Super chill book review: Outlove: A Queer Christian Survival Story (Julie Rodgers)

First, I’d just like to take credit real quick(-ish) for the fact that the King County Library System now has Julie Rodgers’ memoir Outlove: A Queer Christian Survival Story in their system. Woohoo! This is the first book I’ve requested that the library actually purchased, so it was a very exciting moment for me. 

Also, not only did the library purchase Outlove, but they purchased a whopping FOUR copies of it—and now there are no less than ten holds on those four copies! (Okay, fine, I suppose it’s possible that some of those other people who now have holds on the book also requested that the library buy it…so maybe it wasn’t just me. But I can still take credit.)

Anyhow, I tore through Outlove. Like, in a good way. It was hard to put down. I found Rodgers’ story riveting. 

Her story of coming of age as a queer evangelical Christian is a difficult one, but super important—and also, at least to me, in many ways redemptive. I’m grateful for her willingness to share her journey.

A few random thoughts:

1) Outlove is a story about Rodgers’ experience of youth and young adulthood as a gay person, specifically, in (evangelical) Christian contexts. And it’s also about more than that.

I was struck by how much of her reflection and critique applies to conservative evangelical Christianity more generally—her story is specific to her queerness, but there was also so much I could relate to from being part of the same systems. 

I think anyone who has experienced a significant shift in belief system—particularly a shift away from what Rodgers would call more fundamentalist types of Christianity—would relate to a ton of this book. (Not that reading an awesome memoir from a thoughtful queer person of faith shouldn’t be enough reason to read!)

Rodgers writes, for example, “Fundamentalism was a coherent system that dictated my life to me: it told me who I was and how I was to live, every moment of every day. It gave me a rulebook that laid out a path for me to be objectively good. When one part of the system was called into question, it brought up a series of related questions that threatened to bring the whole house down. The foundation upon which my life and identity were built began to shake, and I couldn’t cope with the thought that the whole house—everything I believed to be true and all the relationships that held me together—might come crashing down” (p. 55).

Yup, pretty much. You start to pull at one thread that doesn’t seem quite right, and before you know it, the whole thing starts unraveling. 

Or, alternatively, you poke with curiosity at an interesting-looking piece of rock, and end up waking a very large sleeping troll that then lunges right at you with all of its terrifying weight—when you had reasonably thought it was just a mound of boulders and you were safe. (I just made that analogy up. You’re welcome?)

There’s something appealing about feeling like you have all the answers to everything. Unfortunately, that’s just not true. For any of us. And probably especially for those of us who tend to think we have all the answers to everything.

I think there’s something beautiful in the mystery of not knowing things—of having to figure things out, together, in community, with the humility that should probably come with being human. But it’s difficult, too. Especially when you’ve been steeped in a belief system that tells you you’re supposed to know things. (And that this knowing things is what makes it a good belief system in the first place—better than all the other belief systems out there. You know, the mindset that we have the answers to everyone’s questions about all the things; we have the whole grasp on the truth that everyone needs.)

2) I hope this next quote isn’t too much of a spoiler. But I guess it isn’t exactly a secret that, when Rodgers was in her tweens and twenties, she was a key spokesperson for gay conversion groups (the kind that try to make gay people straight), including the now-defunct Exodus International. And it also isn’t a secret that she no longer thinks these kinds of groups are a fantastic idea. 

This is how she reflects on some of these experiences:

“The final Exodus conference took place exactly ten years after my first one. For the first half of my time in ex-gay ministry, I would say I was a true believer in the process. The second half was a long quest to escape. First, I tried to run away and then dragged myself back like a scared child returning to an abusive home. For the last couple of years, I fought for freedom for myself and my friends by trying to change the organization from within.

I was, at times, manipulated. At other points, complicit. And in the end, I was brave. It’s tempting to try to squeeze my years in conversion therapy into one of those categories. It would help me locate myself on the spectrum of good and evil. But life isn’t always that tidy. Many of us find ourselves, at various points, a victim, a villain, and a champion.

