The Tipping Point

As those who read this blog will know, I’m not a “jump on the latest news” kind of writer. I prefer to ponder, percolate and pray before sharing my reflections. This particular post has been in the hopper for a while – before North Carolina’s vote on Amendment 1, before Obama’s comments about gay marriage, before this great post by Rachel Held Evans, before backlash within the Exodus network, before SoulForce got to sit down with some Focus on the Family leaders ….. well you get the idea. A lot has been happening that seems to reinforce the thoughts that I’ve been distilling to put into this post. Typical for me, however, this post didn’t germinate in the headlines – but in the context of conversation and relationship. That’s where the real stuff happens, IMHO. What we see in the headlines comes long after the quiet, behind closed doors, emotionally connected, vulnerable, soul-searching sharing between human beings doing the best they can to hear God, to love him with their whole heart, mind, soul and strength, and to love their neighbour as they love themselves.

I’ve been in this conversation about how straight people can respond to gay people, particularly gay Christians in the church, for a while. Over ten years in fact. During that time I’ve encountered a lot of resistance, a lot of tearful tension, and some openness. Almost without exception, the openness I’ve encountered has come out of people’s encounters with gay people. This isn’t rocket science of course. But it bears being highlighted because it is still the most significant tipping point in this conversation. Once you move from this being a theoretical theological or moral dilemma to the reality of people’s lives, their faith, their challenges, their questions, their authentic searching, their commitments, their fears, their hope and dreams you, most often, can no longer categorize things in impersonal terms.

This isn’t fundamentally about a doctrinal position on the appropriateness of gay marriage as an option of faithful discipleship for a gay Christian. This is fundamentally about a heart position towards a person. I know people who hold both traditional and affirming views on the gay marriage question for Christians who have risked being present in relationship – and who have allowed their hearts to open to the human being, the one created in the image of God, the one who is the Beloved of God who is gay. And what people often discover, in that risk, is a genuine connection, an authentic journey, a real connection with God.

This tipping point, from theoretical to relational, from positional to personal, happens one person at a time. But it seems to be happening in such a way in our social context today that is unprecedented. I haven’t seen this level of openness in my ten years in the ministry.

Let me share some stories: I was sitting with a seminary professor who had been part of organizing a conference on sexuality. She had gotten to know a number of gay Christians during the planning for the conference. One encounter, in particular, was a tipping point. A young lesbian woman interviewed the professor for a school assignment and in the process shared her story about having been very involved in the church but after coming out had drifted away from the church. Something about hearing this particular story broke the professor’s heart. She loved young people and couldn’t bear to think of other young students leaving the church because of their sexual orientation. She shared with me, however, that she keenly felt a sense of the cost of passing this tipping point. It would affect her publishing career and invitations to speak. It would affect her reputation in certain Christian circles. As we met together, I was able to share the ways that becoming a straight ally has changed my life. The ways that my own spiritual journey has become deeper, richer, more free, more secure, and much more of an adventure. I shared about the ways I’ve learned and am learning what incarnational ministry is really all about. When we are willing to lay down our reputation and strip ourselves of our status and privilege in identification with those on the margins, we find ourselves more deeply identifying with and entrusting ourselves to Christ. We enter more deeply into the mystery of Christ’s suffering. And we discover that while God’s wisdom may seem to be foolishness to the world, we find ourselves moving with an increasing awareness and actualization of the power of God that raised Jesus from the dead. We are not diminished by the losses but we find ourselves transformed to be prophets of peace.

I spoke at a conference on the weekend and was pleasantly surprised to find my workshop packed out all three sessions. There were a lot of fantastic workshops to choose from and I’m pretty sure my name would have been relatively unknown in this particular area of the country. So the people came because they were hungry for conversation on this topic. And sure enough, as people came up to me, some with tears in their eyes, there were always personal relationships they wanted to tell me about. One woman said that she is standing up for her brother when he marries his partner this summer, that she is really excited about it – but that she can’t really share that with anyone in her church. Another woman said that one of the young people she works with just came out and how grateful she was for a connection and a resource to turn to. A youth pastor told me about their family members who are gay and how they are the only ones who have maintained relationship with them. He also said that he was afraid of losing his job because one of his students have come out and he is unwilling to tell them that they need to try to change their orientation.

