NOTE: This is part three of a five-part series about my faith journey over the last few years. You can find the first two parts here and here.

As I began to learn more about the Episcopal Church, I noticed that if I ever casually mentioned it to anyone who wasn’t Episcopalian, I’d hear all about how it was “Catholic lite.” But the more I read, the more I found the Episcopal tradition to be quite different from Catholicism. It seemed that most people just saw the collars, heard some words, and saw the worship style and assumed it was the same. They took a look at the cover of the book without bothering to read it. I, however, saw meaningful differences. But I digress.

I want to share some of the impactful things I learned through a couple of books, beginning with Welcome to the Episcopal Church by Christopher L. Webber. On the Bible:

“The Bible is not a set of instructions that can give us simple answers to all questions or a text with which to prove points. In the first place, the guidance the Bible gives was provided for a society very different from ours and still in the early stages of growing in knowledge of God’s love.

In the second place, any set of words is open to various interpretations…God, being ultimately responsible for both the text of the Bible and the nature of human beings, presumably understood that in creating both and made allowances. The authority of the Bible is not that of a dictator or rule book…If God had wanted us to have a rule book, surely a better one could have been provided than this. The Bible is something quite different; we go to it not to find specific words to answer our questions but to find the Word who created us and knows our need before we ask.”

On worship and theology:

“Worship for example, is inclusive, not exclusive, while theology, by its nature, excludes. Theology is concerned with defining issues and boundaries, with saying we believe this and not that. Worship, on the other hand, like great music and art, can be appreciated on many levels and in many ways. Art, music, and worship are difficult to define in words and it would be difficult to say that someone whose appreciation is different from ours is wrong. Worship, then, has the ability to unite, to draw us in and draw us together…

Theology relies on language in its attempt to understand religious experience, and those who worship God know how difficult it is to put that experience into words. God is always beyond our definitions.”

On the importance of reason, in addition to scripture and tradition:

“No matter how much some Christians may question reliance on human reason, they cannot avoid using their minds to do so. Neither Scripture nor tradition provides clear and certain answers to all questions; at some point, there is no way to decide among possible interpretations except through the use of the human mind.”

On “sin:”

“The attempt to identify sin with some outward enemy can also lead to such phenomena as racism, homophobia…and a negative approach to the world in general…sin lies in the misuse of good things rather than in the things themselves. The purpose of the spiritual life is to seek God’s glory rather than simply avoid sin. Nature has an inherent goodness that can be perfected by grace.”

On differences of opinions within the Church:

“Unity is not the same thing as uniformity, nor can it be imposed from above…Uniformity of opinion and vision might be more comfortable to some, but unity is made up of diversity. It is precisely in this clash of opinions and the debating of different visions that the mission of the church is clarified. A church without controversy would be a dead church.” 

I also read Episcopal Questions, Episcopal Answers by Ian S. Markham & C.K. Robertson. Here are some of my favorite parts, the first being about doubt and certainty:

“It is often said that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. When we think about God, we do so from the vantage point of humans. We are small entities in a vast universe; we are trying to work out what the source and creator of the universe is like. We should approach this project with some humility. Our vantage point does not permit certainty. We are called to think, struggle, and discern the truth about God and God’s relations with the world…we are all on a journey of faith. This journey will have many twists and turns. Sometimes our sense and experience of God will be strong; at other times, God will seem to be further away.”

On the inherent worth of others:

“We are made in the ‘image of God’ — often referred to in the Latin as ‘Imago Dei.’ Every person is special. It means that we are all required to treat people with dignity. They are extraordinary creations of infinite worth.” 

On the importance of social justice:

“If you had to identify the single most important biblical theme, then I think any fair observer would say ‘social justice.’ It is the primary theme of the Gospel (Jesus never mentions homosexuality, but talks repeatedly about the dangers of riches and the importance of the poor); it is the major theme of the prophets in the Old Testament (just look at Isaiah, Amos, and Micah); and it is a central characteristic of the early church (see Acts 4:33-35)…this commitment is firmly embedded in Scripture. The Church is called to be an agent of change in society.”

On scripture:

“It is not enough to read a verse of Scripture on its own, divorced from its setting in the larger passage. Sadly, there have been many times in the history of Christianity when people have wrenched a verse from its context and used it to justify otherwise deplorable acts such as slavery, racism, even crusades and inquisitions. Even in less extreme situations, it is far too easy either to take a verse that supports our own biases or to react against a too-easy fundamentalist approach by dismissing all of Scripture as irrelevant. No, we choose to do the harder work. This means considering the passage surrounding a particular verse.

