This summer here at Thinking Through Christianity, I’ve decided to talk a bit about the reasons I still believe despite the flight from Christianity by those of my generation who are part of the “exvangelical” movement. I’ve read their objections to Christianity. I’ve considered the reasons to leave the faith and I’ve stayed. I still believe.
I’m concluding this series on why I still believe in an unlikely place: with the testimony of the LGBTQ Christians who have strengthened my faith. Why LGBTQ Christians? Well, their stories of the Christian faith have often ended with them leaving the church or with their being kicked out of it altogether. When I hear some of them say that they are still Christians, I think there must be a good reason for that belief. Something bigger must be drawing them back. Take this story from singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile, for example.
In Brandi Carlile’s new memoir, Broken Horses, she relates the story of how she was denied baptism as a teenager in a Southern Baptist Church because she was openly gay. In a recent interview with Brené Brown, they discuss the humiliation of Carlile having gathered all her friends and family around her to see her get baptized only to be refused. Brené asks Brandi if that moment felt “like a betrayal,” and here is how Brandi responds:
“…no one other than me saw his…face. No one other than me saw that he was wrestling with his own complicated indoctrination and his own shame and his own fear of telling me that. And there was nothing arrogant or legalistic about it, it was a hard day for both of us. And I don’t know who he is now, but I don’t think I felt betrayed, I think I just felt rejected.”
I first heard these words while driving to work, and the sheer understanding and forgiveness in Brandi’s voice sent tears streaming down my cheeks as I drove. Here was someone who had every reason to be angry at the church, and at this pastor in particular, and instead, she was modeling Christ-like forgiveness: “forgive them father, for they know not what they do.”
Brandi speaks more about this experience on her website, where she has written a formal letter of forgiveness to the pastor, which reads, in part:
“I’d like you to know that I still love you and that I understand we’re all on a journey together, trying our best to walk through the world with honor and dignity – but what I want you to know most of all is that you did not damage my faith. Not in god, not in humanity and not in myself. […] You’ve helped far more people than you’ve hurt and you helped me too.”
Brandi Carlile and I happen to be in the same “elder Millennial” generation, and, like her, I was raised in Southern Baptist Churches. So I know what she’s talking about; I’ve seen similar situations play out with my friends. One of the reasons I still believe is that if those who have been hurt and rejected by the church can still believe, then I can too.
One of the reasons I believe in Jesus is because I’ve seen my LGBTQ friends, some of whom were abused by church members and others who were outright rejected by the church or para-church organizations, return to the Christian faith even after they had been shown the door. I’ve seen some of them contend with the potential PTSD of returning to worship spaces that could have triggered their traumatic memories. I’ve seen them practice patience and forgiveness with those who have hurt them. Some of them practice celibacy; others are now married — theological differences do exist within the LGBTQ community — but I’ve seen them, above all, return to Jesus, “the author and perfecter of the faith,” as a source of hope and joy.
Now, this post isn’t meant to make anyone who has left the church feel ashamed or to try to guilt survivors of abuse into making grand statements of forgiveness that would gloss over the hurt they’ve endured. And it’s not just that their example of forgiveness and resilience is inspiring, though it certainly is that.
No, the witness of LGBTQ Christians is powerful to me because when they testify to God’s love, I remember that Christianity is more than just an organization. When I hear their stories, I hear the unmistakable sound of those who have experienced Jesus and are drawn to Him. There’s just something about Jesus that transcends human fallibility, denominational differences, and past hurt and shame. Time and again, I’ve seen my LGBTQ brothers and sisters remind me of that.
I am aware that some people coming across this post may have stopped reading at the phrase “LGBTQ Christians;” for them, such a phrase is a contradiction in terms. But if you’ve made it this far, I encourage you simply to open your ears to the stories of those who have a different experience of the faith than you do. Really listen to their hurt and to their hope, to their salvation stories and their stories of wrestling with scripture, to their stories of answering God’s call to love and serve others.
I also want to say thank you to my LGBTQ friends and family who have been brave enough to share your lives and stories with me through the years. You have pointed me toward Jesus and given me reasons to believe.
Now, I am well aware that the testimonies of people returning to the faith even after being hurt by the church extend well beyond the LGBTQ community. My recent immersion in The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast has reminded me of a whole world of hurt and spiritual abuse related to toxic church cultures and issues of gender and sexuality. It’s also reminded me of how much people like the late Rachel Held Evans helped me to hold on to my faith by the way she responded to those abuses. What Rachel and others like her wrote and preached about was the coming of a kingdom quite different from the one we know today.
In Christ’s kingdom, the last will be first and the first last, tables of oppression will be turned over, and every mountain will be laid low and every valley raised. In Christ’s kingdom, those who have been hurt, marginalized or shut out will be healed and welcomed as He makes all things new — as He makes us new. And it is because of this hope that I continue to believe.
Rachel Held Evans wrote, of that kingdom,
I am not ashamed of this great cloud of witnesses, kicking up dust ahead of me on the path. They are hermits and homemakers and sinners and saints and pilgrims and poets and mothers and activists and peacemakers and friends. They bind up wounds and stand up to bullies and offer rides and listen well and make meals and let things go and work hard and fail sometimes. But they keep telling the story—this story that sets both the oppressed and the oppressors free, this story that may even save me.
I am not ashamed of love. Love casts out fear; love knits us together; love conquers all.
I am not ashamed of the Church. She is a survivor, after all, a work-in-progress, a stubborn bride-to-be. The gates of hell will not prevail against her, they say. So I guess I better quit hedging my bets.
Brandi Carlile dedicates her memoir “To the repulsed, rejected, reformed, reaffirmed, the redeemed.” I can’t imagine a better description of what it means to be a member of the family of Christ, all of us limping toward the same communion table. And it is at that table where I continue to find rest and nourishment for my soul.