The Converting Power of Chastity (Feat. Article in 'Coming Home Network International' Newsletter)
I remember always loving the cross. Growing up in a beach town near Los
Angeles in the sixties and seventies, my three siblings and I seemed unlikely
to live a cruciform life. The sun burned hot, as if the moral ozone layer could
no longer buffer its rays. Each of us was overexposed — too many drugs, too
much flesh. I tended toward same-gender stuff, and found little resistance to
“doing one’s thing.”
But my good mother prayed for Jesus' mercy over us. She refused my dad’s agnosticism (they were attending a Unitarian Church) and routed us to the nearby Episcopal parish, led by a former Catholic priest who broke with Rome in order to marry. Voilà: Catholic Lite! It may not have been the most dynamic gathering, but I recall the beautiful cross over the altar and the meal derived from it, the centerpiece of Anglican liturgy.
Upon confirmation, each of my siblings left that church. But the Holy Spirit was undaunted. My older brothers, from whom I felt detached and by whom I felt judged, became “born-again” in a fresh wave of renewal sweeping the West Coast. Their kindness and authentic concern for my rather confusing “gay” identification moved me. I wasn’t ready for their “Jesus,” but I knew He was changing them for the good.
I “came out” formally to my parents. My mom shed some tears and said kindly, “I’ve known a lot of people in that life ... I want more for you.” More? What’s more? Maybe this Jesus ...
In those days, when an unknown killer called AIDS was infecting thousands, I needed badly to discover Him. I needed witnesses who would take me as I am and include me in a community of transformation.
In the late seventies, I was blessed to receive Jesus’ embrace through the arms of a young adult congregation called the Vineyard, which had just begun to gather a few miles from UCLA, where I was a student. Pastor Ken Gulliksen won me over with well-expressed biblical truth, through which mercy ran like a river. He envisaged this Jesus for whom no one is too far gone, who always looks with concern upon our conflicts, and who weeps rather than bristles over our divides. And he practiced what he preached.
While at UCLA, I was courted by the two most obvious counter-cultural groups on campus: Evangelical Christians and the GSU (Gay Student Union). San Franciscan Harvey Milk had just become the first “out and proud” politician in American history, adding momentum to the LA gay scene, which was hip and influential. This posed a big conflict for me: I wanted Jesus! And I also wanted to lose myself in the smart and sexy gay scene on campus.
I took a course in “gay lit” and attended similarly themed meetings, including one on “The Bible and Homosexuality.” I was frankly unimpressed by the way they majored on gay and minored on Jesus. It seemed odd to me that Jesus’ call to leave everything to follow Him mattered less to these gay “Christians” than the defining power of sexual attraction.
In reaction, I joined a Christian fraternity, where really good conservative men embraced me, and I grew alongside them. All they asked was that I abide by the biblical boundaries of no sex outside marriage, regardless of the direction of my impulses. I agreed. And realized that, through this solidarity, I really wasn’t so completely “other” than they were, after all. As men, we share a common destiny, but also differ along a continuum of temperament, aptitudes, and weaknesses. Mine were no better or worse. Thus began my healing.
Jesus’ real presence was evident in His members. And especially in one member, Annette. We met when she, a manager at the local Christian bookstore, interviewed me for a job. She hired my housemate, not me. Ah well. My zeal for Jesus and His house was a bit much for her, but she relented and nabbed me at the next job opening. We clicked. She needed my zeal to ignite her faith (real, but in need of renewal) while I needed her grounded approach to life. She anchored me in our common humanity, while I jump started her reliance upon Jesus. A rich exchange.
And a peculiar one. I opened up to her early on about my same-sex issues, before any thought of dating. These were deep, difficult concerns that I lived with daily; it seemed apt disclosure for any growing friendship. Annette shared about her older brother, whose ongoing homosexual and drug adventures soured her on the subject. The gay life had slammed her and her parents.
For Annette, exposure to her brother’s outbursts and breakdowns, combined with a visiting relative who had raped her when she was four, destabilized her childhood. She could not help but pair sexuality with anxiety.
Same sexual revolution, two different impacts: while Annette drew back in defense, I lunged forward, unrestrained. We both needed Jesus and His mercy, though in different ways. We learned to draw “water from the well of salvation” (Isa 12:3) in our common commitment to the Vineyard Church.
Growth came unexpectedly. I was changing. My housemates became good friends, and I was becoming a regular guy among them. One asked why I wasn’t dating Annette. I did not know why. I was actually beginning to experience desire for her. Not for all women, just for this one. And I realized that all that stood in the way was the belief that I could not relate seriously with a woman because “I was gay.” Or had that become an outworn excuse for not wanting to give myself to her or anyone?
