Affirming Christianity

One of the benefits of having so many new visitors to the blog is that I am discovering broken links!

For a long time, one of the websites listed under “Sarah’s other writing” has been a blog that I contributed several articles to in 2012. This blog, “Affirming Christianity,” was convened by a seminarian in Wales, and I was the only contributor from “across the pond.” The common thread among the contributors was our hope for full inclusion of LGBTQ individuals in the life and ministries of the church.

Several people clicked through on this link, or tried to, only to discover that the link went nowhere. So I’ve deleted Affirming Christianity from my list of other writing.

The easy thing to do would be to just let this pass without mentioning it, given that I have so many new readers from across the United Methodist spectrum. But that would be dishonest.  Not that my convictions have not changed since 2012. Instead, I feel even more strongly that the church has too often offered a poor witness in its treatment of sexual minorities.

Particularly in this post, I’m focusing on the “LGB” in LGBTQ — same sex loving people whose love has been labelled “sin.”

The reasons for my convictions are many, but I began on this journey when I was in the third grade: I was given a Bible by my church, and I began reading it. I read it voraciously. And while I spent most of my time reading and re-reading the gospels and Genesis, I left no part untouched. And I discovered something in Genesis: we are responsible for one another. And I discovered something in the Gospels: Jesus put the real lives of real people above the strict observance of any rules.

Here’s one example of this: each of the four gospels records stories of Jesus healing people on the sabbath.[1] Arguably, if Jesus is God Incarnate, then everything he did in life is significant – he need only have broken the sabbath once in order for us to discern some lesson pertaining to this rule. However, Jesus heals on the sabbath so frequently, he seems almost to have gone out of his way to break the sabbath in this way, to the consternation of the religious authorities. On another occasion, when his disciples were plucking grain to eat on the sabbath, Jesus said, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.”[2] Keeping the sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments, and doing any kind of work on the sabbath was punishable by death.[3] But Jesus was repeatedly much more interested in what the impact of this rule was on actual human beings. (If you are interested in reading more about Jesus’ sabbath healings, check out this article by Morgan Guyton in Ministry Matters.)

There are a lot of “rules” in the Bible. And a lot of them we ignore for various reasons, and other ones we observe strictly. Now, imagining that there is a “rule” in the Scriptures against same-sex intimacy (which is arguable, but I’ll concede it for the purpose of explaining the first step of me getting to where I am with respect to same-gender loving people), Jesus’ regular refusal to strictly observe the Sabbath gives us a model for reading this (or any) rule: Following the example of Jesus, our first thought when we encounter a rule in Scripture ought not to be, “Obviously, God desires for us to always follow this rule!” Instead, Jesus’ own behavior invites us to ask, “How will the unilateral application of this rule impact the lives of actual human beings?”

If you have sat across the table from someone crying as she recounts having been rejected by her pastor as a teenager after confiding that she was attracted to other women…

If you have known someone abundantly gifted for ministry who could no longer serve because he wanted to marry another man (knowing that choosing between marriage and ministry would never be demanded of a person who wanted to marry someone of a different gender)…

If you have heard story after story of straight women who were married to closeted gay men (men who could not acknowledge that they were gay because they were good Christians, and “good Christians aren’t gay”)…

If you have encountered people with stories like these, then you know the answer to this question. How do the exclusionary policies of the UMC impact the lives of actual human beings? It separates them from their church community, it deprives the church of their good gifts, it alienates them from God. It is not the love of some people for others of the same gender that does this. It is the rule that calls this love “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Like the UMC Book of Discipline, the Bible can be read as a book of rules that must not be broken. When the Bible is seen as a rulebook, then prooftexting is bound to happen – Christians will read for the rules. Perhaps it is not surprising that a denomination with so many pages of rules tends to view the Bible as a book of rules when it comes to determining whether it is a sin for two people of the same gender to have sex. Finding a place in the Bible where this kind of sex is apparently forbidden or labeled as sin makes rule-oriented Christians feel more comfortable – they feel they have a clear “answer.” But what if “sin” does not mean “breaking ‘the rules’”? What if sin is something else altogether? What if sin is about our relationship with Jesus? What if we sin when we obstruct others’ relationships with Jesus?

Long before I had heard the words gay, lesbian, or bisexual, long before the word polysexual had even been coined, my scripture reading was informing my answers to those last four questions. It still does.