I’m learning to have compassion for my younger self―not just the sixteen-year-old who knew she had no good options but also the twenty-four-year-old who kept smiling for the cameras, despite her misgivings. This compassion for all the different versions of myself opens me up to have mercy on those I place squarely in the evil category today. Perhaps they’re also victims of a system they have not yet seen for what it truly is. It’s not too late for any of us to change” (p. 82).

I appreciated Rodgers’ resistance to a single narrative of this complicated time in her life. Sometimes manipulated, sometimes complicit, sometimes brave—this feels like it kind of sums up many well-intentioned people’s involvement in manipulative, controlling, and otherwise shitty systems. (Hopefully moving more toward the “brave” part as time goes on; and hopefully, as Rodgers eventually did, getting out when needed.)

Also, Rodgers is SO GRACIOUS. After everything she’s been through in the conservative evangelical world. Compassion for our younger selves, as well as compassion for people doing evil things today—which doesn’t excuse the evil things but does recognize the complicated humans behind them—these strike me as things to aspire to.

3. Rodgers writes, “I wanted someone to acknowledge how shitty it was for people to debate about LGBTQ people as if it were a sport” (p. 124). 

Right?? 

It’s easy to sit around and debate about things that don’t directly impact your life. But I guess I know—you know, mostly from sitting through far too many debates about women in ministry—that, when the thing being debated impacts your life (like, a lot), it’s not a sport. And nothing that impacts anyone else like that should be a sport either.

What is this, anyway—the idea that we can tear literal life-and-death questions out of their embodied context and toss them up in the air to be batted around for fun like beach balls? (I just thought of that metaphor, too. Must be on a roll. Like a beach ball? Sorry.) But really. Nothing good comes from pretending that there’s this purely intellectual realm that can be divorced from actual people’s actual lives.

4. Having heard a few “slippery slope” arguments in my day, I appreciate these reflections:

“The problem with the ‘slippery slope’ analogy is that it implies we’re at the top of the mountain. My friend Peter Choi, a historian and pastor, notes that the analogy assumes we have the truth, the moral high ground, and that any shift toward a different perspective is downward movement. The metaphor doesn’t leave much room for humility, where we consider the possibility that people with different perspectives might be right about some things and we might be wrong or that we might both be a little right, in different ways. I needed a framework that accounted for the ways we might be wrong, especially after bearing witness to the suffering queer people experienced in Christian communities” (p. 127).

When I interned with Fuller Youth Institute (FYI), I attended an FYI-hosted conference for megachurch leaders who wanted to do better in youth ministry. One of the speakers, a Fuller professor, stood up in front of all of them and said something like this: “Have you ever changed your mind? About anything, ever? If so, that means that you were wrong about something, at some point. Do you think it’s possible, then, that you might change your mind again in the future? And that this means that something you believe now is wrong?”

I could see the wheels turning and the minds in the room being blown. It was fascinating. And terrifying. To be fair, I didn’t know these Big and Important Megachurch Pastors personally, so maybe I shouldn’t read too much into their nonverbal reactions to this professor’s words. But it really did feel like many of them were just considering for the first time that *gasp* they might currently be wrong about something. Yikes.

I like what Rodgers writes about considering the possibility that you and someone you disagree with might “both be a little right, in different ways.” It’s not always just that someone’s right and someone’s wrong (and we could be either of those people at any given moment!), but also that we all know some things, and we all have some things to learn from one another.

(Thus, community! Ideally, community with people who are different from us in a variety of ways.)

5. Rodgers reflects, “I was seen as one of a handful of unicorn gays who would parrot conservative views and shield them from accusations of homophobia. When Gabe [Lyons] introduced me to his circles and Wheaton hired me, I naively believed their hearts were softening toward the queer community and that they wanted to make room for us.

