How Does One “Church” While Estranged?

Hey, all! Long time no see. I wrote the post below for the gay Christian blog Between Communities. You can check out the original post here. Thanks for reading!

I like doing things alone. When I have a whole day free, with no obligations planned with any friends, family, or coworkers, I feel giddy. “Maybe I can finally do some laundry,” I think. “Or I could flesh out that play idea I’ve been chewing on,” another neuron fires. And then I squeal out loud: “The new season of Stranger Things just came out!”

So, I waste a good couple of hours making breakfast and watching TV. Then doing laundry. Then twiddling on Instagram for forty minutes. But then, finally—the glorious moment: the door closed (maybe locked if I’m serious-serious), my laptop turned on, my notebook out, and my mind ready to pull out from my brain an incredible play, or blog, or whatever it is that I am wanting to write, and THEN…

Another hour passes and I’m staring at a blank screen.

“I can’t do this,” I lament to myself. “I don’t know what I’m doing.” Then I ponder, and the usual conclusion comes: “I guess I’ll just go ahead and grab that David Savran book where he interviews famous playwrights—maybe it’ll inspire me. Maybe they’ll teach me how to write.” Or: “I don’t know enough about what I want this play to be about. I better go ahead and Google everything about the history of fundamentalism in the United States.”

Spoiler alert, I still haven’t written that play.

I’ve approached my faith in this same, isolated way. When I don’t know what I’m doing (which is most of the time), I research. The past year and a half has been a whirlwind of library books, podcasts, Facebook articles, and tweets I’ve digested relating to the intersection of identities that I think is my end goal: being fully LGBTQ and fully Christian.

Some Background

I left my parent’s conservative evangelical church, the church for most of my childhood, shortly after starting high school. I was caught between the beliefs of my parents and my growing attraction to men, which both felt very natural to me. My mind was easily overwhelmed. I couldn’t tell which way was up, but I knew I was unwilling to repress my feelings. So—I threw the baby out with the bathwater and turned my back on church and God altogether. I was angry, and often thought, “Why would God do this to me?”

I labeled myself agnostic for a while and focused on what I could control: studying, memorizing lines, and my relationships with boys. I rolled my eyes when Jesus came up in conversation with my family. The memories of the connective out-of-body moments I experienced of God while on mission trips, camp retreats, and the occasional Sunday morning worship services were blacked out from my mind. I found a haven in theatre and college, where I felt I could be openly honest and happy about who I am. However, it was never fully enough. A fundamental piece of me was missing, and all I could do at the time was write religion off as something that parents teach their kids so they turn into moral, socially-conscious, “good” citizens.

That may have been my teenage, self-assured-self talking. But now I’m not so sure.

Introspection—Good? Or Bad?

Today, I’m out of school, living in New York City with my boyfriend, and clueless about what kind of life I want to live. I know I’m gay (my RuPaul’s Drag Race addiction proves it), I know I’m a writer/artist, and I know I’ve been raised with conservative, middle-class, Christian values. How do I move forward from here?

Is developing my spirituality in isolation by looking “inside myself” the proper way to connect with God?

This is where being an introspective person comes in handy. It’s important to press pause and take stock of your life. I know I’m young, and that my values and opinions will change over time, but I think it’s a good thing to know where you stand at any given point. And if you find that you don’t know what you want or what you believe to be true—that’s okay! That is why I have been and will continue to be a sponge during this time of spiritual transition. Research, research, research!

I’ve discovered role models in Anne Lamott, Madeleine L’Engle, and C.S. Lewis—all writers and all Christians. I’ve read Matthew Vines’ God and the Gay Christian, Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology by Patrick S. Cheng, and countless LGBTQ stories and memoirs about being gay in a Christian context such as Garrard Conley’s Boy Erased: A Memoir. I’ve followed gay Christian organizations on social media, listened to their podcasts, and watched their webinars on sexuality and faith.

I have found footing in my research far and wide, and have begun to slowly build the foundation of my personal theology. It’s a work in progress, but it’s a path forward. And that’s something! But—is it enough?

C.S. Lewis writes in his memoir Surprised by Joy that introspection “is in one respect misleading. In introspection we try to look ‘inside ourselves’ and see what is going on. But nearly everything that was going on a moment before is stopped by the very act of our turning to look at it. Unfortunately this does not mean that introspection finds nothing. On the contrary, it finds precisely what is left behind by the suspension of all our normal activities; and what is left behind is mainly mental images and physical sensations. The great error is to mistake this mere sediment or track or by-product for the activities themselves.”

