[Keynote address at the Gay Christian Network’s Annual Conference in Seattle, WA (January 6, 2007).]
Gay Christian Network Keynote
Thanks, Justin, for that intro. It is a real honor and privilege to be introduced by the author of the “more popular” half of the Great Debate.
For those of you who don’t know, I was the twelfth member to join the GCN web forums, way back in the antediluvian darkness.
But I’ve actually known Justin for even longer than that. We originally met through an organization called Bridges Across the Divide. Essentially, Bridges Across brings together people who disagree about homosexuality. We try to get to know each other and understand each other’s perspectives.
Justin and I quickly became friends, and spent a lot of time talking about our beliefs. Justin believes that God blesses same-sex marriages; I believe that God only blesses marriage between a man and a woman. Most of you here agree with Justin. A few agree with me. This is a good reason for me to feel nervous about giving this speech. However, I appreciate the way that Justin has made GCN a welcoming place for me and others who share my convictions. And though Justin and I have disagreed at times, and still do disagree, I would say that few people, living or dead, have had more impact on my thinking than he has had.
I met Justin in my last year in college. I quickly grew to appreciate his honesty and intelligence, which stood in sharp contrast with what I experienced from some other Christians.
Justin and I both grew up Southern Baptist.
Around the time we met, the pastor of my parents’ Southern Baptist church heard about my sexuality, and asked to meet with me. I agreed, and at the beginning of the meeting explained that while I was attracted to guys, I was a virgin, and planned to remain celibate for the rest of my life.
He must not have heard this part, however, because he launched into a forty-five minute tirade on the evils of AIDS, the gay lifestyle, and anal sex. (He seemed to know a great deal more about this last topic than I did.)
In addition to this rather formidable lecture, he also shared with me about God’s power to change sexual orientation. One of the men in the congregation, he said, struggled with homosexuality, but God had changed this man’s heart, so that now he was married and had children.
His rosy portrait of God’s power to change would have been more compelling to me if I had not happened to know a few details of the case. (I suppose he thought I would not know who he was talking about, although this was probably naïve of him. Gossip may be a sin, but a Baptist pastor ought to know that word does tend to get around. How else would we know who to pray for?)
In any case, I happened to know that the man’s wife was at that point attempting to divorce him because, several times each year, for all eleven years of their marriage, he had been having what I believe we are supposed to describe as falls: that is, he had anonymous sex with men he met at truck stops on the I-5 corridor. In addition, he was addicted to internet pornography.
I also happened to know that the pastor viewed the divorce as his wife’s fault, because her husband told her he was sorry after each “fall,” and so as a good Christian wife, she needed to stay married to him and, as the Apostle Paul had said, “not deprive him,” of a Christian sexual outlet.
Needless to say, I did not view this man as a role model. Moreover, knowing what I knew about this man’s marriage and that the pastor knew about his sins from talking to his wife, I was rather shocked that the pastor would hold him up to me as a role model. The dishonesty involved made it hard for me to trust anything he had to say about the issue.
Throughout this long lecture, I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. This pastor was like the Energizer Bunny—he just kept going and going and going... Eventually, he announced that I was afflicted with a demon of homosexuality.
At this point, I finally was able to break in to remind him that I’d said at the beginning that I was a virgin, which was a lot more than could be said for most of the single straight young adults in his church. (I didn’t add that it was also a good deal better than the man he held up as an example of God’s power to change hearts.) Since I intended to remain celibate, a lecture on AIDS or anal sex kind of missed the point. Moreover, I said, if I was afflicted by a demon of homosexuality, it wasn’t a very efficient demon, because it hadn’t succeeded in getting me to do anything.
This threw him off his stride for a moment, but then he recovered. What I had, he announced, was a “demon of celibacy.”
(Yes, you may not have realized this, but in the Tempter’s College in Hell, there is a special department, run by a crusty old devil named Unscrewtape, where demons learn to tempt people not to have sex. It is, in fact, the most elite department in the College, whose graduates have successfully tempted some of the most important figures in Biblical history, like the Prophet Jeremiah, the Apostle Paul, and even Jesus Himself...)
I don’t want to claim that Dilbert comics have the same authority as sacred scripture. But for those of us who have worked in the tech industry, they come close. And in this case, I think Dogbert said it best: “Out, out, demons of stupidity.”
I think that’s enough of that story. I could go on. But I think you get the picture.
