Vancouver: Of Descriptions, Labels and Identity….

I’ve just finished my time in Vancouver where I facilitated three events and had a number of meetings with various leaders. Vancouver has the highest population of glbtqi people in Canada several of the locals informed me. One would think, therefore, that a conversation that takes into account the reality of diversity and seriously considers the implications of such diversity for embodying an incarnational posture would be welcomed. It was…. by some. What I found this time around in Vancouver, different from previous trips and previous events, was a powerful polarizing reaction. These reactions seemed to arise at a surface level from misunderstanding, particularly in the area of language, and from rather strongly held assumptions. But deeper than these surface level realities, there seemed to be spiritual dynamics at work that made it difficult to press through to actually have much real conversation. This profound irony drained me. While I presented our posture as seeking to be grounded in humility and intentional choices to be non-patronizing and not coercive, reactions at times seemed to come in a completely opposite spirit: arrogance, power-plays, pressure, and overt condescension. While I spoke about our desire to nurture generous spaciousness that acknowledged diverse perspectives and created safe places in which to engage respectfully, with a commitment to listen, to honour our shared humanity as image-bearers of God, and seek common ground through shared values and goals – we could not actually experience such space because of the hermeneutic of suspicion and tone of accusation. The idea of generous spaciousness seemed to be profoundly threatening to some folks. They probably wouldn’t say it was threatening to them, they would likely say that their concerns stemmed from their sense that generous spaciousness waters down the truth, doesn’t address sin and repentance and is simply a manifestation of moral relativism. The reality is, of course, that our concept of generous spaciousness is only one aspect of a Christian response to the questions and dilemmas that can arise at the intersection of faith and sexuality. It is not the whole story – but rather one part. It is the part that seeks relational connection in a space that is intentionally hospitable, loving and safe for people with diverse perspectives. I happen to think this part is critically important – because I think everything flows out of relationship. God, himself, exists in relationship. Our spiritual exploration and formation emerges out of relationship. The refining of our character and the development of the fruits of the Spirit in our lives happens when relationship exposes our need, weakness and failings. I am particularly convinced that as we welcome the ‘other’ it is a spiritually formative experience. It is the mysterious opportunity to discover the power of powerlessness that is at the heart of the Incarnation. For when we relate to, in a humble and hospitable manner, the one with whom we disagree, we are enlarged in our capacity to simply be present in full dependence on the Holy Spirit. The idea of the ministry of presence is a profound one for me. One of my last connections in Vancouver was with a friend who has converted to Orthodoxy. He and I had a warm conversation about the power of presence. And after what had been a rather tiring Vancouver experience, I was grateful to sip hot chocolate with a delightful shot of Bailey’s and resonate with this friend as we shared about the initiatives we’re involved in that essentially centre around being present. Sometimes it is just nice to feel understood for a moment. And this friend deeply understood the vision of embodying the Incarnational presence of Jesus in the midst of the inevitable tensions that arise in our pluralistic and diverse context. I’m afraid much of the church is far too impatient, results-orientated, and driven by their certainties to really support this notion of presence. Presence doesn’t proselytize. It doesn’t manipulate or pressure. It doesn’t demand. It doesn’t insinuate about the perceived failings of the other. It simply is – nurturing mutuality of connection in a shared space. It can do this because of the deep trust that God is who he says he is and that his heart is to reconcile all things to himself. In this space, anxiety and fear and anger and arrogance give way to shalom and patience and grace. My hope is that even if people did not understand or agree with the concepts I was seeking to present, that I was able to embody and model them. But if I’m honest, I have a hard time with those reactions that seem to be so antithetical to generous spaciousness – even as I acknowledge that there are different parts of the Body and we