From time to time, when those people who do not know me inquire me about my faith or my religious beliefs, upon my telling them that I am a Christian, one of the usual questions that comes up is, “Are you ‘born again’?” Some of the people who make this inquiry are posing the question to utilize as a judgment of me, how much of themselves they will reveal to me, or in some cases, as a method of gauging how they will respond to me.
There are those who feel as if they hold a monopoly on what the “true” definition of being “born again” is, who will follow my answer with a litmus test to see if I conform to that definition, and if I do not meet that criteria, they will tell me how they know that I am not and attempt to push a literalistic understanding of God and the Bible on me. Then, there are those who fear anything Christian, due to the way “Christian” has been labeled as “far right wing extremist zealot” to many people these days, and who are testing to see if I fall into that category. Then, there are those who are just honestly seeking to discover where it is I am coming from spiritually, perhaps with no agenda but to gather ideas to incorporate into their own spiritual journey.
No matter what the motive for the question, it never fails that they are a bit surprised by my answer to the inquiry as to whether or no I am “born again.” I usually joke that “Well, I feel that I was born just fine the first time. But I did become born again in name only, and then finally I was born a third time for real. I think that the third time was the charm.”
As much of a jest as that seems like, it’s actually not too far from the truth. The first time was the physical birth. The second time was me going through a process of spiritual abuse and brainwashing that made me become someone who, at heart, I truly was not nor who God made me to be. I was not turning things over to God but rather allowing myself to be a victim of fear of someone else’s idea of what they thought God should be for everyone. But the third time was handing it all over to God in trust, and allowing the person who God made me to be to come out into the world and live.
Was this process of transformation and growth worthwhile? Absolutely. Was it difficult, and were there growing pains involved? Without a doubt. Would I have made it without faith, and without God? Not a chance. And it is not merely a one time event. Spiritual growth is to me, at least, an ongoing process – one that is never ending as we grow closer to God in our lives. We may not actually change (at least, the core of who we are and who it is that God made us to be) as people, and I do not feel that God changes nor do I feel that God has ever changed. What I think undergoes a metamorphosis and transformation is our understanding of God, which constantly evolves as we are open, seeking, and finding new wisdom that God blesses us with if we remain open to it.
I can recall the first time I ever heard someone use the term “born again” to refer to finding Christ and God, and I thought it seemed a little strange. My logic was, “If we are all Created by God, and we all come from God, and God is all knowing, all seeing and perfect, why wouldn’t God get it right the first time?” It was not until later on, through life lessons, experiences, and personal growth that I came to the conclusion that we are born just fine initially, but that we sometimes allow our connection with and awareness of our oneness with God to become obscured over time. In other words, I feel that it is not so much an issue of us needing to be reborn, but to reconnect and to redevelop an awareness of where we came from, who we are, and where we are going.
At least, that was the case with me. The greatest transformation that I underwent in my entire life did not happen fully until I honestly opened my heart and mind.
When I was young, I had several ideas about God presented to me. There was the loving image of God as represented by Jesus, Who was represented by love, forgiveness, caring for those in need, compassion and peace. There was God present in the wonders of nature and of life itself, and in the love shown to me by others, and then there was the stern and angry, watchful and judgmental God who would just as soon send me to hell for thinking the incorrect way or not doing what I was told and who oddly seemed to be created in the image of those who shared the same agenda.
As real and tangible as the first two seemed to me at the time, fear, as we know, can be a powerful tool, and the third eventually won out. I won’t get into the long story again at this time, but this image of God turned me off to anything to do with God, religion, or Christianity for many years.
During a very difficult and challenging period of my life, I did as many of us do in that situation, and reached out to others. It was then that I allowed myself to be influenced by those who preyed on my vulnerability at the time, and who convinced me that I was a flawed creation who needed to be “born again.” All of those people who had wronged me, they said, those people were being influenced by the devil. The bad things which had happened in my life at the time were the result of God’s “displeasure” with me. And if I would say the magic words they presented and follow the doctrine that they showed me, the way they interpreted the Bible as the true way, then I would be a totally new person and my life would once again be perfect and prosperous!
