dear pastor

Dear Pastor,

Do you remember when I showed up to the Saturday service alone, as I always did, and you called me up to to sit next to you and your wife in the front row, during worship, pushing a few chairs aside and making enough of a scene that I had to comply? Thank you.

And do you remember the following Saturday (or maybe the one after that), when all the lights were dimmed and we were about to celebrate communion and whoever was speaking gave the usual call for families to go up and partake of the bread and cup together, how your wife came over and asked if I wanted to share in the ritual with you two? And do you remember how I had to decline because I was allergic to the bread but didn’t really care because I was overwhlemed with gratitude anyway? And how, while your wife was asking me, you were asking an older, single woman the same question, and how, I didn’t tell you this, I started to cry from joy because perhaps in fifty years I would be that woman and your simple act of generosity struck me like a bolt of lightning? And how that was such a beautiful gift because, for the ten minutes prior to communion, I had been watching what I thought must have been the church’s happiest family and was achingly aware that the seats next to me were empty? Do you remember that? Thank you.

And do you remember how, when the pastoral staff responded less-than-favorably to my testimony, you began to conclude most of your emails with “I’m for you”? And how you kept inspiring me, kept affirming me, kept speaking wisdom to me, kept being there for me even as I started to lose confidence that I would ever be welcome in the church again, and reminded me that this wasn’t “us” vs. “them” but just “us,” the church, striving in a fallen world to preach the gospel amidst disagreement? And how you never stopped asking me hard questions, either, because you desired to know truth and to encourage me to live in that truth? Thank you.

And there was that other time, and I still find this hilarious, a day or so after you and I met with your son and his ex-roommate who was gay to talk about how the church could more profoundly minister to people like us, and you told me, “You know, sometimes I’m impulsive, and last night I was thinking that if the church won’t let you guys serve because of your orientation, we should just start a gay church!” Do you remember that? I hope I always will. Thank you.

And I haven’t forgotten how much research you’ve done, how much time you’ve spent in prayer, how many hours you’ve put into helping my dad process through the revelation that his son is attracted to men, and how, because of that, my relationship with him is better than it ever has been.

And you fought for me! When it seemed like the drafting of the church’s position statement on homosexuality wouldn’t be too friendly to me, you worked hard to defend my right to membership and inclusion and community. Do you remember how pleasantly surprised I was when I read that first draft? Thank you.

Do you remember, I’m sure you do, how you sent me another email just last week, which casually mentioned how you pray for me often? That amazes me, even still. Thank you.

And do you remember (as I hope this brief note has reminded you) just how grateful and blessed I am to know you, to learn under you, to serve alongside you, and to call you my friend? Please don’t ever forget.

Thank you for being the arms of Christ to me in a difficult and formative time, for relentlessly pointing me back to the very great love of God, and for taking my discipleship so seriously that you would be willing to spend far beyond the requisite number of hours talking with this dorky kid who was, and still is, trying to figure out what on earth it means to serve the church with faithful devotion.

I love you, and hope you are well.

Sincerely,

Jordan

a modest(y) proposal

(This is in response to an article by the lovely Emily Maynard, titled Is a Woman Responsible For a Man’s Lust? It’s a great piece that deserves to be read. She was incredibly bold to write what she did, and I admire the sincerity and truth behind much of what she says. Check it out. Even if you don’t read what I write in response, you should read what she has to say.)

***

I’m pretty sure nobody knows what the word “modesty” means anymore, especially within the context of the evangelical church. And when I say “nobody” I include myself. Over the years my understanding of the word has always seemed terribly shallow and distressingly tangential, as if its charged and controversial outer layer denies all attempts to comprehend its blessed center.

But we sure think it’s important to talk about it! Well, at least for women. It seems that modesty has become, primarily, the rope with which the evangelical church hopes to pull each junior high girl from the deep-v abyss into the light of unassuming crew-necks and inner adornment.

