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Our Reptilian Brains

Already at this early stage, I’m starting to feel pressure from some people to move this conversation along at a quicker pace. If I had to guess the reason behind this, I’d say it’s a fear that opening the door, even a crack, will end up being just the first of many steps down a path that will inevitably end up in our church becoming fully affirming. The impression I’m getting is that people don’t want to ‘waste their time’ if that’s where we’re going to end up, which is why they’re pushing for a speedier process; the unknown is just too uncomfortable. I don’t say this to minimize the specific questions or concerns people are raising, but to suggest that the fear of what might be could end up creating a barrier to learning and engaging with this issue one step at a time.

(Note: This post is part of an ongoing series called The View From Here. Please follow this link and start reading at the oldest post, Fear and Trembling.)

Someone in our congregation loaned me a book that helped me connect the dots between a number of conversations I’ve had over the past two or three weeks. The common feature in all of them, I realized, was a fear of ‘the slippery slope’. I’ve got so many books and articles I’m trying to read through right now that I wanted to make sure I wasn’t missing something that would be particularly helpful, so I spent fifteen minutes yesterday morning scanning the table of contents and reading a few select paragraphs to get a sense of what the author had to say and whether I ought to give the book a proper reading.

Now, I’ve read books from every place on the spectrum—from those claiming that there is no room for dialogue, that full and complete acceptance and celebration of gay Christians is the only option on the table, to those claiming the Bible is clear and straightforward about this and anyone who tries to say otherwise is a false teacher and should be expelled from the church. But this latest book went even beyond what I thought was possible in its defence of the traditional view of marriage and its understanding of homosexual activity being outside of God’s design for human relationships. I don’t really want to give a book like this any more attention than it deserves, but when I read the author’s claim that the acceptance of homosexuality as normative was the next-to-last step of “the gay agenda” in its sordid march toward the embrace of pedophilia as an acceptable practice in our society, I knew I had gone straight through the looking glass and into a whole other world of fear-mongering.

Fear is a strong motivator, and I’m starting to recognize its presence in the minds and hearts of the people I’m trying to pastor. Even as I type this, I realize that this may come across as condescending or dismissive of their concerns, but that’s not where my heart is on this. As a pastor, I am keenly aware of the need that people have for certainty and its close cousins, stability and comfort. There’s something very natural about this; something almost basic to our survival as human beings, even. My amateur understanding of how our brains are wired reminds me that we all have defence mechanisms built in that help us avoid danger, harm, and suffering. These mechanisms are of crucial importance in some circumstances but can prevent us from living in a healthy way if they are called upon in situations that demand a more advanced response.

This isn’t a commentary on a person’s intellect or maturity, either, although those may be factors to some degree. Rather, acknowledging this points out just how important it is for us to be aware of what is going on in our minds and in our hearts and be able to call our reactions for what they are. This way, when necessary, we will be able to make a conscious choice to utilize our deeper faculties to avoid allowing ‘our reptilian brains’ to respond when our higher faculties are the ones we ought to be drawing on.

Something I’m coming to understand about my role in our church’s journey is that I have to find ways to create a safe environment for those people who will struggle with even the notion of talking about this topic at all. If my words or even body language spark something in a person that brings out their defences and allows fear to take control, then there’s little hope that we can go anywhere together. The same is true for our corporate process: if we present this season of dialogue in a way that triggers the wrong part of a person’s brain, we might end up doing significant damage before things even get off the ground.

I’m at the rink now, up in the seating area, looking down over the arena where my son’s hockey team is practicing. I’m not being a bad father, don’t worry. Parents don’t need to pay attention to a practice in the same way they need to pay attention to a game. Missing a goal or a particularly great play during a game would be taboo, but if my son comes off the ice this morning and asks if I saw a particular drill they were doing, he won’t be disappointed if I tell him I missed it.

It’s important that I try to tell as much of our story as I can, and one of the things I’ve been realizing lately is how easy it is to become weighed down by the negative comments and interactions, forgetting just how many positive comments and interactions are taking place at the same time. Research has shown that for every negative comment a person receives, he or she will need five positive comments to restore balance. It may not be as precise a formula as that, but most all of us are familiar with how much heavier a negative interaction weighs when compared to a more positive one.

