The Towel: a story of testing

This week I really wanted to throw in the towel. Embracing tension, searching for nuance, thinking the best of, treating with respect, choosing kindness. These are things I deeply value. And yet this week, I seriously wondered whether embodying these attributes actually just made me complicit with injustice and oppression. I wanted to yell and scream. I wanted to pick up signs and march. I wanted to call people out with as much strength and power as I could muster.

I was haunted by MLK and Tutu’s words about silence and neutrality.

“The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.”

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

I have agonized over the years in developing the posture of generous space about the distinction between neutrality and honoring and respecting people where they’re at, respecting their conscience, and their deep convictions. Since my book was published in 2014, I have wondered whether people would read it and presume I was simply too afraid to come out more clearly on one side of the question or the other. But I was trying to model something different than all the typical debates and win-lose propositions this topic generates.

I wanted to be someone in the midst of this conversation who could be trusted to listen, to share wisdom, and honour each person or community’s journey. I didn’t feel like God was asking me to be an apologist for one theological position, but to rather serve people and the church with humility, openness, and discernment that considered context, timing, and readiness. I wanted to ensure that I was not inadvertently doing violence by simply promoting my own point of view without regard to the other’s process.

I have focused on cultivating space where particularly LGBTQ+ people themselves could hold different theological convictions and still choose to love each other, choose to listen deeply to the other’s experience, and make the choice to resist pouring energy into trying to convince or persuade everyone else to think, believe, and behave just like they do. Tutu’s quote, “If I diminish you… I diminish myself” is so important to me I had it tattooed on my arm!

I have been driven to prioritize unity in diversity because I saw that this was on Jesus’ heart (John 17). Resisting uniformity, resisting blind certainty, resisting expectations of conformity. I felt like I was fighting for the dignity of each person’s agency and autonomy in exploring, clarifying, and embracing their own spiritual journey. That meant that some people would land in very different places than what I thought was most right or most true or most life-giving. But if God gave free will to human beings – why should human beings try to take it away from each other with rigid demands to adhere to (their version) of orthodoxy? Can’t the Spirit be trusted to lead, guide, teach, correct or redirect?

So Generous Space dug deep into non-dualism, equipping our community to navigate the both/and of so many of the paradoxes we encounter at the intersection of faith, gender and sexuality. And this seemed to be both freeing and calling people to deeper maturity.

We have taught the spiritual practice of embodying our Belovedness as an antidote to shame. We pause and ask ourselves, “How would this be different if I was energized by love rather than fear in this moment?” And we’ve been careful to be attuned to grief and lament – making space to acknowledge deep losses that aren’t easily resolved. We work to break the stigma around mental illness. We are committed to intersectional justice and particularly elevating the voices of those most marginalized: trans and non-binary folks, people of colour, those living with disabilities, and those facing economic hardship for example. We make space for folks to bring their whole self into our community recognizing that this means we are a messy, sometimes chaotic, beautiful kaleidoscope of diversity and difference.

And even as I write these things, it nearly takes my breath away. I feel so incredibly blessed to be on this journey with our Beloved Community at Generous Space.

But this week I wanted to throw in the towel.

I was bombarded with the pain of my people. My rainbow people were weeping and I just wanted to flip tables, crack the whip, and clear out the temple so-to-speak.

Yet again, as I have seen so many times, their faith was disregarded, their integrity questioned, their gifts ignored, and their commitment assumed to be deception.

And this week, after crying and praying and sending my own deeply felt, but seemingly useless “thoughts & prayers” it felt like something was breaking in me.

What difference is Generous Space really making in the hearts and minds of those who, at best unwittingly, at worst willfully, say and do things in Jesus’ name that are day-by-day tearing at the very souls of God’s LGBTQ+ children? If we aren’t about trying to convince someone to change their mind – what possible impact can we make in the face of organized, strategic, well-resourced efforts to defend and promote a dis-embodied theology that literally demonizes my rainbow loved ones’ lives, loves, and families?

Let me be clear. I know LGBTQ+ people who have deeply held beliefs and convictions that compel them to live celibate lives or remain committed to flourish in their mixed orientation marriages. I honour them and support them with all my heart. I deeply respect their passion for Jesus and their desire to live faithful and obedient lives. And I am committed to cultivating Generous Space to be a community in which they will experience belonging, encouragement, support, and friendship.

Their story, however, isn’t the only story. Their expression of faith isn’t the only possible way an LGBTQ+ person can live as a follower of Jesus. Anyone who says otherwise is adding requirements to the free gift of the gospel of grace.

And when the celibate or mixed orientation marriage choice is held up, often by straight, cisgender married people, as the ONLY way an LGBTQ+ person can faithfully live as a Christian, it does incredible harm.

