My Slow-Walk, Surprising Journey

November 20, 2017

My church family, local and regional, has been fighting over human sexuality. And it’s been ugly. We all agree that there is such a thing as human sexuality, but the conversations go downhill from there. In the meantime, as I’ve been sneaking up on or crashing into geezerhood, I’ve been on a private journey to understand these issues better for myself. It’s a journey that has brought me to change my mind. This essay is about that journey. It’s not an argument, but a story of where I’ve come. I’m telling the story mostly for friends or for folks who have known me as a public person. I need to speak and act differently on these issues than I have in the past, and I want you to understand why. (If you want to read arguments, I’m a retired teacher who knows how to construct reading lists and such, but this is just my story.)

The most recent part of my journey began when I overheard two friends loudly declaring to one another how they agreed on the hot topic of Christian responses to homosexuality. “If we just did what the Bible says,” complained one, “we wouldn’t even be talking about this.” “Yes,” his friend agreed, “what the Bible teaches is clear and simple.”

Well, I knew that wasn’t true. I had studied this issue some years before and had already discovered the tangled web of disagreement that interpreters weave around this issue. I let the loud friends walk on, but I decided on the spot to study again what the Bible says, and this time from scratch. I told myself, “I’m a Bible guy. I have the training and the tools, I have the time, and others have published a lot of good research since I last worked on this. Just for my own understanding, I want to read the best stuff I can find, from all sides, and see what I can learn.”

So I set out to do just that. I didn’t buy every book ever written about it, but I identified the most highly regarded works, leaving my book budget (?) wounded and my bookshelves groaning (they’re used to that).

Some folks insist they can open their favorite English translation, just read it, and take it at face value. I learn more by studying about the original Hebrew and Greek words and about the cultures where they were used. Among other things, such study gives clues about which English translation is more accurate and about what we know and don’t know. Sound interpreters of the Bible insist on exploring all kinds of context – historical, cultural, linguistic, biblical, and more. So I studied.

Starting from scratch means trying to leave preconceptions aside and trying not to reach conclusions too soon. I did that for several years. I have finally concluded that the Bible does not well support the “traditional” view that my friends declared as “clear and simple.” The case for “clear and simple” usually relies on six or seven biblical texts nicknamed by some as the “clobber passages.” They basically include the story of Sodom, a law repeated twice in Leviticus, and a few passages from Paul’s letters. Some will argue more broadly from passages in Genesis about creation, though interpreters disagree on the application of these texts. In my judgment, arguments from these texts often neglect biblical context and cling to fragile filaments of evidence, sometimes supported by questionable translation. In the process, I did think often about how to learn from Leviticus about God’s character and purpose and yet, like early Christians, still live in a new way guided by the Spirit and by Jesus’ teachings about loving God and neighbor. (Offering more detail here would move from story to argument.) Further, the Bible doesn’t directly answer some important questions we have today as we try to think about and act responsibly in issues of human sexuality. Many readers find, however, that the Bible still offers helpful guidance.

The Bible calls us steadily to love and respect other people, all made in the image of God. It repeatedly urges us to act justly, to show compassion, and to watch out and care for those who are vulnerable and needy. While the Bible includes plenty of stories about sexual misbehavior, I don’t see them offered as examples for us to copy. (Following David into adultery and murder is a bad idea.) What the Bible teaches about sexual behaviors rejects anything that is demeaning, abusive, manipulative, predatory, or promiscuous. We should not trick, force, or use other people for our own pleasure or selfish ends. The Bible suggests instead that fully intimate sexual behaviors should be reserved for long-term committed relationships characterized by dignity and love. Even when we confront puzzling questions, the Bible gives us plenty to ponder.

A second major insight on my journey was to recognize that many churches routinely misunderstand and misrepresent people who have to struggle with questions of same-sex attraction or gender identity. Often these churches have insisted that people choose to be gay, seeing this as a sinful act in itself, and that they can repent and reverse that choice, often with prayer and help from reparative programs. To put it briefly and bluntly, I have learned that neither of these teachings is true. For the most part, people do not choose to be homosexual, and programs to reverse same-sex attraction don’t work.

I’ve learned about choice from medical researchers and psychologists, as well as from the witness of homosexual folk who would gladly choose otherwise if they could. I had doubted the effectiveness of reparative programs, but became convinced of their inadequacy when the well-established organization Exodus International shut down in 2013. The head of the organization, Alan Chambers, apologized to those people they had hurt, said that their reparative programs don’t work, and closed their operation.

