As we continue our yearlong series on Sexuality and The Church, we will be working our way through Wesley Hill’s short book, Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality, beginning today.
Wesley’s book is meant to both complement and contrast Justin Lee’s book, Torn: Rescuing the Gospel From the Gays-vs-Christians Debate, which served as a starting point for our discussion. Both Justin and Wesley are gay, but whereas Justin concluded that a relationship with another man could be blessed by God, Wesley has chosen celibacy. I picked these two books because I think Justin and Wesley represent the very best in civil, gracious, and loving disagreement on this issue…which for them is not a mere issue, but a deeply personal journey with deeply personal implications.
Today we will discuss the introduction and prologue to Washed and Waiting, which introduces us to Wesley and his story.
Wesley begins his story like this:
“By the time I started high school, two things had become clear to me. One was that I was a Christian. My parents had raised me to be a believer in Jesus, and as I moved toward independence from my family, I knew that I wanted to remain one—that I wanted to trust, love, and obey Christ, who had been crucified and raised from the dead ‘for us and for our salvation,’ as the creed puts it. The second thing was that I was gay. For as long as I could remember, I had been drawn, even as a child, to other males in some vaguely confusing way, and after puberty, I had come to realize that I had a steady, strong, unremitting, exclusive sexual attraction to persons of the same sex.” (p. 13)
“Since that time of self-discovery,” he says, “I have struggled week in and week out to know how to live faithfully as a Christian who experiences same-sex attraction.”
In this sense, Wesley’s story is very much like Justin’s. Both grew up in Christian homes. Both are committed followers of Jesus. Both are gay. But whereas Justin was eventually able to reconcile his sexuality with his faith and with Scripture in such a way that has left open the possibility for a relationship with a man in his future, Wesley says that “my own story, by contrast, is a story of feeling spiritually hindered rather than helped by my homosexuality. Another way to say it would be to observe that my story testifies to the truth of the position the Christian church has held with almost total unanimity throughout the centuries—namely, that homosexuality was not God’s original creative intention for humanity, that it is, on the contrary, a tragic sign of human nature and relationships being fractured by sin, and therefore that homosexual practice goes against God’s express will for all human beings, especially those who trust in Christ.” (p. 15)
Still, in spite of his conviction that homosexual practice is against God’s will, Wesley says he has not been able to change his orientation.
“Like Paul,” he says, “I have prayed fervently, desperately, tearfully on multiple occasions for God to take away this ‘thorn in my flesh,” but a change in orientation, Wesley says, has not been a part of his experience “nor has it been the experience of many gay and lesbian Christians who are silently struggling to remain faithful as they worship and serve with us, day after day, in the fellowship of the church.” (p. 15)
And so his book is intended primarily for Christians who are “already convinced that their discipleship to Jesus necessarily commits them to the demanding, costly obedience of choosing not to nurture their homosexual desires,” but also to the Church at large as it seeks to make a place for those Christians.
In the introduction, Wesley acknowledges that, as a young adult (in his late twenties upon the publication of his book), he is still growing in his understanding of Christian discipleship and human sexuality and says, “there are still avenues of possible healing that I want to explore,” that he is very much “in process” when it comes to the journey of understanding how his faith and sexuality relate to one another. “It is my prayer that God may use the reflections in this book to help others live faithfully before him until the time when he makes all things new,” he writes. “Until then we wait in hope (Romans 8:25), washed clean by his Son and Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:11).
The prologue invites us further into Wesley’s personal story. As with Torn, this portion of the book is especially important to read because it challenges a lot of assumptions Christians have about homosexuality---that it always involves a deliberate “choice,” that it cannot manifest itself in Christian homes and communities, that it is the result of sexual abuse or bad parenting, etc.
Like Justin, Wesley was a highly invested in his faith, even at an early age. In high school he was reading C.S. Lewis, Frederick Buechner, J.I. Packer, Henri Nouwen, and John Piper.
“Birdlike, I was testing my wings, coming of age. But at the same time that I was learning to engage with God as a hungry , growing young Christian, the realization dawned on me like a dead weight sinking in my stomach that no amount of spiritual growth seemed to have any effect on my sexual preference…There was nothing, it felt, chosen or intentional about my being gay. It seemed more like noticing the blueness of my eyes than deciding I would take up skiing. There was never an option –‘Do you want to be gay?’ ‘Yes, I do, please.’ It was a gradual coming to terms, not a conscious resolution.” (p. 29)
Wesley kept his same-sex attraction a secret—from his parents, from his friends, from his pastors. He says his ears would perk up when he heard James Dobson talking about homosexuality on the radio, but the only response from famous Christian leaders centered around reparative therapy, which required “correcting” mistakes made by bad parenting or from sexual abuse in the past. But, like Justin, Wesley had a good relationship with his parents and did not have a history with abuse.
