Sunday, July 15, 2007

progress

Okay, so this is kind of long, but come on, it's the middle of summer, right? Anyway, my mom's been teaching the young adult Sunday School class (the term "young" here is sometimes applied loosely, but it's a good bunch o' folks) at the church in Roanoke, where she goes regularly and I am technically still a member. The current curriculum series is called "Confronting the Controversies," and it's a seven-week run covering all the recent hot-button issues, from abortion to euthanasia to prayer in public schools and all the rest. This, the final week's topic, you guessed it, is homosexuality.

Now, the rest of the chapters didn't really do much for me; it was old hat, just perpetual repetition of the same things all of the middle-of-the-road denominations have been saying for pretty much ever. Reading through this chapter, however, it's clear that Adam Hamilton, the pastor who wrote the book, is actually giving the issue a great deal of personal thought and energy, something that doesn't always come through with a lot of this kind of literature. He ended the chapter with a brief statement of his personal views on the issue, which I found at least thoughtful, though still perfectly in line with the church's official stance: he basically concluded that homosexuals are people too, and we should love them, but being straight is really better and it's a Christian's duty to love them enough to lead them to the light. Something along those lines.

This conclusion, he then explained, was written in 2000, and he goes on to add a postscript, written in 2004, that shows some, dare I say it, evolution in his thinking. It's not a complete 180, by any means, but I think it shows progress, and I found it encouraging, at least, that there are religious leaders at least willing to take a serious look at the question and even to possibly consider reevaluating their beliefs. I've typed up the postscript and put it up here for easy perusal; please keep in mind that I typed all this reading it straight from a book between 1 and 2 AM, so any typos are strictly my own.

Postscript—Further Reflections Four Years Later...

In the time that has passed [since 2000], this issue has become one of the most polarizing issues in our society. "Sodomy" laws were struck down by the United States Supreme Court, homosexual marriage became legal in most provinces in Canada, marriage licenses were granted to homosexual couples in Massachusetts, and the Episcopal Church in the United States has consecrated an openly gay bishop. In part as a response to these challenges to traditional values, the Republican Party called for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution defining marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman; and a large number of conservatives, and even many moderates, have taken on the cause of opposing gay marriage.

During the years since I originally wrote what you have just read in this chapter, I have spent several hundred hours reading and studying the literature on both sides of this subject. I have read the latest biblical studies and the arguments posited by progressives and the responses of traditionalists. I have attended debates and have myself debated both sides of this issue. I have listened to the stories of gay and lesbian people in my congregation, as well as the stories of their parents, siblings, and children.

Rather than leading to greater clarity on this issue, my reading, research, and particularly the time spent listening to the stories of homosexuals and their families has led to a distinct lack of clarity and continuing discomfort regarding this issue. The last time I preached on homosexuality, I shared with my congregation that the one verse that kept ringing in my ears as I was reflecting on this topic was 1 Corinthians 13:12: "For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known."

Having carefully studied the latest progressive arguments regarding homosexuality—particularly those dealing with the biblical texts—I remain persuaded that Scripture, tradition, and reason point to the fact that God creatred us male and female and intendeed sexual intimacy to be expressed within the context of the marriage of a man and a woman. Using the terms of Leslie Weatherhead's helpful book The Will of God, I believe that heterosexuality is God's "intentional will" for our lives. I believe God created us intending that we be born with a natural desire for the oppposite sex. I believe God intended sexual intercourse as a means of bonding husband and wife together, as well as a means of allowing humanity to be co-creators with God. I believe God designed our bodies with heterosexual intercouse in mind. I believe this is God's intentional will for humankind.

But I also know that sometimes life does not line up with God's intentional or ideal will. For example, I am persuaded that God's ideal will is that every baby be born healthy and perfect; yet the processes by which embryos develop into children sometimes lead to birth defects—they are rare, but they happen. Such children do not conform to the pattern of God's ideal will; yet God, in God's providence, knows such children will be born with spina bifida, or Down syndrome, or cerebral palsy, or autism. Nevertheless, these children, with their "defects," are enfolded into God's plan for the world. We do not blame God for the disorders, nor do we blame the children. This is just a part of life, and we trust that somehow God uses these children to accomplish his purposes in the world.I have seen God's handiwork through such children in my congregation again and again.

Likewise, we also know that a small number of children are born as "intersex" or hermaphrodite; that is, they are born with undifferentiated genitalia or shared male and female physiology or chromosomal patterns. I do not believe God's ideal will is that any child be born with any of the several conditions labeled as hermaphrodite, yet God certainly knows that such children will be born. These children are loved by God, and they have some purpose to fulfill in God's plan.