…While affirming the way that Christians before us have comprehended the Word of God in relation to their time and place, we must also ask what God might be saying to us now in our own context…God can do a new thing if we are willing to let go of our own presuppositions and dare to approach both Scripture and our own situation with fresh eyes.

…Everyone looks at the Scriptures through a lens of some kind.”

On diversity within the church, including diversity of opinion:

“The work of discerning ‘what is of God’ is hard. We need the range of perspectives. We appreciate the wisdom of those who push the question: What is the biblical basis of this or that innovation? We appreciate the insight of those who push the question: How can we further the work of justice in today’s society? Naturally, this can look messy at times. If you look at the church in Corinth and read behind Paul’s letters to that congregation, then you will see messy is the norm. And messy can be good. We would rather all stay together in conversation than keep aspiring for a purity where other voices are excluded.”

On the Bible and the “Word of God:”

“For the Episcopal Church, Jesus is the primary Word of God. As we shall see later, the Bible is the Word of God because it points to the primary Word, which is Jesus. It is from the Incarnation that we learn what God is like. It is the primary disclosure of the nature of God to humanity.”

That is a lot to digest, I know. And it’s only the beginning. Next, I’ll talk more about what I’ve learned, specifically by actually [gasp] regularly attending services.

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NOTE: This is part two of a five-part series about my faith journey over the last few years. You can find the first part here.

I mentioned fear yesterday.

Turns out, I tend to feel like I need to have everything figured out before discussing my faith, but I don’t and I never will. I need to feel confident, but I sometimes doubt. I need to be perfect and discuss it perfectly, but I’m not and I won’t. In other words, in typical Kyle fashion, I hold myself to an impossible standard.

So here we are: The boyfriend who had me thinking about my faith again called himself a Christian, but wasn’t what I knew a Christian to be. He believed in education and science and logic and reason. And he believed in Jesus and God. I know what you’re thinking – what a freakin’ weirdo, right?!

He didn’t demand I believe certain things or anything like that. He just wanted to help me figure things out. He wanted me to explore the world in a new and different way. He wanted me to know there was a Christian perspective that didn’t exclude things like equality, logic, reason, doubt, or difference of opinion. He told me about writers and thinkers whose work he appreciated, but I explored others beyond them, too.

We also started regularly attending a church service at one of those warehouse-style places with rock bands for worship music and trendy pastors who try really hard to ooze “authenticity.” Let’s just say it didn’t work out. Turns out, they were basically the same thing from my past, just repackaged to look and feel better.

But we also went to another church on Christmas Eve each year. The boyfriend told me about a priest that his best friend had told him about. A female, Episcopalian priest. Yep. Two good ol’ Southern Baptist-raised boys found a lady priest they liked! Then, one of them realized he was gay, got into a relationship, and then told his confused boyfriend about the cool lady priest, too. You know, your average coming-of-age conservative Evangelical story…

As a control freak and a recovering Southern Baptist, walking into an Episcopal cathedral wasn’t the most comfortable thing, no matter how hard anyone tried. But I know there’s a God because it turns out they give you a bulletin that tells you what to say and what to do for the entire service! #blessed

It was more formal than what I was used to, but I was drawn to it. At first, it was primarily the sermons. They were short, but powerful. So I started listening online, specifically to any sermon from this priest. For months, nothing more happened, mostly because I was just beginning to ask what the Bible really said about LGBTQ folks, if anything. Before, I hadn’t cared. Now, I did.

I discovered LGBTQ Christians like Matthew Vines, who wrote a great book debunking the “bible-based” arguments Evangelicals like to make when condemning LGBTQ people, or at least not affirming them. Not only did it open my eyes to what the Bible doesn’t say about this “issue,” it confirmed for me that I really could – and should – challenge what I’d been taught about what a “Christian” was, who Jesus was, and what the Bible is.

I also found one of Rachel Held Evans’ books, Searching for Sunday, and found myself nodding along the entire time. I really loved how she described her faith journey and the sacraments. When she began to talk about how she found herself enjoying an Episcopal church, I really identified with it. For example, in one Washington Post article, she wrote:

“I believe that the sacraments are most powerful when they are extended not simply to the religious and the privileged, but to the poor, the marginalized, the lonely and the left out. This is the inclusivity so many millennials long for in their churches, and it’s the inclusivity that eventually drew me to the Episcopal Church, whose big red doors are open to all — conservatives, liberals, rich, poor, gay, straight and even perpetual doubters like me.”

