Revoice is a conference for lgbt/same-sex attracted Christians who accept what is sometimes called a “traditional sexual ethic.” It is not perfect and lol I have & express criticisms or suggestions for improvement every year because I am a backseat driver from of old, but I love that conference and the community it builds and brings together, so I was deeply honored to be able to address Revoice this year. This is what I said (a mix of my notes and what I ended up saying).
NOTE: This gets into some gnarly things which may dredge up very hard memories and emotions for you. Protect yourself and take care of yourself if you do want to engage and go in. If you want to talk with me about any of this stuff, I’m at firstname.lastname@example.org and I answer all my email eventually.
There’s a line from Scripture that we sing sometimes in church–a variant translation of Psalm 119: “Lord, I love your commands.” Elsewhere in this psalm we hear that the commands of the Lord are songs, they’re more precious than silver or gold, they’re joy, reward, light; they give life. His commands are like honey, they are riches that comfort or delight us, that we dearly love.
And we’re just like repeating all this stuff and some of you all may feel that way right now about the Lord’s commands concerning your sexuality and uhhhh God bless you!!! But I suspect many of you are more ambivalent. For you, no matter how much you try to trust in God, His commands have often tasted bitter. They’ve been hard to love. Let me first talk a little about why this is, and then suggest new questions you can ask in your walk with the Lord. These new questions may scare you. They may scare the people around you, even people who have helped you to know God’s love. They aren’t the questions gay people are often encouraged to ask in our churches. But they may be helpful to you, and for some of you, they may be necessary.
First of all, if loving the Lord’s commands is hard for you, you don’t need to assume that you’re doing something wrong or “just not trying hard enough.” We’re in a situation right now where gay people in the churches are more often treated as political issues or tangles of sexual sin and temptation, rather than as children of God, individuals with gifts to offer the Church. If you are a gay, same-sex attracted, or LGBT Christian, it is likely you have never heard a pastor or leader speak in ways which welcome you into the Body of Christ and even assume that gay people are members of His Body. You’ve had to try to understand your experiences, longings, and desires in a landscape characterized by misinformation about the origins of your sexual orientation. You’ve been treated as if in the ideal church, you would just dissolve into the straight majority, and nobody would have to know that you’d ever been different at all.
You’ve been treated as if your honesty is arrogance, your sincere confusion is willful disobedience, your longing for love and intimacy is lust, your questions are threats, and your self-hatred is humility. You may have been blamed for an assault you suffered, because “What can you expect from a sinful relationship?” You may have needed trauma healing and been given moral scolding instead. You’ve been taught a love of God which is closer to self-harm. And you’ve been taught all this by the people who also taught you that God is Love. They may have loved you well in many ways. But when it came to your sexuality, many of you found that the people you looked up to in the church were simply unable to educate your desires and guide you into a self-accepting obedience.
Not all of us here had the worst versions of this experience. But honestly I think almost all of us have had at least a taste of these silences, bad advice, pop-Freudian psychology, and all the other baffling, awful nonsense that gets thrown at gay people in the churches. Almost all of us know the taste of a sermon that treats our lives and longings as weaponry in a culture war. That taste is bitter. It is not the honey Scripture promises. Imbibed too deeply for too long, it is poison.
Like, if there were a Bingo card with squares for every kind of awful church experience we’ve had as gay people, I bet most of you all would be yelling out, “Bingo!”, in the first minute of the game.
So okay… what do we do about this? Well, one thing many of us do is to work for justice in our churches, so that the next generation of LGBT people is welcomed with humility and compassion. But as we do our best to serve others, we also have to attend to our own relationship with God. And here we discover some serious problems.
Because the silences and untruths we learned about gay people don’t just give us emotional problems, or even cute fun little mental-health problems. They’re also the source of epistemological problems.
“Epistemology” is basically the science of how we know things. How do we know when we know something, what tools do we use to know things, et cetera. How do we distinguish between truth and falsehood? If the people who taught you that God made you in His image also taught you that you were uniquely broken, how do you come to know God? If the people who taught you that God is Love treated you with contempt or anger, how do you learn what love is? If the people who taught you that Jesus is the Good Shepherd gave you bad advice that led you to hurt yourself and others, how do you learn what obedience is?
Let me suggest that we start with the bedrock of our faith. This bedrock is not Christian morality. We care what Christian morality requires–we care so much ha we will give our lives and our bodies entirely over to Jesus’ care–because we have first trusted that God loves us, that He cherishes us, that He seeks us out and will not abandon us no matter where we go. Our obedience, at its fullest, is our free response of gratitude to the God Who gave us breath and preserves our life. Our moral obedience–or our struggle to obey, since a lot of us really struggle and stumble with this stuff and all these truths about God’s love are true of us in those moments as well–our obedience or our struggle to obey are most humble and pleasing to God (I think) when it flows from our certainty that we are beloved by an infinitely tender Lord.
