emarkthomas

Trying to live love well through the power of the Everlasting.

Monthly Archives: March 2012

I’d Have No Faith Without My Sexuality

In the fall of 2003, my father dropped me off at Roberts Wesleyan College. After a brief stop at the bookstore to ensure that I had my textbooks and every form of Roberts clothing item the store offered, Dad took his leave and I blinked a few times, trying to comprehend what was happening. Somehow, in a way that didn’t quite make sense to me, I’d found myself here, and I couldn’t quite make the pieces work.

As a senior, I knew that college was the next step. As a Christian teenager, I thought that I was expected to attend a Christian school. My older brother had attended Houghton, several of my friends were already at Christian schools, and several of my peers were considering Christian universities. I didn’t really want to go to a Christian school, because I had a big secret: I was a fraud.

Yep, I didn’t really believe it. I grew up in the church and I knew how to say all the right things to evoke all the right responses, but I wasn’t sold on any of it. One of the biggest reasons why was because at the age of 14 (roughly) I found myself becoming sexually active with the boy next door, and that had confused me. My parents and Christian community had shielded me fairly well, and I wasn’t even really sure what was going on. I had a theoretical understanding of “gay” from attending a public school, but really I was clueless. And the little I did think I understood had to do with one thing: doing that meant going there. Yeah, you know what I mean. Hell.

So after some months my parents caught on to what was happening, and they put a definite stop to it. We prayed, and everything was supposed to be fine. It wasn’t, and I knew it, and so I believe (honestly) that I hitched the veracity of my faith to the status of my sexuality. Christians aren’t gay, gays go to hell, and so if I was earnest or a real believer then God would… I don’t know… fix it. Right?

Nights turned to weeks, months, and years and many of them found me exactly the same: sobbing into my pillow or staring blankly out the window, deep into the night, trying to figure out what was wrong with me. The Left Behind series was in its prime, and I became obsessed with being a  genuine believer. I did not want to wake up one morning and realize that I’d missed the Rapture, and I knew that if it happened I would miss it, because I still found Justin Timberlake extremely attractive and couldn’t even bring myself to entertain the idea of thinking about girls. Also, I had watched (like, a thousand times) that scene in “Dude, Where’s My Car” where Ashton Kutcher and Seann William Scott make out  and just couldn’t get it out of my head. Because I liked it.

But I wasn’t, you know, gay.

There was just a problem that Jesus would fix as soon as I really, truly, honestly believed. When my faith was sufficient. You know.

As the years went on the guilt and shame became obsessive, and the deadening sorrow carved out more and more of me. I didn’t realize it, but I fully believe that I was in an extremely deep state of depression. My drive to become a true believer and shake all this off had carried me to a Christian school, and now there I was. Except one problem: I had fully imagined Jesus fixing me by the time college actually arrived.

I wasn’t fixed, I couldn’t possibly be a believer, and I was at college.

Things were a mess.

They only snowballed from there, and a bad habit of lying (gee, I wonder where that could have started?) became an addiction; a way of life. Instead of merely lying to cover up my sexuality, I now lied about practically everything – even if it didn’t matter. It’s no wonder that I don’t really have many friends left from my college years… I was a monster. Seriously.

I lied to myself  (convincingly) and had myself fooled into thinking that God and I were fine, and that I wasn’t gay, not at all! It was just a phase thing, and soon enough I would grow into women, and into my faith, and boy howdy life was going to be great when that happened!

Except it never did. What did happen was that my lies were exposed as such, and I lost nearly all my friends. At the same time, my sexuality was exposed, and let me tell you… at a Christian college, that’s a big deal. I don’t care how liberal and accepting it’s supposed to be; LGBTs at a Christian school are still outside the norm, and that really rocks the boat.

Life was wretched, and I knew that a great deal of it was my fault, and I couldn’t deal anymore. And then, to top it all off, Death swept in like a gypsy and stole away two friends of mine within 18 months of one another.

I quite literally couldn’t function any longer. I stopped practically everything – including my studies – and became a hollow shell of the person I once was. And he wasn’t all that great to begin with.

