First off, a blessed Holy Week to each of you!
Again, I want to thank Julie and Jessica for their insightful and honest input in this writing project. I know personally it has made me a better pastor and more importantly, a more faithful follower of Jesus Christ. Thank you!
The assignment for this round of entries was to look back on ourselves and our processes and ask, “Would you have done anything different if you did it again?” The answer is, “Of course!” It is impossible to go through a discernment process and not see how you could have alleviated some of the struggle, shortcut some of the hours spent, or taken advantage of some of the opportunities missed. I know in the case of SPC, in hindsight we could have had better communication with our congregation throughout the process itself. I am so impressed by Jessica and her church's approach involving their entire church througout the process, as well as Julie and Eastern's ability to have the entire university community take part in discussions during their discernment. As I look back now, our strategy was a little like Willy Wonka – lock yourself up in a Chocolate Factory for a few years until you come out with something to show to the world. While we did a good job at inviting our congregation into the conversation once we had done the hard work, I will admit we could have done a better job at bringing them along all along. That being said, once we started the public conversation, we had hundreds of our people involved in the conversations and, for the large majority, the feedback was that they felt heard and honored in the process. Thanks be to God.
In answer to one of Julie's questions, I believe we did allow all types of evidence to have a hearing in our group work. In my estimation, we turned over pretty much every rock we could—how could you not in a 3 year process! We wanted to hear as many “voices” as we possibly could, and we certainly did. The key however, was the spirit of openness, learning and growth that the group had through the process. It helped to have an inquisitive group that was comfortable in their own skin and their ability to articulate their own growing vantage point in love.
But the big learning for me was what Julie suggested for both her experience at Eastern as well as her question for Jessica and I; we could have done a better job at engaging people in the LGBT community in our conversation as a group. The reality was that while each of us individually had our own experiences (which I will discuss in a moment), and while together we set about engaging them through articles and books, we never actually sat down with a member of the LGBT community in our group and heard their story. Why didn’t we do this? I’m not quite sure, but I wish we had, because while reading stories and discussing theological propositions work are helpful, there is nothing that can substitute for face to face relationships and conversation. As Julie said, “We do not know what we do not know because of the limitations of our experiences and perspectives.”
I know this to be true because for me, my epiphone came when I had the chance to meet with a married gay couple who had started to attend our church. They had come to SPC because they were followers of Jesus and felt like this was a place where they sensed Jesus was present and active (the kind of compliment every pastor loves to hear!).
But let me tell you a secret—I was nervous to meet with them, mostly because I had never actually met with a married gay couple and heard their story before. As we sat down at the local Starbucks, one of the men told me of his lifelong self-hatred because of his sexual orientation and his belief that God’s hatred for him matched his own. This was a man who had given up a decade of his life serving Christ by playing in a music ministry that traveled the globe--yet all the while living in despair and without much hope. And yet now, through many years of study, prayer and discernment, he had come to a place of peace that God loved him as he was, warts and all, and that even if this was not God’s original intention for mankind, it was God’s way of wholeness for him in the midst of his brokenness. Here was a man who was sincerely committed to the Scriptures and desired to live them out; who saw his fidelity to his husband as an extension of that devotion.
I must say, that conversation changed me. Let me be clear—it didn’t convince me of the Biblical/hermeneutical lens that my friend was using to arrive at his conclusion, but it changed me, nonetheless. I still had my questions, but as I left the Starbucks that day, a new question was germanating and sprouting with me—a question that has turned out to be a great help in my own coming-to-terms with our church’s decision to be more inclusive towards the LGBT community. The question is this…
Which way would I rather be wrong?
That question started ringing in my ears and it continues to this day. I realize this may appear to be an unorthodox way to do theology, but hear me out.
If we assume that none of us has the corner on the market on the total and complete understanding of the Scriptures (which we must assume with the wide variety of emphases and interpretations of the Book throughout the Christian world); and if we also assume that this particular issue of homosexuality is not a salvation issue but really an issue of discipleship (which I realize is not a universal belief but was a conclusion I had already come to in my own life), then I had to ask myself a deeper question: What if my viewpoint is wrong? If my stance is wrong, what does it cost me and, more importantly, what does it cost those who are on the other side?
As I thought this through, I came to some sobor conclusions. If I was right and my gay married friends were wrong, then they would not be living in the fullness of God’s design (like I fail to do in many parts of my life as well, I am sure). As their pastor then, I should admonish them to break up or at least remain celibate for the rest of their lives if they wanted to most faithfully follow Jesus Christ. This is a plausible conclusion and is widely accepted by many in the Christian world. It is the classic God’s will versus humanity's will, the desire to live consistent with the text and tradition of Scripture versus adopting a new or popular cultural interpretation. Holding to this line may have been the right answer.
But then I started to get nervous…What if I'm wrong? What if, as a growing group of disciples in the Christian world believe, the few Scriptures concerning homosexuality aren’t really aimed at this current understanding of same gender marriage that is possible today? What if like gender issues and slavery (to name a few) our current context forces us to reinterpret our understanding of God’s Word on this issue? If that was the case, then I (as their pastor) would be robbing these followers of Jesus a chance to be in a covenanted relationship that they believed imaged the relationship of God and his church. I would be hamstringing these disciples of Jesus with a burden they shouldn’t have to bear (possibly like Paul’s admonition to the Galatian believers regarding the Gentiles and circumcision). Worst of all, if these disciples experienced this prohibition as my new friend had experienced it for decades—a rejection by the living God—then what if they went into eternity believing in that rejection? The words of Jesus, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them,” rung in my ears. What if I was keeping these children from God because I was so committed to my belief in what amounted to a non-essential doctrine that doesn’t affect one’s salvation?
It made me nervous.
With that in mind, I started to consider the very real question of which way I would rather be wrong. When I stand before God’s judgment seat someday, would I rather have God say, “You were way too open and accepting on this issue” or would I rather have him say, “Through your actions, some of my children, in their despair, never knew my love”?
In the end, I decided for myself that I’d rather error on the side of grace on this issue and be ok with an open posture of acceptance. I realize many of my beloved colleagues and friends find themselves on the other side. For them, this issue is much clearer and black in white. For me, however, through this process and through this conversation done in community, I am much less certain than I ever was before--mystery abounds--and ultimately I believe we made the hard right decision (even though I still have my questions). Jessica echoed my thoughts exactly at the end of her essay, “I think the fullest of what we are called to do as a community of Christ is to pour ourselves out on the behalf of others, to regard ourselves and our positions as less than our own. If each person could live in such a manner we would be able to exemplify an alternative to the polarized world we live in. This is the mission we are called to.”
Do we still have a long way to go at SPC? Of course. We haven't even brushed the surface of other gender issues that continue to be explored. But one thing I am confident of--If we come at every conversaton with love and respect, we can accomplish what Julie so eloquently said at the end of her essay, "I am left wondering if Christianity might be more attractive to outsiders if we seemed more clearly like we were “figuring it out” rather than seeming to have “figured it out.”
Amen to that.