A Bulimic’s Guide to Fasting

When I started investigating Eastern Christianity, I was struck by the emphasis of fasting as a means of spiritual renewal. While Roman Catholics are well-known for abstaining from meat on Lenten Fridays, I was surprised by the rigor of fasting in the Byzantine tradition: Abstinence from meat and animal products (eggs, dairy etc.), fish, wine, and oil.

Fasting rules can vary between regions, but they are observed during four penitential seasons of the liturgical year: Great Lent, Nativity Fast, Dormition Fast, and the Apostles Fast. The Fast is also observed most Wednesdays and Fridays of the year to commemorate Jesus’ betrayal and death, along with other important days sprinkled in such as the Beheading of John the Baptist or the Feast of the Holy Cross.

This made a lot of sense to me. I was used to hearing about fasting as a routine cultural practice; something optional or a ritual “we just do”. But the emphasis of fasting in liturgical churches is much different. The Church is known not primarily as an institution, but as our Mother.

Jesus said, “But this kind [of demon] does not go out except by prayer and fasting.” (Matthew 17:21) As our Mother, the Church cares for our souls and gives us guidelines to temper our passions and increase our reliance on divine providence.

The tension within my own spiritual life has been balancing this corporate expectation of fasting with the individual care of my soul. The truth is, I’m recovering from years of intense, long-suffering bulimia. Restricting what I eat at this time is simply too much of a burden in my healing process. Combine this with relentless seasonal depression, and it’s a recipe for Advent disaster.

However, as a person who longs to be in intimate union with the Body of Christ, not participating in the Fast sometimes feels like another form of isolation.

I’m still figuring out what life looks like in both managing an eating disorder and participating in the life of the Church. Right now, I’m resolved to make my “no” to dietary guidelines a “yes” to humility. My current approach has yielded several important truths:

  • I desperately require grace to recover from this awful disease.
  • I need to humble myself to the care of my spiritual director, my priests, my doctor, mental health professionals, and friends.
  • Fasting in itself does not save anyone. Christ is working out my salvation in and through my baptism even without the Fast.
  • Because I suffer from the sin of pride, to not excel at a spiritual practice is actually good for my soul.
  • Not participating in the Fast in this season of life is honoring my body as a temple of the Holy Spirit.

A deep solace of mine has been turning to the wisdom of the Liturgical calendar. Two weeks before the start of Great Lent, the week of the Publican and the Pharisee, the Church forbids Her children from fasting to remind our souls and bodies that we cannot boast in our observation of the Fast. It is the grace of God that saves. I can take this fast-free week of the year and apply it to my daily life.

As we approach the end of the Nativity Fast, my desire is for those of us with eating disorders to delight in the feast of Christ’s birth as though we fasted in expectation.

“…This is our festival, this is the feast we celebrate today, in which God comes to live with human beings, that we may journey toward God, or return – for to speak thus is more exact- that laying aside the old human being we may be clothed with the new, and that as in Adam we have died so we may live in Christ, born with Christ and crucified with him, buried with him and rising with him.”

– St. Gregory the Theologian, Oration 38, “On the Nativity of Christ”

Why Christians Can Bake the Cake

The Supreme Court recently listened to oral arguments on the case of a Colorado baker who refused to make a custom wedding cake for a same-sex couple. As someone who has friends on both the Left and the Right, my social media feed blew up: Conservatives accused progressives of anti-Christian bullying; Progressives accused conservatives of bigotry. In my personal experience, I don’t find either caricature accurate, although I’ve certainly witnessed my fair share of homophobia and bullying in political discourse.

Instead of reflecting on the legal question of religious liberty, I wanted to ask a different question: Can a Christian hold to a traditional sexual ethic (that marriage is between one man and one woman; sex is reserved for that union alone), yet also bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple? I take the position that they can.

Note: I’m not arguing for the traditional sexual ethic in this post. If you hold to a liberal sexual ethic (Marriage is between two people of any gender), then most of this post will be lost on you. I’m also not taking any legal position on refusal of service in this reflection. One can believe that legally, bakers can refuse service, while also believing that morally, that people should say yes to providing the service.

I don’t claim to know all the answers for each Christian church and individual. I am wrong about plenty of things, and this might be one of them.

It’s possible to take disagreement seriously on matters of theology, morality, and doctrine, while acknowledging Truth when we see it. For example, an acquaintance was recently baptized in a non-denominational church. Her church does not believe in baptismal regeneration (i.e. baptism has a real effect on your salvation by absolving sin and conferring grace). Rather, her church holds to a belief that baptism is a public ceremony for the local church that symbolically highlights personal commitment to Christ and the reality that He washes away our sins.

