There are times we think we know what we are talking about when in fact, there depths to the discussion we had not imagined.

Twenty-one years ago the parish I was serving found itself embroiled in a bitter dispute about how we should respond to people who felt called to share their love in same-sex relationship. Tempers were heated; the debate raged with a fervor I had never previously experienced.

In my journal in 1995, I described an encounter I had with one of my most vehement critics. In the context of the church’s present struggle over the marriage of people in same-gender relationships, it seems worth revisting this encounter.

Here is that story with enough details changed to protect the identity of the person involved:

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Tuesday February 28, 1995

Yesterday I received a letter from a parishioner. He had been one of the most vocal opponents of my handling of the issue of homosexuality over the past year. He had wanted me to denounce the “sin” of homosexuality from the pulpit. He had demanded a clear statement from the leadership of the church that would inform everyone exactly where we stood. He had accused me of cowardice and accommodation to the prevailing popular culture of the day. He felt betrayed by my failure to take a strong stand; he was fearful for the future of his church.

Whenever we spoke, his words were packed with emotion. His eyes filled with anger. He left frequent messages on my answering machine at home as he pursued me relentlessly pressing his point. I tried not to fight back, but no answer was good enough unless I was willing to acquiesce and support his view.

Then unexpectedly everything shifted. His letter explained what happened.

Last week he was sitting alone in the quiet of his office unable to work as he continued to steam over “the issue.” Suddenly, out of the dark recesses of repressed memory, a long forgotten scene emerged. He saw himself as an adolescent. Through a variety of circumstances he had been left to sleep over night in the home of a virtual stranger. After he was in bed, in the darkness of night, his host came to this helpless boy’s bed and began to touch him. He felt powerless, completely alone, and utterly terrified. When the man finally left, the boy, deeply shaken, put on his clothes and fled. He walked through the night filled with shame, confusion, and fear.

Then he chose to forget. He buried the memory in the dark regions of his unconscious where it lay until, all these years later, in the midst of his anger and frustration, it had forced itself to the surface.

Now he felt the real reason for his violent reaction on this “issue” had become clear.

Having explained his story, he wrote that he now believed he had been hoping I would denounce homosexuality from the pulpit and help his painful memory to stay submerged forever. He wrote, “I believed unconsciously that your judgement against this evil would free me from the burden of my past and keep the haunting memories at bay.”

But I had refused to play my appointed role as fire-breathing preacher of God’s indignation. Instead, I had left this now grown man to wrestle with his own feelings, thoughts, and faith in relation to the mystery of human sexuality.

When we met to discuss his letter, the anger to which I had become so accustomed, was gone. There was a new gentleness evident in his voice. He apologized for his attack on me and admitted that his anger had been a way of hiding from his own truth.

How often do we attack the “sins” of others in an attempt to avoid the brokenness of our own lives? It is so tempting to denounce all that we see that is wrong in others, especially when the “sins” we see in them are not ones by which we ourselves feel tempted.

How often are the ideologies to which I commit myself merely a thinly veiled attempt to hide from the shadows I am afraid to face?

Ideologies are dangerous. They do not have room for real people. They cannot expand or be flexible enough to embrace the realities of peoples’ lives.

An ideology is a fixed body of ideas. It does not have room for subtly, nuance and surprise.

In the company of ideologues it is generally possible to predict the answers they will provide to most questions. Ideologues feel comfortable together only with those who share their beliefs. As long as your beliefs align, you are welcome in their company. Ideologues do not like surprises.

The idea of fixed reference points is appealing. We want to know where the boundary lines lie. We seek to identify who is in and who is out. We long for a sense of belonging and feel we have found our belonging when we all comfortably agree.

Christianity is not an ideology. Jesus was not committed to a fixed set of ideas. Jesus was committed to people. To be committed to people means being willing to embark upon a journey with them, to enter into the struggle of knowing them in the midst of our common doubt, uncertainty, confusion, and fear.  Compassion means entering into another person’s life situation and approaching them without prescribed answers.

There is too much ambiguity in the human condition to be able to relate everything to a human code. I am beginning to see that the mystery of human sexuality may not fit into the tidy parameters to which I have been clinging.

My once angry parishioner has begun to plumb the depths of his own mysterious being. He has discovered that we are far too complex to run life by a set of fixed rules and regulations that can be applied in every situation in precisely the same way. He has discovered within himself that we humans are often motivated by forces we do not begin to understand. His choices and his behaviour have been motivated by unconscious forces he had failed to recognize until he was left alone to confront the violence of his own responses.

The honesty with which this person was finally able to view himself, created a new opening in which we were able to meet with a trust and transparency that had never before been present. I do not know if his mind has changed on the “issue.” But his heart has certainly softened and it seems possible we might be able now to journey on together in faith.

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As, yet again, the church wrestles over the mystery of human sexuality, I am reminded of how complex the forces are that conspire to shape my view of the world.

If we all enter the conversation with a determination to be deeply honest about our own lives and to listen with profound respect to the lives of others, at the very least, the conversation will go better.

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