I live in a little one and a half room cabin. I love it. I hate living in a big place – I feel too lost. But this little cabin is perfect for me. It is easy to clean, easy to keep warm in the winter and cool in the summer. But most of all, in that little cabin, I am surrounded by the things that matter to me. Almost everything I have was made by someone in my family, or by a friend, or given or passed on to me from someone I care about. There is the copper picture made by my father, the oil painting by my brother of the plains of Colorado, a flowered table runner embroidered by my mother, the chess board inlaid by my grandfather, my grandmother's cookie jar, the water color by an old friend who passed away. None of these things are valuable in themselves. They will never appear on the Antiques Roadshow to be appraised at thousands of dollars. When I die most will probably be discarded and thrown away. But they are valuable to me because they are memories of people I have known and who have been important to me. The relationship I have had with these people, my love for them, gives them meaning and worth.
But what gives us meaning?
It is common today to deny the existence of hell. Popular theologians seem to migrate either to the concept that everyone will be saved and no one will go to hell or to the idea that instead of hell being an eternal reality, God will annihilate those who are not saved – non existence, one presumes, being better than eternal torment.
I find this fascinating in a modern church culture in which more weight is given to the Words of Christ Himself as opposed to, say, Paul. It is fascinating because almost everything we know about hell comes from Christ Himself. Very little comes from the epistles, although a bit comes from Revelation. It is almost as if the only one who has any right to speak extensively of hell is the One who came to redeem us from it.
In any case, I think talk of hell has become anathema for us today because we have focused primarily on the very brief physical descriptions of hell – the fire, grinding of teeth and worms that will not die. To a large extent we have done this with heaven as well. Grandpa is up in heaven playing golf with Jesus. Grandma is baking cookies in anticipation for our arrival. And some loved one is surely peaking at us through a hole in the floorboards of heaven. Even the better funeral sermons I have heard, those that avoid the sentimental speculations on the pastimes of the saved, still picture heaven mostly as a place – a place where we will live a physical life just without the sin of this world.
Now, there is nothing wrong with picturing the physicality of hell and heaven – as long as it is kept within the boundaries of the biblical descriptions. We will, of course, live forever as physical beings. The problem arises when the emphasis on the physical experience is given such weight that we lose the real focus of Christ's descriptions of both eternal life and hell. While descriptions of pain are present in the biblical discussion of hell, and physical descriptions are present, though less common in the portrayals of the resurrected life, the central theme of both is relationship. Either being with Christ or being separated from Him for eternity. For example, about damnation, Christ says “depart from me...” and Revelation say “outside the city....” In fact, death, real death – not the mere cessation of the functioning of the body, is separation from God. God was quite literal when He said to Adam and Eve “in the day you eat of the tree you will die.” In all ways that are important they did, in fact, die that day. Meanwhile salvation is always about being with Christ and with Christ's people, His Body. We find these descriptions of a relationship with God, or lack of one, in every single description of hell and heaven. This is what salvation and damnation are all about. Either we will be with Christ or we will not.
In fact, relationships are quite central to the Biblical discussion of salvation. Nearly every illustration Christ uses of His love and work for the Church and for people is an illustration of a relationship: father to son, shepherd to sheep, friend to friend, head to body and bridegroom to bride. The courtroom model in which Christ is a judge meeting out hell and heaven as punishment and reward is actually much less common.
It is Christ's relationship with us that gives us meaning and value.
Let's be clear, however, what I mean by “relationship” because the concept today has become rather muddled and sentimental. “And He walks with me and He talks with me and He tells me I am His own....” Too often when people speak of having a relationship with Christ they really mean how they feel about Jesus. And that is not what I mean by relationship at all.
Firstly, this relationship is not independent of doctrine. It is very fashionable to declare one's self spiritual but not religious, whatever that means. Or we hear that love is the answer and much more important than mere doctrine, as if, somehow, we could separate the two. But the fact is that a relationship with a fictional or imagined character is not a relationship. We hear a great deal these days about making Christ your “personal” Lord and Savior. But when the ancient believers used the word “personal” to describe God, they did not mean how each individual believer uniquely felt or thought of God. Rather, they meant that God Himself is a unique person. He has likes and dislikes, He commands certain things and forbids others. He is not an impersonal force or ubiquitous entity. Doctrine is the way we describe this God, ourselves and the relationship between Him and us. You can not separate God from doctrine and pretend to have a “relationship” anymore than you can have a “relationship” with your wife by just loving the ideal of “woman.” Just try it sometime. Tell her that looking at porn, for instance, and coming to appreciate women is the way to have a relationship with her. You probably will find out very fast that she is her own person and demands that you love HER, not some airbrushed version of women in a magazine. No more can our relationship with God be with someone other than God as He is described in Scripture. Such a relationship is nothing more than idolatry.
Secondly, our relationship with Christ is a formal one. By “formal” I do not mean dressing up in a tux. Rather, I am using “formal” in its second definition as “officially or legally recognized,” or perhaps “following a form.” Our relationship with God is a formal relationship established by the cross and through forensic justification. Or, to put it another way, some of the items in my home are from friends. These relationships are based on how we feel about each other. We like each other, we share the the same interests, we enjoy being in each other's company. Other keepsakes, however, are reminders of family. Family is a “formal” relationship. As it happens, I rather like all my family members. Regardless, even if I did not, we would still be family because relationships like father/child or brother/sister are formal relationships which exist regardless of feelings. Some, of course, may begin as a friendship and then develop into a formalized relationship – ie marriage. Others may be formal relationships and develop close ties of emotion and fondness.
