Recently I found myself on a journey outside of my normal cultural context for reasons of attending a funeral, hanging out with family, and a little vacationing action in a different part of the country. Prior to embarking on my journey, I had determined to avoid conversations related to politics or religion. Other folks don’t always have that same determination, of course, so following through on my decision became at times a bit of an exercise in self discipline. Fortunately, I am by nature committed to conflict avoidance, but I couldn’t help but reflect on what input I might have had absent my wonderfully self righteous form of non-engagement.
One such conversation I overheard was regarding the appropriate attitude for a Christian toward same sex relationships. I realized as I was dawdling in the adjacent room that somehow my name had entered into the conversation, so avoiding being drawn into it included physically walking away and pretending I didn’t know it was going on.
Later in the weekend I listened to someone else describe the estrangement he currently experiences from his gay son, whose wedding to his partner he graciously attended but nevertheless sees as having gone to the “dark side.” I thought it impolite just to remain silent, given it was just the two of us chatting, so I made some bland remark about how love is stronger than our divisions and can find a way to ultimately heal them. General enough and sufficiently lacking in anything challenging to engender an “amen” from any well meaning believer.
Perhaps these were meant to be opportunities to try to make a contribution toward helping people consider different ways of approaching something that can cause that kind of pain, but my life’s journey has left me with very little stomach for that sort of thing. It caused me, however, to reflect on an experience I had recently related to why my name had come up in conversation #1. The reason for that referred to a reflection I had offered for the funeral of someone who is generally revered and regarded as an example of a Christian leader by the folks attending this gathering. As such, it was asserted that he would agree that same sex relationships were something God would not approve of. However, in my funeral reflection I had noted how the two of us were together at the last service he was able to attend of the church he had chosen as his final spiritual home. That was the service in which they installed their new female pastor, which might have been strange enough for some churches he and I have been a part of, but in this case the new pastor's wife was also there. I recalled how we had reflected together regarding the way in which that experience would have, at an earlier times in our lives, been the cause of some significant theological consternation.
That is not the experience I speak of, however. That came later as one of the former members of a church this man had pastored reached out to me after having listened to the reflections I had to offer at his service. He told me of a time when he had come out as gay to the man who was his highly respected pastor at the time, and had been told that God would never be able to accept who he was with regard to his sexuality. This man seemed very interested in the ways his former pastor had clearly evolved with regard to his thinking, and desirous of some kind of assurance that today he would receive a different response. It is one of the great pleasures and privileges I have had in my life to be able to assure him that, were he to still have a voice today, he would repent of what it was he had said to him so long ago and embrace him completely for all of who he is without reservation. That was clearly a healing balm for this man, and to be able to offer that for someone post-mortem is a unique opportunity to be a small part of making some kind of amends for what can clearly be deep and lasting pain our attitudes in the church have caused people.
So I suppose that if I had the integrity or the spine to actually engage with these kinds of conversations in these kinds of contexts, what I would say is that it is possible to go on a journey that enables you to avoid inflicting that kind of damage to people, or have to experience the pain of estrangement or fear for your loved ones that so many people in the church have inflicted and/or endured. And you can do so in a way that does not require any compromise to a right understanding of the nature and character of God or how and in what ways that is revealed to us. I won’t try to describe that journey here: I think it is different for everyone. For some it is deeply intellectual and theological and all about biblical interpretive frameworks, blah blah blah. For others it simply boils down to seeing the fruit of a dogma as inconsistent with love, so it must not be from God.
Taking that sort of a journey can be a frightening prospect when our worldviews have been so tied to particular ways of thinking about things. But if you have known the good and gracious heart of someone who has been gravely wounded by a rejection that needn’t have happened, and subsequently have watched the cauterization of those wounds via a willingness to embrace the offer of an enlightened compassion, even if it is post-mortem via a stand-in, I cannot imagine how someone who claims to embrace the God who is love would not at least consider taking a few steps down the path.