As I continue to interact with people around the idea of nurturing generous spaciousness in the conversations at the intersection of faith and sexuality, it is clear that there is an appropriate time to enter such space – and times it may be unhelpful.
Generous spaciousness is a conversational posture that can be helpful, and I believe consistent with the person of Jesus, when encountering diverse perspectives around faith and sexuality. This posture invites us to a deeper humility that is, in part, marked by an ability to say, “I could be wrong.” Now, perhaps this is said with the thought, “I really don’t think I am ….” Perhaps, one’s internal dialogue will go something like this, “I’ve done my homework, studied Scripture, been prayerful, discerning of the Holy Spirit’s leading, willingly read widely including multiple perspectives, and I hold my convictions deeply … and I fear that you are at best mistaken or more significantly blinded or deceived ….. but I do recognize my fallibility …. I do try to remember that I have my own blindspots …… I recall that I bring my lenses and my experiences and my anxieties to the table …. And so as an intentional posture of humility I concede that I could be the one who is mistaken or blinded or deceived …. And to the best of my ability I will be open to hear you and to listen for the ways I will encounter the presence of God in you and for the ways the Holy Spirit might speak to me as I interact with you…”
Generous spaciousness may be helpful in a friendship context where such a posture can free friends to be able to focus on encouraging one another to grow in Christ. If we encourage one another to more fully invite the presence of Christ into our lives – perhaps through times of study, silence, solitude, fasting, contemplation, submission, obedience, worship – then we can rest in loving and serving one another with the confident trust that God will continue work out his purposes in our friend’s life. I’m reminded of Philippians 2: 12 -13:
“Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.”
While we are called to work out our salvation – through spiritual disciplines and loving serve in the pursuit of justice, it is ultimately God who will work in any of us to cause us to will and to act out his good purposes for us.
Generous spaciousness may be helpful in an extended family context where different individuals have different perspectives and experiences in relation to sexual minorities. Christmas is coming – a time when larger family gatherings bring together people who may not find themselves on the same page. There can be a fluffy avoidance of any meaningful conversation. Or there can be an icy silence that carries the weight of unspoken judgment and looking down on another. Or there can be a space nurtured where the parameters of the conversation are laid out ahead of time. This would include the acknowledgment that there are different perspectives and the need to lay aside judgment of one another as to why such perspectives are held. Perhaps, it might be helpful to consider the many “one another’s” in Scripture that remind us how we are to view and treat one another. Perhaps, the conversation begins with affirming our mutual care for one another. Perhaps, with talking about why this conversation is important to us as a family: our shared love for God and the Scriptures, our shared love for sexual minority family members or friends, our concern to be faithful representatives of Jesus, a desire to have more than superficial relationships and conversations with one another, the opportunity to discover unity in diversity as we listen to one another with humility, respect, and unconditional love. We recognize in generous spaciousness that this is not the posture in which we try to convince one who differs from us that our perspective is superior, it is not the time to out-argue the other. Perhaps, such an intellectual discussion should happen – but perhaps after we have spent some time investing relationally with one another, truly hearing one another, looking for the spirit of Christ in one another, touching one anothers hearts. Generous spaciousness is a posture in which the dignity and value of each person in the conversation is affirmed – where we genuinely do our best to step into the other person’s shoes to understand why they have landed in the place they have. We may still disagree – but hopefully we will not do so in an arrogantly dismissive manner. Such a posture is costly. It will require that we invest in one another, serve one another, grow in extending love to one another. And it will be particularly costly when “Uncle Howard” seems unreasonable and unwilling to reciprocate the humble respect you are seeking to offer to him. In those moments, remember that this is a space in which you have the opportunity to grow in Christ-likeness, to grow in the maturity that continues to serve and love and extend dignity even when it is not returned. It is the space where you may need to be willing to be labeled, perhaps accused, judged, dismissed, maybe even rejected. It is a time when you may need to be willing to review and reconsider your own perspectives and test how much they line up with Jesus. This can be painful – especially if it has taken a lot of wrestling to get where you are.
But, if in that space of the spiritual discipline of ‘examen’ you hear the quiet whisper of Jesus then ask for his strength to welcome the inevitable misunderstandings and mischaracterizations that may come your way. And ask Jesus to deepen in you the traits of the suffering Messiah. Ask him to help you guard your own heart – that you would resist the lure of your own self-righteousness, or bitterness, or arrogance, or judgment. Ask him to teach you in greater depth the power of powerlessness. And ask him to keep on revealing himself to you in these hard, and perhaps lonely, places. And remember ….. it is worth it. It is worth it to glimpse more deeply the heart of Christ.