As someone who belongs to a Christian tradition that believes in infant baptism and baptismal regeneration, this makes me very uncomfortable. In my view, baptism is the basis of Christian spiritual life. However, that didn’t stop me from noticing my acquaintance’s personal commitment to Christ and sending her a nice note that said “congratulations”. I’m not signing on to her baptismal theology by signing the congratulatory note.

We can draw a similar parallel for Christians who believe in a traditional sexual ethic. To what aspects of same-sex marriage does the traditional sexual ethic object? It objects to calling a same-sex union “marriage” and it objects to sexual arousal/intercourse between those of the same-sex. The sin is not in two people of the same-sex living together, sharing life together, loving each other, and committing care for one another in sickness and in health. Baking a cake can celebrate the act of commitment between the same-sex just as my congratulatory note celebrated my friend’s commitment to Christ. It does not mean I’m approving of deviation from correct theology in either case.

There are fears from Christians that if they were to bake a cake for a same-sex couple’s wedding, then it might be perceived as them “supporting a sinful lifestyle”. I’ve discussed why language about LGBT lifestyles is confusing and unclear. Every person and relationship (marital or non-marital) contains sin. Like everyone else, LGBT people have a mix of sin and virtue in their lives. No relationship is 100% wicked or 100% saintly.

If I’m able to overlook the errors in other Christians’ baptismal theology, then conservative Christians can overlook the errors in same-sex couples’ marriage theology. We do this all the time with straight people without thinking twice:

  • We tell married friends congratulations on their anniversaries, even though we acknowledge that they sin privately and publicly against one another.
  • We send cards for our nieces’ and nephews’ First Communions, even if their church’s eucharistic theology is theologically erroneous.
  • We feed an excess of food to people on special occasions, even if we know that some of them in our midst have a gluttony problem.

It’s possible to hold tightly to our theology while embracing the aspects of beauty and goodness where we can find it. Baking a cake for a same-sex couple doesn’t mean you’re endorsing what you assume is going on in their bedroom (Why are you even thinking about that?) or that you support calling their relationship a “marriage”. Just as me telling my friend “Congratulations!” on her baptism wasn’t an endorsement of her church’s view of baptism, neither is baking a wedding cake for a same-sex couple an endorsement of their view on marriage.

No matter what the Supreme Court decides, I hope Christians can focus less on what they can legally say “no” to, and find more ways to say “yes” in loving their LGBT neighbor.

My Gay Lifestyle

This weekend a local church invited a speaker to share her testimony in experiencing same-sex attraction before undergoing a conversion to Christ. I edited out some of the information in the event description:

[Event speaker] is dedicated to speaking forth the truth of God’s Word to a generation that has been enslaved by lies. [Event speaker] knows the destructive bondage that comes as a result of believing and living under deception. She began [Ministry name] with a desire to help others find the same peace and healing she found, through faith in Jesus Christ. As a teen, [Event speaker] turned to alcohol and drugs, and later entered into the world of homosexuality. Today, [Event speaker’s] life is a testimony to the transforming power of God and the truth of His Word. In 2003, she was set free from the bondage of addiction and homosexuality and is now committed to sharing with others the hope and freedom she found in the Gospel.

It’s not my place to question the event speaker’s story. Many Christians perceive their same-sex attraction as a form of spiritual warfare. I’m not here to question that narrative. My focus today will be on the notion of a “gay lifestyle”. Christians will tell me that even though I’m celibate, I shouldn’t call myself gay because it implies that I live out an immoral lifestyle. My first question I have is, “Who doesn’t live an immoral lifestyle?”

Whenever I hear the phrase “gay lifestyle”, I’m not angry; It just doesn’t resonate with me. As a sexual minority in the Church, my life looks pretty similar to most people: I wake up every morning, I brush my teeth, I go to work, I attend church services, I go to confession, and I spend time with people who sustain my soul. While there are challenges with my LGBT status (most of those challenges being harassment, not lust, by the way), it just feels weird lumping that in with drug and alcohol abuse, as this speaker did.

“Well you’re different,” my conservative friends say. “The term ‘gay lifestyle’ isn’t referring to your life as a celibate gay person. It means sexually immoral behavior; That shouldn’t be offensive to you.”

