Here's a piece I wrote back in the spring about some good changes and things I see happening back at my alma mater (that sounds weird to say...). Bethel is one of my favorite places, and I'm thankful for the ways God is moving there, especially in the sense that LGBTQ students are starting to feel safer and that the atmosphere is shifting for the better. Hopefully, this is just the beginning.
Tonight when I go to bed, we will have already spent 12 amazing days in the beautiful country of España, meaning that we’re already more than 10% done with our 105 total days on Spain Term (I know it’s not exactly 100 days like the hashtag, but hey)! Isn’t that crazy? It feels like there’s no way that we’ve been here this long, but at the same time, it feels like we’ve already been here for a month. And that makes absolutely no sense, but I’m sure everyone has experienced that sensation at one point in life or another. Recap:
Anyway, for this update, I want to talk a little about finding Jesus in the little things around you and appreciating the fact everyone single one of the 7 billion people on this planet was made in the image of God. It’s just something that I’ve been thinking about for a day or two. But first! Update!
So like I said, we’ll have been here for 12 days tonight, and that’s absolutely insane. We haven’t even had a real full week of classes yet, because we didn’t start until Wednesday last week, and we don’t have class tomorrow because our group is traveling to Madrid for the weekend! (Classes canceled for excursions? Count me in.)
However, at the same time, I definitely feel like I’m starting to get into a rhythm here. I’m over jetlag. I don’t get lost walking to and from class anymore. I think I’m understanding and speaking Spanish a little better after a week and a half. I finally figured out how to get the temperamental key to my house to work so my host mom doesn’t have to let me in every day, and I can even make my way to a couple of shops and a couple of the panaderías (bakeries) by myself! So I’d say that it’s been a pretty good learning experience so far, and sometimes it even feels like I’m adulting (but let’s be real, who am I kidding?).
Finally, my small group finally got everything figured out for fall break!! At least concerning flights & lodging, so that’s really exciting!! More updates to come about that! So stay tuned.
So, anyway, my thoughts this week have been revolving around balance, and specifically how to continue connecting with God over the course of this semester in a secular society (which is what so many people kept saying to describe the spiritual atmosphere in Spain, not my own words, haha). But after having been here for a little over a week, I think that a lot of people possibly misunderstand what secular really means, because that word has a lot of strong negative connotations for American Christians. I think that oftentimes, people imagine “secular societies” to be Bible burning, religion hating societies where everyone is an atheist and you’ll be persecuted if you subscribe to any sort of religion (at least in my most horrible extrapolations of what that word means). But in reality, it just means that most people don’t really care for religion. It doesn’t mean that they can’t be warm, hospitable people who can still bring light even if they don’t necessarily believe.
And the reason that I want to talk about this is that I think that, much too often, Christians get way too caught up in labels and what their preconceived notions tell them that certain descriptors mean. After all, what kind of things come to mind when you hear or see the words ‘democrat,’ ‘republican,’ ‘secular,’ ‘religious,’ ‘gay,’ ‘straight,’ ‘communism,’ ‘laissez-faire,’ and other things like that? I’m sure that depending on your upbringing, you would lump some of those words into the ‘good’ category and others into the ‘bad’ category, just because of the connotations they hold, and I for one, think that’s the wrong way to approach things. I think that we need to start really understanding people and things before we make rash judgments about them.
As my classical literature professor told our class earlier this week, “fascism, communism, and socialism aren’t bad in and of themselves. True, they might not necessarily work out in a given society, but we only attribute negative labels to these things because of the bad people that advocated for them.” I think that’s a really important thing to remember in general. Yeah, some people in the past may have taken secularism to the extreme by outlawing religion and hunting down Christians and others and stuff like that, but that doesn’t mean that there’s anything inherently evil about secularism in and of itself. After all, countries like Iran are theocratic nations where the government and laws abide by a specific religion, and we don’t think that’s good either. Sometimes, a secular state is the best incubator for religious liberty, because it ensures that no specific one is elevated above the others.
So, I got a little off topic, but basically, I want those of you reading to start to think about why we have certain connotations associated with certain words and certain labels and whether or not those connotations and labels are correct or not. Does secular have to equate to evil? Does democrat and liberal have to equate to bad? What about gay and straight? Do those by nature have to be good or bad?
Let me leave you with this.
For our semester here in Spain, all of us are staying with different host families, one student per family. When we arrived, all of our host families came to greet us and take us back to our homes for the rest of the semester. As the stereotype suggested, many of these host moms and dads aren’t religious. They don’t believe in God, or they do, but don’t really do anything about it. They don’t go to church. They might not even have a single Bible in their houses.