Another conversation that day stuck in my mind. A self-proclaimed “theology buff” shared about his study of the topic and his ensuing confusion and intense angst. As he spoke I asked him about the relationships he had with gay people. He said he only knew one person and that person was very strongly committed to celibacy. One of the things that I was able to share with him is the reality that when you know and love gay Christians who are navigating their journeys of faithful discipleship in a variety of ways, and when you have the opportunity to see good fruit in their lives and are invited into some of the ways they are struggling to learn to trust and obey God more deeply, some of that intense angst may be diminished. This isn’t just theology based on feelings. Rather, this is experiencing the faithfulness of God in the midst of the messy reality of people “working out their salvation with fear and trembling …. for it is God who works within us to will and to act according to his good purpose.”

The truth is, when we enter people’s lives with a loving, humble and open heart, we see with new eyes the ways that God’s sovereign grace through the work of the Holy Spirit can be real and alive – even in those with whom we disagree. When we enter people’s lives and see God’s grace working beyond our preferred paradigms we are faced with a choice. We can give way to our anxiety and discount what appears to be the work of God as simply evil masquerading as good. Or, we can move through our anxiety with a child-like faith that wants to see what God might be up to. At some point, however, we may need to ask ourselves if we really believe God could be that good? Do we really believe that God’s love is so large that it is bigger than our paradigms or our theology? Do we really believe that God’s grace is that outrageous?

Such personal relationships may not change our deepest convictions about God’s intention for sexual intimacy within covenant relationship. But they may be the tipping point for us to create space and room for God to work beyond our understanding. For God’s grace to reach and touch those we previously may have deemed outside the boundaries. They may be the tipping point taking us from our moral certitude to a humble receptivity that celebrates the generosity of God’s love. These relationships may not answer every question we have. They might not resolve all the tension that we feel. But they do invite us to risk entering this tipping point to move towards more deeply entrusting people to God’s grace and relinquishing the judgment of theological exclusivity.

I have read and re-read the letter from Desert Stream Ministries which seems to have been primarily authored by its founder Andrew Comiskey. This is the ministry that created the Living Waters program material. The letter is in response to some of the turbulence that seems to be going on in the Exodus network, perhaps particularly exasperated by Alan Chambers’, President of Exodus, participation in a panel at the Gay Christian Conference. Alan, it seems, has been trying to lead Exodus to take distance from reparative therapy and a focus on reorientation. Comiskey astutely observes that when the Christian response to gay people creates space for the reality that some individuals, through no choice of their own, will live with a same-sex orientation, that spacious place may become even more generous. Comiskey suggests that it is due to a “once saved, always saved” belief that creates the room to consider that gay people who have entered a consummated, covenant partnership may find their place in heaven. He says, “We at DSM are only grateful to not be anyone’s eternal judge. But we do not share the assurance …… that the sexually immoral will inherit the Kingdom of God if they have prayed the sinner’s prayer. Let God alone be the judge.” He then articulates a deep concern with a cheap grace that invites people to simply rest in what God has accomplished rather than “taking up their cross daily”.

A concern with cheap grace is important. Comiskey quotes Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s well-known plea,

“Costly grace is the grace that must be sought again and again. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace that calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs us our life, and it is grace because it gives us the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and it is grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all it is costly because it cost God the life of His Son.”

And indeed, Bonhoeffer was speaking to a German church that in its apathy turned a blind eye to the evil of the Nazi regime as it massacred innocent men, women and children. Does grace cover such atrocity? Does grace cover our complicity in such atrocity to simply save our own hides?

Is this relational tipping point that I’ve been describing, is it merely an outworking of cheap grace? Straight Christians (and perhaps ex-gay Christians too) just don’t want to be “the bad guy” in a social climate increasingly accepting of gay people – so they rely on a cheap grace to cover their moral cowardice? One could argue that.

