Bear Patiently the Cross

I have recently picked up again Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose. I started reading it a few years ago after a friend gave it to me when I moved to the Hudson Valley of New York. It tells the story of Susan Burling Ward who, upon marrying her husband Oliver, leaves behind her home, family, and friends in the Hudson Valley, and moves west. Oliver is a mining engineer and is determined to wrestle a life out of the American West in the late nineteenth century. Having moved with Oliver to a mining camp, Susan finds herself  isolated and alone. Reflecting on her deep loneliness Susan writes a friend back East, “Don’t you know how we lose the sense of our own individuality when there is nothing to reflect it back upon us?”

Just over a month ago around four hundred people gathered in St. Louis for the inaugural Revoice Conference. Revoice was a gathering for Christians who share a common commitment to traditional Christian sexual ethics—that the gift of sex is reserved for marriage, and that marriage is a lifelong covenant between one man and one woman—and who share the common experience of being sexual minorities. It was a gathering of those whose individuality, if for a few brief days, was reflected back to them by others who shared particular facts of their experience, by those willing to look upon them and to acknowledge their existence.

For many LGBT Christians the Church has not been a place where they have been called into existence as beloved sons and daughters of God, a place where in the light of God’s love, gay Christians can offer their own lives back to God in wholehearted love of God and neighbor.  Instead it has been a place where their individuality and particularity has been refused them, lost because of others unwilling to look back at them. The Church has refused to see its gay children, to recognize them so that they could recognize themselves in Christ. Whether by outright refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of their experience, or whether by the common encouragement to not make so much of one’s sexuality, the Church has been a place where many have had their existence ignored, denied, even erased, instead of being welcomed into the healing light of the love of Jesus.

Karl Barth writes of the gospel that, “the final word is never that of warning, of judgment, of punishment, of a barrier erected, of a grave opened. We cannot speak of it without mentioning all these things. The Yes [of the gospel] cannot be heard unless the No is also heard. But the No is said for the sake of the Yes and not for its own sake. In substance, therefore, the first and last word is a Yes and not No.[1] For many LGBT Christians, the only word the Church has been willing to speak to them has not been God’s original and finally ultimate “yes” but a never-ending “no.”

I arrived at Revoice like I arrive most all places, world-weary and a bit beaten up. And I left as I have left many other places, met there in the faithfulness of God by his grace, my spirit buoyed with Christian hope. Of all of the many and wonderful workshops, the thoughtful and encouraging keynotes, the one thing that will not soon fade from my memory is the sound of a sanctuary filled with such heartfelt song, the walls seemingly ready to burst. Yet there were times where it was difficult for me to worship in the space. I did not realize it right away, but over the course of a few days I came to name something that caused such a deep revolt within me. I hate myself. Or, rather, I hate my gay self. That’s what I have been taught to do, most especially by a Church that is only willing to speak God’s No to me. And because I hate my gay self, I am tempted to hate the gay other. And yet, at Revoice, as I encountered the gay other in Christ, I was able to see my own sexuality as that which is met by God’s word of healing grace spoken into the depths of my shame and self-hatred.

*     *     *     *

In the final book of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin writes, “I will begin with the Church, into whose bosom God is pleased to collect his children, not only that by her aid and ministry they may be nourished so long as they are babes and children, but may also be guided by her maternal care until they grow up to manhood, and, finally, attain to the perfection of faith. . . . to those to whom he is a Father, the Church must also be a mother.”

My relationship with the Church has always been one of contradiction. Not that the gospel is contradictory, but that the gospel can be contradicted by those charged with its care. It was the Church that taught me of love and of hate, grace and condemnation, belonging and exclusion. It was the Church that taught me that God loved me so much he sent Jesus Christ, the eternal Word made flesh, into the far country to rescue me and bring me home. It was also the Church that told me that God hated people like me, people who are gay. I was the abomination, the worst thing that could happen to society, to the Church, to my family.

This question has haunted me, the question of my existence, of the Church’s refusal to see me, to reflect me back to myself honestly both as a sinner and as one saved by the love of Jesus Christ. This question has become more poignant for me as I myself answered a call to ordained ministry. What does it mean that I am now a minister, wed to the Church that taught me I did not exist? But it is not that I am a victim only. I have had to confront the reality that as I pastor others, I too am guilty. In the words I say or fail to say, the actions I take or fail to take, I too am at risk of harming others and their relationship with God. There is no moral purity or high ground. All have sinned, all stand level before the cross of Christ. Even my attempts to love are prone to become the source of pain in another. And all I can do is to pray that God have mercy on my soul, protect those in my care. Simul justus et peccator.