But they were excited to see us when we arrived, and I daresay that they loved us even before we got there or as soon as they saw us. And a lot of these people may or may not be Christians.
My one friend’s host mom grabbed her hand as soon as she saw her and had joy on her face as she talked with the onsite director of our program, asking about my friend in third person as she stood there, seeing if she had any allergies, seeing if she needed anything special, and saying how excited she was to have her staying with her.
This woman was so joyful and excited about a random American college student who she didn’t know, who didn’t speak the same native language, and who was different in so many ways. But the thing was that none of that mattered, and it was beautiful. There aren’t a lot of words to describe that.
And the thing is, I think that a lot of American Christians (myself included) could learn a lot from that situation. Our host families and host parents hardly knew anything about us before we arrived. All they had was names, not even pictures, unless we had sent them beforehand. All they knew was that we were coming to spend three and a half months living in the country that they called home and to learn their language. That was all they needed to be joyful and excited about our arrival, the anticipation that they were going to get to know us and get to share some of their lives, their history, their culture, their language, and their country with us.
In my own opinion, I think that’s how Christians should approach the world. Instead of constantly trying to win political or theological debates, or trying to convince people that they’re sinners in need of repentance, I think that we would probably do a lot better by adopting the mentality of our Spanish host families. We might not know anything at all about the people that we’re going to meet over the course of our lives, but what we do know is that we have an incredible story of grace, redemption, and love to share with them. We have a history and a faith that stretches back thousands of years, and we have a God and a Friend who loves us so deeply that He sacrificed His own life in order to save ours. I think that warrants some joy and excitement on our part, don’t you? So shouldn’t we be excited and joyful to be able to share some of our lives, our history, our culture, our language (holla at Christianese), and our love with people?
To that end, I think this comparison is warranted. Part of the reason that we’re doing so well in Spain is that we see these people and we want to be a part of this country and a part of this language community from what we see in them.
In the same way, if people looked at us, would they want to be a part of this? Would they want to be Christians and involved in churches judging solely from what they saw of us? Or would they crunch up their faces and start walking the other way because they didn’t want to be associated with us?
I think it’s time that Christians started being more vibrant about their faith, overflowing with joy and loving with the abandon that draws people in, rather than pushing people away with debates and disputes.
Who knew that I’d be learning so much about Jesus, faith, and how to live authentically in such a “secular” country? It appears as if even “secular” countries can be covered in the fingerprints of God. They were all created by Him weren’t they?
Haha, well until next time! Hasta luego!
Something that’s been brought back to the forefront of my mind in the past week is that words have different connotations associated with them regardless of whether we realize it or not. Part of what reminded me of this is the fact that I’m at linguistics boot camp for the summer, and that falls underneath the category of semantics and pragmatics, what words mean according to their definitions and what words mean according to how people use them. The other part of what reminded me of this has been reexamining what I want to be known for and what living like Jesus and being a Christian really mean, partially influenced by my reading of Love Does by Bob Goff, which everyone should read at some point in their lifetime. But back to the main point. Since starting this blog earlier this year, I’ve been called a lot of things, some good and some seemingly bad. I won’t mention too many of the good things, just because I don’t want this to be about me, but what does seemingly bad mean? Well, they’re things that I’m sure people intended to be negative comments to express their disapproval, but that I take in stride and embrace. For example, a good amount of people have called me ‘radical’ or ‘too liberal,’ apparently as insults or something like that. And those things hurt at first, because the words ‘radical’ and ‘liberal’ tend to have negative pragmatic connotations in Christian circles, but in recent weeks, I’ve come to embrace those things, because Christians are supposed to radical and Christians are supposed to be liberal, specifically in our love.
And radical love means doing things that don’t make sense from logical or political standpoints. Radical love means praying for members of ISIS to be saved, rather than advocating for the United States to send in military forces to destroy the “evil Muslims,” because their lives are just as sacred as the lives of unborn children. Radical love means not sentencing people to the death penalty for the same reason.
Radical love means actually following through on the statement ‘come as you are’ that so many churches like to use. It means accepting that people won to Christ don’t change overnight. It’s a process, meaning that your friends who just came to Christ aren’t going to stop swearing overnight. It also means being able to love people who don’t share the same viewpoints as you, and actually loving them, not just tolerating their existence.
Radical love means doing things that don’t make sense, because you care about people for who they are, not what their political or personal beliefs are. It means loving people as they are, not treating them like projects to fix up “for the Kingdom.” Radical love means loving people where they are, regardless of where they’ll end up and regardless of whether or what you’re going to get out of it. That’s what radical love is and so much more, too.
