Sunday, February 01, 2009

The Monkey's Pet Fish

I was having one of those "ugly" cries. You know that gross tears flowing out of my eyes with snot dripping from my nose and lips quivering into an upside down smile with cheeks tightened up. That kinda cry. It was one of those "ugly" cries.

Not cute.

I was driving on the freeway this morning when it happened, on my way to a church service at Newsong in Irvine, California. There's a few reasons why this is significant to me. For starters, it's a predominantly Asian congregation. Secondly, it's a predominantly straight congregation. Thirdly, it's a bit of a mega-church. If you've followed my story these past couple years you'd know that these are definitely outside of my comfort zone.

But the Lord, in His hilarity and divine plan, was sending me here and I knew exactly what was up His sleeve. I just didn't necessarily like the fact that I had to be the one, once again, to go do the thing that absolutely challenged my sense of courage and security.

I was having a breakthrough there in the car this morning. And that breakthrough was the realization that I was afraid of God's people. I've never been afraid of God. He's always been trustworthy and consistently by my side. He's my friend. But it's God's people that I fear, at times. Because much of the profound hurt that I've experienced in my life was connected in some way to God's people, my own brothers and sisters in Christ. Ironic.

I wasn't crying because of the fear though. I was crying because realizing the truth that many people are afraid of Christians and see them as unsafe hurt-ers instead of heal-ers makes me sad and (I think) grieves the Spirit . . . .(read more)

For the major part of my life I've experienced ethnic shame for being Filipino. I didn't like being Asian nor did I feel like I connected with other Asians. I experienced racial prejudice with slurs directed at me while at a very young age and I responded by internalizing that hatred. Until recent years, having come out of the closet, the Lord has done much healing in me in that area of my life. Particularly since the Lord had begun a process in me of learning how to love myself as I am, the way He does. And so I've found myself growing - becoming more and more comfortable around Asians and even being able to look in the mirror.

Going to the service at Newsong was also going to be the first time since coming out that I was going to be investing in relationships with straight people in a church fellowship. When I came out, I had primarily been visiting with and getting to know people in congregations where the majority of people were gay. But this morning, I wasn't simply visiting a "straight" church because of an invitation or because I was church hopping. Before I even experienced a sunday morning service at Newsong, the Lord had already been telling me that I was supposed to go and invest in relationships there. So whether or not my first impression was great or terrible, I already knew going in that I was going to keep coming.

The fact that this was a church with resources and lots of people and that God was sending me here didn't make me feel comfortable either. My paradigm of Church has always been that "church" was not a "place to go to" or a "thing to do". I believe that we are the Church - the web of relationships that comprise God's family who live out a lifestyle of faith, and so if we are to experience this community fully, we have to see past the man-made structures and begin to see a Church without walls. ("Jumping the Walls" and "Band of Brothers and Sisters" describes my paradigm of Church further.) But one of the things that I liked hearing about Newsong beforehand was that they taught about similar themes regarding the Church without walls. It would be interesting to see how this looked within the context of a mega-church structure - to see if the substance of relationships in community was present as evidence of those who lived out this "Church without walls" paradigm. Nevertheless, the things I had been told about Newsong before coming to a service was refreshing.

So there I was crying in the car talking with God about how He always seems to send me to uncomfortable places. The reality is that I'm just always willing to go where He is. He's taken me to some very interesting places in my life and they were all places where He was already actively working among the hearts of people there. And so here He was again, sending me to an Asian Straight Mega-Church. My God's a comedian and He thinks He's funny.

The point isn't that Newsong is fine and great and that God is working through them to minister to others. I'm sure that's happening but that's not what I'm talking about. The point is that God has been actively working on the hearts of people here at Newsong and He wanted me to witness it and possibly even be a part of it. I don't know exactly what that looks like but if indeed He's preparing their hearts to enter into friendly non-combative relationships with gay people as a different approach to the historically hostile approach towards them, then heck yeah I'll keep myself in proximity to wait for God's prompting or call on me to share my heart and life.

I can be pretty critical of the Church in general with all of it's institutional surface relationships that come in arrogantly and hypocritically with best intentions of helping poor needy souls. It's like the Church has a savior complex. But I'm not simply critical of the Church. I can see what the Church can be - effective ambassadors of reconciliation, once again. We're not that now. But we can be. I've often written and spoken about these things. But here, this morning, I could be in the very uncomfortable situation of being part of God's answered prayer. It's not enough for me to talk about how the Church needs to change while in the comfortable safe spaces of fellowship with people like me. No, if I was going to pray for it, then I have to be willing to be the tangible body that God uses to answer my own prayer. Otherwise, I'd just be complaining.

For several months now, the Lord had been speaking to me about building community among straight Christians who could be loving and supportive of those who are gay. I haven't seen that happening much elsewhere in the conservative evangelical world. For two years, the Lord had me investing in relationships with gay people and even catalyze a tangible sense of community among gay Christians. Now it seems the Lord would have me do similar things with straight Christians. And already knowing the character and trend of God in my own life, I can see how these two communities of gay and straight Christians can eventually be brought together - not through program or agenda but rather through relationship.

If that's what He's up to, then I'll go and do whatever He wants me to do. Even if that means going to a community of straight Asian Christians and for the first time offering myself authentically right from the start. I would make no effort to advertise the fact that I'm gay but I would make no effort to hide the fact either. I would allow myself to be known (organically and in due time) as the man that I am and if God sparks relationship between me and others then I trust that it will be mutually edifying.