After nine months of roundtable discussions with Christian leaders, consultations with board members at Christian organizations, and meetings with administrators at Evangelical colleges, I was convinced their acceptance of people like me was a political strategy. Not only did gay people with conservative theology guard them against accusations of discrimination, but we also served as convenient mouthpieces. By inviting us into leadership roles, our presence allowed them to ignore the claims of the greater LGBTQ community that said Evangelical theology and institutional policies were harmful to queer people” (p. 160-161).

Well, there isn’t a lot of sugar-coating going on here. And it also rings absolutely true. 

Not to say that there aren’t evangelical hearts softening toward the queer community. I absolutely believe there are. I know there are, because I know some of these people whose hearts are softening or have been softened. And I also know because I have been one of them.

It’s a different story, though, for conservative leaders who just keep doubling down on their anti-gay stances—who keep ignoring and downplaying the suffering their views are causing, keep trying to discredit those who disagree, and keep trying to use conservative queer people as “convenient mouthpieces” to “guard them against accusations of discrimination.” This is all definitely (still) a thing.

There’s so much in this book. As usual, I’ve really only scratched the surface of it. I’m grateful for Rodgers’ bravery, insight, and thoughtfulness—and for the way she approaches her story with so much compassion toward others while also pulling zero punches about what happened and how she reflects on it now. Give it a read!

To the people with power

In Ephesians 6:5-9, Paul gives a series of instructions to δοῦλοι (slaves or servants―people in a position of subservience or subjection), and then to κυρίοις (masters or lords―people in a position of power). 

Here is the passage in the NRSV translation:

5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; 6 not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. 7 Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women, 8 knowing that whatever good we do, we will receive the same again from the Lord, whether we are slaves or free.

9 And, masters, do the same to them. Stop threatening them, for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven, and with him there is no partiality.

I hope it’s obvious that this passage is, to put it mildly, an uncomfortable one. 

It has a hideous history of being used to try to justify chattel slavery in the US. It was spoken often by white enslavers to black enslaved people to try to keep them from rising up, running away, or expressing any other kinds of resistance to the brutal, inhumane system these white enslavers perpetuated.

I notice that (white) Christians now―likely either feeling guilty at some level about how the Bible was used to justify slavery, and/or in denial that this was the case―tend to read this passage with various sorts of disclaimers. Most pastors would likely say, “of course these verses don’t mean that slavery was or is okay! Let’s find another way to think about this.”

(This, by the way, is another reason I find it so galling when Christians read the immediately preceding passage, Ephesians 5:21-33, as a literal prescription for the way wives and husbands should relate to each other today, but then are unwilling to do the same for the verses about masters and slaves. It’s as if we somehow all just “know” now that slavery is wrong…but we’re not so sure about patriarchal marriage.)

I want to acknowledge the pain and awfulness these words about masters and slaves have caused. 

And, as I mentioned in my post last week about wives and husbands, I don’t want to excuse Paul for failing to push back against the hierarchical power structures of his time and place―for women, or for slaves/servants.

What I do want to do is offer some thoughts about these verses that might help push the church today in a better direction. To do this, I want to focus on verses 8 and 9. I want to focus on the “masters”―the people with power. 

In verse 8, Paul writes that whatever good thing each person might do, this he/she will receive from the Lord (literal translation). This, according to Paul, includes both enslaved people and “free” people―people without power and people with power. 

Then, in verse 9, Paul addresses masters. And he tells them to treat servants in the same way as, in Paul’s worldview, servants should treat them (literally, “do the same things toward the servants/slaves”). He then goes on to say, literally translated, that “their and y’all’s lord/master is in the heavens,” and that there is no partiality in this heavenly lord’s presence.

I’m not a huge fan of how Paul instructs everyone equally in these verses. He kind of tramples over and ignores the differences in power and social location between the slaves/servants and the masters/lords. 

But I do like how Paul addresses people with power. I think it’s worth paying attention to. What happens when we go back and read verses 5-7 with the “masters, do the same things toward the servants/slaves” part in mind? 