Now, I’m not an expert at doing any of these things, because these things are hard and I’m still working on them too. You’ve probably heard it a million times, but I’ll say it again, because it’s important and it’s true: love isn’t just a warm fuzzy feeling that you get inside. Love is messy. Love is uncomfortable. Love is hard. Love is work.
So to everyone that’s going to call me radical and liberal, thank you. It means that I’m doing my job properly. It means that I’m loving like it doesn’t make sense, and it means that I’m beginning to scratch the surface of what it means to live like Jesus did. After all, the religious people thought that He was crazy and that what He was doing didn’t make any sense either.
Paraphrasing from Bob Goff, a lot of people, Christians included, think that religious people are like the security guards who are in charge of deciding who gets in and who doesn’t, but that’s not true. We’re just the ushers, showing people the way they’re supposed to go. God is ultimately the One who decides who gets in, not us. Our only job is to love, because that love is the uniform of Christians proving Who we work for.
So I’ll take it. I’ll definitely take it. In the words of Peter and Paul, if all you can do is call me the same things they called Jesus, I guess I can’t be doing too badly.
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This post may be shocking or worrisome for many, but I'm about to embark on an experiment for six months, partly driven by what I feel like is a calling right now and partly driven by the fact that my circumstances have lent themselves to this experiment. As you may have guessed from the title of this post, my experiment is going to be a hiatus from church attendance until I return from studying abroad in Spain in December. A little explanation is needed I suppose. Currently, I am taking 10 credits over a period of two months at the University of North Dakota with a program called Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL). I'll be here until August 7 or 8, have about a week and a half off before returning to Bethel for Welcome Week for 10 days, and then leave for Spain on August 29. Considering that I'm already going to be away from any familiar churches for basically 6 months, I thought that this would be the perfect time to conduct this experiment. And in reality, I'm only starting this experiment two months earlier than I would have anyway, because at least from what our study abroad orientations have told us, Spain is a fairly secular country and I was going to have to work and be intentional about my faith there anyway. So I decided why not begin this trial while I was still at home in the States in a more or less comfortable environment?
But to stop sounding so technical, no, I'm not done with Christianity. Far from it actually. And, no, I don't hate the church either. That's not why I'm taking a break. Rather, I really want to take an extended period of time to figure out what church really means, in the truest sense of the word (think 1st century Christianity when people gathered in each others' homes over meals rather than as an institution). I want to dig deeper into what it really means to be in Christian community, and I want to examine and reflect on some of the reasons that a lot of millennials have left the church.
Finally, I want to make sure that my faith truly is a relationship and not just a weekly task or something to check off my to-do list, because that's something that I often feel like Christians do, simply because the institution of the church makes that easy to do. It honestly scares me to think that there are people calling themselves Christians who think that if they show up to church every week, memorize their Bible verses, and throw something in the offering plate that they're doing everything they're supposed to do. That's frighteningly easy. I want to be madly in love with Jesus. I want to really need Him every day. Honestly, if I felt sick every day that I didn't spend some time with Him, that would be a better alternative than just mindlessly forgetting. That's what I want my faith to be like. I want to want to be with Him all the time, every waking hour of life.
Thus, I think that perhaps by eliminating the one fixed (or maybe not so fixed depending on your schedule) religious aspect of your week, you are forced to think more about what you're really doing as a Christian and how much you're really seeking after God. Do you want to read your Bible if the pastor isn't telling you to flip to a specific passage? Do you want to pray if the pastor isn't telling you to bow your head? Do you want to sing worship songs even if there isn't anyone leading worship in front of you?
In the same vein, how well do you know the people at your church? I don't know about a lot of people, but I personally hate showing up to church every week, sitting in the same (or almost the same spot), seeing the same people, going through the service, and leaving without knowing a single thing about those people! That's the complete opposite of what church is supposed to look like! After all, as Bob Goff wrote over and over in his book, love does, so if we're not doing anything, are we really loving each other the way the church is supposed to? And I know that many people will respond to this by saying that I should get out of my comfort zone and get to know those people. I've decided that I'm really going to try doing that when I get back to church, but the fact of the matter is that whole attitude has been baked into the American church culture for far too long. The church is the people, not the building. You can have church without being in a church.
I know that it probably just sounds like I'm slamming the American church right now, but that's not what I'm trying to do. Honestly, I'm just an external processor and it helps me figure out what I need to do when I'm able to just lay it all out, even if that means spewing out all my complaints so I know what I need to fix and what I need to reflect back onto myself.
