Monday, April 8, 2019

LGBTQ

A note about this behemoth of a blog post: these are my personal convictions on this issue that have come from years of prayerful study and conversations. My position is not shared by the rest of the leadership at my church. However, we've decided to continue having further conversations about this issue moving forward, and are comfortable with this disagreement as we do so. None of us see this issue as an essential of the Christian faith. The following walks through my personal journey and my current beliefs.

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I have never wanted to write something less than what I've written below.

Never.

This is a conversation that normally contains very little nuance and very little grace. I hate entering into those kinds of conversations.

However, I'm a pastor, and this is a pastoral matter for members of my congregation. It's my pastoral responsibility to share the word of God with honesty and integrity to the best of my ability. Know that my journey to this point has included years of prayer and conversations, and hundreds of hours of Bible study and reading. For years I was back and forth on this issue. Some weeks I was certain that one interpretation of the relevant texts was correct, and other weeks I leaned toward the opposite understanding. However, over the past few years I have committed hours upon hours of prayer and effort to best understand God's thoughts on the matter. As I moved through days and weeks and months and years of work on this, I've only become more and more sure of the matter.

I think same-sex relationships that are monogamous, lifelong commitments can be holy before God.
I don't think God is opposed to people who are LGBTQ.

I've remained relatively quiet on the matter over the years because I wanted to be absolutely sure of where I stood. I have learned that this particular issue is more explosive than any other in the minds of many Christians. Christians make room for disagreement on a whole host of issues--from divorce, to war and violence, to heaven and hell, to wealth, to abortion, to environmentalism, to tithing, to the military. People make space for discussion on most divisive issues. However, when it comes what one believes about LGBTQ, there seems to be no space for discussion in the minds of many.

As a pastor, I knew that my own understanding and belief carried more weight than most. This issue had the possibility of dividing the church. I didn't want to add to this potential without being absolutely certain that this was where I landed.

I did some work on this topic many years ago, and found that the relevant texts around homosexuality did not talk about the kind of same-sex relationships that many people seek to pursue today. They did not talk about two people who are in love, committed to one another, and desire to share their entire lives together while putting the needs of one another above their own. All of the relevant texts were about relationships that involved power imbalances and extramarital affairs.

However, I was never entirely satisfied with these conclusions. The only sure conclusion that I could make regarding LGBTQ people is that the church has deeply wounded them over the years, and has led to many people leaving the church and feeling ostracized. I knew that the church needed to do better in its posture toward LGBTQ people, and I was committed to refrain from adding to the hateful rhetoric that has permeated so many churches in the past. I intended never to discuss homosexuality from the pulpit, understanding that most gay people already know how the church tends to feel about them.

However, as pastor of SJCC I am often approached by people who want to know "my position" on the matter. Maybe I was naïve before, but I didn't expect so much interest in this topic. Of the people that approach me about my "position," I've found that there seem to be two categories of people who look for my opinion on homosexuality. The first group are people who want me to draw a line in the sand so that they can know that their church and their pastor is "right" on these matters. This is culture-war talk, and I'm simply not interested in it. The second group, however, tend to be people with LGBTQ children, siblings, or friends who are concerned about what their pastor might say about their loved ones. Normally these questions are spoken through tears and quivering voices. As I heard more and more of these stories, I knew that I needed to do some more work. This issue affected people under my care.

I decided to begin seeking out LGBTQ Christians. I wanted to hear from them about their faith and church experiences.
How did they respond to hearing sermons preached about the sins of homosexuality?
For the past four years, I have sought out and cultivated friendships with LGBTQ Christians. I have listened to story after story of people who realized as a teen or young adult that they were gay, or lesbian, or transgender.
I realized quickly that I came into these relationships with a lot of preconceived ideas about why people are gay. I expected to hear stories of abuse or distant parents. There were of course some of these. If you talk with a bunch of people, some of them will have difficult pasts (this would be true for both gay and heterosexual people, of course).
However, I heard many more stories of people who had fantastic relationships with both parents, and never experienced any abuse or neglect in their lives. They simply hit the age of 13, and realized that they weren't attracted to people of the opposite sex.

Some of these conversations included tearful stories about being asked to leave their church.

Some people were told that they were abominations.

Someone told me that he was convinced for years that God hated him.

Some people were kicked out of their homes by their Christian parents.

I began reading and listening to story after story of people driven into depression and therapy because they were disowned by their Christian parents and their churches after coming out. I read stories of  LGBTQ teens and young adults who were driven to suicide because of their experiences with the church and family. There was so much pain and so much suffering.

I read articles about Exodus International, the premier ministry for reparative therapy, and how its founder admitted that "change in orientation was not possible or happening." I read stories of people whose lives were hurt or shattered because of ex-gay ministries like Exodus.

I don't think the church has done a good job owning their part of these suicides and these kids suffering from depression.

We have the blood of those who believed themselves to be hated by God and took their own lives on our hands.

We say things like "Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin" (a problematic phrase in itself) but make no actual effort to show Christlike love to LGBTQ people. So their view of Christianity becomes people holding up "God hates f---s" signs and screaming into megaphones. Their view of Christianity is a group of people saying "I love you, I just don't like your lifestyle"--even though their "lifestyle" is actually their orientation, something they can't change about themselves (a bunch of them have tried and tried).

I realized as I talked to more and more people that the Church needs to own its role in the depression and suicides of many of God's children.

When I studied the texts about homosexuality years ago, I did it solely to find "the right answer" about what God thinks regarding LGBTQ people. I never came to a completely satisfactory conclusion, other than "we should love people and stop focusing so heavily on this one issue" (still true, by the way). I was working completely on a theoretical basis.

But I had never before talked to a single LGBTQ person about their faith or their church upbringing.

However, now I was faced with a pastoral difficulty. People under my care were concerned about their loved ones, and new friends of mine had experienced devastation, depression, and suicidal thoughts because of leaders in their previous churches. This topic required a greater amount of study than I had previously given. It required more time.

If the Church's traditional view of homosexuality was right, then that's fine. But if we'd traditionally been wrong about homosexuality, I owed it to these families to find out. I owed it to these new friends to find out.

