Curiosity as Faith

Curiosity 1

I chose curiosity.

When someone close to me came out, she was anxious about the reaction of her family.  My go-to response to all personal revelations is to assure each person that I will always love them, no matter what.  I believe this gut reaction was cultivated in me by my parents, who have demonstrated deep and unconditional love for all six of their children,  Runaway Bunny style. So at least I know enough not to evaluate, or judge, as much as I can help it.

But loving is not enough.  We can do that even while considering someone’s orientation to be morally wrong, as in “hate the sin, love the sinner.”  Ugh. I doubt that anyone feels loved under that banner, but we can declare our love with that in mind, confident that our righteousness is intact, and go on our merry way while leaving the “loved one” confused and shamed.

This time, because I do love the person who came out, I decided to investigate.  My curiosity was stimulated by the fact that people with great integrity in spiritual matters have quietly expressed affirmation of an orientation that is considered a sin by many people in my denomination, and in my circle of friends and family.  Opposite opinions.  How can that be?  I respect people with contrasting views.  They all appear to be conscientious followers of Jesus. This time I chose not to reflexively defend a position, but to explore the various positions instead.

Knowing for the first time that somebody I love is gay forced me to consider what this sin business is all about, and thus began a quest.  The primary resource is the Bible, and so began some serious study.  It didn’t take long before I realized that it not only matters what the Bible says and does not say about homosexuality, it matters even more that we understand the purpose of the Bible itself.

Ah, there’s the rub.  The fulcrum on which the entire debate rests.  I won’t go into the specifics of hermeneutical choices here.  It is not something that can be summarized for convenient perusal.  Cliffs Notes on how to interpret the Bible should not be allowed, especially when we are exploring references relevant to personal identity.

Instead I’ll focus on the necessity of making a choice.  My curiosity was not satisfied in the way a scientist might reach a conclusion about the patterns within cancer cells, for example.  The exercise of biblical study requires conscious choices about how the texts will be regarded.  You have to decide how much weight you will give to historical context, for example.  You have to select the translation of the ancient text that you consider most faithful.  Choices, choices. Choices take a lot more time than most people are willing to spend.

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Nevertheless I sought helpful resources and settled in to do a lot of reading. In the process of studying the Bible itself, I keep running across what seems like a critical point that seems most clear in the gospels.  It is the choice about one’s posture: to be on the defense, or to be curious.

Jesus challenged the defensive posture of the Pharisees.  Their aim was to maintain purity as God’s chosen ones, and thus to condemn every action that broke the purity codes, or threatened to do so.  The code had to be amended many times in order to ensure absolute purity, and thus chosenness.  One could not associate with anyone who was unclean. The Pharisees, in their attempts to honor the one true God of Israel, ended up promoting a protective stance which is inherently a fearful one.

Jesus railed against their posture, because protecting themselves entailed treating others with contempt at worst, and neglect at best. They had to be exclusive in order to avoid sin.  They could not attend to the spirit of the law–to love God and neighbor–because they could not come close to anyone who needed love.  They could not cultivate in themselves the compassion Jesus said was at the heart of the law.

And compassion is embodied in Jesus, at every turn.  What strikes me is that curiosity is necessary in showing compassion.  Jesus asked people what they wanted of him.  He encouraged them to describe what was broken.  He asked his disciples what people thought of him.  He asked permission to heal.  Sometimes he healed the soul when physical healing was all that was requested, because he took the time to look deeper into their dis-ease.

And so I have concluded for now that a protective, defensive posture is fertile ground for sin.  It cultivates exclusion, judgment, arrogance, and callousness.  It seeks to ensure one’s personal beliefs are the correct ones in a set of multiple choice questions.  It gives the illusion that we can be right about our interpretive choices, and thus others must be wrong.  It refuses to acknowledge that choices have been made. And so begin the lessons in Self-Righteousness 101(self-ordered righteousness).

If instead we are curious about what God is doing in the Scriptures and in the world around us, we have the capacity for compassion.  We can wonder how God has ordered the world.  We can appreciate diversity instead of fearing it.  We can see the suffering and enter it with others, offering ourselves as fellow seekers of healing and hope.

If I can maintain curiosity and avoid defensiveness, my quest may never be fully satisfied intellectually.  But satisfaction isn’t the point.  Love is the point, and that is found not in books or ideas.  It is found in the person of Jesus Christ, and in the church that he said is his very body.  It is the source not for answers, but with unlimited potential for compassion and love.

Second Person Singular

Words matter.  I realized this early on, so that when I was still in elementary school, if somebody asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, my answer was “a poet.”

I can’t say I have actually developed the talent for that, but words still move me deeply, and I strive to craft my sermons and essays thoughtfully.  Language is often the vehicle for transformation and revolution.

A 19-word sentence I first read several years ago has had more impact on my life than any other extra-biblical statement.  I was on an “urban immersion” mission trip with a few high school students from the congregation I serve as pastor.  The earnest college students who led the program selected a few quotes and taped them on the walls and doorways of the building.  The words were meant to challenge, provoke, inspire.  One of them exceeded their expectations, at least for me.

“It is a poverty to decide that a child must die so that you may live as you wish.”

Many of Mother Teresa’s messages had a way of cutting through the politics of the world’s inequities.  In this case, she did not shy away from making it personal: “…so that you may live as you wish.”

Sometimes when I am writing a sermon I become conscious of the pronouns I am using.  It is important to use the first person plural—“we and “us”—often, because Christianity in the U.S. has become too individualized, whereas the biblical revelation indicates that we are collectively God’s people who need to identify with and lean on one another.  We are called to trust God as a community of faith.

But sometimes the pronoun has to be “you.”  Second person singular.  You are responsible for your money, for deciding to spend it on yourself instead of offering it to serve the needs of the poor.  You are the one who sees the balance or imbalance of your stewardship.  You have to decide whether a child will live or die on your watch.

If we resort to generalities, as in “we ought to do more to help,” how easy is it to walk away from that?  To assume that somebody else will figure it out.  Somebody richer than I has money they should spare for the poor.  Not me.  I have plans for my money.

I know the rationale.  I have caught myself reasoning, “Who can blame me for wanting to keep up with the standards of my society?”  Well, Mother Teresa can, that’s who.  If anybody had the street cred to say it, she did.

And so a little Polish nun with her own vow of poverty serves as my conscience far more often than I want her to.  I don’t even know what her voice sounded like, but her image seems to suffice.  She interferes with a lot of Pinterest-generated plans.  She sits next to me on the couch when I see TV commercials for customized home scents or linger on Amazon a little too long looking for just the right throw pillow.

“It is a poverty,” I heard once when I bought another cute pair of red shoes.  “It is a poverty” I heard during the restless night at our hotel.  “It is a poverty” rang in my ears as I drove back to the store and returned the shoes.  “Was there something wrong with them?” the clerk asked.  “No, I just changed my mind,” I replied, and walked away, slightly richer in spirit, money freed up to feed a child for a few more days.

That makes a nice tidy ending to a post, doesn’t it?  But heeding that voice is complicated, and hard.  Baby steps, sometimes bigger, but mostly baby steps, in old shoes.