Today I’m finally going to talk about something that has been conspicuously missing from my blog: the crazy journey I have been on in my faith since coming out publicly as bi. Perhaps I’m ready to talk about it today because I’m beginning to recover some sense of spiritual grounding again.

Before coming out, affirming theology seemed like the missing element to my faith. Things seemed to fit in a way that didn’t before. Affirming theology reconciled elements of the Bible and God that hadn’t made sense. Those things are probably still true, though for a time they seemed like they weren’t.

I realize now that the real change since coming out isn’t about the Bible or God, it’s about the church. So much of it has been about the way people and institutions responded to me coming out. As expected, there was praise from some and attacks from others. What did surprise me is the reactions I haven’t heard, reactions I fully expected to encounter from Bible-believing Christians.

Losing the Beautiful Vision

My whole life I’ve been taught that the Adventist church has no creed but the Bible, that our doctrines are based on scripture more than any other denomination.

When others reverted to tradition, Adventist theology progressed, embracing the Sabbath, new understandings of death and the nature of the soul, new prophets, and new prophecies. We were a faith unafraid to go back to the Bible. We were people of the book.

I was a true believer in this visions of the Adventist church.

Because of this, I had a framework for why it was okay to open myself up to new understandings of scripture. When I studied and changed my mind about LGBT+ affirmation, that wasn’t a big threat to me. It made sense. It’s how Christianity is supposed to work.

Since coming out, I’m unable to believe that this vision of Adventism is true in the present, even if it was in the past. Coming out has decimated my faith in the church.

The response I expected and rarely received was thoughtful, careful engagement with me in study of the text. If Adventist understandings of truth are based on scripture and not on tradition, the first response to my work should be curiosity fostered by a desire to understand the Bible better.

Instead, I found people insisting that this matter has already been decided, that it’s part of settled theology in the Adventist church. In fact, many times I’ve been asked what more an Adventist pastor could do given the limitations of our theology. But why would our theology be excluded from change? This isn’t Adventism at all.

Defaulting to the doctrines of the church rather than the study of scripture isn’t supposed to be what it means to be an Adventist. As one of our most important founders put it:

“There is no excuse for anyone taking the position that there is no more truth to be revealed and that our expositions of Scripture are without error. The fact that certain doctrines have been held as truth for many years by our people is not a proof that our ideas are infallible. Age will not make error truth, and truth can afford to be fair. No true doctrine will lose anything by close examination.” -Ellen White

In stark contrast to this attitude of the early founders of our church, the Adventist church has taken a settled position against same-gender marriage and against transgender people. They’ve done so despite the fact that the Adventist church has never undertaken to study this issue, but instead has assumed itself to be right with zero self-examination.

As one example, when they met at the Andrews University seminary for a conference on the subject of “homosexuality” a few years ago, they began the conference clarifying that the churches doctrine was not up for re-examination. Everything they said would be within those bounds.

This approach is not the approach our church was founded on. It’s not what we are telling people about ourselves and our values. We are telling people the Adventist church is all about being true to the text, over and above any other denomination, even when it sets us at odds with other Christians.

Where Have the Faithful Gone?

I get it. I expected the official church to take this stance. The church is becoming more creedal, theologically calcifying for decades. What I didn’t expect was the lack of curiosity and open engagement from individuals in the church.

I have seen people casually write me off, saying my hermeneutic is wrong without ever expounding. I’ve studied hermeneutics at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. I know how it works. The hermeneutic I’ve used in my work is conservative.

No, I don’t use a literalistic approach, but that’s not a conservative hermeneutic, it’s an uneducated one. My hermeneutic has attempted to get at the original intent of the author and to illuminate the work that God is doing in his people through all of scripture and over time. That’s conservative hermeneutics. That’s what I’ve used every time. In every post. In every discussion.

I can understand how someone could see this matter differently than I do, and I would really love to engage in conversation around this, but I can’t see how someone who truly wants to understand scripture would be so lacking in curiosity or a willingness to learn more about scripture through someone who sees it differently than they do.

