Today I experienced that sad sinking feeling in my stomach. But to explain, I need to fill you in on quite a long story…
One of my best friends fell in love a few years ago. She (let’s call her Sam) is a person of faith and she fell in love with another woman, who is also a very sincere person of faith. At the start, the relationship was a total surprise to them. They never set out to break any rules or make a statement – they were fully expecting to live “normal” lives as straight women, marrying, having children. But their love for each other – as only love can – prevailed to keep them exploring. They searched their own souls and consulted friends. They prayed and asked God for guidance. They experienced some angry condemnation and even tried to separate for the sake of fitting in with the widespread church teaching condemning same-sex relationships.
Two years down the line they have built a solid and loving relationship. They are both compassionate people who take their work in government medicine seriously. They participate in a local church congregation and Sam was even elected to serve as a society steward (senior leader). They love the church and are committed to it’s life and witness in a variety of ways. Sam gives a lot of time and energy to her responsibilities as a leader.
What has been helpful for me is to see the nature of their relationship. In so many ways I can only describe it as “normal”. The fact that I even say that reflects my own prejudice and ignorance – that I thought their relationship wouldn’t be normal. They have gone through all the same relational stages as Elaine and I. This has been a huge challenge to my inherent prejudices, which expected that it would be all different and weird for them. They are a good example of “opposites attract”. They are complimentary personalities and fit well into the Imago (Relationship Therapy) model of partners who connect with someone who offers healing and wholeness. My sense is that Sam and her partner are a good match in that sense – again, a helpful reminder that their relationship is normal and can be treated, in every way, as a “normal” romantic and committed partnership.
Recently they got engaged. They want to formalise their relationship – for all the same reasons I wanted to. I should probably ask them to give their reasons – but I surmise that among other reasons for wanting to marry, they would like to feel that their faithfulness and commitment to each other (which is a very spiritual thing for them) is recognised by their friends and community as something they take very seriously and also as something they are committed to before their God. I’m sure that there are also some practical and legal reasons for wanting to be married. One thing that seems clear to me is that they want to be married for VERY SIMILAR reasons to why I wanted to be married.
In a faith community that believes that sex is reserved for marriage, one practical reason why I wanted to marry Elaine was so that I could share a home with her with the community’s blessing! While getting the community’s blessing may not be top of the list in Sam’s life, I’m sure it does rank somewhere there on the list. Just like for young (straight) couples who “live in sin”, there’s a sense in which getting married would bring Sam and her partner’s relationship out of the shadows into the light, where it could be acknowledged and spoken about rather than politely ignored.
Sam has been open with the community about her relationship. For some time there was not strong reaction which she interpreted as a surprising affirmation. But more recently, the reaction to the news of an approaching wedding has prompted some people to respond in hurtful ways.
It’s complicated. At one level, the wider denominational church is struggling with the issue and so has issued an ultimatum that threatens any minister who participates in the blessing of a same-sex union. This puts my friend’s pastors (who are very supportive friends to Sam) in a painfully difficult situation. They are caught between being responsible to the community of faith, which could be torn apart by this issue, and being responsible to the individual (in this case Sam and her partner), for whom this feels like a justice issue. Suffice to say, the wider church is not able to offer a prophetic lead in supporting them in their desire to be married. They probably will not be able to hold their wedding ceremony at their home church because the church has formally forbade ministers to allow such ceremonies.
I remember saying to Elaine that the one non-negotiable of our wedding day for me was that we should say our vows at the bottom of the steps in that church, which was, at that time, our home church. It seemed important to me to make such an important step in the same sanctuary that I worship Sunday after Sunday. Sam and her partner will not be able to have the same privilege. Even though she is a committed member, regular worshipper, of sound moral character and displays the fruit of the spirit in her life, she will not be free to consecrate her marriage vows in the sanctuary that she calls “home”.
At another level, the local church is breaking. There are some who are absolutely unequivocally, passionately opposed to any form of compromise. To the extent that they will withdraw from the conversation, resigning in protest. There are others, a few quieter voices, who are very supportive. Probably the majority are people for whom the issue is not entirely clear… but they seem to be able to stay in relationship with Sam and her partner, not rejecting them, even though they may have reservations about the ok-ness of same-sex unions. I certainly respect them for their willingness to hold the tension! There are those who will accuse them (us?) of lacking a clear position – of being wishy-washy – but I commend their spirit of openness and tolerance. I commend them for not trying to take a splinter out of Sam’s eye. I commend them for following Jesus’ clear directive not to judge or condemn (Luke 6:37). I commend them for holding the tension between compassion and principle/doctrine… for taking seriously Jesus’ assurance that God “desires mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13).
Finally, what emerges for me is just how hurtfully we can act and how much pain we can cause when we think we are right! I want to write more about this, but being right is seriously over-rated! It’s over-rated as a way to please God. I was taught that having the right thoughts (doctrines) in our heads will translate into the right kind of lives and actions. But too often, the opposite proves to be true. It’s often the people who have little or no theological or ethical training who are able to practice compassion and mercy, without any prompting or complication. “Pharisees” – teachers of right thinking – come along and cause pain through their conviction that “knowledge always improves lives”. But knowledge and wisdom are not the same. An increase in knowledge does not automatically lead to an increase in wisdom. What we need is wisdom, not knowledge, which comes across as “know-it-all”. Know-it-all people have decided that this is right and this is wrong. The faith community has been tied up by self-righteous know-it-alls who sincerely believe they are helping people live better. Except their behaviour exhibits exactly the same kind of qualities that Jesus challenged the Pharisees over.
The Pharisees weren’t insincere. They weren’t lacking in knowledge – they were the most learned people in the community. They weren’t irreligious. So what did they lack? Jesus suggested that all their “correctness” had squeezed out their ability to cope with the messiness of life (that is, grace and compassion). Their quest for Perfection – an unreal state - rather than the kingdom of God – a very real thing – rendered them harsh and insensitive and haughty and proud and far from God. Jesus infuriated them by suggesting that children (unlearned, ignorant), women (not fully able), sinners (failures, sinful) and the infirm (punished with suffering) were closer to the kingdom that they…
What the Pharisees lacked was not knowledge of religion, but knowledge of God. It’s really hard to leave our self-righteous egos behind and progress without judgement, when we haven’t experienced an encounter with God that involved an embarrassing (public) acknowledgement of our own failure (sinfulness) Without a huge sense of our own need for God, we continue to walk in the pride of our lives as exemplary rather than Christ’s as the only example.
As I spoke to Sam this evening I sensed the huge disappointment in her as it dawns on her that her “home” community of faith is not going to get the Supportive Thing right. While there may be individuals who support, the majority are going to fumble the ball for fear of dropping it! I sense that argument is not going to change people’s opinion – especially the hard-liners. What may offer some hope is simply sharing her story and her pain. Without allowing herself to become their victim, sharing her story of love and life and hope AND her sense of disappointment that she is not able to be fully embraced by the community she loves… I think people need to hear that story!
I need to hear that story!!!