This is important, the common rhetoric goes, because to reveal “flesh” or dress to enhance the feminine figure is just asking the male masses, dominated as they are by uncontrollable sexual urges, to lust. It’s inevitable because men are “visual” creatures (as opposed to the tactile and verbal females), and can’t help themselves. By dressing immodestly, women are causing their vulnerable brothers to stumble, striking a critical blow to their pursuit of purity. This has been the standard discourse on modesty for some time.

But things might be changing. Courageous women are coming forward and opening up about the harm they have suffered on the receiving end of this kind of rhetoric. In the linked article above, and in the subsequent comments, we hear numerous stories from women whose relationship with their bodies, with men, other women, and even God, have been vitiated and filled with poisonous, painful lies.

Implicit in the rhetoric of “modesty” is the idea that women are responsible for male lust. In a nutshell: (straight) men lust because women dress immodestly. There’s more, obviously, but that is the consistent emphasis. I know I thought along similar lines growing up, and it’s taken the testimonies of brave friends and strangers to open my eyes to the horrible consequences of “modesty” as we know it. (Again, read the article for greater detail.)

For the sake of space and time, I simply want to ask some questions and throw around some ideas that may help us move forward as a loving community dedicated to mutual responsibility. I don’t claim to have answers – I’m new to this discussion – so bear with me.

  1. Modesty is not just a female virtue, and lust is not just a male vice. So often the relational dynamic is framed as “Men struggle with lust, and women struggle with a desire to be lusted after.” This goes hand in hand with the lie that porn is just a male problem, and contributes to the sinful stereotype that women are naturally designed as “responders” rather than “actors.” What is more, I, as a male, never had a message on modesty addressed to me. Bluntly, that is ridiculous. How can we reclaim modesty as a non-gendered virtue that is integral in the life of the church?
  2. The sin of lusting is not merely the presence of “dirty thoughts,” but exists, primarily, in the act of stripping someone of their inherent dignity and worth before God. Emily Maynard’s article addresses this point beautifully. It’s impossible for a woman to be responsible for male lust defined in this way. The question needs to be asked, however, When does “natural, non-sinful desire” end and “lust” begin?
  3. Modesty as an ecclesial virtue (akin to humility and an awareness of one’s value before Christ) is not a cultural construct. Modesty as an apodictic shopping list for women is a cultural construct, and means vastly different things all around the world. Topless women in rural Africa are not being immodest; Victorian-era women showing ankle are. Women’s hair in 1st century Palestine was considered sexual; now, we are totally fine with whipping it back and forth in public.
  4. I worry that the truth of #3 too often leads critics of “modesty” to say standards are arbitrary and therefore theologically irrelevant. I don’t think this is the case. Paul’s understanding of modest dress in his letter to the Corinthians and elsewhere is certainly culturally bound (head coverings, anyone?), and yet transgressing those cultural constructions was still a sinful transgression. Are current standards the problem, or is it found primarily in the rhetorical failings of those who speak about them? Are we past the point of being able to deal with the two separately?
  5. Paul’s culturally bound instructions, however, do not primarily frame modesty in terms of sexuality and lust, but in terms of power and excess and a failure to live into one’s status as a new creation. Though we cannot ignore the present reality that modesty intersects significantly with sexuality, we need to reclaim it’s broader purpose of challenging the selfish use of wealth, the refusal to consider the good of the community more important than your own desires, and the maintenance of unchristian power dynamics (e.g. to wear the ignomious “braided hair” Paul references would require the tedious labor of a servant).
  6. Emily Maynard says, “…nothing you do or do not do can influence lust in someone else.” This is, I think, incorrect. Temptation is influence. You can’t force someone else to lust, but you can sure make it harder not to! Women have been the locus of blame for so long, that I understand (in a limited way) the desire to be totally blameless. But autonomy has never been the modus operandi of the church, or of Christian morality.
  7.  She continues, “…you’re only responsible for taking your own heart to Jesus.” In the sense that we are not responsible for the salvation of others, and that women must be freed from the crippling guilt of male lust, this is true. But, as I said above, the Church is built upon mutual responsibility to the other. The solution to the problem of “modesty” will not come from emphasizing individualism, autonomy, or freedom from responsibility, but from reclaiming a just mutuality that requires men to bear the weight of their own sin and to acknowledge their role in the suffering of women and to strive alongside them to eradicate the stigma and shame. This won’t be resolved by “men doing something” or “women doing something” but by the Church doing something. What this looks like, I’m not sure yet. But it certainly wouldn’t be a mistake to begin by giving women a safe space to tell their stories and be heard, as they always should have been.
  8. Romans 15 (“Do not cause another to stumble…”) has been used incessantly to charge women to be modest. But it also mentions that if we unduly cause others in the church pain, we are accountable for it. It’s about time we realize that the old rhetoric is causing many women and girls incredible pain, and that this pain has been largely ignored or demonized by those in positions of cultural and ecclesial power. Whatever male “need” there is for women to dress certain ways may have to take a backseat to the female need to know their bodies are good, beautiful, loved, and their own.
  9. Women need to be listened to, more and more. Their voices have been historically muted in the Church, and we must do everything in our power to acknowledge the worthiness and truth of what they have to say, especially in regard to (though certainly not limited to) their own bodies. If I hear another sermon with someone “mansplaining” to a woman about her body, I may go crazy.
  10. The radical love and mutual submission taught by Christ must be the posture we assume as we move forward. To continue on as we have been would require us to blind ourselves to the demands of the Gospel.