This has been the source of my frustration. It seems that this unwillingness to return to the text with humility and curiosity has met me at every turn. Nothing seems like a good enough reason to even seriously ask these questions. It doesn’t matter that there has been new and credible scholarship. It doesn’t matter that the current doctrine is doing immense harm. It doesn’t even matter that there are many Adventist pastors who privately believe the church to be wrong.

I’ve spent my time mostly fending off hateful comments rather than thoughtfully engaging and growing from serious dialogue, that in itself is revealing.

Losing My Religion

This failure of self-reflection and scriptural curiosity has been ground zero for the dissolution of my trust in the church, though it’s far from the only one. It hurts.

Before coming out, I expected the pain of the church’s rejection of me, but I’m finding more and more that I’m also rejecting the church, and it’s just as painful.

What happens when you lose faith in the church that introduced you to Jesus, nurtured you, believed in you, gave you a place, gave you a spiritual home, and helped you know God? This is what I’m discovering.

These are the types of questions I’m going to be asking and reflecting on more and more in my blog. Today I want to share with you a bit of hope that’s come my way.

Losing God

Often, in the midst of this disintegrating faith in the church, I was also caught off guard by feeling incredibly distant from God. It was like God was gone. I was trying to seek spiritual solace, but couldn’t find it.

Many times it’s seemed to me that faith, God, and religion bring nothing but pain to the world. I understand why people reject religion altogether. There are many times and many ways in which religious systems are the reason why people are xenophobic, fearing and attacking anyone different than themselves.

In other words, religion often makes people worse instead of better. I’ve struggled with this reality over the last few months. It’s hard to accept it. It’s hard to know what to do with this information when religion has been such an important part of my life.

Perhaps not surprisingly, I’ve begun to see the appeal in being an atheist. I’ve also seen the appeal in rejecting entirely all things conservative. I’ve begun to see conservatives as selfish, afraid, and hateful. I’ve wondered if maybe the one and only thing we need is to stop hurting each other. Can it all be boiled down to that?

The reason I didn’t talk about any of this publicly is because I knew I was still sorting it out. I knew I was reacting, confused, hurting, and looking for some way to safety. Though I’m still in that process, I’ve tentatively figured some things out.

The Fuller Story

I’ve realized that religion is often a tool for oppression, but God (and even religion) are also a source for strength, hope, and the most important movements for liberation in the history of the world. People who are the most despised and feared in society find strength in God. Maybe that’s why so many atheists are straight, white men while those against whom religion has been wielded as a weapon paradoxically tend to believe in God.

As one of those who has been often targeted by religious people and institutions, I’ve found that God can be a source of strength for withstanding assault from God’s own supposed followers. After all, wasn’t Jesus crucified by religious leaders using the power of the state for violence?

Maybe God and Jesus look more like the victims of religion than the most powerful proponents of it. Maybe becoming a victim of religion has made me closer to God and not further away.

Besides, if we give up on religion, it isn’t going to go away. If we give up on conservative values, that doesn’t mean conservatism disappears, it just means it will lack our influence. We need better religion, better conservative values, and better institutions. Without this effort, we lose our influence in these spaces and abandon LGBT+ kids growing up in them as so many of us did.

In other words, I realize that I don’t want to give up on God, and surprisingly I don’t even want to give up on religion. My soul still longs for God. The divine still soothes, fills, and inspires me.

Freedom comes from loss, growth comes from pain, and God has always brought beauty from ashes. When the roof caves in you can see the stars for the first time. Destruction clears the way for growth. Losing my religion doesn’t have to mean losing religion. It could be an unimagined and desperately needed new beginning.

Renewing Faith in God

So I started to do something important. I’m separating myself from the church in my mind, and I’m doing so with great intentionality. I’m accepting the reality of who I am now in the eyes of so many Adventist leaders. I’m not included anymore. I’m a member of the LGBT+ community who affirms and celebrates the way I love. That makes me other.