My desires were changing. I could no longer use an old “sexual identity” as a disqualifier. I appreciate Josef Pieper’s exhortation when he says: “the sick soul fears more than anything else the demands made on one who is well.”
Jesus helped me. The community helped me. Mercy made the way for us. Annette and I learned that Jesus had to be at the center of our union. We needed ongoing mediation, and He was the mediator. We learned to rely upon Him in order to give each other what he/she needed. It was a joy, and a challenge, to discover Jesus in this way.
So we dated, and soon we were engaged. Ken, our pastor, asked Annette and me to help persons facing sexual difficulties in the church, especially those dealing with same-sex attraction. I shared my story with the congregation one Sunday, and the Spirit moved many to come forward with a host of shameful backstories. Included among them was a successful designer from West Hollywood — wearied of his old life and expectant of a new one in Jesus — who volunteered his home as a meeting place where any struggler might grow in relation to Jesus.
In these meetings, we focused on Christ crucified and raised, sang simple songs of love to Him, and welcomed His presence in our midst. Soon afterwards, the relevance of a safe and supportive group for anyone who needed relational healing, combined with some of the problems we faced in West Hollywood by including only persons with same sex attraction, prodded us to open “Living Waters,” as we called the group, to all persons in need of sexual and relational healing.
We never wanted to lose our edge on ministering hope for persons with same-sex attraction. But the bigger problems of gender issues were traditional abuses between men and women. These less exotic sinners from our church and beyond were eager to receive “living waters,” as they understood our offering to be merciful and powerful, an in-depth group designed to keep shameful secrets safe. I was able to lend more breadth to the offering as a result of graduate studies in psychology and theology.
Annette and I have shared our unique vocation for four decades now; with it we have helped forge a language of sexual brokenness and wholeness. Most importantly, we have made a case for sexual redemption through Jesus and His Body, doing our part, through His mercy, “to present to Jesus a radiant church” (Eph 5:26).
As my language suggests, our work grew out of the Evangelical, charismatic world. Brave were the Catholics who entered our midst, having to translate our traditions into a much older one. I had always loved the quiet depth of my Catholic colleagues. I knew from my liberal arts degree (I majored in English and French) that Catholicism was the foundation of our Western culture. I recognized, also, that the Catholic Church was the foundation of all other churches and worthy of much respect. Her problems did not bother me. I knew the problems our 2-year-old church had and couldn’t fathom the problems of that nearly 2000-year old Bride!
We left the Vineyard movement and southern California in 2005. We did so with regret, but expectancy, as we joined Mike Bickle in Kansas City to help build up Living Waters for the flood of young adults joining their 24/7 prayer efforts. Nevertheless, we missed the main and plain of regular church life. We joined another local church, a good one, but.…
Questions remained for me. What is the Church? What composes her? What holds her together? What defines worship? Or morality? As a young man, I attributed all church life to movements of the Holy Spirit, who revealed Jesus to persons like me, who would not have found Him in a traditional church setting. I am only grateful for the pioneers like Ken Gulliksen, John Wimber, Leanne Payne, and Mike Bickle, who made a way for Annette and me to grow in our salvation and to help others do likewise.
But the “here today, gone tomorrow” nature of many such gatherings, combined with the subjective interpretation of truth (yes, the Bible as authoritative, and yes, the Bible actually must be interpreted by people who have done so decisively through the years) left me cold. To whom should I listen now?
The Evangelical premiums on personal freedom and evangelizing the culture contributed to the culture influencing the church. This shifted the goal posts in regard to sexual morality. Many in my Evangelical corner became worldly; we assimilated contraception and divorce, and “gay marriage” began to appear reasonable for those “born that way.” Could a highly individualistic approach to biblical interpretation hold up amidst this sexual evolution? I was greatly helped by Christopher West; we met in Denver, 1999, at one of our conferences. He handed me an early edition of Pope St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body (TOB), which I devoured. Equally helpful was partaking of several rounds of deeper study at West’s TOB Institute. The Catholic Church’s “culture of life” was converting me. I recall thinking: “this moral teaching will endure.”
At the same time, I hungered for worship that transcended a string of popular songs. And I grew allergic to one pastor’s “leading,” shifting the course of our entire church life. I began to find the “free” church disintegrating. Though I loved its freedom to change and rearrange itself, the Evangelical church began to lack ballast, that centripetal force which anchored our worship and our wholeness.
I discovered a hunger for the Eucharist. I landed on the belief that Communion is the premier expression and experience of the cross. I delighted to know that the second meaning of the Greek word for “eat,” as employed in John 6:53, involves crunching — the use of teeth. How fitting for this meal in which we consume the cross! Deeper still is this mysterious means through which Jesus’ Real Presence intermingles with our humanity. He could give no more than He did at Calvary, and He could come no closer than He does in this holy meal. He allows us to consume Him; He hands Himself over, again and again, to become our Source. This is divine intimacy, the bond of love which supersedes all others.