Thankfully, in the past few years, many more resources have been released about homosexuality and scripture; better ones than I had available in the past.

I read and read and read and read and prayed and prayed and prayed and prayed and talked and talked and talked and talked and listened and listened and listened and listened.

For years.

I read things from all across the board. Tons of Bible commentaries, books from the most non-affirming authors to the most affirming authors. People from conservative backgrounds and liberal backgrounds. I dug into the biblical background of these texts. I really wanted to get this right.

If it was even remotely possible that the traditional view of homosexuality was wrong, we needed to know.

And if it was right, fine. But still, I owed it to the families at my church to do the work.

Over the last four years, as I've done more and more work on the subject (mostly in private, because anytime I'd bring some of these things up with people, I was met with fierce debate), I realized that I was more and more confident that the biblical texts associated with homosexuality were absolutely not talking about people in monogamous, covenantal relationships.

There were always lingering questions that I had, but I was definitely leaning more and more toward the idea that God was probably not opposed to LGBTQ persons.

The tipping point came for me over the last couple of months. My daughter recently turned seven. It dawned on me that in around six years, there is a non-zero chance that she is going to come out to my wife and I. I imagined my reaction, were she to do that. I knew, based on my hundreds of hours of study and prayer, that I would be fine if she told us that she was gay.

I know that this may be upsetting to some members of my church, as well as other friends and colleagues of mine. I know that this is likely to spark some fierce debate. I've already seen friendships suffer because of these ideas. However, as a pastor, I've been tasked with presenting the Bible with conviction and integrity. My conviction and integrity is that the traditional understanding of LGBTQ people is wrong.

Know that I am convinced, convicted, and as certain as I can possibly be that I am correct on this issue. I do not take my responsibility to seek out and communicate God's truth lightly. I know that if I am wrong about this, I will stand before Jesus one day and will be held accountable for my mishandling of scripture and of my pastoral responsibilities. I have spent many sleepless nights considering the weight of these convictions.

Yet I cannot be silent any longer, because I am convinced that the arguments for affirming LGBTQ individuals are better than the arguments against. 
And there are people under my care who have suffered greatly for a long time because of the way the church has spoken about LGBTQ individuals.

At this point I'm going to walk through my current understanding of scripture, and allow you to see where I'm coming from.

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To begin, I'll say that I get frustrated with the level of explosiveness associated with the homosexuality debate in Christian circles today. This is the single most heated debate in the church today, despite the fact that it is addressed in five (some would say more, I argue five below) verses out of around 31,000 in the Bible. I don't think a less than 1 in 6,000 ratio warrants the focus that many Christians seem to have on this one particular issue.

Don't get me wrong. It's important. I don't think it's as important as many Christians seem to think it is.

This is going to be a very brief overview of the texts often associated with same-sex behavior, and why I have not found them to be a convincing rebuke to covenantal, lifelong same-sex relationships. There are numerous superior resources out there. None of this work is my own. I'm drawing from many other sources. I would point to some of the books listed below as some good resources for further reading. (For the most in-depth resource, I would recommend Bible Gender Sexuality by James Brownson. It's a heavy read, but it's worth the effort.)

The bottom line in the following rundown of the texts used to condemn homosexuality is that I don't find any of the texts convincing in terms of condemning two men or two women who are committed to a lifelong covenantal relationship that puts the needs of the other above their own. The greater contextual meaning behind each of these texts points to something other than a covenantal marital relationship.

I've been told by some that my interpretations are akin to disregarding scripture or considering it not authoritative. I've heard that these interpretations are merely "following the whims of culture instead of reading the scripture as-is." I disagree. Scripture always needs to be interpreted and reinterpreted in light of new information and changes in society. People today often cite Bible verses about "the sword" when they debate gun use in the modern day. Guns weren't around in the first century. Can we  really use a text that refers to a weapon with a range of one foot to talk about a weapon that has a much longer range?

We have to reinterpret scripture constantly based on what we experience in the world.

Another example--"You shall not murder"--but what if someone breaks into my house and I kill him? Does "murder" refer solely to premeditated murder? I clearly meant to do it when I killed the guy who broke into my house, but I didn't plan it for weeks ahead of time. So did I break God's law or not?

I'll talk about divorce a little bit below, but here I'll simply say that no scripture allows for divorce and remarriage because of abuse. So what do we do when someone has been physically and emotionally abused in the past, but has moved on, fallen in love, and plans to commit themselves to a new partner for life?

Galileo was condemned for saying the earth revolves around the sun, when scripture says the earth "cannot be moved."

Slavery was long defended by people arguing that "scripture is clear."

Interracial marriage was long condemned by people arguing that "scripture is clear."

You get the point. We interpret scripture constantly. Things that change in our world force us to look anew at scripture and discern whether our previously held understandings were correct. That's what I'm trying to do below.

I'm in no way undermining the authority of scripture. I still maintain that scripture is authoritative for our lives today.

A word of warning: I'm going to attempt keep the frank talk about sexuality tasteful and to a minimum, but obviously I can't keep it out altogether. Honestly, how could I? We're digging into Bible texts about sexuality.

All of the following scripture breakdowns come from many sources. I'll have a list of recommended resources at the bottom of this post.

Sodom (Gen. 19):
The story of Sodom is not a story about homosexuality. It's a story about rape and assault.

The term "sodomy" is used by many to refer to gay sex. Thus it is assumed that the sin of Sodom must have been homosexuality. However, it only takes a cursory reading of the story of Sodom to understand that one cannot make a 1 to 1 comparison between this story and two people who love each other and want to live a committed, covenantal existence with one another for life. The story of Sodom is a story about an attempted gang rape (there is a very similar story in Judges 19 as well). God plans to destroy the city of Sodom in Genesis 18 (which interestingly occurs before the story at hand), and when Abraham pleads for leniency, God sends two angels to the city who look like men. All of the city, young and old, demand that the two men be given to the mob so they can "know" them. The story is a horrifying account of attempted sexual assault.

Were the angels in the form of women, no person on earth would say, "Clearly this story is about the evils of heterosexuality." We recognize the difference between rape and consensual sex.

