Full LGBT+ Inclusion in the Church is Not a “Secular Victory”

I am intimately familiar with the religious arguments made against the embrace of non-heterosexual orientations because I used to make them myself.

I have two degrees in biblical studies from more conservative schools, including an M.A. from Asbury Seminary, a leading conservative institutional voice in the debate within the United Methodist Church over its current official condemnation of homosexuality. I have been taught by Asbury, and also by the more conservative churches I have belonged to along the way, that the only possible faithful Christian position on homosexuality is that it is sin.

All this to say, I’ve been there. I know very well the way of seeing things which excludes homosexuality from the realm of possibility of being blessed by God. And as I said, I know this intimately and, frankly, much more so than many of the loudest voices from which we’re hearing the more conservative point of view. Let me explain how.

I was last part of a church body largely opposed to homosexuality when I resigned from the staff of a leading conservative church body in the UMC in 2016. I did so because my mind had changed on homosexuality, and since I could then from that point and for the first time truly acknowledge my own sexuality, I had to let myself be seen as such: a gay person who happened to be a United Methodist Christian. I believed that to try to do this and to remain on staff would’ve brought more harm than good–if not to the church, then to me during what was a most vulnerable time in my life.

This aim to do more good than harm has put me in a tricky spot since then. With the way the debates have carried on in the United Methodist Church in particular and in the larger church and society in general, I have not found engaging in most of the arguments to be a fruitful or edifying way of investing my time and energy.

But I do believe, as someone who has gone from being fully-devoted to the anti-LGBT+ way of seeing things to the way which I now see is better informed by theology and experience, that we must have this discussion on valid terms and with useful concepts. That’s why I can’t resist any longer the opportunity in this vein to dispel a terribly faulty way of maintaining opposition to homosexual identities and relationships.

I have heard it and read it repeatedly: for the United Methodist Church (and presumably any Christian group) to accept homosexuality would be a “secular victory” over the church. And just to take the most recent example I’ve seen today, the anti-LGBT Confessing Movement within the UMC has just published an article in which Rev. Maxie Dunnam claims that for the United Methodist Church to accept homosexual marriage will be to have “bowed to secular forces.”

The first thing wrong with this reasoning is that it cannot do what it presupposes is possible–that is, that we can actually draw a line distinguishing what is “secular” from what is … what, authentically and exclusively Christian? To try to do so is to draw at best–but without proper authority or any real ability–an arbitrary line between those means by which and–peoples within which–God may and may not work, between those things that may and may not reflect divine goodness, truth, and beauty.

It is this, the over-stepping of our bounds in drawing this arbitrary line, that is at the heart of communal sin in the earliest Christian communities (“What Jesus’s Death Kills”). And this provides an example for the second thing wrong with this reasoning, in that it has not and does not play out in experience–for while there does lie in the Israelite prophetic tradition a theme involving the rest of the world’s people groups ultimately being destroyed by God, it is instead the vision of the God of Israel welcoming all nations which proves to be the way God is actually at work through Jesus and in the group bearing his name.

But there is no scriptural (non-secular?) word from God telling this group how people of non-Jewish ethnicities may join this Jewish messianic-Jesus movement. Do they have to practice the Jewish law, or not? Hence, the “works of the law” debate which plays out in Paul’s letters, which was not primarily centered around the question, “What religious work am I doing to ensure my own personal salvation or status with God?”, but instead, “How are my religious presuppositions being challenged by what God is doing in the world among these (secular?) people?”

And now here we stand, as a majority gentile church who have been allowed in to this Jesus community without having to go through the channels that God had so obviously (or so it seemed to many) designated as the only way of receiving and channeling the full divine blessing. Is our place in the people of God based in a “secular victory” over the early church?

And a seemingly infinite amount of examples could be given still. Do we not realize that all biblical and theological language is “secular” language? That nothing that we may say of God ever actually crosses the boundary from the humanly-conceived “secular” sphere into that which is actually reflective of the divine? (Indeed, were it not for God’s often surprising self-revealing activity in the actual components of the world in spite of our limitations, we would be in the situation of having a God we wouldn’t know or worse [or better?], a God we could control.)

And was it a “secular victory” when churches incorporated technology, other styles of music, or athletics programs? It is no good argument, as the one Dunnam makes in his article, that a sort of majority vote around the world or throughout history determines what belongs within the realm of the certifiably “non-secular.” We cannot so easily and so hastily brush over how majorities get things wrong. Need we return to the discussion of the early church and the law for an example?

To follow the logic of “secular victories” for a moment, was it not a secular victory for divorce to become acceptable in much of the church? If so, why are we not hearing anywhere near as much about it as we are LGBT+ people? Is it not a secular victory for segments of the church to become so aligned with political ideologies, to focus so exclusively on a (non-biblical) idea of the importance of the nuclear family, or to become immeshed in consumerism as we practically dispense with care for those in need?

What about when (heterosexual) marriage is made a near necessity, when Paul clearly presents strong restrictions on even entering into them? It is impossible to follow the same biblical hermeneutic which rejects homosexuality and to continue practices that uphold even heterosexual marriage as the highest ideal. Such a thing should smell of a “secular victory” upon Christian ethics, if that’s what you are really on the lookout for.

But what about the United Methodist Church in particular? On just this day Rev. Jeremy Smith posted an article about how the UMC has repeatedly said throughout its history that it had gone as far as it could go with gender, race, and marriage issues only to end up finding that it had been wrong. He explains:

Society granted women the right to vote before women could become clergy (with full voting privileges) in The UMC. Society passed the Civil Rights Act before The UMC eliminated the racist “separate but equal” Central Jurisdiction. While not everything endorsed by society is appropriate for the Church, sometimes the Spirit moves through culture faster than it moves through the Church. Even Traditionalists now benefit from an inclusive UMC that allows women and divorcees to become pastors.

In support of his point about how majorities supposedly reveal what is the will of God over against “secular forces,” Dunnam cites the growing population of United Methodists in sub-Saharan Africa, the majority of whom are anti-LGBT+. But he does so apart from showing how their anti-LGBT+ stance is a result of their Christianity. Did anti-LGBT+ ideology spring up with Christianity when it prevailed over secular forces? Moreover, is this supposedly Christian anti-LGBT+ ideology shaped and fueled by non-secular influences? Just which is it? Is it Christianity or is it secular forces that makes most of these countries, both officially and socially, as harshly, violently, and murderously against LGBT+ people as they are?*** This is an especially important question to consider when two countries that Dunnam cites explicitly as majority anti-LGBT+ are only minority-Christian: Nigeria at 40% and Senegal at 4%. It seems that despite the use of what seems like scare-tactic rhetoric about homosexual marriage representing an anti-Christian secular victory over the church, Dunnam is actually quite willing to collude with these “secular forces” when they support his position.

This raises the question, not just for Africans but for us here in North America, too: Are people really anti-LGBT+ just because they are Christians? Just because they think the Bible tells them so? And apart from any other (secular?) factors? As someone born, raised, and still living in the American South, I can go ahead and attest that there is a strong current of anti-LGBT+ feeling and emotion which does not seem closely associated with close, faithful Bible reading and Christian devotion.

I further suspect that it is largely this current which lies beneath the “Christian” anti-LGBT+ emphasis, and that the Bible is simply used as a means to elicit support for it and to maltreatment of LGBT+ people. (Tragically, however, I believe that some people make the mistake of moving the opposite direction, by assuming that to be Christian must mean entering into the cultural current of LGBT discrimination. In any case, the opinions I have presented in these last couple of paragraphs are not meant as a definitive judgment but as a way of getting us to consider the question.)

I’ll conclude with the third and perhaps primary thing which is wrong with this reasoning. It’s the shortest point because it cuts to the heart of the issue, and to the core of the disagreement. Once we disagree about this, there’s not much else to say. But here it is, anyway: This rising, blooming, and flourishing of LGBT+ human lives and relationships in the church is coming from within Christianity and the church, not merely from without. And I have no better example to give of this than my own life, and the lives of the scores of brave, self-giving witnesses who remain in a church that gives them a lot of reasons to leave.

Being gay is not just about my sexual attraction. It’s an intertwined part of my personality and I would not be who I am without it. And becoming who I really am en Christo has made the inclusive Jesus community all the more real to me. It’s as if I understand in a visceral way which I would not otherwise what it means for the church–from its formation–to be the place where the “others” are welcomed. And it primes me to hear how it’s actually good news that all those harlots and tax collectors from the “secular” world are going to the front of the line in place of all of us religious people, and that it’s my role and my joy to welcome them.

***It is also, frankly, shameful that these statistics about the percentages of anti-LGBT+ ideology in these African countries would be cited without a single word or hint of regret about the abhorrent treatment of LGBT+ people which is perpetrated, supported, and tolerated by Christians. As for the countries Dunnam explicitly cites, the official anti-LGBT+ policies extend beyond simply the denial of rights and into criminal punishment: In Nigeria homosexuality carries the death penalty, whipping, or imprisonment. It has also enacted legislation that would makes support for LGBT people illegal and worthy of a ten-year prison sentence. In Senegal, gay people risk imprisonment. In Ghana, only gay men risk imprisonment (homosexual relations between women is fully legal [is this exception Christian, or secular?]), in Uganda the risk is life imprisonment or execution, and in Kenya one risks imprisonment.

All this not to mention the non-official abuse and murder afflicted on LGBT+ people at alarming rates in countries where non-secular forces are supposedly prevailing.

Fo more information, visit https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LGBT_rights_in_Africa


*We* Are the “Least of These”

Church folks are very likely to hear members of society who are considered “the poor” (or the ones who are seen to face some other kind of oppression or large-scale difficulty) referred to as “the least of these.” And I would assume that in pretty much every case, good intentions lie behind it. The “least of these” are mentioned as such because they are the suffering members of our society that the church is called to help.

This is based in Matthew 25:31-46, where, in Jesus’s apocalyptic vision of final judgment, those who provide food, drink, and clothing and share human contact with those in need (i.e., the “least of these” [v. 45] or “the least of these my brothers” [v. 40]) are welcomed into the kingdom because when they provide these needs they ultimately are doing so for the “king” (who in this vision is taken to be Jesus and/or God). (And, also, those who do not provide these needs do not ultimately do so to the king, and so they are excluded from the kingdom.)

However, aside from the fact that this is a pretty clumsy expression when taken straight out of its context of Matthew 25:31-46 (these … what? least how?), there are two major reasons that we should drop this habit altogether:

  1. The ones referred to as “the least of these” in Matthew 25 are most likely members of the Jesus-following community, not members of the general society.
  2. For this reason and for other reasons just as valid, there is not–and should not be–a distinction between “those” who are “the least” and “we” who are not.

As for the first reason, the phrase “the least of these/these littlest ones” found in Matthew 25:31-46 is the less common superlative form (found only here in chapter 25) of an expression found only in Matthew (except for Luke 17:2) which may be translated “the little of these/these little ones.” This expression is always used to refer to those who are part of the Jesus-following community (10:42; 18:6, 10, 14).

This connection between this phrase and the Jesus-following community is made even more explicit by the presence of “brothers” in the first occurrence of the expression in v. 40. Aside from the references to literal nuclear families (e.g., 1:2, 4:21), “brothers” is most likely not applied in Matthew to humanity in general but to the Jewish community and/or siblings in the new family centered around Jesus (e.g., 5:23-24, 47; 7:3-5; 18:15-35). The most important illustration of this is in 12:49-50, where Jesus even redefines “brother” (and “sister” and “mother”) as those following him, or those doing the will of God (cf. 28:10).

