by Alicia Johnston

Less than two months ago I came out as a supporter of LGBT sexuality and gender and as a bisexual person, ending my career as an Adventist pastor. My life since then has been a case study in attempts to express love in the midst of often intense disagreement. It’s also been filled with my own attempts to dialogue with care across this divide.

I’ve concluded we all need Love 101, and my various inboxes provide plenty of raw material for study.

I’ve concluded we all need Love 101, and my various inboxes provide plenty of raw material for study.

What does it look like when people love well? And what does it look like when we fail massively?

Though there have been a lot of terrible examples, there is also been inspiration. I want to share one of those. It’s an email I received from a dear friend, Sharon (not her real name.) She believes I made the wrong decision. I gave her a heads up in a personal email before my public announcement. When we talked on the phone later she said that the news had struck her like a punch in the stomach. However, this did not keep her from sending the following email:

Dear Friend, 

First, I so appreciate you sending me this note before you put your video up on Facebook; it means more than I can adequately say. 

Second, you’re right in that I’m not going to change your mind, nor you mine; so let’s not try. 

Third, know that I love you and treasure your friendship, whatever side of issues we fall on. This is a big one, but I pray that it won’t define our friendship going forward. It doesn’t define how I view you, which is my sister and fellow traveler on this crazy path we call life. 

Fourth, know that I will continue to pray for your heart and that you would know Jesus more deeply through this. That is not a jab, but a sincere saying that I will continue to pray for you as I have over the years. I, in turn, covet your prayers. 

Lastly, how is your heart in terms of your dad’s death? I worry a bit that the timing of your coming out may have side-lined your grief cycle. Obviously that is a big statement for me to make, with little to no insight into your grief journey; but know that I express this from nothing other than love and deep concern for your heart and the deep loss you have recently experienced. Know that I will continue to pray for you around this, too, that you would know the piercing, healing comfort of the Comforter. 

Lastly, x2, the length of time it took me to respond to this email in no way reflects the importance of you to me. Life is really hectic for me right now and I needed some time to process, think, and pray through my response. 

I love you dearly and thank the Lord for a friendship that has always pushed me to the edge (and beyond) of my comfortable ideas and ways of looking at life. 

To the Lord of us both, Who will someday, somehow make sense of this beautiful, messy, hurt-filled world and Who will one day return for us, the daughters of the King. In Him,

Reliquish Control

I start here because I believe a desire to control me is behind most of the negative responses I’ve received. Notably missing from Sharon’s response is any attempt at unsolicited advice or criticism. In talking to Sharon she said she’s learned that the truth doesn’t need her to defend it. She’s remarkably unafraid of my ideas and secure in her beliefs.

Something all of us struggle with is a tendency to talk down to people, setting ourselves up as expert and the person we disagree with as in need of instruction. I hate it when people do this to me. I hate it when I realize I’ve been doing it to someone else. In reality none of us should accept someone else’s judgment for our own. Such dynamics are deeply unhealthy, creating dependance.

As protestants, we have a strong beliefs that no human can be the representative of God on earth for others, but that we each need to seek God for ourselves. This is the essence of discipleship. We are disciples of Jesus. When we seek to control we’ve confused the idea of discipleship. We think we are making disciples of ourselves or disciples of our particular denomination or organization.

In stark contrast to a desire to control is a willingness to trust someone into the care of God. Sharon’s email clearly communicated this. It was fully of trust and respect.

Resist Defamation and Dismissal

Since coming out, I have literally been called the anti-christ. It’s a hilarious caricature. Who would have thought I would be so powerful? Other caricatures I have not found as much humor in. Some have been painful.My email inbox has been a reflection of the polarization in the church on this issue. It’s not uncommon for me to open one email expressing deep gratitude and praising my bravery, then another warning me that I’m going to hell and taking people with me. They never fail to say that they will pray for me.

I even heard of one pastor who said in his sermon that I’m destroying the church. Who knew the church was so fragile?

I even heard of one pastor who said in his sermon that I’m destroying the church. Who knew the church was so fragile?

Who knew little-old-me had such terrible power?

The real me is not as brave and courageous as some people think, nor as wicked and destructive as others believe. I’m just doing my best in a difficult and complex situation.

The people who care about me recognize that. One such entity used to be my employer. Arizona Conference made a statement after my resignation, and in that statement they felt no need to discredit or defame me. They are a great example of having the kind of security that feels no need to demonize the other side. The statement can be found on their Facebook page for April 24.

I recognize in myself, too, the impulse to demonize others. It’s hard to resist. I’m most tempted to dismiss people when I’m most focused on changing or controlling them. Such a proposition is impossible. The inevitable frustration that follows makes me want to dismiss them as absurd, idiotic, or immoral so I don’t have to deal with my own limitations.

When we treat someone else that way, it isn’t from love. It’s something we do from selfishness. In such moments, we are treating others as objects to be used to preserve our own sense of control, not as complex people in need of love and grace.

Recognize Fundamental Limitations

Beliefs are substantial. They are not like clothing, a matter of personal choice that shouldn’t have much impact on how we relate to those we love. They directly correlate to how we feel about other people’s lives.

People who most affirm and appreciate my sexuality, those who are LGBT themselves, have a predictable response to my coming out. They say congratulations. Sometimes they hug me, or tell other people and cheer. They are excited for me. They know how hard and how good coming out is.

People who don’t affirm me and who are friends reassure me that we can still be friends. This in itself is an acknowledgment of the reality that it can be difficult to remain friends with such dramatic differences in beliefs about something as personal and central as sexuality and the meaning of a family.

People who do genuinely care about me express interest in how I’m handling all of this or what’s happening with my career path. They don’t necessarily think my sexuality is the most interesting thing about me.

One of the best things someone can do to show love is the recognize that these differences of beliefs are fundamentally limiting. If I hesitate to talk about my work in helping LGBT people, that’s limiting. If I don’t know if you’ll be happy for me when I start a new relationship, that’s limiting. If I’m concerned you won’t approve if I marry someone of the same-sex, that’s limiting.

Simple acknowledgment of these limitations can go a long way. Along with that should be gratitude for the grace you have received if someone who is LGBT is willing to be your friend despite this cost to them. They are paying an emotional price because they value you.

Remember There is More to Me

Finally, changing the subject might be a great idea. LGBT people are more than their sexuality and gender. Sharon did this when she asked how I was doing with the death of my father. She remembered the rest of me.

People who do genuinely care about me express interest in how I’m handling all of this or what’s happening with my career path. They don’t necessarily think my sexuality is the most interesting thing about me. They see and care about me as a person, a complex human being. Those are the people I call friends, the people I believe when they tell me they love me.


 

Alicia Johnston was a pastor in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, until she announced via a viral video that she is fully inclusive and affirming of LGBT sexuality and gender, and that she is a bisexual Christian. She now speaks and writes about her story, queer insights on faith, and the intersection of Christianity and sexuality. Alicia has a master of divinity from Andrews University and an master of arts in Clinical Psychology from Argosy University. She blogs at aliciajohnston.com

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