apology for “Catholics!”

July 15, 2006

While trying to express my amused befuddlement over the concept of Catholic saints, I said some stuff that in retrospect sounds rather snarky to my ear. Sigh.  My better judgment consistently trails my mouth (or my fingers in this case) by about 48 hours.

Nobody complained to me about it or anything.  It just struck me late last night as I tried to put on my sympathy hat and imagine how I would read what I had written if I felt the way that some Catholics appear to feel about their saints, that it might sound disrespectful and insulting.

I’m truly sorry about that, and I’ve amended the post accordingly.

Reflections on Tushnet’s Thoughts about Exgay Ministries

July 12, 2006

As I said a couple of posts ago, I thoroughly enjoyed Eve Tushnet’s blog posts about her visit to a Love Won Out conference and her thoughts on the ex-gay movement. Now that I finally have a little spare time, I’m going to use her thoughts as a springboard for some thinking aloud of my own. (Note: I’m not discussing what I thought was the most interesting part of her posts–her thoughts on same-sex attraction, alienation, and beauty. I tried, but I’m simply unequal to the task–it’s too lofty and intimidating a subject for me right now. So I devote myself to these humbler and more trivial matters instead: eschaton immanentization, salvation-through-pantyhose, parental reactions to their child’s homosexuality, why the ex-gay movement is a Protestant thing, and putting homosexuality on the back burner.)

1. Eschaton immanentization

Yeah it’s a problem. I wouldn’t say that those exgays try to “yank Heaven down” by force. It’s more that they genuinely believe that this is what God is doing now, that these really are special and awesome times, and you can either get with the program or miss out on the blessing. It’s not that you can “make” God “fix” you, it’s that God really really wants to “fix” you, if only you’d cooperate in faith. (Look at all the other people He’s fixing! Why not you?!) Now, maybe they’re subconsciously “yanking Heaven down” in leaning toward the interpretations that they do. But I don’t think they consciously see themselves as manipulating God.

Still, the perspective is problematic because (in my humble opinion) it sets an unrealistic goal for many of us, and it blames our failure to achieve it on our spiritual state. This is partly why exgay “failure” to change can be a really painful thing, I think. The implication is often that change would happen if you really had true faith, if you really trusted God, if you really desired to please Him, if you were really obedient in stewarding your sexual desires, if you were really earnest in pursuing holiness–in other words, if you were really His child, if you were really saved. I know ex-gay ministries don’t explicitly say or believe this, but isn’t it a logical conclusion to draw from things they do say, about change being possible for everyone, about change being something God wants to work in the life of every same-sex attracted believer, about change being a product of intimacy with Christ?

I suspect that there are at least four factors contributing to this problem: (1) the influence of Charismatic/Pentecostal beliefs to the effect that healing and miracles are available to all with sufficient faith; (2) a bad exegesis of 1 Cor. 6:11 where “And such were some of you” is read by many exgays, in defiance of all logic and reason, as talking about a change in sexual attraction rather than a change in sexual behavior; (3) a split-mindedness within the exgay movement over whether homosexual attraction is a spiritual issue or merely a psychological one (and therefore capable of being psychologically “cured”); and (4) a sense of entitlement and conviction that God wants His people to be happy and successful. I think there’s an implicit view sometimes that being a good witness means having a life that is attractive in the world’s eyes, so that they’ll want to be just like you. (I personally was more drawn to the faith by those total losers who gave up everything for Jesus, but what do I know?)

In any case, I dissent from that view. I do not believe that God has promised everyone attraction change. I feel kind of Scrooge-like saying this, after having been blessed as I have, but the evidence seems compelling to me. I simply know too many men and women who tried too hard, men and women who followed the exgay teaching far more assiduously and wholeheartedly than I. I will not dishonor them by claiming that they just didn’t have enough faith, or pray the right prayer, or try hard enough.

2. “Salvation-through-pantyhose”

From what I’ve seen, there is considerable disagreement among exgays on this issue. I am officially on the “anti-pantyhose” side. I think the emphasis on gender stereotypes is misguided even by mainstream exgay theology’s own lights. After all, they believe that a key cause of same-sex attraction is feeling insecure in one’s gender as a child. Well, what better way to make kids (or adults) feel insecure and inadequate in their gender than to set forth a very rigid notion of what it means to be a woman or a man, which will likely be hard for them to live up to or feel comfortable with?

Nonetheless, I think there’s a kernel of truth in the pro-pantyhose position for some women, probably including Ms. Fryrear. I know there are many women who are cool with themselves as women but just don’t like the girly stuff, and that’s great. But I also know that there are some other women who don’t like the girly stuff because they are uncomfortable with themselves as women. For these women, I think their discomfort with pantyhose (or whatever) might be a dragon that needs slaying, as part of embracing and accepting themselves as women, as God created them. Of course, I wouldn’t put any pressure on anyone. God showed me what I needed to do when I needed to do it, in no uncertain terms.

