A New Chapter

I’ve meant for some time to officially lay this blog to rest and start a new one with a more coherent focus and a more aesthetically pleasing design. You’ll find my new blog, Side B Stories, at:

sidebstoriesblog.wordpress.com

I do hope that if you followed the old one, you’ll keep up with the new one as well.

 

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A Moment Out of the Margins

Anna hadn’t been doing well that day. Her joints were swollen and hard, and the pain medicine brought some relief but didn’t restore mobility. So I went alone with Eden to the 3:00 worship service. I never go to that one, and I only recognized a dozen or so people scattered around the room. Of those whom I knew, several were elders who surely knew why I was there. I tried to hide my self-consciousness. We sang about God’s goodness and faithfulness, and I tried to focus on the actual words instead of what was to come, and every now and again, I succeeded a little. Later, while Eden was learning about Joshua in children’s church, I sat in the pew, my stomach in knots, waiting to hear what the pastor would say.

I’d received an email several days earlier. The senior pastor was set to give a sermon on hungering and thirsting for righteousness, and he wanted to include a story about a family friend back in the States – a Christian who, after years of secrecy, therapy, and prayer, is coming to terms with the fact that he is gay. This friend, the pastor explained, has had a difficult time with the isolation and misunderstanding that he’s experienced in church, as he tries to live faithfully according to God’s word. The pastor then wanted to challenge our church with the question of whether or not we can be a safe place for people like his friend, for people like me, who want to honor God with our lives. He invited input from me as well as the elders and ministry leaders.

In certain circles, something like this is revolutionary. And though my current church is the most “progressive” one I’ve ever been a part of, it is still essentially conservative, especially when it comes to anything lgbt. I was thrilled to read this email and let the pastor know that I think this is just what we need: gay Christians being acknowledged and included in contexts beyond special events in which we’re discussing the “issue” of homosexuality. Bringing us into the mainstream conversation of what it means to “hunger and thirst for righteousness” would be a huge step forward.

Of course, everyone did not agree. Many elders and leaders expressed concerns. Fears of unintended consequences and misunderstanding loomed heavy in many of their minds, but they ultimately deferred to the one who would be speaking that weekend, offering prayers to God for wisdom and guidance. At the end of the email correspondence, there was no conclusion. I wasn’t sure if this groundbreaking moment would happen or not.

I braced myself for the disappointment that silence would bring. “This came out of nowhere”, I told myself. “Before that email a few days ago, I hadn’t had any expectation at all for something like this to be addressed in the pulpit on a typical Sunday afternoon. If it doesn’t happen, it’s ok. At least the conversation has been initiated, and there will be other opportunities.” As I’ve written about before, I’ve been invited to speak on this from time to time at special events.

When the pastor, several minutes into his sermon, began telling the story of his friend in the US, I was surprised to find myself holding back tears. The whole time I was preparing for people like me to be pushed to the margins yet again, shelved for a safer story of a college student not losing heart in a hostile intellectual environment, or a businessman fighting the temptation to cave to unethical practices. Instead, in the context of hunger and thirst for righteousness, the pastor shed a little light on some of the obstacles that gay Christians face alone all too often. He called the church not to add to the burden, but to come alongside in solidarity. It was a profound moment, a small victory and a healing experience for me that I’m not sure the pastor will ever quite understand.

The rest of the night was all sort of anticlimactic. As I mentioned, Anna wasn’t there, and I don’t normally attend the 3:00 service, so there wasn’t anyone there with whom I would’ve gone out for dinner and drinks to talk over what we just heard. I tried my best to focus on Eden’s dinner conversation about “the guy who came after Moses” and the cat that she saw on the way to the Mexican restaurant, and how she wished our whole family wasn’t allergic to them so she could have one.

Later that evening, I told Anna how it went, that the pastor followed through on his original plan. She said she’d been confident that he would. Eventually, talking gave way to the accumulating household chores, a six year old’s drama, bedtime routine, and the waning effects of pain reliever. Unable to catch him in a free moment after the sermon, I emailed the pastor thanking him for what he did. He responded, assuring me that he valued my voice in this whole discussion. As far as I know, there’s been no more talk about it.

I don’t know if there will be. Judging by past experiences, the pattern seems to be that sudden interest in this topic flares up, and it either fizzles away or blows up in a nasty battle in the culture war. Maybe the pastor’s words that afternoon will be conveniently forgotten. Maybe some of the elders’ fears about confusion and disunity will be realized. Hopefully, this sermon was the start of a conversation that will lead to more awareness and perhaps positive change. What I do know is that for me, and anyone else who may have been present who has a similar story to mine, it was a beautiful and rare moment out of the margins of Christian life.

