This is not a story I sat down and wrote in an hour or a week or a year. It's the kind that's been writing itself on me for longer than I've known to pay attention. My journey to love without strings.
Here's my honest confession: there's no way to write this story without stepping on someone's toes on either side of what is painfully still a deep, inflammatory divide. There's no way to tell where I've come from without hurting gay friends who may read this and, perhaps, feel betrayed that I ever stood where I once did. And there's no way not to offend friends and family and other readers who resonate more with where I used to be. It requires an inordinate amount of grace from all of us, grace to myself, and some amount of grit and courage in admitting where I've been and where I now find myself. And in the end, knowing I'm tired of cowering when it comes to things that burn like a fire in my bones, regardless of the response or lack of it.
I can no longer be silent. Because, friends? People are dying because of this.
And the thing is, it's no longer only a matter of theology, as the rag tag Jesus follower that I am, and all our differing interpretations of obscure references to homosexuality in sacred texts. It's a matter of justice. It's a matter of impact.
It's about looking deep within ourselves and challenging our definitions of love.
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You see, this week is Gay Pride week here in Seattle. It's honestly not a festival I've paid much attention to in my fourteen years of living here, except for knowing what times to dodge the crowds. And for many of those fourteen years, feeling discomfort gnawing at me regarding people I didn't understand in the slightest. I wouldn't have called myself a homophobe - I had gay coworkers I hung out with on occasion as the only straight person in the bunch, and I felt genuine care for them and enjoyment of their company - but deep down, I rumbled with tension over my quiet beliefs toward homosexuality and what it looked like to love and be in relationship with gay friends in light of those beliefs.
I felt I lived a double life. I lived in dread of ever having The Conversation about homosexuality with gay friends or customers, doing all I knew to do to communicate love and respect while privately holding the belief that, as a follower of Christ, I could not support what is commonly referred to among evangelical Christians as the homosexual lifestyle.
* * * * *
I remember sitting across from a respected friend of mine some years ago when she shared her coming out story with me. I was completely thrown off guard. Nearly three decades of my religious upbringing had taught me, in explicit and implicit ways, that being gay was wrong, gross even. I'd been indoctrinated in "Love the sinner, hate the sin," a phrase that now makes my skin crawl. And here I was, hearing that someone I knew and loved and respected as a person of faith was gay.
My theology, at the time, did not allow me to respond to this news without a great deal of inner anxiety. I did not possess a worldview, faith, or view of God that encouraged me to question outside the clear-cut lines I'd seen drawn. Even though a growing part of me ached to. Even though sitting here, listening to her story, trying to piece together the notes that rung in discord within my heart, I felt myself tear in two. It was the early stages then, but I was feeling less comfortable in the skin of my religious beliefs.
Oh, the tension! Love, but remain detached from her identity change. Love, but do not communicate interest in these changes or acceptance of them. Love, somehow making her feel she is supported without supporting her lifestyle.
So, I did the only thing I knew to do. I listened, trying not to convey my tortured insides, and probably made a few vague, empathetic statements like, "Wow, that sounds hard," but mostly remained quiet. I couldn't say, "I'm happy for you" or "I'm proud of you." I distinctly knew this was not the time, if ever there would be a time, to say, "I love you, but I don't accept this." So I said it very, very quietly through all the things I didn't say or do to show my support for her. All the ways I silently refused to be open and curious about her life and romantic relationships and her deepening sense of joy and contentment in embracing herself as gay.
Let me just go ahead and tell you how that worked out: it's a fucking exercise in futility when this is what love looks like.
Over time, I think, our scope of safe topics to discuss in friendship became so small as to not fit much of her in them anymore. After all, you can only divorce someone's sexuality from who they innately are for so long before realizing it's woven into every piece of their lives.
No matter the deeply genuine intent of my heart to love her - truly love her - the impact was to minimize her.
* * * * *
I wrote something on my blog, more than three years ago, about my intent to love liberally, even though I identified with more conservative beliefs*. Including my inability to support gay marriage. It felt liberating and terrifyingly brave, at the time, to write those words in the place where I live. And even though I wrote them edged in grace, and even though they resonated with the bulk of my evangelical readers, they wound up being read by my friend who is gay. And they angered and wounded her.
