Gracious Christianity. As I thought of the theme for this issue of Whosoever, images popped up in my mind: a former close friend who is a missionary to Togo. I say “former friend” because when I came out to her several years ago, she said, admittedly with sadness and regret, that she could no longer be my friend.
The members in my former church who voted to leave the PCUSA because of their “liberal leanings” in even considering allowing individual churches the option of ordaining gay and lesbian individuals. I say “former church” because when they left the PCUSA, I left their congregation in wounded bitterness.
These “moral” citizens talked about “values” and the “gay threat to marriage” and a “Christian nation” in the months leading up to and immediately following the recent presidential election. The pseudo-Christian sanctimonious lawmakers in the state of Virginia have passed a law (HB751), which not only forbids a civil union between me and my partner but goes so far as to deny us the right to any sort of a partnership contract or arrangement “purporting to bestow the privileges or obligations of marriage.”
But, looming largest in my mind was the face of my partner’s mother, a face that is becoming more and more vague in memory because although we live in the same town, I’ve only seen her once in the past four years. Welcome before she knew her daughter and I were lesbians, I am now forbidden to come into her house. As a Christian, she is offended by my “sin,” meaning my loving, respectful five year monogamous relationship with her daughter, and does not want to be in my presence.
Gracious Christianity, indeed. “Those Christians” need to think a few minutes about the concept. “Those Christians,” two words which sound almost like an epithet when I say them these days with increasing bitterness and skepticism about Christianity and The Church. The adjectives that come to mind when I think of them are judgmental, hypocritical, unkind, rigid, hateful, condemning, condescending, and prideful. Gracious? Humble? Gentle? Loving? Christlike? No. And so I gather up my wounded feelings and point at “Those Christians” and say, “I’m willing to accept you. I’m willing to be gracious to you.” But what’s left unsaid are the words, “but only if you change. Only if you accept me. Only if you treat me with respect.” Gracious Christianity, indeed.
This morning I was reading Kathleen Norris’s Amazing Grace and came across the following passage:
And here, it seems to me, is the life of the church – any Christian church – as it struggles to interpret the scriptures, and the Word of God himself, in a life-giving way. Jesus Christ asks us to interpret ourselves, and each other, with the same hospitable, good-hearted diligence that we grant to him. He offers the truth not as a thing but as a way, an opening on the path between the spirit and the letter of the law. Between pushing for precision and exactitude in matters of faith and practice, and knowing when to leave well enough alone. Between a practical and loving tolerance and the insidious voice of sin speaking in our hearts, offering us self-justification for our harsh judgment of other people. A way between an anything-goes morality and a rigid, unforgiving moralism. A way of forbearance, following the command that St. Paul gives, in Galatians 6:2, to “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”
My immediate reaction was to think of “Those Christians” and how much they need Norris’ compassionate insight. And then it slowly occurred to me that I am one of Those Christians. I’ve been so busy resenting and becoming bitter that I’ve taken my eyes off Christ and let them linger on human beings. Christ’s face and voice, for me, have been replaced with the face and voice of my partner’s mother because of the way she, like so many others, claims to speak for God. Thus, in beginning to worship a false image of God, I have been changed into a like image: one of judgment and unkindness.
Oh, great. Now what? Why do I have to go first down the path of forgiveness and gracious Christianity? They don’t accept me, so they aren’t going to care how loving or compassionate I am toward them. They think I’m the sinner, and I guess they’re right, though not in the way they think. I’m not following Christ when I look to people for acceptance and approval and become petulant when they don’t give them to me: I’m following human beings. I’m not following Christ when I get so angry about the way others can interpret Scripture and try to convict me with it: I’m following human beings and their opinions and judgments. Instead, I should be considering the phrase from the Presbyterian Book of Order: “God alone is the Lord of the conscience” and looking to the Holy Spirit to guide me. By focusing so much on other people and what they think or how they act, I’m giving more credence to them than to God. I believe that we become what we worship, and what I’ve been worshipping hasn’t been God.
I can’t change others: I can only change myself. I’m not responsible for others. I’m only responsible for myself. If I keep my eyes on God, I won’t be able to help but be more like Christ: more gracious, more compassionate, more forgiving, more loving. What that translates to for me is something very practical: it requires that I go back to my partner and say, “remember a few weeks ago when you asked if you could bring your mother over to show her our new house, and I said ‘not as long as I’m not welcome in her house’? Well, I’ve changed my mind about that.” And I’ll have to do that knowing that it won’t change her mom’s heart or mind. I can’t extend kindness with the hope (or demand) of receiving kindness in return. I have to love even as God loves me: without condition. Doing so probably won’t transform her mother, but it certainly will transform me. I will keep my eyes on the face of the one who sets a pure example of love: the epitome of gracious Christianity in word and in deed.
Cheryl D. Coleman is an English Professor and lives in central Virginia with her partner.