are called to play different roles. I’m just not sure that arrogant certainty is ever consistent with the person of Jesus. I’m just not sure that taking offense is ever consistent with the person of Jesus. I’m just not sure that trampling over someone you disagree with because you feel threatened and want to make your point is ever consistent with the person of Jesus. I’m just not sure that questioning a focus on love and being present in relationship with diverse people is consistent with the person of Jesus. One of the events was a film screening which featured the film, “Through My Eyes” produced by the Gay Christian Network. For those unfamiliar with this film, it features over 20 young people sharing their stories of discovery and disclosure of their experience of same-sex attraction. The film does not reveal where the individuals have landed in terms of their theological convictions concerning the appropriateness of same-sex partnerships. Nor does it reveal the relationship status or whether any of the individuals are sexually active. Consistent in the film is a comfort level with describing themselves as gay and generally unfruitful experiences with trying to change their sexual orientation. Because of these two factors, the film clearly doesn’t represent the stories of all Christians who experience same-sex attraction. There are plenty of people who are not comfortable describing themselves as gay. And there are also many who would speak positively about their involvement in ministry endeavors to experience healing and change. I’ve been reflecting on some of the responses to the film. (I should mention that this particular discussion revealed participants with a particular agenda and therefore was quite distinct from previous discussions at the screenings I have hosted. In the next few days I’ll be hosting screenings in both Calgary and Edmonton – so I’m intrigued to encounter the shape of the post-film discussion in these contexts.) I’m left with some questions. I wonder why some associate such power with their sense of an individual identifying as gay. For the individuals in the film, describing themselves as gay is choosing to be honest and authentic about their ongoing experience of same-sex attraction. They are comfortable with saying they are gay and they view it as a descriptive term. Yet for some viewing the film, the assumptions seem to be that there is some special and significant weight in identifying as gay – even though to the best of my remembrance of the film I’m not sure any of the young people talked about identity. What makes describing one’s experience so different from identity – or are they the same? Is it just the word gay? It was quite clear for all the young people on the film their faith was very important to them. Accepting and describing themselves as same-sex attracted with the use of the word gay seemed in no way to trump this faith priority. One of the responses to the film was to express sadness at the lack of hope that these young people either had or been presented with. One attender who wrote about the experience said,

“I could sympathize with each person…and yet…what was missing? Was it the environment that the movie was played in? Was it the people in the audience? Was it the facilitator? Was it just because I was at a different place that it somehow, felt hopeless and sad? Was it because at the end…there really was no hope? They had found hope in embracing their gay and lesbian identity, but is that hope? I wondered and began to ponder? Are we cheapening grace when we welcome people to stay in their captivity? I realize that someone who is identified as a Christian gay or lesbian no longer views themselves as being held in captivity but, as someone who holds a traditional Biblical Sexual Ethic does this make me unloving and unkind to say they are still in captivity? Jesus loved radically. I heard many times this week that Jesus walked in the market place, he ate with tax collectors, prostitutes…the down and out…those called ‘sinners’, if we use that analogy when we talk about Christian gay and lesbian people we are placing them in the same category as those called ‘sinners’, and Jesus never ate and walked with people so they could stay in the same place in their sin…he walked with them so they could rise out of that and live in the fullness of who He had desired for them from the beginning. We cheapen Jesus’ love when we water down truth. Jesus isn’t this hippy love guru, who said only nice lovely things about love…and only challenged the religious leaders. He challenged all of us. He does not define us by our unmet needs, our brokenness, or even the ways we label ourselves in sin. He calls us out of that, into generous spaciousness with wonderful, healthy, safe boundaries for our good.”

