I often wonder who reads this blog. There are a handful of diehards that have become kind of a cyber-family — I’m disappointed when they don’t leave a comment and I really enjoy the give and take around different issues. In an overwhelming number of cases, the feedback I get is very positive, but every once in awhile I get knocked down a peg and am given ample opportunity to remember to be humble. In about a twenty-minute period of time, I met three different people who are, well… let’s say, NOT fans.
I was walking across a hotel lobby heading to lunch, when a young woman approached me, and without any other greeting said, “You believe in evolution, don’t you?” Now, I am almost certain that there is nothing about my appearance or apparel that would suggest such a thing, so I figured the question was based upon, a) she knew who I was, and b) she’s read what I’ve written, and c) a desire to tell me a thing or two. I was right on three counts. Taken aback, I paused for a moment, then said,
“If depends on what you mean by “believe in.” If you think I place my faith and understanding of the universe upon the principle of evolution through natural selection, that would be wrong. If you mean that I believe there is scientific evidence that supports evolution and that I do not find it incompatible with my Christian faith, then yes.”
She scowled at me, mustered her forces, and said, “So you don’t believe the Bible?”
I knew this wasn’t going well, and that I was walking a fine line, but I slogged back in. “Okay, once again, if you mean do I believe that the Bible is an inerrant book of historical and scientific fact with no errors that affirms slavery and prohibits women from speaking in church, then no. However, if you mean do I believe that the Bible contains revelation of truth and beauty from God through the faithful and insightful men and women of a premodern culture in language and concepts that they could grasp and comprehend, then yes, I believe fully in the Bible.”
She narrowed her eyes and pursed her lips. “You shouldn’t tell people that science is more accurate and true than religion. If you believe that, you shouldn’t be a pastor!”
“It’s not a matter of more true/less true. I don’t believe science is a threat to God, but a gift from God — to be used wisely and well. My religion offers me a foundation for spiritual growth, relationship to God, and an ethical frame by which I try to live. Science explains to me many of the mysteries of life and creation, and I find it to be miraculous in the varied answers and complexities it reveals. Science doesn’t diminish God in my eyes, but makes me marvel at the immensity and intricacy of all of creation.”
Her brow furrowed. This obviously wasn’t going the way she had planned, and while I obviously was not winning her over, I was making it more difficult for her to launch her next concern. While she was thinking, I noticed a twenty-something woman standing a few feet away, looking at us. She said nothing, but stood silently by. My immediate friend said, “I think what you are doing is wrong. You’re telling people something is true that isn’t. You make people think knowledge is better than faith.”
“Well, what I try to do is tell people that knowledge and faith are not enemies — that we don’t have to choose one or the other. In fact, what I try to teach is that to use the gift of our mind and reason is an act of faith — honoring God with the faithful stewardship of our intellect, thinking, and lifelong learning.”
With a “ppffffuuuhhhhhhh” raspberry-like closing comment she walked away without another word. As she did so, the young twenty-something slid into the void she left, and (at least) she politely asked me if I wrote United Methodeviations. When I said that I did, her face clouded, her smile disappeared, and she asked, “Are gays sinners or not?”
I paused, having a Job-moment, a “why-me-oh-Lord-what-has-your-faithful-servant-done-to-displease-thee” kind of thing. I dropped back to my default. “Well, we’re all sinners.”
“So, being gay is a sin?”
“If being human is a sin — if we are all fallen and all stand in need of the forgiveness of God — then yes, being gay is a sin. If we are going to play games to decide who is better than whom, then I won’t go there. I defer to my ignorance about what is normal and what isn’t. I won’t say left-handed people are inferior to right-handed people, that blond hair or blue eyes are ‘sinful’ ( I was speaking to a blue-eyed blond), or that homosexuals are less acceptable that anyone else. And as for the Bible, I am tired of going down that road. We ignore too many other “commands” of God to pick and choose a few to get all hyper about. I adopt a simple “first stone” philosophy — I will listen to the opinion of any Christian without taint or blemish about who is a sinner and who isn’t. Anything else is base hypocrisy. I have yet to ever meet in my personal experience an “evil” gay, a “sociopath” lesbian, or any fundamentally “corrupt” homosexual. Labels and categories don’t work. The gay and lesbian people I know are fantastic people, most of whom love God and others in the best possible ways.”
