Of burning bushes and the fires of hell

When I first came out as bisexual, I asked the only gay friend I knew for sure was gay to meet me at a bookstore cafe so we could talk.

He had just recently preached in our little ecumenical faith community on the text from Galatians that says “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female,” and he added “gay nor straight” before saying, “but all are one in Christ.”

It was a brilliant move, breathtaking, the kind of ballsy prophetic proclamation from the pulpit that in another setting could have prompted outrage. Maybe it did behind the scenes, I’m not sure. But I loved him for it.

I also loved him for his tenderness in praying over me, the way he would listen with wet eyes when I came at the end of the service asking him to be with me in my need for God. I loved him for his humility and reverence as he handed me the torn bread or extended the cup of wine, the way he made me feel sacred.

I loved his courage to show up in ecclesial space and be exactly who he was, without apology. I knew it hadn’t always been this way, that he had his own story of wrestling and pain and getting to courage. But I wasn’t privy to that. By the time he crossed my path, he was out and bold about it.

He changed me.

I had held a traditional Christian view of the sinfulness of homosexuality my whole life to that point. When I was 20, I had a failed attempt at coming out to my youth minister, who insisted I wasn’t bisexual and that therefore my agony over my condemnation to hell wasn’t warranted.

But I knew he was wrong and I still believed that hell was in the cards for me. I held that secret close, because the only thing worse than going to hell is everyone you know and love knowing that you’re going to hell. I performed heaven and holy on their terms in all the ways I knew how, thinking I’d probably take my secrets to the grave.

My gay friend was the first time I could no longer reconcile the real body and blood human person before me with the theological beliefs I’d been taught. Because of a lifetime of reading the bible a certain way and all the social and ecclesial structures that supported that, I couldn’t experience goodness and belovedness within myself enough to challenge the narrative that non-heterosexual people go to hell. I couldn’t see in myself a beauty or a glory.

If God were to reject me on the basis of orientation, I would be like the smitten (in all senses) lover who becomes obsessed with the one who has denied her. Unrequited love was my spiritual practice.

But I could see the holy in him. I undeniably experienced Christ in him. Presiding at the table, he had a luminous quality. It was as if the table became the mount of transfiguration, and there with him were Christ, Moses, Elijah, and all the saints. I was seeing in him for the first time someone who was gay and also beautiful, also beloved, also good, also holy.

For a gay man to stand in persona Christi, in the person of Christ, for a gay man to bless the bread and cup and offer it, and for that bread and wine which represents both the body of Christ and the church body to also be the gay body and blood I eat – this was nothing less than revolution.

He was a burning bush, Christ flaming out, and I stepped aside to look closer. These weren’t the fires of hell, but glory – God present and holy and alive, burning in him but not consuming. I wanted to be near the warmth and light. I wanted Christ to be this way within me.

So we met at the bookstore and I told him my truth, with red face and tears in the eyes and a lot of trembling. Before we left, he hugged me and said, “remember, this is a part of you, but Christ is your life.”

It wasn’t an immediate change. I didn’t shift from fundamentalist to progressive overnight. That path has been long and complicated, a conversion in increments.

It has meant a lot of therapy, and thankfully a long stint with a therapist who is a gay married man himself, one of the most beautiful human beings I’ve met. It meant interrogating the scriptures and an expensive and circuitous education that helped me think through the theological factors in play.

It looked like getting out of the church tradition I was raised in because as a divorced bisexual woman called to ministry, there wasn’t much left for me there.

I spent a season in the Episcopal church before my divinity school field placements. There, I knew I was welcome and allowed to do anything God called me to. What a tremendous gift.  I then moved toward the mainlines and ordination in the Methodist church, just to realize I would not be welcome to serve there as I am.

It meant joining a progressive Mennonite church at the exact moment the pastor was having his credentials stripped for officiating a lesbian wedding, and all the ways that felt like suddenly being in deep water to do so much of the hard internal work. It was the first church I ever worshiped in where everyone was free to be open about their orientation.

It meant finding myself in not one, but two communities here in Houston where all are welcomed. One of these seats me regularly at a table with trans folks. And meeting drag queens at church functions is now the norm. In the beginning, this was a definite stretch for me, but in time has become less alarming.

The other community is United Methodist, with a courageous pastor who planted this church with a foremost commitment to full inclusion. And later this week, the denomination as a worldwide entity will meet to figure out what to do with LGBTQ+ folks in the church – marrying, ordaining, and so on. And our church, which is a large percentage of non-hetero folks who have been at some point in the past ostracized from church, but now have dared to return, will navigate the decision from on high together.

I don’t often talk about my own orientation. For one thing, being bi and more fluid in my orientation while also being cis-gendered means I’m sometimes less understood than someone who identifies as L or G or Q in the acronym. (Maybe I’m just confused, someone has suggested. Or maybe there’s “hetero hope” for me yet. I’m perplexing at best.) And on many days, my more compelling attractions are still to men.

I dread the questions about whether I was born this way or became this way. I fear being accused of having a “gay agenda” which would leave me being dismissed single-handedly. I fear being labeled a child molester or the hundreds of other things that can go wrong when people believe the anti-gay propaganda machine. I fear being reduced to this one thing about who I am, to the exclusion of every other thing.

I’m also a deeply private person. I don’t want prying questions and nor do I want deafening silences, and I don’t want to be the one teaching those in my life how to be in relationship with me now that they know. It’s not a secret and this post isn’t a coming out; I’ve admitted my bisexuality in public space before, but it’s just not a frequent topic of conversation.

Yet more and more, it feels like it should be – like maybe it’s crucial to on occasion be more open about all of me, because I’m working hard to live free of shame. And while I can see beauty and goodness and glory burning in those around me, the truth is that it’s still hella difficult to experience that within myself. I don’t fear an exterior end-of-time hell anymore, for me or anyone else. But the truth is that sometimes I live a certain kind of hell within myself as I wrestle bouts of self-rejection and so on.

But on a deeper level, the truth is that change and transformation rarely come through theological arguments, the same way twitter wars regularly change political views.

What ultimately moves others to a new way of seeing is an encounter with someone close who identifies in this way, and the cognitive dissonance between the overwhelming love felt for them and fiery visions of hell. Could God, who created all, hate God’s creatures?

The way this happens is we who are non-hetero daring to stand in persona Christi, at a priestly juncture between human and divine, finding the courage to be a burning bush at the edge of the wilderness, one through whom God speaks, hoping others might turn aside.

 

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