3. Parental reactions to a child’s homosexuality.

Like Tushnet, my intuitive sympathies are with the kid, for obvious reasons. I get pretty agitated by parents who are devastated by and mourn and grieve over their child’s gaiety. I want to grab them by the neck and yell all kinds of stuff at them, like about how being a queer kid is plenty stressful enough without having to worry about dealing with your parents while they’re self-indulgently bewailing the demise of their bourgeois fantasies of normalcy and grandparenthood….GRRRRRRR.

<deep, cleansing breaths>

But, all that being said, the fact is that parents do have those kinds of ridiculously overblown feelings and reactions. I don’t fully understand why they do, and I sure wish they didn’t, but there it is. And if I’ve learned anything from observing the homo-struggle, surely it’s that Beating Up On People For Feeling What They Shouldn’t Feel isn’t terribly productive. Sure, if she really had it together as she ought to, the mother of a gay son wouldn’t feel that his being gay was tantamount to his being dead. And if I really had it together as I ought to, Zhang Ziyi wouldn’t do that thing she does to my insides. So I need to restrain my killer instincts, and cut unto others the slack I would have them cut unto me.

Tushnet’s take seems to be “well, the kid will be able to tell how you feel anyway, so why bother telling them?” My take is more “well, since the kid is probably going to be able to tell how you feel anyway, don’t b.s. them about how you’re taking it.” To illustrate, I offer a not-so-hypothetical tale of two parents.

When I came out to my mom, she appeared to take it just fine. Sure, she looked a little stunned, but her voice was composed and moderate as she shared her extraordinarily low opinions of the female genitalia and cunnilingus, and informed me that I needed go out and get some sexual experience with boys before coming to any conclusions. I breathed a huge sigh of relief over how well she handled it. But she then proceeded to spend the next three years passive-aggressively snarking at me over the subject at every opportunity, all the while insisting that she “didn’t have a problem with it,” until one day she just snapped and her sorrow, fear, frustration, and horror exploded all over me like a slime-filled balloon. (If anyone’s trying to piece together a chronology, this was about a year before before she asked God to kill me on account of my queerness.)

In contrast, when I came out to my father, I (and the rest of my family) expected him to react angrily, kick me out of the house, and disown me. Well, that didn’t happen, but what did happen was even more horrifying to me at the time. He cried. I don’t mean a wistful solitary tear streaking down his rugged, stoic, masculine cheek. I mean he bawled hysterically and incoherently like a little girl. For a loooong time. I had never seen anything like that from him in my entire life, and I hope never to again. But all the same, his pain and anguish and sense of unfathomable loss were palpably real. Trying to cover them up would have been both futile and insulting.

Anyway, I guess my point is simply that I preferred my father’s handling of the news to my mother’s. So yeah it would be fantastic if parents could be level-headed and control themselves, if they could successfully protect their kids from their emotions. But I worry that expecting that of parents in general would be a little bit like, well, immanentizing the eschaton.

4. Why the Ex-Gay Movement is a Protestant Phenomenon

So some guy named John wrote to Tushnet wondering about why the ex-gay movement is overwhelmingly a Protestant thing. (But let’s not forget Joseph Nicolosi! And that lovely jewel of a statement from the Vatican a while back–as far as I’m concerned, once you’ve declared that homosexual attractions are necessarily a manifestation of spiritual and emotional immaturity, you’re nine-tenths of the way to the very worst kind of ex-gay viewpoint.)

He was specifically wondering whether it had something to do with a Reformation view that homosexual desire itself was sin. So, the thinking might run: because the desire is sin, the desire must be got rid of, which brings us to ex-gay ministries.

I am pretty certain this is not the case. For a few different reasons, but I’ll just give the simplest one: The explicit view of every exgay leader I have ever heard is that homosexual desire is not sin. They are quite emphatic and unequivocal about that.

Do I have an alternative answer? I don’t claim to know the exact whys and wherefores, but in my humble opinion the biggest reason by far is this:

Protestants have no meaningfully fleshed-out concept of intentional, joyful celibacy to work with. Period.

Thus, we have to change homosexuals’ orientations and marry them off, because we don’t have any real alternatives for them.

The Reformers and their heirs were so eager to uphold and exalt the holiness and sanctity and spiritual excellences of marriage that celibacy got buried and was largely forgotten. Now don’t get me wrong, I believe with all my heart that the Reformers were wonderfully and profoundly right about emphasizing the highness of the calling of marriage and the spiritual importance of “ordinary” secular life. But, there’s a problem lurking in the neighborhood.