In addition, no other reference to Sodom in the Bible refers specifically to homosexuality. Ezekiel says that the sin of Sodom is that it was "arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy" (Ezek. 16:49). "Sexual immorality" in Sodom is sometimes mentioned in scripture, but not same-sex behavior.

The story simply does not refer to the types of loving, committed relationships we see in our world today. It is a story about attempted rape and assault--things that all Christians should still find abhorrent.

Leviticus:
Levitical law is difficult to parse, because there are clearly some laws in Leviticus that are cultural and are not binding for all time. This can cause problems for those questioning whether Lev. 18:22 and 20:13 are eternally binding or were cultural laws for the people of the time. One argument for the eternal validity of these verses is the word "abomination." If homosexuality is said to be an "abomination," then that must hold true for all time. However, other modern common practices are called "abominations" throughout scripture (lending money and charging interest--Ezek. 18:13; eating pork or shellfish--Deut. 14).

Another argument advocating that these laws still apply today is that their punishment is death. However, charging interest on a loan (again, Ezek. 18:13) and working on the Sabbath (Ex. 35:2) carry the same punishment. Many Christians today have taken out bank loans, and would not consider the bank teller worthy of death. Most Christians have worked seven-day weeks at some point in their lives. Do they consider themselves to be worthy of death? No. We've contextualized these verses based on how our culture works today, and have deemed them not to be binding for all people for all time.

The fact that sexual laws in Leviticus are still seen as valid by many is also used as an argument for continuing to honor these laws. But Lev. 18:19 prohibits sex during menstruation, which is normally not prohibited by Christians today.

Societies in the ancient near east, including ancient Israel, were patriarchal. In these societies, men being treated like women would have been degrading. Male same-sex intercourse was seen as degrading in these cultures because one partner has to take the passive, feminine role. James Brownson points out that in the Leviticus texts, "the wording itself suggests that treating a man as if he were a woman is the core problem" (Bible Gender Sexuality, 83).

In context, these texts appear to point to something different than the kind of loving, committed relationships that gay and lesbian people seek out today. The prohibitions in these texts appear to speak against dominance and shame in sexuality. In a culture that devalued women, dominating another man as if he were a woman shamed that man.

In context, the cultural prohibition is against using sex as dominance.

A prohibition against using sexuality for dominance and shame is one that I fully endorse. A view of women as inferior to men is one that I fully reject. I cannot view these laws and endorse their validity for all time if they were written to a world that viewed women as inferior to men, and saw homosexual intercourse as problematic because it put a man into a feminine role.

Romans:
When viewing New Testament texts on homosexuality, it needs to be noted that the overwhelmingly dominant forms of same-sex acts of the Greco-Roman period were exploitative and dominating. As Matthew Vines points out, "There are no ancient examples of lifelong monogamous same-sex relationships between equals." Even the most loving examples of same-sex relationships involve hierarchies and power differentials. Pederasty (adult mentors sleeping with minors they are mentoring), temple prostitution, and master/slave sex were some of the most predominant kinds of same-sex acts--all of which Christians today would find deplorable (and, you know, criminal).

There was also an assumption in the Greco-Roman world that homosexual acts were committed by those who gave in to their unrestrained lust. Same-sex acts were seen as excessive, and committed by those who abandoned heterosexual lust and gave in to excess.

Much like those who first use alcohol in moderation, then drink more and more heavily, and finally step up into harder and harder drug use, same-sex acts were a move into excess. Pederasty, prostitution, and master/slave sex were the forms of homosexuality on display in the first century. It was promiscuity and excess.

This kind of thinking is seen in the Romans 1:26-27 passage, which refers to men "abandoning natural relations." Because there was an assumption in Paul's world that heterosexual relations were satisfactory and homosexual relations were "excess," Paul is addressing those who have given in to excessive lust.

Paul didn't have in mind two men or two women who loved one another and wanted to commit themselves to each other in a covenant for life, because these kinds of relationships did not exist in his world. The modern understanding of sexual orientation was entirely foreign to the world in which Paul was writing. Today, most of us know people who are gay. We know people who are not attracted to the opposite sex, but the same sex. These people are not in search of someone to spend their lives with because they suffer from perverse excessive lust. They want love. They want romance. They want commitment. They want to walk through life together. They want to put the needs of the other above their own needs. Paul in this passage does not condemn these kinds of relationships, because they didn't exist in his time. He condemns the excessive lust that searches beyond self-sacrificial committed unions to other avenues.

In context, this passage does not appear to condemn the types of unions that we know today. I absolutely affirm Paul's condemnation of excessive lust. I condemn those who search beyond their own marital bed and seek out fulfillment with an affair. I condemn those who use their positions of power to have their sexual needs fulfilled from a subordinate.

A move from monogamy, commitment, and covenant into excessive lust is not what I believe God has in mind for our sexuality.

Context matters when looking at biblical passages, and the context of this passage does not appear to condemn the type of relationships that many gay and lesbian Christians seek.

1 Corinthians/1 Timothy:
It's again imperative that we remember that there are no instances of gay or lesbian couples who were monogamous and seen as equals in the first century. Pederasty, prostitution, and master/slave sex were the dominant forms of sexuality between two people of the same sex. These were all exploitative and/or had power differentials at their core. So when we see a word translated "homosexuality" in a vice list, we need to ask ourselves 1. how is it translated?, and 2. what does it mean? As Ken Wilson says, "the mere listing of adultery in a vice list doesn't help us understand whether remarriage after divorce or lusting after a woman constitutes adultery. For that we need more than a vice list and Scripture provides it, offering many specific examples of adultery. These relevant examples are missing with respect to same-sex relationships" (Letter to my Congregation, 73).
The word often translated "effeminate" in 1 Cor. 6:9 and (only the word "homosexual" in) 1 Tim. 1:10 is the greek words malakoi. Malakoi has been translated "effeminate" often, but technically means "soft." It's a difficult word of which to parse an exact meaning. It can refer to a passive partner in a same-sex act. It can also be an attack on a man's masculinity. It's also been translated "weakling," "wanton," "debauchers," and "male prostitutes." The exact meaning behind the word literally translated "soft" is difficult.

