The Love Mandate

A reflection by Sarah

Today is the Tuesday after GCN Conference 2015. After a weekend of joyous reunions with friends I haven’t seen since last year, beginnings of new friendships, and an overwhelming sense of safety and comfort despite the fact that Wesboro Baptist showed up, I’m back home. The new semester began this week, and I met my new students today. The first to introduce herself to me was a transgender student who arrived early to explain why the name on my roster would not match the name she would like to be called and to tell me that she might be late to class on occasion: she’s staying with a friend and commuting from two hours away because her parents kicked her out over winter break.

It is the Tuesday after GCN Conference, and I’m sad. Maybe it’s the annual post-conference blues. Maybe it’s that winter break wasn’t long enough and I’m not quite ready to put my professional face back on yet. Maybe it’s that maintaining the energy required for the conversations we have here is challenging. But whatever it is, it seems to be sticking around for the day.

This weekend, I experienced grace beyond measure. It was the first time I’ve attended conference without any interaction that I’d consider negative. I was met where I am rather than chastised for who I am not, I was challenged when I needed to be challenged, and I was loved even when I wasn’t feeling very charitable myself. Vicky Beeching, whom I had never heard of before GCN announced that she would be a conference speaker, turned my world upside down. I couldn’t hear on the day of her keynote and I’m not advanced enough in ASL to have understood the interpreters fully, so today I listened to the talk for a second time. Despite my theological training, I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve never understood Evangelical Protestantism because that is not my tradition. I didn’t know what a small group was until about two years ago, I’ve struggled to see how praise and worship music could be God-centered rather than human-centered, and the first time I heard the word “Hillsong” I wondered if it was a Broadway musical. In general, I’ve been skeptical of Evangelical traditions and judged them harshly. But as I listened to Vicky telling the story of her early experiences of God and continuing faith development as an adult, I realized that much of it resonated with me. Through her gentle and compassionate words, Vicky helped me to see that there can be much more depth in Evangelical traditions than I had originally thought. I did not get the opportunity to tell her this in person, but she left me with a heap of conviction about my less-than-charitable interactions with Evangelical friends. I’m as grateful for that as I am for her reminder of how much God loves us.

As I reflect, I see that my sadness today is, more than anything, related to love and all the ways we as the Church fail to show it – the ways I fail to show it. It’s easier to be harsh, judgmental, and dismissive than it is to be loving. Justin Lee’s talk on Sunday reminded me of how poorly I manage righteous anger. I would rather become livid about Twitter trolls and dismissive clergy in my Christian tradition than ask myself, “What am I doing to show Christ’s love to others today?” It’s difficult to clean my own side of the street when I can point to the piles of vitriolic garbage across the way, but cleaning up my own act is what I am called to do. It’s what all of us are called to do as Christians.

We’ve written a lot about celibacy mandates and our opposition to them. Invariably, this leaves both progressives and conservatives demanding that we state whether or not gay sex is a sin. I can’t think of a question that is shallower and less meaningful for discerning what fullness of life in Christ means for me as a gay Christian. Why is it that instead of walking alongside the faithful as they ask, “What does it mean to love, and how can I do that?” churches seem more interested in behaving like political movements? Why are we intentionally splitting the Body of Christ even further? Why do we respond to opinions different from our own with, “You are the enemy. You are an oppressor or colluding with the oppressor. Because you aren’t nodding in agreement with every bit of the party line on my side of this issue, you’re dangerous and I can’t learn anything from you”? We can do better. We are called to do better. And we can do so by living into the love mandate.

My Christian tradition teaches that love is the greatest of all virtues. We are meant to love one another because God loved us from the beginning. Absence of love is absence of God, so without love one cannot have spiritual life. When we do everything we can to treat others well and ensure that they are able to thrive, we are living into the kind of love known as agape. But what does that mean exactly? In the abstract sense, it is one aspect of how we help each other progress toward complete union with God. What it means in terms of lived experience is much debated.

If I empty my pockets and give all the contents to the homeless man I have seen every day on my morning commute for the past four years, am I treating him well? Am I doing everything I possibly can to attend to his wellbeing? I use this as an example each semester when we get to our morality unit in introductory theology. Though the majority of my students are Christians, there are about as many perspectives in the classroom as there are names on my roster. Of course you’re doing everything you can to treat him well. You’re giving him all the cash you have on hand. No, you’re doing him a disservice. What if he uses that money for drugs? That would run contrary to promoting his wellbeing. No, you’re both wrong. You haven’t done your Christian duty to this man until you’ve found him a place to stay or at least some way to get help… continuing on and on until every person in the classroom has offered a perspective and defended it using some principle of Christian morality.

The same sort of differences of opinion arise in discussions about how best to love people we believe are doing something that is harmful. What are we called to do in these situations as Christians? Are we to avoid saying anything because doing so might come across as shaming? Are we to preach at them about how wrong they are and how many people they are harming? I’m no wiser than you, but neither of these strikes me as an expression of love.

From where I sit — and I’m no priest, so take this as a lay person’s opinion — the love mandate calls us to see and affirm the image of God in others. It compels us to listen to people who are different from us and learn about what we do not understand. It requires humility, patience, and willingness to walk alongside the people God brings into our lives even if the reason for this is unclear. It means that we need to be in meaningful relationships with our brothers and sisters before offering admonishment lest we inadvertently make false assumptions and commit sin ourselves. [Points finger back at self and offers thanks to God for Vicky Beeching.] I believe one of the most important ways we can live into the love mandate is by supporting each other as we discover our vocations, not just to marriage or to celibacy, but also as sons and daughters, parents, teachers, engineers, writers, providers of shelter to homeless LGBTQ teens…

Today is the Tuesday after GCN Conference, and I am doing my best to pour my sadness into prayer. I pray for the coming of a day when every person is known and loved, grey area-dwellers are appreciated for their greyness, and celibacy and marriage mandates are artifacts long overcome by our shared vocation to love.

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