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Listen and Learn (Session One)

It’s March 7, 2018. Over the past week, we’ve held two evening conversations where we invited our congregation to get together to start talking through issues around same-sex attraction and Christian faith. The sessions were identical in order to allow for flexibility in attendance, and at the end of the day we had more than 100 people take part, which I thought was a healthy representation in our community of 300 plus adults.

(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.)

In order to increase the number of people who would be around each table, we actually set up our round tables in pairs, which made for a slightly awkward shape, but it also opened the door for more people to be part of each conversation. Our thinking was that if only eight people sat around a table, we would be increasing the chances of having only one or two voices from a given perspective, but if we had twelve to fourteen around each table, we would be able to create more well-rounded groups.

The night began with an explanation of what we had created these events to be: an opportunity to listen to others share their stories and express how they see things, and to learn about the different perspectives that exist both here in our own congregation and in the broader Christian community. We shared some of the goals we had going into these sessions:
  • To learn how to be a community that does not need to agree in order to be together, but knows how to have dialogue and conversation about this complex topic
  • To be a community that is committed to learning from one another’s experiences
  • To learn that we all have a voice, no matter our position or role in the church
  • To remind one another that it’s who we are at the centre of our faith that defines us as a church, and not who we are at the boundaries

I also shared a couple of things that we would not be doing: first, we would not be coming up with answers or writing a position paper or statement for the church; second, would not be engaging the very important theme of how the Bible speaks to our questions and how we ought to approach the Scriptures for guidance. That would be the primary focus of Session Two.

After introducing the goals for the evening, I shared some words from Dallas Willard: “We must become the kinds of people who can develop beneficial relationships and hold meaningful conversations with those who maintain views that are different from or opposed to our own. We must be able to value and love people as they are, whether or not we agree with their views or choices...Reasonable disagreement is a primary means through which we can practice the discipline of submission that builds authentic tolerance, humility, grace, patience, and appreciation of those around us who are not like us.”

I then led our community in a brief centering liturgy:

Leader: We choose to leave the way of the world and enter the space of the Kingdom of God, bringing our whole selves to the table and choosing to be fully present with one another.

All: We come with our hopes and fears, our convictions and experiences.

Leader: We are here to listen to and learn from one another.

All: We are also here to listen to and learn from God.

Leader: Let us quiet ourselves and acknowledge God’s presence here with us.

[Silence]

Leader: Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.

All: Lord, we offer you our full attention. Speak to us, and speak through us to one another.

Leader: Amen.

A member of our church community who is a marriage and family therapist shared a brief presentation we called, Guidelines for Good Conversation, which was followed by some large group interaction with Session One’s preview materials. Our intention was to include a number of voices to help us grow in our understanding of how people approach this topic. In his article, How to Disagree...Graciously, Gordon Smith writes, “The only hope for authentic Christian fellowship is that we learn how to disagree. Too much is at stake to not learn. So much that one of the most critical capacities of the Church in our generation is precisely this: How can we agree to disagree, and do so in a way that actually fosters our capacity to witness to the gospel of Christ Jesus?”

With this in mind, prior to the session, we shared two primary resources which would give us an opportunity to observe healthy and generative conversations between people who did not see eye to eye on the topic of same-sex attraction and Christian faith. The first was a letter received by Julie Rodgers, a Christian writer and speaker (www.julierodgers.com), from a reader named Steph and what she wrote in response. Julie writes from an affirming perspective while helping to build bridges between LGBT individuals and Christian communities, and some of the key takeaways in Julie’s response include a need to honour the sincerity in the other person’s beliefs and path, to sincerely want to see the other person flourish within their theological framework, and to realize that there’s more to each other (and our friendships) than our theology about same-sex relationships. You can read an edited version of their email exchange here.

The second resource was a video dialogue between Justin Lee (author of Torn) and Wesley Hill (author of Washed and Waiting) filmed at Biola University. Their conversation was given the title, “A Thoughtful Dialogue on Sexual Differences,” and was rooted in their respective responses to Biola University’s Biblical Position Paper on Same-Sex Behavior, which was fairly representative of a traditional view of sexuality and marriage. The two of them demonstrate how to engage in healthy dialogue about this topic as they share both the similarities of their stories and the differences in their convictions about how to live faithfully as gay Christians. You can find the full video here, although we encouraged people to watch starting at 0:19:15 through 1:24:44 to save time.