Let’s tell another story, shall we?
For a few months during my college years, I belonged to a church here in the Seattle area. I’m not going to name the pastor, but he speaks at national conferences, has appeared numerous times on national television, and is a big wheel in the political fight against gay marriage. He’s also had some high-profile connections with Exodus International.
I was in a Bible-study group led by this pastor. At that time, there was a controversy in one of the Christian fellowship groups at the University of Washington. A gay student was refused a leadership position because of his sexuality. This stirred up a lot of debate in the student newspaper—it was a big deal for a few weeks. One night at the Bible study, one of the other guys asked the pastor his opinion on the issue. The pastor’s response? “I don’t have any problem with gays in leadership, as long as the first thing they do is lead themselves and their faggoty-assed friends right out of my church.”
Needless to say, I left his church not long after that.
I think this pastor would say he was just trying to be funny. He certainly laughed heartily at his own joke. But I am convinced that this kind of laughter causes tears in heaven.
To their credit, I will say that although some of the guys in the Bible study laughed, a lot of them didn’t seem comfortable with his attitude. But none of us—myself included—had the courage to challenge his bigotry.
This sort of stuff is out there. I’m sure that many of you could tell stories like this, and worse.
There are so-called Christians out there who not only bind up heavy burdens and place them on the backs of gay and lesbian Christians, without lifting a finger to help—they also kick the legs out from under us when we are struggling to bear these burdens. Instead of beating swords into ploughshares, they take the words which God meant to cultivate redemption, and use them as weapons in the culture war, to stab those who may be trying to find God’s will in a difficult situation.
When I met Justin, I was convinced that God was calling me to celibacy. But I didn’t always know how to deal with the challenges that I would have to overcome to live a celibate life. I had also been badly burned by numerous “conservative” Christian leaders, and so did not feel safe going to them to talk about these struggles.
About a year after Justin and I met, I was growing frustrated with Christians and with my faith. Perhaps not coincidentally, around this time, a gay coworker at Microsoft started hitting on me. He was half-Cuban, half-Italian, and half a millionaire.
When I told him I was planning to be celibate, his response was “You’re too cute to be celibate.” (He was pretty good-looking, himself.)
Although he tried to convince me that I didn’t have to be celibate, he was very respectful of my choice. He never tried to manipulate or seduce me. He just gently courted me for several months. We would watch movies together, carpool to work, go to the opera together, and just sit over coffee and talk.
It sure beat talking to some of the pastors I knew.
Throughout all of this, I was going through a very painful time of questioning my convictions.
I began to open up to some ex-gays I knew, but discovered that they kept trying to shift the conversation around to my relationship with my father.
For the record, my father has his doctorate in education, and was thrilled to have an intellectual son like me. We had an extraordinarily close relationship when I was a child. It was my brother’s desire to play soccer and baseball that stirred up conflicts in my house.
This was not the answer my friends in Exodus were looking for.
I do not mean to say that my relationship with my father was perfect; but once you stretched the ex-gay theories far enough to fit my relationship with my father in, it became difficult to understand why homosexuals are a minority. Conflict with fathers in adolescence is not exactly an uncommon phenomenon.
Returning to the subject of ex-gays I knew: they also had a tendency to focus on how promiscuous gay men are. Unfortunately, my dilemma was that I was falling in love with a guy who had no more sexual experience than I did, and who wanted to spend the rest of his life with me. It did not seem to me that the premise that God had not blessed John Paulk’s life as a drug-addled gay prostitute lead automatically to the conclusion that He would not bless the monogamous, committed relationship that I desired more and more.
Throughout all of this, the only person I felt comfortable speaking openly about what was going on in my life was Justin. (The blame for this lies partly with my own desire to justify a gay relationship, but the attitudes and arguments of many of the Christians I came into contact with did not help.)
One night, on the phone, I told Justin that I having serious doubts about my commitment to celibacy. I was beginning to wonder if maybe God would bless a committed, monogamous gay relationship.
Over the next few days, we spent hours on the phone, as I sorted out my thoughts and feelings.
After listening to me process all of this aloud, Justin said, “I would love it if you really came around to believe that God blesses gay relationships. I would love to have you arguing on my side, instead of against me. But I’ve listened to you explain your convictions on celibacy in the past, and I know what it sounds like when you really believe something. I don’t hear genuine conviction right now. I hear very understandable frustration and anger with the Church and with God. And I hear an even more understandable desire for God to bless this relationship. But I don’t hear real conviction.”