What really surprises me is that the more I do so, the more aware I am that God is with me.

I am saying the following out loud, “I no longer have a place in the Adventist church, but I have a place in the Kingdom of God, and I have a place with Jesus.”

The more I repeated this phrase, the more healing I experienced. Peace flowed from these painful words, peace between myself and God. It would seem that my concept of God was more wrapped up in the church than I knew. Probably still is.

It’s necessary for me to be intentional about this loss so I can be intentional about rebuilding my life and my faith apart from the Adventist church. It’s something I never wanted to do, but something I find I must do. I can’t make an idol of the Adventist church. I must be willing to let it go.

I suppose losing a church family is like losing a spouse. You don’t realize how many pieces of yourself are wrapped up in the other person until the other person is gone. Also like the lose of a spouse, the more you are able to accept the reality of the loss, the more you are able to heal and become whole. By the grace of God, I’m becoming whole again.

What is the worst possible time to question your sexuality? To begin to admit you are something other than straight? Probably when you’re a student at a conservative seminary, relentlessly pursuing the calling you know you’ve received from God.

What could make it even worse? Probably being a woman in the Seventh-day Adventist church, afraid that any rumor or suspicion of your sexuality would doom your already slim chances of being hired.

This is the exact situation I found myself in. At the time I believed, though tenuously, that same-sex relationships were wrong. Despite the fact that my beliefs were orthodox, I didn’t trust anyone with the knowledge that my private feelings of attraction were not entirely directed towards the opposite gender.

So when I found myself in the office of a seminary counselor, smack in the middle of a row of professor’s offices, only sheer desperation that lead me to ask for help.

Sitting down in his office, I surveyed the vents near the ceiling, wondering if sound could carry through them to the offices next door. I looked at the stern face across the desk from me as he assumed a practiced expression of concern. I wondered if he could really be trusted to keep my secret.

“Is there anything you would like to talk about?” He asked.

“There is something it would probably be good to talk about. Could you tell me, what is your policy of confidentiality? Would you be willing to now write anything down about the conversation we have?”

I was completely paranoid. On his shelves, stacked one on top of another, was a veritable library on “homosexuality.” It was clearly something he cared about. I hoped he could help me.

He assured me that our conversation would be confidential, but that he does keep a record of his sessions. I could hardly stand the thought that somewhere in the seminary would be a written record of my deviant sexual feelings. But like I said, I was desperate. My feelings seemed uncontrollable. What was more terrifying, I found myself less and less willing to control them.

It had begun with one woman, a friend of mine. It’s taken me years to acknowledge to myself the obvious reality that I’d fallen in love with her. Barely, and I still don’t know how I managed it, I brought my feelings under control, somehow without ever crossing the line of trying to be with her or God forbid trying to kiss her. Not that she was interested. And maybe that’s the only way I had survived, believing she wasn’t. God only knows what I would have done if she would have loved me back. We all have our limits, after all.

To my dismay, it didn’t stop with her. Suddenly I was experiencing life in an entirely different and terrifying way. I would smile at a woman I met out and about, with no intention but simple friendliness, then I would feel an energy pass between us and wonder, did she feel that? Is she attracted to me? Am I attracted to her?

Despite my best efforts, I was definitely attracted to women. I was never safe. I could feel the pull at any time, drawing me to certain women with an intensity I hadn’t realized before, making friendship seem perilous. At all costs my inner life must stay a secret. But secrets breed fear, shame, and anxiety. I was coming apart.

There I was: desperate enough to seek help when the slightest hint could destroy me, desperate enough to turn to someone who could drop that hint.

Somehow I found the words. “I’ve realized that I’m attracted to women. It’s not something I was aware of before. I think I’m handling it okay, but it would probably be good for me to talk about it.”

I might as well have casually placed a live grenade between us and asked him to keep his cool about it. He was obviously uncomfortable. This is more than he had bargained for with his innocent question. He fell back on what was clearly a familiar metaphor for him.