I’m thinking here of people in all sorts of positions of power. Employers, bosses, supervisors. Leaders and influencers of all sorts. City councils, judges, congresspeople, governors, presidents, and other elected officials. Police and military. Counselors and consultants. And, of course, pastors, elders, and other church leaders.

What “same things,” exactly, are these kinds of people instructed to do? How are they to think and act toward the people they lead and influence? 

Paul wants people with power to treat others with respect and fear, and to live with sincerity and singleness of heart (v. 5). To live their private lives in a way that matches their public persona. (Which, by the way, probably does not involve taking weird pants-unzipped pictures with your wife’s female assistant, and then giving an even weirder drunk-sounding non-apology for it.)

Paul wants people with power not to try to win others’ favor, but to do the will of God from the heart (v. 6). (I enjoy the literal translation: “not according to eye-service like people-pleasers”―two fun compound words in Greek.) Not just to be seen and make a good impression and move up the food chain―and not to be so concerned with self-protection and image management once on top―but to seek God humbly. To try to do what is right and good and just. 

Paul wants people with power to serve wholeheartedly, as if serving the Lord, not people (v. 7). To see their leadership not as self-aggrandizement, self-fulfillment, or an ego boost, but as service. And to be willing, whatever the cost, to choose to please God rather than people―one’s superiors, public opinion, etc.―when these two things conflict.

In the world of churches and Christian organizations, I think all this would involve leaders doing more (and deeper) soul-searching to figure out what it looks like to serve God in their context. Listening, broadly and intentionally and carefully, to the wisdom and experiences of people in the congregation. Digging beyond what was taught in seminary, what worked well for other churches, what people demand, and what wealthy donors want to fund. 

I think it would involve leaders caring less about what things look like and more about how things actually are. When it comes to race, for example, it would involve moving from questions like “do our website photos show lots of happy people from all sorts of ethnic backgrounds?” to questions like “are the people of color in our congregation represented in leadership? Are they respected as important voices in decision-making? Do they feel free to exist and worship as they are, without conforming to white norms? Are they acknowledged and honored as thinkers, leaders, and co-creators of theology?”

I think it would involve, as one more example, leaders being more upfront about their churches’ stances toward LGBTQ+ people and relationships―e.g. whether the church prohibits openly gay people from serving and leading in various ministries, whether the church performs gay weddings, etc.. (And if a leader finds herself hesitant to own up to a particular stance, for fear that it would make the church look bad―for example, that a non-affirming stance might make the church seem unkind, unwelcoming, or judgmental―perhaps it’s worth considering whether this stance may actually be some of these things.)

I don’t want to excuse Paul from the ugliness of the way he takes master/slave relationships for granted. 

But I do want to see what would happen if more people with power started taking Paul’s instructions more seriously. 

I want to see the kinds of churches and communities we can build together when leaders live and lead sincerely, from their hearts―not to make things look good, like people-pleasers, but doing God’s will, as well as they can understand it, guided by love and justice, from the bottom of their souls. 

I want to see people with power using this power for good and not evil. 

And maybe, in this way, Paul’s words here―which have been used for such evil―can be turned around and used for good.

Enduring one another

At the beginning of the fourth chapter of Ephesians, Paul writes this:

“Therefore, I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:1-3, NASB, emphasis added).

Or, in another translation: “I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:1-3, NRSV, emphasis added).

The Greek word translated here as “showing tolerance for” or “bearing with” one another is ἀνέχομαι, and it caught my attention because the definition I have for it on my fun little vocab flash cards is “endure.” Paul invites the people of the church community in Ephesus to endure one another.

I like this translation because, to me, it sounds stronger than “bear with.” “Bear with” sounds like it could have to do with listening to someone, or perhaps reading a somewhat long-winded (but not necessarily uninteresting) e-mail. Bear with me, here.

It also sounds stronger, or perhaps more specific, than “show tolerance”―which could have a pretty general meaning, not necessarily too different from “love one another” or “accept one another.”