And this gets me thinking—is developing my spirituality in isolation by looking “inside myself” the proper way to connect with God? Or am I missing something about the character of God by doing so? If that’s the case, I fear my introspection finds only “mere sediment or track” of belief, not belief itself—just like the intense analysis of the artistic process inhibits my ability to write. I’ve always been told I think too much.

Matthew 18:20 says “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” What about one?

Questions and More Questions

I haven’t been an active part of a community of believers since I was fifteen, and that was my parent’s church—not my own. I haven’t been baptized, but I have taken communion. I didn’t go through confirmation, but I did accept Jesus Christ as my savior when I was in junior high. Does any of that matter?

How do I jump back into a community that is typically disagreeable, if not hostile, to what I consider an irrefutable part of who I am?

The context of my spiritual journey cannot be separated from my journey coming to terms with my sexuality. Like many churchgoers, I was raised in the Christian church and I understand how it works—the rituals, the culture, and the belief system. However, unlike many churchgoers, I came out as LGBT and fully separated myself from the church for a span of nearly ten years. I like to think that my social awkwardness, shyness, and introverted-whatever-you-want-to-call-it is something that everyone can relate to, but these qualities in my personality are heightened as a consequence of my LGBT-affirming identity. How do I jump back into a community that is typically disagreeable, if not hostile, to what I consider an irrefutable part of who I am?

(Fill in your own answer here—because I don’t have one.)

Galatians 6:2 calls us to “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” Hebrews 10 tells us to “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some [that feels like a personal attack], but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”

Being in community with God seems intertwined with being in community with His followers. When one person falls short, a community can offer guidance and support. That much is clear to me. But the fact of my isolation remains—how does one overcome that?

Baby Steps

If the last year and a half since I’ve graduated college have taught me anything, it’s that things take time—relationships, careers, and faith, too. It takes months and years for inklings to grow into desires, for ideas to transform into values, and words to transform into action. It’s okay to take it slow if the thought of jumping into something new gives you mental and emotional anxiety. Church is included in this. Don’t rush if you feel like you’re not ready.

Do research, see what churches are in your area. See if there are any videos or audio recordings of sermons, or if the congregation has a social media presence. Being LGBTQ, you will want to know if a church is affirming of your sexuality before you attend. It’s up to you if a non-affirming community is a deal-breaker for you—consider your emotional health above all. That’s not to say that you should be afraid of being uncomfortable or unwilling to be challenged for your beliefs, but when you’re LGBTQ and starting a new faith and church journey, there’s wisdom in prioritizing your ability to feel safe, loved, and respected.

I think an important question to ask yourself as you begin this new step in your spiritual life is this: Why am I doing this?

It may be because you miss the sense of community you felt in church when you were young. It may be because you are struggling in your faith and are seeking role models. Or, it simply may be because you feel lost and you want to find some solid ground.

We have several competing ideologies that alter and shape our world-view, and our society is increasingly pluralistic.

That last reason rings true for me. I have felt lost after leaving my faith practice, especially during the crucial transformative years of high school. If living a fulfilling Christ-seeking life is anything at all like a puzzle, I feel as if my upbringing and junior high years in youth group have left me with several solid pieces of good spiritual practice. But since I stopped attempting to put them together and build off them, I’m left with a floor scattered with 50 or so haphazard pieces, with the other 4,950 hiding in the furniture or potentially eaten by the cat.

Being a Christ-follower in the modern world is difficult to say the least. We have several competing ideologies that alter and shape our world-view, and our society is increasingly pluralistic. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the LGBTQ culture and its relationship to Christian communities. Living fully in both these groups raises some tough questions and serious conflicts. And this is where a community that is centered on Christ and his teachings can be most impactful, one that has an open heart and an open mind.

Without a doubt, the best answer to my previous question “Why am I doing this?” is because God wants us to. He calls us to His way of seeing, and the purpose He intended for us. Perhaps that purpose is fulfilled by living on the margins of social norms, perhaps it is fulfilled by engaging with people who you don’t understand.

Either way—I don’t think we can find out the answer alone.

Seeing God in his face

Today is Monday, September 18, 2017.

