It’s November 29, which means it has now been more than a month since I last sat down to write. The length of time that is passing between these entries is growing, and in truth, I think I’m getting close to putting down the proverbial pen for good on this project. While my inability to sleep tonight is resulting in another middle-of-the-night entry, I have a growing sense that I’m almost ready to bring this chapter of my life’s story to a close.
(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.)
I just spent a few minutes looking back at some of my early entries and realized that it has been a little over a year since Eric first sat down in my office and told me that he was gay and that he was ready to ‘come out’—a year and six days to be exact. It’s funny how some years pass by and I honestly think I’d be hard pressed to fill more than a page or two with meaningful reflections, and then there’s a year like this one. Of course there are bound to be a handful of significant events in any given year, but in my experience, most years come and go so quickly that we hardly have time to notice how they are shaping and forming us along the way. But this year has been unlike any other.
It’s a rare opportunity to walk through a season of life completely alert to the ways in which you are changing—not in retrospect, but consistently throughout. Month by month, week by week, day by day, and sometimes even hour by hour, I know that my thoughts and feelings and actions are shifting and changing me, forming me into a new kind of person along the way. But that’s not quite right; it’s not that I feel like I am a different person, it’s that I feel like more of myself than I did a year ago. Truthfully, my awareness of how I have changed is only just beginning, but the groundwork has been laid and I expect there is much more I will discover about how this season has changed me and what this kind of change will mean for the next season of my life and ministry.
I’m trying to think of a way to express what I mean by this: it’s like someone has put something important in the mail for me and there’s nothing I can do but wait for its arrival; it’s like I have swallowed an antibiotic capsule down with a gulp of cold orange juice and now, I need to rest and wait for it to work its way into my bloodstream; it’s like I’m twenty-four years old and Melissa has just told me that she was pregnant for the first time, and while I feel like my whole world is suddenly expanding outward at breakneck speed with the news, the plain truth is that I haven’t the first clue about what those words, “I’m pregnant,” even mean and the myriad ways in which my life will be different on the other side.
Simply put, I am not the same person I was one year and six days ago, but for all of the anger and tears and pain and confusion and loss and fear and whatever else I have experienced along the way, I can genuinely say that I am grateful for this year.
Yesterday was a difficult one. I spent a good chunk of my time crafting and sending emails that have made the path our church has chosen seem much more real. The first email I sent was to resign my credentials from my denominational family. Back in the spring, while attending our national conference in Victoria, I had a strong sense that it would be the last time I was in a setting like that with this family, but the act of hitting ‘send’ after carefully wording what I wanted to say was still challenging for me. I whispered a prayer as I tapped the trackpad on my laptop and wondered how many times I had uttered similar words while sending off difficult emails this year.
The second set of emails I sent out were on behalf of our Board to a few people with deep roots in our church community who we needed to touch base with about removing them from our membership roll. Many of these relationships have already been slowly drifting apart, but there’s something about putting it into words that will be interpreted, misinterpreted, and reacted to in a variety of ways. I seasoned my words with grace and reminded each one of them that our arms would remain wide open should the opportunity ever come for them to find their way back into the fold.
The final set of emails I sent off was to our church’s membership, bringing them up to speed on everything that had transpired with respect to our denomination and informing them of a members’ meeting that we will hold in a couple of weeks from now. At that time, we will present a motion and cast a formal vote to disaffiliate and to make a number of corresponding amendments to our By-Laws.
Just today, I mentioned to a member of our Staff team that this has been one of the most admin-heavy work weeks I can remember, but the truth of it is that there has been something cathartic about writing these carefully worded emails and drafting our By-Law amendments. These otherwise mundane actions are the outflow of a year-long journey and even the unremarkable and rather tedious work itself has provided me with an opportunity to test out my voice on the other side of what we have gone through as a church and what I have gone through as a pastor. Now that’s something I’d really like to know more about: what will my voice be once the majority of the dust settles and we turn the calendar into a new year?