[1] Matthew 12:9-13; Mark 3:2-5; Luke 6:6-11; 13:10-17; 14:1-6; John 5:1-11; 9:1-16

[2] Mark 2:27 (NRSV)

[3] Exodus 20:8-11; 31:14-15

Vertigo

Yesterday, I decided to introduce my six-year old to U2.  I had How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb in the car (yes, an honest to goodness CD – I am an old woman, clearly), and popped it in. “What’s this?” she asked. “U2,” I answered.  “YouTube?” she asked, incredulously.  But after getting the band name straightened out, she decided that she liked “Vertigo,” the opening track on the album.  Which meant that she begged me to put it on endless repeat, just like she does every time she discovers a new favorite song.  So while driving her around town today, I heard that song more than ten times in a row.  She was right – it didn’t get old.  Instead, it unfolded, becoming more interesting the more I listened to it.  She liked how they sang, “Hello, hello” in the beginning, and how it was fast, and how all the guys in the band shout together at some points.

As for myself – I move in and out of a spiritual state like the one described in the song, and I found a lot of phrases worth latching onto, not least, “It’s everything I wish I didn’t know…” Listening to the song on repeat gave me the opportunity to cycle through the overwhelmingness of everything that is wrong with the world and myself into the mysteriousness of God’s presence into gratitude for the Love that is teaching me how to kneel, even as my mind continues to wander. How could my desires continue to be so disordered after so many years of seeking and finding? Some days, I hardly know what to make of myself, in light of St. Paul’s advice that Christians should consider themselves “dead to sin.” Like dear old John Wesley, I have to wonder sometimes if I am saved after all. Honestly, it comes as a relief that Bono, who is clearly at least as God haunted as I am, and almost 15 years older, is still working out this stuff too – or at least he is still writing about it. Obviously, I could get these insights elsewhere, say Teresa of Avila for instance – but Teresa of Avila does not have 5 minute pop songs that endlessly amuse my kindergartener while I muse on God, sin, and the spiritual life.

Maybe the fifth cassette (Cassettes! Remember cassettes? No?) that I bought was the earliest purchase that I still listen to: Joshua Tree. I was 14. I spent a truly obnoxious amount of time alone in my room, listening to it over and over again.  For months. And then I spent all of my allowance buying up all of their earlier albums. Also on cassette.

I think that the days are behind me when I could happily listen to nothing but U2.  But I haven’t tried it lately, so it may be possible.  There are a lot of bands that I have outgrown – their music is still fun, or even interesting, but the lyrics are juvenile, or insulting, or boring, or repetitive… As I look at my collection of CDs, U2 is one of those bands whose lyrics have staying power.  Good thing, too.  Looks like I am going to be listening to U2 for the next few months whenever my daughter is in the car – or at least I’ll be listening to “Vertigo.”

Learning to forgive – and to be forgiven

In Tales of Wonder, Huston Smith offers this definition of Christianity:

What is the minimum requirement to be a Christian? If you think Jesus Christ is special, in his own category of specialness, and you feel an affinity to him, and you do not harm others consciously, you may consider yourself a Christian.

I have immense respect for Huston Smith – he is a man who has sought after God with great passion, and in chronicling his search he blazed trails in post-modernism and in religious studies. Nevertheless, I believe that his definition of Christianity has a couple of problems with it. I will focus here on one: “… and you do not harm others consciously…” with special attention to the word “consciously.”

There is a great variation amongst consciences. Some give little thought to others, and so are unconsciously hurting others constantly in ways that most persons would consider obvious. One of the aims of Christianity is to broaden the consciousness of Christians: we learn to see ourselves more deeply, as well as to see a broader number of people more deeply than we have before – until we grow into an embodiment of God’s love for all people. So for some Christians, it becomes very hard to hurt another person without consciousness of it – because consciousness becomes so deep and broad.

When I turn on a light switch, I am conscious of hurting my sisters and brothers in West Virginia whose streams are choked with debris from mountaintop removal mining. When I get into my car and drive it, I am conscious of the Pacific Islanders already being impacted by rising sea levels, conscious of the animals whose habitats have been chopped into tiny parcels by asphalt roads, conscious of the benefits of the once good autoworking jobs disappearing. And so on. In the 21st century, we are so globally connected that there is little I can do without being tied to another in some way. And as a member of the ever dwindling American middle class, I am often tied to others in a way that benefits me to their detriment.

I am trying to lessen the instances in which I am consciously harming others. But at the same time, I am continuing to broaden and deepen in consciousness – and so more continues to be demanded of me in order to meet the standard of not harming others consciously. Christianity by Huston Smith’s definition is for me a moving target – if he is correct then I have never been a Christian, and can never hope to be one.

Instead, I take refuge in the prayer that Jesus taught us to pray: “… forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors…” We are ever in debt to God – and to many others. In teaching me to pray for forgiveness, Jesus teaches me that he expects I will continue to stand in need of forgiveness – and that it is always available to me. In teaching me that God’s forgiveness for me is linked to my forgiveness of others, Jesus teaches me that my judgment is what stands most in the way of my own healing. How readily do I model forgiveness when others fail me? When I fail myself?

Our Lord Jesus Christ, who offered himself to be sacrificed for us to the Father, forgives your sins by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Amen.