As time passed, I developed a desire to share with other people that the Bible really doesn’t condemn homosexuality or people in loving, committed, same-sex relationships. I participated in The Coming Out Monologues for a second year, in hopes of changing conservative Christian minds, but also to show LGBTQ folks that millions of Christians affirm and welcome them. I wanted people to hear this message, which I never heard growing up.

A few weeks later, I was representing COM at a local Pride event when a man with his adorable family walked up and introduced himself. He had attended (and loved) the show and wanted to get more involved with the LGBTQ community. I kept thinking, “He looks familiar and his name sounds familiar, too…” It hit me. He was also a priest at the cathedral where we attended Christmas Eve services!

This priest and I had casual chats at occasional coffee meet-ups, where I could toss out whatever issue or question I had. It was probably the first time I had so quickly felt at ease with a minister of any sort, much less seeking out one’s company and input.

I began more intentionally researching the Episcopal Church and really identified with it. So what did I like? And where am I at now in my journey? Stay tuned.

So I’m sitting in a restaurant with my boyfriend. I don’t know how it comes up, but it does. 

“I don’t know what I’d consider myself…I don’t really know what I believe,” I say.

Silence. 

I felt bad, but it was true. And he’s an awesome boyfriend, now fiancé, so there were no ultimatums given or anything. We were both just kind of surprised by the conversation, unsure of exactly where to go from there. I think I explained that, though it had crossed my mind at times over the last few years, there hadn’t really been a need for me to think about my faith at length.

I didn’t know where it would take me, but I knew it was time to think about what I believed, particularly regarding faith.

So for the last few years, I’ve been on this journey, but it’s not one I’ve talked much about publicly. Naturally, my increasingly introspective nature leads me to think about why that is. I don’t think I have the complete answer, but I think I can summarize it: Fear.

I can confidently and comprehensively discuss LGBTQ issues with pretty much anybody now. For more than a decade, these issues have dominated my life. And while many conservative Evangelical Christians love to talk about how my sexuality is only one small part of the complete “me,” they’re also the ones who force many of us to focus on it because we’re constantly defending our love and our livelihoods. Fighting to be equal. Fighting just to live in peace. So while I certainly don’t claim to know everything when it comes to the LGBTQ community, or even myself within it, I can definitely discuss it. 

When I was a child and into my teenage years, before I knew for sure I was gay, there was something else I could discuss at length, something else that dominated my thinking and world: my faith. And I loved it. It helped me understand the world. It gave me guidance. Friends. A family of sorts. It gave me hope and love and fun. It gave me a chance to perform, write, and speak to groups. I realized I could be influential in others’ lives. It gave me a sense of mission.

But I also had questions and doubts. Big ones. Even before my sexuality became an issue, I learned that doubts and questions were not welcome at church. Disagreement was not welcome.

I’ve always been one to value education, logic and reason. More and more, I felt these were also not welcome, so I, in turn, was not welcome. As I got older, I started to notice other things, like misogyny and racism. Things just didn’t feel right. It didn’t seem like the Christ I had read about, whose love, compassion, grace and peace I thought I had at least occasionally felt. I realized I needed to leave. As you can imagine, once I realized I was gay, I knew that was it. 

All I knew about “other” non-Evangelical Christians back then was that they were few in number, were all wrong, and were giving into “the world” to make people more comfortable. That’s what I had been taught. Fortunately, I was going off to college and didn’t have to deal with any of it, so I didn’t.

While away at college, I was able to really come into my own. The big, bad, liberal university I spent my entire childhood hearing about turned out to be an awesome, caring community that allowed me to meet other people, learn new things, and gather valuable new perspectives on the world and the people living in it. It solidified what I already instinctively knew: Higher education and interaction with people who were different from me were good things, not bad things. My biggest regret about college is that I rushed through it. 

My drifting away wasn’t entirely my childhood church’s fault. It was inevitable. So-called “Christians” have repeatedly been the most hypocritical, hate-filled, fear-filled people I’ve encountered. And some of the nicest, most caring people I’ve met have been people of other faiths or of no faith. Plenty of “Christians” pushed me farther away. I have to say, though, that I never doubted my childhood church’s love for me. There are certainly reasons to be thankful to them, though I have to wonder what would’ve happened had I known I was gay back then and been open about it.

