In Defense of May (and Marriage)

Tra la! It’s May! The lusty month of May! That lovely month when ev’ryone… Guenevere belts exuberantly. Everyone, what? The fantastical composer of Camelot would have us believe…

It’s mad, it’s gay, alive, a lust display
Those dreary vows that everyone takes, everyone breaks
Everyone makes divine mistakes.
The lusty month of May.

Spectacular? Yes. Glamorous? Yes. Over-the-top? For sure? But there is absolutely nothing about May — compared to any other month — to justify the disparaging suggestion that it is a time when dreary vows everyone takes, everyone breaks.

Quite the contrary! I’m honored to have been asked to officiate at a couple of weddings in the next few months. My considered assessment based on interaction with these couples suggests something beautiful, wonderful, singular and sacred.

Officiating is being invited to get up, close and personal with the intimacy shared by a couple. But we all witness the same mystifying magic when two people commit to loving their one-and-only unto death. It’s not as rare as cynics suggest. However, it’s more precious than even we can imagine.

My husband and I enjoyed dinner with one such couple this weekend. Below is my thank you to them from the next day. I share it here in the form of an open letter with the hope that its contents express something worthwhile for others as well.  Of course, names have been changed and descriptors generalized to protect this precious couple’s privacy:

Dear Ginny and Peter,

It was wonderful to reconnect and renew friendship last evening. We had a really enjoyable time with you over dinner and covering a broad range of topics in conversation. Thanks for your warm and generous hospitality — the prep time it took to prepare such a feast (homemade pasta!!!!) is recognized and appreciated!!! We also love Willow and cannot wait to introduce him to Jeb the Dog.

Savoring our time with you, a few more thoughts have come to mind. For example, I cannot say often enough, prepare for your marriage every bit as much as for your wedding. Yes, you’ve got great experience of living together as a couple and significant knowledge of each other. Don’t take that for granted, build on it!

You might simply reflect — personally as well as together — on the question, “What does it mean for me/us to make a public, permanent ‘I’m-not-going-anywhere-without-you’ commitment?” Make a point of talking with each other about the details of, and dreams for, your relationship even more than the specificities and practical details of your wedding.

Take advantage of the wisdom that surrounds you in your families and communities. You might say to people and couples you admire and respect, “We look forward to our marriage as much as our wedding. We really appreciate the way you live your life and believe you have tried and true wisdom to share. What good counsel would you care to share with us based on your experience?”

The sort of people you’d want to ask that question would be deeply honored — and probably humbled — that you’d seek their confidence. Then listen, listen, listen! Engage them with questions that further plumb their wisdom. These conversations may turn out to be more valuable than any wedding gift you receive from them.

Another thing occurred to me this morning while walking with Jeb the Dog at the creek… The link between spirituality and intimacy. A crude but accurate way of expressing it is, “Sex and love-making is not just about our bodies!”

Intimacy — deeply satisfying, other-centered, life-giving connection — is not just about being physically naked but by being emotionally and spiritually transparent, received and treasured by your one-and-only. In this way, your lives will deepen and your ongoing commitment will be greatly enhanced — both on your wedding day and all the years to come. Begin cultivating now this desire and capacity to actively engage each other spirituality.

That might sound pretty abstract, even disembodied. Here’s a practical way it might take shape for you… Today I am ordering for you a copy of Joan Chittister’s most recent book, Radical Spirit: Twelve Ways to Live a Free and Authentic Life from Barnes & Noble. Not because it’s about marriage, it’s not! I’m sending it because anything Joan Chittister writes is worth reading.

I propose that you read it together and talk about it as you go. It’s not “homework” from the guy officiating at your wedding. It’s simply an explicit invitation to you as a couple to develop the habit of continuously deepening your capacity to share intimately about your spirituality — to be transparent, received and treasured in this core part of who you are personally and together. You both seem to like books. Perhaps sharing some spiritual reading is a practice you will want to continue in the years ahead.

Do this, or something more to your liking, because you want to as a lead-up to your wedding day. Keep doing some practice of explicit sharing of your spiritual selves as an ongoing enrichment to your lives throughout your marriage. It’s then that you will enjoy the cumulative gifts of deeply physical, emotional and spiritual love-making — the greatest proof for, and most intimate encounter with, the love of God we can experience this side of whatever else is next!

This sort of marriage will be my heartfelt desire for you as I officiate at your ceremony but also all the while we are enjoying a great celebration of fun, family and frivolity.

Again, thanks for a most enjoyable dinner and conversation last evening. The two of you, together, are a blessing.

Richard

Until Death Do Us Part

Too many are tormented. Too often our churches and moral leaders instill lingering shame instead of comfort and support. They just don’t get it!

Once again I sat across from a long-suffering faith-filled Catholic who was in a second marriage without an annulment of a first marriage. As a gay man, I get it! I know what it is like to be deemed “inherently disordered” if not demonized by a church in which I had eagerly professed vows as a religious and served as a priest.

