An interesting aspect of my work these days is the opportunity to have conversations with people who hold different perspectives on the question of whether a covenanted same-sex relationship is an appropriate life choice for a disciple of Jesus. In the early years, most of my conversations were with Christians who held to a traditional understanding that sexual intimacy ought to be reserved for the marriage between one man and one woman. At that time, Christians who held an affirming view of same-sex relationships were seen as a very separate group – perhaps perceived by those with whom I was talking as dangerous, not particularly serious about scripture or the Christian faith, or misguided by their emotions. That separateness was not an easy barrier to dismantle with people – mainly because their focus was not on the shared faith in Christ with affirming folks – but on the moral differences in viewing a faithful discipleship journey for gay people.
Fast forward to today, and in the course of any given 24 hour period I might have several conversations with people from very diverse perspectives. In fact, sometimes those conversations happen within minutes of one another. Sometimes, the individuals with whom I’m speaking assume that I share the same perspective they do …. And sometimes they assume that I don’t. When a person’s position is explicitly stated, some degree of “us vs. them” often creeps into the conversation. Sometimes I am assumed to be part of “us” and sometimes I’m assumed to be one of “them”.
My role in these conversations, regardless of the perspective the person holds and regardless of whether they view me as with them or against them, is to be a non-anxious presence. My role is to listen carefully. As I listen, I will hear their expectations – but these are not my focus. Their expectations may be to try to confirm where I stand. Or to influence me. Or to leverage solidarity with their position. But none of these things can be my focus. My focus is to nurture generous patience as I introduce postures of humility and hospitality and grace into the conversation. I am always called to ask, “How now shall we live with those with whom we differ?” And not only how shall we live and relate and walk forward – but how shall we do so in the way of Jesus?
One of the realities of New Direction intentionally choosing to live in the tension of generous spaciousness is that those who hold a traditional view may assume that we are affirming – since we are welcoming into conversation those that hold affirming views. Another reality is that those with affirming views may think we are just being a kinder, gentler version of impeding progress to full inclusion given our openness to those who hold traditional views.
The truth is, this is a really hard place to be. To intentionally situate yourself in the very midst of those who are trying to assert the dominance of their perspective is a very vulnerable place. And I understand that the reason people are seeking to assert the dominance of their perspective is most often because they deeply, truly believe that their position is true, is life-giving, is most representative of the revelation of God through Scripture. And when you intentionally stand in the midst of such passion and intensity, it can easily be seen as some wishy-washy, politically correct effort to forge a false peace and a superficial chorus of kumbiya.
As New Direction seeks to be intentional in living out the model of generous spaciousness, particularly in the diverse make up of our board and staff, it can feel like we are walking in a minefield where even a minor mis-step might just blow up in our face. Our board is, itself, a diverse group who comes together to lead the mission of New Direction in building bridges. Someone with whom I was having initial conversation about participation with our board of directors indicated that while he was intrigued by and even supportive of what we were doing in seeking to diffuse the polarity and nurture peaceful and spacious places – he felt he could never have enough patience to deal with those who held traditional views. Later that afternoon I received an email from a long-time supporter of the ministry who indicated that he wanted his monthly donations stopped immediately and his name taken off the mailing list since, in his estimation, we were no longer preaching the truth. I understand both of these situations and honour each of these individuals’ autonomy to be where they need to be in this broader conversation. But it is hard. Painful to know that some feel betrayed by our stepping into the tensions of generous spaciousness.
At the same time, it has been an incredible learning experience for me to grow into my capacity to be a non-anxious presence. To learn the spiritual and emotional disciplines that enable me to keep my reactions in check and listen for the Spirit’s promptings in each of these kinds of exchanges. To extend grace. To live in robust patience. To trust more deeply that God is in control.
It has been incredible to glimpse moments of breakthrough where the mystery of humility triumphs over arrogant certainty. Where hearts open to experience challenging but important relational growth with those with whom they disagree. To see a pastor’s eyes well up with tears when he says that he used to want to err on the side of orthodoxy, but he now wants to lean on the side of love.
These moments make my sometimes schizophrenic-feeling days matter. These moments make the whip-lash feeling dissipate and I remember that I have been called for such a time as this, to live into the tensions and be that non-anxious presence of peace ….. where God reveals not necessarily the exact right answer to the question of how a gay person ought to relationally live as a disciple of Christ …. but where God reveals his deep and vast and unfathomable love for each one of us, in our different places, doing the best we can to know him, see him, honour him. For in the end, all things are caught up in him. For he is the author and finisher of our faith.
“We have been drawn together by God to be a sign of the resurrection and a sign of unity in this world where there is so much division and inner and outer death. We feel small and weak, but we are gathered together to signify the power of God who transforms death into life. That is our hope, that God is doing the impossible: changing death to life inside of each of us, and that perhaps, through our community, each one of us can be agents in the world of this transformation of brokenness into wholeness, and of death into life.” ~ Jean Vanier, “From Brokenness to Community”