Our relationship with Christ is formal. Regardless how we may “feel” about Him and about God, it's foundation is the cross and Christ's work for us, not our feelings. For example, Mother Theresa felt for long periods of time that Christ was very distant from her, that He was absent from her. Perhaps it was this very feeling of spiritual emptiness that enabled her to empty herself in service for the poor. But whatever her own feelings, that does not change the relationship Christ had with her as her Savior. It seems there are hints that Paul, too, experienced times when he may have had difficulty feeling God's affection for him as demonstrated in his “thorn in the flesh.” So also, I find Spring to be a very dark time of the year. Most people face seasonal depression in the winter. For me it is Spring. I don't know why. But in the midst of Spring comes the celebration of Easter and the Resurrection. I don't often feel close to God or much like celebrating at that time. But it does not matter how I feel. How I feel does not change the meaning of Christ's death and resurrection. Perhaps this is a reason I don't like contemporary worship. (I am talkiong here about the form, not the style - I have seen some very good services that use contemporary style but stick with the format of the liturgy) Contemporary worship divorced from the liturgy always seems to demand that I feel a certain way or, at least, seeks to create certain emotions in myself. The liturgy and the lectionary, however, force me outside my feelings. We follow the life of Christ and sing the proper biblical canticles at the specific times of the service completely regardless of my feelings. Because the truth of Christ and the relationship established in the cross is not dependent on how I feel, whether I feel close to Christ or far away. He is still Savior and I am still saved. God may be a friend but He is first, foremost and always Father.
That the relationship with God is a formal relationship does not mean it is cold or meaningless, however. Quite the opposite. Formal relationships, even on the human level, may inherently create a deeper and more consistent love.
You may be very fond of the neighbor's kid. In fact, he may confide in you things he does not even tell his own mother and father. But the fact is that if he fails a class in school or breaks curfew, while you may shake your head and scold him, you are not going to get angry at him. Your relationship is unlikely to be the kind that creates such strong emotion in you. You may be very happy that he graduates high school or cheer him on at football games. But you will never have the same sense of pride in him as you will in your own children who do the same thing. You get angry with your own kids and you feel pride in the accomplishments of your own children because they are YOUR children. Whether by birth or adoption, they have greater meaning to you than any other children on earth and, therefore, what they do has greater meaning. This relationship which was created by the formal process of birth or legal adoption means they are special to you. It creates a particular kind of love that goes beyond all reason. The logical fact is that your kids are not inherently special. In graduating high school, they will do what 90% of teenagers accomplish. When they were born there was nothing about them that would make them worthy of being loved. Chances were they were not even particularly cute – most babies are kind of red and ugly at first. They did little but cause more work and worry for you. Yet to you they were adorable because they were your children. When compared to others, their artwork, athletic skills and personal accomplishments as they grow are statistically nothing particularly unique. Yet you will be proud of what they do for no reason other than they are your children. Your love flows from the formal relationship that you are a parent and they are your children. It is completely illogical. But it is real.
So also, our relationship with God is formal. He actually cares about us because He is savior and we are saved. He is Father, we are His children.
Because, through the cross, God is our Father and our Savior and we are His saved children, this means it actually matters to God what we do.
A few months ago I was having a discussion with my Catholic friend. He said “You Lutherans insist that we are saved by faith. We Catholics say “'both and,' we are save by both faith and works.” He was wrong. And, sometimes, so are Lutherans. The problem is that the discussion revolves around the wrong question. We ask “what is necessary in us to produce salvation?” We wind up navel gazing trying to determine why we are saved and someone else might not be. What is unique in us that God saved us, that God gives us the relationship as children? Well, frankly, not one danged thing. We are in no way unique or special. There is nothing in us that makes us God's children. It is the cross that makes us His people, His children. It is what Christ did, not what we do. Arguing for salvation by faith is important, even vital, when confronted by someone who argues that we are saved by what we do. But it, too, can become dangerous when abstracted out into a quality in ourselves that warrants salvation, as James was forced to point out in his epistle to those who discounted works.
The fact is that faith and works are both inherent aspects of the relationship we have with Christ as that relationship is experienced on this side of the grave. You can no more abstract them from salvation and mentally dissect them and expect them to still have meaning than you can cut a heart from the body and expect it to keep beating. Faith is how we experience in this world the relationship of being saved and works are how we live it out.
This is why the Athenasian Creed, quoting John 5, can say “At his (Christ's) coming all people will arise bodily and give an accounting of their own deeds. Those who have done good will enter eternal life, and those who have done evil will enter eternal fire.” We are justified by Christ in the cross and, therefore, our works are also justified and take on new meaning. Yes, we are judged by our works – but our works as they have been washed clean in Christ; all wrong motives and deeds erased so that only what we have done well, as seen through the eyes of a loving Savior, remain in the book of eternal life.
This concept, that in the justification of the cross our works are also justified and sanctified, is, I think, a key concept in reaching LGBT people. Remember we tried to hide ourselves behind a mask of good works, we tried so hard to earn compliments and affirmation. Yet when that affirmation came, it only made us feel worse because we believed we were being affirmed for something that was not true. People loved the mask we wore, not ourselves. Forensic justification, however, means that that mask is not really a mask; those works are not alien or external to who we are. Christ took them and washed the wrong motives out of them. He accepts them as done well and done for the right reason. And He loves them because He loves us. He loves them because they were done by His child. His death and His work gives our works meaning.
A three year old may very well grow up to be a great artist whose work is desired by the cultural elite of the world and whose paintings demand 5 and 6 figure prices or more. His mother, however, is still likely to love the crayon scrawlings of his 3 year old self more than his most talented and sophisticated adult offerings because those scribblings when he was a toddler were done for her. They were badly done, whatever budding talent they might have revealed. And they may not have been done for the right reason – they may well have been done to earn an affirmation or hug from mom rather than an actual altruistic expression of love or affection for her. Still, they are dearer to her heart than any other because her love and her relationship to her boy erases all that is clumsy or inept about them.
So, also, our works and deeds. Christ so often shows appreciation and even delight in what we do.
…..“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ “
…...”Well done, good and faithful servant.”
To delight in pleasing God through our deeds is not pride nor is it justification by works. In fact, both pride and works righteousness are diametrically opposed to what I mean. As C. S Lewis points out in “The Weight of Glory,” Christ says we are to humble ourselves as child. Yet nothing is more childlike than a child's delight in pleasing a parent. This is not pride but the essence of humility. It is the humility to understand the inherent worthlessness of our own deeds and yet find joy in the affirmation God gives to those deeds, an affirmation and worth earned not by our deeds but the Cross. It is not the earning of salvation but the rejoicing in salvation already given in the death and resurrection of Christ.
To the gay kid, this says, “you are funny and kind and polite. You serve others and do your best to please mom and dad. And you have done all this because you were afraid to reveal your true self. But, guess what, this is you. Those things you did, the mask you wore, it is not separate from you. It is not fake. Christ made it real. This is who you are, at least in part, and this is what you did. And Christ rejoices in these things because He loves you.” In justification, the mask ceases to be a mask and becomes part of our authentic self.