There is so much more to this, and I have this nagging, dreadful feeling that, even still, I’m perpetuating some of the same terrible binaries, stereotypes, and inconsistencies so prevalent in this discussion. I had hoped to write more constructively about what modesty actually is, how it must also be articulated as an essential virtue for men, and how American culture generally devalues and abuses women’s bodies, but living in an orphanage with a crazy schedule and a lack of resources has made that a bit more of a task than I could manage right now.

Please, let’s talk about this. Any ideas? Thoughts? Rants? Stories? It’s about time we create a space to have this discussion in love.

Jordan

the happiest place on earth

I used to hate following the news. It was so depressing, so endlessly troubled and gloomy, that I would be filled with an ambiguous sadness at every new report; suicide, homicide, war, famine, rape, disaster, greed, ignorance… all of it overwhelming to my sheltered self – shadowy threats to my naive understanding of how things should be, at least for me.

So I adapted, developing a nearly manic imagination capable of wild flights of fantasy. I daydreamed my way through school, consumed so many fantasy novels and video games that the immersive worlds they depicted began to poison my perception of existence, and tried to distance myself from the pain and anxiety that comes with awareness. I wasn’t always successful, of course, and I didn’t really know what on earth I was doing, but nonetheless I had somehow become a self-described escapist. So much so, in fact, that a mentor once told me during freshman year that my connection to reality frequently seemed tenuous, at best. Please, don’t all line up to marry me at once.

I was recently reminded of this part of myself while running around Disney World on vacation with the family. You guys, I love Disney World. I could probably wander around Epcot’s World Showcase for, oh I don’t know, forever and ever.

But, was it just me or did the stone walls look a bit more like painted plaster this time around? Did the water always have such a garish blue tint? And were the security cameras always so obvious, and the costumes so lifeless? And I wondered, Is my increasing exposure to poverty and brokenness corroding my imagination…

…or are my experiences bringing it more to life?

While I was in Africa, one of the recovering drug addicts and I were walking by the beach talking about his newly emerging hopes and passions for a life of sobriety and Christian discipleship. As we walked, we passed an unassuming man wearing sunglasses, a loose jacket, and boring jeans. My friend (who has a fascinating history of gangsterism, murder, theft, and meth) leaned over and whispered, “He’s an undercover cop, I promise you.” I tried to remain as nonchalant as his tone of voice. “And that man over there, he’s a meth addict. So is that guy, most likely. There’s a drug den just around the corner; it’s a nice house. And make sure you never leave your keys or valuables unattended – syndicates have lookouts on that mountain right there and will send nearby runners to grab your stuff. Just, you know, don’t be stupid. So anyway….”

