Holding the Tension: Living Faithfully Even When We Fail

I gave this talk at the Revoice conference on October 8, 2021, in Dallas, Texas. Visit www.Revoice.us to learn more about Revoice and the conference.

Good morning! For those who may not know me, my name is Gregg Webb. Im the first of four Greg(g)’s speaking at Revoice this year so get excited! This is my fourth Revoice and I am overjoyed to be here with you all today. You likely will see me running around with my camera snapping photos throughout this weekend. Please don’t hesitate to say hey! I have been around Side-B spaces for close to a decade now and have been deeply honored to get to know so many of you over those years. During the time I’ve spent in various Side-B spaces I’ve often felt that I somehow wasn’t good enough to be Side-B, or that my convictions weren’t strong enough, especially when I compared myself to great Side-B thought leaders like Wesley Hill, Ron Belgau, Eve Tushnet, Nate Collins, and many others. There is a part of me that even feels that I don’t really belong here today speaking to you all, that I haven’t written enough, spoken enough, or been somehow good enough to stand up here as an example of what it means to be Side-B. The theme we were given for this first session was discipleship in the Church, which is not something I have felt I’ve been particularly good or faithful at. So today I want to talk to you not from some place of expertise, or especially great faithfulness, but from my own brokenness and messiness and offer you some of the same comfort and hope that has reassured me over the years. 

Photo Credit Eszter L. for Revoice

Growing up in the Eastern Orthodox Church there is a service called Matins or Orthros that is called to be prayed in the morning, especially in preparation for the eucharist. At the beginning of this service there are six psalms that are called to be read aloud. Those of us who grew up going to Matins, and often reading them aloud ourselves are quite familiar with these six psalms and find ourselves drawn back to them regularly. As I have been preparing for this time together today, I was drawn back to one of these six psalms, Psalm 38.

Psalm 38 is a penitential psalm, focusing on repentance, however what struck me about it for today, is the boldness the author speaks from that comes out of that repentance. 

But it is for you, O Lord, that I wait;
it is you, O Lord my God, who will answer.
For I pray, “Only do not let them rejoice over me,
those who boast against me when my foot slips.”
For I am ready to fall,
and my pain is ever with me.
I confess my iniquity;
I am sorry for my sin.
Those who are my foes without cause are mighty,
and many are those who hate me wrongfully.
Those who render me evil for good
are my adversaries because I follow after good.
Do not forsake me, O Lord;
O my God, do not be far from me;
make haste to help me,
O Lord, my salvation.

Psalm 38:15-22 NRSV

It can be easy to feel like a fraud when you struggle, doubt, and mess up as a Side-B Christian. Chastity, celibacy, faith, are already difficult, but when you add to that just how little support so many of us receive in our calling as Side-B people, the weight we carry can often trip us up.

We live in the midst of so much tension as Christian queer folks. On the one hand we affirm our commitment to Christ and pursue faithfulness to scripture and traditional teaching on sexuality. And on the other hand we also acknowledge and affirm that there is beauty and value in our experiences as sexual minorities and in our fellowship with one another. Neither of these life choices are praised by the majority of our surrounding culture both in and out of the church. I want to acknowledge just how difficult the space is that we inhabit and just name, that it’s no light burden that we carry.

This word from The Reverend Ames in Marilyn Robinson’s book Gilead comforts me.

There are two occasions when the sacred beauty of Creation becomes dazzlingly apparent, and they occur together. One is when we feel our mortal insufficiency to the world, and the other is when we feel the world’s mortal insufficiency to us. Augustine says the Lord loves each of us as an only child, and that has to be true. “He will wipe the tears from all faces.” It takes nothing from the loveliness of the verse to say that is exactly what will be required.

When I first started coming out to my friends and family, I would typically tell people that I struggled with same-sex attraction. At that time in my experience it was true. I really did struggle with the fact that I was primarily physically, romantically, and emotionally attracted to other men. This was a source itself of shame, grief and at times distress, especially as I thought about how my attractions impacted my relationship with God. As the years went by and I grew more and more open with others, I also started being more comfortable with saying that I was a celibate gay Christian, or a single gay Christian. At some point during that time it struck me that part of why saying that I “struggled with same-sex attraction” felt false, was because it was. It’s not that my attractions had gone away or my orientation changed. But, I no longer wrestled regularly with the attractions themselves. I still felt shame, stress, loneliness, and so many other difficult things, but it wasn’t related so directly to the fact that I was gay. Instead these struggles were more often than not, related to other external factors like singleness, finding my place as a single gay person within the Church, or doubts about my future. 

I don’t feel that it’s presumptuous of me to assume that many of you also wrestle with many of those same things. We all react to this stress, loneliness, pain, rejection, and weight in different ways. Sometimes we do better at finding ways to cope that are healthy and life-giving, but not always. When we do turn towards things that are not life giving to comfort us it can be easy to slide into the pit of shame and despair and feel like we’re unique in our sin and unhealthy patterns. I know when I turn to unhealthy coping habits I can feel like a fraud or a failure as a Side-B person. When our goal as Side-B christians is complete temperance of our heart and desires, it’s easy to fail at living up to that standard. 

