Changes in Life’s Designs

Posted: July 17, 2015 in Uncategorized

Conversations, some polite and knowledgeable, some ignorant and caustic, are seeking to make sense of homosexuality, gay marriage, and gender identity. Perhaps the word conversation is too polite. People on all sides of the issue are talking more than listening because they are closed to any consideration of any other position on the issue. True conversation involves a desire to seek understanding, which necessitates knowing the issue from the perspective of the “other side.”

When we engage in conversation, which may involve listening more and talking less, the designs of our lives will inevitably change. Change was what the AWAB (Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists) dinner recently held in Overland Park, Kansas, was all about. I was privileged to attend and hear Dr. David Gushee, Distinguished Professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University, a Baptist university in Macon, Georgia, who was the featured speaker. Having read his book Changing Our Mind I was interested in hearing him. Prior to the dinner, I picked up another copy of Gushee’s book, which he signed for me. I have two more copies, both loaned out.

Over a two decade academic career, Dr. Gushee claimed a traditional view of sexuality. In an article in early 2011, he wrote, “As a matter of personal conviction, I am not ready to embrace gay marriage. I cannot imagine performing such nuptials as a minister. I cannot imagine my congregation doing so.”

Then, in a presentation at The Reformation Project Conference, a gathering of pro-LGBT Christians held on November 8 last year in Washington, D.C. Dr. Gushee said, “I do join your crusade tonight. I will henceforth oppose any form of discrimination against you. I will seek to stand in solidarity with you who have suffered the lash of countless Christian rejections. I will be your ally in every way I know how to be.”

Between early 2011 and the end of 2014, David embarked on a robust study through a rigorous examination of biblical texts and conversations with people both gay and straight. After two decades as a married, straight, evangelical Christian David arrived at his Christian ethical position of affirming LGBT people. He says that that he was entirely uninformed by a lack of personal contact with LGBT Christians themselves, that he was closed to consideration of evidence around him. David expressed sorrow that it took so long to come into solidarity with “Christianity’s most oppressed group.” His book, Changing Our Mind: My Journey as a Christian Ethicist toward Full LGBT Acceptance, is a look into his process of changing his mind about homosexuality. I attended the dinner because I wanted to hear him speak to the change process set forth in his book.

When I arrived at the breakout room where the dinner was scheduled, the round tables for about one hundred total attendees were already set and waiting. There was not a podium in the room making it impossible to tell where the speaker would stand. I chose a table where two young men had just sat down, the only other attendees in the room besides myself. These table mates were interesting to converse with: Daniel and Paul. Paul is a volunteer with Matthew Vines’ Reformation Project and has the responsibility for logistics related to a Reformation Project event in Kansas City in November.

Just before the meal was served a lectern was positioned directly in front of the table where we were sitting. The dinner itself was a tad above the average hotel event dinner: a tossed salad followed by a decent sized medallion of chicken, perfectly cooked crisp green beans, mashed potatoes with pieces of bacon in the mash, and a roll. A choice of lemon or chocolate cake and a cup of coffee concluded the meal.

I was impressed with David’s presentation and the Q&A conversation that followed. The attendees were appreciative of his remarks evidenced by occasional applause as he spoke. He talked about his journey beginning with the traditionalist position, which he held from 1993 to 2007. Then from 2007 to 2013 David met devout Christian LGB people in a new home church. They were singles, couples, and families. He developed deep personal friendships, encountered high-quality LGB seminarians, who were blocked from service and ordination. His sister Katey came out as lesbian at thirty-eight. He was called out by author Mitchell Gold (Crisis) who called him a bystander. These experiences of encountering and coming to love LGBT persons in their suffering and dignity became the tipping point for David. Out of a sense of responsibility, David felt obligated to tackle the issue of homosexuality in a serious way.

Dr. Gushee first wrote an unpublished version and then, in serialized fashion, his essays on the transition of his ethical position on gay issues were published in News Global during the summer and fall of 2014. These essays were then published in book format as a basic primer for traditionalists and conflicted Christians under the title Changing Our Mind in Late October 2014. It is an easy read resting solidly on scholarly underpinnings.