The other day I got together with someone I had never met before. He is a housemate of one of our Staff members, who had recommended that the two of us connect. We arranged to meet at a local cafe and, fortunately, he recognized me when I walked in and gave a little wave, otherwise I would have found myself in one of those awkward situations where I nervously eye the cafe trying to guess which person matches my expectation of who I am there to meet with. But he waved and, after grabbing myself a tea, I sat down and the conversation started up—slowly at first, with the expected biographical introductions, but eventually finding its way to some deep and greatly appreciated dialogue around our church’s experience over this past year.
He asked some really good questions, and I expect that at least a couple of them will continue to simmer on the back burner of my mind for the next while. The first was a question about how I might change the content of my preaching if I could turn back the clock three or four years, knowing what I know now. My first response was to say that one thing I would not change would be the emphasis I have been placing for many years now on our church’s insistence on valuing diversity in our community while seeking to hold a unity in the things that matter most. I don’t know why I felt the need to give that answer first, but it was the first thing that came to mind. I suppose one of the things I will continue to need moving forward are reminders that our community has always been shaped this way, the only difference being that we had never faced this particular issue square on. After giving him an answer to a question he did not ask, I followed up by saying that the one thing I would do differently in my preaching would be to engage the question of how we read the Bible in a more direct and unambiguous way.
The reason I put it that way can be explained by a conversation I had a number of months ago now. Remarkably, the intersection of same-sex attraction and Christian faith was not the only issue that people in our church community were wrestling with this year! One long-standing member of our community had reached out about some deep struggles he was having with his faith as a whole, and we have been getting together for lunch from time to time over the course of the year to talk through his experience. When we first got together, we talked about the Bible. He mentioned something about the problems he had with the way Christians thought about the Bible and I asked him whether that was what he heard from me in my sermons and in our more casual conversations. I think my question caught him off-guard a bit, and he admitted that he had somehow continued to bring the strong, fundamentalist teaching about the Bible from his upbringing to church with him week in and week out, assuming that whatever I was saying was coming from the same place. In a recent email, he wrote, “It strikes me that previously, I did not put much thought into how things were worded around church beyond first impressions.”
Something in that conversation of ours and in his follow-up email woke me up to the fact that people bring years and sometimes decades of their own personal church history in the doors with them each and every Sunday, and that my naivety around how strong of a pull that history continues to have in their lives has prevented me from truly preparing our community to engage this year’s conversations. Going back to my conversation in the cafe then, if I could enter the alternate reality that was being proposed to me and change one thing about my preaching over the past three of four years, I would do a better job helping my congregation understand what the Bible is, what it isn’t, and how we can set ourselves up best to read this sacred text in a way that gets to the heart of it instead of stopping short because that’s where we’d always been told to stop.
I believe that if I had done a better job of helping people engage scripture the way I engage it, we could have gone much deeper in our explorations around this theme and, having done so, perhaps we wouldn’t have lost as many people as we did. Please understand, I’m not saying that I somehow engage the Bible perfectly and that I don’t have room to grow myself, because I most certainly do, but I have become increasingly convinced based on my experiences around this hottest of hot button topics that I have not effectively brought my congregation along with me in my unfolding understanding of the depth and beauty of scripture and the ways that it can come alive to us when we read it for what it is instead of for what it is not.
Of course a whole other book could be written about that topic alone, so I’ll leave it at that for now and go on to the second really good question that this newfound conversation partner of mine posed, which was something to the effect of: Have you considered what voice you will have in this conversation moving forward?
I’m not actually sure that he phrased his question that way initially—I think it actually started off with a question about how others in the broader community have reacted to our posture—but that’s where the conversation went, and that’s the question that has been rattling around in my head for the past couple of days. Truthfully, it was not the first time I had asked the question of myself, and in all likelihood not even the first time someone else had asked me the question, but my guess is that the unlikely source of the question—a complete stranger—caught me somewhat off guard and made more of an impression on me. What voice will I have? What voice can I have? What voice am I willing to have? Or perhaps, for me, the most important version of the question, and at the same time the most difficult version to answer: What voice is God calling me to have?