Not knowing any better at the time that I needed to open my heart to God, and that it was okay for me to talk to God one on one and read and interpret the Bible without allowing them to do it for me, I believed it. They had me convinced that I was a failure the first time I was born, and that I had to start all over. Even though every part of my heart and soul seemed to cry out to me that this was not right, and I could not agree with some of their ideas about God, this is what I felt I had to do.
I’ll spare all the details of how exactly it all happened that I got there, but it left me feeling emptier and further away from God than I had previously. I did not feel “free,” but rather imprisoned. And I noticed something that was occurring with others who had been “born again” in this group. Many of the people, while they had adopted a new vow to God, seemed to hold on to a lot of things which, to me, did not seem very in line with the teachings of Jesus. While they were steadfast that the Bible was “the inerrant Word of God,” they seemed to bypass a lot of what Jesus had to say in some situations. There were many instances, but a few stood out in my mind. One was the admonition to “Judge not, lest ye be judged,” as everyone seemed rather preoccupied with the lives of others, and judging everything-thoughts, actions, opinions, appearances, and beliefs-quite a bit. Another was prayer. Whereas I was reading that Jesus said “Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others,” much ado seemed to be made about bragging about prayer, praying that this person or that person or this or that group of people (and it was always someone who did not believe as they did) would be humbled before God. Finally, there was the fact that everything I read about Jesus did not seem that he would be a person prone to anger, there seemed to be so much anger among these people towards anyone who did not think as they did.
Also, there were more disturbing things. People seemed to think that certain prejudices were approved and sanctioned by God. While many of those who had been “born again” may have given up drinking, carousing, and repressed their sexuality, or those who had been inconsiderate and reckless in the way they treated others or who had stolen and betrayed others might have given up on those things-it seemed to me as if they had not really changed, or fixed whatever underlying symptom which had led them to act in unloving or uncaring, hateful ways as they seemed to have the same hatred, only now it had been directed differently.
They instead vented hatred, often thinly and poorly disguised as “righteous anger” or “tough love” at others, sometimes those who did not agree with them (other religions, other churches or denominations, or political parties) or those who did not conform to their literal understanding of the Old Testament (those who sought equal rights for women, those who were lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, “liberals” and “intellectuals” and even at times those of different nationalities and in a few rare cases, races). In a lot of instances, they were using the Bible to defend prejudices and cling to old fears they had prior to “rebirth.”
It made me think of a quote: “You know you’ve made God in your own image when God hates the same people you do.” The way this group of Christians was excluding people as being worthy of God’s Love and Grace seemed more like something the Pharisees and Scribes had done in Jesus’ time to me. There was the issue that although the writings of Paul were quoted more than those of Jesus, and the Bible was supposedly infallible, other verses such as the one in James suggesting “Faith without works is dead” were dismissed as irrelevant.
And all of these factors served as a reminder of the fact that although I was trying to be the totally “straight and normal” person they thought me to be, I was in fact a very closeted and repressed bisexual; and that was not the “work of the devil” but rather the way that I had been made, and there had to be a better way than living in fear of being who I was. Somehow, the ideas that they had about sexual orientation and sexuality did not seem right to me, and it appeared that many of them were outright obsessed with the private lives of other individuals rather than respecting them as people despite whatever differences existed, and the latter seemed to me more in line with what Jesus would do than the former. More than anything, it seemed as if while they had found meaning in their way of understanding God, it did not give me a real sense of a deep and true connection with God.
That was one of many factors that led to my third and final time of being born.
It was around that time that I came to facing that which I already knew in my heart. I had not experienced a true “spiritual rebirth” by saying some magic words and joining up with a fundamentalist group, but rather was born again in name only. When I came to that realization and accepted it, and decided to honestly approach God by opening heart and mind that was what started the real growth.
