Her Mistress’s Hand

Hello! I’m back from Revoice, it was amazing!!!, more on that in a bit. I gave the first keynote address and it was uh… let’s just say I was revising it literally minutes before I stepped up to the mic. So it was even more chaotic than my usual. But it touched on what I think is ultimately the central issue for gay Christians–and all Christians–and so I’d like to try to give you a more coherent presentation here. Because the key question for us is, Who is God?

Our churches mostly approach gay people first by telling us how they expect us to obey (and only focusing on how they expect us to obey the teaching on chastity, not literally any other virtue, but that’s another issue). Revoice was a conference primarily for people who have already accepted that we need to obey and who seek to submit our lives to God’s guidance through our churches. We are the maidservant who looks to her mistress’s hand.

But who is that mistress? What is her character? What is the Bride of Christ, our Mother and Teacher, like?

In the absence of clear depictions of God and His Church, we accept the models our culture gives us. (Ross Douthat wrote a great book on this subject, all the little American Jesuses we create in defiance of Scripture.) Gay people specifically have been taught a lot of falsehoods. Even (especially?) gay people who have always tried to do right and be good Christian kids often wake up one day in their twenties or thirties and realize that they have never really believed that God cherished them, was delighted in them rather than disgusted by them, loved them without that constant parental admixture of expectations and disappointment. It was easier for me, as a convert from atheism, to trust that God loved me, than for a gay kid who grew up in the church. Shouldn’t that shock us? And yet we all recognize it: that gay people who grow up Christian so often learn that their sexuality separates them from God; that obedience is impossible for them unless they become straight; that not solely their sexual desires but their longings for love and intimacy are fundamentally broken, intrinsically disordered; that there is no history for us in the Church and therefore no guidance for our futures; that gay communities are uniquely horrifying and must be avoided, that gay people are uniquely challenging to love and even accepting us is a real struggle.

So many of us have been taught a model of obedience which is really a model of self-harm. And this teaches us that God is our enemy. This teaches us that the Church is a mother who rejects us and abandons us when we need her most. We find ourselves obedient to a mistress who holds us in contempt and punishes us mercilessly, arbitrarily, and forbids us even to speak about what we’ve experienced at her hands.

This is not God and this is not His Church.

To know God and to praise Him in the most honest, raw, and countercultural terms, I’d like to turn to Scripture. Because here we find a true basis for our obedience: We obey because God is Love.

Not because we are good at doing what He commands. Wesley Hill’s keynote reminded us that Paul teaches that none of us are good at doing what He commands. All of us rely solely on His grace and mercy; and that’s good, because otherwise we’d create communities where Pharisees are honored and those of us who uhhhh… aspire to the fidelity of King David, are outcast. (Lol there it is, I don’t take it back, this is the point I was trying to make by beating up on King David.) And anyway, “I obey you because I’m good at doing what you want” would be such a creepy, self-centered way to think, right? So it’s good that this isn’t why we obey.

Nor do we obey God simply because we ourselves are untrustworthy, wretched sinners, etc etc. All of that is totally true and confessing my utter unworthiness is a big part of my own spirituality. Catholic spirituality tends to extremism and the trick is to hold both the extreme you personally need most and its corresponding corrective in your soul at the same time: both I am worthless and there is no good in me and For you are worth more than many sparrows. To forget the second thing is to court self-hatred, and we are called to hate nothing God has made.

We obey because God is Love. Okay but like… what is love? (Anyway.) Here Scripture offers guidance which is especially relevant to gay people. Let me look at three sets of passages.

First, the passages in which same-sex love is held up as real love, and as a model for the love between God and humankind. We live right now in a culture for which “intimacy,” “commitment,” “devotion,” “relationship,” even “love” itself are often merely euphemisms for sex. I don’t play that. When I say “intimacy” I mean intimacy, when I say “love” I mean love, and if I mean “sex” I promise you I will say so. The Scriptural passages which depict same-sex love, such as I Sam 18:1-4, Ruth 1:16-7, and John 19:26-7, can guide everybody who wishes to pour out their lives in love of someone of the same sex–a friend, a member of your extended family or your godfamily, etc. I often talk about (and hear from straight people about) how these passages are relevant for straight people, both unmarried people seeking community and married people who need friends to become a part of their family so they don’t become trapped in the isolation of the nuclear family.