Nicholas and I met during my freshman year at Baldwin Wallace University in Ohio. We were in the same Intro to Theater class and were playing an icebreaker game for the first session. There was a blue ball that was passed around, and whoever had it introduced themselves and then passed it on to another person in the circle. It was Nick’s turn with the ball. He said his name, as was required, and then immediately locked eyes with me. Soon the ball was in my hands.

We started dating on Tuesday, September 18, 2012.

One of the first things we had in common was music. I thought I was the only person in the universe who knew an Imogen Heap song besides “Hide and Seek,” but was (happily) proven wrong. Marina and the Diamonds was another shared love, as was No Doubt. I remember sitting in my dorm room and swapping artists we liked, only to discover the other person loved them too. It was a simple thing, but it got the butterflies going.

The two of us getting ready for one of our best friend’s wedding.

We spent a lot of time alone, “studying.” Nick and I both enjoyed our solitude, and we could be quite reserved socially. I know I’ve said before that I was a precocious child, but I mellowed out once I got to college. I tended to spend time with people individually, as opposed to groups. Since Nick was similar, it only made it easier for us to be together. I remember our early days being filled with talking and more talking–about everything.

Nick likes to talk. A lot.

Don’t get me wrong, I talk, too–but Nick talks. Sometimes, when he’s on a roll, I’ll just slowly tiptoe out of the room and hope he doesn’t notice (he’s going to roll his eyes when he reads that).

Because of all the talking (wink), I quickly noticed we had some differences in how we spoke. While I was raised in Northeast Ohio, Nick grew up around Dayton–basically two separate worlds. The Northeast, home to Akron and Cleveland, is more hilly terrain and was once known as having “no accent” or a “General American” accent. Southern Ohio, however, veers more towards farmland, and definitely has aspects of Southern or Hoosier accent. I was raised with this “generalized” accent, and so was Nick–mostly. There are key words that he would pronounce different than me, and I always went out of my way to smugly point them out (since, you know, my accent is correct).

For example, “cement.” I put the emphasis on the second syllable, i.e. ce-ment, and pronounce the initial “e” like the “i” sound in “it.” This is the only pronunciation I’ve ever heard, but Nicholas pronounces it “see“-ment, and puts the emphasis on the first syllable. He didn’t even notice the difference until I said something!

However, that pales in comparison to the chasm that exists between us on the word “ornery.” I (again, the obvious correct one) pronounce it “or-nuh-ree” with a long “o” sound, which is how Merriam-Webster pronounces it. Nick, on the other hand, pronounces it “ahn-ree” with a long “a” sound as in “ah.” It’s weird, and does not make any sense. Ah!

That’s when I felt this nudge–an unexplainable small feeling. It told me, in whatever strange cosmic gut-way, that this is right.

I apologize, I digress.

All that being said, we have more in common than we are different.

In particular, we share a similar background of a family focused on faith, who attend church, and who identify themselves as Christians. Nick, who had barely even come out as gay when we first met, adamantly believed that his sexuality doesn’t interfere with his faith–that he could be both gay and Christian. What a concept to me at the time! The strength of his conviction struck me.

That’s when I felt this nudge–an unexplainable small feeling. It told me, in whatever strange cosmic gut-way, that this is right on multiple levels: 1) that Nick is somebody I didn’t want to lose, 2) that God was there, with me, in that moment, and 3) that God was not judging me, but nudging me this way, to this man in particular.

We’ve been long-distance on and off since that first September Tuesday–I studied abroad for a semester, he moved to New York a year before me–and we’ve remained strong. Sure, we have had our ups and downs. But each time a barrier seemed to get in the way, and we thought about calling it quits, the fear that we were leaving something worth more than petty disagreements persisted. We couldn’t escape that we were in something that was meaningful and true.

Living together in New York has been an adventure all of its own. Nick and I have been faced with the arduous task of finding space for all of our stuff in one less-than-ideally-sized bedroom (under-the-bed storage saves lives). And we’ve also quickly learned that patience is key to dealing with each other’s needs and quirks (Him: leaving his underwear on the floor, Me: being anally-retentive about closet space). But I wouldn’t change it for the world. We’ve claimed a little nook of the city and named it as our own.

Credit: Grace McC Photography

I continually feel that we’re being nudged closer and closer together each day. Maybe this can work? Maybe this is what God wants for me? What does it all mean?

Well, I’m still figuring that out.

But for now, I sense that it means that I have spent the last five years of my life in a relationship with a wonderful human, and that I have many more to look forward to.

Happy anniversary, babe.