The book puts flesh on the following:

  • The current environment is one in which Christian understandings of sexuality are being reevaluated due to evidence offered in the lives of people who do not fit the historic heterosexual norm. In addition to the witness of these personal lives is the increasing body of research and practice of mental health that have both anecdotal and empirical data to bear on the issue. The Church needs to address the “LGBT issue” and the people affected who are hurting, which includes LGBTQ people, families, divided churches including the hurt, fear, and anger among Christians on all sides of the issue. Many people are conflicted: “heart” says one thing, “head” says another.
  • The human population reveals a gender and sexual orientation minority of at least 3.4-5%. Regardless of centuries of cultural and legal discrimination, stigma, and violence, LGBT people are scattered in the human population all over the world, often treated as a problem.
  • The ex-gay movement has failed by its own admission. Sexual-orientation change efforts are utterly rejected by mainstream mental health experts even though some Christians still cling to them or accounts of their “successes.”
  • Resistance to LGBTs causes substantial mental health, familial, and spiritual consequences.
  • An acknowledgement of interpretive pluralism throughout Christian history on a huge range of issues opens the door for consideration of an examination of hermeneutics. And David devotes much of the book to six passages of Scripture commonly referenced when considering LGBT issues.

David concluded his remarks by saying, “I have made a core moral decision simply to ‘stand with’ the LGBT Christian community and against their continued exclusion.” He expressed repentance for where he and the Church “got it wrong.”

His presentation didn’t add to my understanding of the debate raging in churches over sexual orientation, scripture, and gay marriage. However, it did feel good being in the context of the conversation. My visit with David at the author’s table prior to dinner confirmed my expectations of a very humble man who was quietly assured of where he stands on the equality of gay marriage and his sexual ethic as keeping sex in the confines of marriage—gay or straight.

Bottom line, I did not feel as though I was in a strange environment or, as I suspect some self-identified Christians would feel, in enemy territory. I was among friends and fellow human beings many of whom happen to be gay. I long for many of my friends to experience the depth of faith and love that I experienced not only at this gathering of Baptists who welcome and affirm LGBTQ people, but also at the January 2015 Gay Christian Network Conference when I joined 1,400 gay Christians and their allies in Portland, Organ.

Too often lives are designed on flawed fundamental truths. Take for example current cultural debates, marriage equality being the hotest at the moment, not only here in the United States but also around the world.

Fundamental truths essential to the Christian faith are at stake in these cultural debates, notonly in society at large but also within ecclesial bodies. These basic truths range from issues of theism to biblical authority, the nature of human beings, God’s purpose in creation, sin, salvation, and by extension, to the entire body of Christian doctrine. One’s posture on contemporary issues is determined by the presuppositions one holds in formulating their position on these foundational truths. Therefore, it is difficult to discuss cultural “values” because both parties walk roads that begin at different points, and do not run parallel; thus they arrive at different destinations.

The claims advanced by either side of a debate are proffered with a great deal of integrity, but founded on separate sets of presuppositions. Debates at the level of cultural application will lead to conclusions less than satisfactory to one side or the other. Debate must begin with understanding and acknowledging the separate foundational presuppositions whether or not both parties ascribe to them. If it begins anywhere past that beginning point, the debate will most certainly fail to arrive at any consensus, if it ever even gets past each side seeking to prove the other wrong.

The fundamentalist position would say, for example, that if the claims of revisionist interpreters of Scripture are valid, then the very basis of biblical inspiration is invalidated. Scripture would be wrong, misdirected and ambiguous and the entire evangelical paradigm, biblical authority and all, will not stand.

It’s the evangelical paradigm that has fallen, moderates would say, and not Scripture or biblical authority. Therefore, they would argue that the evangelical paradigm fell precisely because it was founded on a misguided presupposition on biblical authority and the nature of the Bible.

The challenge faced by Christianity today is not a cultural debate or political posturing or doctrinal belief. The challenge is a basic hermeneutical one—how to interpret and understand the Bible and its claims on all God’s children. Until the debate is waged on this level, the sparing about culture and its values will produce little more than heat. (Some people view values narrowly and interpret them basedon their presuppositions. However, to be fair, both sides of any debate have values, but they are not the same because of different presupposition sets.) 

At stake are human lives designed by attending to these flawed fundamental truths, flawed on all sides, while, at the same time, all sides desire to give witness to the grace-giving story of God reclaiming his creation. Let’s listen to each other, really listen, and try to get inside each other’s paradigms—for the human lives that long for civil discourse.