I like the translation “endure” because it feels real. Staying in relationship with fellow Jesus-followers―keeping on going to church with all sorts of people, with whom I may or may not naturally connect or have anything in common―sometimes calls for a stronger word than “bearing with” or “showing tolerance.” Sometimes it really does call for “enduring” one another. 

I think about this when I think about some of the reasons why people might leave a church, and why they stay. 

I wonder if sometimes we stay when we should leave. We stay even after realizing that some important things about the church environment, practices, teachings, authority structure, etc. are not healthy for us, and/or perhaps for our loved ones. We stay because we like the people and feel connected with them. We’re not sure what will happen to these relationships if we leave.

And I wonder if sometimes we leave when we should stay. We leave at the first sign of conflict, different styles of communication, or other relational difficulties. We leave when, really, the church is a good place for us, and a growing place for us―and it can continue to be, perhaps for a long time to come, if we are only willing to stay and try to work some of these things out.

When I think about these things, I also think about my experience of two different churches over the course of my two years in Pasadena. 

When my husband and I first moved to Pasadena, we visited five or six different churches, and then decided to attend a church where we had started to feel connected relationally. I knew that I disagreed with the church on LGBTQ+ affirmation, but I liked the people, and I figured it was all temporary. We didn’t plan on staying in Pasadena after I graduated from seminary, so I wasn’t looking for a longer-term denominational home.

As time went on, though, I began to feel more and more disconnected, unengaged, and often upset on Sunday mornings.

Sometimes I felt angry about parts of the sermon; other times, I just felt a strong sense that I no longer believed the same things that the pastor believed, on a very deep, fundamental level. This was an alienating feeling. I looked around, wondering if anyone else felt the same way, and it seemed like no one did.

There were so many people at the church whom I thought (and still think) were awesome. But some of my basic convictions about what it meant to follow Jesus and be the church together were changing, and some were growing stronger. 

Regarding LGBTQ+ affirmation, for example, I came to realize more strongly that the foundation of any church I want to be a part of is Jesus’ radical, all-inclusive love and justice―and that, to me, any church whose theology or practices treat my LGBTQ+ siblings as second-class citizens does not actually share this conviction in a way that extends to all people.

(How could we as a church talk about seeking justice alongside marginalized people if we only wanted this to apply to some things, like race, but not other things, like sexuality and gender?)

It wasn’t just about LGBTQ+ affirmation, but more generally about the entire lens through which the church’s leadership saw Scripture. It was a lens that just didn’t fit me anymore. 

Finally, during our last couple of months in Pasadena, we began attending another local church instead―one whose core values aligned much more closely with the kinds of things I wanted to pursue at the heart of my faith. 

Our first Sunday at this new church, though, I saw a student who had gotten on my nerves during a class we had together. And my first thought wasn’t exactly holy. It was probably something like, “UGH! Can’t I just get away from people who annoy me for an hour on Sunday mornings?”

And then my second thought―well, maybe not precisely second, but something I realized upon later reflection―was, “I think this is how church is supposed to be.”

Church is not supposed to be full of what I would consider nice people―people I find easy to get along with, easy to make friends with; people who share a lot of common interests with me, or common communication styles, or Myers-Briggs types. 

Churches are meant to be full of all sorts of people, richly (and difficult-ly) different from one another in every imaginable way―people who come together and stick together, not because they naturally get along well, but because they treasure a common set of deeply held values, a basic common idea of what it means to follow Jesus.

Jesus tends to bring together people like this. Healthy faith communities tend to bring together like this: people who choose to endure one another in love, for the sake of seeking God together and living out the story of Jesus together.

I hope for communities like this, for you and for me. I hope we meet people we get along well with at church, and I hope we meet people we have nothing in common with except our faith. And I hope that, when people, situations, communication styles, personalities, etc. try our patience, we dig in and learn to endure one another in love.

God knows we all need it.