The belongings in my house are precious to me because of the relationships I have with those who made or gave them. Our works are precious to God because of the relationship He has created with us in the cross.
Further, God loves us, the real us, the person we tried to hide from the world. He justifies us, not just our deeds, but ourselves.
I mentioned before the paradigm of disability as one of the ways we can view homosexuality. Many societies in history saw disabilities as rendering an individual as worth less than fully abled people. Sometimes, even, as worthless. Today some nations have almost eradicated Downs Syndrome, not by curing the condition, but by aborting children with the condition before birth. Having a disability, thus, becomes a condition by which a baby is decreed worthless of life and existence and worth less than a healthy child. Christianity has done the opposite. Disabilities, loss, hurt, illness or woundedness in some way are, in a real sense, sanctified. Illness, congenital conditions, and disabilities of various kinds become both avenues by which we can show the love of Christ and means by which those who face them can demonstrate great courage and faith. We are to visit the hurting and lonely, comfort those who face loss and illness and to provide for the poor and helpless. So much so that what is done for them is accepted and rejoiced in as being done for Christ Himself. Meanwhile, those who face these things, in turn, bless us by reflecting to us the courage and faith which comes from God. Job comforts us by showing courage and faithfulness in the midst of loss. The blind man demonstrates God's glory, not by being healed, but by being willing to face loss of all, even being excommunicated from his own people, for the sake of the One who healed him. The woman with the flow of blood demonstrates both faith and humility and also offers Jesus the opportunity to show His compassion. It is the children, the lame, the outcast whom Christ loves and whom the Church, therefore, loves as well. Thus, in the lens of the cross, disabilities and loss are sanctified, made holy.
Is it possible that homosexuality is sanctified in the same way? Not as being an excuse to live out one's desires, but as a means by which the Church may show the love of Christ and by which the individual may show courage and faith in their Savior?
Certainly there is a tremendous need for such simple things as friendship on the part of the LGBT person. Is Christ, through the LGBT teens and adults in our congregations and families, giving the Church the opportunity to reach out in real compassion, not just “loving the sinner and hating the sin” but in real love – hugs and words and all?
Is it possible that an LGBT Christian can witness back courage and faith in the midst of and BECAUSE of their same sex attraction or gender dysphoria and not just “in spite” of them? Is it possible that, because of the cross, God loves the gay kid in the same way as He loves the kid with cerebral palsy – not in spite of their condition but as a unique person, a child of the cross, disability and all? Is it possible that God would say to the gay kid, as he would the kid in the wheel chair “I love you neither because of your condition nor in spite of it – I love you AS you because my Son died and rose for you.”?
Frankly, I think LGBT people have a lot to teach the Church and the world. For one thing, we can shake out of the heterosexual world the nonsense that one finds meaning and lives happily ever after by “falling in love.” If nothing else, our presence forces you straight people to re-evaluate your marriages and your fairy tale notions of romance and, maybe, repent of the exaggerated weight of significance our culture gives to such a fleeting experience as sexual desire. If mere “falling in love” is not a good enough reason for me to marry a guy then, maybe, it is not a good enough foundation for any marriage. In fact, maybe the whole manner in which western society looks for a mate needs to be re-evaluated. It has never made any sense to me that we send our teens out at night with the car and cash, alone with people of the opposite sex, tell them their job is to find love, and then act shocked when pregnancy or engagement to a drug addict results. Being forced outside that process as a teen and watching from the sidelines, I was frequently appalled at the damage that was done by the whole pursuit of erotic love as the answer to life. What I saw happening in my friends was nothing at all like the romantic pictures of love in songs and movies. It often bordered more on the disaster of Romeo and Juliet. Maybe having LGBT people in the Church and talking openly with then, rather than scolding them because they are not straight, could help the Church figure out how to remove eros as an idol and return romantic love to the place for which it was intended by God – not as a foundation for marriage but the fruit of marriage. Maybe our very status as outsiders to this whole pursuit and worship of mating can be a gift to the Church.
Likewise, can people with gender dysphoria teach us what it really means to be male and female in Christ? Maybe cis-gender people sometimes feel too comfortable in their skins and their preconceptions of what is “masculine” and what is “feminine.” Maybe those who are transgender can help us to ask how much of what we assume is masculine and feminine comes from the Bible and how much of it actually comes from our own societal expectations and misconceptions.
Or, conversely, perhaps we can inspire you to love your spouse more. I know one man who only went to single men for advice on his marriage. He said his other married friends were far too likely to sympathize with him while his single friends were more likely to tell him to grow up and appreciate the wife he had. Can we, by being unable to experience romantic love, become a cause for you to more deeply love and appreciate your husbands and wives? Perhaps, being forbidden romantic love, we can teach the Church how to broaden the concept of agape as we channel our energy and creativity in to Christian compassion instead of eros. According to Sarah Coakley in “The New Asceticism,” Freud speculated that religious celibacy is possible, at least for some, in that religious celibates manage to direct their love to 'all men alike' rather than to one chosen sexual love object. According to her, Freud objected to this as he felt not all people were morally deserving of equal love. I don't like Freud enough to find and read what he said, but she might be right in her reading of Freud, that celibacy is achievable by loving all, by a redirection of eros into agape.
This might open doors to ways in which LGBT people can be uniquely equipped to serve God and the Church. The very nature of being gay forces us to channel romantic affection into other forms of relationship. I don't think straight people have to do that as much since those you are sexually attracted to, the opposite sex, are not the same as those you choose as friends who are more likely to be of your own gender. But for a gay person, every friendship may be an exercise in the tension between friendship and romance. We are often attracted to the very people we need as friends. So with both romance and friendship seeming to be fraught with peril, we have a lot of practice channeling the need and energy of personal relationships into social relationships, especially those in which we have the opportunity to show compassion to others or to serve others. Perhaps this does give us a unique impetus and ability to use the energy of eros to fuel the functions of agape. Is this part of what Paul was talking about when he spoke of the celibate person being able to be concerned with the things of God while the married person must be concerned with family? Perhaps the church needs both, those who are focused on the God-given gift of spouse and children and those who redirect that energy to the community at large. Maybe by focusing on family the Church has become too narrow and lost something good in the process. Maybe it is time to broaden things out a bit and welcome and include those who must focus on love for all because they are denied love for one.