There were many things that contributed to that growth, but the greatest transformation that I underwent personally on the challenging but rewarding journey that God led me through from fear to faith was the new way I learned to think about, and to see God. And a lot of that came from fully knowing, and accepting who God made me to be.
One error that I think many make when it comes to wanting to be closer to God is that of allowing fear, dogma, or the opinions of others to force them into thinking God requires them to become a completely different person at the core. In the instance of the LGBT individual, there is often the concept that one must repress their natural sexuality, sexual orientation or identity. Tragically, many LGBT people have been made to feel as if they must kill a part of who they are in order to be acceptable to God.
I look at the Biblical story which is a tough one for many to reconcile of Abraham and Isaac as somewhat of a metaphor when it comes to this. In Genesis 22, Abraham believes that God is calling him to sacrifice his own son to God. He is ready to go through with it, afraid this is what God is asking of him, to give up a part of his life and himself that he loves, a part of his true self and joy. Yet, at the last minute, he stops feeling God telling him not to sacrifice Isaac, instead finding a ram which he offers as a sacrifice. The story ends with Abraham calling the place where the sacrifice of the ram was made, “the Lord will provide.”
I feel the metaphor in this Biblical story is that even if we feel we must sacrifice who we truly are in order to be acceptable to God that this is in fact not the case. God will help us find another way. I did find the way to do that, but for me it was only through the way Jesus transformed the way I thought of and understood God.
So many people speak of being “born again” and “becoming a new Creation in Christ.” Jesus speaks in Mark 2:22 about “no one putting new wine into old wineskins, or they will break” and “putting new wine into fresh wineskins,” and many interpret this to being an admonition that a person upon finding a renewed or new personal relationship with God should completely transform and change into a totally different person than that who they are at the core. I see it a bit differently, however; I think Jesus is saying that in order to develop a closer relationship with God, we have to be able to expand our hearts and minds to a new way of thinking about and understanding God; a way of Love rather than Legality.
It was this element that was core to the major transformation in my life. Before I could do any work on myself, I had to completely rethink everything I thought I knew about God from all of the fear I had allowed myself to absorb and internalize through the years. It also meant letting go of the idea of God as having all of the responsibility or attributing the bad things and misfortunes in my life to the “devil” or “evil forces” and accepting a sense of personal responsibility for my own actions and learning from my mistakes. I also had to accept the fact that the way I thought was conducive to my well being, that negative thinking could create negative self-fulfilling prophecies and there was value in positive thought, and at times when I thought a devil or an angry God was out to get me, many times it was my own lack of confidence that came from not trusting in God, or my own irresponsibility that had led to problems. It meant that instead of sitting in my room begging God for an opportunity to make things better I needed to really do the work and do my part.
No longer thinking that every detail of life was going to be easy and spelled out in detail meant that I had to deal with issues that I might have dismissed in the past as “bad luck” or “the work of the devil.” My own fears and lack of faith and confidence that God didn’t make junk when I was made were the real “evils” I had to conquer. Taking heed of the teaching of Jesus to love my neighbor as myself, I first had to learn to love the person God had made me to be. At one point, I was a fearful ball of negativity, worry, pain, anger and hate – more cynical than anything, not hateful to others, but definitely hateful to myself. I had to deal with the things which had made me feel this way, all of the things I had internalized.
Jesus’ teachings rather simplified everything for me. God was not concerned with what my sexual orientation was, or who I was in relationships with, or what specific understanding of the Bible I had. In fact, I finally stopped limiting God to the Bible, to church, or ever just to Christianity but instead allowed myself to see God in ALL of life as I once had as a child. God is Love, and what I feel God was saying through Jesus was that what we sow is what we reap, and by sowing love we reap love and kindness. That the way we become closer to God is through our ability to let God’s Love flow through us to others; by being compassionate, forgiving, and charitable. By trusting in love rather than giving in to fear, the sense of disconnectedness or brokenness we might imagine we had with God gradually dissolves. And the transformation has a ripple effect into the rest of our lives.