As a family member, I get it! First marriages of two siblings culminated in divorce. Both married again. Neither sought the “benefit” of an annulment from the church. Neither have I sought official “laicization” (that is “return to the lay state”) from ordination as priest. Annulment and laicization legalities simply feel condescending and shaming. With my sibs I choose to have no part of it.

As a friend, I get it! The same sad story is all too common. Too many live with lingering doubts and troubling conflicts inflicted by a church they want to call home. Many tears have been shed, many doors slammed, many hearts broken. As one friend recently shared:

“Till death do us part” has been narrowly assumed to be physical death. In my experience, there is also mental, emotional, and spiritual death that can occur. I hung on to a 21 year marriage until I was so close to mental, emotional, and spiritual death that it has taken 21 years to get resuscitated.

As Scripture attests, those in high places are wont to impose heavy burdens on others they themselves would never carry. (Matt 23:4) In this — and so much regarding sexuality and marriage — the church leadership is simply wrong!

Married people know this! Your average Catholic knows this! The Synod of Catholic Bishops gathering for a second session in October have a rare opportunity to show they are beginning to get it. Perhaps as preparation they can meditate on the verse: “It is mercy that I seek, not sacrifice!” (Hosea 6:6; Matt 9:13 and 12:17)

But married people and average Catholics have our work cut out too. We “get it” but too many of us are still shackled by shame and doubt. Perhaps all who have been baptized would do well to reflect on the words Jesus heard at his own baptism in the Jordan and his disciples heard spoken at Jesus’ Transfiguration: “You are my beloved son. In you I am well pleased!” (Matt 3:17 and 17:5)

God does not say to those he loves, “Get an annulment, jump through these legalities to become acceptable.” To all who are baptized into Christ — and I would include all who have been created in God’s own image — God says, “You are my beloved. In you I am well pleased.”

With that as bedrock, we are prepared and commissioned to love as best we are able — until death do us part. In this God is more than well pleased.

Scripture Blesses Same-Sex Marriage

Twelve years ago I proudly marched in my first Gay Pride parade. Yes, I was afraid! A lifetime of being vilified within American culture and condemned as “inherently disordered” by the church I love and served would not easily loosen its harsh grip.

A few short months before that Sunday in June 2002 I had been the pastor of the Church of St. Luke – an iconic institution a block down Summit Avenue from the Governor’s Mansion. I had been a priest for thirteen years and a Jesuit for twenty-three. The stark contrast between preaching and presiding at Sunday liturgy and now marching in the Pride parade down Hennepin Avenue could not have been more acute.

I have come to believe what I only intuitively knew twelve years ago – the turmoil and debates in Christian churches are not ultimately about my sexual orientation or even sexuality in general. Our biggest fight is really about our understanding of Scripture and its use in exercising authority and maintaining order in our communities.

If it were really about sexual orientation and behaviors there would be more than enough “inherent disorder” among heterosexuals to keep the defenders of moral rectitude busy! As Luke Timothy Johnson – distinguished professor of New Testament at Emory University and father of four – incisively points out, a relatively small set of same-sex behaviors gets singled out for moral condemnation while a vast pandemic of sexual disorder goes ignored.

It’s a moral duplicity as old as the human race! The LGBT minority offers a convenient scapegoat onto which the cultural majority easily projects its own moral failings. Righteous indignation often compensates for the human state of powerlessness. Long ago I learned to be especially wary of any who would sit in moral judgment – what is so out of control in their own lives that they feel the need to control mine or the lives of others? From my way of reading the Gospels, this resonates with what Jesus preached. And for that, he was scapegoated by those who claimed seats of authority.

As Luke Timothy Johnson convincingly asserts is an essay cited below, a moral obligation confronts those of us who experience God at work among all persons and in all covenanted and life-enhancing forms of sexual love. Believe me, those who are gay understand fully that the authority of Scripture and of the church’s tradition is scarcely trivial to us.

At the same time, we must honestly ask when has Christianity ever been lived in precise accord with the Scriptures? Forget about reconciling war with Jesus’ Scriptural teachings of nonviolence, I am regularly exasperated with Catholic bishops who wantonly ignore its own Just War tradition while giving tacit approbation to whatever military action our government chooses to deploy.

Scripture and tradition are conveniently and regularly set aside by bishops no less those of us who populate the pews every weekend. What about divorce? Even under another name such as “annulment”, Jesus explicitly prohibits it! And where would we be if Christians ever faithfully observed the exhortation in Leviticus to put adulterers to death?    Must wives be submissive to their husbands to have a good Christian marriage?

Yes, something sacred is at stake. The authority of Scripture and of the church’s tradition is scarcely trivial. As Professor Johnson demands, our responsibility is to take our tradition and the Scripture with at least as much seriousness as those who use the Bible as a buttress for rejecting forms of sexual love they fear or cannot understand.

