Friday, August 28, 2009

Letter to a brother with a differing "bound conscience"

Dear Travis –

I love God. I am a faithful follower of Jesus Christ. And I believe that God speaks his word of truth to us through the Holy Scriptures. I know that you could say the same. But we disagree over some of the recent decisions of our church. I want you to understand why I have landed where I have on all of this, and I invite you to do the same for me if you’d like. I am interested in hearing what you have to say.

I do have to tell you that there was a time in my life when I also felt that marriage was intended to be between a man and a woman and I thought that homosexual acts were a sin. Although you may have arrived at that conclusion for different reasons than I once did, we’re all a work in process and I’m in a much different place on all of this than I was 30 years ago. I didn’t wake up one day and decide that it’s okay to be gay, but the Spirit has led me through the years to that conclusion. I certainly have wrestled with the scriptures over all of this. Let me share with you some of the things I hold to be true:

1. We always interpret the Bible from the center out. That’s a very Lutheran way of reading scripture. We don’t read the Bible in a linear way, considering each verse, one at a time and determining how that verse guides our lives. That would be impossible because there are so many times that the message of the scripture contradicts itself from one place to the next. But we read scripture through a lens and that lens is Jesus. He is the Word made flesh and through his life and teachings we learn the truth about God.
The Bible for me is primarily about the relationship that God has had with his people and the way people have understood that relationship. Quite naturally, it includes very human perspectives and prejudices and reflects the context in which people were living. (Of course, the cultural biases of those who wrote the scriptures shine through. For example, they reflect a patriarchal society, so we have to take that into account when we read some of the misogynistic passages.) But even those confusing passages that don’t seem to have much relevance to my life today are of value because I also am a person in relationship with God and they can reveal truths to me. Nonetheless, I need a way to interpret scripture, to determine what applies to my life and what might not. A way besides just throwing out all the passages I don’t like. And that way is Jesus. (He’s the way the truth and the life, yes.) Before I can even begin to read scripture and make sense of it, I have to spend a lot of time getting to know Jesus as he’s revealed to us in the gospels. This, of course, is very Luther-an.

2. What I’ve learned from Jesus.
· Of all of God’s laws for his people, the most important one is that we love God with everything we’ve got. Of course, Jesus had to link this to loving others as we love ourselves. He couldn’t separate the two, not because between them they seem to cover everything, but because the WAY to love God with everything we’ve got is by loving others.
Many times, Jesus was accused of having no regard for the law, such as the time he healed on the Sabbath. In our culture, because we have little respect for the Sabbath, the severity of his offense to the good law-abiding citizens is lost on us. But this was a big deal in his day. After all, the law about honoring the Sabbath was one of the top ten. (Still is, by the way.) For Jesus, the law of compassion always trumped all other laws. That is central to understanding who Jesus is and what he asks of us. In the book of Luke when he goes into a tirade against the good religious leaders of his day, saying “Woe to you…”, what infuriated him was the way they spent so much time laying all the nit-picky laws on the people and they completely missed the weightier matters of the law, “justice and the love of God.” It’s interesting that the things that really ticked Jesus off weren’t the kinds of moral stuff that we get so worked up over today. It was the lack of compassion that he saw coming from the good religious folk. (Please don’t read this to be me saying that you don’t understand the value of compassion; I’m just laying out why I have landed where I have on all of this.)
· Jesus had a passion for those who had been marginalized by society. He was all about including those others excluded. That’s where the church is called to bring the good news today, to people on the margins. No one is ever excluded from God’s reign of love and mercy.
· Jesus was accused of ignoring the law in his day. But what he did was redefine it. Okay, this may not be particularly Lutheran here, but it’s what I’ve concluded… In our church we talk so much about understanding law and gospel in scripture. But the more I study scripture and the more I get to know Jesus, the more I have to conclude that there is a false distinction between law and gospel, because Jesus taught us that the law IS the gospel and the gospel is the law. The commandment that he wanted to leave us with is the commandment to love one another as he loved us.
Now, I’m not saying that “all we need is love” and nothing else matters. Nor am I saying that anything goes or that we’re all off the hook so far as the law goes. The Jesus way is not the easy way out. To truly love one another as Jesus loved us is anything but easy. Anyone who thinks it is hasn’t really tried it.
· The whole idea of “binding and loosing” has been meaningful for me. Jesus did a lot of that in his ministry. Some of the laws that had been so binding on people for centuries, he loosened. Other laws that had been a little loose among God’s people he bound more tightly. That’s to say that Jesus didn’t buy into the idea that God’s law was caste in bronze. He passed on the power to bind and loose to us, to his church. And we’ve done that since the very beginning. That brings me to my next Biblical realization.

