Episode #2 Liminality
My first day at a new suburban church in a large city changed my life’s direction. I was introduced to Sarah (not her real name) by a trusted friend. After a short bit of small talk, Sarah said, “My fiance and I are leaving for grad school in a year. I’m working until he finishes his degree. Meanwhile, I’d like something challenging to do just to keep my mind stimulated for this coming year. Is there something I could do for you that would help you and me both?” Under my breath I said, “Thank you, Jeeeeeesus! Is this the treasure buried in the field?” When she indicated she could meet right then, I quickly shook hands with all the big givers and met her in my office. I wrote a list of possible issues for her to study: Biblical inerrancy, Peace in a time of war, Quaker pastoral leadership, homosexuality, divorce and remarriage, and a few others. As we went down the list, she winced at homosexuality. “I’m not really interested in that…anything involving women’s rights or leadership that I could study?”
I pounced, “Well if you really want to be challenged, I’d really love to have someone look into the thinking around homosexuality. I’m really concerned in that area but haven’t had to time to research it very deeply. I feel quite a bit of urgency around the topic.” So she agreed to research the growing edges of science, theology, psychology) and report her findings to me each week.
Her reports were astounding. Her research was excellent, exposing me to an incredible volume of information from all sides involved in the ongoing debate. I learned that about 8% of every species (mammals, I think) were born with same-sex orientation, and I learned that some psychologists were lobbying to take it off the “abnormal list.” I learned that some respectable theologians (most mainline) had combined exegesis, historical records, and cultural phenomena and come up with a quite decent argument that most of the Roman texts cited against same sex relations refer to depravity, (the Greek and Roman practice of men of power taking young males to live in their homes as use them as prostitutes, for example) and that the sin of Sodom was first of all disobedience, selfishness, open violence, often forcible rape, and refusal to listen to the Lord. Sex was used to assert power, much like it is in our modern day prisons. Even though I learned a lot, I would not abandon the teaching that had been taught me over the years. But each of these revelations punched a hole in my bag of certainties.
My meetings with Sarah were like a seminary class in human sexuality. I told her about my experience at my previous church and how I was still wrestling with the same questions. I really needed to know about new thinking from all the different disciplines. Sarah supplied that information in spades. She quickly opened herself to those new truths while I lagged behind. By the time she was done with the research, she had moved to a point of concluding that homosexual behavior is not a sin and that, in any event, the clearest direction of scripture is to love everyone. If she was going to err, she was happy to err on the side of loving someone and letting God work things out with them.
Sarah eventually put together a two-Sunday presentation on her information and beliefs and was invited to present it in a Sunday school class where the scholars and intellectuals held their discussions each Sunday. She did a great job and gained a great deal of respect from the congregation as her research presented new questions about homosexuality.
By then my bag of certainties was almost empty. I wasn’t certain about what I had been taught, nor was I certain about the new stuff on same-sex marriage. Here I was again – clinging to certainties that weren’t even certain. I began to study Sarah’s notes and do some digging and it only made things worse. I had a choice to make but I sadly valued my position as pastor of this church and lacked the courage to be straightforward, so I let fear kept my mouth shut.
By then, the Spirit’s beckoning had become less gentle; it t led to turmoil, even torment as I wrestled against it. I successfully blocked it out from my consciousness, leaving me feeling disobedient and hypocritical. It reminded me of having been invited to a friend’s birthday party when I was in the fifth grade. After a while, our host announced she was going to take us all to a movie. “OH NO! It’s a sin to go to movies because they were full of depravity, or so I had been taught. So I sneaked out and ran for home, trying to stay off the road where I could be seen. I got lost and crossed muddy creeks, and walked through brambles that had my legs bleeding. Finally I found the highway and ran for home. My mom saw me and listened to my story and said, “Stan, you could have gone to that movie if you wanted to.” I went ballistic. I thought I would be her little Christian hero, but instead I felt like a fool. I began to ask myself about all the other sins–bowling, pool, dancing, playing cards, etc. I began to lose confidence in teachers that “had all the answers” and to mistrust their Biblical perspectives.
I knew I couldn’t go on like this, I was left standing on shifting ground yet I had no safer ground on which to stand. I was reminded of the early Quakers who left the State Church and, to their great peril, jumped into a new untried spirituality. God seemed to be the one who was urging me forward so I let go of my need for certainty and just asked God to lead me. I dove off the safe pier of belief into the stormy waters of liminality where I tread theological water with no help in sight. Making things worse was the fact that fear robbed me of the courage to engage God on what seemed God’s call on me to speak prophetically to Quakers. I had committed to teach truth that reflected the tone of the Faith and Practice (the Quaker statements of faith), but it listed homosexuality among perversions like bestiality, a description I couldn’t embrace. Saaaay something’s wrong here, the inner voice kept insisting.
Where could I find peace and unity between my soul and God’s calling? Like the apostle Paul had written nearly Two thousand years before, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”