Gendered titles & getters-of-stuff-done

While reading the biblical books of Ephesians and Colossians in Greek, I have been struck by Paul’s repeated references to himself and others as διάκονος (pronounced de-ä’-ko-nos; it’s where we get the English word “deacon”):

  • Paul says that he has become a διάκονος of the good news of God’s promise in Jesus, according to the gift of God’s grace (Eph 3:6-7).
  • Paul calls his friend Tychichus a beloved brother and faithful διάκονος in the Lord (Eph 6:21).
  • Paul says that the Colossians heard the good news from his other buddy Epaphras, whom Paul describes as a beloved fellow servant and a faithful διάκονος of Christ (Col 1:7).
  • Paul says (again) that he has been made a διάκονος of the good news (Col 1:23).
  • Immediately after this, Paul calls himself a διάκονος of Christ’s body, which is the church (Col 1:24-25).
  • Paul mentions Tychichus again and calls him a beloved brother, faithful διάκονος, and fellow servant in the Lord (Col 4:7).

Different translations, in different places (the passages above as well as others), translate διάκονος as servant, minister, or deacon.

Danker et. al.’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (affectionately known as “BDAG,” which stands for the initials of the four main contributing scholars…not to be confused with a d-bag, which is something else :D) describes a διάκονος as “one who is busy with something in a manner that is of assistance to someone”; for example, “one who serves as an intermediary in a transaction,” or “one who gets something done, at the behest of a superior.”

So basically, a διάκονος gets *stuff* done. On someone else’s behalf. (Feel free to think of that when you read these passages from now on.)

I think I was struck by Paul’s descriptions of himself―and of other friends and fellow leaders whom he clearly likes and respects very much―as διάκονος, because it feels like such a humble term. When you are a διάκονος, you are doing something on behalf of another; carrying out another’s wishes; assisting someone else in achieving their goals, while perhaps putting your own goals on the back burner for a time. 

These are all things that have been historically, and are often in the present, relegated to women. They are things that are expected of women, often much more so than they are expected of men―however much churches and their male leaders might talk a big game about servant leadership. 

Because of this, I’m surprised and glad to see that Paul is proud to apply the term to himself and to his male friends. He doesn’t mind seeing himself as a getter-of-stuff-done on behalf of the good news of God’s promise; on behalf of Jesus; on behalf of the church.

When we call someone a “minister” these days―at least for those who hold some sort of respect for the church and its titles, and I don’t particularly blame those who don’t―it’s a term of honor, leadership, respect. Some churches balk at the idea of female ministers; others (well, more precisely, the same ones, plus a whole bunch more) balk at the idea of LGBTQ+ ministers. 

People and churches who find their place in the more conservative streams of Christianity often end up doing a great deal of verbal gymnastics to try to delineate which roles and titles are available to women (and/or LGBTQ+ people) and which ones are not. Some churches want to allow women and/or LGBTQ+ people to be deacons, but not pastors; children’s program directors, but not ministers; or teachers of other women, but not elders who make decisions on the behalf of the entire church.

Paul’s use of διάκονος―servant, minister, and all-around getter-of-stuff-done―to describe himself pushes back against these odd distinctions churches sometimes draw. 

Paul was a gifted pastor who saw himself as a διάκονος, a deacon. He was a director or co-director of many ministries who saw himself as a διάκονος, a minister. He was a man willing to be taught by women and recognize their leadership―women like Phoebe, whom Paul also calls a διάκονος in Romans 16:1.

Distinctions like deacon vs pastor, director vs minister, or teacher vs elder have been manufactured by subsequent generations of Christians; they are not part of the mindset in which Paul and others wrote the parts of the New Testament that people look to for guidance in these things. 

I’m not exactly someone who would try to make Paul a feminist by modern standards (as much as I might wish he had been), but I do think it’s very much worth pointing out the (many) places where he pushes back, even just a bit, against the particular brands of patriarchy and misogyny so prevalent in his own time and culture―in the hope that this might help us learn to push back against the particular brands of patriarchy and misogyny so prevalent in our own time and culture.