The word translated "homosexual" in 1 Timothy 1:10 and 1 Corinthians 6:9 is the Greek word arsenokoitai. Arsenokoitai has a lot of possible meanings. It has been posited by some to refer to the active partner in a same-sex act. This is possible. But a few uses of arsenokoites outside of scripture refer to economic exploitation and power abuse. It's a difficult word to understand, especially because it's a word that Paul seemingly made up.

Whatever the translation, we need to remember that it likely does refer to exploitation, because the kinds of same-sex acts that happened when Paul was writing were exploitative things like pederasty, prostitution, and master/slave. So when talking about sexuality, it would be exploitative forms of sexuality.

Again, the kinds of same-sex acts in the first century are not what is found in a modern committed, life-long union--because these kinds of same-sex unions didn't exist when Paul was writing.


I would call exploitative forms of sexuality, as well as pederasty, master/slave sex (well, slavery altogether), and prostitution/idolatry to be sinful today. I consider extramarital sex to be sinful.

These were the kinds of same-sex unions that were present in the first century. I still find them sinful today, whether they're committed homosexually or heterosexually.

The Bible is still authoritative. Scripture holds up. But context when reading scripture is extremely important. I don't see the Bible, in context, speaking against the kinds of lifelong, committed, covenantal, same-sex unions that LGBTQ Christians seek today.


Marriage:
When the Bible talks about marriage, it only describes heterosexual unions. This is true. However, we need to remember again that monogamous same-sex relationships didn't exist when the Bible was written. James Brownson points out that when Genesis 2 talks about two people becoming "one flesh," and when Adam says that Eve is "bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh," that scripture is talking about a kinship bond. Other times that "bone" and "flesh" is used in the same way are not in reference to male and female (Judges 9:2, 2 Samuel 5:1, 2 Samuel 19:12). These other passages are referring to kinship. There's no sexual difference in these passages. It's about kinship, not sexual coupling. Marriage is presented as the ultimate kinship bond.

When Jesus talks about marriage in Matthew 19, he references Genesis 2. He is talking about the ultimate kinship bond that is marriage. He speaks prohibitions about divorce in that passage, and says that the breaking of the bond of marriage is tantamount to adultery, because it's the breaking of this kinship bond that God has brought together.

Paul says in 1 Corinthians, "Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, 'The two will become one flesh'" (1 Cor 6:15-16). Again, Paul is speaking against the breaking of the kinship bond of marriage. He's saying that uniting sexually with your body needs to be coupled with a uniting of lives.

I don't see marriage between two men or two women as negating this kind of kinship bond.

If the argument is that men and women need to be different in order for a marriage to work, I don't see that as being the case. First off, Galatians 3:28 claims that male and female are no more, because all are one in Christ Jesus. Furthermore, the covenant of marriage is said biblically to be a committed bond, an intimate bond, and a bond of self-sacrifice. I believe that couples of the same sex who are absolutely, honestly committed for life, committed to intimacy, and committed to joyfully put the needs of the other over the needs of their own can live out this marriage covenant.

(I should state again that none of these points are my own. I have a list of resources for further reading at the end)

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At this point I'd like to point out a bit of hypocrisy that I've seen from many modern Christians.

I've officiated weddings that were attended and supported by people who are extremely opposed to homosexuality. These particular marriages were second marriages. The first marriages from these folks sometimes ended because of physical and emotional abuse. Sometimes they were due to addictions by one party, and that party was unwilling to find help.

Before performing these weddings, I got to know the couple and would listen to the stories of their previous marriages. I also would hear about their faith journeys, and we talked about the covenantal nature of marriage--the commitment and fidelity that was required in a biblical marriage.

I happily performed these weddings. The thing is, however, I didn't have a biblical basis to do so. Divorce because of addiction, physical abuse, or emotional abuse, isn't something that's endorsed in the Bible. Adultery is the only valid reason for breaking a marriage according to scripture.

However, I've read enough about abusers and the nature of abuse to know that I would never suggest someone get back together with an abusive spouse. Not without years of rehabilitation and therapy, at least. I also wouldn't push someone back with an addict who has no plans to give up their drug use. Could God heal a relationship with one party who is a former abuser or addict? Of course. But I would never force that on a person, because abusers and addicts rarely change, and there is a genuine danger and concern there.

I officiated, endorsed, and celebrated the second marriages of these folks, as did some other Christians who attended the weddings--Christians who are vehemently opposed to same-sex marriage.

My point here is twofold. First, many Christians seem to have a double standard when it comes to the Bible. These Christians may say that divorce and remarriage due to addiction or abuse is acceptable (even though that's not given as an acceptable reason by the Bible), but they say that same-sex marriage is not acceptable. I'd invite my Christian brothers and sisters to prayerfully consider this double standard.

Second, if we can consider remarriage in certain circumstances to be God-honoring, can we at least give thought to the possibility that same-sex marriage in certain circumstances could potentially be God-honoring? One of the most common arguments I hear from people who are against gay marriage is "You can repent from individual sins, but remaining married to a person of the same sex is a lifelong unrepentant sin." However, this same argument (I would argue a much stronger biblical argument) can be made for those who have been divorced and remarried. Yet many of us allow ourselves to consider context and a person's experience when considering whether divorce/remarriage is acceptable, but we won't grant the same grace to the thousands of committed Christ-followers who find themselves attracted not to people of the opposite sex, but their own.

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I wish I would have come to this understanding sooner. I wish I would have been as confident in my belief that same-sex marriages can be holy before God years ago. It has taken me a long time to fully get to this place, but I'm convinced that my early beliefs about homosexuality were wrong. I am convinced that scripture is not opposed to LGBTQ people.

It has taken me years to get to this point, and I don't expect that my words will change anybody's mind immediately. I imagine that these words will cause some difficulties in many of my relationships. However, I've been tasked by God to study and present his Word carefully and thoroughly. While my change of heart and mind may be costly, I cannot betray my convictions.

Moreover, I have a duty to my LGBTQ friends who have experienced so much pain from the Christian community. To those of you who have been hurt by people like me in the past, know that you are loved, and you have a place in the church today.