Finally, maybe there is something good in self denial, in the refusal to satisfy even a desire as basic and universal as romantic love, for the sake of God. There is certainly enough talk about that in the Bible. Longing unfulfilled does echo our desire for God far better than does satisfaction in this life. Sometimes I get very frustrated and, well, depressed because there is no one to share anything with really. Why go to a movie when there is no one to talk about it with afterward? What is the point of fixing a good and healthy meal if there is no one to eat it with? In fact, I eat out a lot more than I should because it is nice just to have people around even if I don't interact with them. There are times when something makes me sad and I would like to cry but don't because why bother when there is no one to comfort you? Other times I want to laugh but there is no one to laugh with. I desire deeply something that I simply can not have, even though it is often a very natural and often non-erotic desire. Yet that desire echos and intensifies my desire for God. And still both are unfulfilled in this life.
Here, I think, is an important key in the puzzle of asceticism, self denial. So often asceticism is portrayed as means to find fulfillment in God. The idea is that by denying oneself, one is more able to find meaning and joy in closeness to God. I actually find that not to be true. My desire for God, my need for God is increased, yes. But fulfillment? No. If anything, as my need increases God feel further away. Maybe this is why I find much of the theological discussions of asceticism irritating. Many proposals of “self denial” seem a little like the faith healing charlatans – if you have enough faith you will be healed – if you give up something you will find happiness in God. That is not really true. But maybe it is not supposed to be. Maybe the sense of loss, the sense of being denied something you truly need, is, in fact, the whole point self denial, whether of sex or food or whatever. Maybe the whole point of fasting or denying oneself is not to find joy or wholeness but to actually intensify our need.
I would find this healthy in three ways. Firstly, it tells me that my true need is not and can not be fulfilled in this life, neither by satisfying my desires nor by denying them. Not even by quiet time alone with God in prayer and study. No matter what I do, I will never be satisfied this side of the grave, neither in things of this world nor in things of God.
Secondly, ideally, it would drive me to the community of the Church for assurance of God's mercy. It makes me desperately need the Church, the divine service, communion, baptism as the application of God's love. When I can feel it the least is when I need it the most. I need that abstract, external application of the means of grace to tell me that, regardless of my feelings of alienation from God. God does, in fact love and cherish me in the cross. Unfortunately, with the Church constantly talking about same sex attracted people as if we were outsiders or, at best, lesser brothers, sometimes I can not make myself go. Church is beautiful and the body of Christ is amazing. But sometimes I am overwhelmed by the message that this beautiful thing, just like the beauty of marriage, is not for me. Too often, the message of Christians is not “given and shed for you” but “given and shed for everyone else.” I don't expect the church to fulfill my need for God. I don't think it can. But it can at least cease to be a barrier to the message that God does, in fact love whether I feel it or not.
Thirdly, unfulfilled longing can fuel much good. Great societal changes and transcendent works of culture, art, music and literature are seldom accomplished by those who are satisfied with life or happy with themselves. People who are happy and satisfied seldom have the fortitude, the focus or the self sacrifice necessary to accomplish the great things that change and enrich the world. It is those who have a longing they seem perpetually unable to fulfill who paint the pictures and write the poetry and compose the music that points to hope and joy beyond what this world can provide. It may be no coincidence that gay people have often made huge contributions to the arts and sciences. Is it possible that the very isolation of being LGBT in a culture and a church that do not understand us and in which we can never really feel at home is the energy upon which much creativity feeds?
So maybe, in being, in a sense, forced to deny ourselves, LGBT people can be both a reminder to the Church that our fulfillment, even in God, is not in this life. And maybe we can also be opportunities for the Church to show the love of God within the Body of Christ by learning to treat us not as outsiders but as members of His Body.
So far I have been talking about individual justification and internal integrity, justifying by grace and, thereby, bringing back together the two pieces of self the LGBT person may have split off from each other in defense; the outer self of works and the inner negative or falsely “true” self. This is the “vertical relationship,” our life “coram deo,” before God. When Adam and Eve sinned, guilt destroyed their trust of God and turned it into guilt – they desired to hide when He approached. It also destroyed their sense of self, creating shame, evidenced by their desire to hide their bodies. But there is another relationship that was also destroyed, our life together, before the world, our horizontal relationship, our life with other people. Adam, rather than facing his own sin, threw his wife under the primeval bus “The Woman...she gave me and I ate.” Justification by grace also creates and restores relationships with one another. I want to turn now to the concept of identity and the community and Body of Christ.
A great deal of our identity is formed in how we see ourselves. But we do not do so in a vacuum. We do so as we are accepted or rejected by a greater whole – by a community. I think this is why pride days and parades are such a big deal in LGBT circles. LGBT people have not only been taught shame without the relief of grace in their youth, they have been significantly isolated from society and the Church. Growing up I did not know one single person I could identify as being like me. Homosexuals were people living in New York or San Francisco, not Wyoming. I certainly did not know any Christians who were attracted to their own sex, faithfully celibate, opposite sex married or whatever. I honestly believed I was the only such creature and that, therefore, I was uniquely bad or perverted. Today that is changing dramatically in society. When a young person comes out he or she finds a support system and community where they feel they belong and are wanted. I think pride days are really celebrations of finally finding someplace to call home and people to call family. The Church, however, has doubled down on excluding anyone who is attracted to their own sex, leaving LGBT people outside the Body of Christ regardless of what they believe about sex or whether they choose to handle their sexuality in a biblical manner or not.
Rosaria Butterfield, on the July 1st edition of the Whitehorse inn, reminded the listeners that a gay or lesbian person who leaves that community is leaving a family behind. They are, as Christ said, forsaking family for the sake of the Gospel. But do they receive the promised “families, homes, brothers and sisters a hundred fold” in the Church? Sadly, we call on people to find their identity in Christ while withholding or only cautiously giving one of the most important tools of identity formation, a sense of belonging in the body of Christ.