We may struggle (somedays if we’re honest it may not be as much of a struggle as it probably should be) with despair, unhealthy alcohol use, porn, masturbation, seeking attention and connection in unhealthy places like Grindr or other corners of the internet, anger, doom scrolling, materialism, hookups, excessive video gaming and social media use, smoking, workaholism, and whatever other collection of things we as humans seek out to numb ourselves with.

I want to say to you, that you are OK. Our sin, or our lack of sin, does not change God’s response and love for us and his desire to see us pursue him more closely. As the psalmist says, “I confess my iniquity; I am sorry for my sin.” And likewise we are called to confess our sin to God, and in the proper context, to each other. Nothing good ever festers in the darkness and it’s incredibly valuable to allow light to be shed on our dark places with a trusted pastor, confessor, and friend. 

Confession is a terrifying thing but it is SO GOOD for my soul. In the Orthodox Church confession is a sacrament done between the penitent, witnessed by a priest, before God. It’s terrifying to sit in line, then walk up to the priest fully knowing that everything you’re about to say, you said only a few months ago. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat in fear that this would be the end of grace. That the priest would finally have had it with my quarterly litany of brokenness and say it’s all over. Christ and his church are done with you. But friends, that’s never happened and I don’t believe it ever will happen. Because God doesn’t work that way. Even if the priest in some horrid act of sin finally throws in the towel, I strive to trust and to know Christ will not.

Photo Credit Eszter L. for Revoice

But, having confessed those times when I have failed, I can boldly return again, and again to my calling, our calling and shared pursuit of faithfulness. We can affirm as the psalmist says, “All my longing is known to you, my sighing is not hidden from you.” God knows the weight we carry as Side-B folk and his grace is abundant. He is the faithful husband to us, His unfaithful wife. As He says through his prophet Hosea:

I will betroth you to Me forever;
Yes, I will betroth you to Me
In righteousness and justice,
In lovingkindness and mercy;
I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness,
And you shall know the LORD.

Hosea 2:19-20

Another shame trap we can fall into, especially as Side-B folks, is doubt. While doubt is not unique to Side-B believers, I think it can be especially challenging to speak about in some spaces. We are all here because in some way we affirm what we know scripture and tradition teach us about our sexuality and our longings. When we fall into doubt, or have seasons where it feels like we’re going through the motions, or don’t know if we always fully believe a Side-B sexual ethic we can feel like we’re a fraud or somehow not a “good” Side-B person. I want to say that it is OK to have doubts. 

I don’t think I’d be mistaken if I was to say that I believe most everyone in this room has days and periods where living up to our shared high calling seems like it’s too much, or an impossible task. I frequently struggle with the tension of showing grace for others, while also still calling myself to celibacy and chastity. Why do I remain, when so many of my friends have had a change in their convictions, or walked away from the faith altogether.

It’s easy to want to explain away as purely a moral failure, or simply throwing in the towel when friends move from Side-B to an affirming position or even leave the faith completely. From my experience walking with many of my dearest friends through that transition the change in conviction is real, and often the result of significant prayer and reflection. It’s challenging to my own faith and easy to give in to my own doubts when I see the genuine conscious change in my friend’s convictions. It’s not hard to wonder, will someday that be me, am I next?

Yet, my convictions remain and while emotionally I can find Side-A compelling, I have not found Side-A theological arguments compelling in a way that makes sense within my Orthodox tradition or in the broader context of scripture and church history. It is crucial for me though, even while i maintain and continue to grow my deep friendships with my dear Side-A friends, that I continue to lean into my Side-B friends and supportive community when I wrestle with doubt and to not be too afraid to share that struggle with those around me who both get the struggle, and also share my convictions. 

Our struggles as Side-B people, are compounded by the fact that what we are trying to do is so deeply unpopular with our surrounding cultures, both Christian, and secular. Our surrounding secular culture preaches a gospel of self actualization, and pleasure, with the self and my desires as most the dominant narrative for our lives. Sex and romance are pushed as the greatest path towards self fulfillment everywhere we look. We have so much to be grateful for as our culture has come a long way in supporting LGBT folk. While there has been a lot of progress for gay civil rights and broader cultural acceptance, that we as Side-B people can be thankful for, in many ways it has only increased the place of tension we exist in. Increasingly, the broader gay community, as it’s gained acceptance has fallen into the same trap as straight culture by centering sex, and romance as tantamount to self fulfillment. 

The church also has fallen easily into the same traps as secular culture. Either moving to fully embrace gay marriage and adopting a fully affirming position quickly labeling a Side-B perspective as equally homophobic as the latest incarnation of ex-gay theology. Or in the other direction by reacting against affirming theology by becoming more reactive and scared of the gay people in the pews. Gay and trans people who are now seen as less of a threat to the children, and more perceived as a threat against orthodoxy, or more often, a threat against the status quo in which others hold power.. 