So there I was, at that table with that adorable man. For years, I hadn’t had to think about my faith, so I didn’t. But it was time. What did I believe? And if I did really still ultimately think I was a Christian, there really wasn’t any welcoming place for me, an openly gay man, right? Turns out, there was, but it would take time to figure that out.

Equality Won!

Last night, the Jacksonville City Council voted 12-6 to add sexual orientation and gender identity and expression to its existing human rights ordinance. And while there is certainly more work to do, it was, and still is, a moment to celebrate. It’s a moment that offers hope. It was historic. I’m proud to have been there.

Before, during, and after the meeting at City Hall, supporters gathered in Hemming Park to be together, show support, and celebrate. Love and happiness and equality were the themes. I felt them all. The positive, love-filled, fearless energy was amazing. Meanwhile, opponents, many (if not most of them) self-proclaimed Christians, repeatedly marched around City Hall. I can tell you where I most felt God’s love last night — and it was most certainly not with those angry, fear-filled marchers.

I’m still feeling a lot of things right now, mostly good. But I’m also aware that last night won’t magically change the hearts and minds of people who say they love the LGBT community and wouldn’t discriminate against us, but also don’t support our legal equality. For now, though, I want to tell you a story that I hope you’ll find as inspiring as I did.

Last night, in the Council chamber, I was sitting with friends, including a transgender woman (a smart, bold, beautiful transgender woman, I might add — but I digress). As we all sat there, a man with multiple stickers from the so-called “opposition” began to walk toward us. To be honest, I got kind of nervous. This man walked right up to the transgender woman — who, if I recall, had made known in previous public comment that she was a runner — and asked how her running was going and if she was accomplishing what she wanted to accomplish. He sounded genuinely kind and curious. And, from my perspective at least, they had an actual conversation on a human-to-human level. I don’t know about anyone else, but I was inspired. I saw love and light in that moment, completely initiated by someone with multiple anti-HRO stickers on. Someone who I had labeled because of it.

You may be saying to yourself right now, “Well that’s great and all, but that was clearly a stunt. He was clearly trying to prove some political point.” If I’m honest, the thought definitely crossed my mind. But I asked myself — and now I ask you — isn’t what he did exactly what we need to do if we’re ever going to make progress? Regardless of his motives, he made a real effort to connect with someone he disagrees with and get to know that person. And this awesome, inspiring trans woman had the courage and grace to listen and talk and share a part of her life with him. Interactions like this are exactly how we make progress. They’re exactly how we change hearts and minds. They’re exactly how we move forward.

When I walked out of City Hall right after the vote, I walked into a gigantic wave of love. Music playing, people cheering, people dancing, people hugging and kissing and holding. People loving. I am so thankful for them. I’m thankful for the core group of people at the Jacksonville Coalition for Equality who worked so, so hard to make this a reality. I’m thankful to all of the volunteers and supporters. I’m thankful to all the businesses and their leaders, of companies large and small, who publicly supported my equality. I’m thankful for everyone who publicly supported and who wrote and called and met with the members of our City Council to explain why this needed to (finally) get done. I’m thankful to the hundreds of faith leaders who did publicly support our equality, particularly St. John’s Cathedral’s Rev. David Erickson and his wife, also a priest, for being so publicly supportive, even bringing the whole family out to the vote last night (side note: OMG his kids are so adorable). I’m also thankful to him and Dean Kate Moorehead for keeping me going and grounded, whether they knew it or not, throughout this whole thing and in life in general. I’m thankful for their leadership on this and other issues in the community. I’m thankful to my boyfriend for not only putting up with me, but for being right there with me — using his voice, too. I’m thankful that we can help each other find our voices and use them. I’m just thankful. And proud.

But while we won this one, the broader fight for equality continues. And we never know what lies ahead. As I think about this, I’m reminded of something Michael Curry, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, recently said in a forum about radicalization and extremism:

“What I know about Jesus of Nazareth is that he treated every human being that he ever met as a child of God. He showed them the respect, the honor, the dignity that befits a child of God. He did that with Pontius Pilate, who ordered his execution. He did that with lepers whom nobody else would touch. He did that with the poor and the rich. [He] treated everyone equally as a child of God. Jesus of Nazareth is my model for life and I believe that everyone is a child of God equally, by virtue of our creation.”