As I have considered these things, I have wondered if the same reasoning might be applied to persons who are not, of their own volition, choosing same-sex attraction but whose sexual orientation seems to have been shaped either by prenatal forces or by the environment in which they were raised. Is it possible to say that homosexuality is not God's ideal will but that God knows that some persons will be homosexual by no conscious choice and that God has an extraordinary compassion and care for them, anticipates this condition, and includes them in his plan and purposes for the world?

My point is simply that an omniscient God must know that some persons will be born and grow up to be emotionally and sexually attracted to the same sex. God must understand the intense struggle and pain that some of these persons experience as they wrestle with their identity. God has head the prayers of these people when they have begged God to change them, yet their prayers have remained unanswered. Is it possible that for these persons God's ideal will gives way to what Weatherhead describes as God's "circumstantial will"—that is, God's "plan B." God's circumstantial will, as Weatherhead defines it, is God's will given the unique set of circumstances that prevented God's intentional will from being fully experienced.

Here traditionalists would argue that God's circumstantial will is that homosexuals remain celibate, devoting themselves wholly to God's work, to honoring God with their bodies, and to not acting upon their innate desires. Progressives would suggest that God's circumstantial will—God's "plan B"—might involve allowing persons who are a part of the 1.6 percent to 5 percent of the population who are born with what might be seen as the "birth defect" of homosexuality to marry and experience the blessings of intimacy, love, and marriage with persons who are "afflicted" with the same "birth defect."

Based upon my conversations with homosexuals, I believe that some may, in fact, be born with a tendency toward homosexuality. I have met some gay men who seem to fit the stereotype of those shaped by their environment: young men who had no close relationships with males growing up or who were sexually abused as children. But I have met many others whose stories did not fit these stereotypes. In listening to the stories of homosexuals, then, I believe that there are likely multiple factors that might influence sexual orientation and that some persons may have their identity as homosexuals shaped in utero. In the cases of homosexuals whose sexual identity is shaped by their environment or by childhood sexual trauma, therapy might have a significant impact upon sexual identity. Here it should be noted, however, that even faith-based "reparative" therapies report only a thirty-to-fifty percent success rate among persons seeking help in changing their sexual orientation. This should not be minimized—many who have been through this therapy report great joy at the new life they have found thanks to such treatment. At the same time, the magnitude of the challenge of transforming sexual orientation, if not a near impossibility for some, must be understood by God.

A third category of persons involved in homosexual relationships are persons who were born with a natural desire for the opposite sex but who have chosen to pursue homosexual relationships. For some this choice was the result of failed relationships with the opposite sex. For some it was out of a desire for companionship that was never satisfied in heterosexual relationships. But for some, homosexuality takes root in the same way a host of other sexual sins take root—through fantasy, pornography, and sexual experimentation. Some of these persons struggle with sexual addiction and are involved in dangerous sexual practices. For me this last group of persons most clearly fit the profile of those the Bible is speaking to in its passages forbidding homosexuality. I would suggest that these persons must be taught the nature of sin and God's plan for sexual intimacy and be helped to leave behind this life in the same way we would help heterosexual persons find freedom from sexual addiction or sin.

But what of the first two categories of homosexuals—persons who seem either born or shaped by their environment to be homosexual? What should be the church's stance toward such persons? Here I find myself experiencing a high degreee of ambiguity. I have tried to understand what God's word would be to such persons—and it is difficult for me to see this clearly. As I have contemplated the various responses from both progressives and traditionalists, I find myself dissatisfied with both; yet I cannot clearly see a middle way. Hence, on this issue, I often feel as though I "see through a mirror dimly."

During the 2004 Presidential campaign, I found it illuminating, as a United Methodist pastor, to look at the two most powerful United Methodist laypersons in the United States: President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. President Bush, whose children are both heterosexual, took a position very popular with many voters, advocating a "marriage amendment" to the U.S. Constitution, which would define marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman. Vice President Cheney, another United Methodist layperson, has a daughter who is a lesbian. In a rare show of disunity in the election season, the Vice President publicly disagreed with the President on this issue and indicated that he did not support a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

What this pointed to, for me, was what I have learned from visiting with dozens of parents and family members of homosexuals: When your child is homosexual, there is a strong tendency to see this issue very differently than when you are not personally touched by it. Most of the parents I have spoken with who had a gay or lesbian child were disappointed, at first, that their child was homosexual. They had a difficult time accepting their child's homosexuality. They often tried to help their son or daughter "overcome" it. But in the end, many of these parents, acting out of the love they had for their child, came to accept their child's homosexuality and to see it with more understanding and grace than they had ever thought possible. They would tell me, "I didn't believe homosexuality was God's plan; but I love my son/daughter, and their homosexuality will not stop me from loving them." Some had even attended the civil union or wedding of their gay or lesbian child, not because they approved of such a practice, but because they loved their child and wanted their son or daughter to find happiness. Most prefferred that their child be involved in a committed, monogamous relationship rahter than live life going from partner to partner. Hence, while these parents' ideal plan for their children—heterosexuality—was not realized, they came to have a kind of "circumstantial" plan for them that involved their health and welfare given their homosexuality. Nearly always, these parents indicated that they would not turn their back on their children despite their struggle with homosexuality.