Living Inside a Shell

Posted: June 8, 2015 in Uncategorized

Out of personal experience comes a design for life that is destructive in its inauthenticity. Our lives can be designed in such a way that we create a shell for others to see and for us to be protected. This kind of design is filled with tension created by juggling the various responsibilities needed to ward off anything that would cause a crack in the shell. These fabricated designs often appear to be wholesome and even admired. They give an impression of a well-crafted life.

When we live inside a shell, life is not as blissful as it appears to the observer, who may see us from a distance or may be a very good friend, even a family member. The life they see is a composite of the accouterments of the kind of life we wish to portray. 
This desire to depict something other than our authentic self comes from a sense of deficiency or “otherness” within us about which we feel shame. The way we deal with it is to cover it up. When we are with other people, we pretend this perceived terrible weakness doesn’t exist. This cover-up is hard work. Eventually, as lies pile up we discover that our entire life has been a deception, a lie, and we begin to feel like a fraud. As hard as we examine our lives, we can’t see any way to extricate ourselves from the sham we have made of it all.

Thus we’re living inside this shell, which we keep polished and closely guard against cracks appearing. If even a hairline crack does appear, we repair it immediately to keep it from expanding and breaking the shell. Were the shell to break open our life would be exposed. That thought is unbearable. It would be better to not live than to have the deficiency, the otherness, exposed. Such shame would destroy our relationships. We would not be able to face anyone.

So we polish the shell while the authenticity of who we are remains a beating pulse inside clamoring for light and fresh air.

This is one inauthentic way we design our lives to deal with who we are in light of who we think, as false as that thinking is, that society expects, no, requires us to be.

A national conversation on LGBT issues is in progress across the country. But it’s the kind of conversation a person from Appalachia would have with a corporate lawyer in New York, or one between a student in southern California and a homeless youth in Chicago. We all speak in different languages and define the terms we use differently. Such disconnect invariably leads to misunderstanding and a true disbelief of one toward the other’s position.

This divide is most apparent in the current debate about the freedom to choose the object of one’s love. Dissonance in understanding becomes obvious when a person who is strongly opposed to the kind of love that would lead someone to desire marriage with the one they love who happens to be of the same sex, begins putting forth an argument to support their position, but has no idea what the person in favor of gay marriage feels or thinks or truly believes. Based upon his own presuppositions as well as his tenets of faith, he assumes certain things about the other person, things that may or may not be true. Often, these assumed “truths” are not verified, and even when they are, these beliefs are put down, dismissed, or otherwise discredited. This may be, and often is, true of both sides of a conversation on any LGBTQ issue.

The need is not just to have a conversation. The need is to listen actively and seek to explore with integrity the other’s position, to rid one’s self of one’s own position long enough to get inside the other paradigm. But therein lies the problem. It is extremely difficult to replace one conceptual world by another, even if it is only long enough to seek true understanding. To enter another paradigm is nothing short of a metamorphosis and will not happen unless it is driven by people who are agents of change.

The process for change has already been set in motion. The world of 2015 is not the world of 1965. A half century has brought many changes and deeper understanding about the world and life in it. The conversation about same-sex relationships, in all their forms, will not simply return to 1965, much less just go away. Change is inevitable. Engagement is required to shape understanding for today and moving forward.

This conversation cannot allow the natural human resistance to change lessen the passion for change. Awareness is the first step. When people become aware of the issues, even though there is resistance, a germ of possibility has been planted and life-giving reality will emerge. When the limitations and distortions produced by what has been inherited and what is socially and religiously conditioned are challenged, perceptions of reality have been suspended in an unstable state. This unsettledness opens the possibility for different voices to be heard.

I believe this is where we are in our conversations around LGBT issues. Nationally there are two sides facing each other. In the middle is confusion as each side is speaking a different language each of which is rooted in a different paradigm and therefore the communication is not clear. Until we can all speak both languages we will continue to face off against one another rather than link arms in mutual catre to nurture each other.

This is analogues to my language-learning experiences in Southeast Asia. I discovered that I had to use an entirely different Indonesian word for rice depending upon the state it was in: growing in the field (padi), harvested grains (bras), or cooked (nasi). One of these words cannot be substituted for another. In fact, one might be totally misunderstood if they tried such substitution, at least it would be confusing. Imagine someone saying that the farmer had completed planting his cooked rice. The meaning may eventually become clear, but it would take a little time. In the meantime muderstanding would be muddled. Is the farmer coming in from his field, or sitting down to dinner?