This begs the question for me whether or not this individual views the experience of same-sex attraction as sin. Because really, all we knew about these young people (and I re-emphasized this point at the screening) is that they identify as followers of Jesus and as those who experience same-sex attraction and are comfortable using the term gay to describe that. Another attender stood up to speak to the audience at the end of the evening to say, in a similar manner, that he was saddened and wanted these young people to be presented with hope. He shared that same-sex attraction had been part of his own journey, that he has been married for 21 years and he and his wife have four teenagers. So this hope of which he spoke – was the hope that the young people in the film could get married and have four children? Is that the hope? Given that these young people in the film had nearly unanimously spoken of attempting orientation change with no concrete result, is the insinuation then that they simply didn’t try hard enough? Find the right program? Have enough faith? Pray enough? I pray that this is not the message that was being communicated. This same individual, in an earlier event had stated that he had never denied that he continued to experience same-sex attraction. However, in his comments at the film night – that didn’t seem to be communicated. Rather, the message that seemed to be communicated was that hope equals heterosexual marriage and children. One of the descriptions that came up in the discussion was my raising the term mixed-orientation marriage. This is not a term that I coined but I have found it a helpful way to honestly talk about the marriage of opposite gender spouses where one or both experience some level of same-sex attraction. (As an aside, I had a good chuckle when an old friend emailed me to say that he and his wife were most definitely not in a mixed orientation marriage – because they were both most definitely attracted to men.) The reason I think this can be an important term is because of the tremendous need for honesty about the enduring reality of experiencing same-sex attraction which is the reality for the majority who marry someone of the opposite gender. This term is not a judgment on the health or lack thereof of such marriages – it is simply a way to describe with honesty that the reality of same-sex attraction lingers on and needs to be stewarded in the same manner that any sexual attraction to anyone other than your spouse needs to be stewarded. I found it interesting that one individual said that he had been labelled as being in a mixed orientation marriage. I’m not sure if this happened in a private conversation. But he said that he was offended by this. It reminded me of a conversation I had in Cape Town with one of the leaders who was presenting in the sexuality conversations at Lausanne who said that he would be offended if anyone called him gay – even though he readily acknowledged that same-sex attraction was not eradicated from his life. Now let me be clear, I will support anyone’s autonomy in deciding how they want to describe their reality, relationship, experience. I support people owning the language they feel comfortable with. What I find curious, however, is the leap to assuming that a descriptive term is a label. Again, I’m faced with a question: what is the difference between a description and a label? When does a description become a label? Such questions around description, labels and identity become very important if we hope to prevent people from talking past one another in the conversations around faith and sexuality. And clarifying our understanding about language will require that we are willing to lay aside our assumptions of one another and actually truly listen. It will require humility. It will require graciousness and generosity. And I’m pretty sure that these attributes are consistent with the person of Jesus. I suppose one might ask, “Why bother?” Why bother to try to work through the assumptions? Well for those of us who describe or label or identify ourselves as followers of Jesus, I think we need to choose to live in the postures he modeled for us. Jesus did not take offense at the things said about him. When Jesus was “offended” or perhaps better said as riled up in his spirit, it was in the face of injustice and death. Jesus adopted a position of powerlessness and humility. In the face of enmity and polarization, Jesus charted a completely different way – a subversive way that said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The verse right after this section says, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.” Hmmmmm. Who is blessed: the one who thinks they are being labelled and is offended? The one who is accused of cheapening grace? The one who others say has no hope? Perhaps God in his great mercy and love will bless all of us, in spite of us. Though there were challenging aspects to the events in Vancouver, I am as committed as I have ever been to speak honestly and as courageously as I can about the need for those who name the name of Jesus to adopt a posture and tone that is consistent with the Incarnate One. We need to be honest about our realities. We need to lay down our assumptions. We need to listen beyond our own experiences for the ways God may be working in the life of one who differs from you. We need to work for peace – not perpetuate polarity. Let me conclude with a Jean Vanier quote I shared the night of the film:

To be a peacemaker means not to judge or condemn or speak badly of people, not to rejoice in any form of ill that may strike them. Peacemaking is holding people gently in prayer, wishing them to be well and free….. It is welcoming those with whom we may have difficulty or whom we may not especially like, those who are culturally, psychologically, or intellectually different from us. It is to approach people not from a pedestal, a position of power and certitude, in order to solve problems, but from a place of listening, understanding, humility and love……