My Journey to No (4 Years Later)

brick-wall1In 2012 I wrote the following post leading up to the marriage amendment vote in the Minnesota election. What I didn’t know when I wrote this was that about 18 months after writing it, I would be co-officiating the marriage ceremony for the couple referenced in this post- one of my most powerful moments as a pastor. I will never forget the moment when the couple signed that license, and the Episcopalian priest with whom I shared the ceremony held up that license in the same way that Michael Jordan pumped his fist after a clutch jumper in game one of 1997 NBA Finals.

Well here we are, four years later and my denomination still opposes such a marriage. Today the General Conference will convene in Portland, Oregon, and, among other things, there will debate about the United Method Church’s stance policies regarding LGBTQI marriage, ordination and other matters. I am hopeful, but not anticipating, that something will change, for, as I said to the couple referred to in the following post when Minnesota eventually did legalize gay marriage, “we made it legal; now we gotta make it holy.” Well, it already is holy; we just haven’t realized it yet. Come, Holy Spirit, come.

With that, some of it is maybe not how I would say it today (we’re all on a journey), but here’s what I wrote in 2012:

Let me begin by saying that this is a story about my journey. It reflects my journey, my thoughts, and who I am. It is not a reflection of, nor do I claim to speak for, my denomination, my annual conference or  the local community to which I am appointed. This is where I am. My purpose in writing this is mostly for me. There is an aching inside of me to say something in order to, one, get it down “on paper” for my own good, but I do also feel compelled share my thoughts. I am not trying to persuade anyone, as much as I feel a need to “come clean” with my thoughts, which differ from earlier thinking about which I was public in my past. Out of fear of losing theological respect for some whom I love dearly, I have merely hinted at my thoughts lately but have yet to come right out to say them. To my current congregation, let me also just say that it is okay to disagree with me. Your views, voice, and opinions are no less valid than mine. Let’s look at this, talk about it, and maintain the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. That being said, here is “My Journey to No”.

I was brought up to be a good agnostic, and I mean that in the best sense of the term. I was brought up to be very careful not to subscribe to any dogma of any degree; to question everything, think critically, and be comfortable with the idea that when it comes to things spiritual in particular, none of us really “know”. We are all, to some degree, agnostics. This does not mean, however, that I was brought up in a context void of values, morals and even truths. Prejudice of any kind was not allowed in my home. Respect for “neighbor” in the most literal and most broad senses of the term, no matter who they happened to be or what they happened to believe, was an expectation. And an adherence to the rules and laws of my context was expected. That is, I was to go to school and do my best, obey the law to fullest extent, and honor and respect the rules of the home (curfew, chores, etc.). Beyond that, I was largely free to think for myself. I appreciated this upbringing.

Because of this upbringing and the predominate thinking in South Minneapolis, I grew up very open to any form of law abiding religion, sexuality, and lifestyle. While I indeed held these beliefs, as a teenager I cared more about sports and movies than I did about who was elected and what might be on a ballot. But then something happened. Somehow, what I believe now to be, the Spirit of God got a hold of me, and I became enamored with the Bible and with the person of Jesus Christ. After much resistance, I found myself at 17 years old literally on my knees choosing to live my life in the character and nature of Christ. But not even knowing my way around a Bible, I needed guidance. And I found guidance in a community of faith that loved me well, but also had a certain dogma about it that left little room for varying opinions and perspectives; a stark contrast to my upbringing. This forced me to begin thinking through social, political and religious issues more. I remember, as though it happened yesterday, driving near Park Ave UMC in South Minneapolis with my youth pastor asking him the tough questions about why homosexuality was a sin. The crux of the answer I received then, and which I received from most of my Christian leaders was this: “The Bible is pretty clear, whether we like it or not”.

The more I grew in my faith and the more I studied the Bible in this context, the more it appeared to be true. This was something I was just going to have to learn to accept. Overtime, I wrestled greatly internally while becoming cognitively convinced that homosexuality is indeed a sin and a lifestyle which is “incompatible with Christian teaching” (as the United Methodist Book of discipline states). It was also clear, however, that as Christians, we are called to love. So the old adage, “hate the sin, love the sinner” became the crux of my belief, although I always hated the trite, condescending phrase.