I knew through my experience that many churches’ teaching and attitudes harmed individuals and families (and the churches themselves). But it sobered me to learn how widespread and deeply hurtful these effects are. Many churches, even when they claim to be “welcoming,” marginalize and even show contempt for people who identify with the LGBTQ+ community (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer). And many Christians, both gay and straight, have left churches over it. Also, in response to teaching in churches, many families have rejected LGBTQ children, often leaving them homeless and highly susceptible to thinking of and attempting suicide. The list of harm could go on and on. But David Gushee sums up the situation well: “It says something really terrible when the least safe place to deal with sexual orientation and identity issues is the Christian family and church.” (Changing Our Mind, 35) I’ve come to believe that this must change.

I also learned a lot in my journey by getting to know people. Sometimes I knew them through reading, particularly in autobiography. Some I came to know through story, both direct and indirect. Some were widely respected leaders who wrote I’ve-changed-my-mind books, knowing that they would be trashed for saying so.

I have also learned through people I know and cherish personally. Some are people I’ve long trusted who changed their understandings and have quietly become advocates and helpers for folks in the LGBTQ community. Others have helped churches think together about these issues, overcoming the objection “let’s just not talk about it.” Still others have suffered for their advocacy, but have persisted in witness in spite of angry opposition.

Probably the most important people I have learned from are friends who are both homosexual and devout followers of Christ. Frankly, I’ve been slow to learn, I’ve been hurtful, and I’m having to apologize for that in trying to renew stalled friendships. I’m sure I have more to do. Even then, as my friends have extended grace, I give thanks that we share life in the family of God.

That’s my journey so far. I’m not a pioneer, as many others share this path. But it’s awkward, since plenty of folks I love and respect haven’t shared it. I know well that I still have lots to learn and lots of people to meet. Yet above all, I am glad to have learned more of the wide embrace of the love of God.

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Comments

Comments

  1. Deborah Suess says:

    Thank you for sharing your journey. Prayers for your beloved faith community.

  2. Gregg Lamm says:

    Thanks for this writing Howard. Godspeed.

    Gregg

  3. Bob Henry says:

    Thank you, Friend, for sharing your journey and for being vulnerable. I appreciate your slow walk and willingness to continue to search. This is not easy, but important work. Grace and peace from Indiana! Bob

  4. Nick Block says:

    Thanks Howard for sharing your journey.
    Your final paragraph about those who haven’t yet shared it reminded me of a five year old kicking his feet and screaming ‘I don’t want to go’ as a parent dutifully straps him into his car seat.

    Then, I wonder, if, just because we can do something, we should. I wonder about the changes pharmaceutical contraception has enabled when it comes to the shape of families, the work force, gender “equality” versus expectations for gender roles. And, especially when we discuss intimate sexual behaviors in less than long term relationships.

    We’ve moved a long way from anything like a normative morality. And it has been forever since the Church held any moral sway. The present discussion around Tuesday’s election in Alabama is a case in point.

    I thank you again for sharing your journey, knowing full well that our journeys are not intended to end.

    • hmacy says:

      Thanks, Nick. These are challenging times, indeed. I’d love a sit-down conversation with you, maybe at your end of the continent. 🙂

  5. Eva Brightup says:

    Thanks, Howard, for sharing your journey. I trust your interpretation and faithfulness to the Biblical record. I feel you are coming out at a good place. My heart bleeds for our friends and the Friends Church in the Northwest. We here in MAYM need to have more conversations since we have pretty much put the matter back in the closet since the time of discussions with FOJ, Dorothy Craven and others. We will continue to hold you in prayer and covet your prayers as we try to hear people around us with love and understanding.

    • hmacy says:

      Thanks, Eva, for your comments and for your prayers for our Friends community out here. I think of MAYM often and will pray for you all. I’m quite sure that this issue will present itself again in your community, and I imagine that it will be hard. You all are dear folk to me still.

  6. Cindy says:

    Howard, question for you, what about those who really are not born LGBTQ, but choose this lifestyle, because they were in an abusive relationship of the opposite sex? And want nothing do with the opposite sex. Or that they want to experiment with the same sex, because it is culturally ok? Or a relationship with men and women? It is culturally ok, so its okay. No!
    A married woman or man, tired of the spouse, so tries a relationship with the same sex, gets tired of that, goes back to the spouse again?
    So is this okay? No it says so in Gods word. Romans might be a good place to go to. But you should realize this.
    Two guys holding a debate on this issue both gays beliving they were born this way. One says, I know scripturally it is a sin and live a celebate life. The other states, but what about companionship? Who will take care of me?
    I know there are many different takes on scipture. But it is God breathed and not to be changed to make a person feel better about how they live or believe.