This week, Brian Pengelly, who used to work with me at the ministry (back when it was called New Direction) wrote passionately about the impact on LGBTQ+ youth in the church saying:

“This dissonance between what [LGBTQ+ youth] know about themselves and what they learn to expect from heteronormative society is what we call the closet. The closet is incredibly destructive and LGBT youth spend a tremendous amount of their psychic energy fighting against it. When they first publicly announce that they are not heteronormative we call it “coming out”. But straight youth never have to come out because they already match the expectations.

I can’t put into words how difficult and damaging this whole process is at one of the most vulnerable times of their life. But when they push through it enough and “come out” in the church, the advice of the church is almost always indistinguishable from “go back in the closet and we will accept you.” The struggle against heteronormativity is very difficult and some youth never actually come out, they kill themselves because they have lost hope. When those youth cannot envision a future where they will belong somewhere they despair, and suicide seems like a good option.

That is why telling gay people that they can’t be leaders in the church if they are in a relationship is experienced in a fundamentally different way than telling someone they must be baptized by immersion as an adult to be a leader. Their sexual identity is a much more deeply central thing to who they are and coming to terms with it has likely been far more of an existential struggle than any other part of their life. Also while many Christian youth know there are other churches that believe other things differently than they do, many LGBT youth honestly have never encountered an affirming church or openly gay Christian. Though they exist, they are not allowed into the conferences and camps they went to growing up. And [LGBTQ+ Christians] are usually only talked about in terms of scandal and why they are no longer “really Christians.”

This lack of role models, hopeful options and examples of how their lives can be positive make Christian LGBTQ+ youth uniquely more vulnerable to suicide, self harming behaviours and depression.”

This week, one of our beloved ones endured a meeting of the leaders of the ministry they’re employed by, which they were excluded from attending, as the leaders discussed whether they would make room for my friend given how public they’ve been about their affirming position – even though their own life decisions line up with the expectations of the ministry.

This week, a well-known church leader made public, categorized statements that affirming LGBTQ+ people in relationships cannot be leaders in their church without any acknowledgement of the beautiful contribution many LGBTQ+ people have and continue to make in that community. Over the years, lots of Generous Space folks have attended that church.

This week, I heard that another of our beloved GS’ers left the church they’d been attending (and defending). They were so blessed to participate on the worship team there. Despite the church’s non-affirming position, my sibling in Christ felt he could dialogue with the pastoral team, that they were listening, that maybe his presence was making a positive difference. And then, the pastor preached a sermon that devastated my friend – and it was clear that the all-too-common “bait & switch” had happened again.

This week, a sold-out event with more than 2,000 people (pretty big for Canadian contexts) equipped Christians, by a straight, cisgender apologist no-less, to have ready answers to oppose “revisionist” LGBTQ-positive theology. To bolster that position, a celibate, same-sex attracted pastor was there to share with them that people don’t have to identify as gay and can live a happy celibate life just like he does.

This week, a Christian journalist sent me a link to a group of pastors on the West Coast in B.C. who have adopted the Nashville Statement and a few of their own articles to demonstrate solidarity in the fight against, in particular, respect, dignity, and protection of transgender people.

And all this isn’t even to mention the triggering and re-traumatization of the many survivors of sexual abuse in light of the Kavanaugh debacle, or the pain of one of our queer couples who lost a sibling far, far too young, or the suicides of LGBTQ+ youth and murder of trans women of colour that happened THIS week!

It wasn’t that I wanted to throw in the towel on serving as an advocate and ally for LGBTQ+ folks. It was that I just wasn’t sure if I could keep on committing to embodying all of the values that energize the making of space (that is extending respect and dignity) even for those who seemed to not be willing to make space for others …. and in that UNwillingness were doing tangible, heart-breaking harm to the people God has particularly called me to love and advocate for: my rainbow family.

And then…..

And then it was my rainbow family who reminded me why we do what we do.

Why we go higher when they go lower.

Why we invest, again and again, in the making of peace, embracing non-violence, practicing kindness whether we think people deserve it or not.

Because we are a people who know grace.

We are a people who know love.

We are a people who have been given freedom.

And we are a people invited into the incarnational wisdom of God.

It doesn’t mean silence in the face of violence, oppression, and injustice. Just last night I minced no words when telling members of a well-known apologist’s team to leave the queer-positive space they had invaded because they were making people feel unsafe.

It doesn’t mean being neutral when LGBTQ+ youth’s very lives are at stake. We will and must keep challenging the deeply damaging teaching that there can be only ONE way to follow Jesus and be LGBTQ+ (ie. don’t identify as LGBTQ+ and either live a single, celibate life whether you feel called to it or not OR live as straight-passing in a mixed orientation marriage no matter how deeply unfair and soul-numbing that may be to you AND your spouse) And we will and must keep elevating the voices, lives, witness, and wisdom of LGBTQ+ Christians whose resilient faith is a testimony and inspiration to ALL followers of Jesus.

So my beloved friends, I pick up the towel again. Thank you for letting me wash your feet and learn the ways of Jesus from and with you.


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