Heavy Burdens: Book Review

This post was originally written in October 2021, intended to coincide with the launch date of Bridget Eileen Rivera’s newly-published book Heavy Burdens: 7 Ways LGBTQ Christians Experience Harm in the Church. Heavy Burdens is exactly that–emotionally heavy–and while I was writing this post initially and reflecting on my own experiences, I found the emotions it brought up for me were so overwhelming that I needed to practice some healthy boundaries and put this aside for a few months before revisiting it this week.

Dear readers,

It’s been a few months! A number of you have been quietly nagging me to do some more writing, and while I can’t make any promises for the future, I do hope I’ll be in a position to share more of my writing soon.

I have a lot of things I’d like to put into words and many feelings I’d like to share, but the truth is, I can’t. Not right now. There are a few reasons for this, but most of all I’m just so emotionally depleted.

It feels like since deciding to have more transparent conversations about my faith and sexuality a few years ago, I’ve expended so much energy trying to put things into words–trying to get these complicated thoughts out of my mind and into someone else’s imagination by finding words that begin to help them see into my world. It’s been hard work, but it’s been worth it. I now have a great number of dear friends who know me better and love me more practically for having had these conversations. Truly, it’s worth the effort to experience being fully known and deeply loved.

But sometimes it gets so exhausting.

Right now, I’m in a season of grieving and confronting the trauma I’ve survived in the church. In this season, more than ever, I want people to be able to step towards me with understanding, with a deep awareness that sees me and my hurts without me having to be strong or brave or articulate enough to put it into words. Translation exhaustion has left me utterly depleted, and I crave those rare friendships with people who can speak my heart language without needing me to code-switch or translate experiences for them.

I wish I could fully articulate why sitting in a chapel service can prompt such trauma responses that I need to constantly practice breathing exercises to stop my body from shaking. I wish I could put into words why the safest thing about my new counsellor is that he’s not a Christian. I wish I could explain why getting a certain email notification or sitting in a theology lecture triggers a suffocating panic that not even a traumatic incident that literally threatened my life a few years ago compares to. I wish I could tell you how different the world that I experience is from the neat black-and-white world many Christians see, and how it is that you could sit next to me in the same room while I’m experiencing all of the moments above and yet just see the smiling, friendly face of a high-functioning student.

The point is, I don’t have the energy left to find words for all these things. Instead, I’ve been praying for a way that I can be spared the emotional labour of constantly explaining my world to well-meaning Christians and just refer them to someone else to learn from.

Well, I think God’s been answering that prayer. After years of listening to real people’s stories, Bridget Eileen Rivera has taken so many of the heavy stories from LGBTQ Christians’ experiences of harm in the church, and she’s woven them together with some profound insights of her own in a new book that is an absolute game-changer. I cried as I read this book, because I finally had words for some of the previously-unspoken realities of my world, and for once I didn’t have to do the emotional labour of crafting those words myself. I can’t emphasise enough the rejuvenating relief of finding words that are not your own but that resonate so deeply that they may as well be… words that have the power to help people see your hurts without forcing you to bare your own heart first.

Passages like this one paint a picture of how complex our experiences of harm in the church can be, with a perfect storm of ‘little’ problems weakening our resilience even while the well-meaning majority might not see anything:

A queer friend of mine once likened her experience in the church to standing in a field in a thunderstorm. Every drop of rain is a new slight, another put-down, another reminder that you’re the wrong kind of person. Talking about it can feel like trying to talk about the wetness of a single drop of rain. ‘What’s the big deal?’ people say. But it’s not a particular raindrop that causes the problem. The problem is the storm.

This resonated so deeply with me. If you were to ask me why I’ve experienced so many trauma responses to the church/Christians/Bible college/family this year, I would struggle to explain exactly why that particular situation affected me in that particular way. It’s like talking about the wetness of a drop of rain! But behind every reaction to a ‘harmless’ situation is a lifetime of wounds that we are only just beginning to understand.

