Justin Lee, Executive Director of the Gay Christian Network, and Ron Belgau are both friends of mine. I have long respected their commitment to their friendship despite the reality of differing views. Both men are gay. Justin is open to entering a committed same-sex relationship. Ron is committed to living a celibate life. With Tony…
Idolatry isn’t a topic I write on every day. And some of our regular readers might be holding their breath a bit to see what I might say. The context for this particular post is multi-faceted. It begins with an article I read, bolstered by a pivotal memory in my own journey, and then supported by a time of listening in my church service on Sunday in the context of a recent support session.
The article was for one of my courses and it focused on the integration a Christian psychologist was making with Object Relations theory and the biblical concept of idolatry. The author made use of the work of theologian Richard Niebuhr who said that an idol was, “any cause or object to which the self gave itself in devotion from which the self derived life’s value and meaning.” Perhaps a simpler way to say that is: “Be careful who or what you worship because you will become what you worship; you will become like the object or the one you worship. Everyone has an ultimate object of love and loyalty.” The psychologist was suggesting that the deficits in a person’s life become these deeply engrained objects of desire that ultimately take on the shape of an idol. The journey towards dis-empowering the deficits in one’s life involved naming and severing links with what had become idolatrous.
This topic seems to have enough complexity to be a source of some consternation from multiple viewpoints within the larger conversation about faith and sexuality. Indeed, each individual situation is so unique that it is difficult to make generalizations without it feeling like a disconnect for at least some who live in this reality. The basic concept of mixed orientation marriage is descriptive of one or both spouses experiencing some degree of same-sex attraction. In light of this, it is easy to recognize that anyone who identifies as bi-sexual who is married could be described as being in a mixed orientation marriage. Bi-sexual individuals may or may not appreciate that description – not so much because it is inaccurate but perhaps because it may seem to have a connection to an ex-gay paradigm. Ironically, I have also encountered individuals within the ex-gay paradigm who don’t like the term. While they may be willing to clarify that they still experience some degree of same-sex attraction, the mixed-orientation descriptor seems to insult them. Perhaps, they take it as a statement asserting that complete orientation change is rare.
It seems to me that the usefulness of the description mixed-orientation marriage is less for the individual who might use it for themselves and more to aid in clarification and understanding in the larger conversations. The description, I think, does something very important. It brings a level of honesty and authenticity into the conversation. As I see it, the description is intended to be value-neutral. It isn’t a judgment on someone’s marriage.
On Sunday night I had the opportunity to speak with a group of students. In the days prior to the talk I had several conversations with the youth pastor and with an elder from the church. It’s understandable, that the leaders of an evangelical church, who will also have to try to communicate with parents, would want to have clarification on my approach in coming to talk to their youth group. It was determined that one of the elders would open the meeting by communicating what the church’s leadership believed about homosexuality – which in this case was the affirmation of marriage being between one man and one woman and that same-sex sexual activity was sinful. Because the elder had clearly stated this position, that actually freed me to be able to present from a posture of generous spaciousness with this diverse group of students. Having felt like a misfit during my own teen years, I usually don’t feel incredibly comfortable speaking to a group of high schoolers. It tends to trigger all sorts of less than pleasant feelings for me. But over my years at New Direction I fairly regularly face my personal demons and try to serve this population to the best of my ability. Being able to speak from a posture of generous spaciousness made the task of speaking to students infinitely easier and more comfortable for me.
