Sanctuary for Sinners

MondayMusingsIn this week’s Monday Musings, I want to share with you about a book I’ve been reading. Oriented to Faith: Transforming the Conflict over Gay Relationships is written by Tim Otto, a gay, LGBTQ affirming Christian who has personally made a public vow of celibacy.  Tim is a pastor at the Church of the Sojourners, a live-together Christian community in San Francisco.

In the first chapter of Tim’s book (which you can preview here), Tim shares about his life growing up as a missionary-kid in Uganda, and moving back to the U.S. at the age of eight.  He speaks of his growing awareness of his same-sex attractions through his adolescent years, and of bullying and unintentional unkindnesses experienced from friends which kept him closeted, trying very hard to “act straight and cover up any evidence of being gay.”

In a moment of weakness, Tim recounts entering an adult bookstore in college, responding to a proposition from a stranger, and the regret, depression, despair, and suicidal ideation that resulted from his deep shame after that experience.

What he says next has sat with me all week:

“Now, as then, I wish that somehow, rather than ending up in the arms of that anonymous man, I could have found myself in the arms of the church. I wish that the church had communicated to me that it could be trusted with my deepest secret, with my sense of alienation, with my self-loathing. I wish that in the church, I had found myself loved.” (Otto, p. 6)

Last week, as I read those sentences in the middle of a bustling coffee shop, the tears welled within my eyes.  Many Christians who have grown up in conservative churches and communities like I did don’t often have the opportunity to visit with folks like Tim or hear their stories of struggle with their same-sex attractions. Our interactions with LGBTQ or same-sex attracted folks might be sporadic, infrequent, awkward, or shallow.

Perhaps you find yourself in that space.  Maybe you know one or two people who are LGBTQ, but they might be old friends from high school you only know through Facebook, or maybe they’re a distant cousin, or a disconnected sibling, parent, or child. You might not know much about their coming-out experience, or what it was like to realize they were attracted to members of their own gender, or what their experiences have been like with Christians or the church that have formed their understanding of God, whether he is there or not, and whether or not he’s a God worth serving.  And you might not have the foggiest clue about how to start that conversation.  It probably sounds terrifying to go there.

I often forget this.  I am often too hard on my fellow conservatively-raised, straight, Christian friends.  Over the past eight years, I’ve had countless conversations with LGBTQ and same-sex attracted folks, and I’ve had the privilege of asking them what it’s like to be them.  So I sometimes forget that others might not feel comfortable in these spaces, and they might not know how to interact, or what to say or not say.  The first time I asked someone, “What have your experiences been like in churches or with straight Christians like me?” the whole room went quiet.  I was at a party with about 15 gay men.  I was surrounded by people I had just met and a little afraid my faith was about to get crucified.  I sometimes forget what that feels like.

But when I read stories like Tim’s, I find myself aching that more of my Christian friends who have the opportunity to hear the things I hear – stories of sorrow and triumph, of feeling God had left them and finding God again, of giving up and rising again, of being mistreated, yet choosing to forgive.  I wonder what it would be like if those of you who are afraid to ask those questions would take a leap of faith, and send a message to someone you know who is lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.I wonder what it would be like if those of you who are afraid to ask those questions would take a leap of faith, and send a message to someone you know who is lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.  Tell them you might not have the right words, but you want to try to understand what we’re doing right as a church, and what we can do better.  Tell them you want to try to listen and learn what it’s like to live in their shoes.  And then just sit with their answers in prayer – take them to God.

When I hear stories like Tim’s, I ache.  It breaks my heart that anyone who would long to find connection, support, and community in a church would be cast aside. It breaks my hear that any would find themselves treated unfairly or unkindly in a room we call a sanctuary.  The place we have named for its presence to hide us from the war around us, to find refuge and recovery, to be safe and helped in our time of need has become the scariest place of all for us to bring our deep dark secrets.

I lament that.  It grieves me that the church is sometimes the last place where people can feel safe saying, “This is what I’m struggling with” or “This is what I need” and that I have sometimes been a part of that problem.  Perhaps someone in your church is silently trying to reconcile faith and sexual orientation or gender identity.  Or maybe their deep dark is violence in the home, an unwanted pregnancy, divorce, mental illness, substance abuse, an abortion, or just not being able to pay the bills this week.

And so, my musing for this week is this: How can we be the type of Christians that show our arms are safe ones to fall in during moments of fear, shame, and sorrow?  How can we break this cycle of untruthfulness we encourage?  What can we each do this week to be a part of changing that?

What do you think?

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