It was at the wake of my friend Jilian that something happened. A young, wonderful couple named Ryan and Carrie pulled me aside and said, “We don’t care if you’re gay. We don’t. We want you to come over, and we want to  get to know you.” I couldn’t understand why, but they were reaching out to me. And they spent a good solid year loving on me when I didn’t deserve it. They poured into me all that they had, and they paid some very dear prices for it. It was through this couple, and examining the last year of Jilian’s life with them, that I began to realize that something was amiss, and it was God-centered.

You see, we were all Christians. But these people, and from what I could tell, Jilian too, at the end, they were… well, different. Crazy different. Stupid different. Paying-a-very-dear-price-to-do-things-that-just-didn’t-make-sense different. And I noticed. And it was attractive. It was fantastic. It was beautiful. So I developed a theory: either these types of Christians were just insane, or they were tapped into something that the vast majority of Christianity was missing.

So I put God to the test with my theory, and I literally prepared for a last-chance-test. I withdrew from school and enrolled in a semester-long discipleship course. If there really was something to this God that I’d grown up believing in, he’d show up. If Jilian and Ryan and Carrie weren’t crazy, then God was at work, and he’d show up.

I don’t know why I had faith in that, after he so clearly hadn’t un-gayed me, but I was going to give it a shot. I think I really was expecting to come out of the semester convinced that Christianity was a lovely thought, I guess, but like communism was just a joke. Looking back, I recognize that I was preparing for the moment when I justified dropping my faith to my parents by saying I literally tried everything. That’s really where I expected to end up, and, being there, I would finally have sorted out the mess of my sexuality: I’d be gay, and any problems with that would be chalked up to the mess of religion left in my mind, junk to be swept out of the way to make room for, I don’t know… whatever kind of life gay people lead, I guess. I’d find out soon enough, right?

But that wasn’t what happened at all. The Holy One showed up with more power and passion and life than I could ever have imagined. He radically reoriented my life, and infused my soul with the gospel. The Spirit of the Living God blasted open many doors, and junk came flooding out. I walked away from that semester -still gay – but a gay Christian. A man reconciled in his sexuality and his faith.

Now there was still a helluva lot of junk left in me – habits that break hard. I’m not proud to say that the worst of my sins came after the discipleship program. My deceit, my horrible lack of love, my abuse of people and trust… it all came to a head later. I’m still working through a lot of that, but thank God that he’s big enough to handle that. But unwavering from that time is the belief that I am gay, that I believe God made me that way, and for a very good reason.

Recently I was having a conversation with a friend who was amazed at the level of theological knowledge I had packed away inside of me. I’ve never been to seminary, and I’m not claiming to be anything extraordinary, but I do know that my story led me to pursue all I could find theologically about sexuality and faith. And my struggle with my sexuality and my faith was what fueled me to continue going, even when all other motivations were gone.

She was also amazed at the depth of emotional control I had. She couldn’t fathom comprehending “enemies” like I apparently do in her eyes. She is angry at Christians that I am not, upset that they could think and act towards myself and so many other LGBT people as they do. I explained that, having come from their camp myself, I have a unique ability – forged in the Lord’s fire of trials and mercy – to know where they’re coming from, and to love them even though they may not be able to love me. Not that I’m perfect or even impressive, I told her, but just that in this specific part of life, I was solid. Consistent. Purified through fire, and able to stand confidently and firmly in love through whatever was thrown my way.

It was in striving for an answer regarding my sexuality and the Holy One that false gospels like the fear of missing the Rapture peeled away. False gospels like treating human beings as anything less than the most treasured possession of the Most Holy, Everlasting God. These were unable to stand in the face of the real good news. It was through the search for an answer to my gayness that I learned about the Kingdom of Heaven, and the love of my Papa, the ability to listen to the Spirit and allow the Living God to transform me into a better agent of his Kingdom, and so much more.

And it hit me: I am grateful that everything happened this way. I didn’t think I would ever say that, but I am so very grateful. Because now, while my life still may not be what I imagined, I am secure in who I am, and who my Father is. Through the paths he walked with me, I have been forged into an articulate, informed, passionate believer in the Kingdom of Heaven. I stand firm at a witness to the gospel of the Living God, and living and loving well to bring that to earth today. All the prayer, articles, meetings, books, ridiculing, conferences, belittling, and manipulating that anyone has ever done in order to get me to “embrace Jesus and turn from homosexuality” had led to this: they have sharpened me and unwittingly delivered me into the Father’s hands as a confident,  gay Christian man.