At this first Listen and Learn session, we invited people to share some brief responses to the following questions about these two resources:

What did you hear that you had not heard before?
What bothered you?
What inspired you?
What feelings did you experience?

After this time of reflection with the entire group, we invited people to spend the next hour in discussion around their smaller tables and provided them with two guiding questions:

How has this issue intersected your life story? Share one or two key touch points.

Take some time to talk about your hopes or fears as our Elevation community explores the intersection of same-sex attraction and Christian faith.

When the hour was up, I gathered everyone back together and shared some closing reflections as we prepared to share communion together, including some words from Eugene Peterson about “the perpetual difficulty of living a life of love in the community of the beloved.” Referring back to the passage from John 6:16-21 that anchored my February 11 sermon, I suggested that, as we gather around the communion table, we are inviting Jesus to get into the boat with us—to save us from the wind and waves of our pride, our ignorance, our flippancy, our lack of compassion, our fear; to save us from the darkness of our sin—and that we had to remember that it’s our boat that Jesus gets into…not my boat or your boat, but our boat.

I closed with some words from Addie Zierman, inviting people to walk to the centre of the room where we would share the communion elements with one another: “Here there are beautiful things happening. We are not all the best of friends, everyone pursuing a relationship with God in the same delicate, lovely way, everyone gathering for weekly barbecues. Our hearts beat for different things in different ways, and the romance is that we still come together, every week, taking the bread and the cup, choosing this even when it feels awkward and stunted and strange.”

When Melissa and I got home from the session last night, we debriefed on the separate conversations we had engaged in, which kept us up talking until well past midnight. The table I sat down at featured people with varying levels of comfort with the conversation, to be sure, but in general there was a sense that it was a good thing we were doing this and it was more hopeful than anything. Melissa had a very different experience and came away from the night with a fairly high level of anxiety about the conversation and what she thinks it means for our church moving forward.

Her table included Eric, who shared his story with our church in the context of The Sermon, as well as another new-ish member of our community who told the group he was bi-sexual and seemed to still be walking through an understanding of his sexuality. The group also had some of our more vocal affirming members at the table, which proved to be a challenge toward the end of the conversation when my wife made a comment about what she hoped for—namely that we would find a way to stay in community while navigating these waters. This person responded by explaining how her hope was actually quite the opposite, and that anything short of a full embrace of LGBTQ people would result in her family leaving the church. Then someone else echoed those sentiments, adding that she would reluctantly accept a situation where “at least one pastor would perform gay weddings.”

This kind of polarizing response is something we have been working hard to minimize, for the very reason that it shuts down conversation and draws people to the fringes instead of to a shared centre. In fairness, we were asking participants to express their hopes and fears, and so the first part of these statements did respond to that, but the second part is what is concerning to me. Another person at my wife’s table, who is likely the most vocal representative of the affirming position in our community, did a good job responding in a way that was both honest and helpful, saying that, while his hope would be that we would “fly a rainbow flag” and be completely affirming, he was aware that this was not actually who our congregation was and that he would continue to be part of the community even if what he hoped for didn’t come to pass. In my mind, that is the kind of voice that is needed at the table—one that will speak clearly and with conviction from their perspective, but one that also demonstrates a commitment to walking this out in community and with genuine care for where everyone is at on this journey.

The thing that was particularly upsetting to my wife was the thought that pressure from voices like the ones she was hearing would end up driving away people who were deeply committed to our community and who have been supportive of us in our leadership for so long. She was concerned that if this other group of people felt like they couldn’t voice their opinions openly and honestly, they might just choose to leave, rather than stay engaged with the discernment process.

We have another two evenings set aside later in the month where we will explore how we read the Bible, the cultural context of the time and place in which the various authors were writing, and what the passages that speak to our theme have to say. As someone said last night, “I know what the Bible says ‘on paper,’ so I’m curious to know how people are reading it in a different way.”

Comments

  1. This was good for me to read. During the discussion, I was at the same table as Melissa and do remember the discussion, but it's nice to read the specifics and to be reminded of them. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You're welcome, Chris. It's been interesting going back to all of these events in my writing and how even vague memories really do come back to life when you add in some of the details.

      At the same time, I just heard from someone who was not around at all in 2018 but described feeling like they were in some way part of the experience via these posts, which was great to hear.

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