On The Built Environment: How Place Affects Community, And Why We Still Live in Shanghai

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The Huffington Post ran an article a few days ago in which the author, Kate Ascher of Columbia University, predicts that the future of American cities will look much like their past. The nation’s urban centers will continue to regain their human scale, and a typical US city will be an integrated collection of communities where people live, work, and play, much like cities have been throughout most of human history. The author points to trends already taking place around the country as people make their way back into the city centers.

This has been a topic of interest to me for quite some time, so the article didn’t provide any groundbreaking revelations for me. There is a number of authors and intellectuals who have been saying these things for years, and there’s no shortage of pushback from those who say that these people are overstating things, that there is a modest trend back to the city (if it can be called a trend at all), but that it is most likely temporary. It is natural, say the skeptics, to desire big houses with big yards and space between neighbors. And in the long run, Americans will always prefer subdivisions, freeways, big box stores, and parking lots to the dense, multi-use, pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods of yesteryear. I don’t know who’s right. But I sure hope it’s not the champions of suburbia.

I think about my life here in Shanghai. I walk out of my house in the morning, and I take a quick, ten minute stroll to work. I do the same when I want to pick up something from the little grocery store nearby, the pharmacy, the bakery, or (maybe one of these days) go to the gym. And whenever I want to go somewhere that’s not walking distance, I have a myriad of public transit options at my disposal. There’s a bus stop in one direction, a  tram stop in the other, and just a couple of blocks away is the metro station that can take me anywhere I want to go in this vast city. Whenever I go out to run an errand, I’m surrounded by the life of the community: young people, parents, children, grandparents, business people, factory workers, teachers, and retirees. The vibrancy helps keep me connected to the world, realizing that I’m a part of it. And it’s such a more desirable way to live than my experience in the Sunbelt sprawl of Southeast Georgia.

Further highlighting just how far the majority of the American built environment is from human scale is the fact that, even with all of these elements, my part of town is considered rather suburban by Shanghai standards. A friend of ours who lives in Puxi (the West side) will be moving to our neighborhood next year. And he’s mentioned a time or two his apprehension about moving to this sterile, quiet little corner of the city.

I don’t know if the disconnected way that we’ve built our cities, towns, and suburbs in the US has caused or simply mirrors the isolation and lack of community that so often characterizes our country. Or perhaps it’s more complicated than that. Perhaps it isn’t a clear cause and effect, but our social and physical environment are negatively impacting each other in this vicious cycle of disjointedness.

We love our lives here in Shanghai. But this may not last forever. There may come a time when the pollution chokes us out of here, or China-US relations sour enough to give us cause to relocate. The illusion of stability is just that. And if we were to leave, where would we go? I’ve been to countries in Asia and Europe, and I could see us making a life for ourselves in any of those places. But the thought of needing a car just to leave my front yard, of never randomly coming upon a friend or acquaintance while on my way to buy a loaf of bread, not hearing kids laughing outside my window, or seeing senior citizens laughing, chatting, or exercising together as I go to grab some breakfast from one of the street vendors, has me dreading the thought of readjusting to American life.

If and when we find ourselves back Stateside for any extended period of time, I hope to find that the predictions of Ascher and others like her have come to fruition. But for now, Anna, Eden, and I are set to continue our adventure in Shanghai.

Clarification on Our Mixed Orientation Marriage

I wrote a post for Spiritual Friendship back in January, about my mixed-orientation marriage with Anna. Since then, I’ve mulled over things I wish I’d said a little better, and things I would have liked to include but didn’t.

The reactions to the post were varied. Many people in our lives voiced their support and gratitude that we’re sharing our journey with them. Others were confused and, quite frankly, turned off by it all. Some saw it as a situation to be fixed, a broken “half-marriage” if you will. Those who do life with us day to day, and those who know us well, are fully aware that this isn’t the case. But with the limited picture painted for them in a few thousand words, I can understand how many see a much more dire circumstance than what actually is.

The fact of the matter is that it is impossible, in the scope of a blog post, to capture all that a marital (or any significant) relationship is. And just as it is important to consider authorial intent when reading divinely inspired scripture, so too must a reader consider the purpose of any writer when making inferences and forming impressions and opinions based on that writer’s words. In fact, I imagine that if we all, myself included, got a little better at that, we’d get a lot further in dialogue with those whose beliefs and experiences run so counter to our own.