The exact opposite of their intent, but I think probably exactly what God intended.

Without my sexuality, I would have no faith.

Without my weaknesses, I would have had no conflict.

Without my struggles with faith and conflict, I’d have no story worth telling.

And I’m just one man!

Imagine the generation that is coming! Countless LGBT Christian youths being sharpened and delivered – much like Joseph – through trial and hardships, each level intended to break us, but each level being used by God to forge us into educated, confident members of the body of Christ.

My prayer is that, like Joseph, we can remember mercy and use our power and position for reconciliation and to save many lives, to the glory of the Holy One and his Kingdom.

Advertisements

An Unexpected Occurence Poses a Serious Question: Can a gay Christian date casually?

I was having a rather splendid moment this afternoon at work. My friend Jess and her daughter Johnni came to visit me, and we were laughing and talking about our days. It was a slow period and there were no customers, so we had some time to ourselves. Then the phone rang, and my sister Molly (who works there with me) answered it. With an unexplained look of intense curiosity, she handed me the phone whispering, “I think it’s JT*.” *Not his real name.
 
I was a bit taken aback; JT is an old friend from childhood. We’d been very close for years, and then I’d thrown him under the bus in high school to protect what little popularity I had, as well as to distance myself and protect my dreadful secret: I might – just might – be gay.
 
Wasn’t sure, mind you, but there was reason to doubt my heterosexuality, and JT could have been the, ah, star witness at that trial. You see, JT was the literal boy-next-door, and our teenage years and shared lives led to a bit of experimentation. Enough to say that my parents found out, forbade me any further contact with JT, and led me in a prayer casting out the demon of homosexuality.
 
Which was oh-so-effective, obviously.
 
Anyway, that’s all water under the bridge. My parents did the best they knew how to do at the time with the best of intentions, and thankfully we’re way past that now.
 
I hesitated for a second, and then spoke into the phone. We had a pleasant and short conversation, in which he asked if I ever had any free time. I told him I had Mondays and Tuesdays off, Jess loudly corrected that I did indeed have Tuesdays off, but I belonged to the Andrews family on those nights from now on. I laughed and told JT that any Monday I would potentially be free. He asked me if I’d like to go out and grab some coffee or something, and I said I would love to. I hung up and was surprised to see both Jess and Molly staring at me, wide-eyed.
 
“Was that… JT?” Molly asked, just to clarify.
 
“Yeah. He wanted to go out for coffee.”
 
Molly and Jess exchanged girl glances far beyond my ability to read, and then they launched into a rapid-fire explanation of what had actually just happened, but I had been too dense to comprehend.
 
“Did you know that he broke up with his boyfriend! That means…”
 
“…and yeah, they’re broken up, so he was probably…”
 
“You just got asked out…”
 
“And didn’t even know it!”
 
I blinked a few times, and then everything rushed into place as my eyes widened with the all-too-probable truth. To fully grasp the concept, I’ll have to fill you in on a few little things. You see, JT is the son of my bosses. Yep. So I’d been running into him off and on for the last several months, and we’d slowly walked our way out of that awkward I-was-totally-an-ass-to-you-in-high-school phase and into a more civil tone in which we could both chit-chat for a few minutes before going on our way. Since I work with his parents every day, I figured I would have heard about JT’s breakup. I didn’t. Apparently, Molly did. Somehow Jess did too. But that little piece of information his parents chose to keep from me.
 
And then, this phone call, and a request to meet for coffee. The ladies and I reasoned that if he was simply looking to re-build an old friendship then he could have started doing so months ago. It was much more probable, they were sure, that he was looking for a casual date. Just a quick coffee thing, to test the waters – on multiple levels. For him, it’d probably be an easing of the way back into the dating pool. For us, it’d be a chance to see just where we were and where we might be. Nothing too serious, just a casual date.
 
I scrunched up my eyebrows in confusion and slowly let the logic work its way through before conceding that such a turn of events could be one of many possible reasons for the phone call I’d just experienced. I shrugged, Jess had a quick laugh at my cluelessness, and we moved on.
 
But as the day continued, and my sister and I talked more about it, I began to think more seriously about things. Sure, it’s entirely possible that we’re reading way too much into things, and it’s really only coffee with an old friend. But even if that’s what it is, the situation still brought to my mind a question that now burned in my conscious thoughts: What do I do about dating?
 