Welcome to reality, Jordan. Population: You and a bunch of scary people you probably didn’t want to know were absolutely everywhere. But that conversation got me thinking. How blind am I to the dark and unmentioned world that exists just beneath the surface of “normal”? You know how people talk about spiritual warfare, and say that we are constantly surrounded by angelic and demonic hosts? And how, if we could see that realm clearly, we’d likely explode from incomprehension? Well, my friend gave me a glimpse of something similar. How insular and near-sighted has my life been! How adeptly have I shielded myself from the grotesque underbelly of the communities in which I’ve lived! Why have I been so content to live with such a stunted understanding of reality?

I decided in that moment that, wherever I live, I want to be aware. I want to know where the drug deals go down, I want to know that crazy homeless man’s story, I want to know the names of the prostitutes that hang around Main St. for some tragic reason or another. And not just to know so that I appear socially conscious and “moral,” but so that my life, and maybe theirs, is challenged and changed and conformed more closely to Jesus’. I want my roots to go deeper than the anemic suburban strata.

My imagination used to be my escape from bitter reality. But I’ve learned, slowly, that we have been given the incredible gift of imagination not to transcend reality, but to inhabit it more profoundly. It is not for the abolition of reality, but so that we may see it in some small way as Christ does. Extricating myself, actively or passively, from reality, in all its ugliness, was actually denying myself the blessings of a Spirit-filled imagination. It was anti-incarnational.

I’ve realized that, without becoming aware of and rooting myself in that “hidden” world around me (which isn’t so hidden for countless others), with its abuse, addiction, violence, injustice, and insanity, I could never understand the true significance of redemption or hope, and my encounters with the brokenness within myself and others would continue to overwhelm me. This is why, I think, the book of Revelation is so powerful: John is calling his flock to see, not past, but more deeply into their circumstances, to the cosmic battle of good and evil and the insurmountable supremacy of the crucified lamb who reigns in love. (I read Revelation as poetic theological commentary on the nature of the way things are, a la Richard Hays and Greg Beale…and the original audience.) Such a vision empowers the Church to live boldly and with grace, embodying the Gospel with passion.

So maybe Disney World isn’t quite so captivating as it once was. But that’s ok, because life, in all its maddening complexity, has become so much more profound and engrossing. We who claim to follow the risen Christ have the unbelievable privilege of living, wherever that may be, amidst the darkness of the earth and proclaiming light, of encountering addict and dealer, pimp and prostitute, abused and abuser, poor and rich, and imagining them as the people they could become through the miracle of redemption and then walking with them on that difficult and trying road.

Is it simple? No. Is it easy? No. Is it painless? Not even close. Do I have any idea what I’m really getting myself into? Nope. But am I more excited about life and ministry than I ever have been? By the grace of God, yes. (Mostly) Gone are the days of wanting to cling to privilege and ease, to seek happiness in the absence of difficulty rather than in the midst of it. In their place is a renewed desire to be, as Barth repeatedly demanded, for the world, in it, living relentlessly and selflessly for the freedom of others in a way only Christians can. If the Church does not model such an existence it will find itself lost in an inward-turning labyrinth of isolation and comfortable folly – unaware and unconcerned with the brokenness across the ocean, around the corner, and in its sanctuaries. And, consequently, it will have ceased to fully be the Church, the body of Christ which has always embraced the downtrodden and marginalized.

But wherever the Church is living into this Spirit-filled imagination, wherever that consuming love of God is breaking into and transforming the desperate brokenness of the world, that is, really, the happiest place on earth.

Jordan

(Though The World Showcase is totally a close second.)

what is love?

Let’s just get this out of the way.

Now, on to business.

