Do you ever have an awkward moment in a heated conversation when the unwanted thought creeps in, “What if I’m wrong?” For me it often happens later, while showering or taking a walk. Out of nowhere, it dawns on me that there might be another way to look at what I so passionately said could only be my way.
I hate those moments.
Perhaps you are like me and you like to be right. Or perhaps you find that thinking in new ways is disorienting. Or perhaps it feels threatening to consider the ideas of someone you have disagreed with for so long. And yet, you and I both know that actually considering the perspectives of others is how we grow – whether we adopt those perspectives or not.
After all, there’s no learning apart from engaging deeply with ideas that you do not currently hold!
What’s at Stake
Having LGBTQ conversations in the church is like picking your way through a minefield. Doing it as a pastor is like picking your way through a minefield with a flock of sheep. There’s really no safe way to do it.
A pastor said to me in a shaky voice, “But if I change my stance what would I say to my church?” I’ve talked to parents whose marriage has been threatened because they see their daughter’s sexuality so differently. I have gay friends whose choice to be celibate cost them their gay community. I have many gay friends whose choice just to come out of the closet cost them their Christian community. Ouch. I deeply grieve those losses; I have had a few of my own.
In addition to the relational landmines, for us evangelicals there’s also a particular spiritual conundrum that we find ourselves in. More and more of us are asking the question, “What if I’m wrong?” For the first time, we are considering the possibility that what we’ve always thought about sexual morality is not what God thinks about it. That’s when the double whammy hits us – that we could be wrong either way.
Justin Lee, in his excellent book, Torn, goes back and forth all book long about his own personal struggle of coming out as gay and trying to reconcile that to his faith in Jesus. Towards the end, shares a profound thought:
I realized there was no “safe side” on this issue. If I supported gay relationships and was wrong, I would be sinning by encouraging people to do something wrong, but if I opposed gay relationships and was wrong, I would be sinning by putting myself and others back under the law and making Christ “of no value” (Gal 5:2).
Justin realized that there was a cost if he was wrong. And he knew that regardless of where he came out on the question of whether same-sex sexual activity could be moral or not, there was still a cost.
Is There a Cost of Being Too Moral?
As a parent I’ve experienced the temptation to be overly moral any number of times. I don’t want my kids to get hurt or get in trouble, so I holler “No dating till you’re 30!” or whatever the equivalent is in the situation at hand. The problem, of course, is that instead of doing the hard relational work and the give and take of ideas, I just use my authority to shut down the conversation. Later, in my right mind, I can see that “No dating till you’re 30” is probably going to have some pretty negative effects and doesn’t really solve the problem at all.
I’ve heard a number of people propose that, since there’s some question about the morality of same-sex sexual activity, we should just be more conservative to stay on the safe side. You know, just rule out anything that might be a sin.
Author and pastor David Schmelzer addresses that directly in a way that I thought was helpful (and unnerving):
Is it worth mentioning that the possibility of being wrong cuts both ways? Yes, you can be wrong by being too permissive. But you can also be wrong by being too restrictive. It seems entirely possible to me that, on Judgment Day, God will wonder why we kept so many people away from the Kingdom of Heaven. What gave us that right? Jesus even weighs in directly on this side of the discussion. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces.”
Both Schmelzer and Lee force me to face an uncomfortable reality – that it really matters if I’m wrong – and that I can be wrong not just by being overly permissive; I could be wrong by being overly restrictive. There are consequences to both errors. And then I struggle with the pastor thing. For me personally, as a pastor, I have to wrestle with the consequences of potentially leading people into sexual sin on one side or into religious slavery on the other.
My Personal Misgivings
Two months after my son came out to me and Katy at Starbucks (that story here), I was spending a Saturday morning holed up journalling. It had been a hard week for me personally, so I was praying through it all in writing. Timothy had finished coming out to our family and his friends and he let me know it was time for me to start telling people. That week I broke Timothy’s news to our church leadership team, my discipleship group, my best friend from high school, and three friends who are pastors. Most, but not all, of those conversations went well.