So, in Matthew 25:31-46, when the king in Jesus’s vision describes the ones having their needs provided as “the least of these” and the “least of these my brothers,” it is not a reference to anybody in the broader society who is destitute or in prison or is in poor health. It is a reference to members of the Jesus-following community who happen to have specific needs that the community should meet.

This insight, admittedly, rains on the parade especially of Christians who are keenly aware of the Jesus community’s responsibility in seeking justice in the world. We know that the church doesn’t exist in the world merely for itself but for those not yet part of it. But this knowledge tends to blind us from how the New Testament emphasizes how important it is that love and justice work their way out from the Jesus community into the world (see John 13:34-35; Galatians 6:10; 1 John 3:15-18; 1 John 4:20-21). Acts 4:34-35 even features the Jesus community taking shape as its members pool their resources so that all needs of the community are met.

(Lest this become another excuse for many church bodies to become even more inwardly-focused [and selfish], it is very important to remember how strange and vulnerable and socially-powerless the primitive Christian community was. They did not have the upper hand. Just being Christian would have made getting by much more difficult than it is for those of us in my culture, where the situation is basically reversed.)

I am certainly not the first to discover we have been misusing “least of these” phrase and I’m definitely not the first to try to correct the error. Other scholars have done the same. They affirm that we can’t on the basis of this passage draw a distinction between “we” in the church and “those out there” who are “the least of these.” But I want to take us a step further and explain the second reason why we should put an end to how we’ve been using this phrase.

Not only is there no warrant from the way “the least of these” is used in Matthew 25:31-46 for taking the phrase out of this context and applying it to those in society we see as in need, but there is also no warrant in this passage to make a distinction even within the Jesus-following community about those who are “the least of these.” And there are two reasons for this.

First, as we’ve already seen, “the least of these” or “these little ones” is a chiefly Matthean way of referring to people in the community of Jesus followers that occurs apart from their particular status of food, drink, and clothing supply, health, or whether they are in prison or not. Second–and far more importantly–it is harmful, indeed even “anti-community,” to draw such a distinction between people based on need. And this goes also for committing the overall mistake of calling people in society who are seen to be in need as “the least of these.”

Drawing a distinction between people based on their perceived need commits the sin which surfaces so often in Christian “missions”: the labeling, categorizing, and ultimately limiting of people by defining their personhood by their situation and by going even further in this mistake by defining “them” by how “we” are going to fulfill our duty upon them.

And I have emphasized “seen to be in need,” or “perceived need,” because we too quickly falsely assume these things and thereby see a person based on need instead of seeing a need based on people who are in particular situations.

Beyond how we can misconstrue and misunderstand other people placed in the “them” category by making the mistake of labeling people (which “the least of these” helps us to do), we should see how by doing so we are misconstruing and misunderstanding ourselves. That is, for others to be mistakenly labeled “the least of these” has us remain in ignorance of how we ourselves are in need. And we may even miss how we may have our needs met by people we have already placed in the category of those who receive our charity, advocacy, or service.

It is we, hearers of the Gospel in need of the community given to us, who are the least of these.

And so, finally, our charitable misapplication of “the least of these” to other people reinforces (oh-so-slyly) the distinction between “us” and “them” that lies at the heart of social and communal sin (see Ephesians 2:13-16). As God seems to have been determined about from the beginning, the mission starts with us and ends with an even larger “us.” The “we” of the community is not defined by standing in contrast to “them” on the outside, but is instead defined by living into the calling of mutual, inclusive love and care. This is not ultimately “outreach” into the community; this is inclusion into a community that God sees fit to expand as all socially-enforced distinctions are considered loss.

One year ago today, I didn’t get any work done.

One year ago today I sat in my office at my former job and, to my memory, didn’t get any work done.

I was gay, in the closet, and on staff at a church that remains opposed to LGBTQ people living true to their sexual identities. My church and the denomination of which it is a part will still not officiate, celebrate, or recognize the marriages of same-sex couples.

For much longer and to a much a greater degree than it ever should have, the stance of my religious community and many others like it influenced the stance of government on matters related to marriage.

New York Times on June 25, 2015

I had to go to Starbucks to get an edition of the Saturday paper because I was only subscribed for Monday through Friday. I have kept it safe for a whole year now!

And that morning, on June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that no state within its borders has the ability to withhold legal marriage from its citizens because of gender:

No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be  condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.

The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is reversed.

It is so ordered. 

Thankfully, I had no meetings that day that decision was announced, and no matter of such pressing urgency that it would have prevented me from remaining glued to the video coverage, scrolling incessantly through some of the most colorful photos I had ever seen, and celebrating very, very quietly. I was ecstatic, and I had to hide it.

So I just sat in front of my computer and checked Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram compulsively throughout the entire day. And I remember just one tweet in particular. It was from a young woman whose name I can’t remember, and it simply acknowledged that amidst the rainbow flags, lights, and streamers, and the smiles and tears of those celebrating outwardly, there were so many of us who couldn’t share in that celebration and express the relief and jubilation that we secretly felt.

I didn’t even “favorite” this tweet so that I (and most importantly, anyone else who looked at my profile) could go back and find it, and I most definitely didn’t retweet it. I didn’t even reply to this woman and say “thank you” for remembering us out of concern for what people would think of me–scared that I would be outed before I was ready.

Indeed, at this time, I wasn’t even out of the closet much less ready to even think about getting married. But why I could not keep my mind on anything but this decision was about much more than the fact that now anyone regardless of gender could be married anywhere in the United States, as wonderful as it was. It was mostly a sign of how far we had come, closer–or perhaps beginning–a new era of human equality. And it was an assuring boost of confidence as a new era was just beginning to unfold in my own life.

After holding the conservative Christian view on marriage handed to me by my culture, family, and my church for my entire life, I had in the year prior to the close of Obergefell v. Hodges realized that there was nothing in Christianity or common sense that conflicted with being gay. And a few months after that honest realization, I actually accepted myself as a homosexual after years of intense, confusing psychological denial. And at the time the Supreme Court announced this decision, I had only come out to a few close friends. I didn’t have any idea of what was next for me. I still didn’t know when I would tell family, or even if I would ever tell them.

It is now one year later after the Supreme Court of the United States upheld and further enacted the finest and most meaningful of its constitutive principles about the dignity of human beings.

It is one year later after our nation’s highest court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in Obergefell v. Hodges, two of which are a couple from Tennessee, where, in my ignorance, naiveté, and twisted self-denial, I had taken one of my first turns as a voter a decade ago to help my home state deny me a right that I later would have done everything I could do to fight for.

Now, I don’t have to fight to overturn a law passed by own vote cast out of an unwillingness to see myself and allow others what is rightfully theirs. My vote for inequality and my grounds for hiding are now obsolete.

The limitation of marriage to opposite-sex couples may long have seemed natural and just, but its inconsistency with the central meaning of the fundamental right to marry is now manifest.

Now, today, one year since I sat in my office not getting any work done, I have left that desk for good and have resigned my position at my church. I’m also approaching three months worth of an immensely happy relationship with an old friend from high school who contacted me when he saw my video, “Being Seen.” And, I never, ever knew that life could be as good as this.

You can be who you are.

You can be who you are.

These words have become a sort of personal liturgy for me, and the discovery of their truth still fuels and fascinates me. (I Instagram flowers SO much more than I ever thought I could.)

And so now, one year later after watching the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States play out across our nation as a timid, closeted Christian filled with uncertainty, I am openly gay.

The outcome of Obergefell v. Hodges, with the way it signaled to the church and our society how we the people would insist on and finally have and uphold equality, helped in a major way to set in motion a (rather miraculous) sequence of events involving things like the Wild Goose Festival, some real-life literary characters I had known from books showing up as angels, and a community of welcome and inclusion just suddenly being dropped into my lap (or discovering that much of it was there all along). It all culminated in my coming out completely three months ago, only nine months after that day I didn’t get any work done. You can read the whole story here.




Easter’s life everywhere

After lunchtime today I returned from my second silent weekend retreat at a Catholic retreat center almost an hour east from Memphis on I-40. I was sitting in the sun on the back deck of my parents’ house, doing what I–as an introvert–must do to recuperate after being with other people in silence for a few days: being alone in silence.

I’m inside now but out there, it’s still Shelby Forest in the spring.

And as I sat there trying to add even more reading to my weekend, this Carpenter bee kept buzzing around in circles right around me, occasionally stopping to hang in the air before like a Harrier jet and just stare at me. I shooed it with my book a few times before it finally stopped.

tree with too many seeds

tree with too many seeds

And because I’m the kind of person who always thinks that the wasp that is seen only for a moment before it disappears is now wandering around on my back, not long after the bee left me alone I had to get up out of my chair and do the twist in my reflection in the glass door of the house to make sure the wasp that had floated beyond the boundaries of my vision was not waiting to sting me. This happened twice.

And then after I was seated for a few minutes, I tilted my coffee mug to take a sip and a seed from a nearby tree was floating in it. These seeds are easy to recognize because they are from a large tree close by that spits them out in a little round leaf sort of thing that the wind uses to blow them all over the place. And they do indeed end up all over the place, because, this time of year before the leaves come out, they pop up in clusters of perhaps fifty or so. And there’s hundreds, maybe thousands, of these clusters. It is the most natural example of overkill that I can remember right now.

I dipped my fingers in my mug, grabbed the coffee-soaked seed, and flicked it into the grass.

Not long after that, a little green worm or caterpillar sort of thing fell onto my bright white t-shirt, apparently from the tree with too many seeds at the point where the farthest reaches of its branches extend out over the deck. I sat up, pinched my t-shirt, and gave it one quick tug to send the green bug soaring down between the spaces in the deck.

seeds from the tree with too many seeds

seeds from the tree with too many seeds

It was only a few moments later that the wind blew a stinkbug onto my lap. I remembered that when I was little, I was eating dinner once in the living room. I was notorious for spilling stuff on the carpet, so I must’ve earned some trust by this point. But, whatever food was on my plate, it was the kind that needed two big puddles of mustard and ketchup. I felt something inside my shirt. I looked inside through my collar and saw a stinkbug crawling up my belly. I threw the plate up in the air. I don’t remember, but I probably lost living room eating privileges for a while after that.

I didn’t throw anything up in the air when the stinkbug landed in my lap this time, but I did stand up and I took the eraser end of my pencil, flung it off, and blurted out in frustration, “There’s so much damn life everywhere gettin’ own me!” My accent comes out when I fuss.

The book I had used to shoo the Carpenter bee was one I had taken on the retreat, poet Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss (which I have written about before here.) When I picked it back up after getting rid of the stinkbug, I noticed that what I was reading about as I neared the conclusion was the resurrection of Christ.

(I also noticed the furry gray spider right over my shoulder on the railing behind me. The kind that looks like it can jump. But anyway.)

For those who are mindful of the traditional church calendar, today is Easter. A week ago today was “Easter Sunday,” but Easter is a season within a season. And, most appropriately, the season that the season of Easter falls within is, of course, spring. When there’s so much life everywhere. Much of it getting on me. When I would rather prefer that it wouldn’t.

What Wiman had to say about the resurrection of Christ as I kept reading was met with much appreciation on my end, because I have given serious thought for years–and especially recently–to how we do theology and ethics.

Nobody has been more influential in helping guide my developing understanding of theological ethics than New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson. In his newest book, The Revelatory Body: Theology as Inductive Art, he unfolds his main point, that “Theology must always begin and always find renewal, not with words found in texts, but with the experience of actual human bodies” (3).

