Jesus Is Smiling (by Jonathan Storment)
I hesitate to write this post. After the World Vision fallout I was reminded that often holiness and silence go hand in hand. But the problem for me hasn’t been that there weren’t enough words, it was that we need better ones.
The most tragic part of the World Vision fiasco is something that we haven’t felt yet. It won’t be nearly as noisy as the explosion of opinions that we experienced on the Monday, or the awkward reversal of noise of the Wednesday’s flip-flop decision caused.
It will be felt in a few months or years as surveys reveal all the people who walked away from church because of it. So often what comes across as a win in a culture war is really a much greater loss.
As someone who holds an orthodox view of Christian sexuality I find myself in an awkward position, because I find that the more orthodox my “Christian” position is, the less I find myself acting like Jesus in the world.
I became a Christian when I was 13 years old. I met Jesus when I was 26.
I went through a bit of a charismatic conversion. In the tradition that I come from, any experience of the Holy Spirit has been suspect. But when I went with a team of people to Sri Lanka to do Tsunami relief we all had experiences that words don’t do justice.
Through what I would come to understand later was something like an Ignatian prayer exercise, an older spiritual director walked me through imagining being in the presence of God and having a conversation with God in that place.
It was so life-altering that I wanted to share it with others, particularly with one of my friends.
My friend Adam came out to me when we were in college. It was the first time a friend had told me that they were gay, and when Adam told me, he was sobbing and scared.
At the time we were both attending a private Christian college where being gay was incredibly difficult. And so the question he immediately asked was could we still be friends?
But Adam was too good of a friend to do anything but continue being a friend. Over the course of the next few years, Adam’s sexuality was a source of confusion and struggle for him, and over the next few years, he made plenty of terrible, self-destructive decisions related to his sexuality, each one bringing him greater shame.
So after we got back from Sri Lanka, the first person I wanted to share this experience with was Adam. He drove in from another state and visited with this senior saint who led him through the same kind of imaginative prayer.
It was a night I will never forget, even as I write about it, I find myself choking up.
Adam spent the better part of an hour imagining himself in the presence of God, and then the spiritual director asked him if he could see the face of Jesus.
That is when Adam started weeping. I’m talking about the shoulder-shaking, body trembling kind of weeping. And eventually Adam got out, “I can! I can see him… And Jesus is smiling.”
And for the first time in years…so was Adam.
I still can’t get over that moment. I hope I never do.
This moment is at the heart of what I think my call is in pastoral ministry, to help people, wherever they are at, to discover God’s pleasure in them.
In my bones I believe that is what every person alive is after, even if we don’t know it. And we chase it in so many different and destructive ways.
Last week I asked my good friend Brent Bailey, author of the great blog “Odd Man Out” and a Christian gay man who is deeply committed to peacemaking, how to navigate this in a local church setting.
I told Brent that it seems to me that this conversation has become so polarized that there are only two options. 1. Being against the LGBT community, or 2. Affirming same-sex relationships.
But that seems too binary and frankly, unimaginative.
Here is how Brent responded:
I’ve spent a lot of time around Christians who seemed more concerned with making sure gay people knew that homosexuality was sinful than they were with making sure gay people knew God loved them. Even if they spoke both messages, it was like the former was the more important one; and if they were going to err, they were going to err on the side of making sure gay people knew homosexuality was sinful. (Even in cases in which LGBT people have been victimized in various ways, it’s often felt to me that conservative Christians could only lament what happened if they found a way to reassert their sexual ethics. “What happened was wrong – but, well, we still think homosexuality is sinful, just to be clear.”) I don’t think my experience was particularly unique, and I feel confident the reason so many LGBT folks leave the church is due to that cognitive dissonance of believing there’s something fundamentally, unchangingly unlovable about them.”…“I think the way we use our bodies is really, really important to God, but I think knowing we are God’s beloved is really, really, really important to God. How might conservative Christians communicate both messages to gay people? And if they’re only going to hear one message at the expense of the other, which one should it be?”
I think Brent is right. We conservative Christians have made this the litmus test for whether or not someone believes the Bible or can qualify to be an evangelical Christian. That is unfortunate for everyone all around.
Because we just might forget the heart of God.
Adam’s sexuality didn’t change after that experience. And he didn’t leave there to go live a “happily ever after” kind of story. But he has never forgotten, and neither have I, that Jesus is smiling.