Then comes this entry:
May 30, 2015
At this point in the game, I still feel so conflicted over the issue. And I feel frustrated with you, Father. The scriptures just don’t seem all that clear anymore, and this is a big issue with huge stakes. So what are we to do in this case of a big issue with no clarity? I hear [gays on the conservative] side saying, “As best as we can tell, we’re right, and we feel invigorated by our sacrificial commitment to the Lord – but we’re really lonely, sad, and somewhat repressed and wonder whether we’re missing out on a huge part of the life that Jesus would have for us… not to mention the fact that we seem to be closing the door of the gospel on both LGBT people and the younger generation.” I hear [gays on the progressive] side saying, “As best as we can tell, we’re right, and we feel finally free from all the guilt, loneliness and repression we suffered under – but we still wonder sometimes if we’re being [sexually] immoral.” Neither side seems completely satisfied or convinced. And neither is completely convincing. And the stakes are so high.
I look back now and have a lot of empathy for myself as a dad in that situation. My son had come out to me, and I was undone by it. I started studying the scriptures at a depth that made my masters and doctorate at seminary look like kindergarten. I was reading voraciously and talking to every expert I could get my hands on. I prayed like a revivalist on steroids. And more often than not, God did not seem to be giving me the answers that I was seeking. Not an easy season.
One of the things that bothered me the most was that I couldn’t get the question out of my mind: What if I’m wrong? I mean, this is my son we’re talking about. What if my position leads him into sexual sin? What if I deface God’s image in him? What if I guide him wrong? God, what are you saying?
God the Father
In the next few weeks I’ll share more about where my journey has taken me. But for the time being, let me say this: I’ve encountered God as Father in new ways, and that’s a game changer.
Standing on the sandy cliffs above Blacks Beach in San Diego, screaming at God because I was so upset at him for making my son gay, I experienced something very profound. Overlooking those cliffs was not one crying father, but two. I’ll unpack it in a later blog, but in that moment of despair, I realized I had a Father who not only cared for my son more than I did, but who cared for me on my journey, too.
That day I was looking for answers, but I got something more. One of my favorite authors speaks to that experience in a way that I’ve reread a hundred times:
So what if God exists?…What difference does that make?…We all want to be certain, we all want proof, but the kind of proof that we tend to want–scientifically or philosophically demonstrable proof that would silence all doubts once and for all–would not in the long run, I think, answer the fearful depths of our need at all. For what we need to know, of course, is not just that God exists, not just that beyond the steely brightness of the stars there is a cosmic intelligence of some kind that keeps the whole show going, but that there is a God right here in the thick of our day-by-day lives who may not be writing messages about himself in the stars, but who in one way or another is trying to get messages through our blindness as we move around here, knee-deep in the fragrant muck and misery and marvel of the world. It is not objective proof of God’s existence that we want but, whether we use religious language for it or not, the experience of God’s presence. That is the miracle that we are really after. And that is also, I think, the miracle that we really get.
– Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat
That day, and so many days afterwards, I experienced the miracle of God’s presence on this very tricky journey. And that’s been enough, even when over and over I confront the question, “What if I’m wrong?”
Is God Big Enough to Handle Us Being Wrong?
Often in this process I’ve had to ask myself a different question, also: Is God big enough to handle us being wrong? There’s so much at stake, and yet God is still God. I am not. And my trust will have to rest on Christ alone.
A month or two ago our Study Team had a remarkable conversation around these questions. One of my friends on the team, Larry Dove (who said he’d be glad to have this in the blog) emailed us all later that night. Larry is a pastor up in Central Los Angeles and had done some thinking as he drove back up into the heart of the city. His response captures the kind of humility and dependence on God that I think we all need:
Driving home last night I pondered on the question – “what if we are wrong?” In summary, there is a possibility that we could/will encounter some erroneous thoughts, ideas, and premature conclusions over this issue. But our dependence on the Holy Spirit to continue to guide and drive this process in love (towards each other and the LGBTQ community) will keep us on the road of truth and reconciliation. I am not afraid of getting it wrong. I am more afraid of being convinced I have it absolutely right!
That’s what I’m counting on. As Jesus teaches us in John 16:13, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will lead you into all truth.”