The systematic way which so much theology has been done has made the discovery of divine truth deductive science, as Johnson puts it, when it is really an inductive process, and more like art than science.

It’s the way of doing theology that ends up ultimately trying to prove itself all the time–to me, to you, or to anyone else. I’m all for the apologia of hope of 1 Peter 3:15 (which, by the way, we’re only to be ready to give and then to be ready only in case someone asks us to explain not why we believe what we believe per se but the hope that is in us). But, I’m not for apologetics much anymore. It stimulated something in me when I was first beginning to explore theology as a young Christian, but I have realized that articulating theology on the basis of what is rationally persuasive relies so much on so much stuff that is not what is most important: our virtues and values of character, faith, love, relationship, personal witness–all in embodied human experience. It also doesn’t seem to square too much with the idea of a God who, as a resurrected human, continues to be personally and actively present among us in such a way that the first people to make the discovery thought calling it “wind/breath/spirit” was the best way to get at it.

As for how this way of doing theology relates to the idea of arguing for the historicity of Jesus’s resurrection itself, Wiman says that “the whole process of putting faith on trial, the incessant need for an intellectual result, feels false to me. It seems like a failure of vision even to ask the question, much less to get all tangled up in it” (165).

It’s not that the defensibility of our theological assertions isn’t important–it most certainly is. It’s that the how of theology holds preeminence over the what. How we are enabled to see and experience God is represented in Johnson’s favorite way of referring to God/Jesus: “the Living Lord.” The resurrection is not just something that when we have argued our way there, we can be said to have done some good theology. The resurrection is more the how than the what. It is, along with many other things, the means of seeing which saves us from Wiman’s “failure of vision.”

Or, perhaps the poet himself does explain it better. As Wiman puts it at the end of his section on the resurrection: “Christ is not alive now because he rose from the dead two thousand years ago. He rose from the dead two thousand years ago because he is alive right now” (165).

When I read that on the deck after spring left me alone long enough, I chuckled–struck by the magnitude of the statement’s insight (especially in light of what I had been already been thinking and reading), and by the simplicity with which it was articulated.

There really is so much life everywhere.

I underlined this part in my book in red and then leaned toward my coffee mug to take a sip.

There was a fly in it.

Being Seen


There’s now a video I filmed of myself on YouTube, in which I let myself be seen to the first time to most of you as someone who is gay.

As I say in the video, why I am doing what I am doing in finally letting people see me for who I am is about so much more than me being gay. My sexuality is not something that should be so big of a deal that it calls for having to do the very hard things I have had to do recently. But we have a problem in our churches and in our societies. Many people are still not able to be who they are–freely, openly, honestly–without facing misunderstanding, ridicule, violence, or rejection.

And so, the most important thing for us to do and so for me to do is to let myself be seen and tell my story. And since the story I have to share is rather long and pretty amazing, I thought writing it would be the best way to tell it. Also, as I emphasize in the video, in what I am sharing with you, I am not making an argument. I’m not fighting, I’m not protesting. I am just being a witness, and that is what is given to all of us to be.


I’m pretty sure it was around springtime 2014 when I made what would end up being my last real attempt at arguing what has been the church’s “conservative” position on LGBT relationships and identities. I was on the phone with a friend of mine who was a seminary student who believed differently on these issues from what was the official position of the school he was attending.

After my own time studying the Bible at the undergraduate and graduate levels and engaging in my own personal study in issues related to the Bible, interpretation, ethics, etc., I already had all but left behind the “proof-texting” arguments. These arguments point to individual statements in the Bible that at least seemingly relate to homosexuality and interpret them to mean that any kind of relationship between two people of the same sex is wrong. I already understood that there were too many factors involved in the connection between the historical context of the Bible and our own context, and in the ancient languages bridging the two, to continue to go along with this way of thinking.

But, before my conversation with my friend that spring, I had decided that with all the debates going on in the church and in our society on LGBT issues, I needed to nail down as best I could what my position would be. So I re-read materials from scholars I respected arguing the conservative view who didn’t simply rely on the faulty proof-texting method but offered a fuller, more informed case for the legitimacy of only male-female relationships. And I felt pretty settled about it. As my friend argued his more progressive position which holds that same-sex relationships are not in themselves immoral, I argued that while perhaps the individual texts aren’t sufficient to rule out loving, faithful relationships between two people of the same sex, the larger story of creation of male and female together establishes the way all sexual relationships should be.  

Well, it wasn’t like I thought I lost that argument. I thought I did pretty well, actually. I argued my case, my friend argued his case, and neither of us were able to acknowledge at the time the irony involved: that he was the heterosexual one arguing for the legitimacy of same-sex relationships, and that I was the homosexual one arguing against them. At this point, I was still hiding even from myself. And since, with the way this unfolded for me personally, I couldn’t ever acknowledge I’m gay if it’s something as twisted and backward as so many people make it out to be. So when I took this “final” look at the issues and argued–successfully, in my mind– against homosexual relationships, it helped the sneaky part of me in the back of mind assume I had hidden myself away for good.


But the questions were still there and I continued to wrestle. And after several months, I began to feel like what I had tried to argue with my friend didn’t hold water, either. I had argued that God made male and female, thereby establishing the pattern for all sexual relationships for all time. But I realized–Genesis is a creation narrative. It explains how things exist. No one is arguing that we can exist without male-female sexual relationships. But the message Genesis tells is about the uniqueness of the creator God of Israel and the purpose for which he created humanity. It does not establish the patterns for the way everything has to be in all places and all times. If that were the case, single people would be damned and so would people who don’t live in gardens and eat from trees.

(I mention this to provide just a hint of what was going through my mind with this–it is by no means all that I could say about biblical interpretation and ethics as they relate to these issues. For this post, I have another purpose.)

I think it would be misleading to say, so therefore, I “changed my mind.” I think I knew deep down I didn’t want to change my mind. Having a conservative view was the way I could keep hiding from myself, even as I couldn’t admit to myself that’s what I was actually doing.

But, as I prefer to put, my mind did change. And I began to look into the points made by Christians who argue for full rights and inclusion of LGBT people in the church. (Over the course of time, I’ve read several works from both ways of seeing things, and I’ll include some notes on these resources at the end of this post.) I began to realize that there may not be a barrier anymore to acknowledging who I am, except for what people may think of me. So for the first time, I carefully began to actually consider that I could possibly be gay. I started saying the words to myself, “I am gay” and watching myself very closely for how I reacted. It was weird at first. And actually rather alarming. But I kept at it. I didn’t turn away or stifle or suppress or cover up. And for the first time, as it turns out, I was seeing myself. And had begun a new journey in learning to let myself be seen.


Several months later, in the early fall of 2014, I was in the office of the director of an organization I was connected to through my job at Christ United Methodist Church in Memphis in Local Serving & Outreach. Somehow, and for some reason, seemingly out of nowhere, she started telling me not to leave the church. She said that she had always looked at me and wondered how I ended up there, and that that church needs me. And then she said, “ … and, I don’t know about your sexuality, and I may not agree with it, but …” with her hands up as if to say, “Hey, whatever.”

Now, I don’t know where this came from. I hadn’t told or even implied anything to anyone about everything I was going through, and certainly nothing about possibly leaving the church. So, as surprised as I was, I simply responded, “Six months ago, I would’ve deeply offended by what you said.” Which is true. There was nothing more offensive that could send me into a rage quicker than people questioning my sexuality when I was hiding. “But,” I told her, “I have been learning to accept myself.”

And that’s all I said. I didn’t confirm or deny anything about my sexuality. For the first time in my life, I stood and let myself be seen, in whatever way it was that somebody was seeing me.

And I realized. I’m hiding, and yet people see me. I’m putting all this effort and worry into not being seen for who I am, and I’m not even doing that great of a job! So, what was the point?

I had no idea when I started that day that I would end it by coming out to a good friend of mine as I told him about the conversation at work earlier that day. I also certainly had no idea just what had begun in these first little tastes of what it was like to let myself be seen to other people.


“I’m gay” was incredibly hard to say the first few times I said it out loud.

It was exhilarating and bizarre and surreal for anyone, but especially good friends I had known for a long time, to actually know. “They actually know now,” I kept saying to myself.

What I found was that even with the vulnerability and feeling of exposure when I was actually myself with people, I was becoming more confident. I was actually becoming comfortable being in my own skin. For as long as I could remember I had struggled with bouts of severe self-loathing, feeling like I couldn’t stand to be this person anymore. It would be brought on by, for example, not showing up at the staff meeting and bringing my best thoughts and contributions for the group to justify my existence. There were times I cussed myself out for stuff like this and wanted everything to be able to get away from myself. But, it was only after being able to look back, after beginning to let people see me for who I am, that I discovered that it was all due to me hiding myself my whole life.

So as therapeutic as it was for me to begin letting myself be seen, I didn’t know where it was going to take me. I had no plan. I more or less assumed that maybe one day far in the future I would come out to family and–dare I even think about everyone else?

The morning after I had just finished a retreat that was several days long, I was sitting on the couch at home. I was tired. I had taken a half day off work to recuperate from the retreat. I wasn’t in the mood to start sorting out my life.

And then it hit me, almost out of nowhere. Why two degrees in biblical studies only to end up on staff at my current church in a job in which I certainly don’t need two degrees in biblical studies? Why is that I’m so unintelligent in many ways like simple math and directions but I’m actually pretty good at interpreting texts, and grasping principles and forming arguments? Why was so I interested in the questions surrounding what Scripture even is and how it shapes the life of the church, particularly in ethical matters? Why had all the higher education institutions and churches I had ever been a part of reinforced the view on sexuality that I was parting with?

I jumped up from the couch and started pacing around the house with my heart pounding. I was realized for the first time that as big a deal it was that I was doing this in my own life, that perhaps it wasn’t just about me. I hadn’t even considered that until that point. What if I’m supposed to address these issues for the church, and be a witness with my own story?

My pounding heart knew that this was a big deal. Because to be this kind of witness meant that I would just be completely out with it.

That was unthinkable.

So, for the next several months, I still had no plan. I followed the journey I found myself on the best way I knew how,  taking each step as I saw to take it. I was still getting used to who I had found myself to be. I had a couple more sit-down, “I’m gay,” tears, hugs conversations with close friends who I knew would accept me and they did. Without them the story would have ended.

But the story kept going, and this brings us all the way to July 2015, where a few days in the mountains would bring to me the most crucial moments of my entire life.


I had ordered my ticket to my first Wild Goose Festival almost a year prior. They release the cheapest tickets to next year’s festival soon after it concludes, and I already knew after being familiar with it for a couple years at that point that I would be as happy as a pig in slop at this gathering on a campground in a tiny town in the Appalachians of western North Carolina.

Church leaders and authors I so deeply valued were associated with it, and since it is mostly a “progressive” gathering, and a justice-oriented festival, there are many sessions and activities about LGBTQ issues. And it was camping in the mountains!

So on a sunny July morning, I packed my parents’ SUV with everything I needed to live in the woods for four days and headed eastward. While I was on the road, an idea/feeling hit me out of nowhere. I had a clear sense that something significant was going to happen at Wild Goose. Now, I had already realized that it would be the first time in my life I was going off to be in public and that I was not going to be having to hide. That I could just be without the fear of what anybody would see in me. This was a huge deal for me and what I went to Wild Goose thinking the most about.

But the sense I had in the car made me think that something particularly impactful was going to happen and it was going to be a significant step on the journey. At the time, all I could figure was that it would be just being able to not hide, and perhaps something like sitting around a campfire with new friends and being myself.