One major revelation I had during all of this was that I began to become more and more aware of how I would deal with others. When someone upset me, rather than become angry with them as I once might have, I would reflect on why they might be getting angry, and pray for love joy and happiness to enter their lives; not for what I thought would do that, but what God knew would. And at other times, I would try to sow hope wherever I could, as I felt blessed when others had done the same for me.
There was also a marked difference in the way in which I learned to see things; no longer would I anticipate negative things, but I would try to find hope, try to find the so-called “silver linings” in life. I stopped seeing negative events as God out to “get” or “punish” or “rebuke” me but rather as opportunities for growth. I became more at ease about life rather than in a struggle with it. And I began to try and answer the negative attitudes of others with a positive outlook.
But perhaps the biggest transformation I underwent was the ability to love and accept myself for who and what God made me to be. In doing so, I found myself becoming even more and more accepting of all others, not just those like me but everyone. I began to be able to see God in all people. I developed a greater consciousness and awareness of the feelings of others that in the past I might not have felt.
Learning to love the person who God made me to be had its own set of challenges. It meant accepting myself as a bisexual man, and one who feels the need for a committed and honest relationship with both a woman and with a man. I could have pretended this were not the case, or done as many do and hidden this, and never come out in the open about it. But lying to ourselves about who and what we are, what we truly want, and how we truly feel and pretending to be anything other than exactly who we are is to me, not having full faith and trust in God. I think to myself, how many other people are there who are struggling with their sexual orientation and identity, and how they are going to make it work? How many bisexual men and women, of those who feel the need for intimacy with both genders, are having to either silence these feelings or feel ashamed of them, or live a double life of betrayal and secrecy? To me, while being committed in a dual relationship where everyone is aware and consensual of that situation is not a sin or unloving, betrayal and dishonesty are both a sin and unloving.
It doesn’t have to be this way, and I knew the latter options would not work for me. While there are a great many bisexual women and men who choose a monogamous relationship, for whom bisexuality is not about an attraction to a person regardless of gender rather than a need for intimacy with both, I know from talking with others that there are equally as many who want the type of relationship I and others have been blessed with. As with individual beliefs, preferences, orientations, expressions, and sexualities, one size does not fit all. In a world made up of so many wonderful shades, sometimes there are just no black and white, “easy” answers.
A great many of these people abandon God completely, not wanting spirituality or religion to “complicate” things. I argue that faith is imperative to any sort of inner peace, and there was no way I was going to abandon my faith in God, the truth of who I am, or abandon my commitment to honesty. Eventually, through much study, honesty, and being blessed with angels in my life in human form who were there for me, I found not only a sense of being accepted for who I am but found the relationships with partners who were seeking the same.
I honestly believe with my heart and mind that there is one way to discern what the will of God is in our lives and “what is good, acceptable and perfect” by asking one simple question: am I living the full truth of who I am in a way which is loving and respectful of all others, hurtful and harmful to no one, and helpful to others whenever possible? If the answer is yes, then I feel as if I am on the right path. If it is no, I then reassess where I am and search my soul, open my heart and mind to God, and seek the answers.
All of this happened over some time, and I look back to when I was young, to my earliest thoughts about God after being born the first time, and prior to being born the second time, and I come to startling revelation: The core of who I am never really changed. I did undergo a transformation the third time, but in a different fashion than I had originally anticipated.
The realization that hit me with these personal revelations and the resulting self acceptance was one that was quite interesting. I had not changed at all. I had not become “someone different” when I acknowledged my bisexuality, my need for both a female and a male partner, my identity, my true spirituality, or my faith. These things had always been a part of me. While I had grown to integrate other aspects of my life that fear had previously prevented me from accepting, the core person and the things I loved, the things about me, my preferences had not changed, although I had grown to incorporate other passions in my life along the journey. When I allowed myself to be and embrace my true self as part of God’s Creation, more than anything, my sense of spirituality and my feeling of closeness with God flourished.