So, this is the journey/experiment I'll be embarking on over the next 6 months. It should be pretty interesting. Let me know what you think about it here on this post and as I begin posting my reflections about this experiment.
read part one here: Ohmyword. It’s been such a long time since I published the first part of this post series that I almost forgot about it. That wouldn’t be good. School and life just really got ahead of me for a bit (which tends to happen rather frequently). But I’m back with the second part of my story out of…(let’s be honest, I don’t know how long this series is going to be haha). So, check out the link up top there if you need a refresher on part one of my story or if you haven’t read it yet, since I’m going to be picking up right where I left off :)
So my story picks up with me sitting in youth group, listening to this testimony and trying to come to terms with the fact that I’m gay…in a church youth basement, sounds pretty picturesque, doesn’t it? Yeah, no, it really wasn’t at all. I didn’t know what to think, or what I was supposed to think. So I didn’t. I didn’t think about it, at least for the next couple hours.
Sunday school or youth group ended, I’m not sure which, and I just played it all off. Everything was fine. Yes, I needed to figure out this stuff, but everything was fine. I didn’t have to do anything right at that second. I would just go home and process for a little bit. And I definitely wouldn’t tell anyone. This whole same-sex attraction thing (which is what they called it at church and the term that I preferred for a while) was going to be resolved (whatever the heck I thought that meant).
But I guess that I was pretty naive to think that I could just push it down and not think about it for the rest of the day, because that obviously didn't happen. I left church with my family, and it was the only thing that I could think about. It would get pushed out of my mind for a few minutes at a time when I was particularly distracted by something else, but it was always there. It wouldn’t go away, no matter how hard I tried. And it bothered me. I still didn’t know what I thought about the whole thing, and I definitely couldn’t bring myself to tell myself that I was gay. No. Even saying same-sex attraction to myself was a stretch.
When I finally got home a couple hours later, it was eating away at me from the inside. I had told myself that this thing was going to die a quick death, that no one would ever find out and that I could just go on living my life like a normal person (hello, heteronormativity). After all, I had dated a girl. No, it hadn’t worked out, but that didn’t mean that it would never work out, right? But at the same time, I also didn’t feel like an anomaly. I didn’t really feel any different, because I wasn’t any different than a few hours ago. I just had a term to put with my experiences. So was this normal? Or was this something I needed to deal with? I didn’t know. Either way, after a couple hours, I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to tell someone. If I didn’t, I was convinced that whatever it was inside me would literally eat a hole right out of my body and escape.
So while my family was doing whatever they happened to be preoccupied with that day, I locked myself in the bathroom (the lock on my bedroom door wasn’t super reliable at the time) and took out my phone. The guy that had shared his testimony at church was actually one of my pretty good friends, and I figured that he would probably be one of the least judgmental places to start, because I definitely wasn’t going to start with my family or any of my friends from my super tiny, conservative Christian school. That would not be a good idea (and in retrospect, it was the right decision. I had a lot of things to work through before I told any of my other friends and my parents).
So, locked in the bathroom and feeling like my stomach was going to explode, I typed out my message and hit send. (In reality, it was more like I typed out my message, reread it a thousand billion times, hesitated, hesitated some more, and then finally hit send, but that part is irrelevant.) He actually responded pretty quickly, but each of the minutes in between felt like an eternity. The growing pit in my stomach made me feel like I had just confessed to a horrendous crime and was awaiting my prison sentence. It was agonizing to say the least, because just like that, I had told the first person. This was just around the middle of sophomore year of high school.
The new few months that followed are where my process really began. I was naive enough to think that I would just be able to quickly deal with it and move on with my life. Little did I know that telling my friend would be the start of a long three year long process of figuring out how I was supposed to live and what I really believed about being gay and being a Christian, aside from what my school said, aside from what my parents said, and aside from what my church said. Over the next couple years, I would need to figure out what I believed myself. But again, I was at the beginning of my process, so obviously my first opinions were very much swayed by what my friend believed and what my church taught.
At first, I told myself that I was going to fight it (whatever that’s supposed to mean), and I threw in a lot of other Christian sounding metaphors and expressions on how I was going to “handle it.” Soon, it wouldn’t be a problem at all. After all, my friend’s testimony had ended on a sort of obscure note that implied he had won in his “battle against same-sex attraction.” Now, I don't put that in quotes in a mocking sort of way. I’m still really good friends with this person, and we’ve talked about how those attractions never really went away and how saying that you’ve “conquered” your same-sex attractions is deceiving because it implies that they’re gone and done with, akin to the deception that every ex-gay ministry put on. The fact of the matter is, yes, God absolutely can change people’s orientation, but 99.9% of the time when we ask, His answer is no. So, I put that in quotes because that’s no longer the way that I see it, though that’s not necessarily relevant just yet.