Little did I know. I never ended up sitting around a campfire at Wild Goose. But with the way things happened, Wild Goose wasn’t only amazing because it’s just amazing anyway (it is), and it wasn’t only amazing because it was the first time I was not hiding at all. It was amazing because with the way things unfolded, Wild Goose was a place where not only was I not hiding–I was actually seen.

* * *


View from room at Mt. Pisgah

The day before Wild Goose started, I arrived in North Carolina on a Wednesday, finally coming to a stop on Mt. Pisgah in the Blue Ridge Mountains. After checking in to my room at the Mt. Pisgah Inn on the top of Mt. Pisgah, I spent the day driving around the Blue Ridge Parkway and marveling at the beauty of the Rhododendron flowers everywhere and the cool crispness of the air and how much it contrasted with the humid sultry air of the Deep South I had left behind.

I even made sure to visit Cold Mountain, the setting of my favorite American novel by Charles Frazier. I got back to my room with its lack of air-conditioning (you don’t need it) with large French doors opening to a gorgeous view of sun-soaked mountains in time for sunset to begin.

As the sinking sun turned the mountains blue and the air even cooler, I heated up some soup with my alcohol cooking set I had purchased for the trip.

So I sat. There in the silent blue landscape I enjoyed my soup (that was actually too hot) and wondered what in the world I was getting myself into beginning the next day.

* * *

After this horrible time and gas-wasting catastrophe involving a “closed” road and railroad repairs and lots

Hot Springs, NC

Hot Springs, NC

of confusion on my part, I finally made it to the campground in the tiny mountain valley town of Hot Springs, North Carolina, where there is not a lick of cell phone coverage on any Thursday afternoon.

After I actually managed to set up my tent (by myself) a stone’s throw away from the French Broad River in this packed campground between two mountains, the main activities started later that afternoon. People were kind and inviting, the sun was bright, the atmosphere was beautiful, and we were there to give whole days of our lives to letting the Holy Spirit surprise us. I decided I really liked the Wild Goose Festival.

* * *

The next morning, I sitting and soaking in the bright day sun that would come back day after day until the very end of the festival. I had my folding chair in this big grassy section in front of the main stage where the plenary sessions and musical performances take place.

I looked to my left and was surprised to see Tony Campolo come and sit down next to his wife Peggy not too far from me. I thought, “Well, isn’t that great that Tony Campolo is here for the festival without having to be on the speaking schedule!” At one point Tony walked by in front of me (perhaps on the way to the food vendors behind us) and gave me a very polite smile and nod as he passed.

I had never met Tony before, but I first heard of him when I went to see him speak at Christ UMC in Memphis, where I would later become a member and join the staff. I didn’t know at the time that this church would be such an important part of my own life, and that I would myself worship and speak in that very chapel.

Tony Campolo and Brian McLaren

Tony Campolo and Brian McLaren

At one point during that morning plenary session, Brian McLaren, who has been an involved supporter of the Festival since the beginning, actually introduced Tony and brought him on stage for a conversation that wasn’t originally on the schedule.

I then remembered seeing on social media a few weeks prior that Tony had come out in favor of full LGBTQ rights and inclusion in the church and he received pretty severe backlash from his fellow Baptists and other more conservative folks for doing so. I didn’t know how bad that backlash was until Tony gave examples of what had happened with a somberness that was so striking for someone who otherwise was so spunky.

After this conversation went on for a while, Brian said they were going to continue into the first breakout session time in the Justice tent, which was a large tent just down the path from the main stage. I didn’t hesitate to go to that session instead of whatever I had already planned to go to, because both of these guys have been where I am.

So I took off walking toward the Justice tent, and Tony was being transported down there on the back of a golf cart. As I was walking, the golf cart comes right in front of me and once again, for the second time that morning, Tony is right in front of me looking at me and smiling. I say, “Thanks for your support, Tony. It means a lot.” That was was the first time I ever just acknowledged my own identity openly to new people. He smiled and said, something encouraging like “keep on truckin’.” Something like that, anyway.

As I walked up to the Justice tent I set my folding chair behind the rows of white plastic folding chairs that were already set out. And I sit down for this session that I originally hadn’t planned on coming to, because, as I said, it wasn’t on the schedule.

Here I need to offer some context.

I had gone to Wild Goose especially nervous about something. Not long prior to that, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that it was unconstitutional to deny marriage rights to same-sex couples. Aside from the fact that due to that decision I literally got no work done that day and could not help but sit at my desk and watch the videos, look at the pictures,read the articles, and watch everyone else celebrate openly on social media, it sparked a conversation at the leadership level of my church about “initiating conversations with the LGBT community.”

Honestly, I had many questions about why this was something leadership was interested in doing. It was curious timing, and I questioned what the real motivations where. To complicate matters, I was supposed to be involved in these conversations in light of my position in Serving & Outreach in which I focused on the church’s outreach in our city. So as I went to this second part of Tony and Brian’s conversation, burning a hole in my calendar was a meeting I was supposed to have upon my return from North Carolina in which I was going to be meeting with church leadership on these questions.

I was nervous–perhaps terrified–because I was already committed to not hiding anymore. I was not out completely,, but I was committed to not taking further steps to cover up or lie. So I knew that in going to this meeting that I’d be nervous about anyway because I would probably be expressing disagreement and challenge to the ideas being proposed by leadership, and because the conversation could go a certain way where if I respond honestly, I would reveal who I am.

So, as I’m listening to this conversation between these two people so much more experienced in these kinds of conflicts and situations, at one point Brian opens up the opportunity to the audience for questions. I hardly ever have questions that I feel like are worthy of being brought to the floor of events like these. But, I realized that this time, I may have a good question to ask.

* * *

I realized that with how nervous I was about what was coming up at the church, I could summarize my situation and get some wisdom, instruction–maybe just encouragement–from these people who have gone before me.

But, I realized. I would need to preface my question with the acknowledgement to this group of people (I didn’t realize how many people were actually in there at the time) that I’m gay. Now, I knew it wasn’t going to be controversial–this was Wild Goose, after all. But was this session being recorded? Is this going to be on YouTube? Can I stand up and do this?

By the time I thought about all these things (was there a question or two before me? I really don’t know), but I knew that I was going to ask it at the same time Brian said that they could take one last question. Try to keep it short, he said, and they’ll do the best they can to answer.

My hand went up. I was in the back. On one side of the room. There were plenty of other hands up. But somehow Brian saw me, pointed at me, and said “that guy right there.” And I was handed the mic.

I somehow knew that as soon as I decided to raise my hand that it was going to happen.

So I take the mic, I stand up, and I say, “This is uhh only the third time I’ve said this out loud … I’m gay.”

And at that moment, after saying those words out loud to such a large group, words which I had said only twice before privately, I dropped with my hands on my knees for a couple of seconds, feeling a flood of relief. A blur that I would remain in for the remainder of the festival began at this moment, but I know there was a hand on my arm from the woman sitting in front of me. And somebody yelled welcome. And I think there was even applause.

I stand back up and summarize my situation at the church, and I finally end by saying that when I come to this meeting at the church and to whatever it may lead to, “I don’t know what to say or what to do. What are your thoughts?”

Tony responded. And he said, “I had a sense from the Holy Spirit that something like this was going to happen, and that’s why I asked them not to record this session.” Check. I gave him a thumbs up. Wow, God.

I’m sure that after that he said some encouraging things, but the only other thing I remember is him threatening everyone in the tent with having their legs broken if they out me before I’m ready.

So after Tony threatened everyone that they better respect my privacy, there basically wasn’t enough time for anything else. I wasn’t able to keep my question that short, as it turns out.

As the session concluded, I think it was Brian who said that we should stand and just spend a few minutes looking at each other in the tent. Just look at each other. Don’t say anything. I didn’t realize until literally just now as I was typing this that what he was asking us to do was simply see each other.

And, since I just asked the last question and essentially came out in public for the first time, I don’t think it just felt like it–I think many, many people in that tent were actually looking at me.

So I simply smiled and nodded at this mass of people as each one of them saw me as a gay person. We were dismissed to go, and I was surprised and overwhelmed by the welcome extended to me by those people–these strangers and family of mine–in that tent in the North Carolina sun when it was the first time I was open–truly wide open–about who I am.

As I said, I knew saying that I’m gay at Wild Goose wasn’t going to be a big deal in a negative way, but I didn’t know it was going to be as big of a deal in a positive way. So, so many hugs, and tears, and words of encouragement, and prayers, and notes were given to me.

Note handed to me by a kind woman

Note handed to me by a kind woman

I had met Brian McLaren briefly after he spoke a few years prior in Memphis, which I mentioned to him when he came over to me in the midst of all this, hugged me, gave me his email address, told me to contact him, hugged me again, and walked off. I would later contact him and he would set me up with a new friend wanting to do some important work for LGBT youth in Memphis.

After receiving such a warm welcome, another guy named Brian came over and introduced himself, saying that he and his husband Gareth were the co-founders of the Wild Goose Festival and wanted to chat with me.

So, they took me over to the coffee vendor and with my pour-over in hand, the three of us walked down the path around the campground. As I was giving them more details about my situation, I was ready to be on the defensive when they would tell me that I need to come out right away and ask me what I was waiting for, and on like that.

That’s not at all the kind of conversation we had. Two things I walked away with from my conversation with Brian and Gareth: 1) have my support network of the people who love and support me, and 2) it’s my journey and my timing. However I’m led is how I’m led. That was it.

So, looking back now, I know that what I was being told was that I needed a people to claim as my own in all this. And I did mention to them that I had a few close friends back home who knew about my sexuality and I figured I would be telling a few more. So I didn’t feel like I had a lack of what I needed.

But, God’s grace is always more. It goes beyond what we think we need. As I rounded the far end of the dirt path that goes around the Hot Springs campground with Brian and Gareth, God was about to surprise me again in expanding who my people were, and in pouring out what I now realize to be the purest, most basic form of grace–people being given other people.

* * *

For some reason I had set down all my stuff (stuff that I needed) as I passed my campsite with Brian and Gareth at the far end of the dirt path. It was all heavy, and I wasn’t thinking. I was in a daze.

After the session with Brian and Tony In the Justice tent, I inadvertently met several people that I already knew of as I went to Wild Goose that I had already decided I wasn’t going to try to meet. Wild Goose is meant to be that kind of space where the speakers are able to mingle with us “ordinary” folk, but I wasn’t going to try to meet all of them, many of which I appreciate very much.

But, I did go to Wild Goose having decided that I would tell Sara Miles thank you for writing her words in books so I can read them. Her book Take This Bread is my single favorite book. I recently read it all the way through recently for a third time, and have looked over my highlights and underlines many more times than that.

Take This Bread chronicles her story of wandering into St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco on a whim, participating in Eucharist, and as she puts it, finding Jesus in her mouth. The whole experience shocked her into becoming a Christian and in her books she works out the meaning of this surprising encounter with the active spirit of Jesus, and how that experience unfolded into her founding a food pantry at the church as she took seriously the Eucharist as a shared meal.

Sara’s partner in ministry throughout her books is Paul Fromberg, the rector of St. Gregory’s. I realized what he looked like at Wild Goose because his biography was in the program. I even saw him at one point at the beginning of the festival, and thought, “oh, there’s Paul. cool.”