I wasn’t exactly pleased to hear that—part of the reason it had been easy to focus on the very real flaws of conservative pastors and Exodus leaders was that it gave me an excuse not to listen to them when they gave this sort of advice. But it was harder to ignore this when it came from Justin.
And as I thought about it and prayed about it, I saw more and more clearly that he was right. Deep down, I still believed God was calling me to celibacy.
Without Justin’s challenge, I think it likely that I would have listened to anger and loneliness, and silenced the still, small voice of God whispering in my heart.
For many years, I have wrestled with anger at those who, when I asked for bread, gave me a stone. I agreed with them that gay relationships are outside God’s will; but instead of feeding my desire to overcome the struggles I encountered on the road to sexual purity, they spread the table with false hopes, Freudian psychobabble, and fag jokes.
I have always been thankful that, despite our deep disagreements, Justin was there to listen and to challenge me. Without him, my life might have taken a very different course.
A few months ago, Justin called me to ask if I would be willing to speak at this conference. I realized that to accept his invitation could cause problems for me. I believe firmly that Scripture does not sanction homosexual activity, even in the context of a loving, monogamous relationship. Most of those who would be likely to print my articles or invite me to speak believe the same thing. They might interpret my decision to speak here as evidence that I had gone “soft” on gay issues.
Nevertheless, although I asked for a day or two to pray and think about it, I knew that I would almost certainly accept Justin’s invitation as soon as he offered it. I have tremendous respect for his integrity and commitment to Christ. And I have seen God at work in your lives here on GCN.
Do I agree with everything I see on GCN? No. Sometimes, I log into the forums, see a topic title, and say, “Oh, dear.”
I think you know the topics I’m talking about.
But then, I feel the same way about some of the things that go on among my more conservative brothers and sisters in Christ.
Let’s talk about the culture wars for a moment.
I want to be clear where I’m coming from. I believe that God intended marriage to be the life-long union between a man and a woman. I believe very firmly in the sanctity of marriage. I believe that marriage is not just a human arrangement—when a man and a woman commit to each other at the altar, God Himself joins them together, and makes them one flesh. I believe that this one flesh union is an image of Christ’s union with His Church.
I am so dedicated to this vision of marriage that I have made the not altogether easy commitment to lifelong celibacy.
But I’m not always impressed with what passes for “defending the sanctity of marriage” in our culture today.
In 1996, Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act. I don’t want to drag up dirt on the dear good politicians who sought to protect our Republic from the menace of gay marriage. Nevertheless, without naming names, if one were to examine some of the Act’s congressional sponsors, and the Gentleman at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue who signed the Act into law, one would not, God bless their hearts, find a uniform record of marital sanctity.
Jesus said, “What God has joined together, let not man put asunder.” But the culture warriors of our generation, living in an age of no-fault divorce, believe that a Defense of Marriage Act need only defend marriage against “the gays.”
Marriage is undoubtedly under attack in our culture. But gays and lesbians are not the primary culprits. They have, however, been made into the scapegoats.
There are many who preach loudly about the sanctity of marriage, but do not practice what they preach. When they condemn gay marriage, they are trying (apparently quite successfully) to deflect attention from their own offenses against marriage. By focusing first on the sins of others, and ignoring the sin in their own life, they exactly reverse the priorities that Christ sets out in the Sermon on the Mount. And their hypocrisy only undermines the credibility of Christian witness on the meaning of marriage and human sexuality—as Paul said about the religious hypocrites of his day, “God’s name is blasphemed among the gentiles because of you.”
Many who oppose gay marriage, however, have not violated their own marriage vows. They are not guilty of the hypocrisy just mentioned. Nevertheless, if they see gay marriage as a greater threat to the sanctity of their own marriage than no-fault divorce, then all I can say is that they just can’t see straight. And if they really want to take a courageous stand for the sanctity of marriage, let them speak the truths that many of their hypocritical allies in the fight against gay marriage do not want to hear. No one can be considered either courageous or just for attacking a small and unpopular minority, while flattering the hypocrisy of the majority.
Here’s another little factoid for you to chew on.
A few years ago, the Love Won Out conference came to Seattle.