I invited her and her now wife to our wedding shortly after and never heard back from her.
Months passed, and finally, a message showed up in my email. She found the words and courage to share her anger and hurt with me. And while initially it stirred my defenses, as I sat with her voice, her words, they began to seep through those defensive places, right down to my heart.
Because, deep down, even though I was still formulating words and shifting beliefs, I knew she was right. I knew, on some level, I was wrong. But a change of belief that deeply ingrained does not happen in a wild jump, at least not for me. The most I could do was listen. Ask for forgiveness. Search out and read or listen to other stories told from the experience of what it's like to be gay, bisexual, transgender or queer in a world that has not largely been kind and receptive to these voices. Open my heart to the possibility of being wrong about homosexuality, of not having black and white answers, as I'd been taught.
I came to see, with a lot of time and wrestling, that I did not have to be confined or defined by the system of beliefs I'd grown up in. If I was no longer convinced, on this issue and others, these beliefs measured up with the ways of love, I could choose a different way. I could stand up and confess: I've been wrong.
* * * * *
It was right around the time that I decided I was done with traditional church and Evangelicalism that I had my first real taste, small as it was in comparison, to what it's like to be on the receiving end of a Christian friend's conditional love. My husband and I were called out by this friend on our lack of commitment in church attendance, among other things, in what was a very well-intentioned manner. But it reeked of judgment. It left this taste in my mouth: You are loved, insofar as we attend the same church and see eye-to-eye on things of a biblical nature. You are loved, insofar as your beliefs and who you are don't make me uncomfortable.
With all due respect, I wanted nothing more to do with this sort of love. I began to see myself as the one, unwittingly, however well-intentionally, spreading this gospel of love for so many years. With all due respect toward where I've come from, I wanted nothing more to do with propagating this manner of love.
It was here I began to see: intent does not trump impact. No matter how good someone's intentions are to love, if the impact is the opposite of love, then it is not truly love. It's just not.
No matter how much we protest that love is the driving force behind our theology, if the fruit (or impact) of any theology is alienation, insecurity, judgment, fear, minimization or reduction of a person, oppression or compartmentalization - it is not love. It's just not.
If our theology stems from words on a page - even pages we consider sacred - and yet is detached from relationship with the flesh-and-blood people whose realities we are taking a bold stance on, it is lifeless.
If our theology is not open to being shaped by the narratives of the ones who are not finding welcome in our communities of faith, it is stagnant.
* * * * *
This road has been long, my friends. I have scars to bear from the journey, and I have also been the one to leave scars on people's hearts. It has taken years of soul-searching, years of reading and listening and questioning and sitting in the unknown. It has taken laying down my defenses, laying down my limited understanding of scripture, laying down my need to be right, laying down my fears of the disapproval of others as my views have changed. It has taken forgiving myself and forgiving the Church, our great failures of love, and receiving forgiveness from one of the ones I've wounded. It has taken being on the receiving end of criticism, of judgment, of rejection, of losing friendships, of being misunderstood, for being true to who I am.
But I am here.
And I want to weep at the grace of it all, for truly I have never felt so freed to love as I do now. To know with a conviction that transcends the tits and tats of so many theological debates: love trumps all.
So I look forward to Pride week for the first time. To honoring the lives and stories, the joys and heartaches, of those I know and love in the LGBTQ community. I enter it with a sense of grief and profound gratitude, for the suffering they've endured, the victories gained. For the forgiveness I've been shown. For the freedom to walk together.
* * * * *
* The blog post in reference has since been deleted. Though it reflects my journey of transformation, I have no interest in causing additional pain to those it disrespects.
I've intentionally left out specifics of how my understanding and interpretation of passages in the bible regarding homosexuality have changed. That is beyond the purpose and scope of this post and has been much more articulately, thoughtfully addressed by people more qualified than myself. Like, actual LGBTQ people, and those who love them well. But here are a few good places I've found, if you're interested (because the best way to enter a conversation, I've found, is to open-heartedly listen):
Dan Bravo's "I'm gay. Other people are, too. Let's move forward."
Rachel Held Evan's "The false gospel of gender binaries"
Open letters between Heather and Vikki
An Evangelical pastor at his first Pride parade
The writings and mission of Soulforce