To Grieve With Those Who Grieve

As I’ve told my personal story of failure and anguish within Side B (the traditional perspective on gay marriage and sexuality), and communicated with others who share similar experiences, a troubling trend has emerged.

Too often, when gay people tell stories of anguish, failure, and despair within Side B, both the Side B gay community and the wider traditional church have a habit of responding as aloof physicians. The response is often a simple prescription (you need to develop greater spiritual disciplines, cultivate deeper and more intimate friendships, find a spiritual director, or more rightly order your understanding of love, friendship and intimacy) or a swift diagnosis of what went wrong and how it could have been better, (you lacked profound friendship, you had a misplaced understanding of love and relationship that put too much emphasis on the romantic, you didn’t properly develop spiritual disciplines.) Or, we are offered a homily on how we are all called to a life of denial and suffering, and gay people are no different, so we had best buckle up.

It feels like being dissected and discussed by detached men of science as you are spread out, naked and vulnerable, on the operating table. We don’t need doctors in that moment. We don’t need more diagnoses of what we did right or wrong, or how we are theologically misguided. We need humanity.

Because, the truth is, those of us who have been crushed under the weight of Side B already know the prescriptions. We’ve heard them, learned them and, to the best of our ability, walked them. Sometimes for years. We don’t always know why we were so devastated, driven to despair and crushed by the traditional ethic. Our best efforts weren’t enough to save us from devastating defeat or crushing depression, and we often struggle with guilt, shame and confusion because of that fact. We grow weary of searching for the spiritual remedy, that Awesome Group of Friends, or that spiritual discipline that will make life less one of teetering on the edge of constant despair, promiscuity and loneliness and more one of sustainable vocation.

To be told, then, that all that went wrong was a misplaced understanding of love, or a failure to cultivate great friendships, or a failure to sufficiently walk through a spiritual discipline – when we have fought to practice such disciplines a million times before – feels horribly defeating. It feels belittling, it feels shaming, and it hurts.

When you are confronted with someone who has hit the wall and can go no further as a celibate person, please don’t be a dispenser of wisdom, a theological library, a physician to diagnose what is disordered in his perception, relationships, heart, or mind. We reached such brokenness in the first place because, for some inexplicable reason, the prescriptions that so many people are so convinced should solve the problem fell far too short. We don’t need doctors in that moment.

Instead, be a friend. Admit you don’t have all the answers. Hold their hand and be with them in their brokenness. Reassure them that you love them no matter what. Be comfortable with silence, and rest in dissonance.

Listen, I get it. When we are confronted with challenging stories and pain – especially stories and pain that directly challenge our own securities, vulnerabilities, and worldviews – we want to have clear answers. We want to say what went wrong and why. We want to chart a clear course out of those chaotic, unhappy waters back to dry ground where our basic securities aren’t being pulled and stretched. I say “we” because I struggle with that too – it’s human nature. We don’t diagnose and dissect because we are bad, malevolent people, but because we are human beings full of insecurities and fears.  It is understandable, forgivable, and we will never relate to others perfectly. But we have to try.

Perhaps we should all try our best to follow Sarah Bessey’s wise words:

How about this? How about when someone is before us, a real, live person, suffering, we be a person?

Don’t be a defender of an institution. Don’t be an office. Don’t be a title. Don’t be a minimizer, a gloss-over-er, a down-player. Don’t be an oracle or an activist. Don’t be a self-help manual or an encyclopaedia or a concordance or a few tactical probing questions to steer the conversation. Don’t be the fault-finder. Don’t be a hero or a cop or a gatekeeper. Don’t be “God works all things for good.” And don’t be “pray harder,” or “more faith-ier.”

Don’t be the voice of their worst fears and accusations. Don’t be the shame-er.

Instead, when we are privileged to be present as someone’s heart is breaking open with pain and longing and doubt and questions and terror and loss and grief and love and hope and fear, before our very eyes, as they are in the midst of wrestling with God and it’s tangible and not fixed by seven-steps-to-a-better-life-and-whiter-teeth, how about this?

How about we be a freaking person, right alongside of them?

How about we hold them? How about we say that it sucks, and it’s not fair? How about we remember our own humanity for once? How about we say we’re sorry, admit we don’t really understand? How about we become comfortable with silence? How about we become the one that can listen without judgement, the one that can take it without being shocked and affronted and offended by honesty? How about we say we love them?

How about we say that we’re here and then we prove it? How about we learn how to hold hands, to hug, to sit beside, to write hand written letters, to bring meals, to baby sit, to do laundry, to make phone calls, to meet for coffee, to pray and pray and pray in secret? There is plenty of time for talking it through, figuring it out together, seeking solutions, there is probably even time for fixing each other.

But in that moment, when they are feeling their humanity so acutely or they have shown themselves to be a regular person like the rest of us, how about we surround them with the grace of being seen, being heard, and simply being loved?

How about we simply fall in step, alongside, and we walk each other home in that moment?

It’s not a sin to be human. But part of me wonders if it might not be a bit of one to deny our humanity.

One of my deepest prayers for myself and the Church is that we will be less a community of aloof physicians, and more a community of abiding healers. That we will lay aside our prescriptions, answers and formulas and become mourners, grievers and servants. That we will be hospitable to people’s brokenness. That we will cast away our text books and take up cooking, hugging, and writing love letters instead. That we will reach a place where we finally see, as a community, that saying “I don’t know, but I love you anyway” is not a sign of defeat, but instead an act of strength and profound love.