These words are not meant to shame Christians. However, it is important that we admit our part in the pain of so many people. It is important that we admit our hypocrisies wherever they are found. It is important that we admit when we've pulled specks out of the eyes of others while ignoring the logs in our own.

With that said, here's a list of things I'd like to see from the church, especially the conservative Christian church today

There are a few things that I have noticed from some Christians that I think are harmful and should really stop immediately. Even if you believe that homosexuality is a sin, and even if that belief is never going to change, here are some changes I'd like to see.


First, when the topic of homosexuality comes up, I've heard Christians say (an astonishing amount of times) one of the following three things:
"It's no different from any other sin, like pedophilia."
"It's no different from any other sin, like beastiality."
"It's no different from any other sin, like murder."
Let's move beyond the fact that comparing gay and lesbian people to pedophiles or people who have sex with animals is super offensive (and it is offensive), and instead point to the fact that Christians almost never compare their own shortcomings with murder. Or pedophilia. Or beastiality. I've never once heard a Christian who admits to having told a lie, and said "Well, I messed up. But it's just like any other sin, like murder." Internally, they might believe that no sin is worse than another, but the comparisons they make in conversation present an implicit hierarchy of sinfulness.
That's how it's communicated, anyway.

Second, jokes have a cost. If you make a joke in a room of people about which bathroom to use, or a joke at the expense of gay and lesbian people, it's probably going to hurt someone in that room. In a room full of people, there is likely an LGBTQ person present. There is also very likely someone with an LGBTQ family member in the room. Christians have made jokes like this for many decades.

I used to make them. All the time.

LGBTQ people have been pushed away from the church for a long time. Jokes like this just add to people being pushed away. Marginalized. Driven to depression. Driven away from the church. And if you consider yourself to be a follower of Jesus, driving people away from the church is probably the last thing you want to do.
Even if you think the joke is funny, it doesn't need to be told.
In fact, it needs to not be told.

Finally, meet with LGBTQ Christians. Get to know people of faith who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or queer. Take them to lunch. Continue to take them to lunch. Talk with them. Listen to them. Talk with them, not about them. Hear about their faith. Hear their stories. Your ideas about LGBTQ people might change like mine did. Or they might not. However, you'll definitely hear the pain that the church has caused them in the past. Your compassion for them will grow. And you'll learn how to be more loving and more Christlike toward a group of people that you may not have given much attention to in the past.

Showing love to someone begins by knowing that person.

Get to know some LGBTQ Christians.


I know how some people are going to feel about me going forward, knowing where I come from regarding LGBTQ people. I read the Nashville Statement. I know that in the eyes of some, my beliefs about LGBTQ people preclude me from being a Christian. I strongly disagree with that assessment (I very much agree with Ken Wilson, who calls this a disputable matter in line with what we see in Romans 14), but I can't stop people from believing what they will. However, I've made a commitment with my life to follow Jesus with every fiber of my being, and to be as honest in my interpreting of scripture as possible. I continue to do both of these things. I believe that I've done so here, and I'll continue to do so in the future.

Regardless of where you ultimately land on this or any other issue, may we constantly remember to be people who show the love that Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 13.
A love that is patient and kind.
A love that is not envious, boastful, or proud.
A love that is not selfish, angry, or score-keeping.
A love of protection, trust, hope, and perseverance.

May we show this kind of love to the LGBTQ community.
May we show it to one another.


Further Resources:
  • Absolutely, positively, without question, the first resource I would point anybody to is Letter to my Congregation by Ken Wilson. It's an incredible work of pastoral care and biblical study. I couldn't recommend it more. One of my favorite books of all time.
  • As mentioned above, Bible Gender Sexuality from James Brownson is an excellent examination of the biblical arguments surrounding homosexuality. It's a dense read, but a great one. Read it slowly. If you want to hear his thoughts in video form, he did a four part series that's on YouTube. 1234
  • Torn by Justin Lee wrecked me. He talks about his realization as a teenager that he was gay, despite having a loving, non-abusive upbringing and being such a committed Christian that he was nicknamed "God Boy." He discusses his experience with ex-gay ministries, and his efforts to truthfully and honestly interpret scripture and live accordingly.
  • Matthew Vines' God and the Gay Christian is a solid resource. His foundation also put out a sort of CliffsNotes version of his work called How to Talk About the Bible and LGBT Inclusion, which is an easy read and a nice resource to have on your shelf.
  • Changing Our Mind by David Gushee is fantastic.
  • I've read a number of non-affirming writers, and most of them are steeped in culture-war rhetoric, which I find unhelpful. Preston Sprinkle's book People to be Loved is different. Obviously I come to some different conclusions than he does, but his research and exegesis is solid. Much more importantly, he really drives home the point that Christians are called to a radical one-sided love, no matter what they believe regarding homosexuality. He also calls out hypocrisies that Christians have exhibited historically. I've read the book three times. It's great.
  • There aren't a lot of solid resources about transgender Christians (I've read many terrible ones), but Transforming by Austin Hartke is quite good.
  • There is also some good material in Understanding Gender Dysphoria by Mark Yarhouse. He's not affirming, but is sympathetic to the struggles and difficulties of people who are transgender. Like Bible Gender Sexuality, however, this is a dense read.
  • I liked Us Versus Us from Andrew Marin a lot. It's a sociological study of LGBTQ individuals and their history with faith. Chapter three in particular will really shift your perspective.
  • A narrative resource that I loved was Does Jesus Really Love Me? by Jeff Chu.
  • These four videos from Justin Lee: Parents: What to Do When Your Child Comes OutHomosexuality, the Bible, and NuanceCan you be Gay and Christian?, and Who's Right About Sodom?
  • This conversation at a church in Florida shortly after the Pulse nightclub shooting, where people genuinely wrestle through these issues with a whole lot of grace: Elevating the Dialogue on LGBTQ Inclusion
  • These stories from Vicky Beeching and Julie Rodgers.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Making a Game About Depression that isn't Depressing

There was a long period of time last year that I had no desire to do anything at all.
Each day I would wake up and go to work, and I'd come home late in the afternoon.
I might play a short board game with the kids and help put them to bed.
And then I'd do nothing. I might watch a bunch of movie reviews on YouTube. Some days I just sat on the couch and stared off into space for hours.

