Friday, September 2, 2011

Where is Religion When We Need It?

A few months ago, I received an email from a reader.  He wrote he was having considerable difficulty accepting himself as a gay person and was thinking of turning to his church for the support he needed.  At the time, I felt deeply concerned for him and his potential course of action--what he wrote staying with me for weeks afterward.  Who knows how many other gay and lesbian people might have the same idea, but I couldn't help but think this young man would find himself even worse off in the end.    

For millions of us, it's natural to think about turning to our church during a time of need.  After all, as we were brought up in one religion or another, we learned the church is there when we face life's gravest challenges--from marital difficulties, to addictions, to coping with death, to whatever the case may be.  And I don't doubt for a moment churches around the world have made huge differences in people's lives, giving them strength when they were unable to find it within themselves.  

But what about when you're gay?  For countless millions of people around the world, one of the biggest challenges they'll ever face is coming to terms with their sexual orientation, making peace with an integral part of themselves over which they have no control.  Yet, when they could most use the guidance and support and encouragement--the message of God's love for all of us, no matter who or what we are--the church cannot be there for them in the way they need it.

How could it be?  The blame for why we feel so negatively about ourselves in the first place--why we have such difficulty accepting who we are, why we often spend decades of our lives filled with self-loathing, why we're forced to go through the turmoil of somehow reconciling who we are with what the world tells us we should be--must be placed squarely on the shoulders of the church.  If the church, presumably speaking for God, didn't judge us, then neither would our societies and cultures.

The church will tell you that it is there for you, and it will provide all the guidance and support you need; you just have to be open to the help it offers.  But how the church defines help, and how you define it, are likely two very different things.  The church won't help you to accept and love yourself as you are; it can't.  Rather, it will urge you to give up your errant ways and to eschew the homosexual lifestyle in favor of that which is considered normal, at least for the majority of people.      

The source of our anguish is the conflict between what we know to be true and immutable about who we are, and the judgment brought to us for being something we're told is immoral.  What we must do is question whether those who tell us it's immoral are really in a position to do so.  They are not God, after all.  They cannot presume to speak for Him as they do.  All they have is access to the same words in the Bible we all do and choose to look at them in a way different from us.

As gay people, what we need more than anything is the permission to accept and love ourselves exactly as God made us.  What a relief it would be if someone, particularly someone from the church, granted us that.  But it doesn't work that way.  The permission we seek comes from within each one of us, when we realize the only one we must really be true to and the only one we owe the opportunity of a full, honest, and rewarding life to, is ourselves.  Only then can we have self-acceptance and self-love.

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