“As I navigate, like everyone else, a kind of complex cultural terrain and political terrain that we’re in, I’ll stand there. Because it means that we must work to create a society and a global community where every man, woman and child [is] equal and respected and honored and loved. Everyone. Including the people I disagree with. And that sometimes is a difficult walk to walk. But, my brother, I’ll walk it because I believe it’s the right walk.”

As I walk that walk, I know that I might get angry. I have before. Maybe you will, too. And anger can be good. But as Rev. Erickson said in last week’s sermon, anger can become soul-crushing when we begin to live in it — to cultivate it:

“If we’re honest, because it’s so pervasive in our society, we probably find ourselves sometimes … embodying anger, contempt and insults. Maybe not out loud, but probably in our hearts. And the issue is that you and I as followers of Jesus, we need to be the radical practitioners of Jesus’ blessing, hope and grace. We are the ones who know we are blessed. We are the ones who understand ourselves as salt and light. So we must be the ones who are willing to do the hard work — to when it comes down to it, in that moment of crisis and judgment, we will choose light and life versus darkness and insult and anger. Because if we’re not going to do it, then who is?”

So as we move forward, together, on issues still to be solved and issues yet to come, let us do our best to understand each other, see our shared humanity, and lead in love.

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Image created by Karen Kurycki 

These Statistics Scare Me

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A friend of mine recently told me about the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System‘s national school-based survey. It measures lots of things, but I was particularly interested in national and local statistics related to lesbian, gay and bisexual high school students. (They explain here why data on transgender students is unavailable.) As with anything, I encourage you to look at these numbers for yourself. If you see any errors in what I’ve listed, please let me know! There is a lot of info, so it’s worth checking out yourself, but here are some things I found most interesting:

– 23.3% of LGB HS students in Duval County reported being physically forced to have sexual intercourse (nearly 1 in 4), compared to 9.7% of straight HS students.

– 26.1% of LGB HS students in Duval County reported experiencing physical dating violence, compared to 9.1% of straight HS students. This is the highest percentage of all “large urban school district surveys” included (which include many major U.S. cities).

– 24.6% of LGB HS students in Duval County reported experiencing sexual dating violence, compared to 11.7% of straight HS students.

– 20.6% of LGB HS students in Duval County reported being threatened or injured with a weapon on school property, compared to 7.4% of straight HS students. This is the highest percentage of all “large urban school district surveys” included.

– 37.6% of LGB HS students in Duval County reported being bullied on school property, compared to 16.7% of straight HS students. This is the highest percentage of all “large urban school district surveys” included. In fact, the next closest is Broward County at 30.8%.)

– 28.7% of LGB HS students in Duval County reported being electronically bullied, compared to 12.1% of straight HS students. This is the highest percentage of all “large urban school district surveys” included.

– 20.3% of LGB HS students in Duval County reported that they did not want to go to school because they felt unsafe there or on their way to or from school, compared to 10% of straight HS students. Duval is tied with Orange County, FL (the Orlando area) for the third highest in all of all “large urban school district surveys” included.

– 53% of LGB HS students in Duval County reported feeling sad or hopeless, compared to 27.6% of straight HS students.

– 41% of LGB HS students in Duval County reported that they seriously considered attempting suicide. 37.5% say they actually made a plan on how they’d do it. 32.5% actually attempted suicide. This is compared to 15.4%, 15.4% and 15.2% of straight HS students, respectively.

Nationally, LGB students have much higher percentages than straight HS students in every category I’ve listed. Nationally, 60.4% of LGB students report feeling sad or hopeless, compared to 26.4% of straight HS students. Nationally, 29.4% of LGB HS students report trying to commit suicide, compared to 6.4% of straight HS students. Naturally, even more of them make a plan to do it or at least think about it. in fact, more than 40% (42.8%) of LGB students across this nation seriously consider suicide. For straight HS students, it’s 14.8%.

I found these numbers particularly meaningful as our city debates providing equal protections to the LGBT community, especially because opponents repeatedly say that there is no proven discrimination against LGBT people in Jacksonville. They repeatedly say that Jacksonville is a welcoming place for all and it’s so loving and wonderful for everyone. Well, these statistics alone, while only about high school students, suggest otherwise.

