Thursday, August 1, 2013

Second Cup—Coming out of the closet....

This blog has been brewing for a long time. It grew out of my journey through Holy Week this year and a continuing reflection on Easter. Specifically, it is an outcome of time spent in contemplation of the Cross and the oppression of our Lord—and the profound injustice that characterizes his last days on earth. The ever-demanding crucifix refocused my soul's eyes both inwardly to the darkness that is too often there and outwardly toward the darkness that is too often a reflection of the darkness within. Here hangs the one who came to bring light and life abundant and who, too often, my fellow Christians and I seem intent on making into someone else.

I don’t want to live like that anymore. I don’t want to hide anymore. I don’t want to scurry behind the easy screen of careful, political correctness. I believe this is one clear message of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus: We are not called to hide; we are called to the ministry of reconciliation; we are called to be with people on a journey and to journey with all others in the direction of love as God is love.

So, it appears that I need to come out of the closet.

I am often disturbed by—and so often experience—a kind of oppression in the level of “conversation” on Facebook; so much so that I have come close several times to opting out of it. Yet, I am in meaningful FB contact with so many people I love around the world; I have resisted that decision. Yet, I am still disturbed; people seem more interested in making statements than seeking understanding, as if they have everything all worked out and the rest of us just need to listen.

Most recently and more specifically the disturbance in my soul of late has been about the level of discussion among Christians, many my friends, about the “sin” of homosexuality. It is the casualness of their conviction that bothers me—and its certainty. The stridency of the conversation and the clear tendency to stake out territory in non-negotiable ways and defend the territory through the use of biblical (and highly limited) proof texts is what disturbs me the most—except for the lack of compassion. Here we go again, beating each other and the rest of the world up with our Bibles. (I know; I know: The Bible defines the word of God as a sharp, two-edged and dangerous sword and I think that’s true. It has more than a few times cut deeply into my soul and painfully brought about healing. But what passes for a conversation about a fundamental reality—our sexuality—is really more often than not the Bible as a blunt weapon and I doubt—really doubt—that is our work.)

Now, to dispel any speculation about where I stand: I am going on record as being gay-friendly and, yes, some of my best and oldest friends are gay. I know what that statement makes me in some eyes; for others it makes me an ally. I understand that such a statement may even be in some way offensive to my gay friends, but the truth is that I’m much more interested in friendship and deep relationships than with labels. I do not run from, shun, or avoid the topic or the person if there is hope of thoughtful engagement, but I will run from anyone who is interested only in the defense of a position, especially if that position demeans and dehumanizes any other human.

I know: we all live in fear. There is much to fear; the world hardly ever feels safe. There is so much change around us and so much uncertainty nearly everywhere we turn that we desire someplace to stand that doesn’t feel like shifting sand. So we look for rocks to stand on so that our house won’t be washed away in the flood. Then, we build careful ramparts to keep any stranger off of our safe rock. I suggest, however, that the rock on which we are called to stand is Jesus, the cornerstone of our faith, and that, more often than not, paradoxically, we are called to walk faithfully where the sand seems most shifting, and walking faithfully is defined by Jesus as following him where he leads, a direction that is always defined by the Great Commandment: loving God and loving others. So, while I understand in very personal ways the fearsome fragility of life, I think we are called to walk on those shifting sands—especially if we desire to walk in the footsteps of the One who sacrificed all to go where no one wanted him; and we find ourselves back again at the Cross. (It seems impossible to live fully through Holy Week—unless we quickly jump ahead to the Resurrection—without realizing how dangerous it is to live faithful to the One who hung and in some sense still hangs on the cross.)

For me it has become painfully simple. We are called to live in the freedom made possible through the absolutely free, loving act of Jesus. We are called to be with others in honest and vulnerable relationship. So, I am simply unwilling to place any one in a box defined by any one particular part or aspect, particularly their sexuality, of all that contributes to who a person is as a whole. I want to live as one who is open to any other who wants to live honestly, transparently, openly, relationally, and faithfully. I want to stand with any oppressed people; I think that is what the God of scripture asks me.

But I also want to make this clear: I am not actually writing in defense of homosexuality. I am writing about those friends and acquaintances of mine who seem intent on living closed off to the other, especially to those who see it as their duty to keep others from living honestly, transparently, openly, relationally, lovingly, and faithfully. I know I’m not sharing anything new when I share that the picture of the church that the Barna Report presents is not the picture that God had in mind when he called people to become God’s people—as the Church:

Among young non-Christians, nine out of the top 12 perceptions were negative. Common negative perceptions include that present-day Christianity is judgmental (87%), hypocritical (85%), old-fashioned (78%), and too involved in politics (75%)—representing large proportions of young outsiders who attach these negative labels to Christians.