Again relying heavily on Johnson’s compelling insights, our situation vis-à-vis the authority of Scripture is not unlike that of abolitionists in nineteenth-century America. All abolitionists could point to was Galatians 3:28 and the Letter of Philemon, while slave owners had the rest of the Old and New Testaments which gave every indication that slaveholding was legitimate and necessary. Scripture explicitly sanctions slavery as a God-ordained social arrangement, one to which neither Moses nor Jesus nor Paul raised any fundamental objection.

So how is it that now, in the early twenty-first century, the authority of the scriptural texts on slavery and the arguments made on their basis appear to all of us, without exception, as completely beside the point and deeply wrong? The answer is that over time the human experience of slavery and its horror came home to the popular conscience.

Eventually, though begrudgingly, we came to recognize that every human being is created in God’s own image. Once that experience of their full humanity and the evil of their bondage reached a stage of critical consciousness, this nation and our churches could neither turn back to the practice of slavery nor ever read the Bible in the same way again.

Those of us who call for full recognition of gay and lesbian persons within the Christian communion find ourselves in a position similar to that of the early abolitionists. We are fully aware of the weight of scriptural evidence pointing away from our position.

To justify our resolve, we invoke the basic Pauline principle that the Spirit gives life but the letter kills (2 Corinthians 3:6). And if the letter of Scripture cannot find room for the activity of the living God in the transformation of human lives, then trust and obedience must be paid to the living God rather than to the words of Scripture.

Paul struggled mightily! Ultimately he recognized he could not force the God of Jesus Christ into the framework of his community’s previous understanding of what it means to be a people in covenant relationship with God. Instead, he called others to reread and reinterpret all of their Scripture with new eyes and a transformed heart. We too journey to Damascus and are at times startled to recognize Christ in those we previously rejected if not persecuted.

Quite simply, we would not revere the New Testament as sacred if the first believers had not been willing to obey the living God disclosed in their own stories and experiences more than the prescriptions contained in their sacred texts —writings we, as did they, cherish as holy and inspired by God.

It is extraordinarily important, as well, that we who assert convictions based on the graced experience of our lives not just accept “cheap” or “easy” grace – as if whatever feels good is morally acceptable. What grounds our Scriptural defense is our own lived experience of those profound stories of bondage and freedom, longing and love, shared by thousands of persons over many centuries and across many cultures, that help define us as human.

Our obligation, therefore, is to name what constitutes virtue and vice in sexual behavior. A good start would be applying the same criteria on both sides. If porneia among heterosexuals includes promiscuity, violence and exploitation, then the church must condemn similar forms of homosexual activity. Similarly, if holiness among heterosexuals includes fidelity, chastity, modesty, and fruitfulness, we should celebrate and praise the same virtues whenever and wherever present in same-sex love.

The creative, redemptive work of our living God never ceases. The Spirit blows as and where she will. As people and as the People of God, we continue to be shaped as imagio Dei every day of our lives in ways that can surprise and even shock us. This fact cuts to the deepest truth revealed by Scripture itself—namely, that God does create the world anew at every moment, does call into being that which is not, and does raise the dead to new and greater forms of life.

In this perennial struggle to come to the fullness of faith, brave witnesses like Paul refused to force their experience of the Risen One into the “old wineskins” of any dogmatic or literal understanding of Scripture. Instead, they followed the invitation to give witness to Christ alive among them. In the light of that experience, they began to reread and reinterpret all of their Scripture as prophecy that reveals God in ways they had not perceived before—and could not have perceived before.

In short, we would not have the New Testament as Scripture if the first believers had not been willing to obey the living God disclosed in their own bodies more than the precedents provided by their most cherished writings—writings we also, by the way, consider holy and inspired by God.

Jesus reserves his harshest judgment for the Pharisees’ willful narrowing of God’s initiative and intentions. They obstinately clung to their own sense of righteousness rather than acknowledging God’s prerogative and propensity to work in ways their moral categories could not contain. In this we see that human history truly does reveal salvation history!

Yes, much has changed in the last twelve years. Much more needs to change – and this by God’s design and initiative. This Sunday morning I don’t know if I will be at the parade or at church. It will come down to how the Spirit moves me!  My hunch is I will be in the pew at Christ the King Catholic Church.

In any case, let’s all celebrate where we’ve been, where we’ve come  and where we’re headed — with parades and in our churches. Happy Pride!
______________________
This reflection is largely an edit and synopsis of Luke Timothy Johnson’s superb essay, “Homosexuality & The Church: Scripture and Experience” that first appeared in the June 11, 2007 issue of Commonweal magazine. In writing, I made the judgment that extensive citations and quotations would be distracting. Nevertheless, I must express my esteem for and indebtedness to Professor Johnson. I enthusiastically encourage you to read his more extensive and compelling essay [here].