Perhaps there’s an argument out there that lesbian, gay and bisexual teens are just being more honest and reporting their issues more often. But if they’re the ones being bullied, attacked, and trying to kill themselves the most, I struggle to think they’d be more comfortable with being honest in answering these questions than their straight classmates.

These are terrible statistics for all involved, but especially for lesbian, gay and bisexual kids. Certainly, we don’t want to see any young people being bullied, attacked, trying to commit suicide, etc. And there’s no one way to magically stop all of the negative things in the world from happening. But as widespread acceptance and community support grows, LGBT people gradually become safer and are treated more kindly. There are multiple ways to do this, but an LGBT-inclusive anti-discrimination ordinance that provides equal protection is a great step in the right direction.

One thing is for sure: We need to treat all children with more love and support and understanding and equality — not less. For some, it’s a matter of life and death.

My Latest HRO Comments

 

The City of Jacksonville is (still) debating a more inclusive human rights ordinance that would provide the same legal protections to the LGBT community already provided to many other groups, including religious groups. Here are my comments from the City Council’s public hearing on Jan. 24, 2017. The text below is the same as the video above. My apologies in advance for the grainy video, but it’s the best I could do for now and I felt it was an important message to share.

Members of the City Council, friends and neighbors, good evening. I’m Kyle Sieg. I first want to thank you for this opportunity to speak tonight. Frankly, I don’t know what more any of us can really say on this issue that might actually change hearts and minds. So I’m going to spend a few moments talking about what I do know.

As Maya Angelou said, “we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.” It may be difficult to see that right now, but it’s true.

Here’s something else I know: Everyone in this room, yes everyone in this room, is a beloved child of God, created in God’s image. It doesn’t matter who or how you are, or what you believe.

And everyone in this room deserves love and equality. In fact, Christians are called to love one another, as difficult as that is and as messy and imperfect as we all are.

Here’s what else I know: Jesus lived in the margins and championed social justice. Christians are called to follow in his footsteps and reach out — in love — to the marginalized.

Let’s assume we’re all just trying to do the right thing. How do we figure out what that is?

In the Bible, Jesus says a good tree cannot bear bad fruit and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. And so our beliefs should be shaped by their outcomes.

Only bad fruit can come from continuing to allow discrimination in our city, especially when multiple groups — including religious groups — already have these same protections.

But if we did pass these protections, maybe LGBT people would be safer in their own community. Maybe more businesses would move to Jacksonville. And — something that should be important to Christians — maybe more people would receive a Christ-like message of love and inclusion. That sounds like good fruit to me.

I want to share with you two quotes from local faith leaders who’ve helped me profoundly, both from St. John’s Cathedral just down the street.

Dean Kate Moorehead offers this advice:

“Look at each other. Do you see each other? Each of us is a human being. Each one of us is so much more than just one issue — more than our political persuasion or ethnicity or race or gender or sexual orientation. Look at each other. Stop seeing a cause or perspective. See the person!”

Reverend David Erickson tells us that…”We must not live according to fear. We must not remain in darkness…

We are called to be light-bearers — love-spreading difference-makers…

This is our commission. This is our sending forth….And it’s not simply what we’re to do. It is who we are. It is, like Jesus, our true identity — the very pulse of our heart.”

This is why I’m speaking out in favor of an expansion of love and inclusion and equality in our city, which is what an expanded HRO would be.

Thank you.

If you’re wondering what you can do to support fairness and equality in Jacksonville, I wholeheartedly recommend emailing, writing and calling your local City Council representatives. I also suggest following the Jacksonville Coalition for Equality for updates on the measure and how you can help in other ways.

Additionally, I encourage you to speak out, publicly, on this issue within your own friend groups. A lot of people in Jacksonville don’t seem to know this is even going on. They also don’t seem to know that LGBT people face discrimination in their own community. So, please, educate yourself if you need to, and then help us educate others. This is more than an issue and it’s not just about the economy. This is about real people facing real discrimination in their own community. We need your help.

The Art of Conversation

I think a lot about communication. It comes naturally to me. But communication is important to all of us. Our lives revolve around how we communicate, with ourselves and others. Most recently, however, I’ve been focused on what I’ll call compassionate communication: how to effectively communicate in a way that shows compassion for all involved.

I have lots of opinions. We all do. We all have our own life experiences which shape these opinions. And, as if that’s not messy enough, we’re all imperfect. So how do we effectively communicate with each other — not at each other or around each other or past each other, but with each other?

We have to be quiet and listen.