Unfortunately I do not see this changing soon. While the world has become more accepting of sexual minorities, the Church has moved in the opposite direction with even more volatile and adamant statements against LGBT people. I am glad I am not a teen today as it has to be worse for today's gay Christian teens than it ever was for my generation.
At the end of this coming July there will be a conference called “Revoice” which has been organized by sexual minority Christians who believe that sex belongs in a lifelong marriage between a man and a woman but who are asking “how can we flourish in the Church?” This has brought out a swarm of reactions. Many claim this is a compromise with the world, that these “revoice” attendees are seeking to normalize homosexuality and transgenderism. In one sense they are not wrong. Yes, we need to normalize homosexuality and transgenderism in the sense that these things have been taught as greater sins and greater evidence of sinfulness in individuals than “normal” sins like divorce and heterosexual lust. But I notice something pretty important about the critics of this conference;
They offer only condemnation – no grace. One blog, for instance, written by a Mr Douglas Wilson, wrote extensively about the dangers of the loss of “shame.” But that is ALL he wrote about. That is all he offered. No Christ, no forgiveness, no grace. If in fact, the speakers at Revoice are claiming that sexual attraction outside of marriage is not a result of the fall, then I would agree they are wrong. But I don't think that is what any of them claim. What they are asking is “what can the Church offer other than shame?” The answer from those like Mr. Wilson is clearly “nothing.” I have yet to see one blogger or pastor from a conservative church offer more than lip service to the need to minister LGBT people while many are condemning a conference that has not even yet happened for even being willing to examine the issue.
For this reason, I think that the conservative church is unlikely to offer much in terms of fellowship that is emotionally beneficial to same sex attracted or gender dysphoric people any time soon. Even those who might otherwise speak up graciously and compassionately, I think, will have second thoughts doing so for fear of being ostracized and condemned by the very loud voices in the conservative denominations. I don't think, therefore, a pastor can build his ministry to LGBT members by promising them friendship or even emotional and spiritual support – such promises, at this time, are too likely to be reneged upon when that pastor faces opposition and too likely to find little follow through or support within the congregation. So, while I hope and pray fellowship and support for LGBT Christians eventually begins to be practiced by the Church, for the moment we must begin by building the foundation and trust the rest will follow.
To establish the horizontal relationship, therefore, as a member of Christ's body, I think we will have to point away from the fallible human abilities and efforts which will only disappoint and isolate (although I hope this will not always be the case) and point, instead, those things which are eternal, divine and which make a person a member of Christ's people regardless of the actual responses of Christians themselves. I think pastors will have to point the same sex attracted/gender dysphoric person away from their emotions and feelings of being rejected. This is not because those emotions are wrong. This is not one of those situations in which people are asking the preacher to address their “felt needs” as was popular some years ago, instead of the Gospel. Sadly, the sense of isolation and the feeling of being rejected as a person are quite accurate reactions to the way the Church has treated this subject and the people who experience it. It is a supreme tragedy that we have to point people away from their emotions, not because the emotions are wrong, but because the Church has catastrophically failed to meet legitimate spiritual and emotional needs for Christian fellowship and simply is unlikely to change course in the near future.
So how do we help people know that, in spite of how they feel and all the evidence of their lives and experience, they are loved members of the Body of Christ?
First, I want to establish that the horizontal relationship, like the vertical and internal ones, is founded in the cross.
In the parable of the prodigal son, the older son refuses to even come in and eat with his brother whom he calls “this, your son” when talking to the father. The father responds “this brother of yours.” Now we do not know if the younger son changed his ways at all. Any sermon that points to his repentance and claims he changed is speculation. It is likely he did, in fact, change his behavior. But the parable does not tell us that. For all we know the boy got up the next morning the same entitled and lazy brat he had been before. Membership in the family is not predicated on our work. It is the father, not either child, that makes the boy a son. The older boy can not say “this your son” without also acknowledging “this brother of mine.” If you have the Father, you have the brother. And if you reject the brother you also reject the father.
Fellowship in the Body of Christ, therefore, is created by the cross. I can think of one way, at least, in which this is done.
I remember one day when a man, who had been released from prison some months prior complained to me that no one was willing to forgive him even though he had “paid his debt to society.” I recall thinking, “but your debt never was to society. It was to the people you hurt. Have you paid back that debt?” That incident also brought to mind an earlier event in my own life.
When I was almost 8, a man I knew (not a relative, just to be clear) took me into a bedroom. He ordered me to take my pants off and bend over the bed. I thought I was being punished for something and about to be spanked, although I was confused about why this man, rather than my parents, was punishing me and exactly what I had done to be spanked for. I do remember promising to be good, in response to which, he told me to just do what he said and repeated his order to bend over the bed. Then he began to undo his belt. Now I don't honestly know for sure what happened after that. Everything just goes blank. This is not one of those “recovered memories.” I have always remembered up to the point he began to unbuckle his belt and have never been able to remember anything after that. So I don't know for sure what happened exactly. But there were a lot of results in my life from that moment. Perhaps the one that affected me the most was that I became disconnected from my own body. I felt, most of the time, like I was forcing myself to drag my body through jell-o. I suspect I was experiencing chronic depression but no one back then thought of children as being depressed. I think most adults thought of me as lazy or “a day dreamer.” In fact, for a couple of years I had the nickname “Molasses.” At the same time, one impact of that moment was a change in my friends. In first grade I played with the other boys at recess. I could name almost every boy in my class that year and could even tell you what they got for Christmas. Girls, however, were for teasing and chasing with dead grasshoppers, an action which usually got me kicked and earned me many brusises on my shins. After that event in the bed room, however, males, including boys my own age, became very frightening to me. I spent recesses in my second grade year playing house with the girls rather than tag with the boys. And by third grade I pretty much gave up playing at all and recess was just a boring time of sitting, waiting to get back in the classroom. Later, when my body became more masculine in puberty, this was very traumatic as it seemed my own body was betraying me by becoming what I was so afraid of, male. Of course all that became very entangled in my reactions when I found myself attracted to boys instead of girls. That new shame intensified the old and convinced me I was the most perverted person on earth. I don't tell this story to shock but because you have to understand the extreme loss created by that one moment, that single sin, in order to understand why I believe the cross is the only path to restoration in the Body of Christ.
