Today I am participating in the "Bridging the Gap Synchroblog," which means that I and about sixty other bloggers will be addressing the same issue of how to bridge the gap in our conversations with people about faith and sexuality. Be sure to check out the links to the other participating bloggers at the Bridging the Gap website. (For the occasion I have also taken the unprecedented step of enabling my comments section. Please comment appropriately and be considerate and respectful of others.)
How can we as conservative Christians "bridge the gap" in our conversations and relationships with gay friends, family members and acquaintances on the topic of homosexuality? Most evangelicals are easily able to summarize what the Bible teaches about how to relate to our neighbors: Christians should be loving and kind, patient when wronged, respectful in the face of hostility, forgiving, humble, compassionate and truthful.
So the question isn't knowing how we ought conduct ourselves as Christians. What needs to be explored is why we so often fail to relate to gay people in the loving and winsome way that the Bible so clearly outlines.
I believe the answer is that Christians cannot bring down the walls between ourselves and the gay community until we have confronted the walls that exist in our own hearts--fear, pride, insecurity about our own faith. The biggest challenges are not "out there," rather they lie within. I remember the three biggest challenges I faced when, as a conservative Christian, I first began the process of "building bridges" with people in the gay community.
When I first became interested in trying to understand where gay and lesbian people were coming from, I had already been taught by many highly respected church leaders that homosexuals were particularly depraved individuals who had strayed so far from the will of God they actually chose to pervert themselves by living the gay lifestyle. A good Christian girl like me would have absolutely nothing in common with these sordid types, so I initially thought my big challenge would be knowing how to talk to them at all. Yet what I encountered in real life was completely different from what I had been told to expect. I met ordinary people, many of whom were professing Christians, who never wanted to be gay in the first place. Some had contemplated suicide in their teens, others had spent their young adult years in therapy trying to change. Many finally came to terms with their situation only later on in life and at last found the courage to make the best of it. I felt it would have been wrong to despise these people, and I even found myself relating on so many levels to the heart-breaking stories I heard.
I had been told to hate the sin of homosexuality. What I encountered were people who had fought a battle with self-hatred for so long, the last thing I wanted to do was dogpile on their pain. I had been told to enlighten these people with the gospel. What I encountered was only my own tremendous ignorance, my own need to be enlightened about what it was like to be in their shoes.
And so the first challenge I faced was whether to follow the righteous exhortations of godly Christian leaders I admired and trusted, or go with my own instincts in an entirely different direction, based on my own conclusions about gay people that--apparently--no other Christian in the world had ever come to except me. (Or so it seemed.)
Any serious Christian would much rather submit to the majority consensus of the church than run the risk of being wise in one's own eyes. I wasn't any different. What ultimately made me press forward was that I saw clear opportunities before me to love people instead of despise them, to understand instead of judge, to listen instead of command--and that path just seemed more in line with what the Bible taught. It was as simple as that. And yet even though I knew I had good reason to follow that path, I was sick with fear. Fear of being a maverick, fear of being unsubmissive, fear that I might appear rebellious, fear that my reputation in the church might be damaged. All that fear was a barrier that needed to be crossed.
This soon led to the second major challenge I had to confront, which was the difficulty of having to face people at church every Sunday, knowing that I was going against the standard wisdom that most of them embraced about homosexual people. The church had always been like family to me, from the time I first came to Christ as a teenager. My fellow Christians were people who worshipped with me, invited me over for dinner, prayed for me when I was in need, brought meals to my house when I was laid up, loaded boxes into my U-Haul when I had to move--and I did the same for them in return. To go against what these good people, my dearest friends, believed about homosexuality, and to side instead with what everyone called "the homosexual agenda," felt like the worst kind of betrayal. Like some bout with insanity that I just needed to snap out of.
The only way I could to deal with the nearly unbearable tension was to remember that as much as my church family meant to me, my first responsibility was to follow Jesus Christ. And I simply found it difficult to believe that Jesus would reach out to harlots, tax collectors, demoniacs, lepers and heretics but would disapprove of me reaching out to homosexuals, because it might upset some of my Christian friends. So in my heart I had to let go of my need for my friends' good opinion. Later on, when some of them found out my views and let go of me for good, I remembered Jesus once again, that by the time he'd made it to the cross at the end of his life he was alone. It meant that however painful loneliness might be, I could at least take comfort that there was no shame in it.
The third major challenge was probably the most serious. As I got deeper into the issue--talking with gay and lesbian people, reading books, having email exchanges--I began to realize that the conclusions I was coming to about the nature of homosexuality were presenting a challenge to my own Bible-believing faith. Because if people weren't choosing to be homosexual, why would God allow this to happen to them? Why would he allow something to befall them that would so alienate them from their families, their communities, their churches? Why would he allow a person's sexuality, that sacred part of a human being, to be messed with, so that their chance of enjoying a love that could be both personally fulfilling and socially acceptable is permanently sabotaged? Is God cruel? Is the Bible mistaken?
Over time my faith survived these challenges, and has even grown stronger as a result. But I can also appreciate how much easier it is for us to burrow deep down into our churches and cling to simple, cut-and-dried explanations about homosexuality rather than expose the vulnerabilities of our faith to something much more complex. And yet if we are willing to admit this much, we should at least try to be honest with ourselves when it comes to befriending gay and lesbian people. How much of our inability to love them is rooted in our personal insecurity about our Christian faith? When we argue with them, aren't we sometimes just trying to protect our own beliefs? When we insist that they are unrighteous, might that be just another way of asserting our own righteousness, so that we can temporarily silence the doubts we have about ourselves as Christians?
I have been on this journey for nearly ten years, and although it may appear to others, and even to myself at times, that this has been about trying to break down walls and build bridges between myself and gay and lesbian people, I know that for me it is really about something far greater. Like many of the challenges that Jesus Christ calls me to, I realize that his ultimate purpose for me has not been the challenge itself, but to teach me more about himself, so that I might understand more deeply his life, his heart and his word. Simply put, I have had to trust him. For that reason, I could never regret any of it, whatever the journey has cost me along the way. I have become richer in Christ, and that has fully compensated me for whatever else I may have lost.