Love Won Out advertises itself as a way to equip Christians to minister to gays and lesbians, bringing them the Good News of Christ. We could talk a bit about how well it achieves that goal. I went to the conference here in Seattle, and I wasn’t much impressed with the psychobabble about the causes of homosexuality and orientation change. But we’ll set that aside for the moment. For now, it’s enough to say that Love Won Out is advertised as a way to equip Christians to minister to homosexuals. A few hundred people showed up.
Not too long after, the “Mayday for Marriage” rally was organized at Safeco Field in downtown Seattle, with James Dobson as one of the keynote speakers. This was a political rally against gay marriage. This time, 20,000 people showed up.
Both the Love Won Out conference and the Mayday for Marriage rally are closely associated with Focus on the Family, so one would expect that they would be marketed to roughly the same group of Christians. Out of that group, only a few hundred are motivated to learn how to show Christ’s love to gays and lesbians, to minister to them, and to help them to find salvation; more than 20,000 are willing to wave their signs in opposition to gay marriage.
And yet they claim to serve the same Messiah who declared, “My Kingdom is not of this world.”
I think that as Christians, we have to wrestle with the fact that we live in a culture that is deeply fractured in its views of sexuality or marriage. Though I believe deeply in the sanctity of marriage, I do not look to the political system for salvation.
As the Apostle Paul pointed out in his letter to the Romans, even the most perfect law is weakened by the flesh. If this is true of the Law God Himself handed down to Moses, how much more is it true of the laws that come from human legislatures?
There can be no salvation through the law—salvation only comes through Jesus Christ. It is only when He dwells within us, only when we live in the Spirit, that we are able to fulfill the law.
In the last few months, we have seen a powerful example of Jesus Christ at work in the heart of our own GCN community.
Early this fall, Andrew, a GCN member who grew up in London but lives near Rome, received a call from a former coworker of his. Alfonso had recently been diagnosed with HIV, and was suicidal. He had no friends, no family, and no place to go.
Though Andrew and Alfonso had been coworkers, they had not been close. Nevertheless, Andrew said, “It doesn’t matter what’s happening, I’m here. Come. Live with me.”
At the airport, Andrew was shocked by what he saw. Alfonso had once been full of life, witty, talented. Now he was a wreck. His Armani suit hung on him like sack cloth. Andrew even thought of turning round and pretending he hadn’t seen Alfonso.
But he took him home, and introduced him to GCN. Alfonso had no connection with Christianity, had not even grown up with it. But he came here, he began to get to know people.
Weeks passed, full of visits to the doctor, of tests in the hospital, and struggles to find the right medications. It was also a time of spiritual frustration. At one point, Andrew became discouraged, wondering if Alfonso would ever grow to understand God’s love.
Then, in late November, Alfonso announced on the boards, “I start pray and is true is make me feel better is first time I do this, but is help me.” His first prayer was very simple: “God, it’s me... Alfonso.”
A few days later, he posted pictures on GCN of some candles in a Church. “I was never light candel in church before,” he wrote, “so was first time. I was light 2 one for Alma because she was light one for me in London and one for my friends on GCN. I was put card next to candel so God he no who was for.”
While he was in the Church to pray, he met Giovanna, an 87-year-old Italian woman who prayed for him, and became his friend
He also found Christian books in Italian, including Henri Nouwen’s Meditazione sul ritorno del figlio prodigo—the Return of the Prodigal Son.
Over the next few weeks, Alfonso became more and more involved in GCN. “I is investigate God,” he said.
He and Andrew booked reservations to come to London for the European version of the GCN conference.
Then, On December 17, Alma posted a prayer request. Alfonso was having chest pains, and Andrew had called an ambulance to take him to the hospital. On the way to the hospital, Alfonso suffered a massive heart attack.
During the night, Alfonso asked the hospital chaplain to baptize him. He was baptized, received the Eucharist, and last rites. At 5:30 in the morning, with Andrew and the Chaplain by his side, he died. He was 53 years old.
At the funeral, his new friend Giovanna sat in the front row with Andrew. Partway through the funeral, she turned to Andrew and said, “You know that’s not him in the box, he’s with God. Makes you proud to have known him doesn’t it?”
In his sermon, “The Weight of Glory,” C. S. Lewis reminded his audience that,
It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbor. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor's glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken.
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.
All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.
There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.
Alfonso was not a political issue. He was a person, poised on the brink of eternity.
Without Andrew’s willingness to take him in, and the friendships he formed on GCN, he would have plunged into eternity in despair, without faith in Christ.