We can’t communicate effectively or compassionately if we don’t make an effort to understand each other, which happens by listening. This is why social media communication sometimes fails so miserably. We are complicated people discussing complicated issues that tend to be far more nuanced than we sometimes like to admit. Many times, we need to be able to actually hear each other. Even better, we need to see each other. We need to remember that the person on the other side of the conversation is a human just like us. In many cases, the people we are communicating with are our friends and family. If we have any chance of communicating effectively, especially via social media, we must be willing to be quiet and listen to each other.

We have to start from a place of mutual respect.

Can I just admit this is extraordinarily difficult to do sometimes? And if you’re honest with yourself, I bet you’d agree. I live in a world in which my very equality is regularly questioned in my own community. In fact, I don’t even have the same rights as others in my community and there are still people, most of them who say they’re Christians just like me, actively trying to deny me this equality. It is incredibly difficult to think of these people as anything other than mean, fearful, ignorant people. It’s messy. And even when I do remember that these people are also beloved Children of God (regardless of their faith or lack of it), and that we should strive to love everyone, it’s not something I can permanently sustain. It’s something I must regularly work to do. But if I’m asking them to respect me, I must be willing to offer them the same respect, which leads me to my next point.

We must be willing to treat others as we would like to be treated.

I know — what a cliche. But this one is true. First of all, it’s the right thing to do. It helps stop us from being hypocritical. And let’s be honest: we all love to call someone out for hypocrisy, don’t we? And we’re all hypocrites at times, aren’t we? But beyond it being the right thing to do, you’re never going to get your point across to someone who disagrees with you or doesn’t understand you if you don’t even treat them the way you expect them to treat you.

We must be prepared to show grace.

As a gay man, especially one who now (again) identifies as a Christian — a word that understandably tends to carry a boatload of assumptions, I would get absolutely nowhere with many people if I just shut down a conversation every time someone asked me something that was inappropriate or offensive.

I am not saying that one should endure a continued barrage of angry, fear-filled hate speech and continue to be around the person spewing it. I’m also not saying the marginalized bear the full burden of explaining ourselves to others. What I am saying is that when we’re engaging in thoughtful conversations with folks, we should try our best to extend grace to one another.

I’ve been asked so many uncomfortable, insensitive questions about my sexual orientation. If you’re in a minority group or a group that’s very often misunderstood, chances are you know what I’m talking about. 

Perhaps you’ve even asked someone these sorts of questions. If I’m honest, in my effort to learn more about others and learn how I can advocate on their behalf, I think I have. And anytime anyone has ever patiently pointed it out to me, I’ve been so thankful to them for doing so, so that I can learn from the experience. One’s motives behind the questions make a difference, at least to me. If you’re asking to truly better understand me and people like me, I’m much more likely to patiently answer your questions. Regardless, we need to have more grace in our conversations.

We have to hold each other accountable.

Once we establish that we are willing to listen, respect one another, treat each other as we’d like to be treated, and prepare ourselves to extend grace to one another — once we do all that, we are better equipped to effectively hold each other accountable.

I can’t say this enough: humans are not perfect. Often, we slip up. When we do, we need help from friends who will hold us accountable. But more than that, we also need to call out things like racism, bigotry, and homophobia when we see them. We can do this while still listening, showing respect, following the Golden Rule, and showing grace. It’s a challenge — trust me, I struggle with it regularly — but it’s optimal.

So why don’t we do all of this? Why is it so difficult? Well, that’s a loaded question with many reasons. But let me explain why I think it’s sometimes difficult for me.

I want to avoid unnecessary stress and controversy.

I can handle stress. Successfully handling stressful situations has always been part of my job, regardless of the industry. I have even frequently enjoyed these moments. But a key to effectively handling stress, for me at least, is minimizing unnecessary stress as much as possible. Sometimes, stress is good and needed. But sometimes, it’s definitely not. It’s all about balance.

So when I’m faced with a decision about whether or not to engage in communication with someone on some issue, I factor in how much stress it may cause and if it’s worth it. That’s a reasonable thing to do, but more often I’m realizing that it’s important to have important conversations, regardless of the stress it may cause.

I want to avoid tension and being in uncomfortable situations.

This is especially true for me in person. But tension can be good. Martin Luther King, Jr. argued for the benefits and importance of tension in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail:”

“I must confess that I am not afraid of the word ‘tension.’ I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”

Did you catch that? Tension isn’t only important, it’s necessary for growth. Dang.

