Over my years with New Direction I’ve had the opportunity to interact with many different people who experience same-gender attraction. They have landed on many different places on the spectrum of belief, of practice, of expectations. It has been a growing experience for me. I have had to wrestle with what I believe, what I practice and what I expect. I’ve learned that I cannot simply rest on my laurels without vigorous reflection, thought and critique. I’ve been challenged by my same-gender attracted and gay friends as I’ve witnessed their journeys, the ways they have had to wrestle to try to understand their sexuality, their identity, their values and beliefs. Those I respect the most, even if we land in different places, are the ones who weren’t content to be spoon-fed answers – but rather took risks to own for themselves what they believe.
In my interview with Brian Mclaren for this “Bridging the Gap” DVD curriculum, he said, “My experience as a Christian has not been that following Jesus has suddenly made everything obvious. My experience has been that following Jesus has continually called me to repentance. Repentance meaning re-thinking. At any stage in this process, you can cut the cords and say, “I can’t think about this, this is too complex.” The fear of dealing with ambiguity can make us run away, especially when our ambiguity is interpreted by our fellow Christians as compromise. This is one of the ugly things we do to each other. We make our acceptance of each other really conditional on nobody thinking, because if you think, you might change your opinion. And if you change your opinion, you might…. and you belong to a “no-think” club. How can God be pleased with that?”
God created us with a free will – the capacity to choose, the capacity to decide, the capacity to discern. The ‘gift’ of this free will emanated from his love.
I see this in parenting my own children. My kids are young enough to still be forming in their own thinking, faith journeys, ethics and values. As a parent, I have the opportunity to teach them …. But I try to not only teach them what I believe – but teach them the tools for engagement with many diverse experiences and paradigms. If I don’t, if I only provide a rigid system of what I think, what happens when they begin to struggle with something I believe? What happens when something legitimately gets questioned – and they have no system to think for themselves - to own what they believe? I’ve seen too many individuals brought up in good Christian homes, sometimes having been educated in good Christian schools, having attended good Christian churches walk away from faith because the system they were taught didn’t actually prepare them to discern for themselves, to embrace faith for themselves, to process a changing culture. Too many weren’t prepared to face the complex realities of competing ideas, values and beliefs.
This lack of preparedness contributes to individuals being stuck in an immature place – a place that is vulnerable to the controlling presence of fear. Afraid to think. Afraid to differ. Afraid to challenge. Afraid to disappoint.
Such fear limits us in so many ways. I believe such fear limits our experience of the love of the Father. We can feel the Father’s love – but it is tainted by our fear that His love is conditional on us ‘staying the course’. Not that ‘staying the course’ is a bad thing …. But believing in a conditional love from a Father who loves unconditionally, who saves us by grace and by the goodness of His own character, limits us. When the apostle John speaks of perfect love driving out fear …. I think it hits the heart of some of this deep-seated unbelief that God couldn’t really love us that much or love us that freely.
It also limits our ability to love others. Another quote from Jean Vanier: “When religion closes people up in their own particular group, it puts belonging to the group, and its success and growth, above love and vulnerability towards others; it no longer nourishes and opens the heart. When this happens, religion becomes an ideology, that is to say, a series of ideas that we impose on ourselves, as well as on others; it closes us up behind walls. When religion helps us to open our hearts in love and compassion to those who are not of our faith so as to help them to find the source of freedom within their own hearts and to grow in compassion and love of others, then this religion is a source of life”
When it comes to beliefs about sexual identity, it seems that Christians have a particular challenge to move beyond ideology. And…. (and I say this with some trepidation and the intention of a gentle spirit) this is particularly poignant for those for whom same-gender attraction is a personal reality. This is, of course, understandable (and I am limited in my understanding not having the ability to stand in their shoes). It is personal. It is intimate. It is of most significant importance.
In recent weeks, I have encountered same-gender attracted Christians who hold a conservative perspective – who seem to want the rest of the culture to change to reflect their perspectives. Now on one hand, because they believe what they believe to be true – of course they would want others to believe in a similar fashion. But there is also a sense of, “This makes things hard for me. It is threatening to me. I don’t want to be in the minority. I don’t want to be maligned. I don’t want to be pressured.” Again, these things are very understandable….. and yet, maturity in Christ brings us to the place where we, like Jesus, experience rejection, pressure, testing, mocking, ridicule – and it does not threaten us, it does not diminish us, it does not sway us from our firm convictions that we are loved by the Father and that we are choosing to live in a manner that we believe is consistent with His best intentions for us. We have the freedom to own what we believe and then seek to live consistently with that. But with that freedom comes the responsibility to really own that, to not blame anyone else when living that out is hard, and to not somehow expect that everyone should agree with us so that we don’t have to live in a counter-cultural manner.
On the flip side, I encounter gay Christians who seem to expect that anyone who doesn’t share their more gay-affirming perspectives is really just ignorant, not as enlightened as they are, not as fully mature in their understanding of faith, stuck in fear and ideology …. And ironically, they often seem to be just as stuck in their ideology.
The challenge in this divided context is to both embrace the freedom God gives us to discern, believe, and practice a life that we believe is consistent with His will for us AND to step up to the responsibility that freedom demands. This responsibility means that we will honour another’s freedom. This responsibility means that we will move toward a great maturity in not being threatened by another’s liberty.
This is not a simplistic “live and let live” …. This is cross-carrying, self-sacrificing love. And it is hard. It demands a vibrant faith.
A final Vanier thought: “It is not easy to strike a balance between closedness, having a clear identity that fosters growth in certain values and spirituality, and openness to those who do not live with the same values. Being too open can dilute the quality of life and stunt growth to maturity and wisdom; being too closed can stifle. It requires the wisdom, maturity, and inner freedom of community members to help the community find harmony that not only preserves and deepens life and a real sense of belonging but also gives and receives life.”
One more note: I have also been delighted to meet same-gender attracted and gay Christians who embody the kind of generous maturity of which Vanier speaks – and I’ll share some of my experiences in friendship with them in a future post.