Bridging Conversation – Part 2

To continue my conversation with Shane …..

W: What do you think is useful about attempts to bridge the gap and nurture safe and spacious places where sexual minorities can explore and grow in faith in Jesus Christ?

S: I want to begin my answer by reflecting on the phrase “to bridge the gap.” This phrase implies that there are two groups of people, the gay community and the Christian community and that these groups are distinct. The implication is that there is no intersection between these two groups. Maybe that’s not what intended but that’s the way it feels to me. Even the subtitle to this blog which is “conversations about befriending our gay neighbours” has the implication to me that the “our” refers to Christians and that we the Christians want to connect with the gay neighbours who are not part of us.

I know there are some people who believe that it is impossible to be gay and Christian. Usually these people use the word “gay” to mean much more than gay people use it to mean. To me the word “gay” simply means someone who is sexually attracted to the same sex. It does not imply at all what you will do with those attractions. Maybe you will never act on these attractions or maybe you will. I’m pretty sure that most gay people will use the word gay in this way.

If we agree on this definition of the word “gay” then there will be gay Christians. It’s not the case that a person who is a Christian immediately stops being a Christian the moment he or she realizes that they are attracted to the same sex. And it is not the case that the moment a gay person decides to follow Jesus that their attractions to the same sex instantaneously disappear. Thus there will be people who are trying to follow Jesus who experience attractions to the same sex. There will be gay Christians.

No matter what a church believes or teaches about sexuality it is most likely that there will be gay people in it. I myself grew up in a conservative church and I have met other gay people who grew up in churches that were far more conservative than mine. Preaching against homosexuality will not prevent youth in that church from experiencing same sex attraction.

Add to this the fact that being gay is not a choice. I suppose there are some who may choose to experiment sexually but I have never met a person who made the choice to have same sex attractions.

Therefore a young person may discover that they have attractions to someone of the same sex. These attractions are not something they chose and now they realize that the term gay may apply to them. They have been told repeatedly that there is no such thing as a gay Christian. Therefore they feel that if they want to remain a Christian they have to make these attractions go away. I myself went down this path. I read books, went to counselling, underwent deliverance ministry, prayed prayers, made deals with God, and analyzed my relationships with my parents and others. But in the end I still had attractions to men. When these methods are unsuccessful at making same-sex attractions go away the person then feels trapped. They have these attractions that they didn’t choose and they can’t get rid of. They are still stuck with the message that there is no such thing as a gay Christian and since they can’t unchoose the gay part of themselves they decide the only way to make peace is to unchoose the Christian part of themselves. They walk away from God and the church. I know at one point I was tempted to go down that path.

But I was glad that I had friends, connections, a counsellor and a pastor that provided safe spaces for me to ask questions. It was OK for me to honestly admit that I did have attractions to men. I did a lot of reading and praying on my own and with these supports. I earnestly sought God and his direction.

My faith in God survived because of the safe and gracious spaces that I found. I know that a lot of gay people aren’t this privileged and in the end they feel driven out of the church. This makes me sad and angry at times. I long for people to experience the same freedom that I felt in exploring my questions. I long for them to have places where they can truly approach God with their gut-wrenching fears and questions.

This question has definitely been harder for me to answer. These are some of my initial thoughts. Let me know what you think.

W: I share a lot of your concerns about language and the ways it might be interpreted. In fact, in our new mission and vision statements, we don’t refer to bridging the gap at all because it seems to be language that is quickly taking on unhelpful baggage. It has never been our intention to perpetuate the sense of polarity between two distinct communities as if there were rigid boundaries and no intermingling. The caricature of rigid lines not only gives way in light of the reality of gay Christians, but also with the support of gay affirming straight Christian allies. While I’m not ready to toss out the idea of bridging the multiple gaps that the arise at the intersection of faith and sexuality, I do find it challenging to communicate this with the generosity that I would intend and want to foster.

For example, there are gaps between affirming straight allies and other straight Christians who want to be loving and supportive but theologically don’t feel they can fully embrace affirming gay relationships. Sometimes there are a lot of assumptions that fly back and forth when in reality there is a lot more common ground and points of connection than our fears or judgments sometimes allow us to see. There are also great gaps between those embroiled in ecclesiastical issues related to church polity and those who are focused very personally and relationally. The suspicions and misunderstandings can abound and bridging is greatly needed. So while a phrase like “bridge the gap” can seem to imply one bridge over one gap between gay people and Christians, in the reality of our engagement it is much more nuanced and complex than that.

I was just presenting to a group of pastors the other week. A big part of our time ended up on this question of language and in particular the use of the word gay. Their starting point was the assumption that if a person identifies as gay they are communicating that they are sexually active. As I tried to deconstruct this with them and reinforce the common understanding that when a person says they are gay all they are really telling you is that they experience same-sex attraction …. they aren’t telling you anything about their theology, their politics or their sexual behavior or relationships …. I ran into a big brick wall. Part of this brick wall was the pastors protesting a desire to ‘protect’ the gay individual from the assumptions and misunderstandings of their congregations – who would also assume that the individual was a “practising homosexual”. (To which I always ask them if they are a “practising” heterosexual….). When I attempted to confront this by challenging their hesitancy, at best, resistance, at worst, to simply take the opportunity to educate themselves and their congregation on the common use of the word gay …. they then claimed a capitulation to the “world’s standards”. To which I again challenged their unawareness of the influence of their dominant majority privileged status in their resistance to taking some simple steps to educate and nurture a safe place where a same-sex attracted person can simply and easily be honest and authentic about their reality. This then opened a whole other conversation about my use of words like “reality” and “experience” which are value neutral when the pastors felt that I should be using words like “struggle”, “temptation”, “sinful nature”.