That day when the man who got out of prison complained to me that he had “paid his debt to society,” I could not help wondering, “what if the man from that bedroom had come and told me something like that? How would I react? What if he demanded I forgive him because he had 'paid his debt to society?'” Or what if, on a slightly better note, he had shown remorse and promised to pay back the damage he had done? I think in either case my response would have been “what the hell do you mean? How the fuck do you intend to pay back a childhood? Are you going to go back in time and fix everything? Are you going to take back the years when I was alone and had no one to tell what was going on inside of me because I was too ashamed and was sure that if I did so they would hate me as much as I hated myself? What do you mean, you have paid your debt to society? Your debt was to me. And all the money in the world is not enough to pay that debt.”
Anything he offered, whatever he could give, it would never be enough to fix the damage he had done. In fact, if he even tried, anything he could offer would only belittle what he had done and, thereby, belittle me as well – as if I were of so little worth that human effort could make it all better. It would only intensify, not relieve, my sense of worthlessness.
And here, after a rather long discourse, is where I think Christ's substitutionary death comes in. What if, instead, the man from my childhood came to me and said, “what I did to you was wrong, so wrong that nothing I can ever do will be able to make it up to you. I know that I treated you, a loved child of God created in His image, as a thing, a toy, something to be used to make myself feel good – and to treat a child of God that way is something to horrible to be fixed and I am sorry. I will do what I can to help but I know it will never be enough” And what if a pastor were to tell me, “when Christ died on the cross, he did the opposite of that man. He did not treat you like a thing. He acknowledged you are loved child of God created in His own image and that what was done to you was so horrible it could only be paid for by a cross and nails and blood and the death of Christ Himself.” If this is true then Christ is not forcing me to let someone off scot-free. Quite the opposite, He is offering a payment that affirms the worth of the victim and the real damage of sin. If we see it in this manner, then God died for the victim as well as the sinner. And through genuine repentance on the part of the sinner, repentance that is willing to acknowledge that the damage done is beyond human repair, restoration and healing can begin – because the worth of the victim is fully acknowledged. If the sinner refuses to repent then, no he will not enter heaven because he does not and will not acknowledge the worth of the person he hurt. How could the two of them ever live together in the Body of Christ. The unrepentant sinner both rejects the cross and blinds himself to the damage he has done. But, if the sinner does repent then the victim knows his abuser has entered heaven only by acknowledging the worth of the victim in God's eyes. Either way the victim's worth has been affirmed.
On a human level, this, I think, is the path to restoration of relationships in the Body of Christ, especially in those cases where extreme harm was done. We have fellowship in the Body of Christ because Christ's death not only pays our sins on a vertical level, toward God, but also acknowledges and pays for sin and the damage it does in human relationships and person-hood as well. We, as same sex attracted and gender dysphoric people can legitimately be called to forgive the actions and attitudes of those Christians who have isolated us because God has understood the hurt that was done, the loneliness we have felt, the shame that was loaded on us, and He has affirmed our worth as His created and redeemed children. We can forgive and we can, further, regret the manner in which those who continue to deny the worth of God's children are separating themselves from the family of God. Instead of internalizing the shame of isolation and loneliness and reacting in anger, we can feel bad for those who, by rejecting us, are also rejecting for themselves the understanding of what it means to be a member of the family. Instead of writhing in loneliness, maybe we can offer forgiveness and, ultimately, be the channel by which the family of God learns to repent and recognize the Body of Christ and their place in it.
This understanding of the inestimable worth of each child of God, rather than how we are treated by others, is the basis of our membership in the body.
But how do we get all that across? How do we help a LGBT member know that thier works are justified, they themselves are justifiead and, that as a justified sinner, they truly are a member of the Body of Christ?
I think one tremendous tool we have is the liturgy. I don't care if the liturgy is in a formal and ancient style - I have heard some beautiful services utilizing chamber orchestras - or contemporary. But the form, content and flow of the liturgy is extremely important and, I think, powerful especially to those who fell themselves "marginalized" from the mainstream of church fellowship.
About a year ago there was kind of an odd trend in sermons when John 4, the account of the woman at the well, came up in the pericopal series. It seemed that a lot of pastors believed that when the Samaritan woman asked Jesus about whether one should worship in Jerusalem or in Samaria, she was trying to deflect Him from a discussion of her sin. He had, after all, just mentioned the fact she had had 5 husbands and now had a man who was not her husband. But there is nothing in the text that would indicate that this was her motivation in asking this question. I bring this up because this question she asks Jesus, far from being incidental to the conversation, is the crux of the whole account itself and the catalyst to Jesus revelation of Himself to her as the Messiah.
This is a tremendously theologically laden text. Christ begins by asking for water and offering living water. Now the woman, of course, misunderstands and is perhaps a bit scornful in her response. But she is not stupid. Too often we read this text and wonder how she could miss the fact that Jesus is speaking of a spiritual reality and not physical water when he offers “living water.” But she is not dense. The term “living water” was, in fact, a common reference to flowing water, such as found in a stream, rather than stagnant water from, for instance, a cistern. It is quite natural for her to make the mistake of thinking Jesus is offering her actual water. But, more importantly, no one from either side of the divide, Samaritan or Jew, could hear of miraculously given living water without thinking of the Exodus when God gave flowing water from the rock to sustain His people in the wilderness. This is the iconic birth text for both nations. Both trace their roots to the first five books of Moses. And no one from either nation, especially here on the very mount where Joshua called the 12 tribes to commit themselves to the true God with the words “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord,” could fail to realize that this Jesus who offers living water is either a complete nut or claiming to be a prophet on par, at least, with Moses Himself. His subsequent revelation of His knowledge of her private circumstances makes clear which of the two it is.
Her question, therefore, makes sense in the context of the conversation and revelation of Christ as prophet. It is, in fact, the first and, perhaps, only question one could ask under the circumstances. The deep divide between Samaritan and Jew is over this very question. Must one worship on this mount where Joshua offered sacrifices upon Israel entering the land, where Jacob gave a well to his son, or in Jerusalem when David, of the tribe of Judah, set aside land for the temple? But the question is deeper yet. Her real question is; “Where do we come to God? Where do we find Him? Among the Jews or the Samaritans? From whence does our salvation come? What is truth and who has it?” Far from trying to distract Christ, upon realizing that this man Jesus is, in fact, a prophet this woman goes right to the heart of the most important, most significant, issue of all. Where is God? Where is salvation?