In my experience, however, it takes courage, not cowardice, to approach this tipping point, to take the risk to humbly seek to experience the presence of God in another, the one with whom we may differ. It takes courage to confront our own internal prejudices and to challenge our majority status and privilege. It takes courage to be willing for your love and openness to be judged, misunderstood, and accused. It takes courage to risk losing reputation, influence, power and control.

I can defend ensuring there is space for Comiskey and others to hold their deep convictions that human wholeness in God’s economy is fundamentally heterosexual because in humility I recognize that I could be wrong in my wrestling with the text of scripture as well as my reflections on the current scientific research around sexuality (including the prevalence of those who experience biologically based intersexuality – 1 in 200 it is estimated). I can consider the fruit of their devotion and commitment to Christ and acknowledge that they are “working out their salvation” in alignment with their beliefs for God’s intention for human beings. And I can do so in the absolute confidence that God’s grace can be real and true for them as they navigate their journey governed by these convictions.

What I find unfortunate, however, is that there does not seem to be an articulated consideration that they may be mistaken in their best wrestling with the text or theological reflection. There seems to be no space for those who deeply love Jesus, hold high regard for the scriptures, and have maturity and wisdom from years of disciplined discernment who do not share their fundamental commitment to the heterosexuality of all human beings. Such consideration of others doesn’t indicate a weakness in conviction – rather it simply acknowledges a humble awareness of our limitations in our best efforts to discern the will of God. And it is true, when we embrace such a humility, we inevitably enter a more generous spaciousness. Not only do we refrain from being another’s judge, we find ourselves hoping and anticipating that God’s grace is more lavish and outrageous than we dared to dream. We don’t pin our hopes on a human-based ideal that praying the sinner’s prayer of our own volition can somehow guarantee us the golden ticket to the sweet by-and-by and give us license to live however we please between now and then. Rather, we have a deeper and more robust trust that God, through the mysterious, powerful weakness of the Incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, has assumed all that is broken in all of creation and made the way for it to be made right. And a trust that the gift of this “being made right” is a free gift, given to those who audaciously accept and believe that it is true. The receptivity of such a gift causes such gratitude to well up in us, the apprehension of such undeserved favour so transforms our fearful hearts, that each step from there forward we long to love the giver of the gift more completely. From this grateful longing to love, we live our lives as the reconciled children of God – his Beloved. It is when our faith, that this gift of love has truly been given to us, wavers that we find ourselves grasping, afraid, escaping, hiding. It is when our faith wavers that we accuse others and try to control their lives. It is when our faith wavers that we take it upon ourselves to be the Holy Spirit.

And here we find ourselves at yet another tipping point. On one side of the tipping point is the call to pick up one’s cross lest we find ourselves outside of God’s grace and failing to inherit the Kingdom of God …. On the other the invitation to such an outrageous grace that we can barely believe it to be true. Like so much in the mystery of God’s economy, a paradox. Truth on both sides. The question is what calls to us and motivates us? Is it fear? Or is it love? Is the core of God’s character judgment, looking to see who to disqualify from the Kingdom? Or is it love? Theological arguments can be made on both sides. We don’t want to live a cheap grace. We don’t want to live a fearful striving.

My comfort is that I believe God’s love is big and powerful enough to encompass all of our best attempts to understand, discern, and live out the way of God in our lives. My life is a response of thanksgiving to the gift of reconciliation already made perfect and complete in Christ. My confidence rests in a faithful God who keeps his promises. I can extend grace and nurture generous spaciousness for those who differ theologically because I believe that God’s extension of grace and space far exceeds my wildest imagination. His heart is that ALL things would be reconciled to him through his Son. It is his will that NONE should perish but all find new life in him. This is GOOD NEWS! This is the triumph of the cross!

So as I risk opening my life to others, I want them to see in me a response of gratitude that is so overwhelmingly loving and courageous th