I wanted to consume Jesus, Catholic style. Prior to beginning RCIA (adult catechism), I spent a year in the neighborhood Catholic parish, watching the faithful process before the cross and tabernacle and partaking of Jesus. I needed that meal; I was famished.
I underwent a couple rounds of RCIA, beginning in 2009. The pushback began. Many voiced conflicts over my pursuit. Veering off the straight path to confirmation at the Easter Vigil that year, I waited. In 2010, I resumed RCIA as the hunger increased.
In the meantime, I stayed fixed on the parish tabernacle that held the Host beneath the huge crucifix; Jesus appeared to be descending into “bread” to become our very life. In faith, according to Scripture, I accepted that the elements of bread and wine actually become Jesus’ Body; I also accepted the prayerful mediation of the priest in that transformation, which integrated the meal with the authority structure of the Church. Such a high and earthy take on John 6 should involve spiritual authority.
In the meantime, I wasn’t ready to receive Communion. I had to wait until I was sure of becoming Catholic, just as one waits (or should wait) to intermingle bodies with his fiancée until the wedding. It’s a huge commitment; you do not commingle with another only to abandon her! If that is evident on the human level, how much more does it apply to the union between a fallen creature and his Creator?
That union applies as well to Jesus’ members in the Catholic Church. I love my Evangelical family and friends — still do — yet I realized that, in becoming Catholic, I was uniting myself with over a billion new family members in this one meal. Would I be faithful to them, with all the unbelief and scandal and (at times) barely evident devotion to Jesus that marks the historic Church? Would I be true? Could I be?
Offering oneself to Jesus and Church in Communion is surpassed only by His self-gift. He matches our commitment and eclipses it with His unfailing divine love that burns for us. He proved it at Calvary: Jesus’ ardent desire to love us through the holy meal cost Him everything. As I grew in my love of Communion, I realized that Jesus passionately wanted to unite Himself to me. I knew something about desire “going south.”
Jesus’ passionate longing to become my bread is the antidote.
My life has been defined by sorting out conflictual desires, interpreting them correctly, and getting on with the business of loving those I love most, especially Annette and our four offspring. God helps me to offer myself well through the gift of Himself. More than an idea or an historic event, His Body and Blood shed for me are re-presented with full effect every time I go to Communion. What a gift!
Back to my Catholic “engagement.” I would show up for 6:15 AM Mass and couldn’t understand: why aren’t partakers of this most divine encounter dancing, falling, swooning, or singing? OK, this isn’t a Pentecostal meeting. But now and again we need to celebrate God-with-us using our whole bodies!
St. Alphonsus Liguori's prayer became my own: “ah! My Lord! Who am I that You should so desire to be loved by me? But since such is Your desire, I wish to please You. You have died for me; have given me Your flesh for food. I leave all, I bid farewell to all, to attach myself to You, my beloved Savior. My dear Redeemer! Whom shall I love if not You, who are infinite beauty and worthy of infinite love? Yes, my God!”
Jacques Philippe puts it succinctly: “the Eucharist makes clear the degree of intimacy into which God wants to draw us. In the Eucharist, the mad dream of all lovers is realized: to be one in being with the object of our love. God lets Himself be eaten by us: He becomes our substance, and at the same time, He draws us out of ourselves to make us His.”
At last came the day when I was ready for love, prepared to partake of His Body and Blood and thus unite myself with Jesus and His members. Having taken St. John at his word, that through this meal I might actually “live and dwell and abide with Him” (Jn 6:56) and His Church — well, that was not only beyond me but profoundly needed by me.
How else can I live? I cannot do the good by knowledge or discipline alone, although I value both; I need Him, with me, within me — yes, through the Spirit, but more intimately and viscerally, in His very self-gift. As soon as I consumed Him that Easter Vigil in 2011, I experienced a nourishment and composure and source of strength that helped me act a bit more like Him toward others.
I needed that life. And I needed the delivering power of mercy as realized in the holy meal. My spousal union with Jesus through Communion has since become a focused aim: to be the best husband and father I can be. That is my calling!
My wife, Annette, could not in good conscience proceed on with me to become Catholic. That has been hard on both of us, especially her. Yet the truth remains that God has called me to love her above all else and so make evident His love for His bride, the Church.
That sounds grand, but I do give better when I am aligned with Jesus’ self-giving through the merciful gift of Communion. Early on in my Catholic faith, I heard Jesus say distinctly to me, as I buried myself in the works of St. Edith Stein and St. John of the Cross: “your first call is to your wife, not to the Church or to mystical union with Me.” I stood upright. Our home church really matters to God. My radical commitment to Jesus and His members could and should have one evident impact: to give myself more squarely and purely to wife and children as a sure sign of Jesus’ self-giving to the Church.