As Brian and Gareth and I were on the dirt path, and beginning to approach where we started at the Justice tent, walking towards us was Paul. Sara is a marvelous writer, and she’s gifted at characterization, so I knew that what was headed for us is a big, gay, sassy, sarcastic Episcopal priest from Texas who is capable of saying some of the most absolutely profound things. He also says profane things sometimes but does so in usually a very edifying way.

Paul greeted Brian and Gareth and they introduced me to Paul as someone who just came out publicly for the first time about half an hour ago.

Paul responded with a “So?” with enough facetiousness so that I knew he was kidding. But I also had read the books. I said, “That is exactly how I would expect you to respond based on the books!” So at that point I outed myself as one of the book-people.

I don’t remember what Paul said to me from that point on as we continued walking back toward the Justice tent, but I remember how I felt. With his arm around my shoulders, and his posture of being truly present with me, I felt pastored for the first time in my life.

At one point he asked me where I was from. I said, “Memphis.”

“Memphis … Memphis … hmm … yeah, I’ve got a niece who goes to ummm … Rhodes?”

“Yeah, Rhodes!” I said. “I don’t live very far from there.”

This little detail becomes important later on.

We kept walking, Paul said I should meet Sara, I said I was scared, but he went and got her and I was able to tell her thank you and that her words were nourishing for me. And then we kept walking toward the Justice tent.

Sara speaking on the main stage

Sara speaking on the main stage

As it turns out, Paul was about to lead a session in the Justice tent. I had dropped all my stuff off at my campsite because I wasn’t thinking, so I didn’t have my schedule with me. So I didn’t know what I was doing. It wasn’t until later when I went back to get my stuff that I discovered in the schedule that Paul’s session wasn’t originally supposed to be at that time–he was supposed to be doing his session at a time that I had picked another session over his and already circled it with a felt-tip pen.

I sat and tried to listen to what Paul was saying, but it was still quite difficult to think. I knew that following his session, Sara was leading an LGBTQ panel discussion, so after Paul wrapped his up I walked all the way back to my tent and got my stuff and came back.

As I walked back under the tent, I saw Paul sitting at a table talking to someone. He flagged me over and said, “Hey, how did I do?”

“Um … I don’t really know. I was mostly sort of watching you. Umm, but you looked great.”

“Well, thank you.”

After that Sara led her panel discussion which included Tommy Dillon, an Episcopal priest who was then in San Francisco with Paul and Sara but was in the process of transitioning to a new church on Bainbridge Island, Washington. I think I met Tommy not long after what happened in the Justice tent. He and his friend Hannah were good friends to me throughout Wild Goose, and for some reason, Tommy invited me to come to Washington in September with Paul and Hannah and others for the celebration of his new ministry there. I said yes. This is important later.

After the panel discussion, I wanted to come back around to Paul and tell him that I actualyl did listen to his talk a little and that it seemed like it was pretty profound. But I didn’t see him again for the rest of Friday and all day Saturday.

* * *

“Hey, I was looking for you!”

Paul was walking up to the Episcopal Church tent with Sara as music was on at the main stage behind us as the sun was going down on Saturday night. I was sitting there talking to Tommy about everything going on. Trying to sort it out and realize what was happening.

When Paul walked up and said he was looking for me, I’m sure he didn’t intend anything particularly meaningful, but to know that he saw me and was looking for me meant so much. I said, “Hey, I was looking for you, too–I wanted to tell you that I actually did hear some of what you said and something in particular you said was really profound!”

“Great–what was it?” he asked as he sat down next to me and Tommy.

“I don’t know–I didn’t have my notebook with me so I couldn’t write it down. And I can’t remember.”

“Well, thank you.”

So began an evening of mingling and talking with Hannah and Sara in there at different parts, but eventually it ended up with me and Paul by ourselves, when he gave me that night under the Episcopal tent the most important attention I had ever received.

I shared with Paul about all my fears and anxieties and excitement and joys. And I have the sharpest memory of a moment that I intentionally etched into my memory. As we were standing up under that tent, and Paul was giving me such needed encouragement and advice as someone who went through a similar journey as mine, at one point, with my hands cupped around the sides of my eyes, I say, “Paul, this is all a blur and I’m trying my best to remember this moment.”

And with him looking deeper into my eyes than anyone ever had, and his hands on my shoulders, Paul said to me, “Yes, remember this moment–under the Episcopal tent by the incense behind the main stage,” and with an emphasis on every word, “You are a beloved child of God. You are beautiful.”

Not long after this point, I walked to get a drink, and came back to the Episcopal tent where Paul was standing over on the edge talking to Sara, who was munching on some peanuts.

I can overhear that Paul is telling her about a part of our conversation, and as I stand there and try to eavesdrop as I look through some books Tommy had purchased, I go over to them. We talked for a little bit, Sara offered some peanuts which made me realize for the first time that I don’t care for peanuts by themselves, and then Paul looks at Sara and says, “Tell him he’s beautiful.”

Then God spoke.

“Honey, you are beautiful,” she said, and then without taking a pause like she had to think about it, “And what’s happening now is what the Holy Spirit has laid out for you. And it’s not just about you but it’s about the people that are going to be affected through you.”

And with that she made the Ash Wednesday sign of the cross on my forehead and walked off.

I did then what I do when I don’t know what else to do when truth hits me–I just sort of chuckled. Paul teased her for how she loves to put her hands on people. I remembered that happening in the books.

What had kept me from being in pieces in light of what was happening in my life at Wild Goose was that it was undeniable to me at that point that what was happening was completely God-blessed. I prayed so very hard as I began to take steps in coming out that if it was wrong, then God please correct me. Don’t let me go down this road if it’s not what is right.

And Sara’s emphasis on the word “now,” was especially meaningful to me because the exhilarating, invigorating, and very strange feeling that Wild Goose gave me was due to the fact that it was finally life–what was to come, and what was supposed to be–happening now. It was for so long “one day.” But the future had come rushing into the present.

And, to reiterate for me, just as I had realized through an earlier epiphany, that all of this was about so much more than me, were the perfect words to help me realize–as I did the next morning–what Sara’s Ash Wednesday cross on my forehead really meant.

* * *

After we wrapped up hanging out at the Episcopal tent that Saturday night and Paul and Sara were getting ready to return to their hotel, Tommy asked them when they were flying out. Paul replied, “Six,” and I took that to mean 6:00 am the next morning–the last day of Wild Goose which ends at noon.

So I said my goodbyes to them and told them I will definitely come visit, especially since I have a friend who lives there who I have never gone to see.

I started feeling large relief knowing that the festival was beginning to come to a close and I was going to be able to go somewhere away from people and actually process what had happened there.

So, the next morning, the last day of the festival, I was up early and in my lawn chair in front of the main stage ready for all the morning’s activities that were going to take place there.

Every morning at Wild Goose started off with a prayer or meditation/prayer service of some kind. I wasn’t very attentive as they began this service because I had my journal and I had begun to write. I simply wanted to remember everything that was happening, but it was in the writing that everything began to sink in. I felt like I might actually cry.

I looked up and then saw Paul and Sara walking in. I go up to Paul and say, “I thought you guys left!” “No,” he said, “flight leaves at 6:00 tonight.”

“Oh! That makes sense. Well, I’m starting to write and I think I’m starting to get it.”


After that I walk back to my chair, pick up my journal, and continue to write.

As they begin the service, with Paul and Sara and others standing up front not far from me, I don’t know what’s happening because I do start to cry. I keep my head down, and as the people up front split up among the crowd behind me, they are praying over people. It is a healing prayer service.

The only one of the people praying over others that I can see when I turn my head left and right is Paul, and he’s probably half a stone’s throw away. I’m sitting there with tears coming down and I keep looking over waiting for Paul to get done with the people standing in line for prayers. Eventually I look over and he has no one in front of him. We make eye contact and I do the “come hither” nod with my head. There was no way I was getting up.

As Paul approaches, and my face is in my hands, I see his feet on the grass right in front of me. When I know and feel

Me and Paul - photo by Tommy Dillon

Me and Paul – photo by Tommy Dillon

that he is there, I erupt into the most violent “scream-crying” I have ever done. I had no idea those noises were even in me, but I let them out all over Paul’s shoulder as he kneeled with his arm around me.

It felt like a death. It became the way I understood one meaning of Sara’s cross on my forehead. I had turned a page in my life, and I was being led by God to bury what I had carried and to let die what needs to in order to make way for the new life that was coming.

After I wore myself out, I said, “I’m exhausted.”

“I guess so,” Paul said. “That was years and years of what was built up.”

[I didn’t know until I was listening to a later Paul’s sermon at his church in which he mentions my crying all over him that he wasn’t supposed to be at this healing prayer service much less serve at it. Of course.]

The rest of the morning included me ditching my chair and sitting on the grass right next to Paul, and then parading around the campground which led into the procession for a Eucharist celebration. Wild Goose was over, and then, for the first time at the festival, it started to rain.

I say goodbye to Paul and to others I had talked to over the course of the festival, and I see Sara gathering her stuff from near the main stage. I jog over to her in the drizzling rain and I say, “Hey Sara!” She comes straight over to me, kisses me on the cheek and hugs me, and I say, “Thank you for your words last night, Sara. They were prophetic. They were prophetic.”

She says, “Hang on to them.”

And I gave her a thumbs up, trotted away in the rain, and so ended Wild Goose.

When I stood up and asked my question in the Justice tent, I wasn’t supposed to get answers. That meeting at the church that I was so nervous about at the church never even materialized. I was supposed to stand up and in front of that group of people and be seen. I am grateful to each and every person who served as the presence of God in my life in those mountains, to those people who saw me, and told me what they saw, and who loved what they saw.

* * *

On the way back home, I stopped in Nashville. With my returned cell signal, I looked on Facebook. I had a

Leaving Wild Goose

Leaving Wild Goose

message and friend request from Paul. He was on the ride home, he said. “So glad God brought us together.”

I looked at his profile, and whereas he had asked where I was from and acted like he had to search for the name of the college his niece attended, under his “Education” was listed, “Rhodes College.”

“And, you lived in Memphis,” I replied back on Facebook.


I thought it was just a joke, until I saw Paul again in September for Tommy’s celebration in Washington for what would essentially become the second part of Wild Goose.


The entire time on Bainbridge Island was beautiful and incredible in every way. Tommy and his friends had put together a wonderful schedule for his friends gathered there to celebrate his new home and work on the Island.

But really, I was just wondering what I was doing there.

This is what I told Hannah when we flew in at the same time and were able to take the ferry over to the Island from Seattle together: “Who am I to be here? I barely know Tommy!”

I did not anticipate that this trip to Washington was going to be Wild Goose Part II. The welcome of Tommy and his friends extended to me gave me the kind of space I had in North Carolina, where I could just be me.

And thanks to Tommy, as we sat around the fire one night, I could be me and tell my story to these new friends–these people given to me. I wrote about this amazing evening previously on the blog in “Election and Communion with a Banana Cream Pie.” Read it now and you’ve got much more context than you had before.

When Tommy asked us where we were most alive as we sat around that fire sharing meat and fish and veggies (and pie), and we went around sharing where we were most alive, I was able to say that there were big parts of me hidden and dormant that are now coming to life for the first time. And it is there that I am indeed most alive.

The next day, at his party in this bar/coffeeshop on the Island, Tommy asked me and another new friend of mine (also named Nathan) if we would share our stories of coming out and being who we are with the party gathered there. I was able to share everything that had happened with Wild Goose and situate that gathering there within the larger story of how I had been welcomed and had been given a people–that most important grace of hospitality and inclusion.