It’s easy to feel like we, as Side-B people, need to be perfect to avoid those in positions of power within the church from finding a hole in our armor and using it against us. Knowing those who wish us harm, are stalking our social media accounts, and monitoring every word we’ve ever written or Tweeted, can create the feeling that if we somehow are more perfect we will take away their ammo and earn their acceptance. If we demonstrate perfection maybe, just maybe, they’ll think it’s OK that we’re gay. Just as long as we’re perfect.

Sadly, I fear that the truth that has played out over, and over, and over again, is that we will never be respectable enough. No matter how hard we may try to be perfect, simply by virtue of being sexual minorities we are deemed not enough. Fraught and often pointless fights over identity language, and denominational statements about sexuality are regular reminders that no matter how respectable we may be, we’re still too gay by our mere existance.

As we talk about repentance for our personal sins and failures, it is important to remember that the churches we exist in are also called to repentance. You cannot condemn us for every falter or failure, when you fail to make it easier to simply exist. With greater support we will have a better chance at fully living up to the very standards for acceptance that have been set for us. So many, however, set up sexual minorities for failure by only calling out when we fall short or falter, but do little to remove the weight of the heavy burdens that can so easily drive us to isolation and shame, putting us back in prime territory for all that festers in that shame. 

Here, the psalmist has something to say in verse 20 of Psalm 38, when he says that “Those who render me evil for good are my adversaries because I follow after good.” Friends, know that what we are following after is GOOD. Our struggles, as difficult and heavy as they are, are known to God. Our doubts, failures, and pain are seen by Him and we can have confidence to know that.

Hear here the words of Christ in Matthew 11 as comfort.

“I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and have revealed them to babes. Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in Your sight. All things have been delivered to Me by My Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him. Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”

Matthew 11:25-30 NKJV

The Rev. Tish Warren in her recent book Prayer in the Night, offers those, who like myself are weary, some words of comfort inspired by these verses. “Jesus calls the weary not to follow their own way—that would be a heavy yoke indeed—but to submit to him and learn from him, to take on his yoke.” And a bit later she writes, “He calls us to an easy yoke, but he also calls us to take up our cross. How can the same person call us to both an easy yoke and a cross? Jesus’ yoke is light not because he promises ease or success, but because he promises to bear our burdens with us. He promises to shoulder our load.”

At no point is Jesus going to get tired of us or our needs and burdens. That we would somehow reach a limit on grace, or finally fall in a way that truly removes us from forgiveness and restoration. As God speaking to the apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 9, reminds us, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.”

Photo Credit Gregg W. for Revoice

Friends, we are not alone. None of us are alone. Just look around you today and take great comfort that almost everyone in this room knows what your struggle is like and is here for you together, at the foot of the Cross. If you do not have community, please connect with people here today, or through the opportunities available to those if you’re participating online. It is times like this when we can gather together as friends walking together along the same path manifest how we are not alone. My prayer and hope for each of you here today as you return home, is that you take with you this comfort through renewed friendships, and hopefully some new ones.

While preparing for my talk today, I went back over the final chapter of the late Orthodox priest and theologian Fr. Thomas Hopko’s small book on same-sex attraction. He wrote this well over 10 years ago but reading it again his words still strike me and fill me with comfort today. Thank you for time together here today. I’ll end my talk today with his words which are largely taken directly from scripture.

Orthodox Christians believe every human being is called to conquer humanity’s enemy through God’s power. They believe this is possible through Christ, who is Himself “the power of God” that conquers (1 Cor. 1:24). Christians consciously avail themselves of God’s power in Christ by being crucified to the world with Jesus and by being raised with Him to “newness of life” (Gal. 6:14; Rom. 6:3–4). They are convinced that this is all God wants of them and for them. Their only prayer, therefore, is Christ’s own: “Abba, Father, all things are possible for You. Take this cup away from Me; nevertheless, not what I will, but what You will” (Mark 14:36). Orthodox Christians “long for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the age to come” (Nicene Creed). They expect to rejoice forever with all who have followed God’s Word, however they have come to know it and do it. They are convinced that all who are saved, however God provides for that wonder to be, will know that they have been saved by the broken body and spilled blood of Jesus. Whoever they are, they will be those who have known how “wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked” they were on this earth, and how desperately in need they were of salvation and healing. They will be people from all tribes and nations “who come out of the great tribulation” and “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb,” perhaps not even knowing this is what they were doing when they fought their sinful passions and endured their afflictions on earth for the sake of love, truth, and righteousness (Rev. 3:17; 7:11–14). They will enter the Lamb’s bridal chamber and partake of His marriage supper as “virgins” (Rev. 14:1–5). They will be the Lamb’s “wife” in the unending age when “marrying and being given in marriage” will be no more. In the new heaven and new earth of God’s new creation in Christ, who makes all things new, all who love Divine Love will be one with Him in a communion of love in the Holy Spirit that grows fuller, deeper, and ever more glorious for all eternity.

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!”
And let him who hears say, “Come!” (Rev. 22:17) Amen.

Even so, come, Lord Jesus! (Rev. 22:20)

And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us an understanding, that we may know Him who is true; and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life. Little children, keep yourselves from idols. Amen. (1 John 5:20–21)

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