As I considered these stories, I began to think of my own daughters and wondered how I would respond if, years from now, one of them came to tell me she was a lesbian. I would certainly want to go to counseling with her to try to understand why she believed this was so. I would want to talk about God's ideal will, as I understand it, with her. I would be saddened and disappointed because for so many years I have been praying for the man she would marry one day, someone I hoped would love her as much as I love her. But if one of my daughters said to me, "Dad, I have tried counseling. I have prayed and prayed to God to change me. I have come to accept the fact that I am a lesbian and nothing will change that. But Dad, I still want to be your daughter. Will you still be my father? Will you still love me?" what would I do? I know exactly what I would do. I would wrap my arms around her and hold her and tell her how deeply I love her and that nothing, not even her belief that she was a lesbian, could change this.

And it is here, as I contemplated these things, that I began to wonder about God's response to homosexuals who wish to follow Christ. I have always identified closely with Jesus' use of the term Abba ("Father," or "Daddy") to address God. I appreciate the need for inclusive ways of speaking of God; but for me, perhaps because I am a father and I know how deeply I love my children, I identify with this image of God. So I wondered, If I, as a father, would respond this way to one of my daughters if she came to believe that she was a lesbian—if I would hold her in my arms and love her despite this—is it not possible that God, whose love, mercy, compassion, and understanding are infinitely greater than mine, would also love and embrace his homosexual children who longed to follow Christ?

What are the implications of such an idea? I am not certain. I still believe that God's ideal will for our lives is heterosexuality. I still belive that God's plan for sexuality is sexual intimacy practiced within the bonds of Christian marriage. I believe that it is possible, though very difficult, for some homosexuals to live into heterosexuality. I believe many others may be called to celibacy and the dedication of their lives wholly to God (perhaps the "eunuchs for the Kingdom of God" that Jesus mentions in Matthew 19:12, lifting them as an example of faithfulness to God). But I have come to believe that God's grace is wider than I had imagined and that God may respond to his children who are gay and lesbian exactly as I would if one of my children were homosexual.

One final thought. I am certain that our society is moving toward much greater acceptance of homosexuality, with or without the church. I believe that legalized homosexual unions or marriages will be performed in many states in the decades ahead. Today's children and youth are already much more accepting of homosexuals than are their parents. In twenty years our churches will regularly deal with the situation of married homosexual couples wanting to attend church. These couples will not only be legally married, they will have adopted, or in the case of lesbians, birthed, multiple children. The church will need to respond. Will we demand that two people who have loved one another for years, who love their children, and who are legally married, whose children love both of their parents, divorce and divide their family before they can participate in the church? Or will we find some way to see them with different eyes and to invite them to participate in the life of the church? I do not know the answer to this question, but I am certain that your church will face this situation in the years ahead.

Yes, I admit I cannot see this issue clearly. I have had many long talks with God about it—and I am conflicted. I see the Scriptures as God's inspired Word by which I seek to live my life and from which I seek to guide my congregation week after week. Yet I see, in some instances, homosexuality falling into a category of life that may not neatly fit the rules laid out in the Bible. And I see the response of many Christians to homosexuals as often destructive and a far cry from how I think Jesus would respond to them. So I identify with Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 13:12: When it comes to this issue, I see through a mirror dimly. But, having said that, I recall that Paul did not end that magnificent chapter by describing what he could not know but instead with a description of what he was certain of. In verse 13 Paul says, "And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love." These words define how I as a pastor will approach the issue of homosexulaity and homosexual people. While I may not fully understand all that God understands about this issue, I do know something about faith. Our church will call all people, gay and straight, to faith in Christ. We will call persons to entrust their lives totally to Christ. We will invite them to surrender their lives to him and to place their lives in his hands. We will challenge them to invite him to do as he wishes in their lives. My experience is that for some, both gay and straight, this will include a change in some of the most fundamental aspects of their lives, including their sexual practices.