I believe that God brought Alfonso to our community, and in the final weeks of his life he found the rest in his Creator that had been missing from all the restless years that had gone before.
Felice Epifania, Alfonso. Today you see more clearly than we do.
Before moving on, I want to share with you a prayer from his funeral Mass. I hope heaven will be tolerant of my feeble attempt at Italian.
If you don’t understand my words, you may silently lift Alfonso up to God in your own thoughts.
Salve Regina, madre di misericordia, vita, dolcezza e speranza nostra, salve. A te ricorriamo, esuli figli di Eva; a te sospiriamo gementi e piangenti in questa valle di lacrime. Orsù dunque, avvocata nostra, rivolgi a noi gli occhi tuoi misericordiosi. E mostraci, dopo questo esilio, Gesù, il frutto benedetto del tuo seno. O clemente, o pia, o dolce Vergine Maria. Amen.
GCN is a diverse community. Although most members belong to some form of Protestant community, we also have members from the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions.
As those of you who read the “controversial topics” section of the message board know, there are at times heated debates about the theological differences that divide us. (In fact, that prayer may have just stirred up controversy among those Protestants in the audience who speak Italian.)
I do not want to downplay the significance of the divisions among Christians. But it is Christ’s will that we should all be united in one Body. He also warned that a house divided against itself cannot stand.
During the last century, great strides have been made towards healing the divisions within Christianity. But at the same time that we have made progress on some fronts, new areas of division have opened up.
In his Encyclical Letter on Christian unity, John Paul II wrote,
Christians cannot underestimate the burden of long-standing misgivings inherited from the past, and of mutual misunderstandings and prejudices. Complacency, indifference and insufficient knowledge of one another often make this situation worse. Consequently, the commitment to ecumenism must be based upon the conversion of hearts and upon prayer, which will also lead to the necessary purification of past memories.
With the grace of the Holy Spirit, the Lord’s disciples, inspired by love, by the power of the truth and by a sincere desire for mutual forgiveness and reconciliation, are called to re-examine together their painful past and the hurt which that past regrettably continues to provoke even today.
I know that some who share my beliefs about marriage would question my decision to be here today. But I also believe that the moral debate around homosexuality has been poisoned by an unusual degree of mutual misunderstanding and prejudice.
I have no idea what God will do in our gathering this weekend. But we have come together as brothers and sisters in Christ. Our divisions remain real, and many misunderstandings remain to be resolved. But in spite of our divisions, we are struggling towards unity in Christ.
About 3 years ago, Justin asked me if I would write an essay for GCN, describing why I believe God calls gay and lesbian Christians to celibacy. Justin, in turn, wrote an essay explaining why he believes God blesses same-sex marriage. Billed as “The Great Debate,” those two essays have been prominently featured on the website ever since.
Despite our disagreements, when Justin asked me to speak, he did not place any restrictions on the content of my speech. (Well, that’s not strictly true. He did place two restrictions on what I could say: first, I couldn’t use profanity—something to do with there being Baptists in the audience; and second, I couldn’t quote the Gnostic Gospels. The first wasn’t much of a limitation since I never swear anyway. Well, hardly ever. I can think of a couple of conversations with Kennan about certain threads on the Controversial Topics forum. But we won’t go there now. As for the Gnostic Gospels, there’s a story there, but, as it has nothing to do with my speech, I’m not going to tell it.)
Justin left me free to pick whatever topic I chose. I could have re-hashed the great debate if I had wanted to. But even if I had devoted my entire speech to the topic, and spoken extraordinarily quickly like the micro machine man in order to cover as much material as quickly as possible, I would not have been able to go into as much depth as I was able to cover in the essay that is already available on the site.
At the same time, I know that there are some of you wrestling either with how to live a celibate life, or else with questions about whether or not God endorses sexually active gay relationships.
After much thought, I decided that I could best serve the community by using my keynote speech to talk about some more central, more basic issues, with immediate application to all of our lives, rather than a focus that would have seemed to many of you like a divisive rehashing of a discussion that we’ve already had at great length.
Then, after lunch, I will give a workshop on celibacy and friendship. Because of the more interactive format of the workshop, it will be easier for us to talk about the questions that people are actually wrestling with, rather than me trying to guess what people would want to hear as I prepare in advance.
So if you have questions about celibacy and friendship, please, bring them to the workshop, or catch me at some point during the rest of the conference.
