Growing up in a Texas Baptist universe, I knew only two kinds of Christians: the fundamentalists who were excited about the fact that God was going to torture most of humanity forever in hell and the moderates who were embarrassed and conflicted about it. I didn’t realize there was a completely different way to understand the message of the gospel.

It took a queer United Methodist church to save me from the toxic theology of my evangelical upbringing.

In 2002, I found myself in a high-pressure job and a toxic living situation in Toledo, Ohio. My girlfriend at the time was a suicidal alcoholic. I was self-medicating my severe depression by partying late every night. When I saw my life spiraling out of control, I decided to go back to church. The closest one I could find was Central Avenue United Methodist Church. When I walked through the door for the first time, it became clear that I was one of maybe three or four straight people in the room. I’d never known that gay Christians existed before, but I figured they couldn’t be fundamentalist so I was safe.

In evangelical culture, I was accustomed to what I call shiny happy Jesus people. They pounce on you as soon as you walk into a room with overwhelmingly bright smiles and instantaneous friendship. It’s all done with the best of intentions, but it doesn’t make you feel accepted so much as obligated. Before you know it, you’ve been roped in and it’s too socially awkward to leave. The welcome I received in this queer United Methodist church was entirely different. Everyone moved and spoke with a meek tenderness that only the wounded can authentically embody. There wasn’t an hallelujah competition during the worship service. I didn’t feel any pressure to use the right catchphrases in my small talk.

I started going to a Bible study led by the unofficial, unordained lesbian co-pastor who had the spiritual vigor and passion for Christ I’d always associated with evangelicals. I started meeting weekly with a lesbian social worker who wouldn’t charge me for our visits but asked instead that I give a weekly offering to the church. Mothered by these and other gentle lesbians in that church, I began to heal from my depression and the sinful, chaotic lifestyle that was exacerbating it.

We read a book in our Bible study that changed my life forever: Henri Nouwen’s Life of the Beloved. Nouwen writes that the lifelong quest of a Christian is to become God’s beloved. He said the reason we sin and do self-destructive things is because we don’t really believe God loves us. So what we are saved from is not God’s punishment but our lack of trust in God’s love. Here’s what I wrote in my journal at the time:

Being blessed, as Nouwen writes, involves looking for beauty around you. You are training your eye to see the language of God’s goodness on a canvas that might provoke a number of reactions. The important thing I’m learning is that receiving God involves a discipline. Hearing the voice above the noise requires practice and patience… I’m trying to learn how to rise up into God’s love for me. It is not a surrender in the sense of throwing yourself down but rather opening your soul to let the light come in. Every “I can” is a leap into God’s love for me. The “I can’ts” are not humble but rather disavowals. So that is the challenge of this quest — to enter enough into the light of God’s presence that I can fill my lungs with his air rather than slouch in the corner with my cigarette.

What healed me from my sinful, self-destructive lifestyle was not a rigorous, shame-based, evangelical accountability group, but a queer space of unconditional acceptance.

It was in this queer space that I learned how to say “I can” and how to rise up into God’s love for me. I’m not sure that anyone could have taught me these lessons better than people who had found the still, small voice of God’s unconditional acceptance amidst a furious torrent of condemnation.

I learned from my queer United Methodist church that self-acceptance is actually a good and holy thing. God does not need to see me self-flagellate in order to accept me. God accepts me unconditionally. As I rise up into God’s love for me, I am emptied of all my anxieties, addictions, and agendas. Instead of hiding my wounds with shame, I make them into my cross, which I carry with dignity. Instead of worrying whether I have said the right prayer with enough sincerity to make the cut into heaven, I experience the heaven of authentic belonging right here on Earth.

In other words, self-acceptance is paradoxically the foundation for Christlike self-emptying, just as self-hatred is paradoxically the foundation for Luciferian self-justification. Whereas before I had thought that hating myself was the way to “repent” for my sin, I learned that hating myself was actually rejecting God’s love. The more I felt safe and let my defenses down, the more the Holy Spirit was able to heal my heart. Accepting myself does not mean being satisfied with myself, but rather having enough trust to embark on a journey of self-improvement.

I’ve recently had the opportunity to read Liz Edman’s Queer Virtue fourteen years after my first encounter with queer Christianity. She describes the “coming out” process as a form of evangelism. I would definitely say that I was evangelized by the queer people in that church who had learned how to be loved by God.

I still haven’t figured out how to become God’s beloved. I still rely heavily on the validation of others for my identity. But thanks to that queer United Methodist church, I understand the nature of the Christian salvation I’m seeking and it’s far more beautiful than what I had previously hoped or imagined.

Morgan wrote How Jesus Saves the World from Us: 12 Antidotes to Toxic Christianity and hosts a blog called Mercy Not Sacrifice at Patheos.

Morgan Guyton

Morgan Guyton is the author of How Jesus Saves the World from Us: 12 Antidotes to Toxic Christianity. His blog Mercy Not Sacrifice is hosted at Patheos. He and his wife Cheryl are co-directors of NOLA Wesley, a Reconciling campus ministry at Tulane and Loyola in New Orleans, LA.
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