Some of the Rev. Tommy Dillon Entourage at Bloudel Reserve

Some of the Rev. Tommy Dillon Entourage at Bloudel Reserve (Paul is on the back left and Hannah is in the front left with the sunglasses)

Paul was also there and witnessed this whole impromptu sermon I gave. He also told me as we were around a fire on the deck of a pub on the Island one night how much it had meant to him that when I told him I was from Memphis at Wild Goose, he realized here was another young man in Memphis going through similar struggles as he did when he was in college here and was not able to explain or deal with what he was experiencing in his sexuality. If he can help me in any way, it would be the special work of God in us. And it was certainly that.

* * *

Paul also told me with his face lit up by the fire on that deck behind the pub that whereas he had told me he was interested in going with me to Seattle on my last day in Washington, he decided not to go after all.

“It’s not that I don’t want to hang out with you,” he said. “I just need more time in peace on this Island.”

“Well, fine.”

I was disappointed that Paul would not be coming with me to Seattle, but as I crossed the ferry early that morning on the day of my flight back home, I was excited to be in the city for the first time so I thought I would just wander aimlessly.

Eventually I decide I want to find my first Seattle coffee shop to go to, so I find one. For some reason, standing outside that coffeeshop, I decided not to go in. I thought I would find another one, instead.

I keep wandering and I find another coffee shop. I thought I would go in that one. I go to the counter, order my espresso and sparking water “for here” and then turn around realizing that the dining area was completely full.

After looking around a second, knowing that I can’t take the ceramic and glass in my hands out with me, I spotted this space on the bench on the wall on the far side of the shop. There was just enough space for me to sit down and not invade the personal space of a guy sitting there.

I sit down with my coffee and water in my lap, and then I hear a girl’s voice asking me, “Do you want to sit here?”

My first thought is, “Oh, no. She’s not talking to me, is she? I just want to drink my coffee and go exploring.” But I look over and yes indeed a girl perhaps in her 20’s with red hair is looking at me pointing to an open seat across from her.

“Sure!” I say. I don’t know why. Normally I would’ve said, “I’m fine–thank you though!”

When I sit down, I don’t know if it’s one of those moments when I need to talk to someone with a computer open on the table who looks like they’re working, or just say “Thanks” and drink my coffee.

Bainbridge Island

Bainbridge Island, WA

Well, she started asking the questions first. If I was visiting, where from, why. I started to explain just the basics–that a friend of mine starting a new ministry at a church on Bainbridge Island, and I came for the celebration.

She seemed interested and kept asking enough questions so that I ended up explaining everything. Everything about Wild Goose and what led to it and what had been coming out of it. By this time I had moved up onto the bench she was sitting on because the other guy left.

After I more or less wrap up my story, she’s looking at me and then I was surprised to see her face scrunch up and she starts to cry.

I grab her hands with my hands, so here we are, holding hands in this crowded coffeeshop with her crying and me looking like I’m about to cry.

And then she starts telling me that my life is going to change. That I’m going to amazing things in the church. She said a lot more than this but I was so surprised by it all it was difficult to take it in.

I don’t end up getting much of her story, even though I invited her to tell me about it. She declined. The only things I got from her were her first name, that she grew up in the church in the midwest but was no longer in the church, and that she was living with a girlfriend in Seattle.

I could be wrong, but it seemed like what was happening was that this was a rather sudden interruption of Jesus into her life with some guy talking about being gay and led by God.

And then she said something I will never forget. She said, “And, I don’t even know why I started talking to you. I just saw light coming from you.”

I was shocked. I thought the only vibe I was giving off was I wanted to drink my coffee and water and get out of there. But I said, “Thank you for seeing me, and for telling me what you see.”

As we began to get up and leave the coffee shop, she asked if I had written any of this down, and I knew then that at some point it would be on my blog. I wrote down the address on one of my business cards, assuming that at some point I would hear from her. I mentioned Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, too.

But after we hugged outside the coffee shop and parted ways and I texted Paul that God was stalking me around Seattle, I have never heard from her. Maybe it’s appropriate that way. I pray for her when I think about her, and I am so grateful that just when I thought I really did have enough and didn’t need anymore, God saw fit to put her in my life at that point, to see me and to tell me what she sees.

* * *

On the same day I returned to Memphis from Seattle, I saw my good friend Emily, who has spent the last several years as a volunteer at the church coordinating the Benevolence Ministry assistance that comes through our department. We were about to head into a simulation of an aspect of poverty, and I told her that Washington was amazing.

I hadn’t told Emily anything at this point. Nothing about me, Wild Goose, or anything. But she replied to my comment about Washington with, “I was praying very specifically while you were in Washington because God told me that it was going to be a significant step in your journey.”

God told Emily something even I didn’t know. I joke with her and others that God tells her my business. Because she also wasn’t too surprised when I met with her to give her the whole story. I had responded to her in that moment she said she had been praying for me, “There’s actually a bigger story I want to share with you.” And she said, “I thought there might be.”

A few days before we actually got to what would be a six-hour breakfast with the whole story, I was talking with her at church about something. And at one point she says, “It’s about that letting that light shining before people.”

I put my hand over my face, and through a tear I said that I would explain why I was crying at our upcoming breakfast.

As a side note, my boss came by my office one afternoon a few weeks ago and recounted a conversation with a Russian woman at the JCC he attends. As soon as he walked off, I turned to a notepad on my desk and jotted it down:

The woman said to Bob: “Bob, you see people. And you talk to them. That’s good!”

Bob says to me: “We just need to see people.”

I tell Bob that’s something I’ve learned that is really my guiding principle. To be seen and to see each other.

Bob says: “You know, when I hear you say that, that just means letting our light shine.”


I knew probably a month after Wild Goose Part II in Washington that this Lenten season was going to be special. It was time for me to let myself be seen completely and to stop hiding once and for all.

I have been nourished on the journey by Sara Miles's words, those written and those spoken. Through them God continues to be rather direct. And I am most grateful for Paul, who--like his shepherd so often does--surprised me by showing up at the right time. (Page from Take this Bread by Sara)

I have been nourished on the journey by Sara Miles’s words, those written and those spoken. Through them God continues to be rather direct. And I am most grateful for Paul, who–like his shepherd so often does–surprised me by showing up at the right time. (Page from Take this Bread by Sara)

This whole season has been a journey in itself of understanding the significance of Sara’s Ash Wednesday cross on my forehead as I learned to continue following what the Holy Spirit had laid out for me and that this isn’t about what will happen to me when I let myself be this vulnerable, but what would happen to all those who are still hiding if I don’t.

This is what I kept telling myself this past Wednesday as I was more scared than I have ever been as I woke up that morning and was going to tell my parents who I am.

I sat on my bed, on another Wednesday as it turns out, and cried tears that I was doing my best to hold back. I retraced the cross on my forehead slowly with my thumb. I had died, and I was trying my hardest to remember that and embody that into the most vulnerable moment of my life.

That was yesterday. It went as well with my parents as I could have expected. I have eternal gratitude for their love and acceptance and for all the prayers from so many people as I was heading into this. And as I returned home to my housemates, I was exhausted. I felt like I had at Wild Goose–poured completely out and yet also filled in a new way.

It was both a pleasantly warm and slightly cool Memphis night last night as my housemates  at #TheMalcombHouse took me out to a nice dinner on a patio in Overton Square in the beautiful sunset. Being out with these friends on such a night, having just crossed the major hurdle of my life and having to this point followed this amazing journey of letting myself be seen, it felt like healing happening.

As our meal began, we raised our glasses of Stormy Mornings. They offered a toast.

“Here’s to being seen.”

*clink* *clink* *clink*


I am finishing up this blog post to get ready to put up. It’s so long! And I am so tired.

I was tired in a different way a few weeks ago when my entire body was sore after hand plowing two large plots at my parents’ house and sowing each seed of beans and greens and herbs carefully. I didn’t know even with all the work and all the manure and compost I could afford if I could bring forth food out of that patch of nonfertile ground.

On my flight back to Memphis this past Tuesday after visiting friends to get ready for coming out to the world, I thought of the Les Miz musical line, “Another day, another destiny. This never-ending road to Calvary.” I tweeted it, as we do when we want to express something ambiguous. Someone on Facebook commented that that road to Calvary ends in resurrection. And, yes. It is all redeemed. Any death suffered gives birth to new life.

The day after telling my parents, here I sit. Trying to get this blog up. I see I have a text from dad. I know that it’s not good. I haven’t heard from him since the big talk yesterday. I think, what is it now? What new problem is there with how we’re going to deal with what people think? So I just held my breath and looked at the text.

It read, “You have a few sprouts in your garden!” With the little green sprout emoji.

Whew. Breathe out.

Well, here we are, and Lent is almost over.

The Lord is risen, indeed. Hallelujah.

Why I’m Still Choosing The United Methodist Church,” published on the blog of Reconciling Ministries Network.

Election and Communion with a Banana Cream Pie

It was a week ago last night that I shared a surprisingly meaningful evening gathered with new friends and newer friends around a glowing fire pit in the evergreen forest of Bainbridge Island, Washington. Bainbridge Island

There were in fact many moments on this trip when I knew I had to take step back mentally and take in as best as I could where I was, what I was doing, and who I was with.

And on this occasion, I let my head fall back on my Adirondack chair and gazed up through the cool air through the small opening in the pointy tree tops through which stars shone and the blood moon would eventually make its way, and did my best to etch the scene into my memory.

A new friend of mine had brought his friends together to celebrate his new season of ministry as a rector on the Island, and on this particular night the dinner plans were an invitation to bring meat and wine to share.

Bainbridge IslandI brought a fat salmon steak, someone brought fresh shrimp, someone else brought chicken, and someone else brought steak. As we laughed and filled glasses, we watched the hot coals do the cooking, passed around the options, and had our fill.

And then, “Where are you most alive?”

Our priest friend not only has a gift for bringing people together, but also taking advantage of that togetherness. He asked us to ponder this question, and a few of us shared out loud–but all of us shared each other’s listening and hearing and considering.

The words that were then released and received around the fire were just about as nourishing–if not more so–than the meal we had prepared and enjoyed together.

For dessert, a banana cream pie that someone had contributed was brought out. Our gracious host heeded the voice of the spirit (and/or actually just didn’t want to do any more dishes) and just brought out spoons for everyone. The pie made its way around the circle, becoming a spoonful smaller every time it passed hands.

Thanks to Kate Ruffing for her photo of the Camp 4 Bonfire at her beautiful home

Thanks to Kate Ruffing for her photo of the Camp 4 Bonfire at her beautiful home

When it came to me, I realized that at least the crust would contain gluten, and possibly the filling as well. For someone who breaks out from consuming gluten, this could be an unfriendly pie.

But then it dawned on me: I could no more turn down a bite of this pie than I could turn down bread and wine at communion because I just don’t fancy them, or something.

I held up the pie, and I pointed out to the group that it was communion.

Not much explanation was necessary. I took a spoonful (trying my best to leave the crust for someone else) and passed it on.

Speaking for myself, my presence at this celebration and my sharing in this meal was one more surprising and amazing outpouring of the most basic form of God’s grace that I have experienced in power over the past few months. And that is, simply being given people.

Camp 4, the home of Kate Ruffing. Hospitality.

Camp 4, the home of Kate Ruffing. Hospitality.

The question of God’s action in regards to people which leads them to their destinies and reveals their unique purposes is known as the theological topic of election.

To be chosen or to be the elect of God has so often been thought of as primarily having to do with me and my status over against someone else’s. I am chosen (for salvation or heaven or something), and someone else is not.

