Searching for Safety, Finding a Savior: A Journey through Sexual Brokenness
Laura, our Harvest USA intern for 2012-2013, has a compelling story about God’s relentless grace that rescued her from sexual brokenness. Like all real stories, it’s still not finished, and there are broken paths along the way.
I’ve been learning the imperative nature of two words in the Bible. Without these two words we are so dead and odorous in our sins, much like Lazarus was when Christ raised him from the dead. In fact, the fate of all humanity hinges on these words: “But God…”
Paul wrote in Ephesians: “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins…carrying out the inclinations of your flesh and thoughts and by nature were children under wrath…But God (!) who is abundant in mercy, because of his great love that he had for us, made us alive with the Messiah even though we were dead in trespasses. By grace you are saved!” (Eph. 2:1ff)
My story involves a long stretch of spiritual death–my wandering as a child under God’s displeasure; a journey that involved a series of unholy sexual relationships with women and a long stretch of hopelessness that felt like my only companion. But God (!). . . was not content to leave me there. He used his earthly kingdom (the body of Christ) to bring me to a knowledge of himself and of the love he has for me – a love that would allow the death of his Son to reverse the death I was living.
I was a part of a large family by today’s standards. I was the second oldest of six children (one boy and five girls). It was just me and my brother for the first eight years of my life. I grew up a tomboy. My parents then had a string of four more daughters to make up for my own lack of girliness. The six of us vied for my parents’ attention and stretched them to the limits to provide for us. Materially, we always had enough but, emotionally, it often felt as though the fount had run dry. Mom and dad loved me, but there were often disconnects in the ways they showed it and the ways which I could understand it.
My parents expressed their love for me in many ways. They were the first to step up and defend me, when there were outside threats – school bullies, teacher bullies, friend issues. But the internal threats went unnoticed—particularly my sense of their lack of affection and my misguided attempts to seek out that affection from other women. I found myself on the receiving end of derogatory words and expressions (“faggot”) that would be tossed around to gauge my reaction on the issue of same-sex attraction. Instead of coming to me with intentional questions to get a read on where my heart was– a move which would have been most invited if done in love! – my parents drove me away with malicious words and cold distance. It ultimately made me feel worthless instead of valuable.
I wanted so much to be loved for who I was. I was delighted to see my parents show up for my violin and ballet recitals, but how much more it would have meant for them to support me in the things I loved: writing, soccer, softball, and mountains. Their failure to show up in these areas – and the way they were critical of my interest in them – really widened a chasm in our relationship which over the years I would fill with anger and bitterness.
After being homeschooled, I entered a private Christian school in the sixth grade. My experience in that school was like watching the movie Saved (the 2004 flick starring Mandy Moore and Macaulay Culkin), except that I was actually in the movie. It was difficult to spend the next six years in an environment of legalism. The legalistic environment affirmed my frenzied attempts to keep up the appearance of what Christianity should look like by today’s standards, at the expense of searching out my own heart.
There was particularly no grace to be observed in the area of same-sex struggle. A good friend of mine was kicked out after a letter she wrote to another girl that expressed her affection for her was discovered. I could have easily been in her shoes – expelled for writing a similar letter that wasn’t confiscated by a teacher. At the end of my senior year of high school, while serving as class chaplain, captain of our soccer team and juggling all the science courses that would make me a first-class applicant for pre-med programs, I was also actively engaged in my very first same-sex sexual relationship with another student from my school. But no one found out, because God had other plans. If I had been expelled, I most likely would not have ended up at the small Christian college where my life began to unravel and then turn around.
By the end of my high school, I had become so tired of doing all the right things, making all of the right choices and the good grades, and never feeling like I was getting anywhere in terms of my relationship with my parents, whose affections I could not seem to buy for any price. I also felt my school slighted me for every honor imaginable. I felt that both my parents and my school offered nothing but derision in communicating with me at my deepest area of need. I decided that if all Christianity had to offer was back-breaking, law-keeping labor without any pay-off (or even a little bit of a break in the area of temptation and struggle every now and then), then what was the point? I could never be good enough.
Of course I was right in thinking like this! But I had no idea of the implications of what I was thinking, and I had no idea how what I was feeling would actually impact my relationship with Christ. I did not even know that my relationship with him could be a real relationship – I just took that for Christian jargon. Through all the struggles, God had intentionally primed me for my college experience. I was about to experience grace for the first time. I was going to know it when I saw it because it would be so drastically different from everything else I had experienced.