16 responses to “To Grieve With Those Who Grieve

  1. I agree with this so wholeheartedly – thank you for articulating this, because I often struggle to do so. Sending you a hug. Hope we can play piano duets and have a cup of tea and a good deep talk about these things one day!

  2. Reminds me of Job’s friends in the Old Testament. They have so much to say about who’s fault it is but all they really needed to do was to be there for the guy.

  3. Speaking as someone who was in a very similar boat with ex-gay therapy, I found that after awhile I had the sensation that I was a Gnostic disciple always trying to find the secret prayer, discipline or friendship that would somehow allow me to, at least, live up to the ethic that the group required of me. There was the tiny, inner group of leaders who seemed to have found this secret knowledge, and we all paid large sums of money and invested untold hours of our time listening to them and trying to understand how they had managed something that felt so impossible and even unnatural for us. I was just never able to live according to their definition of chaste. To top it all off I found out that, in the end, neither had most of them.

    • Totally resonate with this. I’ve learned to be wary anytime something is presented as “a secret.” Secret fields, golden arrows, magic apples…all the stuff of myth. A fantasy of Jesus can enter a myth I create, but not the real Jesus. Jesus is real and lives in the same real world I do–the world where the reality is that I’m gay. And so I seek his presence in that reality instead of the promise of his presence in a myth.

  4. Stephen,

    I’ve always treasured your honesty. :) I’m in full support of embracing ones humanity before their sin/not-sin/perception of sin. Confessionally I’m really bad at it but I really, really do want to learn how to look past theology into the heart.

    At the same time, I feel like there’s an intrinsic distrust by the side A community of any side B person who ‘comes along side them.’ I KNOW for a fact there are people who only offer a hand of friendship as a way to manipulate you back into the ethic. There ARE people so legalistic that they only engage in conversation with you to get you back on their side. Those are the ones who induce shame and pain without a surgeons precision.

    But for those who really do care, I fear we will be shunned, misunderstood, and distrusted just because of our theology. We’re not trying to ‘love you back’ so we feel better about ourselves. We want to grieve with you. We want to see your humanity.

    But because the traditional ethic is viewed as inherently destructive, I’m just afraid any side B hand of empathy will be knocked away. There are a few of us who are dying to know you, Stephen, as a person, not as a side-B-gone-wrong, but I’m so scared no side A person will be able to see that. Or trust it.

    • I appreciate that there is some risk for you, some potential for hurt. I don’t want to minimize that. But historically, the scales have been tipped in your favour, compared to those outliers in the Christian community. Is it not fair to say that you can more easily afford that risk?

      • Drew, I just remembered I was going to put some tangent in my original comment as a nod toward the ‘scales tipped in my favor’ but forgot. Thanks for reminding me. :)

        I’m not trying to play the victim here, I promise. I know the traditional ethic can cause damage. I tread carefully around these parts. But I want to know that in the midst of grace and forgiveness there’s some grace and patience with us too, as we don’t often know what we’re doing, or if we’re hurting you intrinsically, etc etc.

    • Mary –

      First, we’ve got to get away from the “side” language. It’s not helping our public conversation (I understand that you are simply using the language of the original post). There is a spectrum of Christian belief about homosexuality that runs from totally exclusive to totally inclusive. Using “sides” forces us into a polarized discussion.

      Second, as a man who is both Christian and gay, I’m far less trusting of anyone who will not cop to the harm that the traditional theology has done. You may believe that the suffering of gay people is what God requires, but you can’t dismiss the pain inherent in the conservative ethic. It’s impossible for you to empathize unless you recognize the immense suffering that flows from the belief itself.

      • Ford, Im truly just using the side language for convenience. It’s just shorthand and easier to read than saying ‘those who for the most part believe God can bless homosexual unions.’ And vice versa. I don’t usually adhere to polarizations either as descriptors but for the sake of readability, people know what I mean when I say it.

        Secondly, I’ve tried to own the times I’ve done that damage, shaming people into adhering to the traditional ethic to soothe my own insecurities and fears. I don’t doubt some of the detrimental ways I’ve pushed theology on those who didn’t need it. (Whether the ethic itself is damaging, well that’s another conversation altogether.)

        But I’m trying to not do that. And I wouldn’t trust anyone who didn’t own up to their failures either. But like I said to Drew, we need grace and patience too, not as a means to be ‘superior’ but because we are human too.

      • Mary –

        I sincerely appreciate your openness to examining your own shortcomings. I wasn’t intending to comment on your personal experience at all. I’m not casting aspersions.

        My point is that the conservative theology about homosexuality causes suffering. It’s not just the way people sometimes live into that belief that causes hurt, it is the belief itself.

        If you are going to truly empathize with a person who is gay and struggling to find their faithful way forward, you are going to have to understand that a part of the distress they are experiencing is the result of the conservative theology itself. You must be willing to understand that “yes, the traditional beliefs I hold require the suffering of gay people.”

    • Obviously, this topic is loaded one for many of us and conversations can quickly get heated. I appreciate your courage in wandering into a what can be an emotional mine field, and your sensitivity. For intellectual reasons alone I don’t think that I would be a Christian today but the thoughtful discourse of those like yourself might have had me hanging around a little longer.

  5. This is a wonderful perspective. Thank you for sharing it on our PFLAG Tri-Cities’ Facebook Page. Would you mide if we shared this article on our website (www.pflagtricities.org)?
    -Alexander

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