While I agree it’s helpful to make a distinction between sexual behavior and orientation, I don’t think the term “gay lifestyle” achieves this. Do I struggle to always uphold my church’s teachings on sexual ethics? Absolutely. However, I don’t know of a single person, LGBT or otherwise, who doesn’t struggle with chastity. Jesus places lust in the heart on the same level as adultery, and I don’t know of any heterosexual Christians who haven’t lusted. So am I sometimes living a gay lifestyle and sometimes not? Am I only liberated from a gay lifestyle when I’ve achieved 100% sinlessness as it relates to my gay orientation? That’s a tough ask.

When I’m sharing some of my challenges with sexual sin, many well-meaning straight Christians assume lust is a product of my gay orientation itself, and not merely because I’m a human being who suffers the same consequences of the Fall as everyone else. If a straight person tells me they are battling sexual temptations, my goal should be to pray for them to receive spiritual vision so that they can see human beings as God’s image, not as instruments of personal pleasure. It’s not my role to assume their sins come from their heterosexuality? Why then, don’t we extend the same grace to our LGBT neighbor?

Double standards have damaging consequences on LGBT Christians. When straight people divorce and commit adultery at alarming rates, no one labels it “the straight lifestyle”. No one decries the “heterosexual agenda” leading the nation to spiritual turmoil. The only conclusion LGBT people are forced to accept is that their Christian neighbor finds them inherently gross; it’s not really about sexual acts in the bedroom or the theology of marriage.

I think every church has a right to enforce its teachings on marriage and sexuality. Churches which teach a traditional sexual ethic have the resources to define their parameters without double standards, unhelpful rhetoric, and assumptions about LGBT people. That’s the “Christian lifestyle” that I would be grateful to encounter.

 

A Blessing’s Expiration Date

If you know me personally, you know that I’m a little weird. For example, if you carpool with me there’s a 95% chance Byzantine chant will be playing on my stereo. It’s not the only genre of music I like, but for me, driving time is praying time. Chant keeps my mind from wandering.

A few weeks ago, I was listening to the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom performed by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Choir. Like most liturgical texts, the Eastern rite contains an ancient exchange sung between the priest and the people called the Anaphora:

Priest: The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

People: And with thy spirit.

Priest: Let us lift up our hearts.

People: We lift them up unto the Lord.

Priest: Let us give thanks unto the Lord.

People: It is meet and right to worship Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Trinity one in essence and undivided.

As I was driving, I found myself thinking about the priest, deacon, and choir on the CD to which I was listening. I gradually grew in awe with the idea that this single priest could sing this blessing one day in 1982 which would later be conferred on me hundreds of times while driving my Ford Fusion 35 years later. This priest’s blessing will never have an expiration date. His blessing will be renewed every time I listen to his voice. It’s not like it runs out of juice.

I don’t often realize the same for blessings I read in Scripture or hear in church. My brain tends to go on auto-pilot to receive blessings like “The Lord be with you” as polite greetings like “Hey, how are you doing?” In reality, the priest confers a tangible gift for me to receive, in order that I may return it to him (“And with thy spirit”). Blessings aren’t polite greetings. A blessing is a gracious act from Christ. To treat this call-and-response as a mere pleasantry misses the point.

When my priest blesses the congregation, it’s meant for me, even if I’m the worst sinner in the pew. His blessing won’t stop existing when I engage in sinful behavior. As Christians, I think we struggle with the idea that “as far as the east is from the west, so far has [God] removed our transgressions from us.” (Psalm 103: 12) 

I have moments when I’m not too happy with clergy and laity for their treatment of LGBT people. Rather than be bitter and unforgiving, I’m resolving to create my own anaphora: An act where I invoke the persons of the Trinity, lift up my heart to the Lord, and thank Him for the gift of the person in front of me.

If my priest’s blessing doesn’t expire when I neglect to love God, then neither will my blessing expire for those who neglect to love God’s LGBT children.

I love you but…

This morning, I came across a heartbreaking post on a Facebook friend’s profile:

Received tonight from a great-grandmother (one of the most poignant responses I have received yet)…

“Thirty four years ago this week, our family created an unnecessarily empty chair at our Thanksgiving table. Earlier that Autumn of 1983, our second of four sons had revealed to my husband and me that he was homosexual. While the story is too long and intricate to share in detail in this forum, suffice it to say, we absolutely drove him away. Though we didn’t mean to, that is exactly what we did. We told him that we loved him BUT…and then he was gone. GONE. DISAPPEARED.

Oh, for sure, we felt righteously justified, year after year, by the emptiness of the chair — heartbroken but righteous, with the righteousness obviously more important to us than the heartbreak. After all, the Apostle Paul had taught in First Corinthians 5, ‘With such a one, do not even eat.’ So we didn’t. We were good Christians but terrible parents.