Christ's answer is, of course to point to Himself, “I, who speak to you, am He.” Wow, so much could be made of this text. Combine it with the water of life in Revelation and it is broadened beyond Samaria and Israel and it encompasses the whole universe, all nations. Relate it to the Exodus and the inception of God's people and it can be a baptismal text of living water and the birth of faith today. But all this aside, she wants to know God and Jesus reveals Himself to her, “I am He.”
We do not know how this woman's life changed. or if it changed at all. What we do know is that Christ gave her the Gospel, Himself as Savior. He answered her need with His life.
Perhaps this same desire is why most of the LGBT people I know who have chosen to handle their sexuality in a manner prescribed by Scripture have also chosen to attend the more liturgical denominations. Now this may be because I mostly move in liturgical circles myself and am draw to more liturgical resources. But I do think there are some aspects of the liturgy that are especially appealing to LGBT Christians.
One of those aspects is that when a church uses the liturgy in a form that truly reflects its development over the centuries the cross can not utterly be lost. We still sing with believers of centuries past, “Thou Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us,” “create in me a clean heart O Lord.” And the sign of the cross is still made “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
The liturgy tells us of our connection to the Body of Christ. That liturgy was developed over thousands of years, beginning with the worship in the temple, and by Christians of all times and places. It, therefore, tells me that, regardless of how Christians in this time and this place may act or talk, I am, nevertheless, part of a much larger Body of Christ than the narrow pieces of space and time in which I live. We are joined with the architects of Hagia Sophia and the artists who created its marvelous mosaics out of thousands of pieces of colored glass. We are joined with the builders of solid Romanesque churches that conveyed a sense of eternal calm and unyielding hope. To us belongs the glorious music of Bach, the vibrant paintings of Fra Angelico, the poetry of William Blake, the common sense advice of C S Lewis, the ethereal beauty of the soaring Gothic cathedrals and the celestial beauty of their stained glass. All of these things are ours because we are part of the Body who made them and celebrated them and have used them and sung and worshiped and lived and died among them. The church is bigger than today and the present passing fads. And the liturgy reminds me that neither the way the present treats gay people nor my reactions to that are what make me part of that Body. Christ's death and resurrection stand against my personal experience and make me a member of something much bigger and much more ancient.
The words of the liturgy themselves are the words of the people of the Bible. They are not the passing whisper of the current moment. They are old and solid and I am one one with the biblical account as I repeat them with those who first said them and with those who have said them throughout the years. We plead with David, “create in me a clean heart,” we sing with Simeon, “Let Your servant depart in peace, we shout with the people of Jerusalem, “Hosanna in the Highest” and sing with the choirs of heaven, “Holy, Holy, Holy.” Even if the pastor were to ignore the Bible in the sermon, nevertheless, the Bible and the Word of God are there for me in the words of the liturgy in all of the Bible's beauty and glory. Coming to hear, the read and to repeat the words of Scripture is not boring but a very good thing and in the liturgy the Law and Gospel are both applied regardless of how I feel or what others say. And so we are connected to the Church invisible of both the Old and New Testament
Finally, the liturgy of the divine service has a double configuration – it is built simultaneously around the life of Christ and around the means of grace.
It is built around the life of Christ from the first promise in the garden – expressed in the confession of our sin – to His birth in the hymn of Glory first sung in the fields of Bethlehem, through His life and teaching in the reading of the Gospel to Palm Sunday the upper room in the Eucharist and the resurrection and the ascension in the dismissal and the benediction. So every week we walk with Christ through His work for us. Even if we are alienated from our brothers and sisters, misunderstood and harassed, we, as His sheep still follow His voice and His life through the valley of the shadow of death. And so we are connected to Christ and are therefore His brothers and sisters regardless of which temptation we face.
At the same time, the service is also built around the means of grace.
I know the general confession and absolution is a later and specifically Lutheran addition. Nevertheless, because Luther connected baptism and confession, it fits because it is an application of baptism. I don't think we often realize how often we justify our children – not just in the sense of paying for their mistakes but also in the sense of using our strength to fulfill their weaknesses. When they are babies, parents meet their every need from food to safety to cleanliness. Your strength is the answer to their weakness and inability. You rejoice in their successes and overlook their flaws. You celebrate their first, badly pronounced, words, their first stumbling steps. You rejoice when your 4 year old hits the ball in T-ball even when it only goes 2 feet. You pay for the neighbor's broken window from the impromptu football game when your kid is 8 and, even though you tell him it will come out of his allowance, it does not. You pay for the braces that will straighten her teeth. Though you will be angry at breaking curfew and the first beer, you will forgive and will not throw your child out of house and home for that. Without declaring your children perfect or right, you will love and adore them through it all. And that is justification – at least a kind of justification.
Baptism is God's formal declaration that we are His children. It is no mere confession on our part nor a witness to our decision to “follow Christ.” Such a thing would be weak and tawdry indeed. It will not last past the door of the church or the hour of service. No, baptism is much more. In it, God is the one who makes the promise and gives the witness. It is God's Word, not ours. And, as our Father, He will forgive, justify and rejoice in us, His children.
This is why I like the general confession. Every single divine service we join to confess that, as His children, we are brothers and sisters, united by God's work, not our mere decision. Together we confess that we are sinners – and that means you have to confess with me that you are a sinner just as I am. You might, throughout the week, feel my sin is more disgusting and degrading than yours. But in the confession you are forced to confess that you too are by nature sinful and unclean. And that is comforting. And together we receive the absolution of Christ. This, by the way, is why I object to those who try to add in the retention of sins. The general confession is not a replacement for individual confession. The pastor is not conducting personal nor individual ministry here. It is unifying. Together we confess our sin and together we are absolved. It takes the focus off of me and you and puts the focus on the Body of Christ of which we are both part. My temptation is treated as if it were different or uniquely disgusting. But in the confession/absolution of the divine service the message is clear that this is not so – we are together in sin and in forgiveness.
