Sharing in Faith: A View From Both Sides
A year ago, at the ripe old age of 44, I was born again. I was caught off-guard; I wasn’t even going to church, or in the midst of a personal crisis. I wasn’t praying or studying Scripture.
Instead, over the course of several days, the Holy Spirit swept over me like a flood. The most disorienting part was my willingness to welcome God’s intervention in my heart, mind and soul. I’m a pragmatic and very responsible guy, and it’s hard for me to willingly give up control.
My story is unlikely. To some degree, I’ve always believed in God, but until last year I was fully convinced He wasn’t interested in speaking to people like me.
I was raised in rural North Carolina in the 1970s and early 1980s, in a thriving United Methodist church. By today’s standards, we weren’t a liberal congregation. We were all white, our pastor was male, and I never remember hearing the word “gay.” But the message from the pulpit was more about love than fear, so we became a safe haven for broken families who had suffered through divorce, for single mothers like my own and even for a few disillusioned hippies. Many services were standing-room-only.
I’m grateful to have grown up in that church, but I was, at best, a nominal Christian, so I was not wracked with guilt at the age of 17 when I finally admitted to myself that I was gay. And I didn’t fear for my soul, since my concept of sin was limited to the Golden Rule.
Even so, I never would have chosen to be gay — it only makes life harder, and I had no desire to marginalize myself. I don’t pretend to know what causes variations in sexual orientation and/or gender identity, yet my childhood could be a textbook case study: I never knew my father, my mother is very kind and loving, and I was a sensitive little bookworm. But I was never abused in any way; indeed no men ever paid me any attention, not even enough to teach me how to throw a baseball, how to stand up for myself or what it means to be a man. These things I had to learn on my own (although I still can’t throw a baseball).
When I was 17, I had never heard of the Serenity Prayer, but my intuition urged me to “change the things I can,” so I broke up with my high school girlfriend because to do anything else would have been unfair to her. It also seemed logical to “accept the things I cannot change,” so I made the joyless decision that if life gave me lemons, I’d better make lemonade. Luckily, my mother was cautiously supportive when I told her I was gay, and my extended family was politely tolerant.
Marriage was ‘irrelevant’
I came of age during the worst years of the AIDS crisis. Gay men — and plenty of other people — were dying and/or terrified, and as far as I could tell, Christians didn’t know how to respond and didn’t seem to care very much. After all, “those people” were unrepentant sinners.
I never gave my church the opportunity to reject or accept me because I walked away from them, and told them nothing. I considered asking our pastor for advice, but instead I dusted off my Bible and looked up a few key words, which led me to those verses everyone knows in Leviticus and Romans. God had always seemed distant, but at that point He became impossibly far away. Based on the little I knew, Jesus was simply a nice but naïve guy with great hair and a flowing robe. I closed my Bible, and didn’t open it again for 27 years.
Starting in college, I lived a totally secular life, and I sowed plenty of wild oats. I’ve never been much of an activist, but I had no reason to keep my sexual orientation a secret; in my world it simply wasn’t an issue. I did the best I knew how: I built a career for myself, maintained a good relationship with my family, and I eventually met a long-term partner. Although we split up six years ago, we still care for each other deeply. Now we’re simply close friends.
My former partner and I never even considered getting married because although we were committed to each other, owned a colonial home with a white picket fence and shopped at Whole Foods, we still saw ourselves as members of a subculture in which marriage was irrelevant.
For tax purposes and other legal reasons, we may have considered a civil union, but marriage per se seemed like an odd aspiration. As a religious covenant, it meant nothing to us; we weren’t men of faith. Plus, we had an outright aversion to raising children. We both survived the horrors of the AIDS years shell-shocked but thankful to be alive. Marriage seemed like unnecessary icing on the cake, a cause du jour of the new millennium.
I don’t claim we were typical in our attitudes. Marriage equality is of utmost importance to so many people, and it’s obviously a huge part of the most divisive issue in The United Methodist Church today. I support it as a civil right, but I think the term “civil union” should have been used, not “marriage.” That’s such a contentious word, and it puts everyone on the defensive.
However, the issue for the church is obviously not just a question of civil rights and semantics, and for Christian same-sex couples, the sacred covenant of marriage is much more than a civil contract. I respect their desire, and I do not question their sincerity.
I find myself deeply conflicted. A couple of years ago I moved back to my hometown to take care of my elderly mother. This was a major change for me, on many levels, and it took me away from the very liberal and secular world I’d been living in. Perhaps I shouldn’t be too surprised by my conversion last year.
I'm aware that there’s no zealot like a convert. I’ve spent a great deal of time over the last year reading the Bible, praying and trying to make up for many years of spiritual emptiness.
I have no words to adequately describe the peace I feel and the depth of God’s love I experience while reading Scripture. I don’t depend entirely on my intellect; I have to rely on my heart, and my growing faith. I don’t read the Bible with the goal of finding one verse or another that seems to reinforce my assumptions. I want to allow Scripture to shine God's light on me, not vice versa. I believe that I’ve been looking for my father my entire life, and over the last year I finally found Him.
I’m also learning about the myriad branches of theology, and I’m attempting to keep an open mind about the intertwined connection between politics and Christianity, as well as the internal politics of the United Methodist denomination. I’m personally disheartened by the deep divide and animosity between both sides of the debate around same-sex marriage and ordination, and I’ve come to understand that the two most overused words in Christendom are “apostasy” and “heresy.” And at times I feel like a traitor or a hypocrite for leaning toward the conservative side of this debate.
Caught in the middle
Last year, I returned to the same church where I grew up. The congregation is smaller and older, and less liberal than I remember, but they welcomed me back with open arms. I’ve committed myself to doing whatever I can to help our church. I understand that I need them, and I want them to need me. They’re good people, and they understand the Great Commission. I know I’m here for a reason.
I’ve made a conscious decision to be celibate. I’m not trying to avoid being labeled as a “practicing homosexual” (when I first read that term last year, I thought, “I don’t have to practice any more. By now I’m a professional.”). Instead, I’m allowing myself some holy space while sorting through what I believe about my own sexual orientation and the nature of sin.
I thought I had this all figured out long ago, but apparently not. For me, celibacy means embracing other men only in philia (brotherly love), not in eros (erotic love).
It’s easier to be celibate at 45 than at 20, but the thought of never falling in love again makes me sad. When I think of same-sex couples I know who have been together for 40 or 50 years (yes, they exist), I can’t imagine telling them they’re excluded from the Kingdom unless they commit to celibacy. How could anyone tell an 18-year-old that the only options are a lifetime of celibacy or marriage with an opposite-sex partner when that young person’s sexual (and affectional) orientation and/or gender identity clearly doesn’t align with the straight and narrow? Everyone faces difficult challenges, of many different kinds. Arguably, these challenges can be viewed as opportunities for people to become closer to God, but quandaries such as these are recipes for disaster. I don’t have the answers.
My long-time friends are a little worried about my sanity. They’ve made it clear they believe moving back to the rural hinterland has caused me to become a little delusional, or perhaps my “internalized homophobia” has emerged. Although no one blinks when I say that I’m a Methodist, they look at me with alarm when I call myself a Christian. A very smart and worldly woman I know recently exclaimed to me, “What are you doing down there? Come back to us!”
I’ve never had any desire to serve as a soldier in the culture wars, but now I sometimes feel as if I’m caught in between two armies on a battlefield, dodging bullets from both right and left. At those moments I stop, breathe and look toward heaven. The bullets keep coming, but when I pray, a dove descends, carrying an olive branch.
Elizabethtown, North Carolina
Posted June 5, 2015.