So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.
– 1 Thessalonians 5:6-8
Years ago, I used to work an overnight job. I would arrive at work at 1 a.m. and work until 9 a.m. When I got home it was already light outside, so to get to sleep I had to make my bedroom dark – or put a cloth over my face to shield my eyes from the light. That became such an ingrained habit that, to this day, I still cannot fall asleep without a cloth over my eyes, even though I now sleep at night.
Overnight shifts are hard on human beings because our bodies are not meant to be awake when it’s dark outside. Our circadian rhythms – when unencumbered by clocks and daytimer schedules – will call our bodies to bed after sunset and call them to rise when the sun does. Our bodies have a rhythm, and when we go against that grain – we suffer. Studies have shown women who work overnight shifts have a higher risk of breast cancer, and all overnight workers run the risk of such disorders as diabetes, hypertension and obesity.
Just as our bodies have a rhythm, so do our spiritual lives. As Paul points out in his letter to the Thessalonians, “we belong to the day.” The night is made for sleepers and drunkards – but not for those who have chosen to follow Jesus. Instead, those people are the ones who are awake and “sober.” The Greek word Paul uses here nepho means “to be calm and collected in spirit.” One can only be calm and collected in their spirit if that spirit is well-rested, awake, and centered in the Holy.
Another meaning for the word “sleep” in this passage is “to be dead.” If we are not awake, calm and collected in our spirit, then Paul is telling us, we really are dead. Perhaps not physically dead – but dead in spirit – unable to wear the armor of love, faith and salvation that the life of a Christian requires.
Sadly, too many of our LGBT brothers and sisters are asleep or drunk. They have turned off their spirits and drunk deeply of the lies told to them by those on the religious right who say they can’t be both LGBT and Christian. Our community is full of sleep walking, drunken people whose spirits are dead – and whose speech is slurred when they try to talk about their faith.
This is the sin that has been committed against our community. By continuing to tell the LGBT community that they are damned, conservative Christians are causing our brothers and sisters to stifle their own spirits – to put them to sleep – and to stumble drunkenly through life without a “calm and collected” spirit. I grieve for our LGBT brothers and sisters who have been deceived – who have tried “ex-gay ministries” to quash their God-given, and God-blessed, sexual orientation or gender identity.
I think God rejoices when any of these lost sheep return to the fold, cast aside the demon of religious oppression, and reconcile their faith and sexuality or gender identity. That moment of reconciliation is the moment that they truly awaken – and understand that they have been asleep – lulled into numbing their yearning for God by the lies told every week in pulpits around the world.
Being awake, however, is not all that we are called to do. Paul tells us that the clothing we wear every single day must consist of love and faith. That love is not just for God or for ourselves, but for everything and everyone around us – whether they are friend or foe. When we understand that our role in this world is simply to bring love wherever find ourselves – we begin to understand what the Buddhists call “enlightenment.”
“In Buddhism enlightenment is called the unconditioned,” writes Buddhist monk Jack Kornfield, “that which shines naturally when the heart is not entangled in the forces of grasping, hatred, and ignorance. When the heart is free of these forces, true intimacy and love exist. There is an awakening in the midst of all things, a love that can touch and include all things, a freedom and fearlessness that can enter every realm.”
In short – enlightenment means we are awake and sober – we have a calm and collected spirit that can walk fearlessly in this world, no matter what surroundings in finds itself in. Whether in the company of friends or enemies, the one who is awake and sober can be at the very center of it all – and intimate with everyone and everything. It is imperative, then, for LGBT people to keep awake and sober – for us to be aware of what is happening in our world and instead of becoming hysterical, accusing, defensive, or angry – our spirit is always calm and collected – where we can impart true love and intimacy with all. This means that we should not shy away from real dialogue with those who oppose LGBT rights or who believe homosexuality or transgenderism is against God’s will.
Instead, it means that we engage everyone – friend or enemy – with a calm, collected spirit that shines naturally with the love of God that radiates from within. Awaken your spirits, my LGBT brothers and sisters, and let your light shine so that others may awaken from their drunken sleep and realize that God dwells in us just as surely as she dwells in others.
Whosoever founder and Editor Emeritus Rev. Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians. She earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She serves as the spiritual director of Jubilee! Circle in Columbia, S.C., and blogs at Motley Mystic.