But this comes with huge emotional and relational risk. I've no idea how I'll be received. I can say that the two people from this congregation that I've shared a meal with - dinner with the Life Development Pastor and lunch with the Small Groups Director - both received me with love and generous hearts. And I can call them friends. But I've got my share of baggage. My hope is simply to be known in safe ways and to know others in safe ways.

Honestly, though, I don't enter into this without my own hypocrisy. I speak a lot about the need for reconciliation and for the most part I've seen that in my life more and more. But very recently, only a week and a half ago, a friend that I've known for almost ten years betrayed my trust and I've been having a difficult time forgiving him - much less giving him the time of day or releasing his "blocked" status from my Facebook.

Boy, I'm telling you that actually living out this life with Jesus is tough! It's one thing to go through the motions on Sunday morning but it's absolutely another thing to be owning His life as mine.

The pastor at Newsong Church is Dave Gibbons. I don't know too much about his celebrity but I gather that the work and ministry that he's done for the Lord has been noticed in evangelical Christendom. He's also got a new book out called "The Monkey and the Fish: Liquid Leadership for a Third Culture Church" which I'm very interested in reading since much of what I've heard has resonated with my paradigm of Church. This morning, he shared several points with the congregation while introducing the eastern story of The Monkey and the Fish. In a nutshell, the story tells of a typhoon raging and the monkey who sees the fish in the water. With good intentions, the monkey tried to "save" the fish by picking it up out of the water. The pet fish died and the monkey is an idiot. (That last part was my own, sorry Dave.)

So when I think about the Church on the issue of gays both in the congregation and in the community, some people can be a big monkey trying to help their pet fish and just makes things worse.

Ex-gay programs, exorcisms, reparative therapy, ex-communication from church or being disowned from the family.

The Church has left in its wake people like me who cry on the way to their precious "church services" or on the way home or in the shower or any where else where we feel completely alone.

But we are no one's pet and none of us wants to be someone's project.

While Dave didn't specifically reference the gay thing in his message, I think it can be applied. Straight Christians can do a world of good by simply putting the halo on the shelf, getting in the water, and experiencing empathy for what it's like to be gay - both in the congregation and in the community. In Dave's message, he talked about how this will require people to be in painful adaptation - the notion that it is going to be absolutely uncomfortable, will require a commitment to staying in the water (in relationship), and operating with the truth that Jesus is already present and that it's okay to step aside and just watch.

There's only room for One Savior in this Church.

So let's not mess up what Jesus is doing by throwing ourselves in before assessing how Jesus wants to use us productively.

On the flip side to this whole message is that I feel like God was telling me that not only am I the fish but that God was leading me to be of help to the monkey. It's not about the monkey being productively helpful to the poor fish. It's about the monkey being humble enough to realize that he could possibly use some help from the fish.

But how do you tell a fish that he can help the same monkey that tried to drown him with oxygen in the first place?

I guess that's where I find myself at right now.

I believe that I am a child of God, a member of His Church, who is not only valued and loved but is also useful and qualified for serving in His Kingdom. Am I willing to take the same humble approach of not simply trying to save the Church from its arrogant ways as if I'm some sort of twisted savior, but instead am I willing to build relationship with other straight Christians to actually appreciate their well-intentioned hearts and to earn the kind of trust in these relationships that grants me the privilege of speaking into a person's life?

It's the same approach that I would want from straight Christians to gay people. It seems only fair and reasonable that we would each share a stance of common humility.

Gosh, I can see the transforming power of reconciliation through relationships that God can do in healing His own Church - answering the prayers from both "sides". And what a testimony it could be to the world to show that even the Church can learn to forgive itself.

That kind of credibility would go a long way towards us being seen and even welcomed again as ambassadors of reconciliation.

[Be sure to check out Two World Collision Collaborative Christian Community for both gay and straight Journey Christians.]


Anonymous said...

WHOA!!!!!! I am having trouble finding words to put here. WOW!!!! Eric, once again you have floored me with your insight. God is using you in mighty ways and I'm thankful just to be able to see it! It inspires me to be a better steward. May God continue to bless your ministry. WOW!!! I love you, my friend!

Anonymous said...

Well said, Eric. May we all be listeners, healers, reconcilers.

Cindi Pete' said...

Let me echo that you are "valued and loved" and "useful and qualified for serving in His Kingdom." Making friends is like learning to dance in a way. I don't dance very boldly, but I like to make friends. Perhaps you would be open to joining Glen & I for a meal sometime to continue our new friendship? Hope your time at New Song was OK.

Unknown said...

Hey Eric,
Great thoughts! It reminds me of a quote you may like: "Christianity is about healing yourself and helping others, not helping yourself and healing others." I don't know who said it, but it resonated with me while reading your blog. Thanks Buddy!

Jimmy said...

Thanks for your words, friend. I don't know you at all, but I found your blog from Andrew Marin's blog.

I also read your essay on being an ex-gay survivor. I'm about to spend a month writing about ex-gay/reparative ministries on my blog, and I would love to include your story (with your permission) on the bog. My goal can be found here:

Hope you're well. Hope to hear from you soon!

Art said...

awesome thuoghts buddy bravo :)

Unknown said...

You have been given a great talent. The gift of words. I bumped into your blog through a random google search and I have to say that I feel I was led to your site to read this post. Thank you for writing it!!!

Unknown said...

Eric, I found your blog randomly and have been reading your posts. Clearly, God has given you a job to do and you are doing it! God created you the way you are and loves you. exactly as you are. He is the only person you have to please. I just wanted to encourage you! Keep writing! RH

Unknown said...

Eric, I found your blog randomly and have been reading your posts. Clearly, God has given you a job to do and you are doing it! God created you the way you are and He loves you exactly as you are. He is the only person you have to please. I just wanted to encourage you! Keep writing! RH