In Which I Have a Breakdown: An Open Letter to the Church

I am away from the blog this week, finishing up my degree and preparing for vacation. Because of this, I’m reposting an old article of mine originally published on my previous blog on February 17, 2014.

Back in October, just before I left the blogosphere for my sabbatical, I had something of a breakdown.

What made the breakdown so devastating was that I didn’t see it coming at all. It had been a fairly good week, and I, for the most part, was feeling perfectly happy and content.

And then I made a mistake: I read theology. I read Wesley Hill’s response to James Brownson’s book Bible, Gender, Sexuality, and it felt like the ground vanished beneath me and I went into a terrifying free fall. (I tend to have a bad track record with Wesley Hill’s work. Every time I try to read something of his, I usually end up sobbing in a corner somewhere, unable to breathe.)

Old feelings that I used to struggle with on a daily basis suddenly materialized inside of me – feelings of debilitating unworthiness, fear, shame and anger. Those voices that had plagued me day after day for years – the voices that told me that I am fundamentally loathsome and less-than for my sexuality – wrapped me up like a boa constrictor and wouldn’t let go. There was also an anger that rekindled inside of me and tore up my insides like a wildfire: anger at the church, and at my experiences in church as a gay man. I can only describe this experience of shame and anger as being so intense it became a physical sensation of anguish and immobility, like an internal claustrophobia that pressed in on all sides, crushing me. The experience was so intense, and so debilitating, that I curled up into the fetal position in bed and sobbed till 2 AM.

In the aftermath of the break down, I retreated into nurturing spaces, and I had good friends who surrounded me. With their help, I got through.

Since then, I’ve found myself pondering what happened. Why did I have such an intense reaction to reading Wesley’s piece? There is the obvious fact that, as with ex-gay therapy, I found Side B theology (it’s ok to be gay, it’s just not ok to have gay sex) deeply traumatizing, and contact with it can still trigger me in unpredictable ways. But I also suspect that my previous experiences with theology – especially conservative theology – about homosexuality has felt alienating, belittling and dehumanizing. I grew up deeply influenced by very conservative theologians, and the way the some of them talked about me felt horrible and dehumanizing, like being stripped naked in the examining room. By the time I went to college, I could barely engage with straight, conservative people on the topic at all. I was too angry, too hurt, and wanted nothing to do with them. I wanted to scream, “I’m right here – stop talking about me as if I’m not here. Don’t talk about me, talk to me. Talk with me.” To them, this crucial part of my own humanity – sexuality – was no longer human, but a fascinating theoretical concept people used to talk about any number of terrifying things: the wrath of God, the fallenness of humanity, the fall of Western civilization. My capacity to share physical love with another human being was now what preachers and well-intentioned scholars used to illustrate the most horrifying and terrible theological concepts about God and the world.

After a lifetime of that, it turned into an emotional trauma. And, as trauma goes, it gets triggered easily, even by things and people that don’t warrant such a response. Several months ago I was reading an article on Huffington Post by Father James Martin – a Catholic Jesuit priest who has shown considerable kindness to the LGBT community. And yet I found that the article just made me angry – all I could hear was another straight man talking about me. The anger was not warranted, but it felt too similar to other voices I had heard in the past.

I expect something similar happened with Wesley Hill’s writing. Wes is himself gay, but it probably felt too similar to other words and experiences that were deeply wounding to me. It wasn’t just theology to me – it was something far more immediate and real.

I want to take this experience I had several months ago and make a very simple point: when you talk about theology as it relates to gay people, you aren’t talking about abstract theological concepts, you aren’t talking about a book you recently read, and you aren’t talking about politics. You are talking about our lives.

You are talking about experiences, questions and traumas that have shaped us, tortured us, and terrified us. You are talking about the sometimes daily battle to overcome the deep feeling of inhumanity that has plagued some of us since we were young. You are talking about the tears, the numbing, the suicidal ideation and the prayers over countless nights, pleading with God that he would have mercy and make us normal. You are talking about the torture of the closet, the unbearable burden of keeping secrets from those we love the most, because of the conviction that if we stepped outside of the closet, we would be seen and rejected. You are talking about terrible questions that plague us: is it fundamentally evil for me to fall in love, to be committed to a single person, to raise a family? You are talking about relationships and bodies and marriages and families. You are talking about people.

This isn’t just theology for me, and this isn’t something I read in a book or on a blog. This is my life. And, unlike most straight Christians, I don’t have the luxury of putting down the book or closing the blog and putting it out of my mind when it gets too challenging or uncomfortable. I can’t put it down when these theological questions have very huge, terrifying and immediate implications for my life, like whether I must be celibate for the rest of my life, or whether it will be fundamentally immoral for me to fall in love and have a family.

This is why so many gay people don’t ever want to walk into a church again. This is why there is unspeakable rage at the church, or why the dialogue between LGBT communities and the church can be so explosive. It’s because we are struggling with a lifetime of little hurts that turn into traumas, and sometimes just by existing, moving, and talking, you trigger those traumas, and we experience that compounded shame, fear and hurt all over again.

When I think about theological discussions regarding homosexuality in the church, I find myself pleading the words of Yeats:

I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

All I want to say is this: be gentle. Your status and security as a Christian doesn’t depend on you “speaking the truth in love.” You don’t always need to be a speaker of hard truths and a prophet into the lives of those you disagree with. Instead, be a healer, a listener, and a student. Be a fellow traveler to share a campfire with as we all journey closer to what it means to be like Christ.

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