My intent in writing that blogpost was not to give a comprehensive account of my marriage. Rather, I had three objectives in mind: First, I was attempting to shed light on the fact that traditional marriage to a member of the opposite sex is an option for gay (or same-sex attracted, if you like) Christians in some instances. Secondly, I wanted to acknowledge some of the challenges that such marriages will likely include, by highlighting them in my own. And finally, I wanted to express my gratitude to the Spiritual Friendship community for providing a space for me to work out the complicated relationship between my faith and my sexuality, alongside others who can relate.

I hoped that in addressing these three things, others in mixed-orientation marriages would feel encouraged that they aren’t the only ones on this path that often feels like a trek through uncharted territory. I hoped that it would bring awareness to other Christians that there are likely people in their churches and communities who are in such marriages, and that it would give them a glimpse into some of the unique challenges that they face and for which they need their Christian family’s support and prayers. I trust that all these things have been accomplished to one degree or another.

Unfortunately, what I wrote, or more precisely, what I didn’t write, has also left many with the impression that my marriage is a daily heavy burden, an altogether unpleasant cross that Anna and I must hoist daily upon our backs and drudge through life together. And this just isn’t the case. We have a very full, rich life together, and we are happy with each other. Certainly, we’ve had very dark seasons. There have been times when it did seem that marriage was a mistake. That is not, however, where we are now, nor is it where we have been throughout most of our marriage. The emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and physical intimacy that we share is very real. So are the challenges that we face in those areas. In many cases, those challenges look very different from the challenges faced by those in typical heterosexual marriages. But at this point in our lives together, I’m convinced that they are no greater.

This Jesus, Who Makes Me Want To Follow Him

Church of Our Lady Before Tyn, Old Town Square, Prague, Czech Republic

Church of Our Lady Before Tyn, Old Town Square, Prague, Czech Republic

Walking the medieval streets of Prague’s Old Town and touring the stunning Hungarian Parliament building in Budapest, I spent this Chinese New Year holiday doing things I’ve dreamt of since high school. Perhaps those sound like odd goals for a high-schooler, but what can I say? And I’m happy that Anna enjoyed my dream destinations as much as I enjoyed hers last year: a small village in the mountains of northern Thailand, sitting and singing with Christian hippies. (I’ll be a little embarrassed if they find out that I called them that.) But this vacation was far better than the last one for me, and it wasn’t at all because of the location.

Last year, in Thailand, I sat across from a Christian counselor over the course of a few days and expressed my anger, hurt, and moral and intellectual objections to the church, the bible, and God. “When Christians say all those vile things about gay people,” I told him, “they aren’t just talking about guys gyrating in their underwear at gay pride parades! They’re talking about the 14-year old kid who feels like a freak and prays in vain every night for God to change him, who’s bullied by his peers but can’t talk to his parents about it because of his very legitimate fear that they will only add to the suffering he’s already experiencing! And it’s really hard to follow Christ when it seems like those who don’t are a whole lot more loving and moral than the ones who supposedly do!” At the end of the day, I wanted to believe. And I was trying. I surrounded myself with Christians, went to a Christian counselor, and read books from converts who had once found Christianity absolutely abhorrent. But with every word of wisdom I heard, an immediate rebuttal would form in my mind. I was beginning to think that this whole thing was an elaborate hoax, and I’d wasted a decade of my life!

This year, even while so many things are uncertain, and I’m still trying to sort out my faith in the aftermath of a near meltdown, at least this was clear: Jesus is good. And he’s on my side. I can trust him. That made my European vacation all the sweeter.

But even now, usually late at night, I find myself wondering, what if? What if the fundamentalists and ultra-conservatives are right about God and his character? What if the culture warriors are actually doing Christianity right? And what if people like Denny Burk are right when they say that, by just experiencing unwanted same sex attractions, I am already in sin, regardless of how I react to those attractions when they arise?

But I can’t linger there.

That would mean death for me. Not the dying to self that Christ calls us to. By his grace, I try to do that daily. No, it would mean a spiritual death that I want to avoid at all costs. If that was what God was really all about, I don’t think I could have a genuine devotion to him. Perhaps I’d still give following him a half-hearted try, out of fear. But loving him with all of my heart, soul, mind, and strength?

No, my only hope is that Jesus is the kind of God who comes and sits at the table with this sinner and lets me know that I’m loved and valued by the one who made me, even as the religious stand at the door with stones in hand. He’s the kind of God who isn’t afraid of being misunderstood or maligned for sitting at the table with me, giving me a dignity that only comes from the one who has the right to give it. He’s the kind of God that calls me to follow him in a way that’s so winsome that I want to, even if part of me has to die in the process. It’s this God, Jesus, who wouldn’t let me go last year, when I just couldn’t find it in me to hold on to him. It’s this Jesus who won’t break a bruised reed or put out a smoldering wick. This Jesus, who contains infinite power in gentle hands, he makes me want to follow him. And so, with many missteps and falls, I will. And whether it’s Prague, Pai, Budapest, or Shanghai, he’s there. And he’s on my side.

