My heart pounded as I shifted my weight from foot to foot. I stood before the director and his assistant in the otherwise empty room, waiting nervously for the accompaniment to start and trying to avoid eye contact. I had been convinced to audition for a role in a local high school production, but I was starting to think I'd made a big mistake.
It wasn't the singing or acting that had me so worried, though. I was entirely outside my comfort zone. I only knew a few of the other people auditioning. This wasn't my crowd. My school didn't have a drama club. I wasn't a "drama kid." Sure, I had always been a fan of musicals, but I was a basketball player. I didn't know the theater lingo or etiquette. I didn't understand the inside jokes. I had never heard of "Wicked." I was an outsider.
|A piece of me dies every time I remember this scene.|
There was another component to my discomfort too. While many of my fellow cast members were also believers...many were not. Up until that point in my life, my social circles pretty much consisted of church friends and classmates at my small Christian school. It was my first time in a social environment that wasn't specifically religious, and that kind of freaked me out.
I'm not entirely sure why it freaked me out. I don't know what I was scared of. Maybe it was because I knew how the kids in my Christian school tended to treat people who were different. Maybe it was because I knew how I treated outsiders--no open hostility, of course, but polite indifference. And if we were the Christians, how would they treat me now that the tables were turned?
I had bought in to the narrative that the real intolerant people were the unbelievers, the liberals, the secularists. They preached tolerance for everyone except for us, the oppressed moral majority.
Imagine my surprise when I ventured outside my Christian bubble and found a greater sense of welcome and belonging than I ever had back inside.
I'm not even talking about my sexual orientation here. I was still in deep denial about that, and not another soul knew about the battle raging in the deep, dark corners of my heart. No...I just mean welcome. Plain, old-fashioned welcome. I mean coming in as an outsider and almost immediately feeling like an insider, without having to prove anything first.
What a concept, huh?
For the first time in my life, I had friends who weren't religious. I had friends who didn't go to church on Sunday, didn't know who John Piper was...friends who didn't know all the words to "Here I am to Worship" or the Veggie Tales theme song. Some of these new friends were believers but had grown up with unbelieving friends; they were used to the tension.
These friends didn't make me earn my place among them. They were themselves around me, and thus, I felt free to be myself around them. They invited me to parties...and no, not wild, drunken parties with Top-40 hits and cigarettes, but pool parties and movie parties. We watched musicals, and for the first time, I could sing along without shame because everyone else was singing along too. We didn't "hit any clubs," but they took me to Applebee's for my birthday and we stayed until after midnight, laughing, talking, and eating enormous brownie sundaes. They liked me. They appreciated me, and they went out of their way to let me know that.
This is not a story about poor-little-outcast-me, because for all the lack of acceptance or affirmation I felt in my Christian bubble, I was just as guilty. I can't tell you how many "do-overs" I wish I could have, for people I hurt with my words, my anger, my arrogance, my judgment. I thought that I was a welcoming person, but my welcome was limited to those who got with the program and conformed to our system. If they wanted to play our game with our rules, then sure, they could join our team. Otherwise, it was live-and-let-live.
Of course, for the sake of illustration, I'm painting a rather black-and-white picture (please see note at the bottom**). I'm leaving out some important nuances. I had some very loving and accepting Christian friends, and I knew many non-Christians who were anything but loving and accepting.
But nuance aside, this is how I felt:
In my Christian school and church circles, I felt like I had to perform, to fit a mold, to play a part in order to be accepted. In my eagerness to be accepted, to have others seek my acceptance, I only continued the vicious cycle.
In my non-religious theater circle, I didn't feel like I had to perform (well, except on stage). I felt like I could be myself, that my self was welcomed and valued, and that I could be honest. I didn't have to earn my way in. I was already in.
Which circle do you think I was most drawn to?
What if the Church was seen as a place of such welcome? What if people knew that they didn't have earn their way into our fellowship and community? What if, simply by showing up, they knew they were already in?
I'm not talking about church membership. I'm not talking about changing our beliefs our softening our doctrinal standards. I'm certainly not talking about watering down the gospel, because I believe this kind of welcome is the fruit of a gospel-rooted heart.
We have to be able to say, "You are welcome here" and "We love you" as complete, stand-alone sentences. Not "you are welcome here, if..." or "We love you, but..." There is a time and a place for so-called "tough love," but it is not at the beginning. When we open with our list of must's and must-not's, we're communicating that people have to clean themselves up before they can come join us, and that lie of the devil then gets attributed, by association, to Jesus.
Jesus, who didn't require a public apology from the prostitute before he let her wash his feet with her tears.
Jesus, who told the woman caught in adultery to go and sin no more, but who did so after publicly defending her against the judgment of the religious leaders.
Jesus, who called the selfish, swindling Zacchaeus down from the tree and invited himself over to his house for supper, bewildering and infuriating the religious elites.
Jesus, who called you and me out of our own slavery before we could do anything to earn it ourselves.
|from the "Jesus Storybook Bible"|
Have their hearts been transformed by the grace of Christ? Are they welcoming to other students who aren't like them? When they're at school, are they standing up for the bullied and ostracized? Maybe they memorize Bible verses, but is there evidence of heart change? Maybe they don't cuss or tell dirty jokes, but are they telling jokes that are hurtful or demeaning to people who are different? Are their lives moving toward the outsiders or the insiders?
Which teenager is closer to the Kingdom of God? The one who has kissed dating goodbye and is outspoken about his Christian values (that was me)...or the one who sits down and eats lunch with the openly gay kid who came to school that morning with his eyes red from crying? (that was not me)
Now I understand that these two scenarios aren't mutually exclusive, but we continue to celebrate and promote this "outspoken" Christian witness to our youth over and above the sometimes unspoken witness of a life rooted in the radical grace of God. We beam with pride when our young people follow in our footsteps of culture war, rather than the footsteps of Christ...footsteps that lead to love, to sacrifice, to the Cross.
Yes, we must continue to preach a message of holiness and obedience to our youth, but that message must include the call to love the outcast, to welcome the outsider, to defend the defenseless. Imagine if hurting young people, especially hurting young people who carry the shame of same-sex attraction (like me), found in our churches the same kind of warmth and welcome and belonging that I found in that drama club.
We don't have to choose between truth and love. We don't have to emphasize either justice or mercy. All of these are united in the person and work of Jesus Christ. We don't have to choose between "fixing" same-sex orientations (like Exodus International) or "celebrating" them (like Glee). The gospel calls our churches to be even more open and welcoming than the Glee club, and even more committed to the truth of Scripture than Exodus International.
For this, we pray.
Grace & peace,
Your Brother Behind the Mask
**Re: the missing nuance from this piece. I'm writing this note in 2016, and I want to reiterate the point that I was purposefully painting a black-and-white picture for this piece. I want to make it perfectly clear that I had wonderful friends in my church and Christian school who loved me well, loved me unconditionally, celebrated me, enjoyed me, etc. I could not have survived high school without these friends, and I know, without a doubt, that had I decided to come out to them in high school, they would not have rejected me. They probably would have been even better friends to me had I let them that far inside my world. I love them fiercely, and I am so thankful for them.
(Update 8/18/16): Below are some pictures from my summer with the theater kids...Summer Stock Theater's 2005 production of "Beauty and the Beast."
|Me & Belle|
|Me, Charlana, & Mimi (a.k.a. the Wardrobe and Silly Girl #2)|
|Practicing "Be Our Guest"|
|The Whole Gang|