Election properly understood, however, is God choosing a person or mainly a people to work in, in order to work through for the sake of others.

However it happened, and for whatever reason, these people I have been given were chosen for me. Perhaps I was chosen for them, too, but that’s not as important to me as much as it is important for me to realize that they were not a people of my own choosing.

Leave it to me who I’m going to share meals and time and talks with and I will probably come up with people mainly my age, from my part of the world, who are of similar backgrounds and who are on journeys that look a lot like mine.

Thanks be to God, then, that grace is surprising, that people are chosen for us, and that genuine, God-blessed human community can be so powerful that eucharistic pies can pop up out of nowhere.

Update, 9/28/16: One year later after this magical time, and there is a larger context that I can now openly share that makes more apparent why this first trip to Washington was such a special time for me: Being Seen.

Some of the Rev. Tommy Dillon Entourage at Bloudel Reserve

Some of the Rev. Tommy Dillon Entourage at Bloedel Reserve

We all really only have one sermon.

I’ve heard a few preachers say that they really only have one basic sermon–one essential message–that ends up having itself proclaimed over and over in different ways every time they stand in the pulpit.

I’m not a preacher most weeks, but Christianity has a number of habits that tug at our self-defined identities and make each of us exactly that which we want to leave for other people to be–priest, prophet, pastor, and even preacher. And, of course, sinner and stranger, too.

Accidental Saints by Nadia Bolz-Weber

Accidental Saints by Nadia Bolz-Weber

Today I met again for an hour with two passionate, caring, struggling, angry, hopeful, funny guys from a poverty-stricken, crime-ridden area of south Memphis. And I told them that whereas I only meet with them one hour once a week as they are going through their job training program together, the most important realization to be made about our gatherings is that God has given them to each other.

Who am I? I’m just a guy from some other part of town and of a totally different background who has sat down with them for an hour a week for the past month. And on days like today, when they were in the mood to cut through all the crap and know why in the hell I’m meeting with them, I just told them: I was just invited to be with you. That’s it. I’m not here to show you that my middle-class background is superior, I’m not here to fix you, counsel you, or to be the answer to your problems. I’m just here to be with you. I do care about you, and I am most certainly not paid to be here.

That last part about not being paid to be with them was something they seemed especially curious about. So, when they had heard my response, they said, “Thank you.”

Here I sit, and in a few days I’ll be off to Seattle to be with people that when I think about it, I realize: I really don’t know how or why I’m going to be with them. What led to this trip was my first time at the Wild Goose Festival in the North Carolina Appalachian valley this past July. Without going into much detail now, if I could just summarize what happened (and is happening) through that time spent being with fellow Jesus-followers in the camp chairs and under the tents beside a mountain river, I would do it this way: It was, in its most basic form, God saying to me, “Here, have all these people.”

And people–these people–are what I needed. They are what I need. They are going to continue to be what I need.

I just finished Accidental Saints: Finding God In All the Wrong People by Nadia Bolz-Weber. Her understanding of what a saint is means that it is (at the same time) just as comforting, encouraging, and inspiring that we don’t work our way to being people through whom God can work as it is unsettling and challenging. Indeed, we are surprised (as we are by any accident) to discover in others and ourselves (!) the presence and activity of God.

Ultimately, I wasn’t just given a theological lesson or an even more emotionally-charged admonition to work for justice at Wild Goose; I was just given people through whom God happens to be present.

When Jesus comes proclaiming his message to Israel, it’s about Israel being who Israel was created to be–not for Israel’s sake alone, but for all of those other nations.

When Paul writes his letters to groups of adherents to the Jesus movement in which he interprets what has happened through this person Jesus, it has to do with Jew and Gentile–or “us and them”–being at the same table and actually sharing with each other. And what is shared is not just beliefs and stories or possessions and meals, but, themselves.

This is my one sermon. I’m already picking up on that. [SEE HERE.] In my understanding, being a part–or better–being included in the people of God is the definition of salvation. It’s not heaven, not eternal mansions, not ethereal immortal spirits; it’s rather, having each other, being welcomed to each other, and experiencing and sharing the divine hospitality. This is the very definition of our salvation and of our ultimate destiny.

And God’s grace is revealed in God’s timing–the miraculous timing of giving to us the right people at the right time.

I really hope you know what this is like. It’s the best thing there is. It is the highest gift of God.

Yes, we can’t do it/this/life in general by ourselves, but that’s really only truly profound if we understand that it’s because it’s not even about ourselves but about the others who have been given to us.

So, why did I just share on Facebook the Buzzfeed video of Muslims saying to the camera, “I’m a Muslim but I’m not … [insert stereotype]” but I simply don’t care about posting the Christian version of the same video?

Because of this: It’s not about creating God’s word of grace for me–it’s about telling, announcing, proclaiming God’s word of grace to each other and on behalf of each other.

And, also: receiving God’s word of grace for me and about me from … other people.

The Most Surprising Thing About Jesus

Every time I read the Gospels I’m surprised.

It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve read them, or how often I’ve even picked apart the original language text for exegesis papers — I am surprised by the figure of Jesus.

This has been going on for some time, but only ever since the Gospels have truly begun to shape my understanding of two quite important things: 1) who “God” is, and 2) just what the hell is going on here (in this world).Gospels

For the first few years of my life discovering Jesus, the particular 21st-century-evangelical flavor of Christianity that was given to me at 17  years old was a hindrance to this. But thankfully, I managed to become curious or pious or thirsty enough (or a combination of the three) so that I read the Gospels in their entirety for what each author had to say about Jesus, not just as a collection of illustrations to support our shortsighted, simplified, and skewed understanding of a smaller version of Paul than even what the New Testament gives us. (This is the hearing of the biblical witness which tries so hard to convince us that what was really only important about Jesus’s life is that it ended.)

If you’re like me, you have human memory and simply forget, and Jesus as we think of him is viewed through how the world presently is instead of seeing the way the world should be through Jesus. I’m sure the usual suspects are culprits in this, too: cultural Jesus and pop-Jesus and even, churchy Jesus.

But, the darker side to this at work perhaps even more than my bad memory or the warping power of culture is that I make Jesus in my own image. Jesus in my image is a Jesus I understand fully, a Jesus that comforts me and doesn’t challenge me, a Jesus that likes what I like and hates what I hate.

The Gospels confront and correct my understanding of who Jesus is, and leave me captured by the person, persona, personality of Jesus (to take full advantage of some Latin roots there). It’s not doctrine, as much as character. And not necessarily character in the sense of virtue (though it is certainly a part of it), but more in the literary sort of sense — who this person is.

Although the Gospels and each New Testament document presents him differently in all the details, it is this — the character of Jesus — that is the consistent core throughout the early Christian witness.

Now this guy is interesting. Sometimes I wish we had more material about him. There probably are some statements in the Gospel of Thomas and maybe some stories in a few others like the Gospel of the Hebrews that presents us with some accurate testimony about what Jesus did and said, but overall it’s our four canonical ones.

Only four. Yes they’re long for ancient biographies, but we only have a few of them for our entire life. I’ve been caring about Jesus for only a decade now, but I can go ahead and tell you some things that Matthew is concerned about or how John is just so weird or talk about the structure of each one. I’ve read them before. Multiple times.

But I still don’t get them, really.

Because the most surprising thing about Jesus, at least for me, is himself.

And since God is a God of surprises anyway, perhaps Jesus himself is the most important, urgent, and most characteristic surprise of all.

What Jesus’s Death Kills

I just put the finishing touches, for now at least, on my translation of Ephesians 2:13-16.

This is the heart of a passage of Scripture that I have been thinking a lot about over the past couple of months. The borders of the larger segment are commonly drawn around v. 11 and v. 22.

Here’s my translation, with some of my thoughts:

And now, in Messiah Jesus, you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of the Messiah. For he is our peace, the one who has made both “us” and “them” one and who in his flesh has torn down the dividing wall, the wall of hostility. He has abolished the law of commandments and ordinances, decrees and dogmas in order that he might in himself create of the two one new humanity—that is, making peace—and, that he might reconcile both “us” and “them” to God through the cross, having on it killed the hostility.

  • The Pauline letters are addressed to Gentile or mostly Gentile Ephesuscommunities. The “you” being addressed here is a mix of pagan groups who express fidelity to the God of Israel through Jesus Messiah. While an aim of this translation has been to keep as much of the original nuances of the original Greek as I could, “us” and “them” has no direct equivalent in the original language text. Instead, we have a word that could be translated “both” or “all.” In this letter, on the other side of the pagan mix we call “Gentiles” are members of Israel/the Jewish people. Messiah is their concept; mashiach is their word. Many translations rightfully bring in the word “groups,” in reference to Jew/Gentile distinction in this community. However, since in our Jesus community today this distinction is not really around anymore, I have chosen to use “us” and “them” to translate into our context what was in this ancient context the dynamic of the Gentiles being “those other people,” and the Jews being “we who have belonged to this thing since before we were born.” (And, depending on your ethnic identity, the “us” and “them” could certainly have been the other way around.)
  • There are certain English words that have been used so much within Christian contexts over the centuries that they become detached from their first-century context, and thereby lose much of their meaning. One of these is “Christ.” I try whenever possible to translate christos with another English word that comes to us by way of Hebrew, “Messiah.” We have become so accustomed to thinking of “Christ” as only another way of referring to Jesus that when we refer to “Christ’s love” and the like, we forget that we are actually referring to this: the love of the anticipated rightful, anointed, ruler of the ethnic group/nation of Israel who would show up to establish justice and peace for this particular ethnic group/nation–with perhaps the rest of the world graciously benefitting from it, as well.
  • Those on the outside have first and primarily been brought near, welcomed, invited in to a people, a community. It is ultimately God’s hospitality, but it’s communal hospitality nonetheless.
  • Lest we continue to perpetuate the misunderstanding that the Mosaic Law is a bad thing that God saves us from, the law, nomos, of things that I translate with four words here are actually two in Greek. There’s overlap in meaning between the two words that is fleshed out in English adequately only by bringing in a couple more. These are warped versions of good  things that divide people.
  • Markus Barth points out, “Most amazing is the fact that in Paul’s […] argument, peace between Jews and Gentiles precedes the description of the peace made between God and man. Verse 18 [“for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father”] shows that both dimensions of peace are inseparable.” The Gentiles/ethne/nations were “far off” not primarily in that they were far off from God. They were first far off from Israel, and then by extension far off from God. This is evident as well in v. 12 in that first they are “aliens and not citizens of Israel,” and then “strangers to the covenant of God’s promise.” The text translated here is an allusion to Isaiah 57:19, in which it is those of exiled Israel that are far and the peace is between them and God. Here, the peace is between Israel and the nations. Barth: “Paul was obviously unable to imagine a peace given by God to those far and near which would not also be a peace between the two. Peace is not simply a matter of the soul or of individuals only; if it is peace from and with God, then it is also peace among men. Only by changing man’s social relations does God also change man’s individual life.”
  • This is why my favorite all-purpose English translation, the Common English Bible, is tragically misleading in its rendering of this verse. It reads, “He reconciled them both as one body to God by the cross, which ended the hostility to God.” This translation actually goes further than other major English translations in how it provides an extra word to what is in the original simply “the hostility.” The only other major translation I’ve seen that adds a word here is the “looser” translation, the New Living Translation, which glosses it as “hostility toward each other.” That is exactly what the idea is here, and is what in this vision Jesus’s death kills.

Now, to tell us what I think all this means, I could extend this out and have more blog posts, a sermon, a series of sermons, or a book or whatever.