Wait a Minute, A Mixed What?

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I recently had the privilege of writing a guest post for the Spiritual Friendship blog. The site has been an encouraging resource for me for the past year or so, and I was honored to be asked to contribute to the ongoing conversation over there. Many thanks to Ron for all of the editorial guidance and, of course, to Anna, faithful and courageous, for spurring me on to do this when I might have turned back at several points.

Spiritual Friendship

Mike AllenMike Allenlives with his wife and daughter in Shanghai, China, where he teaches English at a private Chinese school. He volunteers with an international youth group, and he blogs in his spare time about faith, sexuality, and life as an expat in China at Adventure in Shanghai.

To most people most of the time, I’m just married. They see me with my wife and daughter, and just see a normal family. Every so often, however, I mention that I’m in a mixed orientation marriage. Then, the response is usually something like, “Wait a minute, a mixed what?” accompanied by a befuddled gaze. I elaborate, and the person then stumbles awkwardly through the conversation, asking in several different ways if, by that, I mean that although I’m married to a woman, I am gay. Once I’ve confirmed that they’ve understood correctly, the befuddled gaze doesn’t always go away.

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I’m Not in Georgia Anymore

GAGlass-and-steel skyscrapers piercing the sky like glistening giant redwoods from inside the vast urban jungle. Loud admonishments in Mandarin, to wear more clothes and drink hot water. Days when the smog is thick enough to completely conceal the iconic skyline. Four years in, and I’m still met daily with things that remind me that I’m not in Georgia anymore. Sometimes, they come in the form of discussions at bible study.

Once upon a time, I was part of a church where controversial topics might include the two possible interpretations of Romans 7 or whether double predestination is biblical, or some other minutia. Most members of that church would have taken issue, in fact, with the statement that those things are minutia.

Here, where it isn’t possible to pick one’s preferred flavor of Christianity, election isn’t assumed, and no one even cares to debate Romans 7. Everything, save for the exclusivity of the gospel, is up for discussion. And people feel safe to debate and share their opinions, even if they may not be held by anyone else in the group. Lively debate is healthy and good, and nobody’s identity is tied up in secondary theological distinctives.   To be fair, just as my own faith has changed quite a bit, I’m sure the same can be said for those back home. But from the other side of the world, I don’t have much to go on besides my memories.

This has been a good place for me. It was in the midst of my faith crisis last fall/winter that I joined my small group. I was in a fragile state then, irritable and ready to lash out at what I felt were straw-man arguments that Christians easily knocked over while giving each other congratulatory pats on the back. And when I did argue the other side, I don’t think it would have helped me to hear another scripted answer, the same things I’d always heard. Thankfully, I was met with a group of people from various backgrounds coming from different perspectives who didn’t feel the need to swiftly answer my objections and close the case with a poignant bible verse.

Eventually, I did work out a lot of my issues, but I did it in part, in the context of patient community where I was allowed to be a Christian in a process, able to grow at my own pace. I don’t think that such an environment is impossible in a church community that is unified by more than the essentials. But the only place I’ve experienced it is one that isn’t.

Perhaps in the long run, such an environment isn’t the best for my family and me. Maybe it’s not really sustainable. But for now, I’m glad I’m not in Georgia anymore.

Being Black Matters: And Other Things You Learn in Community and Relationships

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My friend Lauren is black.

She’s a lot of other things too, and that of course isn’t her one defining characteristic. But of the many things that she is, that is one. And it is a significant one.

She may not even remember this, but years ago, Lauren was at my place and at some point, the topic of racial reconciliation came up. I naively opined that perhaps the best way to achieve that would be to stop talking about race at all, and just try and see each other as individuals. Lauren then proceeded to correct me on that and explain to me why it’s not that simple and that it would not in fact improve race relations in a genuine way.

I was a little embarrassed at first, as I liked to think of myself as a somewhat enlightened person. I fumbled over my words, trying to patch up all the holes she had just exposed in my reasoning. But that night was the beginning of a real shift in my thinking on the issue. And that is primarily because someone I counted as a good friend, whose opinion I respected, and who is impacted by the issue in a way that I am not, had the opportunity to be honest and open with me. And I finally bothered to listen.

