My books People to Be Loved and Living in a Gray World release today. Usually when an author releases a book, it’s a celebratory moment. We break out the champagne, invite our friends, celebrate the release. But these books are different. It’s actually a quite somber moment. Yes, I’m excited to see these books finally in print. They represent several years of research and study (along with many interviews, friendships, and stories). But they are different in one crucial aspect: they’re not about me. They’re about the millions of people who wrestle with their faith and sexuality. They’re about my friends, my loved ones, your loved ones. These books are about real people.
They’re about people to be loved.
At the end of People to Be Loved, I give several challenges to the evangelical church. I exhort the church to love the LGBT community in better ways and cultivate a better posture toward those who experience same-sex attraction within their midst. Here are the first two challenges I give.
1. Cultivate an environment where people who experience same-sex attraction can talk about it
No doubt, there are people within your church walls who experience same-sex attraction. They are twelve, thirteen, sixteen years old. They are forty-five and married to an opposite-sex spouse and have three kids. There are many same-sex attracted Christians who remain closeted due to an unhealthy church environment that wouldn’t know what to do with them if they talked about their struggle. Manly men, feminine women, guys who don’t talk with a lisp and who could throw a football farther than you. Women who could get any guy they wanted but want nothing more than to feel the warm embrace of another woman.
The Christian church needs to get past the “us” (straight people) versus “them” (gay people) mindset and start cherishing the lives of the beautiful people that experience same-sex attraction. We need to create and cultivate a safe and honest environment where people who experience same-sex attraction don’t feel gross or ashamed; where they can talk openly about their struggles in their small group and the room is not filled with cold silence and terrified stares. We allow people to admit their struggle with pride and a weak prayer life. But these are much more hideous—arrogance and lack of communion with God—than someone’s attraction to the same sex. The latter should be easy. But we live in, and have created, a culture where it is terrifying to struggle with same-sex attraction.
I long for the day when preachers and teachers, deacons and elders, single college students and stay-at-home moms, can all talk about their same-sex attraction and not be viewed as animals. Unless you are a Pharisee who thinks you really are much better than the rest of those sinners over there, then you should be eager to love and walk with people who are attracted to the same sex.
One of the ways to cultivate such an environment is to avoid off-handed comments about “the gay agenda,” “the homosexual community,” or “the sin of homosexuality.” All of these phrases—and many others—often get misconstrued and misinterpreted, especially by the thirteen-year-old who is scrambling to find a gun because he thinks he is an abomination before God. If you are a preacher, use your words carefully. Explain what you mean and what you don’t mean. Don’t sling out phrases that could mean many different things to many different people.
Personally, I don’t normally mention homosexuality from the pulpit unless I carefully explain exactly what I mean. I don’t use homosexuality as a quick example of sin, and I don’t talk about culture wars from the pulpit. If I ever mention homosexuality from the stage, I always ask myself: “How would I hear this if I were a teen struggling with same-sex attraction, or a visitor who is a lesbian, or a parent of a gay son who just committed suicide?” Your audience is diverse. Their stories are unique. Your people have specific struggles and many of them are hidden. Preachers, make sure you consider all of these before you make off-handed comments about homosexuality.
2. Listen to the stories of LGBT people
In his song “Every Breaking Wave” on U2’s 2014 album Songs of Innocence, Bono sings:
And every shipwrecked soul, knows what it is
To live without intimacy
I thought I heard the captain’s voice
It’s hard to listen while you preach
It is hard to love someone while you are talking; love is most authentically shown when you are listening. To listen is to love, and you can’t love without listening.
A few years ago when I was writing my book on nonviolence, I read a lot of books on the topic. I studied all the relevant passages in the Bible, and I read lots of different books on the ethics of war. I was trying to figure out whether Christians should ever fight in war or use violence as a last resort. But most importantly: I talked to dozens of people who served in wars. What was it like? How did it feel when you lost your friend in an attack? How did war make you think about violence and nonviolence? If all I did was read about the topic, my perspective would have been jaded, keeping at arm’s length the people who are most affected by the very thing I am writing on. And the same is true of homosexuality.
I believe that every single Christian needs to think deeply about this issue. And since it is not an issue, but people, every Christian needs to listen to the stories of LGBT people.
I think the fear is that if you listen to someone’s story, it means you agree with all of their decisions and actions in that story. But we don’t treat other people like this, do we? Counselors listen to those who come to them for help. Doctors listen to patients. Lawyers listen to clients. Friends listen to their friends, if they are true friends. None of these listeners agree with everything they hear. Listening simply means that we care enough about the person to experience their life through reliving their story. And you can only do this if you listen.
A couple years ago, I taught a class on homosexuality, and one of the assignments I gave was for my students to interview someone who is LGBT. The rules for the assignment were that they were required to ask questions and just listen. Too often we are quick to jump in and correct, disagree with, or confront. So for this assignment, they were required to just ask questions and listen to their stories. What was the result? Not a single student changed their theological perspective on same-sex relations. But almost every student grew in compassion, love, and understanding for people who experience same-sex attraction.
To listen is to love, and you can’t deeply love until you listen.