It’s a thought I’ve had before, for sure, but I always put it off, reasoning that it was a scenario so far into the future that I figured I’d just cross that bridge when I came to it. But now, it’s possible that “it’ may be here far before I’m ready, and I don’t know what to do.
 
On the one level, I know that I’m looking for a partner. I really am. I’m a hopeless romantic, I’m fairly lonely, and I’m a sucker for a cute guy with a lopsided grin. I’m looking – albeit in the future in my mind – for a guy that really loves the Holy One and loves others well. Not someone perfect, but someone gloriously human that embraces the Father and his Kingdom. Someone with whom I can build a future together as agents of that Kingdom. Someone with whom I can share a life as equals, loving each other (yep, I’m gonna go there!) as Christ loves the Church.
 
I want that. I pray for that guy, and for that day when I meet him. I often despair of that day ever coming to pass because, well, I live in a tiny town far away from any major population centers. The Christian community up here is fairly conservative, and so the pool of gay Christian guys (who are okay with it) is really, really small. Meaning, so far I’m the only one I know of within a 200 mile radius.
 
Yeah. I get lonely a lot.
 
Anyway. Then there are days that I’m thankful I’m located here, and I think that maybe I’m in this time and place for a reason. Perhaps I’ve got some growning to do, and perhaps so do my family and friends. Maybe we’re not ready, as a Christian community, for Ethan to have a boyfriend. Maybe God’s got me here because he doesn’t want me to have a boyfriend just now. You see how the thought process goes here? Yeah.
 
All of those thoughts and the inner dialogues they sparked all came rushing into my mind this afternoon, and I thought… Oh boy. So… what do I do if a guy asks me out to coffee?
 
Truth is, I don’t know. I don’t have a clue. So here’s what I plan to do:
 
I plan to go. I mean, what if it’s just me reading into things? So I’m gonna go. Coffee could just be coffee. But during that coffee time, I’ll try and discern what’s happening. Is it a date? Is it a casual testing-of-the-waters-to-see-if-there-could-be-a-date date? When I get the feel of what’s going on, I’ll be a bit better prepared, and can go from there.
 
So my answer to can this gay Christian boy date casually?
 
Sure, if what that means is going out to coffee to spend some time getting to know each other better and determine just who we each are and what we each think is happening. But continuing down a path that I don’t see any real future with? No, no I can’t do that. It wouldn’t be fair to him. It wouldn’t be fair to me. 
 
So if a guy calls me and asks me out to coffee, I’ll go, I’ll smile and be myself, I’ll pay for my own coffee, and I’ll chat with him. I’ll go out to coffee a thousand times with a thousand guys, if asked, but if you’re looking for coffee to turn into something else, well, that’s a whole different arena.
 
Cause you see…
 
I’m not really interested in casual dating. The amount of turmoil it would bring to friends and family would just not be worth it. Casual dating would be, I think, causing brothers and sisters to stumble. My community and their beliefs? Yeah, it’d be unnecessarily stirring up a whole lotta trouble. It’d be forcing my sexuality upon them, in a way, and I firmly believe that love doesn’t force. Love asks, and is gentle.
 
I am interested in getting to know someone and advancing into dating if it’s clear that the foundation of the potential relationship is the Father and his Kingdom. I don’t mean that to sound elitist or arrogant, but quite honestly: I am not my own. Now here’s a kicker for the Christian community: I’m not averse to his relationship with the Father looking or sounding different than I may be used to. It may take me by surprise, and then again it may not. Who knows? But I do know that the Kingdom looks an awful lot like chains of injustice being loosened, poverty being defeated, and the forgotten and voiceless being raised up. It looks like humanity being valued, like time and materials being poured out like a drink offering. It looks like love, patience, peace, joy, kindness, gentleness, patience, goodness and self-control. So if I’m seeing that in a guy, I don’t care by what name he’s calling Papa. I’d be open to getting to know him better to see what could be, or what could not be.
 