Something I’ve been hearing in my conversations with people, or in the emails I’m receiving, is an acknowledgment of just how difficult this must be for me as a pastor. These comments are almost always accompanied by an expression of support as I continue to provide the leadership our church needs. The question I’ve been pondering lately, though, is, What kind of support do I need?

When I first talked with Eric about his coming out and began to come to grips with just how significant this was going to be for our church, one of the first things I did was contact a friend and mentor of mine who pastors a church in Toronto, our nation’s largest and most diverse city. In his first email back to me, he told me that he was about to lead his own congregation through a similar conversation, and that it was only a matter of time before every church would have to have a conversation of their own. It was just before the Christmas holidays, so it was a few weeks before we found a time to connect over Skype and talk through the common challenges we were facing.

Jon was the Youth pastor in the Pentecostal church where I discovered a faith that would dramatically change the shape and trajectory of my life in the middle of my highschool years. He took my immature yet spiritually-hungry self under his wing and gave me my earliest opportunities in church leadership, teaching me so much about the church and about myself along the way. Jon has played a significant role in my life over the past twenty-five years and having him as a colleague in the world of pastoral work is a gift to me, so reaching out to him was an obvious move.

When we finally did connect, it didn’t take long for me to realize that our situations were actually different in a couple of significant ways. The first was that his church leadership team had already hashed through their position on the place of same-sex attracted individuals in the life of the church and the conversation they were going to be having was more of an informative one, bringing clarity to questions people had about their church’s stance on the issue. Leaning on their denominational position, they would be clarifying a traditional understanding of marriage and sexuality, while expressing both the opportunities and limits of participation for those in same-sex relationships. I will continue to track with them and am certain that there is plenty I can learn from whatever comes out of their town hall process, but I couldn’t help but think that there was something different at stake in our situation.

The difference, of course, was that we had a loved and respected leader who was about to come out as gay and affirming. That is something my friend’s church didn’t have, which was also the case for Bethany Presbyterian in Seattle, the other church I knew of that was currently engaging these questions head on. I truly did try to avoid this—to get ahead of the curve, so to speak—by proactively engaging in this conversation, but with Eric’s announcement, the dynamic has shifted dramatically. Out of necessity, the way we navigate things will be different from a church that doesn’t have the immediacy of someone in leadership coming out in this way.

The reason I’m sharing about this interaction with my pastor friend right after asking, What kind of support do I need? is that I’m noticing how even the most significant people in my life—the people I love and trust the most and who have helped carry me through the fire swamps of life and ministry in the past—may not be able to provide the support I need in this particular moment. I suppose this could be true of any crisis that a pastor would lead a church through, which makes the observation all the more valuable. Support looks different depending on the relationship and depending on the  conversation and, to be totally honest, depending on the day. What I’m starting to realize is that a person’s inability to offer the support I need most likely has more to do with me than it does with them. Or at least it’s an even split.

One of the first conversations I had with anyone outside of our Staff or Board was with a couple of close friends who are part of our church community and who I have wrestled deeply with difficult things in the past. There was no doubt in my mind that they would offer both unwavering support as friends and unbridled challenge if they were concerned about what they were hearing. It was a heavy conversation, no doubt, and it took place just before we brought the parents of our Youth into the loop, so this was truly an early test of the kinds of responses I was going to get. As I’ve just mentioned, it’s easier to focus on the negative than on the positive, so it really does matter that both of them reacted with just as much compassion and candor as I expected, and have continued to reiterate their support as friends and their willingness to walk with me through these deep waters.

At the same time, though, each of them said something to me, either in that initial conversation or in the days to follow, that have significantly muddied the waters to the point that I don’t really know what it means for someone in my congregation to offer me the support of a ‘friend’ right now. Is it possible that I’m setting myself up for failure by expecting the people in my life to stand by me when this journey may be too difficult for them to make?


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