My wife would ask if I wanted to watch a movie and I'd decline. 
She would ask if I wanted to play a game. Nah.
I just wanted to sit on the couch or lie on the bed and do nothing.
I didn't want to see or talk to anybody. Not my family, not my friends. Nobody.

I was declining social gatherings. I decided not to go to events that had been on the calendar for months--events I'd been excited to attend.
Friends called me wanting to hang out. I turned them down.

This became my basic routine for weeks. Months.

I also felt less and less like I was in control of my life. It's terribly hard to explain, but it felt like my body was acting, (showering, getting dressed, going to work), but my mind had little agency in how I was living my life.
Many mornings I'd look in the mirror, and I felt like I was looking at a completely different person.

None of it made any sense.
My wife and I weren't having any big marital issues.
I wasn't terribly overworked; no more than usual, anyway.
It didn't feel like burnout.
Nothing too tragic or overwhelming had happened in my life.

I told my therapist about all of this. She responded simply,
"Sometimes depression keeps you from living your life like you'd like. But that's okay. It's normal. And it can get better."

"Wait, back up. Depression? You said I had anxiety. That's what we've been working on this whole time."

"Well, they often go together. People might have one, and the other joins in."

Cool.
So anxiety and depression are having a house party in my brain.
That's fun.

---

Last year I spoke with Marc Davis from The Thoughtful Gamer about a small solitaire card game that I designed to help work through my anxiety (you can read about that game here). We talked about gaming, mental health, and faith. During the conversation, I joked that he and I should make a follow-up card game called Depression, and turn this into a whole series of mental health card games. 
That joke became less of a joke. We actually had a couple of emails back and forth about what a Depression card game might look like. However, 2 people with busy schedules trying to design a game on opposite sides of the country turned out to be difficult. Go figure.

Still, I thought there might be something there. So for a while, I kept working on it.

I fiddled with different ideas for about six months. The game went through dozens of iterations. At times it was a deckbuilder. For a while, it was a blatant rip-off of Splendor. Then it became a simple numbers game that really didn't fit the theme at all.

Eventually I got frustrated and punished the game by putting it in Time Out for a while.


These are just some of the cards and ideas that didn't work. There are so many more.

Shortly after the conversation with my therapist, however, I pulled the game back out. With Anxiety, I wanted to make a game that caused the player to feel the way that anxiety made me feel.

I wanted to do the same thing here. I wanted a Depression game to feel like depression.




The idea of fighting against a lack of motivation remained the goal of the game. I realized that there were basically three tiers of things I wanted to accomplish on a given day. There was personal care, work responsibilities, and social/family responsibilities. Most days, I was able to handle the personal care stuff. It was the rare day where I didn't want to shower or eat anything and stayed in my pajamas all day (although those days did exist).

Discard abilities help you finish Goals without burning through the deck and losing the game

Work responsibilities were more difficult. Planning and leading meetings, writing sermons and lessons, and all of the other responsibilities I had as a pastor became more and more taxing. Some mornings I would have ambition and drive, and other days I had no desire to talk with anybody or to accomplish anything.

(As I type this, it sounds like I'm describing laziness. It's not laziness. I know laziness. This was different.)

As I mentioned before, the biggest difficulty was following through on my responsibilities as a friend, a husband, and a dad. At my worst, I didn't wanted to see or talk with anybody, including my family.

I realized that this should be the direction that I take this game. The player would progress through a short period of time (a day or a few days) of someone experiencing depression. The goal would be to try to accomplish personal, work, and social tasks while simultaneously fighting the depression that tries to keep a person down.



The goal of the game is to complete six Goal cards of increasing difficulty--one personal task, two work tasks, and three social/family tasks. As you complete Goals, you get some help for completing future Goals. However, whenever you draw a Depression card, they immediately cover up previous Goal cards, and you have to discard cards from your hand to remove them.


Depression cards impede your progress


But sometimes, you'll clear a Depression card, only to draw three more.

Because that's how depression is some days.

Sometimes you accomplish a little, only to fall apart again.

Sometimes you get everything done that you set out to do.

Some days you're so low, you spend the whole day in your pajamas.

As I said about the Anxiety game, I really only made it for myself, to help me work through some of my mental health problems.

But if you want to give it a whirl, you can buy a copy here.

And if you want to see how to play, here's a video. The cards in the video are prototypes, and some art has changed, but the game play is the basically same as in the final copy.


Thursday, October 11, 2018

BreadyMcWineFace

A communion meditation given on 10/7/18

Nobody talks about Left Shark anymore. For a couple of weeks, you couldn't go anywhere without someone talking about Left Shark.
For those who weren't paying attention at the time, a few years ago Katy Perry did the Super Bowl halftime show. This show was a spectacle; a barrage of colors; an assault on the senses. Partway through the show, there were a couple of people in shark costumes that danced next to Katy. The shark on the right hit all of its marks, and followed all of the dance moves perfectly.
The one on the left....didn't. It basically bumbled and flopped its way through the dance number. Left Shark was terrible, and won the hearts of millions of viewers.



Nobody talks about BoatyMcBoatFace anymore. A couple of years ago, a scientific research vessel was built, and the scientists allowed people to vote on what the boat would be named. A few names were in the running. Unfortunately, the scientists allowed for a "write-in" candidate, and the internet is the internet, so someone wrote in BoatyMcBoatFace.
This name won by a landslide.
The scientists were not happy.
It was a wonderful time.
For a couple of weeks, you couldn't go anywhere without someone talking about BoatyMcBoatFace.

Both of these stories have been all but forgotten. You and I haven't heard anyone talk about BoatyMcBoatFace or Left Shark for at least a year.

Both of these stories transcended political divides, interpersonal differences, and religious differences. All people, everywhere, came together to share in these ridiculous stories.

And now they're pretty much gone.

We often have moments that unite us in spite of the divisions we might have.

Each week, we come around the Lord's table. In this moment, around this table, we're united in Christ. We remember, together, the Lord's death until he comes. Each week, we come together despite our differences.