And so, I like that Paul isn’t afraid to name himself and his fellow bros as διάκονος. 

(As a bit of a side note, I’m wary of translations that make gendered choices around how to translate διάκονος in different places. For example, the KJV, ESV, and NASB all translate διάκονος as “minister” when applied to Paul in Eph 3:7, but “servant” when applied to Phoebe in Romans 16:1. Paul didn’t make this distinction; why would we?)

Here’s to breaking down the false distinctions we tend to set up in order to justify discriminatory attitudes and practices.

Here’s to powerful religious leaders like Paul learning―often slowly and painfully, I’m sure―to be a διάκονος: to get stuff done on behalf of something (the good news), someone (Jesus), and some ones (the collections of people who make up church communities) other than themselves.

Here’s to churches thinking more about honoring the gifts and the faithful service-ministry of women and LGBTQ+ people, and less about restricting them, controlling them, and limiting how they are allowed to lead or what titles they are allowed to have.

I think that Paul―the self-proclaimed διάκονος―would approve.

I Must Decrease…Or Must I? (Part 2 of 3)

After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he spent some time there with them and baptized. John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim because water was abundant there; and people kept coming and were being baptized—John, of course, had not yet been thrown into prison.

Now a discussion about purification arose between John’s disciples and a Jew. They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing, and all are going to him.”


John answered, “No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven. You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him.’ He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease.”  (John 3:22-30)

In yesterday’s post, I shared the first of three stories that come to mind when I think about John’s statement, he must increase, but I must decrease. That story was about a situation in which I do not think it was actually right or appropriate for me to seek to “decrease.”

Here’s the second story.

About two years ago, I spent a snowy January weekend in Denver at the annual conference of Q Christian Fellowship (formerly called the Gay Christian Network), along with a handful of college students from the LGBTQ+ affirming Christian ministry where I was volunteering. I went to the conference because I thought it would be encouraging for these students to be able to meet and spend time with a bunch of fellow LGBTQ+ Christians from all over the country.

For my part, I was one of not terribly many straight people at the conference. It was really great. I learned a lot and felt really privileged and grateful to see and (briefly) be a part of an amazing, resilient, beautiful family of LGBTQ+ people of faith.

The weekend left me more deeply aware of the broader church’s impoverishment as a result of its exclusion of LGBTQ+ people. I was also inspired by seeing some of what the church can be when LGBTQ+ people are really free to use their gifts to serve, speak, sing, minister, and otherwise lead. (Would highly recommend the conference, both for LGTBQ+ Christians looking for an accepting community and for anyone willing to sit in and learn.)

At one point during the weekend, I went out for dinner with a group of people from the LGBTQ+ Christian community of the greater LA area. There were maybe twenty or thirty of us.

As we sat around a long table at Yard House, there was a moment in the conversation when one person shared an observation he had made about tendencies in gay relationships. Other people laughed and agreed.

I, however, was not at all convinced that his observation was unique to gay relationships. I felt like it applied to a lot of straight couples I knew as well.

So, I said something along those lines…and then instantly regretted it. I saw immediately from people’s faces that the comment was not appreciated.

Reflecting on this moment, I don’t think my comment was necessarily wrong or bad, but it was out of place. In that moment I was a straight person surrounded by LGBTQ+ people who had worked so hard and given so deeply of themselves to create, in this community, one of just a very few truly safe spaces―anywhere, really, and especially in the Christian world―to be openly gay. One of just a few truly safe spaces to reflect on and laugh about some of the things that might characterize gay relationships.

The people sitting at that table with me had graciously welcomed me to join them in this space. But when I, as a straight person, spoke up with something contradictory to say―and something that was about straight people rather than gay people―I was trampling on a sacred moment. 
I can talk about straight relationships anywhere. I see straight relationships modeled everywhere, all the time, from TV shows and movies, to friends and mentors, to church. I can reflect on straight relationships and make observations about them however and whenever I want.