For that reason, I love Pope Francis’ take on approaching the Eucharist hungrily, weakly, in need of taking hold of what we feel we may not adequately possess. Jesus gives Himself freely, abundantly, in the holy meal. “The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.” This merciful meal is unsurpassed in its quiet, steady way in which it renews my love, with Annette as its first fruit. I do so in fits and starts, but the way is clear.
Jesus’ Real Presence in the holy meal became everything to me. It was the antidote to the pushback I received from Evangelical family members and colleagues. Painful was the discovery that devout friends, who welcomed Catholics in principle, failed to do so when a close brother became one. Yikes! I was not expecting that.
Gut wrenching. Peace came through daily Eucharist that week and an invitation to attend an afternoon service on Divine Mercy Sunday (the Sunday after Easter). I knew nothing of St. Faustina and the origin of this devotion; I just knew that I needed mercy in order to endure the judgment and rejection I faced from my erstwhile fellows. I wept through the whole service and eagerly confessed to the priest how my wounded heart could readily harden toward intolerant Evangelical friends. I received mercy to forgive them and to allow “the blood and water that gushed forth from the heart of the Savior” to save me again, to keep me pliable and peaceful amid these reactions.
I picked up St. Faustina’s Diary that Divine Mercy Sunday and have never stopped reading it. It rang true and loosed a flood of mercy for miserable me. To personalize a quote: “the knowledge of my own misery allowed me to know the immensity of Jesus’ mercy.” I quickly came to realize that many of my colleagues throughout the world would no longer work with me, and that familial bonds would be strained. I also realized that I would have to give continuous explanation for my decision as well as doctrinal defense for Catholicism (as if I had the expertise…).
Would God’s mercy be enough for me to endure this? Our labor was difficult and controversial enough. Could we be true to our original mission while taking on the Catholic/Evangelical divide? Only mercy made a way. My helplessness became the ground for a more pure reception of the Body and Blood. Jesus spoke these words to Faustina, which I heard directed to me: “bring your ear close to My Heart, forget everything else, and meditate upon My wondrous mercy. My love will give you the strength and courage you need in these matters.” Jesus, lead on.
He showed me His friends. Though I had never wrestled with Mary and the saints (I mean, no one is competing with Jesus), I did not rely on them. Old Evangelical ties were breaking down fast, and I needed new friends. Look no more — the heavens are declaring the communion of the saints! Yes, that included the somewhat remote souls with whom I shared pews at Mass. With most of these I connected limply — the “passing of the peace,” then racing out to the crowded parking lot.
But in the leanness, the long season of gaining enough traction to be known as a sinner among a few, I realized something deeper was holding us, the Church, together. Centuries of faithful ones, united by the line of Peter, who now in heaven cry out for us on earth; they “fix the whole Church more firmly in holiness .… So by their fraternal concern is our weakness greatly helped” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 956).
I was lonely but not alone. Looking out at my large parish, I realized that we were woven together by golden threads spun through centuries of heavenly intercession. Connection was profound, if not yet socially realized. This freed me: “realization of our oneness in Christ is the only cure for human loneliness .… For me, the greatest joy in being once again in full communion with the Catholic Church has been, and is now, the ever-growing reassurance given by the Mystical Body of Christ … and that Christ and His Church are one" (Caryll Houselander).
Starting one Lent, a small group of us prayed every week for the chastity of our Church, beginning with our need for greater wholeness. People came in fits and starts: each one came from a diverse background and was treated with the utmost dignity. Finally, our pastors gave the go-ahead for our core team to run a full Living Waters group.
During the group’s initial run in the parish, I recall waiting in line for the Eucharist one Sunday morning. I looked ahead of me and saw several of my Living Waters friends and fellow Catholics:* Kim, a beautiful single woman facing unwanted singleness and a spirit of rejection because of it; Jim, seeking to overcome porn addiction, Sara and Bill, whose daughter had just “come out” as gay; Christopher, who as a teen had been abused by pastor; Karen and Jim, whose marriage had been frustrated by the sexual baggage both had brought into the relationship.
We endured shame for the joy of real food, Jesus Himself. And quietly blessed each other as we ate. We took heart: we were not alone in our efforts to become chaste for Jesus and each other. Starting with our own lives, we were helping to prepare a Bride for Jesus without spot or wrinkle.
“Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing of water with the word, and to present to Himself a radiant Church, without stain or wrinkle or any blemish, but holy and blameless” (Eph 5:25–27).
*Names changed to protect privacy.