Since then I have shifted, and today I, like you, am faced with a question on our ballot asking for a “yes” or “no” vote on whether our state’s constitution should embrace a biblically rooted definition of what marriage is. Even though the Minnesota ballot will be specific to a constitutional amendment defining marriage, at its roots, this is a biblical issue. The frustrating thing for many people in our culture is that they don’t care what the Bible says, and, quite honestly, why should they? It would be grossly unconstitutional to tell them they have to care, so I hear and feel they’re frustration with this whole thing. But for many people in our culture today, the words of the Bible are still very important, myself included. What’s tricky about this is that while the Bible should not be banned from the marketplace of ideas that inform legislation, the Bible should not be the litmus test for legislation either. “The Bible tells me so” is good thinking when we are talking about church politics and legislation, but by itself it is dangerous thinking when talking about matters of the state. The rationale behind a constitutional definition of marriage (or any matter of the state) must go beyond “the Bible tells me so”. When talking about matters of the state, I believe the Bible (as well as sacred texts from any number of other faiths) should have a seat at the table, but none of them at the head. What makes America great, is that all sources of ideas are welcome, but none takes ultimate authority.

That being said, this amendment is forcing Christians throughout the state to wrestle with their biblical definitions of marriage. And those definitions should factor into your vote. YOUR vote. But I would challenge Christians to think for a minute about what you are doing when the only rationale for a constitutional amendment is The Bible. This is okay in church world. But our state is not church world. You have to accept that for those who don’t subscribe to the Bible’s ideas as we do, its definition of marriage (whatever it may be) means nothing to them. I have heard people say that without this amendment one judge could have the power to impose gay marriage on me. This makes no sense. One judge could have the power to determine whether gay marriage is legal or not, but no one will ever force you to enter into a gay marriage, nor can any one force you to officiate one. As clergy, we already reserve the right not to marry a couple if we don’t want to. And our polities already have limits on marriage that the state does not. My denomination requires premarital counseling. The state does not. So no one is taking anything from you nor forcing anything upon you. On the flip side, however, something is already denied GLBT persons, and this amendment would only make that denial stronger. The only people who have anything to lose here are those in the GLBT community. If this amendment does not pass, the GLBT community still loses, they just lose less. The only imposition that can come out of this is a biblical interpretation being imposed upon those who don’t subscribe to it [cue Thomas Jefferson rolling over in his grave]. Even if I agree with this as a biblical definition of marriage (more on that later), I still would vote “no” on this amendment, because I believe it to be unconstitutional to impose a biblical idea on some one who does not believe that the Bible is nothing more than ink on paper. I am not saying that biblical ideology has no seat at the table. It does, but it must be balanced with all the other seats at the table as well. Were there a rationale for voting “yes” beyond one specific biblical ideology, I might listen to it, but I have yet to hear one, nor do I believe a viable one exists.

While I shifted on the legal and civic aspects of this amendment, the truth is, I have shifted biblically as well. And this was the hardest shift of all for me, but also the most important and formational one. I fear that with what I am about to say, I will lose credibility with many people I hold dear, but I have come to a point where it must be said. While one can biblically defend not just banning gay marriage but believing homosexuality to be a lifestyle “incompatible with Christian teaching”, I have come see that there is also biblical support on the contrary. I am not a theologian or a scholar, but I am a man deeply influenced by The Bible and the power of the Holy Spirit within it. And like I said, this is my journey, not THE journey. So I am going to forgo a well argued biblical treatise on this. There are plenty of books and sermons out there that would do, and have done, a much a better job of that than I. What I want to do is explain how I look at this biblically in the context of what I believe to be the work of the Spirit of God in my life.

It comes down to the deep dark secret that many Christians are afraid to admit, but cannot be denied: The Bible is messy. More specifically, it is messy because we treat it as a “manual for life” or as “basic instructions before leaving earth”. If we read it this way, we are in deep trouble because it will contradict itself. The Bible is not “a manual for life”. Manuals get thrown in a drawer and are only taken out when there is a problem. The Bible is the story of God and God’s people, and it is a messy story. A really good, complicated, beautiful, messy story, that stays not in a drawer, but on a shelf and, like any good story, is read over and over and over. This does not mean that the Bible is fictional and therefore meaningless, but it means that we must be very careful how we use it. It is in its messiness that I have come to see that it can be used to defend either end of just about any debate. So what I have found myself doing over the last 5-7 years is stepping back and asking myself, “what’s the big story here?” And I have come to see that, as a Christian, the heart of the big story is in the Gospels. And when I look at the life of Jesus, I see a man whose work and ministry was centered around breaking the Kingdom of God wide open. He is constantly bringing those who are on the outside to the inside, and cunningly forcing those who are on the inside to self select to the outside. At the story’s peak, Jesus breaks the concept of outside and inside down completely, as he dies and the curtain around the Holy of Holies tears in two. The walls have come down. This does not mean that any and all behavior is now acceptable. But it does mean that the Spirit of God is now boldly accessible to all, and therefore all are invited into a life immersed in (that is baptized in) the Spirit of God.

