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The Sound of the Bell

Our Board met the other night to discuss what some next steps might look like for our church. One of the team members hosted the meeting at her home, so we were able to sit out on the deck and enjoy a perfectly comfortable spring night. There were a couple of important items for us to talk through, but as the case has been for the past six months, we all knew what we would spend most of our time talking about. One of the items I put on our meeting agenda was “Silent May.” Everyone liked the phrase and we joked about making it an annual tradition to set aside a month where we wouldn’t talk about any heavy issues. But more than liking the name, the rest of the team each reflected on how they had a similar experience to myself, finding deep value in taking a break from this intense conversation. 

(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.)

There is just something about giving yourself permission to step away from a challenge—not as an act of cowardice, but to breathe, to get your bearings, and to remind yourself about why you’re in this fight in the first place. Like a boxer at the sound of the bell, we had retreated to our corner, got our wounds sealed up and our faces toweled, but now it was time to stand up and get ready to walk back into the centre of the ring.

Toward the end of May, I took some time to prayerfully answer a series of “deeper questions” that our Board shared as part of our update at the end of April. The question of how a same-sex attracted Christian ought to live is really just the visible part of a plant that has a deep and complex root system spreading out far and wide just below the surface. Some of the roots dive straight down into the heart of how we understand our faith, which is why I think we so often prefer to stick to the kind of prefabricated responses that allow us to keep our faith-as-we-know-it intact and undisturbed. But when you combine the magnitude of this issue with a church that has an aversion to prefabricated responses, you simply have to start digging. 

In Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, As Kingfishers Catch Fire, one of the themes is that things do what they are. As the poet-priest writes, “What I do is me: for that I came.” When all is said and done, I want our church to be able to answer questions about why we chose the path we did—whatever path that ends up being—along a similar line of thinking: What we do flows out of who we are. 

The Steering Committee had read over my reflections in advance, so I started off by asking for any thoughts, questions, or concerns based on what they had read. The temperature was dropping and the mosquitoes were coming out, so we moved the conversation inside where the time of reflection on what I had written very quickly turned to a pointed question posed by one of the team members: “Brandon, what I really want to know is where you are at on this. Where do you think we should go?”

Part of me knew this question was coming. Prior to the meeting, my wife and I were at our youngest son’s track meet in a neighbouring city. We were planning to drop our daughter off for a babysitting job on the way back into town before the meeting started, but the track event ran late and there was no way we could both be on time. Melissa decided to drop me off a few blocks away from the home where our Board would be meeting so she could get our daughter to her job in time—so there I was, walking briskly through the neighbourhood streets, thinking about the meeting and wondering if I might be put on the spot with a question like this. In hindsight, perhaps I should have used that ten minute walk to prepare a response, but I chose to pray instead—or at least I tried to make room for prayer along with all of the thoughts and questions that were swirling around in my mind. 

But the question was out there and I had to answer it. What I said felt more like an exercise in free-association than a well-argued theological response, and it went something like this:

These past seven months have been a whirlwind for me—an intense season of learning and of personal growth that have unsettled so much of what was previously unquestioned when it came to my faith. As difficult as it has been, it has also been rewarding because I find myself moving toward a more honest understanding of Scripture, of Jesus, and of myself. As far as this issue is concerned, I’ve found that the less we engage Scripture and the complexity of faith and life, the easier it is for us to polarize. But the more I engage with these things, the more it seems nonsensical to think that we could land on one pole or the other.

I had a fleeting thought the other morning as I was driving to the church. It was a snapshot of me in my retirement years, sitting on a Muskoka chair looking out over the calm waters of a Northern Ontario lake. As I sat there, a thought came to me, “Well, we sure were wrong about that one.” Almost as soon as it appeared, the image was gone and a question popped into my mind, “What would I be willing to be wrong about?” 

We have to make some significant decisions as a church—I have to make significant decisions as a pastor—and I think there’s a lot of value in this question. In what direction would I be more willing to be wrong? 

One of the things that I have become increasingly concerned about is how questions about human sexuality have been tainted with power and control. We have this desire to be right, to have control, and even to know the truth—so much so that we are often unwilling to let someone else have their own genuine faith. But I’m finding it more difficult to be so dogmatic when there are significant questions about this issue. For me, there's enough ambiguity to err on the side of grace. Are we willing to be a church where we believe and live diversely and don't expect people to believe and live the same?