A sentiment I often hear within the evangelical church is, “If we want to love people, we must be willing to speak the truth about their sins. To ignore or sugarcoat them would be the most unloving thing we could do, even if other people don’t see it that way.” The basic idea is that sin, separation from God, is the greatest tragedy, and if you really do care about someone then you will want them to be free from that blinding, oppressive weight even if they refuse to acknowledge it – you will want them to know God. So we must preach the Gospel.

This is all true. But I’m beginning to wonder if the way that sentiment is commonly played out misses the mark of true love, especially when it comes to the church’s interactions with the LGTBQ community.

When someone raises a concern like the one above, my first thought is usually, The LGBTQ community probably doesn’t need to be reminded, again, of what the evangelical church generally thinks about about homosexuality. I’m pretty sure, actually, that the first thing that comes into most LGBTQ people’s mind when they hear the word “evangelical” is the anti-gay rhetoric that seems definitive of conservative Christians’ public discourse.

What strikes me as odd, and dangerous, is that somehow the message of “We don’t think you should be having sex” is considered more essential to the Gospel than “God loves you and so do we.” How the heck did that happen?

Why is it that any message to an LGBTQ person is not considered to be true, or truly loving, unless it contains a litany of his/her/their sins, and yet a message that is only about sin, devoid of any mention of God’s grace or a commitment to fight injustice on their behalf, somehow passes as an acceptable proclamation of the Gospel? As if, from the start, we don’t think LGBTQ people deserve anything better than judgment.

It’s like the church is chasing after them, hurling spears of condemnation and prejudice, all while shouting, “We love you! God loves you! No, seriously! Come back!” And when they keep running we just shake our heads and attribute their retreat away from us as a sign of their gross sinfulness, a refusal to accept the “Gospel-centered” kind of love we’ve offered them.

What the hell is wrong with us?! We treat them like crap throughout history and expect a different outcome? Maybe they reject us because we’ve never really loved them in the first place. Maybe they reject us because we are continually rejecting them.

Where were we when they became victims of abuse, hate crimes, disease, stigma, and bullying? We were either perpetuating their pain or apathetic toward it. And for those brave few who dared to stand beside them and model a different kind of love? We yelled across the chasm of our fear, “While you’re over there, make sure you tell them they’re sinful, otherwise whatever you’re doing doesn’t count!” Then we patted ourselves on the back for being “missional.” It’s maddening!

Ok, wow, deep breaths. The whole thing is just very frustrating for me. I once asked a gay man I was sitting next to on a plane what it would take for him to know he was loved by the evangelical church even if it never became “affirming.” It’s a question I had been dying to ask someone, and after I had so intently listened to his impassioned monologue about his spiritual connection to Diana Ross (who he’d seen over two-hundred times in concert), I figured he owed me. His short answer has stuck with me for the past two years: “I might believe it,” he said, “if you would at least fight the stigma that claims so many lives. But you don’t.”

If the only examples we have of showing the LGBTQ community “love” are the sermons where we preach the “truth” about the sinfulness of that community, then I would humbly propose that we repent of our anemic understanding of love, our exceptional failure to be consistent with how we live out the Gospel, and then to actually do something – not because we need a new conversion tactic but because we are Christians, and it’s simply how we have been called to live.

Read this article. Please, please read it. I’ve posted it so many times on Facebook and Twitter because it stands as a soul-crushing indictment of the loveless rhetoric so common in conservative evangelicalism. We cannot pretend we are blameless anymore, we cannot go on as we always have.

This is not an “easy solution” to a complex problem; it’s a reminder of what we have forgotten, what we have forsaken. How this will manifest in individual lives and church communities will vary, but it must be made manifest. Otherwise, honestly, I don’t think we have anything more to say.

Jordan

“non-“

Over the past few years I’ve found that it’s one thing to talk about my general experiences of being gay – what it’s been like in the church, how my theology has developed, the struggles and joys of it all – and it’s another thing entirely to talk about the specific, daily reality of finding certain men attractive.