As we work together in our conversations about LGBT issues, we need to define our terms carefully and fully. We need to be willing to clear our minds and listen, really listen. As we listen we must not be thinking about what our next statement is going to be, or how wrong the other person’s position is, but rather we must think about what is being said and be ready to ask questions to ferrite out what the other is thinking and not questions to ask to prove them wrong. This might entail the etimology of terms and their historical useage, the motivation of the participants, the context of the conversation, etc. It will require more than a few minutes of talking. Rather it will involve a commitment to a continuing dialogue.

Only when communication is open and honest and people are transparent and vulnerable with each other will there be progress in mutual understanding. And, yes, paradigm shifts will take place and truth will be illuminated.

I have been away from this blog for a year and a half. My life’s design has changed and morphed into something new and different. Perhaps future pages on this blog will open those months so we can have a dialogue about how life’s designs evolve. In the meantime, I hope to give life to this space once again with random posts about the different shapes and hues of color presented as life around, in, and through us brings about kaleidoscopic designs, which are never the same, always changing, and always beautiful.

To begin these pages, here is a brief thought about downtown Saint Louis, my home.

After a haircut this morning, I walked over to Starbucks at 6th and Olive. It’s a corporate shop that is in the shadow of the former Macy’s/Famous-Barr department store. A department store had been in that building for over 100 years until Macy vacated it a couple of years ago. That was a sad day for downtown St. Louis. Attempts to fill the huge one-block-square space have been futile. One exciting prospect early on was for a small foot-print Target. Nothing materialized from those discussions. So, this huge building of one block square and twenty-three stories in the heart of downtown St. Louis sits empty.

While most of the empty downtown buildings have been reclaimed, several empty ones remain. Just down the street from the Macy building is the Arcade Building being redeveloped by Webster University. This is another large building, which in its heyday was one of, if not the first, indoor mall, thus the name Arcade. There was a huge two-story atrium that ran the length of the building from Olive to Pine with shops lining it on both levels. My understanding is that there will again be shops in the building but that a large portion of the space will be apartments and that the rest of the building will house a university satellite, maybe it’s MBA program.

Looking out on the cross streets I watched pedestrians walking back and forth to and from their offices as I sipped a venti decaf skinny Caramel Macchiato. There is a Jimmy John’s delivery guy on a bike and the corner hamburger stand, both busy about the delivery of food. This pleasant scene gave the appearance of already being in the lazy hazy days of summer. With the sun casting a filigreed shade through the trees lining the street, the city seemed at peace with itself, unhurried yet exhibiting purposeful movement of economic enterprises that propels it ever onward.

On my return home, I stopped at my favorite spot for a Greek salad. Being just after twelve noon, the servers were comfortably busy with patrons filling the tables, regulars picking up carry-out, and a few diners tolerating the wind and sun and cool air to sit on the patio.

I had a moment’s conversation with the server when he came to pick up my empty salad bowl. I continue to be amazed by how much people reveal of their personal lives. I simply asked him an innocent “how’s it going” or something like that and he began to tell me that he was tired and doesn’t know why because he has been off work for two days and spent much of the time sleeping. His sister is out of town on vacation with her family and he is house-sitting and taking care of their puppy. He said, “That’s a lot better than being alone.” With his warm and engaging almost shy smile he told me all of that in less than a minute. That was his answer to my simple “How’s it going”? An almost oxymoronic thought entered my head: This busy restaurant seemed at peace with itself.

Peace is not the antithesis of busy. As I thought about the peaceful hustle in the business district, so it was in this small coffee/wine bar at noon-time rush, seriously busy while concurrently at peace.

Sunday afternoon  – August 26, 2013

After Bible study and worship this morning, I scouted East Tower Grove for a place to eat Sunday dinner. Each place I checked out was either closed on Sunday, or it was not the atmosphere I was looking for. What I was looking for, I’m not sure, I just knew some of these places did not fit my mood. I wandered back to Lafayette Square and settled on Laredo, a small Mexican restaurant, which I thought was closed. It was not overly noisy and had pleasant Mexican music playing at about the right volume. The grilled salmon resting on a bed of grilled vegetables–spinach, broccoli, potatoes–and a few pieces of grilled pineapple was delicious

It’s fifty-eight degrees now where I am sitting on the sidewalk patio in front of the gelateria drinking a Pumpkin Latte. It may be even warmer with the radiant heat from the brightly shinning sun. Paco is certainly enjoying it, with hardly a shiver, he’s stretched out on the warm concrete. When he’s warm enough, he enjoys sidewalk cafes for people (and dog) watching. I say warm enough because he often shivers when the temperature is a pleasant seventy degrees.

