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Lausanne: Joys and Challenges

There are two days remaining in this one week global congress on world evangelization. It has been a very full and challenging experience. I wanted to come and be part of the Canadian delegation to this third Lausanne congress for several reasons. For some time I have been sensing that in light of the reality of globalization God was wanting to prepare me to participate in a more global level in the conversation around the intersection of faith and sexuality. I would be the first to admit, however, that despite Canada being very multi-cultural and affording me the opportunity to engage with people from very diverse ethnic backgrounds, I have little to no cross-cultural experience. Coming to South Africa to spend two weeks in not only the African context but also connecting with 5,000 delegates and guests from countries all over the world would give me a crash course in listening to and learning to relate. In this cross-cultural setting, the normal complexity surrounding the conversations on faith and sexuality become staggeringly complicated. On one end of the spectrum, you have nations where the context is very gay-positive and often simultaneously quite post-Christian. On the other end of the spectrum, you have nations that are pervasively homophobic and often simultaneously living in the midst of a strong Christendom paradigm. Fostering conversation with the hope of dialogue in such a diverse context is extraordinarily difficult.

However, at this congress, there are a series of presentations and dialogue sessions around sexuality. And that is the second reason I wanted to come to South Africa. All of the sessions are being led by Exodus leaders from different world regions. When I first heard about this I had some concerns that this was the only paradigm being presented. I wanted to be present to observe how the presentations were handled and to listen to how people from very different contexts responded and interacted.

The other reasons I wanted to be at Lausanne were connected to my heart for the church in general and my desire for us to live in the fullness of our calling (see my previous post and my 8th Letter for more on that). It is reported that Augustine said, “The church is a whore, but she is my mother.” For me, there is an enduring love for the Body of Christ – even as I grieve for the ways the church stumbles, struggles and sometimes wounds more than she heals. I truly wanted to hear how the Body of Christ was serving and bringing shalom into some of the most challenging contexts in the world.

In my orientation to be a table group leader (we are seated in tables of 6 for the morning sessions of Biblical study and presentations), the leaders challenged us with the reality that we would come with expectations that either would not be met or met in very different ways than we expected. So from the beginning I have tried to resolve to have a very open heart to the things God wanted to show me and teach me.

One of the first things that happened in the congress was a time to get to know the people at your table group. At my table is a pastor from Kenya, a missions worker from South Africa who is connected with the Maldives, an American woman serving on a missions board, and a pastor from Finland. Within moments some things I might have expected were challenged. The pastor from Finland was very fundamentalist in his posture. One of the first things out of his mouth was his lament that today he would no longer be able to be ordained in Finland because he opposed the ordination of women …. he made these comments even though he was well aware that there were two female seminary graduates at the table. A few moments later, the Kenyan brother and Finnish brother were animatedly discussing the evils of same-sex marriage. It was a rather rough start, and despite being the table leader, I was probably feeling the least safe of anyone at the table. I began to wonder whether my hope for cross-cultural engagement was way too idealistic …. and if I am honest, my hope dipped.

Then the Biblical expositors began to take the stage – and I really wondered if I was the right person to be at this congress. The brand of evangelicalism that was being promoted seemed the farthest thing imaginable from the heart-felt poem / love letter lament I’d prepared for the 8th Letter conference. The depth of certainty came with nostrils flaring in passion that could just as easily have been perceived as arrogant anger. I am not judging the hearts of these men – only describing my sense of receiving their messages. As you might have guessed from my 8th Letter, I do not view questions or doubt as an enemy of faith. Rather, I think wrestling promotes a more robust and vibrant faith. Certainty, on the other hand, does not strengthen faith – in fact, it may even weaken it. Who really needs faith when you have all the answers? Who needs God desperately when you have everything figured out? It is not that I do not think there is truth – but like one presenter from former East Germany, I think truth is a person – embodied in the Incarnated One, Jesus Christ. Truth is personal and relational. And Jesus is still revealing himself to his people. That means our faith cannot be static – nor can it be encased in the kind of certainty that seemed to be bellowing from the stage. It also means that we are called to worship Jesus not worship the Bible. Don’t misunderstand me. I believe God reveals himself to us through Scripture. I think Scripture is necessary to come to maturity as a disciple of Jesus. But Scripture is given to reveal Jesus, not as an end in itself. Again, from my 8th Letter, I think we are too prone to make an idol of literal text.

But before you think the entire experience has been challenging, let me share with you some of the amazing highlights. In addition to expositors, on-the-ground practitioners from many countries and many difficult contexts have blown my socks off, inspired me beyond measure, and both lifted and broken my heart. A wisp of an Indian woman who works as a lawyer with International Justice Mission to free slaves and bring slave owners to justice. A Muslim-born female follower of Jesus who has gone on to become a pastor, who speaks all over the world, who started a church planting movement of profoundly contextualized Muslim house churches, spoke with the confidence, strength and power that broke the curse that Muslim women are second-class citizens. The Palestinian woman and Israeli man who shared their journeys of allowing God to break their hearts for the other and with a longing for reconciliation now work together for peace in their conflict-ridden land. The black woman from Zambia and white man from South Africa, both HIV positive, together sharing stories of perseverance and advocacy in the fight against HIV/AIDS. The lone female expositor, who happens to come from my denomination, who hit it out of the park with a message of justice, equity, and shalom for those on the margins. And the woman whose husband had been murdered just two months ago in Afghanistan on his way back from a medical mission to a remote village, who shared with quiet and profound strength the depth of her commitment to Christ and to love the people of Afghanistan that she and her husband had committed their lives to. And truly, these are just a few of voices and highlights of what has been an absolutely wondrous story of people living out their faith in practical, loving and self-sacrificing ways.

