A Conversation We Get to Have
A member of our community came out as gay/bisexual on Facebook a few weeks ago. Bravely and beautifully, I say. One can’t mean to say that it’s brave or beautiful to be gay, because what would that really mean anyway? But I think my friend* (and her gentle language in the post) is beautiful, and that it takes a lot bravery to speak up about such a controversial issue in public, especially when you carry the controversy inside of you. As a straight guy, I’m afraid to speak of these things in public, and I know that people with same sex attraction have considerably more reason to fear, especially when their culture includes friends of faith, where the questions are rooted in some pretty powerful old stories of meaning.
This friend came out in conversation with me a couple years ago, and we had many pretty amazing conversations, the three of us: God, the Beautiful Girl, and me. I’m telling you, they were amazing, but more about that in a minute. We had loose plans to talk to our community about these conversations, but she moved away and the talk was delayed. I’d been eager for it to happen primarily because I’m pretty weary of the sex talk in the church (when we talk at all) being about us and them. This kind of talk is problematic … for a couple reasons; first, we’re no longer isolated enough that it makes sense to talk as though we were part of a homogeneous demographic. Second, it’s reductionistic to suggest that any of us are firmly planted on one side of a black/white issue. If we can believe it, God wants to meet each of us in our desire to be whole, healthy, and connected to the ultimate good. If this is so, then everybody might stand before God with the same posture of trembling anticipation. So anything that helps us talk more about just us, than about us-vs-them, is good.
If you are used to reading articles and posts on questions of sexuality where people are quick to let you know where they stand, you may have noticed I am not doing that. Sorry. It’s not because I don’t have anything to say. It’s because I’m just not going to say it in print. You don’t get that part of me unless we’re face to face, deep into the conversation, and maybe not even then. What I will tell you is how the conversation with my friend went down, and maybe it will help you understand why I don’t give away my convictions lightly.
I wasn’t ready for it. That’s the first thing. That is, I knew that pulling a community together in this day and age meant that the question of who gets in (you know, to the community, to heaven, etc) was going to come up, because, that’s one of the ways people like to mark out the boundaries of community. It’s been this way for ever … really since we were children—especially so when it comes to boys and girls, and boyishness and girlishness: witness the little kids’ clubhouse where no boys (or girls) are allowed, because the gendered mysteries taking place inside could never be understood by the opposite sex. I knew years ago, long before starting our community project, that there was going to be a moment when we’d feel the pressure to decide how the boundaries get laid down. There’s no getting around it. Even no boundaries is a boundary, one that is as constraining and fixed and meaningful as any other. I knew the questions were coming, but I wasn’t ready.
One reason I wasn’t ready is that, while I have beliefs and thoughts and convictions, I really did not like the way the conversation was going, in both the faith-culture and the wider culture. Much of the language that gets published has been isolationist and combative … words thrown around like dumb-bombs dropped on cities in wartime, with most of the language shamelessly generalizing the enemy as a unified force with an agenda to destroy Our Freedoms, or Our Values. I wanted nothing to do with it, and was really not looking forward to being drafted into battle.
But as it it turns out I didn’t need to be ready. See, I’d long thought that the business of the church is to gather together to listen for God’s word to us, both as a community and as individuals. I also believe that church leaders are not here to dictate or direct, but to lead the way to the God Who Speaks. It’s a good theory anyhow, and God was going to give me a chance to test it. When I got together with my friend, each day I wondered if we were going to have the conversation I feared … the one where we draw lines in the sand and stand on opposite sides. While I was prepared to do whatever I sensed God asked of me, God never let me draw that line. I know that is a loaded statement, but you’ll have to trust me on that. In fact, as God had me stand with her it was as though we were on one side of a line, both desperate for the same thing—a word for us, for her, for me.
We had the conversation. Over months, we aired out the Big Secret, talked out fears (many of which we shared), shared articles, critiqued theologies, and questioned philosophies. We cried, laughed, and prayed a lot. Throughout, I never felt free in my spirit to talk about my personal perspective or to say what I thought in a bottom-line sort of way, and maybe I’m just now realizing that this was because it wasn’t about me. What I could do was make room for God to talk. And wow — like wow — we witnessed some amazing action in that department. … But no, I’m not going to talk about the things we heard or experienced, because, while I was there to bear witness, they do not belong to me. They belong to her and will remain with her as long as she can carry them or until God speaks a new word.
I bet, if you were to ask her, she could tell you how I might answer certain questions. But I never came out and spoke them. I never felt like that was my role. Still don’t. But here’s how not-simple this is. I don’t think my role is fixed—as one of only listening, or of silence, or passivity, or civil disengagement. At any time I will try to be whatever kind of pastor/leader/friend that God calls me to be. With my Beautiful Friend, my role was to stand by her in God’s hearing, as she heard God’s words to her. Another way this is not simple: having gone through this, I know that I am not any more ready to have this conversation with someone else, because no matter how much experience I have in the conversation, I don’t think I ever get to know the agenda ahead of time. Maybe that’s another piece of what God is doing with my little part of the church: no more agendas for a while.
If I have to move like a beginner for the rest of my life, never leaning on my experience or understanding, but always looking to God for the way forward, then this, at least, is a very simple thing. Simple, yet hard to grow into. Some days I’m less afraid of the conversation; some days I can see how little I have to worry about how it all goes down.
For a couple years now, I’ve been eager to share this story with our community, but I wasn’t going to do it until our friend was ready to share her part of it. We never got to do it live, but now that it’s out on the network, we no longer have to put it off. While waiting for it to happen, I’ve been postponing conversations about sexuality, because I didn’t want us to begin talking about these things until we were able to recognize that it was personal. Recent conversations where an opinion about sexuality or gender have come up have been a bit hard and bruising for many of us.
Now that our friend has made herself known to us, it will change our conversation. “Those people” are now our people. And we have to listen carefully, to God and to each other, if we are to go forward in any respect—together or separately. My dream is that even if we walk out our faith with different understandings, that we will continue to share a humble awe at the fact that each of us is free to face God in Christ with, at the very least, the expectation that we will hear what we need to hear.
*She’s out and public, but I want her to be able to control her name and story online, so I’m not going to identify her. Anyhow, while I shared this with her before publishing it, I’m only confidant that this is my story, not that I’m doing a good job of telling hers.