Flipping the bird to the Big Guy (a downside of being a drama kid)

I’ve always been a bit of a drama queen.

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I was quite a precocious child in certain ways. I was loud, obnoxious, and emotional. I was knighted by my second grade teacher as “Sir Talks A Lot,” which I ended up finding annoying, so I threw a fit about it and got my student teacher in trouble.

At one of my friend’s sleepover birthday parties, his father was trying to get us all to quiet down and go to sleep. He warned that the next boy to talk would be forced to wear a sparkly red dress he pulled out of the closet. I, of course, being the snot that I was, screamed. His father handed me the dress, but I defiantly refused. He backed off. Then I rushed forward, grabbed it from his hands, and went to the bathroom to change.

Like I said, dramatic.

When I was a wee tot, I played baby Jesus during a church nativity play. Obviously my path forward would include acting in plays and musicals in school. I was attracted to the limelight, and I had a narcissistic joy when I was the focus of attention. I liked being in charge, and I liked being bold, which led to the crowning role of drama club president my senior year of high school.

This part of me was tempered, to a degree, by my parents’ upbringing: to be kind to others, to take responsibility for my actions, and to love God.

Church was a large part of my life up until high school. I mostly attended because of my parents’ beliefs and their rules, but that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it. We attended a megachurch in Akron, Ohio called “The Chapel” for about the first half of my childhood. From what I remember, The Chapel was a huge building with many, many hallways and rooms that one could get lost in. My mother sang in the choir. My oldest brother and father attended many missions trips, from Greece to Mexico. I attended Camp Carl, a summer Christian camp that the church runs, and I also did vacation bible school.

Because of the longer commute and some organizational changes, my parents eventually decided to switch churches, opting for a sister branch of The Chapel called Riverwood Community Chapel in Kent, Ohio. Riverwood is much smaller than its “sister,” but my parents quickly became involved–my mom in the Sunday school classes and my dad in the youth ministry. I made many friends there, several of whom were also my schoolmates. As I moved up to junior high, I attended youth group and went on two missions trips to Memphis, Tennessee.

Me, giving testimony at Calvary Rescue Mission in Memphis, TN ca. 2008

On my first trip to Memphis, I had a “born again” experience in Christ. I talked briefly about this in my last post, but it’s hard for me to fully remember and grasp what that experience was. I can analyze it over and over, and come to quick conclusions such as it was just me “fooling myself,” “playing into it,” or “doing what my parents’ would want.” However, those would be shallow interpretations. During that moment, the “born again” moment, I felt something moving in me, and calling me to something “higher.” It was not my usual dramatic flair. It was a grounded feeling, a feeling of understanding, but also–joy.

Coupled with this elation, I was constantly battling my attraction to men. This manifested itself as a deep shame that I kept shoving further and further inside myself. I told one of my youth group counselors that I “felt sad a lot,” and that I was “falling away from Christ.” This led to my spiritual re-commitment on the second Memphis trip one year later. Perhaps I thought I could bury my desire so far down that the Holy Spirit couldn’t sense it?

My sense for grand, bombastic, life-or-death scenarios got the better of me during freshman year of high school. While on the one hand I felt this natural, strong connection to God, on the other, I felt the pulling of my equally-natural and equally-strong desire for men. I tended to see the forces as black-and-white–one was evil, one was good. I felt a decision had to be made between the two. Whether this was imposed on me or self-inflicted, I cannot say for sure (more on that in future posts), but without a doubt my Drama Queen-ness forced me to choose one over the other.

While I would like to avoid too many details, there came a day when my parents discovered a boy I was hanging out with identified as gay, and they confronted me about it. They were wary of his intentions. In the heat of the moment, my emotions got the better of me and I half-coherently blurted out “What if I was gay!?” and stormed off. My parents, stunned, went to the back porch to deliberate, and I slammed my bedroom door, looked up at the ceiling with tears streaming down my face, and said “Fuck you” to the Big Guy in the Sky.

Again: dramatic.

I haven’t attended church regularly since that time. For the past eight years most of my focus has been spent on school, work, and my relationships. While the experience I had in Memphis never left me, I have not felt fully balanced in a long time. I think that is where this desire, this yearning comes from. I am only fully myself when all parts of me are given attention to and fed, and this imposed dichotomy of sexuality-vs-belief that has separated me from my faith has hindered me in innumerable ways. Frankly, I’m quite tired of it.

I think it’s time to make another bold move and tear down the “dichotomy” all together.