Interestingly, the study discovered a new image that has steadily grown in prominence over the last decade. Today, the most common perception is that present-day Christianity is "anti-homosexual." Overall, 91% of young non-Christians and 80% of young churchgoers say this phrase describes Christianity. As the research probed this perception, non-Christians and Christians explained that beyond their recognition that Christians oppose homosexuality, they believe that Christians show excessive contempt and unloving attitudes towards gays and lesbians. One of the most frequent criticisms of young Christians was that they believe the church has made homosexuality a "bigger sin" than anything else. Moreover, they claim that the church has not helped them apply the biblical teaching on homosexuality to their friendships with gays and lesbians.*

Now, I know, that many will immediately defend themselves (and, probably, attack or dismiss me) by declaring that they hate only the sin, not the sinner. But there is such deep confusion in that statement; does anyone else see that? I get what people are trying to mean by that, but I honestly don’t know how to do that. I certainly don’t understand the psychology or the anthropology in such a statement. Maybe I’m just not as spiritually mature as others (no one would be surprised by hearing a loud chorus of, “You got that right”).
Whatever else anyone may have to say or believe, I know this: In nearly every part of the Gospel, we are called to do two things: Love God and love others. (I think we are also called to love ourselves, but that is another matter for another time.) There is no box built around those words, especially on the word others. To make sure that we get that, we have only to turn to Jesus and his discussion about nearly anything, but especially about neighbors. Here’s an old familiar story that in the last couple of years has spoken to me in startling new ways.

I was teaching a class recently in which we were discussing the Parable of the Good Samaritan. We were reading it as closely as it is possible to read without the language that would make it even more accessible and as closely as it is possible in a class of 20 plus students from diverse backgrounds. We were trying to read it inductively, seeking to understand the story before we tried to figure out what Jesus meant by the story he chose to tell in answer to the lawyer’s ego and status and power-protecting question.

Suddenly, a student (bless their little hearts) said, I think it is more important what the story does NOT say. What? Huh? What do you mean—oh, right, of course (to self: why didn’t I think of that?!) OK, I said, what doesn’t it say? Well, for starters, it doesn’t say anything about who this one lying nearly dead on the road and, to the best of our ability, there is no way to tell. Check it out. He is a man. He has been robbed, beaten, left for dead, on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem. That’s it. We don’t know his name. We don’t know the state of his soul. We don’t know whether he is a good man or bad. We don’t even know which way he was going and we don’t know why he was on the road. And we certainly don’t know his sexuality. Yet, clearly, Jesus is responding to the lawyer’s request for a definition. We call it the parable of the Good Samaritan and so our focus is on him; perhaps, he is the definition. But Jesus doesn’t call him good. He just tells us he’s a Samaritan; he’s a definition, I guess, of neighborliness or humanness. The other guy, the one in the gutter, naked and dying, he’s the neighbor. Well, we know who is not good, right? The religious guys passing by—seeming to go out of their way to avoid the neighbor in the road.

Well, we could add to this the story of the prodigal. There’s another defining narrative. What are we to do with our unidentified by anything but needy neighbor? Take care of him. Take care of her. Take care of them. Celebrate. Welcome home. Welcome in. Spend money on care. Not judge. Not distance our selves. Not build boxes and exclude. Not make pronouncements about ritual cleanliness. NO. Mostly just take care of him/her. Pick him up. Put her on our donkey. Take him where he will be cared for. Get dirty. Set our own agendas aside. Take her in our arms. Love on him.

When the lawyer reluctantly answered Jesus’ question—“Which one was the neighbor?”—with “The one who showed mercy,” well, what are we to make of that? Mercy: Compassion, easing of distress, gratefulness, kindness, sympathy, humanity, understanding, generosity, leniency, benevolence, grace. Well, I want to take my stand with the outsider and the Samaritan (another maligned people) and opt for mercy. And, I believe, that even if I were to think that homosexuality is the greatest sin in the Bible, I do not have a choice about whether or how to show mercy.

Followers of Jesus were first called Christian in Antioch. If that was the judgment of the citizens of Antioch then, based on how they followed Jesus, I wonder what label do we earn today? I remember years ago standing around the campfire, singing (along with “Kumbaya”), “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” Well, guess what? They know who we are and it is neither Christian nor loving. Now what are we going to do about it?

“Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” Can we find a better place to stand? Can we find a less inflammatory rhetoric—regardless of our convictions? How can we ever hope to be the church in this world if we do not get out of our familiar ways and learn to stand alongside all the peoples of the world and learn a new language? To be relationally connected, that is, vulnerable, available, compassionate, intimate, faithful, loving, is in nearly every way I can think of essential if we are indeed going to be the people of God in the world for the world.

Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy.



  1. Thank you Art for putting into words the dilemmas we face in a society plagued by polarization and certainty. You said it well. --Robert Mathis

  2. Good work, Arthur. Good essay.

  3. Awesome. I miss being in your class.