“Think about it like a picture gallery. You have several images on the wall in your mind, and you can choose to walk over and look at them, or you can choose to leave them be. That’s what lust is like. It’s up to you whether or not you choose to dwell on these images.”

Lust!? He thinks this is about lust? Little does he know that not once, not even one solitary time have I allowed myself to fantasize sexually about a woman. If self-control were an Olympic sport I would be standing on the podium listening to my national anthem. You can’t control your dreams, but I never chosen to dwell on the image of a woman in my mind.

Lust was not the problem. The problem was that despite my total commitment to not lusting after women, I was drawn to them. The problem was love. It was a desire deep in my heart that I was fighting every day. It was an undeniable instinct that there was something beautiful waiting for me in the arms of a woman.

This is the strange part, though. In those days, before I had accepted myself, the sexual part of it didn’t even sound appealing. It seemed strange. I had accepted what I had heard again and again. I had been the recipient of a million images of straight intimacy and none of same-sex intimacy. At the time, it seemed like an excellent safe-guard. But it wasn’t enough. No matter now much I was able to control my lust and my sexual desire, I knew in my bones that the right woman could make me happy for the rest of my life.

Of course I was drawn to the sexual experience of being with a woman despite how strange it seemed, but it was something that I never, ever, ever allowed myself the luxury of pondering. This was war. And in the battle with lust, I was winning. But in the battle with love, it was a losing fight. It was war against my own, natural sense of beauty and goodness. I could not convince myself that goodness was sin.

How could I explain all this? All I said was, “No, that’s not it. It isn’t lust.”

He changed his approach, “Do you really want to be in a lesbian relationship?”

There it was. I was pinned down with no escape. “Lesbian relationship.” Was this who I was? Those words, so long used to describe the reprobate, the enemies of Christ, the lost people of the world. And that’s exactly what this man meant when he used them. That’s exactly what the esteemed professors sitting all around me in their offices would think of me. These people on whom my future was entirely dependent would lose all respect for me. I prayed no one else could hear his question through the vents.

I shifted in my chair, suddenly unable to find a comfortable position. My face reddened. I stammered. Somehow I found words to dismiss the whole idea, “No, I’m not really thinking about having a relationships with anyone. It’s just something I’ve been feeling lately.”

“So this isn’t something you are considering with one one right now?”

“No. It’s just something I’ve been feeling.”

“Okay. Come back sometime and let me know how it’s going. And by the way, this isn’t the kind of thing I usually write down.”

This thing was too much even for a professional to write down in confidentiality. In fact, it was more than he even wanted to talk about. I was out of his office within ten minutes of entering. I never returned.

Later I learned more about the approach he uses for counseling, and that what he said to me that day was intended to bring a sense of guilt and shame, in order to keep me from sinning.

I can’t tell you what it looks like to tell lesbian, gay, and bisexual people that their sense of love and connection is sinful, and not do us harm. I don’t know how the theology that our sense of love and connection is sinful is part of the good news of the gospel.

I do know that sometimes people who study it the most, who dedicate large portions of their careers to helping people like me, and who churches turn to with their questions, are failing miserably. I was ready to do anything that day and every day for years to be faithful.

I didn’t come to these realizations about myself until much later in life than most, and I had personal and emotional resources that only come with age. Many struggling with these questions are just kids, vulnerable and scared about their future. What do non-affirming churches offer to them? How do they help them? What is the impact of this type of teaching on their young lives?

***I have many conservative Christian readers who are not used to this type of post. I invite you to walk a moment in the shoes of another. I invite you to suspend your beliefs for a moment and see through our eyes, the eyes of those who fully affirm LGBT love and gender and also fully embrace our faith in God. You’re perspective will be there waiting when you are done reading, you can pick it up right where you left it, but you will be able to better understand us for taking this moment to see the world as we do.***

God’s love is something I see again and again in the queer community.

God is like my two friends, gay men who found each other after years of loneliness. I see them sweetly lean in towards each other during casual conversation, simple acts revealing deep affection. After decades of partnership they were united during the first wave of legal same-sex marriage in California days before prop 8 made marriage illegal again.