And this is the door through which we all need to walk in order to begin really understanding each other. The gospel was supposed to break down the walls of hostility between Jews and gentiles, but we’ve been building new ones ever since. People who are different from us become the “other” and our approach to them usually looks like indifference, mild curiosity, or outright hostility and suspicion. But what if we made it a point to reach out to the “other” in a posture of humility, and were slow to speak and quick to listen, and we really believed that we had something to learn from them?

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’ve experienced the willingness and desire to do just that by members and leaders at the church of which I’m a part here in Shanghai, providing me with a platform to talk about the church’s relationship with the lgbt community from the perspective of someone who identifies with both. And in the aftermath of last year’s flareup of the culture war over gay marriage, and as it seems that the conservative church is currently on the losing end, this seems to be happening a lot more. It might just be that in order to be humble, the church needed to be humbled.

And here’s the chance for the church to get it right. Maybe now that more lgbt people have an opportunity to be open and honest with the church in the context of relationships and community, the church will develop a more informed, nuanced understanding of human sexuality and a more beneficial and compassionate way of interacting with and ministering to their lgbt neighbors.

I’m not being naive; I know this isn’t something that’s going to happen any time soon. But there’s no reason we can’t start down that trajectory. Sure, the Southern Baptist Convention recently held a conference on the “issue” of homosexuality, where among the 45 speakers, less than a handful could speak from a place of personal experience with same sex attractions. But at nearly the same time, Notre Dame University hosted a conference in which all the speakers were lgbt people themselves who are actually living out God’s call on their lives to chastity, whether through celibacy or marriage to someone of the opposite sex.

The bible describes the church as a people made from those who were not a people. If we truly want to be that new, diverse but united people group that displays Christ’s glory, if we want to break down the dividing walls of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, xenophobia, and politics, we’ve got to do the hard work of engaging one another, not just in debate, but in listening. Who knows what all we might learn?

Changes

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My parents are amazed each year, when we’re back in the States for summer vacation, at how much Eden has grown. They go on and on about changes that have, for me, gone largely unnoticed. It isn’t until I come across an old photo that I realize what a difference a year makes. I had a similar experience a few days ago when I read through a few of my old blog posts. I was taken aback by the very different way that I thought and wrote not too long ago.

I am a very different person now.

I only hope that all of the shifts in my thinking and in my faith are, like the changes my parents notice in Eden each year, signs of growth, of maturation. It certainly feels like this is a good thing. At least most of the time.

Expectations and Anniversaries

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I had no idea, as I sat with my best friend on her front porch in the sweltering heat of a south Georgia summer night, eating fresh pineapple and listening to an eclectic playlist of David Gray, Ani DiFranco, Ginny Owens, and Savage Garden, that I’d be here now, at my dining table with my coffee and computer, as she and our daughter sleep soundly in the next room, on the morning of our sixth wedding anniversary. That was a decade or so ago, and even back then, I couldn’t envision my future without her in it. But from that distance, ten years later looked like living in a basement apartment in Anna’s (and her husband’s) house, walking their dog, and playing with their kids who would just love Uncle Mike.

And that’s not a bad existence. It has its challenges and difficulties, no doubt. But as many of my friends who’ve actually found themselves living out that kind of life (whether it will be for a season or a lifetime) have demonstrated, it’s certainly not the death sentence I sometimes feared it would be. And on the other side of the coin, the Apostle Paul, although single and celibate, absolutely knew what he was talking about when he warned the Corinthians that marriage brings troubles (1 Corinthians 7:28).

For all the wedded bliss, and all the hallmark and kodak moments that marriage and family life have brought us, it’s also brought trials, exhaustion, pain, fears, feelings of inadequacy, anger, and yes, even loneliness. I think if they’re honest, that statement rings true to all married people. And in our case, these things have only been magnified by the rather unique circumstances of our mixed-orientation marriage.

But here we are, six years in, committed and happy, truly aware of God’s kindness to us, as this has been a harrowing journey so far and has seemed impossible at times. And in the midst of all of the trials, He has been teaching us about self-sacrifice, long-suffering, faithfulness, forgiveness, mercy, grace, and love. And I like to think that, just as our circumstances magnify the negatives, they do the same for these positives.

Today, we will celebrate all that this marriage is: the love, the intimacy, the sacrifice, the challenge, the sanctifying agent. And we’ll celebrate the fact that from that front porch in Georgia, to a river-front hotel room on the Bund, our God has been there, even when it felt like He wasn’t, and He’s been guiding us, directing our steps. He’ll never leave us or forsake us. And by God’s grace, we say the same for each other.