3. What I’ve learned from the New Testament church.
From the very beginning, Christians have been open to the Spirit calling them to new interpretations of the law. For thousands of years there were laws about the way God’s people entered into a holy relationship with him. And then, out of compassion for the Gentiles who were becoming Christian, the law of circumcision was lifted. This was HUGE. No one would ever have imagined that this law would ever be changed, and yet the Spirit led the early Christians to do just that. And the law was changed for the right reason. For Jesus reasons -- For the sake of compassion and including those who were once excluded.

4. What I’ve learned from Church history.
Christians throughout history have been confronted with challenges that seem to mirror the issues the first Jerusalem Council faced. We have wrestled with the scriptures and been led by the Spirit, which seems to always be pulling us in the direction of including people in God’s reign. And this has not been without considerable pain. For me, personally, the decision of our church to ordain women has been a biggie, for obvious reasons. And yet, there are so many parallels to the full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the life of our church. I know how it feels to have all the gifts for ministry and to feel called by God to serve as a pastor and to know that God has said “yes” to me only to hear others say “no.” I’m thankful that I don’t belong to a church that takes the Bible literally, that interprets the scriptures from the center, and is still open to the Spirit moving in the church in new ways for the sake of the gospel.

I know that a lot of the arguments Christians are engaged in over the issue of homosexuality come down to specific passages of scripture and how they are to be interpreted. I don’t find that very meaningful, mainly because of the way I interpret scripture in general. Specific texts are always read in light of the gospel of Christ. But I do agree with those who make a point of considering how homosexual acts were viewed in the Biblical context. Just as there was no consideration that the world was round, or that women could become pastors and bishops in the church, there was no awareness of same-gender, committed relationships. It’s really not fair to hold such relationships to the standards of a social context in which they were never considered.

Finally, I have to say something about my relationships with people who are gay and lesbian. Through the years, as a pastor, I have counseled with many of them, and I don’t think I’ve ever talked with a gay or lesbian person who hasn’t at some time prayed to God that they would be straight. No one chooses to be gay. Just as no one chooses to be straight. Given the realities of the homophobic world in which we live, however, I think it’s safe to say that if we could choose, for the sake of an easy life, we would all choose to be straight.

I have concluded that God has created a diversity of people. We’re different colors and sizes. We think and act differently, etc. So this is one more way in which we’re not all the same. In that respect, I can in no way say that homosexuality is a sin, anymore than I can say that heterosexuality is a sin. Of course, there are those who get squeamish even talking about any kind of sexuality, and I wish we could get past that. This doesn’t come so much from the Bible as it comes from the Victorian era that many of us still haven’t gotten over. Biblically speaking, sexuality is a gift. Accepting differing sexual orientations does not mean that the church is saying anything goes. What we have said, in our social statement on sexuality, is that all people are responsible for their stewardship of this God-given gift.

It seems to me that the most important way we can honor God in our lives is to live them authentically, as the people God created us to be. So, as a pastor, I encourage the people in my flock to do that. God created some of us straight and others gay. He created us to be in loving relationships with one another that are life-giving. And the God I have come to know through the scriptures would never ask us to deny ourselves that gift he’s given us.

You may disagree with me, Travis, but I wanted you to understand how I’ve arrived at the place where I am. I know that I probably haven't said anything here that you haven't heard before and I probably haven't changed your mind, but I wanted you to hear where I'm coming from. When we say that we agree to disagree, I think that we often mean we agree not to talk to one another and I didn't want to do that with you. As Bishop Hanson reminded us all at Churchwide Assembly, despite our disagreements, we all meet at the foot of the cross.

Peace in Christ,

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