God’s affection is deep, and he never loses an opportunity for love.

God is like my friend who holds the tension of being Seventh-day Adventist and lesbian. Her bookcases filled with Adventist commentaries, Review & Herald titles, and shelves of Ellen White; her kitchen full of vegan fair; but she can’t find a church where she’s accepted for all she is. Still she holds the tension.

God holds the tension, believing in us even when we fail his children.

God is like the man I met who was studying to be a Catholic priest. He laughs and tells me half the candidates for priesthood were gay, then talks about the man he met 50 years ago who put an end to his studies and has been his partner ever since. They have loved each other since a time when their love could land them in prison.

God is willing to go to prison for love.

God is like the transgender woman who shows up for church every week, still willing to invest in the denomination that once made her life unlivable. She’s in leadership now, happy to have found a church that is more interested in supporting LGBT people than bowing to the will of the institution.

God forgives.

God is like Harvey Milk, who knew that his political career as a gay man and activist would probably get him killed. Before he was assasinated, he left a last political will and testament for us to follow. He urged us to stop hiding and stand up for what is right, hopeful that his death would be an inspiration.

God died for us and urges us to follow this path.

God is like the thousands and millions of LGBT people and our courageous allies who show up and refuse to hide in the face of bigotry, hate, and violence. We refuse to be silent, refuse to pretend we are just friends, refuse to change who we are to pass as straight. We are not not satisfied with systems that oppress us, religions that shame us, and media that dismisses us. Neither is God.

God’s love is queer.

So where is God in the LGBT community? God is everywhere.

I won’t ever forget my cowardice. It was fostered by a thousand small decisions to turn away from pricks of conscience, little warning signs that all was not well in my beloved denomination.

One of my favorite classes in seminary was a difficult, small class. The few brave souls who volunteered for this academic endeavor sat around a table with the professor, and we talked about Old Testament Law. Together we dissected the minutiae of the Hebrew text, disagreed with each other about the meaning, drew comparisons with parallel texts, and tried to understand the minds of ancient Hebrews and what they knew of God.

I loved every minute. It was just the type of intense Bible study I craved. In our discussions I was bold, at times contrarian, and always searching for the strand of justice that I began to see running through this ancient text.

I was thrilled with the dawning understanding that even seemingly restrictive texts were bringing justice and healing for vulnerable people. We saw how the law improved the lives of women and slaves, not as much as we have today, but certainly more than the surrounding Ancient Near Eastern nations.

Sitting here, at this table, with these people, holding my own—it was thrilling. I loved the professor. He was and is kind, intelligent, and willing to learn and grow from his students even after decades of study. I was with my people and in my element. This, if anywhere, is where I wanted to be appreciated, where I wanted to shine.

“A Man Shall Not Lie with a Man”

It was bound to happen. One day we began talking about the dreaded verses in Leviticus. “A man shall not lie with a man as with a woman, it is an abomination.” In everyone’s opinion, these verses turned out to be verses that had no nuance. Our professor explained how the restriction could be applied to women as well a men, but that was the limit of understanding beyond the literal. These texts, far from being more liberating than other nations, were more restrictive. They were clear. Important. Undeniable.

Then he started talking about a friend from college. I don’t remember the exact words, but I’m not exaggerating to say it was something like this: “He got caught up in the whole gay lifestyle. He left the church and God completely, had hundreds of sexual partners, was always at gay clubs, developed health problems, and it was decades before he finally returned to God and gave up homosexuality. Homosexuality is a dangerous thing, and God has no tolerance for it.”

I sat there stunned. He doesn’t understand at all. He doesn’t realize that there are countless queer people living out their sexuality in committed relationships, raising families, and generally being stable and healthy. Here is the man who literally wrote the book on sexuality in this church, and he doesn’t know the first thing about queer people. He has accepted and is perpetuating dangerous stereotypes.