But this was a space where gay experiences and relationships were actually, for once, centered and considered important. And when I brought my own straight-person judgment into it, I was turning the attention away from their experiences and back to my own.

In that moment, I really didn’t need to speak up. In that moment, I needed to decrease, making room for other people to be able to share perspectives that often get trampled on, or just aren’t safe to share in the first place. Or, if I had spoken up, it could have been to ask questions and learn something, not to judge and contradict.

I don’t mean to make too much of a brief moment that passed quickly, or beat myself up over a well-intended but (understandably) poorly-received comment. I just share this story as an example of a moment when I needed to decrease. I needed to step back and let others shape the conversation.

I also share this story as a counterexample to yesterday’s story. Taken together, I think the two situations illustrate just a little bit of how complex things can get when we think about John’s statement that he must increase, but I must decrease, and what it might mean in our lives and contexts.

Tomorrow’s story will offer one more angle on all of this.

Making Good Fruit

Make fruit worthy of repentance…already the ax is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not make good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. -John the Baptist (Matthew 3:8,10)

When I think of a truly repentant person (myself or others), I tend to think of someone who feels really badly about something. Maybe there are heartfelt words of apology (not a halfhearted, duplicitous, or otherwise unsatisfying apology!). Maybe there are tears.

When the Pharisees come against John’s baptism, and John calls them a brood of vipers, John is not primarily looking for heartfelt words, or for tears. I’m sure these would have been reasonable signs that the Pharisees were starting to realize their wrong, but they are not the main thing John talks about.

John says he is looking for fruit worthy of repentance. For fruit that is good and healthy, not rotten or poisonous (like a brood of vipers).

He is looking for the Pharisees not just to say, “oh wow, the ways I’ve been drawing lines around who can and can’t experience God, and where God can and can’t be experienced, are really bad, I feel really badly about that,” but also to make a real change in their actions.

When I think about Christians repenting and making good fruit, I think about what feels to me like a growing awareness among white people that racism is still alive and well and hideous and horrifying. Repentance, here―at least for white people (the only people I can speak for)―means not just admitting the reality of racism and feeling sad or angry or guilty or whatever we might feel about it, but also actively seeking to root out racist attitudes and policies, both within ourselves and in our communities and spheres of influence. Seeking to make good fruit, fruit worthy of repentance.

I think about climate change, and I wonder if perhaps now the evidence is so strong that (at least some) people who previously wrote it off as liberal fear-mongering are taking a second look. Repentance, here, means not just feeling afraid or sad that we have all done this to our world, but actively seeking ways to work toward healing our earth, and trying to limit our own contributions―and the contributions of our companies and communities―to climate change. Seeking to make good fruit, fruit worthy of repentance.

I think about churches’ postures toward LGBTQ people. A lot of Christians recognize now that gay conversion therapy is harmful rather than helpful―poisonous rather than healthful―as exemplified by (the ex-gay nonprofit) Exodus International’s closure and its president’s apology a few years ago. Repentance, here, means not just feeling bad about the harm caused by conversion therapy, but actively seeking ways to make churches into places that are actually safe and healthy for LGBTQ people. Seeking to make good fruit, fruit worthy of repentance.

I don’t mean to say that God doesn’t love us or forgive us for these sins (and others) unless we do something different, but rather that good fruits naturally grow in the soil of real repentance.

Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s descendant Rob Lee preaches and writes about addressing racism in faith communities (check out Andre Henry’s podcast). Christian ethics professor David Gushee, who formerly defended the so-called “traditional” sexual ethic of marriage between a man and a woman but then changed his views upon being part of a Christian community that included a lot of LGBTQ people and gay couples, wrote a book about it (Changing Our Mind) in the hope of helping the church more broadly re-examine its attitudes and policies. This is good fruit, fruit worthy of repentance.

May we wrestle with God about what good fruits, fruits worthy of repentance, look like in our lives and communities.