So, I’m still trying to figure out all that I want to say here and if it’s worth your time to read. Of course it’s not going to be just my voice out here, there are tons of stories we are collecting to share but since we are kicking off this blog I’m still thinking deeply about how to curate the conversation. I’ve found that I work best when I process in discernment with others so I engage in lots and lots of conversations about what I’m writing before it ever makes it to the screen. It’s the same reason that the whole church thing works for me – I really am only whole as I am in community with others.
Anywho – earlier this week I was chatting via Skype with a dear friend, Jonathan we will call him, who has the privilege of a recent appointment to an evangelical, culturally relevant church in North Carolina. He shared with me his attempt at opening dialogue about same-sex marriage – just two days before the Amendment 1 vote and on merely his second Sunday as pastor of this congregation. In his 21st century style of leadership he is trying to shift the Sunday worship to a more engaging, involved hour by building intentional dialogue into the sermon. Taking a huge risk, he asked his congregation what they think about gay marriage. The congregation heard three men who were willing to speak up – one who was “very liberal” who “had no problem, either theologically or socially” with gay and lesbian marriage. A second man spoke up and offered that though he has a problem theologically he believes that “homosexuals should be afforded social equality.” The third man held the conservative theological and social line that homosexuality is clearly a sin AND homosexuals should not be able to get married for it is an institution designed by God for one man and one woman.
You might be thinking, were there any gay folk present for this conversation? Well, this is not exactly the church where you find a rainbow flag fluttering on the lawn so no, there were no gay or lesbian people present about whom the conversation was focused.
Now I’m incredibly proud of Jonathan for his courage to step out on a treacherous limb so early in his appointment. I even appreciate the willingness of the men who stood to speak, especially the two who took the risk of going against their community norm. Pastor Jonathan was responding to a need he saw in his community as the momentum toward the Amendment 1 vote was cresting as he witnessed members posting a flurry of comments online. He feels that the heated climate of disastrous legislation forced the conversation but that it provided a much needed opportunity to build community while exploring something about which many have intense feelings.
What troubles me is the fact that those gathered were talking about people who were not present, not a part of the conversation or the community. Not only were there no gay and lesbian individuals there that Sunday but it is my hunch (and Jonathan could not contradict my notion) that the people speaking, and the people listening (except for Jonathan) did not actually know anyone gay and certainly didn’t have a relationship with the people about whom they were discussing. *
You know, it’s been said that all you ever really need to know you learn in Kindergarten, and I am pretty sure this is the wisest proverb I’ve ever heard. Yesterday, while substitute teaching in a beautiful kindergarten class I had a conversation with a little guy that seems to sum up how I feel here. It was the end of the day and some of his classmates had already hopped in cars with mom or dad and we were still waiting for his family to arrive. He came up to me and told me that Samantha, who had just left, had hit him – she meant to do it and she’s not nice. He wasn’t crying, he wasn’t visibly injured so I asked him to tell me more about what happened …and then stopped myself. I told him we should wait to all talk about it in the morning when Samantha could tell us her part. Maybe it was an accident, maybe it was on purpose, I couldn’t be sure, carpool is a jostley time (that’s a new Kindergarten phrase for ya). I told him it made me sad to talk about people when they are not around to hear and speak too. He harrumphed but did not argue as his parent’s black Volvo pulled up to the curb.
And it really is as simple as that – it makes me uncomfortable when people talk about others rather than talk with them. I try my best to not fall into this trap but of course fail with some regularity – I do pray to be more graceful all the time.
In my Skype chat with Jonathan he went on to talk about how much work he has to do educating this congregation, theologically and socially. I know his heart is completely in the right place and I get that it takes some straight people talking to other straight people about my humanity and equality for the whole conversation to move forward. But in reality all the talking, all the theological unpacking of context and nuance in scripture, all the historical review of theologians who’ve contributed to the sexual anxieties of much of Christendom, all the civic lessons in separation of church and state are but a clanging gong without real relationship, without love. It is only by knowing a person, being in relationship with her to such a degree that your narratives overlap that hearts and minds become fertile for growth.
BUT…I’m not just pointing a finger and saying “you don’t really knoooow any gay people do you?” No, if relationship is the key then that means I have to take risks and be in relationship with people who don’t affirm my humanity. It’s easier to stay ensconced in the carefully constructed social enclaves of my neighborhood, inner-city, LGBT groups and the UCC church. It is far more comfortable eating with, praying with and being in relationship with people that I know are not going to hurl words like abomination or phrases like “love the sinner, hate the sin” at me. But if I am not willing to take healthy risks and create relationships with others who understand God differently than I, how can I expect others to be willing to create relationship with folk like me?
I love Jonathan, he was dear friend of mine in childhood and adolescence but we drifted apart, due perhaps more to geography than theology. We are reconnecting and being intentional about our conversations – keeping grace at the center. I know that he is going to be an amazing pastor and I hear the genuine work he is doing with good people. I believe his motives are true and right. And he hears me. As we’ve continued our discussion via Facebook I shared with him more about my discomfort with people being talked about in their absence. He said “I agree with your point about how weird it is that we were talking about people who aren’t part of our community, dealing with them as if they were an “issue” – like voting on a bond issue or something. This is part of what made the vote so terrible, it is dehumanizing, asking people to vote on something that in no way affects their lives or the life of anyone they know.”
Worried that I was not fairly representing his community – that my efforts to process this all was clunky we talked more and he offered this: “I get what you mean about “clunky” but I think it is more a sign of how awkward and difficult and real and good this conversation is. Life is messy and doesn’t fit itself into neat conclusions. The truth is, we don’t have this figured out yet (maybe we won’t until the other side) but an important part (maybe the most important part) is modeling how brothers and sisters in Christ go about having hard conversations in constructive ways.”
And you know what, I feel like we are really hearing each other, thanks be to God.
I guess that’s a huge part of what this blog’s really about, not just sharing stories but a way of starting conversations and being open to risky yet potentially rewarding relationships. As each voice enters the dialogue and engages hard questions I hope we are all mindful of the multifaceted person on the other side of the screen, even if their words are infused with fear and loathing. As a beatitudes Christian, a follower of The Way, I really do often ask of myself and others – what would Jesus do? Seems the only answer I can come up with here is that I have to be willing to be open to compassionately enter relationship with others who in the end just might crucify me.
So here are my questions for you:
What do you think about conversations that are about people and not with people?
How are you creating space for risky relationships that might prove ripe with the fruits of the spirit?
* Please don’t read me as saying I dismiss the power of discernment in community, even if the spoken of are not present, or the absolute critical need for allies. I am deeply grateful for people who, though they are not walking in my tatty Chuck Taylor’s, have faithfully joined the journey alongside folk who are struggling for a place at the table. Without allies, both highly visible out here blogging, preaching and teaching in the public arena as well as those speaking up one family supper, bible study or walk with a friend at a time, I would not be able to raise my voice in the way that I do. Just a few allies I treasure (truly an incomplete list, please add your own in the comments below): Bruce, Elizabeth, Jay, Melissa , Kathy, Cindy, Doug, Jessica, Michael, Anne, Grant, Margaret, Tony, Nadia, Patty & Gary, Rachel, Rep. John, Sheree, Kelly, Otis, Brian & Carol, Tommy & Kelly and thousands more. I promise we’ll talk more about allies another time.