Traditionally, Protestants have held that the solution to sexual temptation is sex in marriage. This was a claim Luther and Calvin made, and it is repeated over and over again throughout our history. If you are sexually struggling and you are unmarried, then you need to get married. If you are sexually struggling and you are married, then you and your spouse need to be having more and/or better sex. (The Reformers and Puritans were very insistent upon the value of sexual pleasure and the importance of mutual satisfaction in the marriage bed.) The general feeling one gets from reading them is that sexual desire cannot be tamed or subdued at all, but only corralled in marriage.
The problem of course is that this approach has nothing to offer those who don’t see hetero marriage as a viable option, but who still find themselves excruciatingly sexually tempted–i.e., the exclusively homosexually attracted. Unless it can make heteros out of them.

I would love to be proven wrong on this–I’d love for someone to point me to secret treasure troves of Reformed teaching on the subject of celibacy. But this is my impression as someone who spent several years earnestly trying to find support and resources for celibacy from the evangelical Protestant traditions and coming up empty-handed. There is simply not much of a place in the evangelical church for someone who isn’t trying to get married. Our great celibate role-models (Amy Carmichael, John Stott, etc.) were all accidental celibates who were earnestly hoping to get married until it was simply too late.

Evangelicals do acknowledge that a tiny handful of people are called to lifelong “singleness”, but we generally seem to think that those people will have such special grace and revelation from the Lord (in accordance with their exceedingly rare and special calling) that they will know what to do and how to handle it themselves without any advice from mere mortals. So it’s treated like a mysterious superpower, and not spoken about much. If you’re struggling sexually, you weren’t meant to be celibate. A suitable spouse will be coming along shortly, have no fear.

Given all this, I think it’s not hard to see why the ex-gay movement is the primary evangelical method of helping homosexually-attracted believers. It’s also not hard to see why this is a difficult context for homosexually attracted people to try to exist in. This is another reason why I think ex-gay “failure” (or lack of “success”) can be so painful: the Church doesn’t know what to do with you!

On top of this, exgays are sometimes told that their “healing” will not be complete if they don’t go onto heterosexual attraction and marriage. (See this Exodus article and this one as well.) That they are cowards for not desiring or pursuing hetero marriage, afraid to step out of their same-sex attracted comfort zone. So sometimes I wonder if the exgay movement seems reluctant to offer “too much” support for celibate chastity, lest exgays become too comfortable in that place without pursuing further change. In any case, I blame the historic Protestant discomfort with celibacy for the whole darn mess. And I do think it is a mess, a mess that needs to be cleaned up if we’re going to effectively minister to gay people.

5. Putting homosexuality on the back burner

“She also said–to much applause–that the Christian who made the biggest impression on her when she was still a lesbian “put homosexuality on the back burner,” presenting Christ as her Savior first rather than talking about her sexuality. It is not my impression that the ex-gay movement, in general, actually takes this approach.”

For what it’s worth, my own experience is that the ex-gay movement, in general, actually does take that approach. I spent a lot of time before becoming a Christian conversing online with many exgays and exgay leaders. Without exception, they all put Christ front-and-center and never brought up my sexuality issues.

It is certainly true that plenty of other Christians fail to put Christ ahead of a person’s homosexuality in talking to them. But I have never seen that in the ex-gay movement. Which makes me very glad. Because really, it’s stupid. As a pastor involved in exgay ministry said affectionately to me shortly after my conversion “Jesus has to catch the fish before He can clean them.” And as I’ve said before:

The way to lead gays to Christ is not through arguing with them about homosexuality. If I know you have one deaf ear, I won’t speak in it if I’m trying to get you to hear me. If I know you have a blind spot, I won’t display something in front of it if I’m trying to get you to see. “But they must be convinced of their sin before they will see their need for a Savior!” True enough. But it’s not as though homosexual sex is the only sin that gay people commit. On the contrary, like everybody else, most of them struggle with many things that they themselves wouldn’t hesitate to call wrong. So why not address those matters instead?

Speaking personally, when I first keenly felt my need for a Savior, I felt it because of my pride, because of my greed, because of my hatred, because of my lack of self-control, because of my selfishness, because of my unrighteous anger, because of my impatience, because of how I had hardened my heart against the Lord of the Universe and blasphemed His name. These things condemned me. I did not yet see the sinfulness of homosexuality, or any [consensual] sexual sin for that matter. It was not until after I became a Christian by God’s grace that my eyes were more fully opened and I could see the truth in the Scriptures and in the witness of the Holy Spirit within my heart.