A response rose in my mind but died before it reached my lips. I wanted to speak out, but I didn’t. I was afraid. I didn’t want anyone to know I was attracted to women.

Confronting My Selfishness

An unexpected lesson I’ve learned in all of this is how much more selfish I was than I ever thought. I used to think it would be selfish to do what I wanted to do, pursuing relationships with women. Before I pushed it down deep into the recesses of my psyche, dating women seemed so right to me. In my mind, selfishness would be giving into these desires.

I’ve since realized that my true selfishness lie in another direction. There were a million little domesticated selfish decisions in my religious life.

This story is an example. I should have spoken up. It was a difficult position. I was already afraid that people would think I was gay, how much more so if I appeared to know something about gay people? Yet it was one of hundreds of acts of self-preservation. Some were less innocent.

Theological Selfishness

Even before I acknowledge my own queer identity, when I was trying desperately to label my attractions to women as simply feelings that had nothing to do with identity, I was still acutely aware of the lack of compassion in the church. I couldn’t get my conscience to shut up about it. I worried that we were wrong, not just about LGBT people, but about our approach to scripture.

One thing stuck with me from that class, and it disturbed me. In each discussion we had to find a strict biblical argument to justify unjust laws, such as those about slavery. It was implicit that our goal was to show that unjust laws were accommodations to move people in the right direction, even if the laws didn’t get them all the way there.

We used a small arsenal of theological tools to accomplish this, but one argument that was never used was simple human compassion. No one ever said that slavery was wrong because it hurts people and is incompatible with a loving God. We seemed to be missing the forest for the trees.

Why were we all Christian in the first place if it wasn’t for the teachings of Jesus to have love for all? It bothered me. The whole thing bothered me. Why did we care more about these tools than we did about people?

But I still wanted a seat at this table. I’d worked so hard to be here. In in my selfishness I labeled these pricks of conscience “doubt.” This turned out to be a useful label for dismissing compassion.

Looking back it’s clear that those things that became unquestionable in my mind turned out to be all the things it was most convenient for me not to question. Those questions could cost me any chance at a job. Later when I was hired as a pastor, they could quickly get me dismissed.

If I paid too much attention to the wrong hurting people, the one’s the church was uncomfortable talking about, and if I cared about them too much, spoke about them too much, or even changed the way I thought about what behaviors are and aren’t sinful, I would be putting myself at risk. The loss could be devastating.

Spiritual Growth

So I didn’t question. Now that I have stepped forward, now that I have lost all those things, I can see my former doubts for what they were. Selfishness. Plain, simple, naked, selfishness. It caused me to abandon the ones Christ cared for the most all the while calling myself a Christian minister. I got so much out of hanging out with the 99 sheep that were never lost that I didn’t care about the 1 sheep we were not only leaving behind, but banishing from our midst.

The collective behaviors of the ministers and leaders of churches, of which I was one, are causing more suffering than I cared to admit. I was also far more culpable than I let myself believe. It’s easy in large organizations to disperse the guilt to everyone but yourself, thinking you’re better, you’re different, you’re balanced and reasonable.

The true extent of my knowledge and compassion was that I sometimes felt guilty, and in my attempts at better understanding I had read two books on the subject. They were both non-affirming opposed. How I could be so selfish? The answer is terribly simple. I wanted to belong.

Already, I have had people dismiss my views on same-sex relationships because of my own orientation. The accusation is that I’m selfish. I just want to do what I want to do. I’m sure I am many things, and I’m sure I have lots of ways I need to grow, but affirming my sexuality and the sexuality of other LGBT people is a sign of spiritual growth, and doing so was not a selfish act.

Losing my career, risking loss of family, testing every relationships that has sustained me from my childhood, and becoming an outsider in the church I’ve spent my life serving was the cost I paid. I paid it gladly because I saw I pure vision of God, the gospel, and compassion. It gave me great joy, enough to sell all I had to attain it. It was not selfishness. Selfishness kept me in the closet for years, and it was compassion that finally brought me out.