Tuesday, March 28, 2006

But . . . he is my friend!

He is my friend. Of all the good women and men I have met in denominational work outside my own region, he has always been my favorite. Spending hours and days in denominational meetings for nearly six years taught me to respect his keen intellect, appreciate his gracious demeanor, prize his deep wisdom, admire his evident concern for spirituality, and love this man. Quite simply, he was the best servant leader I have ever known in the ABCUSA!

As a pastor, few could match him. As a denominational official he was refreshingly straight forward, willing to listen to those outside his circle, and always quick to propose the very best solutions for any problem we faced. And, he has been incredibly gracious to me, even nominating me for an important denominational position and taking heat from the then General Secretary for doing it. While we usually disagreed on most issues, our long talks and walks discussing the impending division in the ABC were among my very best moments in denominational work. I am firmly convinced that if he had remained in service at Valley Forge a little longer, this current ABC crisis might be happily behind us.

So receiving an invitation to his wedding should have filled me with joy and excitement. Instead, it was a textbook study in the deep and painful angst of cognitive dissonance. Psychologists since Festinger have explained it thusly:

“Cognitive dissonance is a psychological phenomenon which refers to the discomfort felt at a discrepancy between what you already know or believe, and new information or interpretation. It therefore occurs when there is a need to accommodate new ideas, and it may be necessary for it to develop so that we become ‘open’ to them.”

Put simply, that means that when you hold a value or belief that stands in shocking variance to what you learn about another value, belief, or person, you are put into existential discomfort.

For, you see, the invitation announced that my friend was marrying his long time companion and partner in a same sex union. This was not a surprise. Ten years ago, after serving spectacularly in an important denominational assignment, he telephoned me. I was being honored, he said, as one of only a handful of colleagues receiving advance notice that he was resigning his position to return to the pastorate. That was the “text,” I said, “what is the subtext?” He informed me of what I had long suspected. My friend had been living in a covenantal relationship with another man for several years and wanted to come “out of the closet.”

Now a decade later, and in a state which accommodates such unions, my ABC pastor friend is preparing to enter into holy vows in a Service of Marriage. Part of me wants to shout my excitement for this important step in his life. We all want our friends to live happy and fulfilled lives. The amazing tenacity of this union, more than fifteen years and counting, surely testifies to something of the character of my friend. And, the congregation he leads, a welcoming and affirming one, can be counted upon to celebrate joyfully this upcoming union of two of their own members.

But, my heart breaks because such feelings of joy are drowned out by other emotions and disquieting thoughts that will not let me go. As much as my heart wants to reach out to my friend and esteemed colleague, my mind keeps remembering my own ordination vows, promises made nearly three decades ago to proclaim the changeless Word of God and to defend it faithfully.

No matter how hard I try—and believe me with so many friends on the other side of the aisle on this issue, I have tried—to adjust my hermeneutic to include my friend’s practice, I have been unable to find a way to do it. All of the books, as early as Scanzoni and Mollenkott, through Boswell, and up to current writings in New Testament and “reader response” hermeneutics, fail to persuade me. God’s redemptive Word speaks forth powerful words of welcome. We did not seek him, but he sought us and sent his Son to us. But it does not stop with his “welcome.”

When John wrote that “God sent his only Son into the world” (1 John 4:9. 10), he spoke of a permanent mission to us expressing an awesome welcome conjoined with the “deeper magic” of redemptive transformation. The sending and the giving involved a power able to erase our guilt, assuage God’s holy wrath, and to transform the sinner. As Bloesch has written, “It is God who in the person of His Son swallows up evil within Himself through vicarious identification with the sin of His people. A sacrifice was necessary to satisfy the demands of His law, but God Himself provided the Sacrifice out of His incomparable love.”

Our message of redemption is not merely one of dealing transactionally with our guilt but God transformationally creating a new man. Despite our very existential struggles to live out the meaning of this new humanity, the Gospel simply does not give us rights to revise the Word of God to fit the various psychological phenomena we confront in this fallen world. Indeed, if we allow ourselves to compromise and to adjust the Word of God, we run the risk of altering the Gospel and depriving it of its transformational power.

Ironically, if my friend had remained in denominational service, I do not believe we would be in the current political crisis in the ABC. More than a decade ago he and the then PSW executive minister had devoted a good bit of time to exploring the contours of an amicable divorce in the ABCUSA. Recognizing that our hermeneutics simply would not allow for a successful synthesis on the issue of same sex unions (particularly ordination of practicing homosexuals), both my friend and Dr. John Jackson talked lengthily about ways to engineer a division devoid of rancor and ugly recriminations. Had their conversation continued just a bit longer, we might be happily beyond the current impasse, pursuing God’s call as we see it in two organizations.

If differing convictions about baptism or church polity are sufficient reason to bless one another and follow our sense of God’s call in separate denominations (e.g., Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists), why should we balk at an amicable parting over such a fundamental issue as human sexuality? We do not deny the authenticity of the faith of our sisters and brothers who believe differently from us. We merely insist that some issues are not worth diverting our attention from crucial issues of mission to argue and wrangle endlessly. This one, unlike abortion, women in ministry, divorce and remarriage, and other controversies of the last decades goes to the root of our understanding of the Gospel and the Word of God. Our differences, sadly, are profound and intractable.

So, where does that leave me and my friend? I do not know. When he informed me of his decision a decade ago, we joked that if he were in the PSW, as chair of the Ordination Standards Committee I would be responsible to initiate proceedings against him for misconduct. Yet, my heart goes out to him. He has not ceased being that amazing man of wisdom, vision, compassion, and intellect I know. May the Lord bless him richly and deeply until we meet again.

[His Barking Dog professes no official position or right to speak for the PSW. I am about as much an official spokesperson for the PSW as Senator Feingold is for President Bush.]


SmallSoul said...

Thank you, my brother, for your loyalty, honesty and courage. This is a deeply touching article.


revdrron said...

What is wisdom? Content in God’s grace, I am moved with compassion and in the fear of the Lord; I am prayerful for the conversion of your friend!

worship & enjoy, ron