We find similar themes in Christianity, with tension and complexity in the Bible itself and in issues people struggle with. As Christopher L. Webber puts it:

“Uniformity of opinion and vision might be more comfortable to some, but unity is made up of diversity. It is precisely in this clash of opinions and the debating of different visions that the mission of the church is clarified. A church without controversy would be a dead church.”

Dang.

In order to have effective conversations, we must be willing to embrace tension and get out of our comfort zones. Honestly, you and I probably both know some of our most meaningful learning experiences have been in trying, tense, and uncomfortable times, yet we sometimes still fear them. But the more we do it, the easier and more comfortable it becomes.

I fear imperfection.

Yep. The guy who talks about how imperfect we all are is the same guy who has this nagging need to try to be perfect, even though he realizes this is unrealistic. Welcome to my mind.

The reason this sometimes holds me back from conversations is that I worry what I’ll say will hurt more than help. I worry that I won’t have the right words or will have the wrong tone. Also, the idea of people thinking I speak on behalf of an entire group, regardless of the group, adds enormous pressure. And while maybe I tend to thrive under pressure, my mind doesn’t seem to care. But hey — realizing this is the first step to moving past it, right?

I like to be liked.

There. I said it. If you know me, you’re probably all like, “Um, duh. That’s obvious.” But here’s the thing: when I think about why I like to be liked, my mind almost immediately goes back to the things I listed above — I want to avoid unnecessary stress and controversy and I want to avoid tense, uncomfortable situations.

But I also want to be approachable, especially for friends and family. I want to be a resource — someone who they know will listen to them. While I’m certainly unafraid to take positions and have opinions, I do often try to find common ground. And that’s not a bad thing as long as I’m not denying myself, denying others, and avoiding what’s right in an unrealistic effort to make all people feel comfortable. And I know I do that, especially in person.

For example, if I’m around family or even in public with my boyfriend, I’m less likely to show him any form of overt affection. I’ll tell myself that I’m not a huge fan of PDA and wouldn’t be if I were straight either. But is that true? How do I know that’s true when I’ve been conditioned for literally my entire life to think that being gay and showing any form of romantic affection to someone of the same sex is wrong? Two things drive this thought process: fear and wanting to make others comfortable.

This is also something I’m working on — not just the PDA thing — all of it. While certain times may call for neutrality, in many cases it’s better in the long run to stand firm in who and how you are, letting the chips fall where they may. But I think you must also keep the Golden Rule in mind, as well as the idea that we should strive to show love and kindness to one another. 

So what’s the answer here? How do we communicate effectively while staying true to who we are and not condoning dangerous, damaging rhetoric? How do we have conversations with people who are not playing by the same “rules,” so-to-speak? Why should we have to play by those rules if they aren’t? Should we even try?

As usual, I think the answer is somewhere in the middle — in a gray area. And I think it depends on the situation. Like most things in life, it’s complex. And if I had one perfect answer, I think I’d be a much more popular person, probably with a few extra bucks in my bank account, too.

Most of life’s big questions don’t have definite ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers. It’s messier than that. But there can be beauty in  difficult answers. To reference Christopher L. Webber again, a “middle way” can “achieve a comprehensiveness or breadth of approach that could draw wisdom from every side and include the insights of others.”

While Webber is talking about Christianity, particularly Episcopalianism here, I think it holds true in general, as well. For so many issues, the best answer lies somewhere in the middle — in a gray area. Why? Well, people are diverse and complex. Many issues are, too.

Certainly, there are issues that are either just right or wrong, and we must not be silent when we hear things like hate speech. That’s when holding each other accountable comes in. But how do we know what’s right and wrong?

Jesus tells us we can judge a tree by the fruit it bears — a good tree cannot bear bad fruit and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. If one’s actions and rhetoric are bearing bad fruit — leading to negative outcomes — it is not good. If one’s actions and rhetoric are bearing good fruit — leading to positive outcomes — it is good. Using this method, we can better understand when it’s time to speak up. And when we do so, we must be prepared to be bold while also being mindful of the things that make a conversation most productive.

If we want to affect any change, if we want to learn and grow, if we want others to learn and grow, and if we want to fully live life, we must be willing to engage in difficult, messy, conversations. And we must be willing to do so with compassion, understanding, respect and grace. It’s easier said than done, but it’s worth a shot.

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