In the 10 days since I announced our "Fearless Conversations" I have, quite naturally, heard from lots of people in our church, with a wide variety of things to say. I am quite sure there are many more who have questions and concerns that they have not yet shared with me, though I hope they will.
I have also heard such a variety of responses and responses to the responses that it has made me more sure than ever that these conversations are necessary. I love the Church, and I love this congregation. I grieve over divisions in our church; I grieve to think I might cause them in seeking to be faithful to what I think the church should be. Nothing could be further from my intent.
Among some of the comments I have received, one theme has been the question of whether I have an "agenda" beyond my belief that open conversation, with loving speech and loving ears, is good. I would like to answer a few of the most pressing questions here:
Do I desire to lead our congregation to reject or change the United Methodist teaching that God's plan for marriage is the union of one man and one woman?
No. I intended to make that clear by putting our church's teaching front and center of my announcement, and I am sorry for any confusion.
Does your invitation imply wholesale endorsement or agreement with the perspectives of these three guests?
No. It does not. Each of the three people I've invited has a different perspective; they do not all agree with one another. And, I expect there to be places where I disagree with each, some times more profoundly than others. I think we can model the kind of respectful, open disagreement that I take to be part of having a fearless love.
Will these be real "conversations"?
Yes. Each will begin with a welcome and about 30 minutes in which I interview the guest from my own questions, then we will open the floor for about thirty minutes so that people in the audience can direct questions to the guest. We will have some guidelines to ensure that each part of the conversation is respectful and civil, but we intend to give ample space for questions from many perspectives.
So what do you hope to accomplish with these interviews?
That's a big question! For the sake of length, I think maybe I can can answer it best for now by starting with what I hope will come out of the first conversation, with Alan Chambers. I will address the other two interviews in future notes.
Alan is the husband of Leslie, his wife of more than 20 years. He calls their marriage and their family the greatest blessing in his life.
Starting when he was a teenager, Alan was participant in, and then an employee of Exodus International. Exodus was the largest and most celebrated ministry dedicated to helping people replace same sex attractions with heterosexual attractions. Eventually, Alan became president of Exodus, and remained so for several years until he and the board decided to close the ministry, as they realized that their methods were ineffective, and sometimes psychologically damaging to participants.
Obviously, Alan has a unique perspective on how Christians have offered hope and redemption for gay and lesbian people seeking after Christ - sometimes well, and often in ways that did not live up to their good intentions. There are three things I hope will come out of our conversation.
1) I hope Alan will be able to give a picture of his marriage to Leslie, and how that marriage has been a blessing to them both.
2) I hope we learn from the benefits that first drew Alan to Exodus, and also about the flaws that led him to close it.
3) I hope to make clear our scriptural beliefs about personal holiness, grace, and the role of the Church by asking Alan civilly about his own beliefs and drawing out comparisons and contrasts with our own when I can.
As I write these hopes, I realize that I hope to give witness that there is no contradiction in being scriptural, compassionate, loving, and hospitable - four of our church's Core Values. I'll add the last of our values -joyful - in for good measure.
In a curious providence, of all the many pieces of feedback I've heard since announcing these interviews, none has summed up my hope that these will be "fearless conversations" more neatly than part of a Facebook post that came from someone on the other side of the country:
"As for the upcoming meetings, do not feel so threatened and don't cast away your confidence so easily. God has not changed. If anything, this could be a great time for the church to lovingly present the gospel."
Please pray for me, pray for your church, and pray for those who will come seeking good news.