From there we proceed to the service of the Word. Regardless of the quality of the pastor's sermon – and my own pastor's tend to be quite good – we will, nevertheless, hear from the Old Testament, the Epistles and Gospel. And we will sing the Psalms in the Introit. Not much else to say here. Or rather too much to say to fit it into anything less than several volumes. We hear God's Word. Not a few selected verses the pastor may have chosen but large chunks of it, heard in symphony with all the other congregations and churches around the world who also use the lectionary. We hear together the parable of the lost sheep or the account of the feeding of the five thousand or the witnesses to the resurrection. This is the food upon which we, the children of God, are fed and grow. And I hear it with you. Maybe you told a gay joke that morning or complained in Bible class about “those gay people.” Yet together we hear and receive the life giving Word of God. This, too, brings us into and reminds us we are together in the Body of Christ.
And then to communion and the altar. I once heard a chapel talk about a man who had a job for a few months in a fairly isolated community. It was away from family and friends and he knew few people where he was at. He said what truly was difficult for him was that the only physical human contact he had was a hair cut once a month. And then he thought about his gay friends and what we ask of them. In order to avoid sexual temptation many celibate gay people do without hugs and close friends. And he wondered how they make it through years with so little physical human contact when he had trouble with just a few months. In communion we do have physical contact, with Christ Himself. This is why I could never ever belong to a church that teaches the symbolic presence of Christ. In communion Christ is present in His body. He not only makes me a part of His Body but, knowing my failings, my sin, my temptation, He literally touches me in a way more intimate than any human contact – literally becoming part of my body. This really is the epitome of the whole divine service, the contact with the Divine Himself. He who touched the blind man and the leper, who bless the children in His arms, who fed the crowds with loaves and fishes broken by His own hands, who shed His blood and gave His body on the cross, literally touches me 2000 years later with a presence every bit as real as His presence in 30 AD. How sad for those who feel jealous of those who lived at the time of Christ because those people could see and touch Jesus. Sad for them because they do not realize that in every service, every Sunday, we touch and see Jesus right there – on the altar, in our hands, and in our very body. The whole flow of the service reaches to this moment. We began away from the alter as we confessed, were absolved, and remembered our baptism. We moved a little closer as we rejoiced in hearing His Word. And then we come right up to His presence, right up to the altar, as we receive the bread and the wine, the body and the blood. We are in the presence of God – even those of us called fags and queers and homos. And we are loved by Him. There can be a little less reason for regret that we have sparse human contact when we have such contact with the divine.
Similarly, in an article for the Catholic Herald by Eve Tushnet (12/4/17) she begins with a quote from an interview with from Kelly Cutler who works with LGBT youth; “One question I’ve asked most LGBT Catholics I’ve met is, ‘Why do you stay in the Church?’ Think about it: they could go right down the street to another faith community that has different teachings. So why do they stay? I have been given the same answer by every LGBT Catholic I’ve met: the Eucharist. I don’t get this answer from every Catholic I ask, but I do from the LGBT Catholics. I think this is something people should consider.”
Now were all the people that Kelly Cutler spoke to celibate? Were they committed to a biblical view of sexuality? Probably not. But sanctification can not precede the Gospel. These homeless youth knew Christ, they knew they wanted Him and they knew He was present in the Eucharist. So regardless of how others feel about us or even what our own emotions say – communion is indeed an intimate fellowship in the Body of Christ.
I am sure there are many other ways to get across justification and our membership in the Body. But, for me at least, the divine service and the liturgy are the means of connection – that which takes me out of my own reality and experience and gives what is often invisible, the forgiveness, the love, the fellowship of Christ.
OK so where and when does all this happen?
I was once at a meeting in which a pastor complained because a teen in his congregation had told her friends she was lesbian and was beginning to look for a girlfriend. “How do I get her to see this is not Christian?” he asked. A bit later I complained about a discussion site that had very little Gospel and a pastor said, “but you can't expect pastors to write pastorally all the time.” Yeah, actually, I can. If you can expect a 16 year old, in the height of hormones and pressures of life, to act like a Christian continually, then, yes, I can expect you, a grown pastor with a masters degree in theology, to write like a pastor every time you write a blog post. And this is precisely where the Gospel will need to be given. We are not going to come to you. We are unlikely to walk into your office. You will be last to know that we are same sex attracted or transgender or whatever. So your delivery of the Gospel to us has to be in public.
Or, to put it another way, over the last several years I have had occasion to discuss my sexuality with dozens, perhaps even a hundred, pastors. Sometiemes it was a spontaneous discussion. Other times I had responded to something they said on a podcast or in a blog. In all those discussions, the pastor knew I am gay, knew that I have a very negative opinion of myself, and knew that I desire to serve God. In every discussion we discussed the need to communicate the Gospel to same sex attracted believers. In all those discussions, one pastor led me through confession and absolution and another gave me a spontaneous hug. No one else, not one pastor, said to me, "Matt, God loves you." They were talking to or communicating with someone who they knew to be a despairing sinner. Yet it never occured to them to apply the Gospel at that moment. If pastors do not think to apply the Gospel in the middle of a discussion that touches on that very need, how much less are they conveying the Gospel to LGBT kids through discussion and public discourse? And what message does that send to those listening about how loving that pastor would be if they were to come to him in person? Will any gay or transgender kid have the courage to approach their pastor in his office if he has not applied the Gospel in public discourse?
Right now we are at a point where the Gospel is saddly neglected in the modern Church. This needs to change - not just for LGBT people but for all topics. Public discourse IS part of ministry.
If you have a podcast or a blog, when you have discussions in Bible class, confirmation class or just during coffee hour, sometimes when you mention the Gospel you have to verbally include the Gospel to us. And if you talk about us then, yes you need to deliver the Gospel. It does not need to be the full discourse all at once. It need not be applied in the way I suggest – I am just telling you what would convey the gospel to me. But there are other ways and other applications. And you need to explore them, perhaps a bit at a time, IN PUBLIC! We need to know that you are not ashamed to deliver that for which Christ was not ashamed to die. If you want us to have an identity in Christ and move our identity out of our sexuality then there is only one way to do it – apply the Gospel to our sexuality. No shortcuts – no roundabouts. We need the gospel. We need it where we can read and hear it. With the Greeks who came to Philip, we would see Jesus. And you are the one we trust to show Him to us.
Continue to Part 6: Why I chose celibacy