I thought it was time to write a slightly shorter, less dense, lighter post than my last few series. And as usual, a number of disparate things have been floating around in my mind. So hopefully I’ll be able to weave these various threads together into some kind of cohesive whole.
There has been some buzz today about Rob Bell articulating his support, as many had assumed anyway, for gay marriage. Speaking at an Episcopal cathedral in San Francisco Bell said, “I am for marriage. I am for fidelity. I am for love, whether it’s a man and woman, a woman and a woman, a man and a man. I think the ship has sailed and I think the church needs — I think this is the world we are living in and we need to affirm people wherever they are.”
Seeing various comments on facebook, some expressed delight, some frustration that it took him so long, some have dismissed him from evangelicalism, and some predicting a pathway to the future of Christianity in the west. Indeed, the range of these responses indicates just how much of a litmus test this issue has become.
I am not gay. I will never know what it is like to feel emotional, spiritual, romantic and physical attraction to other women. I will never know what it is like to open your heart to the possibility of intimate, life-long love – taking the risk to empty yourself on behalf of another, trusting the other to love you the best they can, recognizing that such relational love is costly, demanding, and lacking a guarantee of personal fulfillment – I’ll never know what it is like to feel the possibility and potential of such love and know that people you care about, who you worship with, who you grew up with, who you have served believe that such love is an abomination, a threat to God’s intention for family, the church, and society-at-large. I’ll never really know what any of that feels like.
I’ll never know what it is like to pour over the scriptures, deeply committed to being open to God’s will and trying to discern what the good news of the gospel is for your life – when so much of the church seems to have very little, if anything, good to say about the way you love, who you love, and how you want to journey through life in love.
But I do know what it is like to be afraid of getting it wrong. I do know what it is like to be scared of somehow disappointing God. I know what it is like to be a people pleaser to try to avoid the rejection of others. I know what it is like to work very hard at being a good Christian – only to find that a life of striving burnt me out and made God seem very, very far away. I know what it is to feel the sting and hurt of others’ judgment. I know what it is like to be considered a heretic, told I’m leading the church astray, and accused of being demonized.
I know what it is like to feel alone, misunderstood, and scared for the future.
And into the midst of all these experiences, I know what it is to receive the compassion of God… and know I am called to do likewise in extending compassion in mutual relationship with others.
I was in a thrift store the other day, one of my favorite pastimes, and came across the book, “A Spirituality Named Compassion” by Matthew Fox. I have been slowly meandering through this book like one savors a delectable cheesecake. Fox reminds us that, “Compassion operates at the same level as celebration because what is of most moment in compassion is not feelings of pity but feelings of togetherness. It is this awareness of togetherness that urges us to rejoice at another’s joy (celebration) and to grieve at another’s sorrow. Both dimensions, celebration and sorrow, are integral to true compassion. And this, above all, separates pity from compassion for it is seldom that we would invite someone we had pity onto a common celebration. (Notice the preposition on as in “patting one on the head”) Yet the passion-with of true compassion urges us to celebration.”
In the last year, I have had the opportunity to celebrate with a number of my gay friends as they entered marriage covenants together. Each ceremony was unique, heart-felt, Christ-centered, and intimate. My presence was not a political statement or doctrinal position. My presence was being with my friends in their moments of celebration. My presence was entering in to experience their leap of faith to commit their lives to one another. My presence was an expression of my love.
Latin American liberation theologian Jose Miranda says, “Love which is not an acute sense of justice and an authentic suffering with-my-outraged-brother, such love does not transcend. It is satisfied with itself although with its words it denies that it is so; and thus it remains in itself and does not transcend.” I want my expression of love to sing with justice – not only the desire for all of my human brothers and sisters to flourish – but the will to make it so. I want my love to transcend beyond my own narcissistic individualism that can so easily focus on merely what is good for “me and mine”. I want my love to reach to any fringe where anyone experiences alienation from God and others to draw them in …. and that means I will weep with those who weep, and I will rejoice with those who rejoice. And I will trust the Holy Spirit to lead all of us to righteousness, to repentance where needed, and to maturity in our discipleship.
A good number of years ago, I was asked by a gay activist whether or not I would attend a gay wedding of friends – and I replied that I would and that I would bring a gift. That comment led some to disown me as a ministry leader and to even question the veracity of my Christian faith. Since then, New Direction has continued to move into a place of generous spaciousness – that makes room for the diversity in conviction of Christians on the question of gay marriage. In my wrestling with God and the text of Scripture, this honouring of our common humanity as image-bearers of God, this prioritizing of relationship and community, this commitment to humble listening and engagement across difference, and this non-negotiable value of hospitality for all and particularly those impoverished for any reason, smells more like Jesus than dogmatic politicized, individualized expressions of black and white certainty on moral questions that have no contextual mirror in the biblical narrative.
One of the ways a sense of space can feel restricted is by an exaggeration of pressure and suffering that those on the extreme ends of this polarized matter express. I recently saw a video of a ministry leader talking about an experience he had with a panel – of which I was a member. In the discussion that night, I was probably one of the more bold voices challenging this leader to consider the implications and consequences of certain philosophies and emphasis in his ministry network. My somewhat-out-of-character confrontational approach that night had everything to do with justice and my sense of what was humanizing and liberating for people based on my experiences in ex-gay ministry and with many ex-gay survivors. For me, it was my love in action. When I heard this ministry leader recounting the experience you would have thought we had all sharpened our pitchforks and were out for blood. But the confrontations that did occur weren’t really about him – they were about justice for those who have felt driven to suppression, denial, shame and repression.
We all like to have our ego’s stroked. And in the Christian community a great way to do that is to share stories of suffering “for the gospel”. But leaders need to have integrity. We need to be honest and resist the temptation to exaggerate to prove our own worth and effort. We need to live simply, humbly and rest in God’s grace.
I would be the first to say that this is hard. When you get a hateful email you want to tell everyone so that they can reassure you, comfort you, and help take away the sting. But this isn’t a justice-love that transcends the self. When someone from within the Body of Christ treats you like crap, you want to expose that for the hypocrisy that it is. But that isn’t a justice-love that transcends the self.
Resisting the lure to become political, to play the power cards, to assert pressure to change …. none of this is easy. But it may be essential for those called to long-term incarnational ministry. Incarnational ministry means I am willing to be misunderstood – and not tweet about it the minute it happens. Incarnational ministry means I do my best to not take offense – when it would feel so much better to vent and rant and rave and let everyone know just how hard-done-by I am. Incarnational ministry means that God’s grace is enough for me.
In many ways it feels like we’re in an accelerated pace on the gay marriage question. As a Canadian, where federal gay marriage has been in place since 2005, you’d think this would be old news. But this isn’t necessarily the case. For many in the Christian community this has continued to be a difficult, contentious, and complex challenge. Rob Bell’s statements from last night may open the door for others to express more openly what they may have been pondering privately for some time. For others, his statements will only serve to alienate, confuse and frighten even more. But in this time of transition and shifts, let us enter the true spirit of compassion – that celebrates with people, that sees justice and love inexplicably intertwined. Let us express ourselves most fully through loving relationship relegating our dogma to secondary status. And let us embody incarnational postures that invite us to honest, humble integrity in private and in public …. so that we will truly carry the winsome fragrance of Jesus Christ into every encounter, conversation, and nook & cranny that God gives us the privilege of engaging.