While I cannot see all that the future holds when it comes to the issue of homosexuality, I do know about hope. Hope is one of the greatest benefits of faith. Part of our hope, as it pertains to this issue, comes from knowing that homosexuality is only a temporal issue. Jesus has told us that "in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven" (Matthew 22:30). We will not wrestle with this issue forever. Furthermore, we have hope that God understands what we cannot and that God knows what can and cannot be changed, transformed, and re-oriented in us. But more than that, we have hope in God's grace, in his mercy, and in his steadfast love. Finally, though I feel some tension in knowing exactly what ministry with homosexual persons might look like, I do know about love. I know that in the end I can be morally right; but if I do not have love, I have missed the mark. I know that when Jesus was asked to summarize the Law and the Prophets, he did so by giving us two great commandments, the second of which is to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. I know that this love is sacrificial, it is compassionate, and it covers over a multitude of sins (and mistakes and failures of understanding). I know that in my life and in the church I serve we will seek to love homosexual people.

I am told that someone once asked Billy Graham what he would do if one of his children were a homosexual. His response went something like this: "I would love them all the more, for they would need my love all the more." I suppose this captures my response to homosexuals. I have this sense that God's mercy is wider than we can see. Yet I still maintain that the Bible offers God's ideal will for how we exercise our sexuality. I am trusting that God will help us see, in the years ahead, how to bring these two ideas—God's mercy and God's ideal will—together. Until that day, I will approach this issue with a measure of humility and grace, while continuing to call all people to a life of faith, through which we know a profound hope, which calls us to live lives of sacrificial love.

Adam Hamilton
September 2004


Now, there are some things in here with which I must take issue for a moment.

-His statement about the success rates of "reparative therapy" was not sourced, and I could find absolutely no stats online to either back it up or to disprove it. In fact, the only relevant and seemingly reliable information I could find was on a number of (mostly pro-gay) sites saying that ex-gay organizations generally will not release success statistics, for the pure and simple reason that it's impossible to tell whether or not the "therapy" was successful. A change in behavior is not necessarily a change in orientation. He also failed to mention that the American Psychological Association, as well as most other respected organizations involved in the issue, have issued statements saying that reparative therapy does not work, and often does more harm than good. Either he didn't know this (doubtful) or he purposely didn't mention it; either way, it seems an awfully irresponsible omission.

-His "classification" of homosexuals into different categories sounds completely bogus to me. I'm really too tired at this moment to look up anything more, but haven't we determined that being abused as a child is not a cause of homosexuality? And the one about fantasies and porn leading to homosexuality—does that strike anybody else as a little bit ridiculous? The porn doesn't tell you what you like; you get the porn that appeals to you. I think he included that last category simply because it's the one he most wants to believe exists; he feels like he understands and can fix it.

So, obviously, there's still progress to be made. I mean, likening gayness to a birth defect is hardly what I'd call ideal. Haven't we decided that it's not a "disease?" I'm not gonna lie, there were some things in there to which my first reaction was complete offense, and I don't even consider myself 100% gay most of the time. However, one must stop and remind oneself that this guy isn't a gay rights activist or even all that liberal; he's a pastor, for goodness sake. This is progress. Yes, it's slower than I'd like, but you know how it goes—Rome wasn't built in a day. We're talking about a religion that's been around for about twenty centuries now, and the younger generation isn't in charge—yet. But soon they will be, and we have to have faith that society—government- and church-supported or not—is moving in the right direction, and sooner or later, our great institutions will have to catch up.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Chillin' in the AC at the library.

It is too hot. Oi.

Anyway, I have returned from the family camping trip in Minnesota/Iowa with my mother and various members of her side of the family and their friends, and it was grand. We went canoing and made s'mores and all the rest, and despite some rather less-than-well-behaved minors, the trip on the whole was quite a success. I would definitely say that the high point was the canoe trip, because my cousin and I finished a full three quarters of an hour before everyone else, and so enjoyed plenty of quality swimming time before being made to assist in the cleanup and herding of children back to the campsite. I also managed to come out with a rather remarkable tan, which is a rare accomplishment for me.

I have been working on my self-imposed summer reading list, though I'm not as far on as I'd planned. Having been made to drive most of the way to and from camp and apparently possessing some child-magnetism that attracted every being under the age of ten constantly to my side for the duration of the trip, I accomplished rather less reading there than I'd expected at the outset. However, I am making progress. I'm currently in the midst of Frankenstein, and I think it's starting to affect the way I think (and write, and speak). Damn those early 19th century authors and their antiquated language! So I pray forgiveness if I start to remind anyone too strongly of English class.

On a side note, THE LIBRARY HAS WIRELESS INTARWEBZ!!! I was rather pleased to discover this fact.

Anyway, I'd best be off. I have to go drag my brother away from the TV and make him play outside or something. It simply isn't healthy for a child to be indoors all the live-long day, especially on a lovely summer day such as this.