Tonight is going to be another late night–fourth World Series game. We (Cardinals) won the game last night on a weird call. Allen Craig, recovering from a foot/ankle injury suffered on September 4, with a pinch-hit double in the ninth inning advanced Yadier Molina to third base. There was onlyone out, the score was tied. Then, one for the record-books.

Jon Jay batted next and grounded out to the Red Sox second baseman, who threw to home effectively eliminated Molina trying to score. The Red Sox catcher then threw to third trying to silence Craig who was attempting to gain a base. The catcher’s throw sailed past the third-baseman into left field. Craig, rightly so, attempted to score,but was tripped up by the third baseman who was lying on the ground after trying to catch the throw from the catcher.

Craig regained his footing and ran for home sliding into the plate, not knowing that obstruction was called on the third-baseman by the third base umpire. The call automatically gave him the next base, in this case, the winning run on the last out of the ninth inning.

The Cardinals are now ahead two games to one in the seven-game series. They need only win two of the last four games.

So, another late night tonight.

Society enters long discussions, some filled with a great deal of contention, others with unabated emotion, and still others with a cavalier nonchalance around homeless issues.

I am in the middle of these discussions. I don’t mean I am engaged in conversations about homelessness; I mean I live in the middle of homelessness. Homeless people live on my street. They walk around my neighborhood. They eat donated sandwiches while sitting on street curbs and sidewalks where my dog Paco and I walk every day. They sleep in doorways of Christ Church Cathedral. I pass homeless people on the sidewalks who are in wheelchairs, use canes or walkers, and whose chairs are motorized. They sit at sidewalk cafes until asked to move along. I live in the middle of discussions centering on homelessness.

I know or have observed homeless narratives and/or drama of people in my neighborhood. Take for instance the man who walks around the neighborhood pulling his twenty-two inch piece of luggage. He is always on the way to somewhere as though he is about to miss his connection in an airport concourse. The urgency of his walk belies his aimlessness. His smile is genuine, his life is good. Just ask him. “How are you,” I say. “By God’s grace I woke up this morning,” he says. “And he gave me these two good legs to walk on;” and he’s off on his urgent aimlessness.

Or there’s Stan, who has his regular “route.” Along about 8:30 he’ll walk up to the sidewalk chairs and tables in front of Nara Cafe Hookah Lounge and Mediterranean Cuisine. He pulls a chair out enough to sit down even though it is still cabled together with the other chairs and tables. He always has his eyes searching for his “friends.” Soon one comes by and hands him the morning’s Post-Dispatch with a cup of coffee. Approximately fifteen minutes later a couple comes out of a nearby condominium and hands him a plastic shopping bag. They speak briefly and then walk on. Stan opens the bag and takes out a lidded styrofoam take-home carton. Homeless Stan opens it and begins eating his breakfast while reading the morning paper. Breakfast at a sidewalk cafe. After a while, he walks with a sense of purpose toward his next “appointment.”

I speak to them every morning, a mother and her young son, as they wait for the school bus on the corner of Locust Street and Fourteenth. The boy, eight or nine years old, is always pleasant approaching the day with confidence as though life is good and he’s eager for what will unfold. His mother, usually pleasant and coaching the boy even though the boy seems to be calm and in better control of the situation. Neither of them have the appearance of homelessness and I wouldn’t have suspected they were except for the fact that on some mornings I see them exiting the homeless shelter, and, on a couple of late evenings, I’ve observed them entering for the night.

I watched a man dig into his twenty-two inch wheeled luggage and pull out a piece of change and hand it to another homeless man.

A homeless man, sitting on a curb with crossed arms resting on his knees and his forehead on his arms. I watched as a woman slid her hand gently onto the man’s arm while on the other side of him a man had an arm around his shoulders. All three were wearing dirty, ragged “homeless clothing.” An ambulance was just arriving.

How do you define “home.” One definition found at states, “the place in which one’s domestic affections are centered.” One definition often leads to another. Domestic: “of or pertaining to the home, the household, household affairs, or the family.” So Home: the place in which one’s familial affections are centered. It could be argued that among “homeless” people, “family” units co-exist within a shelterless existence.

Are these people homeless, or do they lack permanent shelter they could call their own space?