I don’t want to draw lines on this issue. I want us to keep Jesus at the centre of our community’s life together and acknowledge that this is a disputable matter. I don’t think this should be a definitive issue for people, so I’d like to see us remove the barriers that are in the way of someone in a same-sex relationship serving in the church.

There was probably more that I shared, but that was the heart of my response. I also talked about something that had been on my mind recently as I’ve been processing the reality that there are still plenty of people in our church community who are on the fence and may very well end up leaving us. Back in 2008, a smaller congregation in our city, New Hope, merged with us. The decision to link arms in a permanent way was the result of what New Hope’s pastor and I recognized as a confluence of values and dreams which made us think that we could be “better together.” As much as our congregations had in common, there were also some very real differences, so the proposal wasn’t initially embraced by everyone from New Hope. In an attempt to gain a sense of how the congregation as a whole was feeling as decision-day approached, the church’s leadership team crafted a letter that asked each member to identify where they were at with respect to the proposed merger. They offered three options: 1) I am not in favour of the merger and will be finding another church home, 2) I am excited about the merger and will be jumping in with both feet, and 3) I am unsure how I feel about the merger, but will commit to fully engaging the process for the first twelve months and will make a more permanent decision at that time.

Everyone in the congregation chose either 2) or 3) and most everyone was faithful to the twelve-month window, even though a small number did end up moving on after that time had passed. This memory got me thinking about whether a similar challenge might be helpful for our church community today: that in a season of uncertainty, we commit to walk the path together as an act of discernment. I wonder if this would give people who are struggling with the integrity of such a direction a bit of a moral ‘out.’ I have half-seriously thought that I should recommend a simple prayer for people who find themselves torn and unable to make a decision: Lord, I am confused and unsure about this, but I’m going to stick it out with Elevation for the next year and see what happens. In the meantime, please don’t send me to hell.

It’s basically impossible not to be cynical about this from time to time, but while this imagined prayer may be low on tact, I actually believe it speaks to a very genuine fear that people have, which is that they will be dishonouring God by participating in something that they perceive goes against His will for the church. But I wonder what would happen if they could commit to living with this tension, even just for a year. Would people be willing to do that?

Our Board went around the room and everyone had an opportunity to share their thoughts, either on what I had written or on how I had articulated where I thought we should go from here. We continued to struggle with the fact that we weren’t all on the same page, and one Board member even expressed that, while they thought this was most likely the best path for our church to take, it may not be a path they were willing to walk themselves. That was really hard to hear and I know that everyone around the room wanted to avoid that situation, but it was looking more and more inevitable.

I had suggested our next step might be to share what I had written and invite the community to consider how ‘who we are’ ought to inform ‘what we do,’ but the general feeling was that, if the path I had described—where we would name this as a disputable matter and remove barriers for full participation—was a path our Board was prepared to recommend, we shouldn’t drag things out any longer than we had to, for the sake of everyone involved. After some back and forth, the Board asked me to switch up my sermon series to make room for a sermon that would follow up on what I had shared back in February and would cast a vision for the way our church would respond to the questions we were asking about the intersection of same-sex attraction and Christian faith. It was an overwhelming thought, the idea of having only two weeks to prepare such a significant sermon, but I agreed that I would focus in and make it happen. 

Just like that the wheels were in motion, and I could already feel the train starting to pick up speed, even before we closed the meeting in prayer and filed out the front door and down the steps into the cool spring night.

Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this blog. This is the first entry I've read, and my first interaction with your church, though I have good friends that are part of your community. I look forward to reading more of what you and others have to say about this issue. I'm a new(for the second time...long story) Christian, and it's of utmost importance to me that the LGBTQ community is fully and unreservedly welcomed into the church and its ministry. So, again, I'll be following the discussion, and I'll check out some sermons as well as the Sunday livestream very soon. Thanks again,

    Mark-Andrew Nouwen

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi Mark-Andrew, I'm glad to have you reading along. I'd encourage you to find your way back to the first post (Fear and Trembling) and read from the beginning if you want to get a good sense of our church's journey. And feel free to reach out to me (email in my profile) if you'd like to connect some time, whether virtually or in person if you're local. That 'long story' of yours sounds like a good one!

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