While a book could be, and deserves to be, written here, I just wanted you to know that our son died nine years later of AIDS. And while the people in our church ‘knew’ this was ‘the wages of sin,’ I knew then, and know now, it had nothing to do with his sin and everything to do with ours.

So please keep doing what you are doing and saying what you are saying. It matters.

P.S. This Thanksgiving, one of our granddaughters, who happens to be homosexual, sat in the chair of an uncle she doesn’t remember. And she said the Thanksgiving prayer. It was beautiful.

And I was heartbroken and grateful.

I look forward to the day when I can sit again at the table with her uncle and my boy. Heaven must give me the chance to tell him I am sorry.”

This was the first thing I read this morning. It hit me so hard that I started weeping. My familial estrangement isn’t related to my sexuality, yet so much of this story resonated with me. Placing the conjunction “but” on love in a vulnerable moment alienates LGBT people from the Church, rather than running to Her as Mother.

As a gay man, I never stop coming out. Every person I meet initiates a complex process of emotional calculation: When do I mention it to this person? Do I wait for it to come up naturally? What if they ask me a question about marriage or dating? Am I lying by omission if I answer a question vaguely? Is this person safe?

Coming out is a vulnerable ordeal, especially within the context of faith communities. A consistent response I receive from Christians when I come out is, “I love you, but I can’t support same-sex marriage” or “I love you, but I can’t support sin.” Setting aside the constant assumption of what my sexual ethic looks like or what does/does not happen in my bedroom, that response just doesn’t sit right with me.

To be clear, I’m not saying you need to adopt a liberal sexual ethic to love LGBT people. I’m not saying you can’t find specific sexual behaviors immoral while simultaneously loving sexual and gender minorities. I think LGBT people like myself find the “I love you, but…” response so frustrating because it’s uniquely applied to us and not to straight people.

Imagine if your friend broke down one day and shared the present difficulties within her marriage. I certainly hope your response wouldn’t be, “I love you, but I can’t support divorce.” Your response would assume a lot about her decisions, context, and culpability in the situation. It would also miss an opportunity to meet your friend’s need for love that she isn’t currently receiving from her husband.

Back to the original post:

What I love about the reflection from the woman in this story, is that she didn’t specificy what her current theological stance is on same-sex marriage and gay sex. She didn’t need to. She recognized sin as a communal disorder where her actions had the direct spiritual impact on her son. She repented. She is doing her best to love her granddaughter. And she earnestly looks to the day of Resurrection when “He will wipe every tear from [our] eyes” (Rev 21:4) and experience eternal communion with her son. This email could have been written by a woman who has a traditional sexual ethic or a liberal sexual ethic, and I’m genuinely grateful for her courage.

When I put in the emotional labor to tell you I’m gay, switch up the conjunction. Try: “I love you and nothing you just told me will ever change that.”

A Table for One Cannot Exist

Thanksgiving induces stress for many people. For some, it’s a stress of logistical nature. Our desire to invite people into our homes evolves into a desire to be a perfect cook, a perfect host, and a perfect planner. For others, the stress of familial feuds can be too much, especially in our polarized political climate.

Thanksgiving, or rather the weeks leading up to the entire holiday season, personally create stress of a much different sort. As someone estranged to his biological family, I find myself worrying, “Is there a family I can enjoy fellowship with this year? Or will I spend this season alone?” Many singles, particularly LGBT Christians, find themselves asking this question for the rest of their lives. It induces feelings of isolation, despair, trauma, and loss.

The problem is, it isn’t supposed to be this way. “It is not good that man should be alone.” (Gen 2: 18). A desire for family – for communion – is inherently human. Our isolation is a result of a fallen world; a world of sin. Every sin results in death.

I created this blog with the hope that the broader church can listen and make space at the Table for LGBT Christians. To truly be one in Christ, means you see the entire person. You can’t ignore my familial history. You can’t ignore my sexuality. You certainly can’t ignore the immense challenge celibacy brings me in regard to intimacy and communion with other human beings. Making space at the table means being aware of the baggage I bring, while simultaneously“bearing [my] burdens”. (Gal 6:2)

This year, I was graciously invited into the home of a loving family that I’m becoming more acquainted with over time. To see families desire a breaking of bread with a single person reaffirms the notion that God’s grace is embodied and communal. I cherish  Christians who embrace me as a single person, rather than treating me as an object of sympathy. I pray that God continues to grow these types of relationships in my life.

If one understands the transcendent reality of the eucharistic (giving thanks) table each Sunday, they will understand the transcendent reality of their Thanksgiving table.

“Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf.” (1 Cor 10:17)

Because in the Kingdom of God, a table for one cannot exist.