If my experiences sound a bit schizophrenic – they are. The church I see modelled by some of the expositors is a church that seems foreign to me – and one that I would be hesitant to invite my friends and neighbours, in my Canadian context, to be part of. One moment drove this home when a few of the expositors were on a panel about globalization. One of the American speakers was loudly proclaiming that the global south needed to come to save the west and to help the west to rediscover the truth of being church. A few moments later, one of the African speakers got up, and with a beautiful humility, acknowledged that in African countries where the percentage of Christians in the country tops 80%, they had more “church-ianty” than they had Christianity. Do we really need a revival of Christendom in the west – replete with all the overtones of empire, power and control? I pray not.

The good news is that while some of the expositors seem to be living in the theoretical world of modernity-shaped certainty – where the expectation is that they provide the answers and the people simply absorb it and nod in agreement, the actual practitioners – in many different cultural contexts – are living out an integral, incarnational mission in which justice for the oppressed is an intrinsic reality and mutuality in community is experienced.

The bad news, at least from my subjective perspective, is that because of the stature and prominence of some of these expositors, their influence is significant and their style demands agreement or the consequence of exclusion. And it seems to me, that this feeds into cultural systems where either modernity is being newly embraced or is firmly entrenched – systems that in-and-of-themselves are distinct from the living story of the living God.

But …. I am learning, even in this week at the congress, to not limit what God can do. My Kenyan brother at my table both surprised and blessed me this week. One morning I had the great privilege of literally witnessing his heart change over the course of a few hours. His initial posture towards Muslims had been very adversarial and hostile. He spoke of how his country was mainly Christians – but now Somali refugees were coming in – and they were Muslim. Not only that, but some of these Somali’s were pirates and had a lot of money and were buying land in Kenya. He spoke of mobilizing the pastors to pressure the government to limit the Muslims who could come into their nation. But as Muslims who had become followers of Jesus shared their stories, we could begin to see him change. We began to see the humanization of a Muslim person connect with his mind and heart. And being a man of prayer, who listens to the Holy Spirit, we could see as he began to realize that God was calling him to befriend and build relationship with his Muslim neighbours. My few sentences don’t do justice to this phenomenal experience. God was at work in a man’s heart right in front of my eyes – and it was amazing. Not only that, but as the week progressed, he asked to talk with me about my work with sexual minorities. When we sat down to talk, there was an openness there that had not been there in the beginning of the week. He was able to humbly admit that this was all so foreign to him and to his people, to admit to his own need to learn so much more. But it was a wonderful beginning.

In the sessions on sexuality, I have experienced some ups and downs. There are some nuances in the Exodus presentations that I differ from – and that I have some concerns about in the sense of how they will translate into different international contexts when people take a few 30 – 45 minute presentations back home with them. No matter who you are, it is extremely difficult to tackle as complex a topic as this one in such a radically diverse setting when you only have 30 minutes (or even 15 minutes) and many of the listeners have pretty broken English in terms of comprehension. In that sense, the Exodus speakers had both my prayers, empathy and encouragement. They were facing a very difficult task. I wish that in the session that talked about causation – or in their words ‘root issues’ – was not so light on nature and so heavy on nurture – regurgitating Moberly and gender deficits. I wish they would not use the word ‘prevention’. But, it is clear that these are the things they truly believe. And I was glad for some of the moderation I heard.

In the session on transformation, healing and change, I was very glad to hear Alan Chambers acknowledge the enduring reality of same-sex attraction for both himself and many others. This was something he and I had discussed at length as we sat in one of the lounges together. I said to Alan that in this context where the global south is present, it is critical that it is unequivocally stated that for some people this will be their ongoing reality …. that sexual minorities exist. And with this existence, anyone who names the name of Jesus needs to consider that these are men and women who are image bearers of God, worthy of dignity and respect and protection regardless of whether they hold the same beliefs and values that you do. Particularly in the African context where there is the idea that homosexuality can be stamped out as if it were some theoretical ideology that can be simply rejected, it is of utmost importance that the church is confronted with the reality that this is a group of people – a group we can loosely describe as sexual minorities.

Tomorrow is a full multi-plex on sexuality with several presentations. So, I’ll post again once that is completed. In the meantime, I brought a suitcase of our Bridging the Gap DVD’s with me and I have been giving away about 5 per day. In this congress, these DVD’s are subversive, pushing the envelope, perhaps would be considered contraband or outright heresy by some. I feel almost like the stories I was told as a kid of Bible smugglers. It is exciting to think of these DVD’s in the hands of people from Ireland, St. Vincent in the Caribbean, Mauritius, New Zealand, England, South Africa, Kenya, Latin America, Brazil, Pakistan and India. I’ve given them to pastors, youth workers, student leaders, a high school teacher, heads of mission organizations, heads of denominations ….. I wonder how God will use them.

A final note: I have a meeting scheduled with Archbishop Henry Orombi from Uganda tomorrow. Many of you will know of the anti-homosexuality legislation in the Ugandan context and Orombi’s support of this tragic bill. For those of you so moved, please pray. I will likely only have a few moments with the Bishop. I will need much humility, wisdom, discernment and courage as I speak with him. Pray that God will surprise me again.

-WG

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