Grove City College is located roughly thirteen hours from where I grew up. This was good news for me in many ways, but particularly, it meant a geographical severing of the same-sex relationship I had begun in my last year of high school. The environment of grace at this school began turning the tide of doubt in my mind. I saw grace in action there from the faculty and staff. Of course, there was a rule book. It was called The Crimson. Included inside were visitation rules, the plagiarism policy, and alcohol abstinence regulations. It also laid out procedures for punishing the breaking of all of these rules. My expectations of how a Christian institution operated remained unchallenged.
However, in my first few months as a Grover, the lessons of grace I saw would shake the ground of all my “Christian” assumptions. One of my dearest friends was caught drinking on campus. I knew that this was an offense punishable by expulsion. I grieved the inevitable loss of one of the healthy female relationships God had blessed me with in my freshman year, but I grieved prematurely. She came back after her talk with an administrator of the school and told me a story that seemed unfathomable at the time. She said that after sharing the story of her family’s difficult situation on top of her own emotional turbulence adjusting to a new school and environment, she had been granted a second chance. I rejoiced with her but I did not really understand what was happening. I certainly did not see this as the first step in the revolutionizing of my own understanding of grace. Little did I know that what was revolutionary to me as an observer of grace would become painfully glorious as I had the opportunity to experience it firsthand.
My RA found me in violation of a rule that met the requirements for “grounds for expulsion” as stated in The Crimson. My mind again prematurely raced to thoughts of what will I tell my friends? My parents? Where will I apply to school? How will I ever live down the shame? But after running the gamut of the entire chain of command the dean of students granted me what at the time felt like nothing less than a stay of execution. As I sat in her office, she started asking me questions. It seemed like she was trying to get to know me. “What is this about?” My mind again raced toward what I saw as the inevitable conclusion. “Just hurry up and dismiss me. Stop making this more painful,” I kept thinking. But about five minutes into our chat, I started wondering whether my dismissal was actually the intended end-point of the conversation. We continued talking and the conversation concluded with me agreeing to see the school’s counselor and her agreeing to let me stay. I was dumbfounded. They knew all the details of my situation but I still felt like I had somehow pulled the wool over the school’s eyes, like if they really really knew me they would do the wise thing: pack my bags and ship me out. That would be Christian protocol, right? What do you do with a messy life? Deal out discipline, get rid of the leprosy; whatever it takes to clean the sin infection. As long as you don’t get dirty taking care of the problem, you’re okay. But that is not what this woman did. She rolled up her sleeves and intentionally dug into the mess of my life. In that moment, I experienced palpable grace for the first time in my life and I was undone.
Following that experience of grace, of being set free from a judgment and punishment that I deserved, I was primed to hear it from the pulpit. But before that time would come, I would have other impactful encounters in the church.
There were two situations within my home church growing up that shook my identity and, along with my family and school experiences, loomed like a large cloud of doom over my concept of Christianity. When I was a teenager, a young man in our church who was gifted musically and could dress better than the majority of the males in his class, was consistently picked on and labeled “gay” by his peers. I do not know all of the influences surrounding his decision to embrace a “gay” identity. I do know that after doing so he and his family were excommunicated from the church. Another young man had confessed to having homosexual desires (I don’t know to what extent they had been expressed), and his family’s solution, after prayerful consideration with church members, was to send him to live with family members in another state. This young man never returned home and eventually died of AIDS.
What this communicated to me, regardless of the realities that I did not hear or see, was that 1) the church is not safe, that it can be threatening ( and thus I concluded that they would never know my struggle; 2) my sin is unforgivable. If people are being cut off and sent away over the same sins I struggled with, then apparently it is incurable and unforgivable; and 3) this led to the final conclusion that my temptation in and of itself is unforgivable. Because the line between sin and temptation was indistinguishable for me at that point, the temptation in and of itself was condemnable. This compounded the feeling already beginning to form within my mind, that I was a victim in this whole mess (I never asked for this struggle; I never wanted to be like this!). It also went a long way in cementing same-sex attraction as my identity.