Instead, let’s just read this. We need this read, and read again. At different parts of the day, in different places, with different people–preached, taught, memorized, meditated on, and made real.

The Biblical Way of Assessing Spiritual Gifts

While this is a long essay, there was still no way as I was writing it to include every detail. Please give me your feedback, especially constructive criticism. What I have to say about spiritual gifts is not what you may typically hear in many circles. I’m convinced that this way of understanding spiritual gifts is truer to what the texts actually say about them. I’m also convinced that this understanding is vastly more beneficial for our vision of who God is and who we are as his community than some of the more common views. However, I’m of course limited in my understanding of God and in my ability to interpret the biblical text. So I invite your help. Thanks for reading!


“Spiritual gifts” are widely regarded as those particular abilities that are given by God’s Spirit to individuals when they become believers. Since these gifts are listed for us in the New Testament, our responsibility–as the discussion regularly goes–is to discover for ourselves which one(s) we have so that we can then engage in the appropriate activities to put our gifts to use. So-called “spiritual gifts assessment” tests have become a popular way for Christians to try to make this discovery.community

There are significant problems with this view, and foremost among them is that it’s not at all found in the New Testament.

But, there is talk in the New Testament about the Spirit working among God’s people in such a way that it means this: We should be able to assess how God is at work in each individual part of the community through the gifts that each person has been given.

So, what is this biblical way of “assessing spiritual gifts” all about?



The New Testament passages that routinely feature in discussions about what we call “spiritual gifts” are all written by Paul, and the most significant one by far is found in the twelfth chapter of his first letter to the Corinthian church.

Since New Testament epistles are, in a major sense, arguments in which the author is making a case for something, we have to ask, as we would in any argument that we’re trying to understand, Why did Paul bring that up?

One of Paul’s chief concerns in this letter is unity among the followers of Jesus at Corinth. The immediately surrounding parts of the letter are, after all, about what is happening during their corporate worship when they share in the ceremonial meal that Jesus inaugurated. It appears that when they gather, some members are being disrespected, excluded, and basically devalued.

Paul considers it important in light of this problem that the Corinthians not remain ignorant about spiritual things (v. 1). Since, as he writes, no one can even make the basic Christian confession and submit to Jesus’s lordship apart from the one Holy Spirit that is at work among them (v. 3), if anything is happening among the Corinthian believers it is because the Spirit of the one God to whom they all belong is working through them.

So how can they know that they are indeed already unified because of the living, moving, active presence of the one God, referred to here as the “Spirit”? What can Paul show them so that their first question becomes about how they are they living into that which most powerfully and completely unifies them already?

As part of his solution, Paul tells them that yes, they are all quite different from each other, and indeed, when they gather, there are varieties of “gifts,” “services,” and “workings” that are observed. These three terms are basically used synonymously, with Paul also describing them as “manifestations of the Spirit for the common good” (vv. 4-7).

For example, he says, one person over here speaks wisdom, another over there speaks about knowledge, another over here speaks about faith, another over there heals, another works miracles, another prophesies, another discerns, another speaks in other languages, another interprets. And all of this “by the one Spirit,” as Paul emphasizes repeatedly.

Paul doesn’t let the Corinthians forget that which we so often lose track of. We are prone to read the biblical story (and even look at the stories of our own lives) and forget who the main character is. This is about God. We want to begin and end our conversations about what the Gospel is with our own sinfulness and our own salvation, while the Gospel is the message of good news about Jesus as Lord of the world, not a message about our problem and the solution to the problem (though what the Gospel means for us certainly does include that). In much the same way, we want to make a discussion about how God gifts the community through his Spirit into a discussion about what spiritual abilities we can now claim for ourselves. All when in fact the conversation is actually about the one God who has always meant to make a people (1 Samuel 12:22), and how God is doing just that among actual communities.

Notice too, that Paul assumes that these gifts/services/workings (i.e., manifestations of the Spirit at work for the good of all of them as a community) are verifiable on their part. They can already see these things taking place among them, even if they are only glimmers of what could be.



The point is certainly not, then, that these ways in which the Spirit is at work through them, like speaking in other languages or healing, should be happening, but, since the church members haven’t gone off by themselves and taken their spiritual gifts assessment tests, they don’t know what they should be up to.

Rather the point is who this Spirit as the only source of these gifts actually is, and what this then means for the Corinthians’ life together as a community. Their communal life should reflect who this God is and what God is up to in the world. For them as for us, this calls for unity.

As with any theology, any statement that we make about God, how the Spirit is at work among our community is not something we can access through pondering it by ourselves but by engaging in the pursuit of a faithful life lived in service to neighbor, and to our God who empowers us on this journey and equips us for our tasks.

With the way that many parts of the church in our own time deal with the idea of “spiritual gifts” with assessment tests and other ways of discovering your spiritual gift(s), way too much stock is placed in our own understanding of ourselves and we miss what is actually the most important lesson that Paul is teaching the Corinthians: Open your eyes to see how God is at work through others–the same Spirit equipping them for their role in the community is the same Spirit who is active in you, even as we all play our own particular parts.



In light of all of this, Paul’s point is also not that the Corinthians are supposed to figure out what their gifts are so that they can serve God through engaging in the appropriate activities. It’s rather that, in their working together to become unified as the body of Christ, they realize that God is at work in such a way that it reveals how every single member plays a special, crucial, undeniably valuable role. So, no more disrespecting, excluding, and devaluing each other. It has no basis–not with the God we serve who is at work in all sorts of ways, but especially in our service to each other as a community. (As a side note, it makes perfect sense in Paul’s argument that the very next chapter is about what love actually is.)

After all, this is about the Holy Spirit, the divine pneuma, which is a word chosen by the New Testament authors not because it refers to something static (such as a gift lying dormant until we happen to discover it), but because it is the word for wind, which is an invisible force that is always on the move. After all, Paul in his own language doesn’t actually refer to his topic here as “spiritual gifts”–he talks about them as manifestations of the Spirit, or simply as gifts (the word here actually means something like “expressions of grace”), services, and workings. God is revealed in God’s moving activity among people–what in the world has led us to believe that we can best detect God at work by sitting down to answer some questions about ourselves as individuals and examining the test results?

Paul doesn’t make this argument about the Spirit’s gifts/services/workings so that I can gaze inwardly and determine what gifts I have so that I can then make decisions for my own life based on that knowledge. This is not about what I should try to see in myself, but about what I must see in the person who may have been relegated to the corner but–as hard as it may be to believe–is my sibling in the Holy Spirit community.



Since it is has become so common to hear how important it is to know what your spiritual gifts are, but this is not actually the biblical message, where did the idea come from? I haven’t done the research on tracking the origin of this view, but I can go ahead and make a few clarifications that would help us begin to see what is the biblical vision.

A regular feature of teaching about spiritual gifts is that Christians receive them at the moment they become believers, but Paul says nothing of the sort. Aside from the fact that the New Testament as a whole isn’t as concerned about this point in our lives as much as we are, it appears that this teaching is based in the assumption that these gifts are permanent. If they’re permanent, they must be given at some other point than simply when need arises, so conversion tends to be the go-to timeframe. But nowhere does Paul say that you’ll always have a particular gift, or that you’re not gifted by the Spirit in all sorts of different ways all the time or at different times. As Gordon Fee points out, the plural used in Paul’s Greek words for gifts/services/workings “probably means that these gifts are not permanent, but each occurrence is a gift in its own right” (Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God 166).

Likewise, another problem is that we take the different gifts/services/workings/manifestations of the Spirit that Paul lists and make them the total inventory of possibilities for how the Spirit gifts people. But in reading Paul, it’s necessary to realize that when Paul provides lists, he is never exhaustive. Just because Paul lists ways that we sin (as he is prone to do), doesn’t mean he’s covered all the ways that we could possibly be sinful. And just as he provides lists of virtues or the ways that the Spirit of God empowers us, doesn’t mean he has exhausted all of the possibilities there, either.

In his lists, Paul is actually giving examples in order to paint a picture of what it means to be in rebellion against God, or to live faithfully, or to be gifted by the Spirit. With how difficult it would be to assign a proper name to all of the ways that we could possibly sin, how much more so would it be difficult or rather impossible to name most of the ways that the Spirit gifts and empowers us, much less to even be aware of them.

Again, Paul never says that you will know what your spiritual gift(s) are, nor that it is incumbent upon you to discover your spiritual gift(s). The Spirit is at work among faithful people surrendered to God, thankfully in ways that are not restricted to our limited understanding.

When you truly hear the biblical text by taking into proper account the context of Paul’s argument and the real nature of his concerns, Pauline exegete Gordon Fee’s words about what he describes as “[o]ne of the fads among evangelicals in the final decades of the twentieth century …  of finding your spiritual gift” ring all the more true when he admits, “I could not imagine Paul understanding what was going on at all!” (163)



Since Paul is not concerned with individual members of the community knowing what spiritual gifts they have, as he hasn’t said anything to indicate that it’s their responsibility to find them or that it’s even possible to always know what they are, it is crucial to take into account that which he has emphasized is his concern. Paul writes about these spiritual gifts/services/workings and manifestations of the Spirit for the sake of unity and the functioning together of a body “for the common good” (cf. vv. 12-31). It is much more beneficial for the Corinthians and for us to know that each of us is gifted and plays important parts in the body of Christ than it is for individuals to be able to claim a particular ability.

Paul may be more concerned with the action of prophecy within a community than he is with a particular person being a prophet, much less he or she being able to determine that she or he is a prophet. So it’s not primarily a matter of personal discovery or even personal ownership, either. We want to talk about “my” spiritual gifts, when Paul would be asking about our gifts as a community. If someone has the gift of prophecy, the first thing this means is that the community has a prophetic voice.

One other passage in Paul in particular shows how this is primarily a matter of the community, that what really counts as a “spiritual gift” isn’t necessarily something that enables someone to perform a particular role or function, it doesn’t have to be something someone always has, and it doesn’t always have to come what we would think of as “straight” from the Spirit. In Romans 1:11-12, Paul writes, “I long to see you that I may impart to you (plural) a gift of the spirit to strengthen you (plural), “that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours (plural) and mine.”

What we see here in Romans is not that particular individuals in the community have been gifted by the Spirit as they became believers individually, and now they have to find out what they are so they can take appropriate action. Instead, we see here in Romans that the spiritual gift would come as they experience as a community shared time with Paul. Also, the gift that Paul anticipates imparting is that there would be mutual encouragement and strengthening of those believers in that time in that place and in those circumstances. It’s not something you would find on a spiritual gifts assessment test, and to try to do so would miss the point entirely.

So if you want to know what your spiritual gifts are, it’s the case with discovering anything else theological, such as the more basic question of God’s existence, or even God’s relevance—join the community and do this thing, take this journey with us, and trust that you are equipped and empowered by God’s Spirit as we all are. Maybe someone else will see particular gifts/services/workings in you, but more importantly, perhaps you will see the ways that the Spirit is at work in someone else. And most importantly, maybe you’ll have the assurance that it is happening even if you don’t know it, or you won’t know what to call it even if you do.

Footnote: There is no distinction made in the Bible between what we think of as “spiritual” and “natural” gifts. Someone may be what we would call “naturally” good at developing plans and may also be what we might want to call “spiritually” capable of healing. Aside from the fact that this is grounded in our arbitrary distinguishing between what is miraculous or not, in whatever way the Spirit’s activity is manifested for the common good of the community, that it is a gift. Everything is a gift. And anything through which God works is spiritual in nature, and that’s the most important thing that could be said about it.