    Just some of my thoughts.

    • hmacy says:

      Thanks for your response, Cindy! Your questions hint at how complicated these things can be. A key issue for me has been how to interpret the Bible well. It hasn’t been to change the Bible, but to understand it rightly.

  7. Marie Pruitt says:

    This makes me smile. Thanks for writing it, and sharing it.

  8. Muriel (Mickey) Edgerton says:

    Thank you for this, Howard. You are doing important work, and you are in a position to participate in some desperately needed healing. I wish you blessings. Mickey E.

  9. John Price says:

    Thank you, Howard. I can empathize.

  10. Beth Swain says:

    Thank you, Howard.

    I don’t want to believe in a God who created my dear gay child and then created people to hate her in the name of God.

    Your article brings me a seed of hope that maybe the Christian faith can choose love and remain Biblically sound.

  11. Kathy Luethje says:

    Thank you for these comments. It remains a big problem even in Quaker churches. There is so much fear of the ‘other.’

  12. Russell Hamm says:

    Hello Howard. I am Russ Hamm, spouse of Cheryllynn Brinker Hamm, and have had the honor of meeting you a few times in the recent past. Please accept my thanks and respect for your blog article re the journey you are on to clarify – for yourself and therefore for others – your conclusions of how to understand the Bible and the churchs’ misalignment on this broad issue. It leads us to accept, relate to, advocate for, and ultimately love our fellow humans in the LGBTQ community. The article addresses, in an unambiguous manner, clarifies the misuse of both the Bible and the role of the church generally to punish folks in this abused community. For those of us whose hearts were opened long ago the article provides both a powerful platform from which we can speak more effectively and clearly. Thanks. Hope you are well. C and I live in Sisters and life is good and blessed

    • hmacy says:

      Thanks, Russ, for your encouragement. And I have enjoyed meeting you here and there. I remember your kindness in coming a ways to our 50th anniversary celebration.

  13. Victoria Burke says:

    So glad to read this, Howard Macy. My own progression in this subject has been a bit different. Just trying to understand human beings most of my life has been the story. Briefly, in the late 90s I was a little misled ( as I see it now) by someone important to me. But when that leader and trusted spiritual friend to me shifted into acceptance it was a great relief to me. I like the New Testatment emphasis on loving one another — or at least trying to go in that direction. Thank you!

  14. Don Sutter says:

    I’ve often found it quite difficult to have conversations with folk who are no longer there …

    • hmacy says:

      Yes, Don, conversations are difficult, and my friends remind me that arguments are often worse. I’ll bet we could have a conversation, though, even better over good coffee. Blessings, Friend!

  15. Tom Smith says:

    Thanks for this very thoughtful and encouraging piece. I appreciate your openness and for your careful examination of scripture, humanity, and yourself.

  16. Paul Couzens says:

    Howard:
    Thanks for a thoughtful discussion. My thought is that from what I’ve read in the Bible is that God”\’s plan was for a lifetime union of one man with one woman. However sin entered the world. Iv’d concluded that sin has caused many deviations in sexual orientation. I believe that if union of one man with one woman is not feasible for any individual then celebacy is the preferred choice for those who desire God’s best for thier lives.

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Living in Fun

"Walking Cheerfully" is place to think out loud about how to use and enjoy humor in positive, life-giving ways. We’ll explore how following Christ in all of life can shape, not scuttle, laughter and creative play. What might it mean to laugh with others as you would have them laugh with you?

Probably the other most common posts will be "Finds in Fun." I first learned the phrase “being in fun” from Tom Mullen’s Laughing Out Loud and Other Religious Experiences. He points to the playfulness of children, who are readier to laugh and to see the silly than most adults. Living each day “in fun” often makes us laugh as we slog through a nearly endless supply of things odd, silly, klutzy, and preposterous. The stories here are mostly from my own ordinary, “in fun” days.

Fun Nooks and Crannies

There’s “Humor in the Bible,” and these posts explore where it is, how to find it, and what to do with it. It’s one way of thinking about how to read the Bible well.

Since a lot of us spend big chunks of time at work, the “Humor at Work” posts will suggest ways to stay sane and happy, to get along with cow-orkers, and to use humor to do good work.

I’m a book-pusher at heart, and some of my best friends push books, too. I even know some folks who read. So “Fun Books” posts will tell about books that are funny and help us think about humor.

Sometimes I’ll brag on some of the friends I’ve been given or share some photos I’ve enjoyed taking. Maybe you’ll laugh, maybe not, but they’ve brought joy in my journey.

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