Otherwise, breathe a deep sigh of relief that I’m not talking about sexual ethics, and we’ll focus in on some other questions.
I think that one of the most difficult issues for any Christian is what we philosophers like to call “The problem of evil.” Why do bad things happen to good people?
The same day that Alfonso died, I learned that an old friend of mine, whom I’d known in middle school and high school, had died suddenly of a heart attack. He left behind a wife and three young children.
On Christmas Eve, I read in the Seattle Times that Kate Flemming, with whom I had served on the steering committee for the Archdiocese of Seattle’s Gay and Lesbian Ministry, had been killed by flooding caused by the recent storms here in Seattle. My prayers went out to her partner Charlene, whose sense of loss I could only imagine.
Christmas morning, my family went over to my older brother’s house to celebrate the exchange of gifts with my nieces and nephews. My brother told us that his wife’s sister had gone in that morning to check on her 2-year-old son, and found him dead.
These are some of the things that I have been pondering in my heart this Christmas, and that have been on my mind as I shaped my notes into final form for this speech.
Why? I want to ask God. Why?
Job asked God this question, but instead of a direct answer, God questioned Job in return. “Were you there when I laid the foundations of the world, when the morning stars sang together and the sons of God shouted for joy?” He then proceeds to a litany of questions concerning the mysteries of creation, asking Job to answer His questions, if he can.
I’m not sure I can answer either Job’s questions or God’s.
One thing, however, has helped me here.
I am a huge fan of The Lord of the Rings. I’ve re-read the whole trilogy several times.
A couple of years ago, something struck me that has helped me make sense of the evil in life.
To Frodo, the quest to destroy the ring must often have seemed nearly hopeless. Though he continued to press on, he had no assurance of success.
Yet it suddenly struck me that Tolkien himself was surely never in doubt. When Frodo was stung by Shelob the Spider, Sam had every reason to despair for Frodo; but Tolkien himself had no reason to doubt.
Tolkien is an imperfect, human creator. But if Tolkien can be confident even when his creatures lack hope, then how much more right does God, the creator of heaven and earth, have to rest confident in His plan even when all seems hopeless from our perspective?
And yet, even if I reach the point of trusting that God will about a happy ending, why can’t He reach the happy ending by happy paths? Why must the road to heaven lead through the valley of the shadow of death?
I can only imagine the devastation a mother must feel to wake on Christmas morning, and find her child dead. Or of children, facing Christmas without their father.
Even if we believe that these stories will have a happy ending, by what right does God subject them to this suffering now?
As I thought about these things, I began to realize that maybe these things were not so far from the first Christmas.
When the Magi saw the star, they rejoiced, and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.
Now when they had departed, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there till I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night, and departed to Egypt.
Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the Magi, ordered that all the male children in Bethlehem and in that region who were two years old or under should be killed.
Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more.”
The first Christmas was not a Hallmark card. Not only so, but Herod’s fear of Jesus missed its mark: the victims were innocent children.
But that’s not where the story ends. Jesus’ birth is only the prelude to His redemptive death and resurrection, a preparation, we believe, for that day when God will wipe away every tear from our eyes and death shall be no more.
But still we ask: why so much suffering? Why do innocent children suffer and die?
A few years ago, a friend of mine asked his pastor why Jesus cried out from the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” The pastor insisted that Jesus did not really feel abandoned by God. He simply said those words in order to fulfill the Messianic prophecy of Psalm 22.
Frankly, this answer begs for another exorcism of demons of stupidity.
It begs the question. It tells us nothing about why the Old Testament prophecies told of a suffering servant. If the only point was to fulfill prophecy, then surely God could simply have told the prophets that the Messiah would wear a funny hat, and Jesus could fulfill the prophecy by wearing the hat.
I have no insight into how the Second Person of the Trinity could cry out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
But in some sense—I leave the details to those more advanced in spiritual things than myself—God in the Person of Jesus Christ experienced the sense of abandonment that we, too, experience.
In the last few months, I’ve spent a lot of time on the forums. One thing that stuck out to me was the painful experience of loneliness shared by so many in this community.
It has always been at least a little comfort, when I have suffered, to remember that in Jesus Christ, God, too, has suffered. In those times, I can resonate with the hymn that goes, “He waked where I walked; He feels what I feel; He understands. God with us, so close to us, God with us, Emmanuel.”