I found myself at times distracted by what was going on in my own spirit during Revoice, at other times wondering how it is that people like me could sing so freely, so fully, when the last thing I wanted to do was to sing at all. I wondered, how is it that we worship in the belly of the Church that taught us to hate ourselves? How is it that we cling to the Mother that told us we were the unwanted step-children? Or if the metaphor is too gendered, how is it that we worshipped in a space provided by a dad who abandoned us?

*     *     *     *

It is Jesus who asks, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15). This is the question that each of us must answer. It is the work of the Church to provide space for this question to be asked, and to nurture and guide those given to her care in answering this question. The unwillingness, and outright refusal, to give gay Christians the space to answer this question, to recognize the many who have answered as Simon Peter answered by confessing, “You are the Christ”, is the sin of the Church. The Church has refused to proclaim God’s love to its gay children so that in response we could grow in love of God and love of neighbor. So how is it that we are here? How is it that we exist if we have been refused to be seen? How is it that so many have come to know God’s healing love in such a way that we have, despite all that stands against us, responded by offering our love back to God as holy and living sacrifices?

It is because of God’s faithfulness. It is because God has held us, despite the apostasy of the shepherds charged with our care. This is nothing new. One doesn’t need to read far into the Old Testament to soon realize that the priesthood has always been a perpetual mess, given to leading the flock astray, prone to idol worship. The shepherds have, as they do now, often refused to care for the most vulnerable of their flock. Yet, it is the Incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that reflects humanity back to itself—into which individuals are called to stand in the light of God’s grace, to name their sin, to repent, to find true life, and to take up their cross and follow after him. It is Jesus who stands before us asking: Who do you say that I am? This Jesus still stands before us, LGBT brothers and sisters of Christ, even if the Church refuses our witness. This Jesus continues to reflect back to us our existence as sinners saved by God’s grace, empowered to take up our cross and follow after him.

I am not the first to say it, and I won’t be the last. One of the most powerful and enduring aspects of Revoice was how little bitterness there was, how willing and ready those who have been wounded are to continue to endure in love. The cross we are called to bear is the cross of love. It is the cross that calls us to love God more than—or by rightly ordering—the sexual desires we have. It is the cross that calls us to love our neighbor. And if, like the expert in the law, we dare ask who our neighbor is, we just might find Jesus pointing us to the Church that has refused to love us, to look upon us. Or as Wes Hill put it in his keynote, we are called to love even those who want to throw stones at us.

In the words of St. Augustine, this is the “street of love” that we are called to travel together. The Church may refuse to speak God’s Yes to us.  It may go out of its way to make clear God’s No to sin, what forms of love are forbidden to us, and say nothing of the ways we are called to love. Yes, in doing so the Church fails to speak God’s overwhelming and resounding Yes of life and love in Christ to its gay children. It fails to speak God’s Yes so that gay Christians may come to know the ways in which we can offer our love back to Christ and to His bride. The Church may refuse to reflect our existence in Christ back to us, but we cannot refuse to reflect our lives in Christ back to the Church. As gay Christians who hold to a traditional view of Christian sexual ethics, we can reflect back to the Church a life of daily repentance and costly, self-denying cross bearing.  As gay Christians we cannot refuse to love the Church, to reflect back its individual—its particular—existence as the bride of Christ, full of sin and idol worship, yet holy and beloved.

One night during worship at Revoice we sang the hymn “Be Still, My Soul,” the first verse of which reads:

Be Still, my soul; the Lord is on your side;
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;
Leave to your God to order and provide;
In every change he faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul; your best, your heavenly Friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

It was a beautiful moment in worship for me, the meaning of these familiar words bearing a new burden in that space. A new depth of meaning was made known in a sanctuary full of those who have answered the call to such costly discipleship. It was the particular joy of Revoice that so many finally felt seen, their existence recognized. For so many their individuality and particularity as gay brothers and sisters in Christ was reflected back to them as they were seen by others, reminding them of who and whose they are—sons and daughters so loved by God, living out the costly, cross-bearing discipleship to which they are called in Christ. The cross of the gay celibate Christian is not just the cross of celibacy, but the cross of bearing patiently, in Christian love, with those who would deny to look upon us. It is to bear patiently with those who refuse to reflect back to us our individual and particular, beautifully unique lives in Christ. So as we sang together, we continue to pray: bear patiently the cross, trusting in God to faithfully order and provide. Bear patiently the cross, though lonely and alone you may feel; Jesus has made you his friend and he will see you through to the joyful end.

 


[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, ed. G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance, trans. G.W. Bromiley, J.C. Campbell, Iain Wilson, J. Strathearn McNab, Harold Knight, R.A. Stewart (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2010) II/2, 13. Emphasis mine.

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