This led to my attempt to describe the experience of same-sex attraction as much more than just a sexual attraction but as a kind of lens through which someone views the world of people and relationships. That it is a kind of lens that impacts much more then a reductionistic notion of sexuality – but impacts a holistic sense of sexuality that includes our creativity, our humour, our sensitivities, our emotions, our spiritual inclinations etc. This was quite a significant paradigm shift for these pastors – and some were open and wrestling to get their brain around some of these new and different ideas …. others were quite resistant and simply reverted back to their own lens, oblivious to the implications of never having to really think about the ways their sexuality influences and impacts their day-to-day life far beyond what happens in their bedrooms. I tried to describe to them the implication of an individual being told that this kind of intrinsic part of them needed to be labeled a struggle …. and how staggering that is to be able to live in the reality of God’s grace and spaciousness when you’re saddled with this overarching description of ‘struggle’ …. but from several of the pastors I got a fairly canned response about how we all struggle with our sinful nature, that all of us struggle every day. And I had the distinct impression that they were unable or unwilling to really enter that place of identification with their gay brother or sister.

Yes, we all have a sinful nature. But, we are all also glorious reflections of the image of God. How can the gaps in these pastors’ understanding help them to interact pastorally with their congregants who are same-sex attracted in such a way that they are released into the beauty and freedom of living as an image-bearer of God without crippling shame or fear? In this particular case, I had only one, rather unsatisfactory hour with this group. In one short hour you can try to raise some of these critical questions – but inevitably feel like you leave having opened Pandora’s box without folks really being able to enter into the reality of the issues. None-the-less, I have to trust that God will continue to speak, reveal and challenge these pastors so that they can take some concrete steps to be more hospitable, humble and helpful in their pastoral interactions with gay people.

Shane, a follow-up question for you then ….. You grew up in a church pastored by someone who perhaps wasn’t so different than some of the pastors I interacted with that day. Do you think it is useful to try to have conversations with these kinds of leaders? As you probably know, leaders like myself, can take heat for not positioning ourselves on either pole: affirming or not-affirming. The reality is, we feel God is calling us to interact across the diverse spectrum of where people are at in terms of their theological positions and personal relationship choices. If our position might prevent us from being able to meet people where they’re at, then my posture is to not make it about our position but to make it about our availability to connect with people and to identify with and understand people across the diverse spectrum. To me, this is part of being a peace-maker ….. someone willing to wade into the reality of diversity and tension – hopefully without alienating people. All of us have something to contribute and all of us need deeper reconciliation across this conflict saturated topic. We want to serve in the midst of that and draw out the gifts people offer ….. and nurture the reconciliation that can yet be experienced. And we believe this is consistent with the heart of God. Comments?

S: I think it is useful to have conversations with these kinds of leaders as long as there is some openness in them to learn. I have had many e-mail conversations with people about sexuality. Most of these are with people who would disagree with my relationship with David. I am very willing to engage these people and I have prayed that God would speak to me through these conversations. Usually in the beginning there is give-and-take. We clarify stereotypes that the other may have. We clarify the use of words. We find areas where we agree and disagree. We refine one another’s ideas which is a process which I believe leads to truth. However in most of these conversations I find that we reach a point where conversation is no longer helpful. Questions are no longer being asked and usually judgment is pronounced. At that point I usually bow out of the conversation saying that the best thing we can do is pray for each other, pray that God will open our ears, soften our hearts and give us the courage to follow his leading however he leads.

Therefore if a person has already decided right from the start that they know everything they want to know about gay people and that they have no interest at all in learning how to communicate better with gay people then I doubt that the conversation will be helpful.

W: Shane, I can almost hear the weariness in your voice when you speak about many conversations and coming to the point of needing to bow out because of your sense that judgments were being pronounced. Having had lots of such conversations over the years, though not from as personal a vantage point as for you, I can absolutely relate to how exhausting this can become.

What a difference it is when you encounter someone who has the stability, security, curiosity, and humility to truly journey with someone through difference with the assurance that mutual learning and growth will happen along the way. I just received an email yesterday from an individual who was connected with New Direction more than ten years ago. That person shared about the incredible growth they’ve experienced over the years. They said, “My faith would have been very narrow and excluded a lot of people. This experience has revolutionized my life and expression of faith. Even people at work talk about how much I have changed. I have more loving relationships with those around me. I have learned not to “other” people. It has been a painful process, and I have felt utterly alone in it all at times, totally confused and unsure about anything. The only thing I hung on to was that God loved me.”

The willingness to journey in such a way …. allowing God to stretch us, challenge us, strip us of our certainties, arrogance and pride …. this is the willingness that invites maturity and enlarges in us the capacity to truly embody the grace and invitation of Christ.

Thanks again Shane for sharing your thoughts and insights with us. I look forward to Part 3. -WG

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