“When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability… To be alive is to be vulnerable.”
These are the words of Madeleine L’Engle, and this week I’ve been reminded of the wisdom they contain.
This weekend, Christianity Today posted an excerpt from my new book, “Jesus is Better Than You Imagined,” in which I share a story about childhood sexual abuse and my adult struggle to understand my sexuality. Many have asked why I would do such a thing.
This wasn’t a career move or a brazen attempt to sell more books. Being open about these experiences as an evangelical writer leaves me, like so many scarecrows, exposed. I do not plan to become a spokesman for any of the issues addressed in this article. The events shared are a part of my story, but they are not the whole of my calling. Today, I return to my job as a columnist committed to exploring the interface between faith and culture and helping foster difficult conversations that others may be unwilling to have.
I shared my sexuality story chiefly because, as L’Engle says, vulnerability is one of the essential ingredients to being alive. And, I would add, to being human. When we share our stories, we share ourselves. This act creates a portal to community, to be being known, to being loved. When we refuse to share our stories and ourselves, we stiff-arm those around us and keep others from being conduits of grace in our lives.
Owning one’s story can be costly, but it is not nearly as expensive as spending one’s life running from it.
This process of moving toward openness started with my family and friends. As I’ve excavated unshared parts of myself, I’ve begun sharing them with those I care about. This has been a beautiful and painful process. Through lament and grief and honesty, I’ve tugged at the purse strings of relationship, drawing myself closer to those around me. After nearly two years of offering these gifts to my inner circle, I wanted to share many of those with a broader audience.
By sharing my story, I hope to encourage others within the church to share their own. I’ve received hundreds of notes from readers these past few days telling me that through reading my story, they found courage to share their own. They’ve had difficult conversations with friends and parents and spouses and pastors as a result. They tell me that the sun rays of hope and freedom are breaking through the dark clouds they’ve lived under for too long. I wish I could tear open my chest and let each one peer into my heart and see how much their words have encouraged me.
We’ve arrived at a moment where conversations about sexuality have grown unbearably toxic and polarized. Those on the political and theological left are marginalized as heretics, and those who hold to traditional orthodoxy are labeled haters. Well-meaning voices on both sides often make the mistake of divorcing theological reflection from personal narrative. But theology and autobiography belong together.
This is one of the implicit messages of the incarnation, where Word becomes flesh. A walking, talking, laughing, weeping Jesus is the living embodiment of this idea. So too, the Apostle Paul often stitched together his theological proclamations with stories of his own conversion experience and journey with Jesus. The art of personal testimony fueled the first Great Awakening and subsequent revivals, and it can be equally transformative today.
Yet, we also do well to listen to the iconic theologian Karl Barth who offered a resounding “no” to relying solely upon the shaky foundation of human experience. Our stories are not the story. There is a bigger, better, more central story that Christians call “good news,” and this forms the lens through which we understand our own narratives. Personal narrative without divine revelation is nothing more than memoir. As United Methodist Bishop Will Willimon has said, “Thank God we preachers have something to preach other than ourselves.”
The church is at a critical juncture on sensitive matters such as these. Churches need to create safe spaces where their people can be honest about what they feel and what they’ve experienced. All of our stories belong at the table. We need to listen to each other and learn to love each other and then pick up the scriptures and ask, “What does it look like to follow Jesus with our hearts, minds, and bodies?” If I shared my story for any reason, it was this one.
It’s also important to note that I’m unsure whether the early events of my life were determinative or indicative. It’s dangerous to assume that those who are attracted to others of the same gender must have had abuse in their past.
As I said in the article, I don’t understand the connection between the two events: “Did the childhood abuse shape my adolescent and young adult experiences, or were those parts of me already there?” I wrote. “I’m certain I don’t know the answer to this question, and I’m not sure anyone does except God.”
The story I shared was not intended to be a bludgeon in anyone’s debate. To read it that way is to miss its point. Grace is the point. Grace is all. Grace is everything. No matter what one has experienced or feels or believes, grace beckons to a new and better way. But the journey to grace begins with honesty and vulnerability.
(Jonathan Merritt is a senior columnist for Religion News Service and the author of the new book, “Jesus Is Better Than You Imagined.”)