Generous spaciousness, in a similar manner, may be helpful in a congregational setting where there is a commitment to shatter the lack of authenticity that D.A.D.T breeds. Again, this is a conversation posture. It may eventually lead to the kind of discussion around which decisions need to be made. But, in and of itself, it is not about decisions regarding positions and boundaries. Rather it is a relational space in which we can enter one anothers lives with the safety that says we are not going to pigeon-hole one another, we are not going to make assumptions about one another, we are not going to judge the motives or integrity or commitment of the other, we are going to really listen for one anothers hearts on these matters. We are going to look for the ways we hear and smell and taste Jesus in one another. We may not agree with one another. And we may not agree that this is a disputable matter. But we are going to risk really knowing one another and really considering how God is working through the other. We may encounter the pain and exhaustion of trying to figure out “where to from here” once we truly hear and acknowledge the diversity among us. But we will have the opportunity to wrestle with “how now shall we live together in the way of Jesus” knowing full well that we will grow in mutual submission and honouring, we will grow in hospitality, generosity, and the capacity to welcome diversity. We will grow in patience as we discover that this is not a fast process nor is it a process that brings quick or easy resolution. Rather, we will grow in the maturity that comes from being willing to embrace paradox and tension. We will be better postured to engage in meaningful pastoral care with those whose contexts are messy and chaotic. And in the midst of all of this, we will grow in learning to trust and depend on God rather than our own resources, abilities, or controlled plans.
I understand that the stakes are high. I understand that generous spaciousness is an invitation to difficulty and exhaustion. I understand that while you might be willing, those you seek to engage might not be. I understand that the systems are big and not conducive for this little subversive conversational posture. I get it.
But go do it anyway.
Do it because it smells like Jesus.
Do it because polarity and enmity and smug certainty and alienation and stoney silence don’t smell like Jesus.
And do it because he promised that he would be with you – Emmanuel.
There are some times, however, that generous spaciousness is not the appropriate approach.
If this conversation at the intersection of faith and sexuality is your life, and if your convictions are fairly fresh, and if you feel overwhelmed by the vulnerability that generous spaciousness would thrust you into ….. then know that it is ok that you try to find people who share your convictions, who can unequivocally support you in living consistently with your values and goals.
If you cannot enter generous spaciousness without getting defensive, angry, persuasive, and demanding that is probably a pretty good sign that it isn’t the right time for you to wade into the challenges of diversity. Now is probably a good time to be refreshed and renewed by receiving the love and encouragement of people who won’t challenge your perspectives. And that is ok. We all need that at times.
If you feel like living in the diversity that marks generous spaciousness is chipping away at your sense of confidence and security a few things might be going on. Maybe you are legitimately experiencing some level of conviction from the Holy Spirit that you need to create some quiet and solitary space to explore. Maybe the people you are in conversation with care more about you coming to their perspective than to encourage you to press closer to Christ – in which case you may need to take some space from the conversation. Maybe the conversation is triggering some old people-pleasing tendencies or some flashbacks to pressure-exerting conditional relationships – and perhaps some space would allow you to refocus on being the person you feel God has helped you to grow to be. Maybe you feel like it just isn’t an encouraging experience for you – you feel worried or fearful or questioning in an unhelpful way …. and perhaps realigning your priorities is in order. Perhaps, it is time to refocus on spiritual disciplines that will help to ground you and grow you in Christ-like virtue.
And if your congregation needs to make decisions about policy, boundaries or position – generous spaciousness can feel like you are spinning your wheels. While I think it is not only helpful, but important, to have made an investment in conversations marked by generous spaciousness, there may come a time that a congregation needs to exercise its channels for decision-making and come to some clarity on specific questions. I would hope that the clarity would be articulated in a manner that is informed by generous spaciousness. I would hope that this clarity is lived out in a manner that is generously spacious, hospitable, humble and respectful. But at the end of the day, a congregation needs to have some clarity.
An individual needs clarity too ….. but I think the capacity to live in the tensions of uncertainty can be more fruitful over a longer period of time for an individual as they invite Jesus into the midst of their questions and position themselves to continue to be receptive to the ways he reveals himself to them in this space. But even in this place of uncertainty, there needs to be some bedrock on which an individual will submit and obey even as they wrestle with bigger questions.
So there are some legitimate times that entering a generously spacious place of conversation may be unhelpful. At the same time, I think it is important to consider the spiritually formational reality of choosing to enter the reality of diversity with the postures of humility, hospitality, generosity, graciousness, patience and incarnation. I truly think it helps us to become more like Jesus.