Healing within the church body began after I transferred from Grove City College to attend the school where I thought I would eventually go to medical school. I began attending Reformed University Fellowship. The pastor there, David, was engaging and personal. He wanted to hang out one-on-one with all the new students who showed up for large group, so I thought I would give it a shot, tell him my story. The worst that could happen would be the end of a relationship that hadn’t really even begun. I wasn’t attached to the ministry so I figured it would be no skin off my nose. We sat down. I told him my story, and he listened. He was the first man, and really only the second person, I had told my story to, and as I sat there, at times almost provoking him in order to get him to show disgust or the vacant I-don’t-know- what-to-do- with-this-information stare, he listened. Just listened.
This interaction opened the door for future discussions with the pastor of the church I was attending at the time. In comparison to my voluntary, albeit provocative confession to David, I was more coerced into speaking with John. I signed up for a trip to China with Mission to the World. Their application includes a twenty-something page packet that basically lists every sin known to man and then requests you to fill out your degree of struggle in each area. My response to the question inquiring about struggles with homosexuality was, understandably, cause for a follow-up. They requested that I get in touch with my pastor to talk with him about a potentially dangerous relationship with another woman in the church that I was attempting to navigate. We talked for over an hour, but the thing that stands out to me most about that conversation was when he told me, “Laura, I’ve never seen such a beautiful picture of the way the body of Christ is supposed to work. This is what the church is supposed to look like. I’m so proud of you.” Much more was said, but as I left there was a tangible feeling surrounding me that can best be described as safe. I could not have asked for a sweeter outcome. It was the security I had longed for all my life and I found it in the place I least expected it, in the church, in my new home.
In later conversations I told John how terrified I was at the thought of becoming a member of the church. The Christianity I knew growing up was always about rigid rule-keeping. Everything I had heard of and seen second-hand concerning church discipline told me that if I did become a member, the inevitable outcome would be my excommunication. If I struggled again, I would be gone. If, God forbid, I got into another same-sex relationship, I might even be sent off to another state. I expressed these concerns and got this response, “If you were to run away and commit yourself to a relationship with another woman, I would come after you. But not to hunt you down, not to crucify you – to bring you back where you belong, back with your family who dearly loves you.” I was rendered speechless by grace yet again.
David and John, along with other men and women in the church whom I eventually started opening up to, hugely impacted my life by laying out the truths of Scripture – what it really looks like to pursue the “least of these” as Jesus did and then actually inviting me, the leper, into their midst. A true test of the gospel mettle for my community came in the form of my fall back into sexual sin two nights after presenting my testimony to my congregation (take note on the reality of spiritual warfare so obviously at play here!). I was on the phone the next morning, first with my mentors in the church, then elders and my pastor. They were immediately there to drive me back into the fold with both stern warnings and assurance of pardon.
As I continue to receive grace in big and small ways from my Christian brothers and sisters, my relationships continually transform into the way they will eventually look when the whole earth is made new. This is true for my family relationships and my friendships as wells as those relationships in which I feel my same-sex struggles creep in. Both the gracious healing and the nagging pains in these relationships point me to my future hope – and keep me longing for it. Therefore, I do not lose hope. Even as I struggle day by day against sin and suffering, I know my true hope is secured for me by Christ – through his death – and in Christ – through my relationship with him. That relationship transforms every other relationship I have. It motivates me to live a life that pleases Christ so that I may move ever closer to him. I’m so thankful to know He is my hope! I’m also thankful for the people God put in my life to point me to that truth.
In an article that John and I worked on awhile back he wrote, “I think it is important to say that nothing I have learned about ministering to my friend who struggles with same-sex attraction is new or innovative. All I had to do was decide to reach out, to love and minister to this unique person created in the image of God, who struggles with sin just like I do and who struggles to live in a posture of repentance and faith in Jesus just like I do.”
It is this understanding of the Christian obligation to love that reaps the eternal reward of souls won to the kingdom. The more embedded I become in the local church and in the body of Christ in every sphere, the more confident I become that getting personal in the mess of people’s lives is a Christian mandate. This was the heart of Christ’s ministry (see John 4 for the account of Jesus’ radical approach to the woman at the well, or Matthew 8 for accounts of multiple “getting personal” stories, including the healing of lepers and getting rid of demons). It is inevitable that it should be the heart of ours as well. It does not take perfect people to transform hearts and lives. It takes hearts and minds that understand the depth of their own unworthiness, their own shared status among “the least of these,” going out and sharing the good news of the transforming power of a relationship with Christ. Remember that you are a suffering sinner dependent on the turn of a phrase, “But God!” Now, go share the good news!