When Wesley went to Wheaton College, his horizons expanded and he grew even more interested in nurturing his faith and practicing spiritual disciplines. During this time, Wesley realized that simply ignoring his sexual orientation would not lead to redemption, so he worked up the courage to talk with a Wheaton professor about his same-sex attraction.
One thing I found really encouraging about Wesley’s story is that most of the pastors and professors in his life appear to have responded to his coming out with grace and kindness rather than condemnation. Each encouraged him to pursue some kind of “healing”—the wisdom of which can be debated—but they did so without legalism, fear, or anger, and with what appears to be genuine love for Wesley. I’m hoping this indicates that strides have been made within the Christian community regarding how to respond when a friend or loved one comes out. (Wesley does not write about coming out to his parents, so I’m not sure how that conversation went.)
Wesley also opened up to a pastor who Wesley says “spent many hours trying to convince me that…my homosexual temptations weren’t any more (or less) tragic than temptations to greed, pride, or anger that Christians face on a daily basis.” (p. 44) The pastor pointed Wesley to a statement from All Souls Church in London, which reads:
We also wish warmly to affirm those sisters and brothers, already in membership with orthodox churches, who—while experiencing same-sex desires and feelings—nevertheless battle with the rest of us, in repentance and faith, for a lifestyle that affirms marriage [between a man and woman] and celibacy as the two given norms for sexual expression. There is room for every kind of background and past sinful experience among members of Christ’s flock as we learn the way of repentance and renewed lives, for Such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God (1 Corinthians 6:11). This is true inclusivity.”
The pastor encouraged Justin to be a part of a community like that, where “it’s about the church being the church, as we all struggle toward wholeness.”
Wesley’s pastor also encouraged him not to avoid building friendships out of fear of being attracted to his male friends. This proved to be important, life-giving advice, as Wesley began growing in his friendships, even sharing his secret…which was becoming less of a secret…with some of his closest friends.
Again, the response Wesley received was warm and caring—which I realize is not the case for every LGBT Christian who shares their story with their church. But because of this, Wesley strongly encourages other gay Christians to be honest about their experience and to find older, wiser Christians who can mentor them as they work through questions related to their sexuality.
“I began to learn to wrestle with homosexuality in community,” he writes, “over many late-night cups of coffee and tear-soaked, face-on-the-floor times of prayer with members of my church.” (p. 48).
I am so glad that Wesley found the Church to be a safe place to do this.
Wesley concludes his introduction with this: “When God acts climactically to reclaim the world and raise our dead bodies from the grave, there will be no more homosexuality. But until then, we hope for what we do not see. Washed and waiting. That is my life—my identity as one who is forgiven and spiritually cleansed and my struggle as one who perseveres with a frustrating thorn in the flesh, looking forward to what God has promised to do.” (p. 50)
Reading Wesley’s story, I am both grateful by his honesty and impressed by his strong commitment to his faith. You can tell that this a guy who thinks deeply about what it means to be a Christian and cares profoundly about living a life that glorifies God. I mean, who reads Frederick Buechner in ninth grade?!
As I mentioned before, I am also struck by the loving responses of Wesley’s pastors and mentors. That speaks well of their character, well even of the Wheaton community, and well of some of the progress that’s being made within the evangelical church. (I’d be interested to hear from other LGBT folks who may have had similar…or perhaps radically different…experiences at Wheaton.)
But finally, I confess I felt a little sad reading about Wesley’s deep desire for “healing.” That sort of language conveys the idea that there is something broken about him, something wrong, something to be fixed. And I guess I’m not sure that I see homosexuality that way anymore. I was a little surprised, in fact, by how often I winced at that sort of language. I can’t imagine what it would be like to believe that something like my sexual orientation - something so intrinsic, so central to my being - was somehow corrupted and yet utterly beyond my ability to change.
Next week, we will examine Part 1 of Washed and Waiting, in which Wesley explains why his convictions related to Scripture and the example of Christ have led him to pursue celibacy within the Christian community.
Questions for Discussion
What struck you about Wesley’s story? What did you find encouraging or discouraging?
Does your faith community have a similar statement regarding sexuality as All Souls Church? What do you think about that position?
Do you react to language about brokenness and healing in the context of homosexuality positively or negatively, and why do you think that is?
As always, please keep the conversation civil. I’ll delete comments that turn to personal attacks. Thanks for your input!
© 2013 All rights reserved.
Copying and republishing this article on other Web sites without written permission is prohibited.