I know that when (if?) I find a guy like that, and we start to realize, “Hey… you know what this looks like? This looks like we’re, you know. a couple.” Well then, I believe that dating him – publicly and proudly – isn’t really causing brothers and sisters to stumble, but instead asking them to grow. I get that some of them may not be able to, and I won’t try to force it. I’ll leave it in the hands of the God who is big enough to handle all things, and look forward to a reconciliation some day. I’ll strive to love and live well, and to show the Church the fruits of a gospel-powered gay romance, and how it’s no different (really) than the gospel-powered romances they experience. I’ll kindly ask for the grace needed when I fail to do that, too.
 
And hopefully one day, that gospel-powered gay romance will burst forth into a covenant of marriage.
 
Oh, I really hope that. I really do.
 
 

Getting to know my neighbors… again.

There’s a family in my small town that I’ve known all my life. The two youngest kids were just about my age (one a few years older, one a year younger) and we went to school together. They live – literally – across the road from one of our corn fields. They’re wonderful.

Roughly nine months ago or so, I was picking corn for dinner. The corn wasn’t quiteready to sell at our produce stand yet, but there was enough for our family. I realized that if I gave it a good throw, I’d be able to land an ear of corn in their lawn. It suddenly dawned on me that I should probably take an armload across the road for the Andrews family. I did. Mrs. Andrews wasn’t there, but I got to talk to both Cat and Jess, the sisters I knew from childhood, and see Jess’s beautiful daughter. I walked back to the corn field with a heart bursting with happiness.

Cat called me up a few weeks later and asked me to apply for a job where she works as a pharmacist. I didn’t get the job, but it jolted me back into relationship with these wonderful people. My friends and neighbors.

I realized that it had literally been *years* since I’d talked to them. Sure, I always waved from across the road or as I drove by the house… but that was it.

It started slowly. Fall came, and I brought a few pumpkins over. Then some apple cider. We had a Family Fun Day at the farm, and rented a cotton candy machine. I grabbed a few bags and off to the Andrews’ I went.

Winter came, and Jess called to invite me to go sledding. It was phenominal fun. So was the next time, and the next.

Jess and I caught a movie last week, and had a blast. The other night we boiled maple syrup, and I brought a quart of it over.

And stood in their kitchen for an hour and talked and talked.

Tonight I spent a fantastic night with Jess, just talking and watching television. Our conversation went deep, and we started sharing life with one another. It was… excellent.

Beyond excellent.

I was blessed. Really blessed. And I think Papa was smiling.

I know I was.

A Deep Breath, If Only for a Moment

I broke through some sort of invisible barrier this morning, and drew in a deep breath of clear, crisp air that I once had in abundance. It happened out of the blue; I was flipping through the display on my Kindle Fire and happened to pause as I saw a book pass by. I tapped it, and it opened. I read, randomly, the following:

We may have no idea what road the person standing before us has walked. Your mother may have never had the luxury of a new couch. Or she might simply be unaccustomed to giving a compliment because she has rarely heard one. The cashier may work three jobs, take care of two kids, and have a splitting headache. Or he might simply be slow. Your boss may have stayed up all night working on sales figures for her boss. Or she might simply be disorganized.

Grace moves us to love people even when they disappoint us and sin against us. It moves us to love people even when circumstances are ugly and messy. Gracious love can feel hard and often unfair. Others may not deserve our love. Others may not earn our love. God could say the same about us.

There is no need to hoard God’s love or parcel it out with caution. Love, as the first fruit of the Spirit, transforms our affection so that, in the words of Frederick Buechner, “little by llttle compassionate love begins to change from a moral exercise, from a matter of gritting our teeth and doing our good deed for the day, into a joyous, spontaneous, self-forgetting response to the most real aspect of all reality, which is that the word is holy because God made it and so is every one of us as well.”

-LifeSpace: The practice of life with God by Joni Grace Powers and Robert Pyne

I didn’t read the passage in context. I just started reading the first place my eyes fixed on the screen. As I kept going, a familiar rush spread through me. I’d not felt the Spirit of the Living God like this in months. Literally. Ah! The beauty and wonder and power of the moment floored me. My haughty spirit crushed, my comfortable arrogance and routine demolished.

I whispered to Papa that I was sorry for hoarding his love. I put the Kindle down and went about my day as the air quickly thinned and my lungs once again kept gasping for breath.

But not even the thin air could shake the feeling in my chest that my Papa hasn’t forgotten me.

He’s got me. I’ll be so much more than fine.

I’ll thrive again when it’s time.

Thanks, Papa.