“So, we should let gays in the church?”
“We shouldn’t “let” anyone in the church. We should be the church with open arms to any child of God. This is God’s church. I don’t know of anyone God doesn’t want.”
“And ministers? Should gays be ministers?”
“Well, y0u may not agree, and that’s fine, but I have to be consistent. If a person is acceptable, they are acceptable. If they aren’t, they aren’t. If you hold that homosexuality is a sin and that a person in sin should not be a pastor, that’s fine — as long as you apply the same standard to pastors who gossip, divorce, are in debt, don’t keep a Sabbath, take God’s name in vain, lie, cheat, show favoritism, etc. Clean out our pulpits and let the faultless fill them. For me, the issue isn’t one of morality, but of justice and core values. If we are all created in the image of God, then let’s act like it. If we are all fallen and in need of grace, then let’s acknowledge our brokenness and treat each other better.”
“So you disagree with the Book of Discipline?”
“I guess I do, and I disagree with the old Books of Discipline that affirmed the superiority of whites and males. Luckily, a number of other people disagreed with those Disciplines so that we are no longer quite as racist and sexist as we were for the majority of our history. Look, I can’t debate you on this. This isn’t a matter of the head, but the heart. Information and opinion aimed at changing your mind is a waste of time. Only experiences and encounters that touch your spirit and change your heart make any lasting difference. All the rational arguments fly right out the window for me when I think of real flesh-and-blood people I know who are gay and lesbian. They all make my life richer, they are good people, and I don’t have any desire to see them change. So, it is my personal opinion, for what it’s worth.”
We talked for a couple more minutes. She made clear to me that she disagreed with me and that she thinks it is irresponsible for me to put pro-gay sentiments on my blog. I told her that blogs are where people share what they think and believe, and we parted agreeing (I think) to disagree.
By this time, any hope for lunch was past, so I headed back to the meeting room area. As I was coming out of the stairwell, a young guy raised his chin at me and said, “Yo.” I hooked a thumb at my chest and raised my eyebrows adopting the universal “who, me?” pose.
“Yeah, yeah, you’re the guy who hates RETHINK Church, right?”
“Um, no. I’m the guy who has raised questions and am troubled by some of the rhetoric, but I have never said I “hate” the campaign.
“But you think it’s a stupid waste of time, right?”
“No, I think it could be improved and I’m not sure it is having the impact on the target audience it is designed for. I actually have no strong feelings about it one way or the other. I get in trouble for reminding people that it’s just a marketing campaign.”
“But you don’t think we should do it, right?”
“No, I think we should do it as well as possible, with the most integrity possible — and be honest about what it is and isn’t, and not be afraid of open dialogue and criticism.”
“But you don’t think we should do it.”
“My personal opinion is that there are way too many things that are more important. I will promote it where I can, but I won’t give a lot of time to it. It’s a nice feel good campaign, but I am not confident that our denomination is willing to make the necessary changes that a truly “rethought” church will demand. We’ll see. Anyway, what I think won’t impact the ad campaign one way or the other. It is what it is. Why are you so interested?”
“‘Cause I think it’s great and my conference thinks it’s great, and we couldn’t figure out why you hate it so much.”
So, there you have it. Perception shapes reality. I think I try to apply critical thinking and spiritual reflection to the big issues facing the church because I love the church and want to see not only a future, but a bright, powerful, transforming future, and some see me as a science-loving, gay-loving, church-hating threat to all we hold dear. Isn’t this a great country, a great church? All three of these people sought me out. All three of these people read my blog (or at least read it once!) and cared enough to challenge me. Did I change any minds? Did they? Who knows. The encounters stay with me, and I am reflecting on them, desiring ways to build bridges across the chasms of misunderstanding and miscommunication. So maybe I have been changed. Maybe they have, too. But how wonderful we can disagree, not fight, not let things turn ugly, and part company no worse for the exchange.