A few years ago, however, I experienced a brutal betrayal by a friend. The circumstances are not important; but it was one of the most painful experiences of my life. I wrestled for several days in prayer to try to find an anchor in the midst of the emotional storm. I was reflecting on the words of the hymn, and remembering that Christ, too, had been betrayed by a friend.
And then suddenly, the perspective changed. Instead of me singing the hymn to Christ, I suddenly felt that He was singing it to me. That as I walked through this undeserved betrayal, I was walking where Christ walked, feeling what he felt. And in some limited sense, in that moment, I did understand.
Let me step back for a moment, and return to the world of Tolkien and Middle Earth. To Frodo and Sam, Middle Earth must have seemed enormous, indescribably old, and frequently hostile to both human and hobbit. And yet Middle Earth itself existed in large part as a setting for the stories that Tolkien wanted to tell, stories in which Sam and Frodo played a central role.
If there had been scientists in Middle Earth, they might have learned much about its age, the processes of its formation, and so forth. But their science could tell them nothing of the drama for which Middle Earth was the stage.
Our culture encourages us to think of our world as the product of billions of years of blind physical processes. Some of their assumptions are driven by an ideology which denies any place for a creator; but I am quite willing to concede that many of their findings about the age of the world and its developments are accurate, as far as they go. But they don’t go very far. Modern science explicitly excludes any examination of purpose. It is valid for a scientist to ask how the cosmos works. But the scientific method excludes the question of why the cosmos exists in the first place.
To say that Science proves there isn’t a God is like saying that a silent movie of a thunderstorm proves that lightning doesn’t make any sound. Silent film is a powerful instrument for exploring visual phenomena; but it is useless for investigating sound. Science is a powerful instrument for telling us how things work; but it is useless for investigating why we are here in the first place.
We believe that the cosmos is the backdrop for the story of our fall, and Christ’s birth, death and resurrection for our sake. And in my own moment of betrayal and suffering, I walked where Christ walked, I felt what He felt, and in some sense I did begin to understand at a much deeper level the story at the center of the cosmos.
I’ve seen a lot of suffering among those close to me lately. One of the things I’ve noticed is that for some, suffering draws them closer to Christ; for others, it drives them away.
For some of us, times of suffering drive us into the arms of Christ, because only in light of His suffering, death, and resurrection can we find any hope in our own suffering. And for others, the evils of life drive them away from God, convincing them that He does not care.
I know, from my own times of testing, how easy it is to slide into anger with God. This is especially true when those who seem to be God’s representatives are the ones who are hurting me. But even here, what at first seems to be so painful, so lonely, turns out, when I dig deeper to be an experience of walking with Christ.
We are promised that if we die in Christ, we will also live with Him. But our world is often a valley of tears, with only glimpses of the mountains above. If no human eye has seen, and no ear has heard what God has prepared for us, no words of mine could possibly do it justice.
In this life, we often must walk in darkness, without knowing the good things God is preparing for us, the things for which God asks us to give up some apparent good.
Obviously, for me, this talk of dying to self and entrusting my life to God involves my decision to be celibate, although shapes many other decisions, large and small, as well.
And as those of you who have read my Great Debate essay and posts on the message board know, those decisions have not been lightly taken. In the case of celibacy, I spent nearly seven years wrestling with that decision before I finally could say with conviction that this was the life God was calling me to—a conviction that Justin’s challenge to listen to God’s still, small voice and to live with integrity played no small part in forming.
I would obviously encourage you to read more of my reasons for choosing celibacy; but whether you are gay or straight, temporarily single, permanently celibate, or with a partner, you will face difficult moments of choice, where there is an easy, and easily rationalized option; and another option which seems to mean the death to your most cherished dreams. Some of these decisions will involve sexuality. But many will not.
The movie “Chariots of Fire” is a powerful story of faith and conviction.
It tells the true story of Eric Liddell, one of the most promising runners in Britain. Liddell was also a deeply committed Christian, who saw his running as a way of giving glory to God—“God made me fast, and when I run I can feel his pleasure.”
At the 1924 Olympics, the heat for the 100 meters—which Liddell was favored to win—was scheduled on Sunday. After much soul-searching, Liddell decided that he could not run on Sunday. This decision seemed to mean the end of his Olympic hopes. It was also a very lonely decision, one which many viewed as a betrayal of his country.
There is a powerful scene in the movie which cuts back and forth between Liddell in a Church Sunday morning reading from the Bible, and runners struggling and falling.