We come together to unite once again. We come together to proclaim the Lord's death, together. We come together to remember, together.

The divides and stress and anguish and worry and heartache and pain of the world can cause us to pull away from one another and to forget how Christ has brought us together.

As we come to the table each week, we're reminded of our unity in Christ.

As we gather, as we eat the bread and drink the wine, let us remember, together, the Lord's death until he comes.

<words of institution>

Saturday, September 22, 2018

The Lie I Believed About Depression

Warning: talk of suicide and self-harm in this post.


Here's a lie I believed once:

If your faith is strong enough, you won't be depressed or have suicidal thoughts.

I was brought up with the understanding that suicide was a sin. As I understood it, suicide was a flagrant rejection of God's love for us. It was an expression of doubt and rejection of the hope that comes from God. Suicide was deciding to kill a person that God loves.
In essence, I understood suicide to be akin to murder.

A person with a strong faith would never reject the hope that comes from God alone. A person with a strong faith would never murder a person that God loves. Therefore, a strong faith will deter a person from having any kind of suicidal thoughts.

Right?

Well...


This is a part of my life I didn't really want to talk about.
In March/April of this year, I started wishing for death. It wasn't all the time; it wasn't even much of the time. However, there were distinct moments where I would start to worry or panic about something in my life--a conversation or an upcoming meeting--and I'd wish that I was dead.

I had no idea why. I'd never had thoughts like this before.

These fleeting thoughts became daily thoughts. Sometimes a few times a day.

And these thoughts about "wishing for death" became more intense thoughts of self-harm and suicide.

I've worked in churches for a number of years, and I know how seriously to take it when someone mentions suicide. So when I started having thoughts of suicide myself, it completely freaked me out. I called my therapist one Thursday afternoon and told her all of these thoughts I'd been having, and she set an appointment for the next morning.

She asked me if I'd made any kinds of plans. I said I hadn't.
She told me that while scary, and while serious, suicidal thoughts are actually a relatively common and understandable response to high levels of stress. They're also not uncommon when a person goes through therapy, since dark moments in a person's life are brought to light. That can cause intense stress and anxiety, and lead to suicidal thoughts.

I was reminded to use diversion/behavioral/meditation techniques (which helped), and made a list of five people to contact if these thoughts got worse, or if I started making plans.
Thankfully, I haven't had to make those calls.

I want to say that the thoughts stopped after that conversation, but they didn't. I had them daily for about four months. It was usually a quick thought that came and went, but another one would follow shortly after.

Every time that I'd have one of these thoughts, I'd feel a strong pang of guilt. Why? Because of the lie I'd always believed: 
If your faith is strong enough, you won't be depressed or have suicidal thoughts.

But I was depressed.


I did have suicidal thoughts.

This led to many questions. Some of these questions were spiritual:
What do these thoughts say about my faith?
Is my faith weak because of my depression and anxiety and the terrible thoughts that come with them?
What do these thoughts say about my ability to help other people in their own faith walk?

Some of these questions were practical:
Could I effectively help people when internally I was struggling with the will to keep going?

But the worst thoughts that I had during this time were the ones that called into question my ability to navigate ordinary life situations.
I'm in my early 30's, relatively healthy, fantastic job: one I've always wanted and have felt called to do, good marriage, loving wife, two kids who can be a handful but not more than any other children, roof over my head, food to eat each meal time, and a bunch of friends.
How can a person with all of those things going well possibly want his life to end?
I have friends and acquaintances who have experienced hell on earth. It would make perfect sense for them to have these kinds of thoughts.
There is no reason why a person whose life is as well off as mine should feel the way that I feel.


Comparing yourself to others can be ugly.


In my experience, it added more depression to the depression.
It added more anxiety to the anxiety.
It added more panic to the panic.

I was constantly criticizing myself for these thoughts, which made me fixate more on the fact that I had these thoughts in the first place, which in turn led to more depression, more dark thoughts, more anxiety, more panic attacks, more withdrawing from others.

The depression remained. The thoughts remained. For around four months, I had suicidal thoughts pretty much every day.

But I kept up with therapy and with all of the behavioral, meditation, and diversion practices, and things started to get better.
Not perfect, but better.
Over the last couple of months, I've very rarely wished for death. The depression has remained, but it's noticeably less of a strain on my day to day life (although it is a strain on my life, for sure).

I had faith, I spent time in prayer, and yet I needed the help of a therapist.
If your faith is strong enough, you won't be depressed or have suicidal thoughts simply was not the case in my life. And I'm not alone. There are many other Christians who have depression and have wrestled with the same kinds of demons.

Am I downplaying faith? No.
Do I believe in the power of prayer? Yes.
Do I think that God can and does heal people from physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual ailments? Yes.

However, I've come to realize that a person's faith can be incredibly strong, and that person can still experience depression.
A person may suffer thoughts of self-harm even though they have a healthy prayer life.
Someone can turn to Jesus with their physical, emotional, and mental ailments while simultaneously taking antidepressants.

Therapy isn't weakness. Medication isn't weakness.
If you're someone who is experiencing severe depression, thoughts of self-harm, or thoughts of suicide, get help. Talk to someone. See a counselor. Take medication if it's prescribed for you. Whatever you may need to get your head above water enough to be able to navigate life--do it.

From someone who's been there recently (and someone who never thought he'd be writing a post like this), it's worth it.

And seriously, if you need to talk to someone immediately, the suicide prevention hotline number is 1-800-273-8255. 
Call it. Getting help is not weakness.




Thursday, August 23, 2018

Anxiety Part 7: Mission to Moscow

Part 7 of the mental health series - Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5Part 6

In November of last year, I signed up for a half marathon.

It was kind of on a whim.

For a long time, I'd done next to no physical activity in a day. I'm a pastor, and most of my week is spent either writing sermons, or writing emails, or in meetings, or visiting with people in their homes or in the hospital. All of these activities involve sitting. Then I'd get home in the evening, sit down to eat dinner, and finish out the day by watching TV on the couch.

I was sitting down. All day, every day.

I wanted to stop being such a lazy piece of garbage.