In a section titled “The Problem” Bridget writes:

Countless LGBTQ believers find themselves struggling under the weight of burdens that no Christian should ever bear, burdens given to them not by Christ but by stigma, prejudice, and discrimination. They faithfully persevere in their journey to the Celestial City with a heroic degree of faithfulness, but they do so under the mounting pressure of an atmosphere hostile to their faith. What’s worse, many sexual and gender minorities leave the faith altogether, their belief destroyed in the wake of abhorrent abuses that would test the resolve of the greatest of saints. Few Christians understand the extent of the problem, and even fewer are ready to acknowledge that Christian communities are responsible.

Few Christians understand the extent of the problem, and even fewer are ready to acknowledge that Christian communities are responsible.

At this point, you might be starting to squirm, perhaps already formulating a response in your head that pushes back on some of these claims: this ‘victim mentality,’ the us-and-them approach that differentiates oppressors and oppressed, the accusation that Christian communities are complicit in this harm. I get it–it’s a lot, and it’s okay to feel a bit of resistance in yourself.

But keep reading, keep listening to the data, because I can tell you, Bridget has receipts. This paragraph in the book’s introduction referencing a 2019 study hit me like a ton of bricks:

For most people, religious involvement reduces the risk of suicide. But when gay and lesbian college students engage more heavily in their faith communities, their risk of suicide only goes up. Gay and lesbian students are 38 percent more likely to contemplate suicide if they are heavily involved in faith communities. Lesbian students, counted separately from gay male students, are 52 percent more likely to contemplate suicide if they are heavily involved in faith communities. How can that be? How is it that going to church would be a factor in keeping straight people alive but pushing gay people toward death?

Does that shock you? That participating in church community increases risk of death for some of us?

The horrible thing was, as much as it shocked me, it didn’t surprise me. I’ve spent enough evenings on high alert suicide watch for loved ones that this increased risk of death for queer Christians is old news. What’s new is having more data, studies, and books like this to confirm the stories we’ve been telling for years.

One thing I really appreciate about Bridget’s posture, though, is the way she models grace and nuance even while confronting injustice with truth-telling. Even as she shines a light on these heavy, heavy burdens and decries the harm being done to God’s children, she gently reminds us that acknowledging our complicity doesn’t mean we’re bad people or that the church is committing this harm on purpose:

These burdens do harm because they depend on a belief system built for cisgender, heterosexual Christians to the exclusion of everyone else. That doesn’t make cisgender, heterosexual Christians bad people. It just means that change is necessary.

Another key issue Bridget addresses is the broader context of suffering in the Christian life. She acknowledges the inevitability of suffering for every person, and yet stands her ground in maintaining that the specific suffering of queer people at the hands of Christians need not and must not be an inevitable product of Christian discipleship.

Certainly suffering is part of the Christian life. Every Christian must take up their cross and follow Jesus (Matt. 16:24-26). However, when it comes to LGBTQ people, many Christians assume that suffering itself is the point. Living in obedience to God comes to mean nothing but hardship and struggle for LGBTQ people, and somehow this signifies their right standing in the family of God. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with battling depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts, but few people consider that mental anguish should never be the consequence of a Spirit-filled theology. Any theological system that produces such fruit as a consequence of its teaching is a theological system that lacks the gospel.

That was pretty heavy, hey? Every part of my polite ‘good Christian boy’ wants to end this post by putting some positive spin on this to relieve you of your discomfort.

To un-burden you.

Instead, I choose to lean into the discomfort. I’ll let that discomfort propel me to reflect further and ask questions like, “Why do I feel uneasy? Where does that come from? What truth is this emotion communicating to me? What kind of action should this feeling compel me to take?”

Postscript: Please understand that I’m not disclosing these things to garner your sympathy or pity. The point of this post is not to attract your heroic ally-ship, and it’s not that I want to center trauma or be defined by it.

It’s more about having the integrity and sincerity to name the ugly parts of my story as they really are – because in this current season of life, for me to keep projecting the image of the good Christian poster boy while ignoring they ugly parts of the journey would seem duplicitous.

Truth be told, I’m still figuring out how to navigate the valleys with transparent integrity. I don’t really know how to do that yet. So for now I’ll share what I can manage to articulate in my own words; I’ll let the words of other, brighter people like Bridget express what I can’t; and I’ll pray for wisdom to balance healthy boundaries with authentic transparency.

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