I’m surprised you are reading this. When a discussion of homosexuality comes up, I find that most Christians are exhausted by it. Are there any words left that might accomplish anything? Words that would resolve it, reconcile us, and put the matter to rest?
And the few Christians who aren’t exhausted tend to be exhausting. They tend to be the true believers (on either the right or the left), who are utterly convinced they are right and willing to evangelize endlessly to the point that one is tempted to respond, “Okay, okay, I’ll agree if you’ll just stop talking!”
So I was surprised to leave a dialogue on homosexuality—in which a flood of words was exchanged—feeling hopeful. I felt this way because the full range of views was present (and a full range of people along the straight/LGBQ spectrum), and yet people listened to each other intently and non-defensively.
Months later, I still feel astonished. No one played the victim card. No subtle snubs communicated, “You are inferior because you think that.” Plenty of emotions were expressed, but few if any felt calculated to coerce.
How did a group of flawed human beings humbly listen to each other with a desire to get to truth—especially on this oh-so-fraught and personal of issues?
My mind goes to the obvious things first: It was a beautiful retreat center, the facilitation was expert and empathetic, the participants were carefully chosen. Those things certainly helped, but they don’t completely account for it. Those things alone could not have achieved such a grace-full conversation.
In the end, I suspect it was that each person (often after a journey of profound pain and perseverance) was fully convinced of God’s grace and love toward him or her and, relaxing into that, was able to listen charitably to challenging differences.
It reminds me of something my mentor Jack Bernard used to say. When confronted by others, he would sometimes smile and reply, “You may have some of the details wrong, but I’m sure I’m as big a sinner as you think I am.” Jack was so in touch with God’s grace that he was able to listen with complete openness to others, believing that they might offer valuable help on how he might grow. And his attitude disarmed his critics, making for fruitful conversations.
It was that spirit of grace that animated ESA’s Oriented to Love dialogue on homosexuality. And that gives me hope for the larger conversation in the evangelical church. While the evangelical church might at first appear to be an unpromising prospect for such a conversation, it possesses the most important ingredient—an emphasis on God’s grace.
As I think about the future of the conversation in the evangelical church, my exhaustion has been replaced by a cautious hope. I resonate with the words of W.H. Auden, a Christian who struggled with homosexuality: “I know nothing, except what everyone knows—if there when Grace dances, I should dance.”
Tim Otto is a pastor at the Church of the Sojourners, a live-together Christian community in San Francisco, and a home health RN. Otto worked on the first AIDS ward in the United States as a registered nurse for fourteen years. His book Oriented to Faith: Transforming the Conflict Over Gay Relationships (Wipf&Stock) explores what the church has to gain from the conflict over sexual diversity.