Part of my doctoral journey is to invite a small group of folks from diverse backgrounds to gather with me on a regular basis to engage with me on my research topic. At this point, I am planning on looking at the impact and effectiveness of the concept of generous spaciousness on a church’s experience navigating the conversation about faithful discipleship for LGBT people. My hope, of course, is that by introducing the concept and then facilitating dialogue from the posture of generous spaciousness, that a congregation will experience honest, open conversation without coercion, debate, power struggles, shame, fear or paralyzing anxiety. My hope is that generous spaciousness might generate a sense of meaning-making for this conversation – that rather than the discussion being polarizing and threatening fracture, the conversation would enlarge in members of the congregation the capacity to be patient, humble and gracious with each other despite any differences in perspectives that emerge. If this hypothesis is demonstrated, then not only will engaging this conversation be healthy for a congregation, it will be a safe and spacious place for any individuals who find themselves not neatly fitting into the majority heterosexual experience. Lots of churches talk about being welcoming. But if the conversation about how an LGBT person ought to faithfully navigate their life as a follower of Jesus is ignored or the source of argumentation and fracture, it is a hollow welcome.
It is not uncommon for me to be asked, “How did you speak with your kids about your job?” What these parents are really asking is for guidance on how to speak to their own children about homosexuality. Particularly for Christian parents, who either hold to a traditional understanding of marriage or are somewhat uncertain about how they will interpret Scripture regarding committed same-sex relationships, this can seem to be a daunting task in our current cultural context. (note: In this post, I haven’t addressed parents who hold affirming views – simply because their conversations with their kids about this matter will be relatively straight-forward) For those who have no gay friends and a simplistic commitment to avoid anything they disagree with, this matter of communication isn’t that challenging. They simply tell their children it is wrong and that is the end of the conversation. But many Christian parents recognize that it is more nuanced and complex than that.
Yesterday I had the opportunity to engage two very different audio accounts of a Christian person holding a traditional view of marriage speak about homosexuality. The first was the President of Fuller Seminary, Dr. Richard Mouw, speaking in an address to the Fuller community about these matters. The second, was Kirk Cameron, perhaps best known as a child actor from the show Growing Pains, in an interview with Piers Morgan.
Mouw was very clear in his articulation that after much study, reflection and conversation with scholars and colleagues who hold an affirming view, he continues to hold a heteronormative view of covenanted and consummated relationships. However, in the midst of this articulation, he shared his story and journey that acknowledged his relationships with gay Christians in long-term committed partnerships, his encounters with their faith and vocational callings into ministry, and his first-hand experience in navigating deep friendship in the midst of differences. While clearly affirming his own traditional convictions, his generosity of spirit acknowledged both the humanity and the faith of those who hold different convictions on the basis of their prayerful and thorough wrestling with Scripture. Mouw encouraged us to find common ground in elevating and promoting fidelity. He spoke of the principles from which Christians ought to engage this topic – and it almost sounded like he took a page from the generous spaciousness playbook: he spoke of humility and generosity and grace. And he spoke of Fuller needing to be a place of hospitality where different views were engaged robustly without fear.
Sometimes I forget. I don’t mean to …. it just happens. I forget the powerful feeling of being trapped, with no space to ask questions, wrestle, consider options, or simply honestly reflect on one’s experience and faith journey. I forget because I know so many gay Christians who have already made the difficult journey to internally and externally come to terms with their sexuality. Some of these friends are deeply committed to traditional views and to living a single celibate life with a sense of both serenity and adventure. Some of these friends are living authentically in a mixed-orientation marriage where they love their spouse, their family and are navigating the rhythms of grace. Some of these friends are dating or in a committed relationship with a same-sex partner. Regardless of the manner in which they are integrating their faith and their sexuality, these friends no longer live in fear, dread or paralysis. They have disclosed the reality of their same-sex orientation. They have wrestled with diverse perspectives and have identified and own their core beliefs and values. And they are putting the supports and encouragement in place such that they will live in alignment with these beliefs and values – just like any other Christian person prone to wander and live inconsistently.
Some time ago, I spoke at a church about the concept of generous spaciousness. It was a relatively small church plant made up of people from many different walks of life. It was a group of people who were really trying to experience a sense of true community together. They talked about hard things together…
Since the GCN panel, I’ve probably been thinking more about Exodus than I have for a while. As I have said before, I still know a lot of people serving within the Exodus network. I don’t know how many of them would still consider me a friend – but I continue to care about many…