But here I want to focus on what these passages can do for gay Christians. They suggest that there is guidance for our longings for same-sex love and intimacy. These longings need not be sources of shame. We don’t need to root them out or pray that they go away. It is possible to shape your life around love of someone of the same sex in a way which honors God. These loves can knit you into family: Jesus gives His Mother to John, the beloved disciple, and vice versa, making them family to one another, and this teaches us what Mary is to the Church: We are all Mary’s children because, like John, we are Jesus’ beloved friends. These loves are a part of the Gospel story: The Moabite Ruth only meets Boaz because of her pledge to love and follow Naomi and Naomi’s God, and so it is because of her love for Naomi that Ruth becomes one of the foremothers of Jesus. These loves can inspire practical, orderly lives of care: Jonathan and David perform a ritual of covenant friendship which would have been familiar to their culture, and models of covenant or pledged lifelong same-sex friendship persisted until very recently, in different forms, in both Eastern and Western Christianity. The promises Ruth makes to Naomi are startlingly similar to some of the promises and practices of Christian friends several millennia later, as Alan Bray and others have found–people who lived with their friend, shared finances, became kin to one another’s families, practiced their faith together, and were buried together. When we ask how gay people’s longings can become “ordered,” why do we always ask, How can these sexual desires become heterosexual?, and never, How can these longings for same-sex love be expressed in harmony with God’s will?

Not every gay person will find these models appealing, not every gay person is called to this kind of love, and not every gay person who wants to forge a life with someone of the same sex will find someone willing to be that friend to them. There are plenty of other beautiful paths of love for us. But knowing that our longings to care for and cherish someone of the same sex aren’t inherently unholy can reshape people’s ideas of themselves–I’ve seen people’s faces light up as they suddenly consider that what they feel, which they know to be love, is recognized by the God Who is Love. And so knowing these models can reshape our ideas of God, as we realize that He has written us into His story, not leaving us in the silence which is death.

Gay people also need to know what Scripture says about people who are separated from their families of origin. So many of us have been kicked out of our homes, abused by our families; even those who had much more gentle experiences often grew up in silence and shame, feeling that something about them separated them from their happy Christian family, never fitting the model they were given for a life with God.

To these people Isaiah speaks when, in the voice of the Lord, he asks, “Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb?” And unfortunately so many of us have to answer, Yes, actually, she can–I know, I’ve seen it done. But the Lord knows that too. And so the prophet goes on to say, “Even should she forget, I [the Lord] will never forget you. See, upon the palms of my hands I have engraved you….” Scripture has a special word of mercy for those abused and cast out by their families.

That shouldn’t be surprising, since Scripture has a special word of mercy for all whose needs and sacrifices are misunderstood, unacknowledged, given no honor. Maybe the greatest song of praise in the Bible is Mary’s Magnificat, and this song emphasizes God’s especial love and blessing for those cast out, marginalized, unheard by the religious and political elite of their time. Her song is full of reversals of power: “For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness; behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed.” She is chosen by God for this astonishing blessing in part because of her lowliness–a poor woman from nowhere. His blessing to her even increases her lowliness in others’ eyes, as she becomes a poor, unwed pregnant girl. It is because of this lowliness that she is chosen to confound the rich and powerful, to bear the Word which will shatter all their self-righteous certainties. What word have gay people been blessed with, to bear to our churches?

There’s a bit from the 119th Psalm which I really like. Apparently it’s often translated something like, “How I love your law, Lord!” Which so often is more of a question than an exclamation, you know? Like, Yeah, Lord, how on earth do I love your law?? When we sing the psalm response in Mass we sing it with the more lyrical translation, “Lord, I love your commands.” So often gay people have felt pressured to exclaim how much we love the Lord’s commands, and we’ve tried to kind of reverse-engineer an idea of who God is based on those commands. We end up with a picture of God–and a picture of ourselves, made in His image–which is deeply distorted by our culture’s sins and silences. Only once we know the tenderness of the Lord can we sing in truth, from honesty and gratitude, Lord, I love your commands!


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