During the hormonal maelstrom of insanity (i.e. grades 6-12…and college) I constructed an identity of being almost “non-sexual,” as it were. I didn’t do this intentionally, of course, it was just the natural result of years spent sitting silently while everyone else talked about girls/boys without ceasing; I didn’t even know what was happening. In fact, while I was still closeted, my lack of participation in those “conversations” (a.k.a. objectifying sin-fests) gave me an inflated sense of self-righteousness, as if I were floating above the lustful mire in which my peers were happily glutting themselves. Meanwhile, gay porn. Let’s give a round of applause for cognitive dissonance and emotional stunting.

Because I thought it was literally impossible for me to be attracted to guys (despite some pretty substantial evidence to the contrary), I simply ascribed my lack of opposite-sex attraction to greater spiritual maturity – I thought, In college I’ll fall in love with a girl, it’s just that these ones are far too frivolous and strange for me.

But college was more of the same, especially for the first three years. It felt like the only things people consistently talked about were movies, predestination vs. free will, and dating, and I found myself telling lie after lie after lie after lie; “What’s the first thing you notice about a woman?” “Uhhh, hair.” “What’s the most attractive part of a woman?” “Uhhh, hair.” “Describe your ideal woman.” “Uhhh, she has a good personality…and hair.” Everyone else was able to go into great detail about their dream partner, their dream date, their crushes and their “types,” but fear and confusion and shame constricted my lungs and I could only manage short, shallow responses. Although I knew I came across as abnormally disinterested in romance, at least no one would find out the real answers to those questions.

Even now that I’m fairly open about everything, I’ve found that I still don’t know the proper place of my attractions in every-day conversations. I’ve put so much effort into not allowing my sexuality to “define me” that I’m afraid I’ve rendered it unhelpfully abstract. My sexuality is anything but abstract, and yet bringing it up in concrete, personal ways is fraught with ambiguities, questions, and doubts. It took me six months to finally tell someone who I had my massive crush on because I didn’t want it to become more of a “thing” than it really was (there are some hideously embarrassing stories buried in those six months, by the way), but keeping it a secret only reinforced my feelings of shame and isolation. I felt free to talk about the emotions I had to deal with every time I was near the guy, but for some reason it seemed unacceptable to actually say who it was and why I found him compelling. For what it’s worth, once other people knew, I became much less obsessive and much more peaceful; something that used to incite feelings of anxiety was transformed into an occasion for community and the extension of grace.

Maybe it’s because I’m so tired of feeling like I need to cover-up or ignore the fact that I’m a sexual being, maybe it’s because I hate hiding things from those who are close to me, or maybe it’s just because I haven’t realized that this may be something that falls under the category of “painful sacrifice,” but I think it does more harm than good to be so guarded about the specifics of my attractions, especially in the context of close and empathetic friends.

Toward the end of the summer, one of those friends leaned over to me in the middle of a wedding reception and casually asked if I was often attracted to people of different ethnicities. This led to a brief exchange that bounced around topics with ease. I was filled with a profound sense of gratitude and a little bit of wonder at how great it felt to be treated as someone acquainted with the common human experience of finding another person mysteriously captivating. The good intentions of trying to keep my homosexuality from dominating my self-perception were leading me to sever ties with my sexuality as a whole, with occasionally disastrous results. It may have made it easier to feel “in control,” but it definitely made it harder to feel human. To have my sexuality addressed with the nonchalant levity appropriate for the setting ended up being an unexpected gift for which I am still thankful (love you, K.!).

Is this a common problem? I’d like to hear your opinions on this because I’m still very much in medias res. How to simultaneously avoid both complacent “acceptance” of every aspect of my homosexuality as well as retreat into the simplistic-yet-harmful experience of appearing non-sexual? I imagine the word “tension” will show up at some point.

I believe this is something conservative evangelicals really need to think through carefully, for even though it doesn’t have any urgent theological significance, it deeply affects how we interact with our brothers and sisters navigating the complex and frequently confusing social wonderland of same-sex attraction.

Jordan