Behold, the nations are as a drop in a bucket, and are counted as the small dust in the balance: All nations before him are as nothing, and are counted to him less than nothing, and vanity. He bringeth the princes to nothing. He maketh the judges of the earth as a vanity.
Hast thou not known? Hast thou not heard that the everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the Earth, fainteth not, neither is weary?
He giveth power to the faint! And to them that have no strength, He increaseth might. But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings as eagles. They shall run, and not be weary. They shall walk, and not faint.
In the end, a teammate gives him the opportunity to run in the 400 meter event, which does not require that he run on Sunday. He runs the race, and wins an Olympic gold medal.
God, of course, knew from the beginning that fidelity to Him would not rob Liddell of his Olympic dreams. But like Abraham told to offer Isaac, Liddell himself knew only that he was offering up what had seemed to him a God-inspired dream.
As we close, please join your hearts quietly as I pray the prayer of St. Francis.
Lord, make us to be instruments of Your peace.
Where there is hatred, let us sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy;
O, Divine Master,
Grant that we may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.
In 2003, Justin Lee, the founder and Executive Director of the Gay Christian Network, invited me to write an essay defending the traditional Christian belief that homosexual activity is wrong, and that gays and lesbians who are unable to marry a person of the opposite sex are called to celibacy. Justin wrote a companion essay arguing that God blesses gay marriage. Justin has made the two essays into a prominent GCN feature called the “Great Debate.”
For the Summer 2004 issue, Notre Dame Magazine planned to do a special issue focused on homosexuality and the Catholic Church. They invited me to contribute an essay describing how I came to accept Catholic teaching on homosexuality. Rather than focusing on theological arguments, they asked me to focus on telling the story through my own journey and experiences. The whole package won the 2005 first place Press Award for “Best investigative writing or analysis” from the Catholic Press Association. This is a somewhat revised version of the essay. Click here for the original version on the Notre Dame Magazine website.
In late 2002 and early 2003, there was an ongoing controversy in the letters section of the New Oxford Review over the editors’ use of the word “fag” in an article. With encouragement from several members of Courage who were deeply frustrated with the exchange, I wrote this essay, which was published in the June 2003 issue of the New Oxford Review.
This essay was originally written in 2003, in response to the planned protests of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops meetings in Washington, DC by Soulforce, a pro-gay group. Edited slightly to remove references to the original protest, it still provides a good overview of some aspects of Catholic teaching related to homosexuality.
Also written in response to the Soulforce protests, this essay examines prejudice against gays and lesbians, and attempts to provide a Catholic Response.
This is the keynote speech I gave at the January, 2007 Gay Christian Network Conference in Seattle, WA. It voices frustration at the ways that gays and lesbians are sometimes treated by Christians, and focuses on the importance of obedience to God, even in the most difficult circumstances.
If you knew nothing about human biology, you could listen to most of our debates about abortion and never realize that men are involved in any way. We talk about the woman’s body, the woman’s right to choose. We in the pro-life movement talk about the unborn child’s right to life. But what about the father? In this speech, delivered at the March 25, 2006 Symposium on Life Issues at St. Monica's Catholic Church, I looked at the role of men in building the Culture of Life.
On January 22, 2006, the Knights of Columbus invited me to give a brief reflection at a memorial service for the unborn, held at Mt. Angeles Memorial Park to commemmorate the 33rd anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision.
On November 3, 2005, the Philosophy Club at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette invited me to debate Dr. Rick Swanson on the question: “Does the Bible Condemn Homosexuality?” I do not have a complete transcript of the debate; however, I have made my opening statement available here.
On January 23, 2004, the Washington, DC chapter of Courage and the Georgetown University chapter of the Knights of Columbus invited me to speak at Georgetown about Catholic teaching and homosexuality.
[The responses in this section were originally written in response to questions I received from friends or others. Before posting them here, I edited both question and response in order to enhance clarity and readability.]
Question: In God’s Grace and the Homosexual Next Door, Alan Chambers writes, “This is why I believe that it is so important to clarify that just living a celibate gay life is just as sinful as living a sexually promiscuous one. The sin is in identifying with anything that is contrary to Christ, which homosexuality clearly is” (218). Would you be willing to identify as a “gay Christian”? How do you think such an identity relates to the arsenokoitai of whom Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians 6? [ Read response ]