Part of my doctoral journey is to invite a small group of folks from diverse backgrounds to gather with me on a regular basis to engage with me on my research topic. At this point, I am planning on looking at the impact and effectiveness of the concept of generous spaciousness on a church’s experience navigating the conversation about faithful discipleship for LGBT people. My hope, of course, is that by introducing the concept and then facilitating dialogue from the posture of generous spaciousness, that a congregation will experience honest, open conversation without coercion, debate, power struggles, shame, fear or paralyzing anxiety. My hope is that generous spaciousness might generate a sense of meaning-making for this conversation – that rather than the discussion being polarizing and threatening fracture, the conversation would enlarge in members of the congregation the capacity to be patient, humble and gracious with each other despite any differences in perspectives that emerge. If this hypothesis is demonstrated, then not only will engaging this conversation be healthy for a congregation, it will be a safe and spacious place for any individuals who find themselves not neatly fitting into the majority heterosexual experience. Lots of churches talk about being welcoming. But if the conversation about how an LGBT person ought to faithfully navigate their life as a follower of Jesus is ignored or the source of argumentation and fracture, it is a hollow welcome.
The small group that I have pulled together is a wonderful tapestry. Several LGBT people, some who identify as Christian and some who do not, sit alongside pastors and chaplains from denominations holding a traditional perspective on marriage, who find a place at the table with straight allies who are lay people in the church. What is wonderful is that very quickly we are experiencing generous spaciousness together.
The dialogue that emerged in our meeting yesterday was robust yet irenic. I had asked each person to share their impression of what generous spaciousness was. One of the participants shared a very interesting metaphor. She said, “Generous spaciousness reminds me of something I’m learning to prevent personal battles in my own mind. The technique is to not take sides in these battles because as a battle in my own head if I choose a side and win then I lose because I am the other side too. The approach was to frame this as a volleyball game where I was not to take sides, nor be referee or judge either side, as they launched volleys, by the rules or not, against each other. I am the volleyball court; aware of the game going on, of what each side is doing and why – but impartial, even though sometimes damaged in the aggressiveness of the game. This is all done to allow me, the court, to find a way to better mental and emotional health by the gradual fading of the game due to lack of interest. So here we have a volleyball game between, perhaps multiple teams at once, where theological positions, judgments and reactions are volleyed back and forth. Generous spaciousness is the court, or perhaps more correctly, the community of Christ is the court and the objective is not to participate in the game, not to judge any position, but to observe and note where various emotions, thoughts, and actions fit the game – but to let them go so as to allow the community to find a healthy relationship with God and Christ.”
Now as an avid lover of volleyball, this metaphor especially piqued my interest. But what was even more fascinating was to see how this metaphor was picked up by other members in the group. The question of boundaries came up in light of the idea that the church is like the volleyball court. Someone wondered about how we clarify these boundaries. I mentioned that there are three ways a church can clarify its boundaries: First, it can articulate a clear commitment to a traditional understanding that sexual intimacy is reserved for the marriage between one man and one woman. Secondly, it can articulate a clear commitment to the understanding that God blesses and extends grace to the covenant of marriage regardless of the gender of the partners. Third, a church can articulate that they clearly acknowledge that Christians disagree on this particular matter and that they choose to live in that tension as they extend hospitality to all. Then the comment was made that on the basis of one of these clearly stated positions, a congregation then plays within the boundaries of the court as defined by this position.
Calling on my many years of playing volleyball, I suggested that you can actually run outside of the boundaries to retrieve a ball and bring it back into play. So there was a sense that the boundaries are markers and yet there was some degree of flexibility in particular circumstances. Then another member of the group suggested that this conversation highlights the difference between a squash court and a volleyball court. In volleyball, the boundaries are marked on the floor. Players can stay within them or run outside of them – depending on what is going on in the game. The boundaries are, one might suggest, contextualized to the particular play. A squash court however has a very different experience of boundaries. If you’ve never played squash, it is a court where the boundaries are marked by walls. You can’t run outside the boundaries – and if you try you might just break your nose or at least get a good goosebump on your noggin.