Sometime during the next few months, I decided (and I have no idea how I came to this conclusion) that it would be a good idea to try and talk to one of my youth pastors about it, especially since this youth pastor had a good relationship with the friend that had originally shared his testimony at church. I was assuming that my telling him would be well received. And I mean, it didn’t go badly; in fact it was exactly the sort of response I had anticipated, considering the place that I was in. It was my own reaction that surprised me. He listened very politely, not interrupting except to ask an occasional clarifying question. His expressions and everything about the way that he responded while I was telling him made me feel like he was really getting it and that he was really sympathetic to what I was going through, but when I finally finished telling him what little there was of my story and let him say what was on his mind, I found myself feeling really uncomfortable.
After having listened to everything I had to say, he (and maybe I imagined this next part) clapped his hands together and immediately started asking what my game plan was and what steps I was taking.
Even though I had subconsciously bought into the idea that this was something that I was going to deal with right away and be done with, hearing someone else talk to me about it like it was a problem to solve really hit me. It gave me the same sort of feeling that I remembered having in middle school when the other guys would make fun of it for something that was peculiar to the way that I talked or something that I said. And I didn’t like it. It caused a couple walls to go up as I sort of stuttered my way through saying that I wasn’t really “doing anything about it” yet.
Immediately, everything inside of me that had been hopeful and optimistic about telling my youth pastor evaporated. The way that he continued to talk to me about being gay, or my same-sex attraction at the time, made me feel like I had a disease or something that I needed to be cured of. I felt defective and broken, and not in the cutesy, philosophical way that Christians talk about spiritual brokenness. I felt like there was something wrong with me, something that needed to be cut out, like bruised part of an apple or strawberry that you don’t want to eat because it’s all mushy and discolored. I started feeling like I’ve come to learn most gay people in the church feel: I started feeling like a project, someone who needs to be fixed, someone who isn’t quite a full person, someone who is inferior, someone whose faith is less legitimate, all because I was gay.
And that was when I started feeling even more of a disconnect. Even after my first and only talk with that youth pastor, I kept hearing people at my church talk about same-sex attraction using words like “struggle” and “battle” and “fight,” but that wasn’t how I felt at all. I didn’t feel like I was fighting against anything. I mean, I wasn’t involved in any of those things that were portrayed in a stereotypically exaggerated “gay lifestyle,” so I didn’t understand what anyone was trying to fix in me. I was just living, still 15 years old, still going to youth group, still going to a small Christian school. I didn’t feel like there was anything wrong with me, but at the same time, the way that people talked about same-sex attraction made me feel like I should feel like something was wrong with me. They made it sound like I should be miserable, constantly “struggling” and “battling” it, but I wasn’t miserable. I didn’t hate myself. I honestly didn’t see anything wrong with the way that I was, but I started trying to pray the gay away anyway (hi, rhyming points), just because that’s what my church and school implied that I should be doing whenever they talked about it. It didn’t necessarily feel right, but they kept implying that if I just followed God enough and prayed enough that I would stop “struggling” with it, something that sounds strangely reminiscent of the ex-gay movement in retrospect.
Anyway, that first year of “battling it” was the toughest, mostly because I was relegating myself to “battling it” in my opinion. My church didn’t outright believe that simply being gay was wrong in and of itself, but that wasn’t really communicated well. They played up the part about how we were supposed to be “fighting it” and “taking up our crosses daily,” among other things. So I would catch myself noticing guys and immediately start to pray for the attraction to pass, or if I didn’t, I would indulge myself a little and then feel bad afterward for having found someone attractive, as if that were something that I could control.
By the end of that school year, the end of sophomore year, I decided that I had to tell someone else. I was just so conflicted. I didn’t feel like there was anything inherently wrong with me. I didn’t hate myself for being same-sex attracted (still my term of choice at the time, highly influenced by my church). I didn’t hate God for making me that way. I didn’t really think it was a problem at all. But at the same time, my church kept making me feel like I needed to feel some sort of revulsion to it, lest I become comfortable in my sin and God “gave me over” to it, whatever that was supposed to mean. I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t really know what to feel. After all, I was still just a naive 15 year old who knew nothing about LGBT issues or same-sex attraction, absolutely nothing. All I knew was what my church told me, and it told me that I had to fight it. But fight what? The attractions themselves? How was I supposed to fight something that I couldn’t even control? And why? I wasn’t lusting. I wasn’t doing anything. So why were they still trying to fix something that didn’t need fixing? I didn’t know.