Not only that, but my although my understanding of God had blossomed and evolved into something which was enhanced and I no longer limited where I could “see” or “feel close to” God, many of the aspects from my earliest thoughts about God did remain: seeing God in nature and in all of life, and in all people, and seeing the Spirit of Christ alive in the loving kindness and compassion of others.
While it had been a time of tremendous growth, a journey from fear to faith and dark to light, it was also a peeling off of the layers to reveal who I was but who I was always too afraid to be. It was being able to see the real God of Love, to be able to see God in all of life, and to see that God Created me to be me rather than who someone else thinks I should be that made me see God and the “big picture” more clearly. And I could never have conquered those fears without God’s Love, Guidance and Grace. It was a lot of work, and it was not always easy, but I cannot take the credit for it on my own. God blessed me with the insight.
The growth still continues. If I could think of one goal of growth I would like to attain, it would be my being better able to stand up when I am being persecuted and speak more confidently about my faith to those persecuting me without fear; yes, I love and even pray for joy to come into the lives of these people but when they attack, I am not ashamed to admit I am sometimes triggered. In all honesty, they do hurt me sometimes, even when I feel sure to myself I have the whole figurative “armor of God” on. But over time, that is less of a struggle as well.
While I may never fully understand or comprehend the full and wondrous mystery of God, what I do see clearly now, having been transformed by love from a place of approaching life through fear through approaching life through faith with love and hope, is that God is no longer the menacing strict lawgiver, God is the loving Creator.
I firmly believe that no matter what type of spiritual transformation we may go through in life that it is never God who changes or transforms, it is we who grow and evolve, and transform in our understanding and perception of God. Look at the Bible itself. While I do not believe it is the “literal” words of God, one can see the evolution and metamorphosis of thinking between the Old and New Testaments, and most dramatically how Jesus transformed the way we understand and think about God. Jesus transformed the thinking then, and His Spirit still does the same today for those who are open to it.
I think that a closer look at that is very important. Only recently, the denomination I belong to, the United Church of Christ, attempted to run an advertisement on television, stating that all people-including openly LGBT people were welcome to come and worship there. Several networks refused to run the ad, claiming it was “too controversial.” Yet, can you imagine the type of transformative love that could flourish if more people were to know that not all Christians were of the fundamentalist, dogmatic variety? That some churches were open to all people, regardless of who they are?
Which leads me to the final point I wanted to discuss. Christianity as we know it today seems as if it may also undergo a transformation in thought, as it has done for many years already, but there are many who are resistant to doing so. I am hoping and praying that in the New Year to come that LGBT Christians and LGBT friendly Christians will have more of a voice in society and in the world than we currently do. It is our stories of faith, our confidence and in the kindness and fellowship with and compassion others that I feel need to be seen and heard as much as the ones which are currently heard. This to me could cause Christianity to metamorphose into the inclusive church that I feel Jesus would want it to be, and that He envisioned it to be. This type of growth is not an easy task, and there are many who are settled into the “old wineskins” with the “old wine” as far as how loving and accepting they wish for Christianity to be, yet I feel that over time, it is a reality that will come to be.
To me, real spiritual growth and transformation, or “becoming a New Creation” by embracing the teachings of Christ about the Loving Nature of God is to be fully whole, to fully be the creation God made us to be, and to do so from a place of faith and trust rather than fear. It means giving up all the “black and white,” “one size fits all” and easy to comprehend textbook answers. And while that may be a challenge, it is well worth the effort and one that which I am forever grateful to God for helping me through.
Being able to see that God is Love, being able to see God outside just the church and the Bible, and being able to see God in the teachings of Christ has made things far more clear, and made all the difference on the journey.
John Campbell is a native of Alabama.