One of the group members suggested that they’d been searching in the life of Jesus in the gospels to see examples of whether generous spaciousness could be seen in his ministry. And I mentioned that I really saw it in Jesus relationship with the law. Jesus says that he has not come to abolish the law – but to fulfill it. He says that all the law and the prophets hang on the command to love God with everything in you and to love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus also says that the Sabbath was made for man – not man for the Sabbath. And he has no problem with his disciples picking grain on the Sabbath – even though that transgressed the accepted interpretation of the law in his day.
In response another member suggested that the law was like a moral map – one on which we are invited to plan our own route – to guide our own navigation. He contrasted this with the idea of a GPS where your route is planned for you and you are simply expected to follow that calm, hypnotic voice. Those who hold to a GPS model of the law don’t need to think, they don’t need to own their choices, or wrestle with God – they just need to follow very rigid, defined directions. But those who understand that the law is like a map realize that they are responsible to chart their own course. And there may be many different ways to get to the same place, with different adventures on different routes. This idea of the law requires you to think and take ownership.
Another member simply said that while she might not be able to articulate what generous spaciousness was, she did know that she could tell the difference when she experienced and when she didn’t. She shared the example of two family members’ reactions to the recent announcement of her engagement to her partner. Both of these family members hold to a more traditional theological understanding of marriage. One family member has been present in this young woman’s life, taking the time to get to know her partner, being supportive in the day-to-day realities of life, being an encouragement, and being willing to stand up at the wedding as an attendant as an expression of their love for this woman and her partner. The other family member has clearly expressed that unless this young woman gets in alignment with their perspective on these matters they will take that as an indication of weak or no faith and as an open invitation to consistently try to convince this young woman of the error of her ways. In light of these contrasting experiences, this young woman suggested that the challenge of generous spaciousness was to not respond to the judgment of others with your own judgment of them. Generous spaciousness enlarges us in patience, humility and grace – but that doesn’t always mean that it is easy.
One of the things that has become important in my own reflections on generous spaciousness is to view it as foundational for a healthy experience of true Christian community. The LGBT conversation is just one case study for the application of generous spaciousness. This led to some important distinctions in our group’s conversation. When it was suggested that generous spaciousness might also be a foundation for a case study like racism, there are some clarifications that need to be made. Generous spaciousness acknowledges difference and invites all into the conversation. Part of this space is a willingness to live with the tension of some difference. Part of living in this tension is identifying and addressing any energy behind the convictions people hold as being unhelpful. Examples would be fear, shame, prejudice, privilege or anger. Such energy is not consistent with generous space. The problem with using racism as a case study for generous spaciousness is the reality that you want to root out racist attitudes and positions. In other words, you don’t want to live in the tension with a racist. In the same way, in the LGBT conversation, the intention is not to live in the tension with someone who demeans, disrespects, or devalues those outside the heterosexual mainstream. The challenge is that some people would view anyone who holds a traditional view of marriage as automatically doing those very things to LGBT people. Yet, for New Direction, a critical part of generous spaciousness is ensuring that Christians who hold differing views are able to enter a shared space and experience common ground in our love for Christ and for one another. Indeed, there are gay Christians who hold to a traditional understanding of Scripture – and they too need a safe place to be honest and authentic without the assumed projection that they are simply filled with internalized homophobia.
So generous spaciousness isn’t always the easiest concept to nail down and articulate. For those of us who live in the realty of these conversations, sometimes the best we can do is to indicate when we experience it and when we don’t. The problem is, that isn’t very helpful when you’re trying to build a conceptual model for a doctoral thesis.
So…. What do you think generous spaciousness is? What story can you share of experiencing it in this conversation at the intersection of faith and sexuality? What do you think are the core values of generous spaciousness? What makes up the common ground that we can share in such space?
As challenging as it is to articulate all the nuances of this concept in a concise and readable fashion, I am committed to nurturing and promoting generous spaciousness. For those of us who have experienced it, we know it allows us to experience the freedom, unity and maturity that God has intended for his gathered people.