In the big story, Jesus then ascends to heaven and soon leaves us, as he promised, the power of the Holy Spirit, which comes upon the disciples in two different stories (John 20 and Acts 2). As I understand it, the mark of a Christian, then, is evidenced by those who appear to be living “by the spirit”. So what does that mean? To live “by the spirit” means that the fruit of your life will be the fruit of the Spirit, which we know to be “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity (or goodness in some translations), faithfulness, gentleness and self control” (Galatians 5:22-23). Therefore it follows that when you see those attributes in a person naturally flow out of who that person is, from a Christian perspective, you are seeing the work of the Spirit in that person’s life. For a long time I believed that a gay person could not fully be a Christian. They might claim it, but I believed there was something at the core of their identity keeping them from the fullness of the Spirit in their lives. This, of course, then begged the question, “so what happens if you see the fruit of the spirit in a gay person or any person deemed an outsider?” When we step back from Levitical law and look at Gospel fruit, we begin to see the work of the spirit in places we never thought it existed. And that’s what I saw.

This is not a “and then I met a gay person” story. I’ve known, interacted with and been friends with gay people for as long as I can remember, and I have counseled students who were gay as well. So it’s not as though it took meeting a gay person to form me in this way. But it was through a gay couple in my life, among a whole host of other things, that the Spirit of God formed me. An old friend came out many years ago, and while this did not necessarily surprise me, it did force me to think more deeply about how I would respond. I remember telling him that I loved him, but that I just disagreed with this lifestyle choice. I did not see then just how hurtful and impossible those words likely were as I do now. How this person and his partner stayed friends with me, I will never know. Furthermore, how they continued to love me, I will never know. As the years rolled on, what I began to see pouring out of this couple, not just toward me, but in every facet of their lives was a deep and authentic faith that produced the fruit of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self control. They are all there. Yet in me I saw judgement, anxiety, and fear. They returned my hate and judgement with love and acceptance, the most Christ-like thing a person could do. It was not a well crafted treatise, article or sermon that changed me (although they did play roles), but the authentic, fearless and undeserving love of a friend. We cannot ignore the significance of the fruit of the spirit in those we place on the spiritual margins of our faith.

The Bible says a lot of things, and is a messy book, but its big story is a beautiful one. It is a God doing what it takes to be reconciled to God’s creation. All of it. And this reconciliation is not a mental ascent to a doctrine. Jesus said, “you will know them by their fruit”, not by what they say, how they do church, what they do or don’t do on Saturday night, or whom they love. It’s time to tear down the walls and embrace a welcoming God. It’s been God’s agenda from the very beginning. And so on november 6th, I will be voting “no”, because I want my Christ-like friends to one day be able to enjoy the same benefits and rights as a married person that I do, and even more so, I want them to enjoy the same beauty and holiness in a Christian ceremony that I enjoyed 15 years ago. Many of you will, no doubt, come to me with compelling biblical arguments opposing my views, and that’s ok. I get it. I’m sure my hermeneutic is flawed, my exegesis is lacking, my eschatology is incomplete, and my Christology is low, but this is what’s in me. Me, a Bible-loving, Christ-seeking, hopefully Kingdom-expanding man, trying to do his best to authentically embody the character and nature of Christ in the way he lives. So, yes, I will be voting “no”, and what I have said above is why.

In closing, as we go to the polls on November 6th, let’s all, especially those people called “methodists” remember these great words, above all else:

“I met those of our society who had votes in the ensuing election, and advised them, one, to vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged most worthy; Two, to speak no evil of the person they voted against; and three, to take care their spirits were not sharpened against those that voted on the other side” -John Wesley, October 6, 1774

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