So let’s ask new questions to the old answers. We can begin very simply, just by asking: How has God cherished and cared for us? Many of you may have spent long hours praying to be different from who you are, wishing to be someone you are not, even wishing not to be alive. And yet God continued to give us life and breath. His love is what preserves all that exists. God’s love is the reason every atom spins (or, uh, whatever atoms do). And with God’s preserving love He has said every day that He wants you to exist, and to be the person you are, with the choices, longings, and experiences you face. He could’ve done stuff differently! But He has preserved you as the person you are, in the face of those who find you embarrassing or difficult. Your life itself is a cry against the injustice of antigay attitudes in the Church–a cry voiced by God as your Creator.
Where else is God revealing His tenderness? And let’s make it harder: Where is God revealing His love for you in and through your experience of sexuality?
You may not have a ready answer for this question, and like, I can’t answer it for you and neither of us would want me to. This is work God has entrusted to you to do. But ask yourself: What can I be grateful for in my experience of being LGBT or same-sex attracted? St. Paul says, “In all things give thanks.” If I were grateful to be gay, what might that look like? What might God be teaching you through being gay? What might He be giving you to teach others?
And let’s be super practical: What is one spiritual practice you can do each day–a prayer, an act of service, a meditation on Scripture–which will help you experience God working in and through your sexual orientation?
These are not the questions your pastor, spiritual director, or like, your mom knew to encourage you to ask.
What are the touchstones of your faith–your favorite hymns, Scripture passages, saints, names for Jesus? Imagine someone says to you, “Oh, that’s my favorite as well! It really helps me to understand how God loves me as a gay person.” What might they mean by that? How can the elements of your faith which you already know well, and which already resonate with you, illuminate the experience of being gay, to help you see it in the light of God’s love?
These are the easier questions. [I did not expect people to laugh here!! /o\]
Here are some harder ones. And again, you don’t have to process this stuff here in front of an audience! You can zone out now, it’s fine, take care of yourself. If you need to think about these questions you can do so later, in a setting that helps you confront them with care for your own needs and well-being. Okay.
Where do we fear that God doesn’t love us? Are there places where we feel like Christianity is a trap, a game we’re set up to lose, a cruel joke at our expense? How would we act differently if we were totally confident in His love?
What questions are we afraid to ask? Where can we ask these questions safely, knowing we won’t face judgment or rejection? How can we frame those questions with trust in God’s love and mercy?
And I’ll say, you know, Revoice is just a place with people, like every other place. It isn’t perfect. But there are likely people here who can help you ask the questions you fear, who won’t judge or reject you.
Are there things we’ve done which make us fear that God doesn’t love us anymore? Are there things we’ve suffered which make us fear that God has abandoned us? Perhaps not now, but later, at a safer time, you can consciously picture those experiences. Place God there. See Jesus there. And look into His Eyes. See how He gazes at you. And then take away from those tender, all-merciful Eyes every hint of disappointment, judgment, anger, or disgust. Let them be eyes of love, which see you only as a beloved child, an image of God, which see you with complete and unshadowed tenderness.
What would you say to that Jesus?
What would you say to Jesus if you weren’t afraid? If you trusted that He doesn’t need you to fear Him? If you knew that He longs for your honesty?
Our relationship with Jesus is the foundation. Where does that relationship become distorted because we’re focusing too much on the moral rules, and not on the whole point of the rules, which is receiving and living in Jesus’ love?
We can ask questions about the rules themselves. What would the Lord’s commands about our sexuality mean, if they were intended to draw us deeper into lives of love and self-gift, rather than isolation? What might need to change in our lives, our faith, our churches and communities, for us to taste sweetness in these commands?
I trust that these questions have answers. But they are not where we begin. We begin not with the commands, but with the One Who gives them. We begin with Jesus. So let us pray:
Lord, my Maker and Redeemer, help me trust that You are at work in every aspect of my life, including my sexuality. Help me see the fingerprints of Your love on my longings and on my heart. Lord, my sweetest Lover, help me to share all my thoughts and desires with You in the intimate bedchamber of my soul. Lord, my most tender Friend, help me trust that You are always faithful, that You rejoice with my joys and rebuke all those who harm me. You are a Friend forever, to the last days of my life, no matter what I do or how I change. Your Heart is true. You’re a Pal and a Confidant.
Lord, you love gay people so much that You will let me sneak the “Golden Girls” theme song into a prayer!
Lord, my Good Shepherd, teach me to serve gay people and communities, as You lay down Your life for your sheep. Teach me to cherish our community as You do. Teach me to fear no evil, for You are with me to protect and defend me. And let me not be afraid, for You are not afraid of me.
Mosaic of Christ the Good Shepherd from the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia via Wikimedia Commons.