I used to run in high school, but more or less stopped running after that (with the occasional 1-2 month effort to get myself exercising again...those always failed as well).
High school ended 16 years ago.
I stopped running roughly half my life ago.

I decided one night that I wanted to start running again. However, I know myself, and I know that I'm not too terribly self-motivated. So in a spur-of-the-moment decision, I signed up for a half marathon.
It cost fifty bucks.
And I wrote about it on social media, so that all of my friends would know, and I'd have some public shame if I didn't go through with it.
Paying money and the possibility of shame are good motivators for me.

Months went by, February came, and I ran the race. I didn't really want to stop running, though, because I was healthier and feeling better about myself. So I signed up for another race.

And then another.

Physical health wasn't the primary reason that I kept running, though. There was a much bigger reason.

I noticed that on days when I ran, my mental health would be better, and on days when I didn't run, I was in a much worse head space.

I normally run on Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Sunday. I noticed that whenever I'd skip a day, that day and the days following would be terrible.

For example, if I ever skip running on Tuesday, I tend to have a panic attack on Tuesday night or Wednesday. I'll also feel incredibly low and depressed until Thursday, when I run again. I don't know exactly why this is, but it's been proven true repeatedly.

I'm no expert, but I'd imagine that different amounts of exercise are probably good for different people. However, I personally find that without around 4 good runs per week, my mental health becomes much, much worse.

Exercise has been shown to improve mental health in people, so it makes sense that I'd have worse days when I don't run.

I started running because I wanted to stop being lazy, but that's not why I kept doing it. I kept running because it was making me feel better. It was helping me cope with other things in my life. It was allowing me space from other, more difficult, parts of my life four days a week.

So I keep doing it.

I don't always love it. In fact, just the thought of going on a six mile run bums me out most of the time. But it's helping me, so I keep doing it.

If you're someone who suffers from mental health problems, I'd encourage some sort of exercise. I don't know all of the science to back up this recommendation. I just know that it's helped me.

I don't have many tips for how to get going (the first month is by far the worst). But here's some things that have helped me:

  • Sign up for an event. Specifically, if you're wanting to start running, sign up for a race. There's nothing like dropping 50-60 bucks to get you moving. You're never going to get the money back, so you dang well better have a shirt and medal to show for it.
  • Start putting your running clothes on immediately when you think about it. I read an article a couple of years ago, and I can no longer find it (if any readers find it, send it to me and I'll link it here). The article said that whenever we are deciding whether or not to do something, we have a 20 second window of time to get started. If we begin the activity within that 20 seconds, we'll almost certainly do it. If we don't get started within the 20 seconds, we won't. So if you're sitting on the couch, wondering whether or not to go running, stand up immediately. Start putting on socks. Make sure you get started within the 20 seconds, or you're not going to do it.
  • Finishing is the point. This one's really just for me. A friend recently saw my time from a race and said to me "I thought you'd be faster. You used to run cross country in high school." Personally, I don't run competitively. For me, finishing is the point. Getting to the end is the goal. I don't worry too much about time. There are going to be days I run faster, and days I run slower, and those things aren't what's important. The important thing is doing it. Finishing is the point.
  • Run in a loop. When I run around the park close to my house, I'm constantly thinking about the fact that I can quit and go home at anytime. When I run to the corner of Portsmouth and Willamette, I'm 3 miles from my house. I either have to circle back or con someone into driving me home. When you run in a large loop, you have to keep going.
  • I like to listen to podcasts when I run. Most people seem to have a playlist of workout music that they listen to when they exercise, and that's great (pro-tip: if you do have one of these playlists, Disconnected by Face to Face. You're welcome). For me, though, music just reminds me how long I've been running. If I listen to 30 songs, it feels longer than when I listen to 2 podcasts. I'd rather listen to 2 things than 30 things. Also, podcasts let me zone out and think about something completely unrelated to my actual life for an hour. I listen to podcasts that make me laugh and have nothing to do with my normal life. Better than podcasts, though...
  • Run with friends. If you can find someone who will run with you, it's so much better. Most of the time I don't have anyone to run with, because most people seem to work out in the morning, and I run in the afternoon/evening. But when I do have the chance to run with friends, the time goes by much faster, and I don't get nearly as tired. It's easier when all of us are suffering together.
So that's it. Running has helped my mental health greatly. Other than therapy, it's been by far the most helpful practice for me.

I'm fighting my anxiety and depression with endorphins.



Side note: This whole "name your numbered blog posts after the same numbered movie in a series" idea was not a smart one. Very few movie series run past 2 or 3 sequels. I'm really scraping the bottom of the barrel here, and I still have six more posts to go...

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Anxiety Part 6: Fallout

Part 6 of the mental health series - Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5

A short follow up to last week's question: How do you "love your neighbor as yourself" if you don't really love yourself?

First, it is absolutely possible to love other people when you don't love yourself.*** 
Nobody feels great about themselves every single day. We all have bad days. But on those bad days, we can still show love to someone else, even though we may not feel good about the person we are. Everybody has bad days where they still want to help and show love to other people.

However, we generally don't have a lot of love to pour into others if we constantly and consistently feel down on ourselves.

I do a lot of self-care practices, meditation, etc., to try and make sure that I'm emotionally filled before I try to show love to other people.
However, lately my therapist and spiritual director have both been encouraging me to do something else. They are pushing me to focus more on the positive things that happen in my life and the positive interactions that I have with people, and to focus less on my negative thoughts and interactions.
This is unnatural for me.
I don't like to hide from my problems and troubles. "Focusing on the positive" feels to me like ignoring reality. 
It feels like pretending.
I don't like to shy away from the unhappy or terrible or painful parts of life. Those parts of life are real.
I don't like to pretend.

But I've been told to do so. Evidently, trying to focus more on the positive things in your life than the negative is not pretending. Rather, it can be beneficial for your mental health.
It can be a way to love yourself, so that you're emotionally available to show love to other people.

So I'm working on it.
I'm still kind of skeptical.
At the very least, though, it can't hurt to focus on the positive things in my life.

Right?



***One small bit of language in the video. If you don't want to hear it, you can mute at 1:51. Or just don't watch it at all. Whatever. You do you.