I've decided that I need a new nickname. Call me, The Earl of Sandwich. By that, I don't mean that I've invented some delicacy that puts meat or jelly between two slices of bread. I mean that I always seem to be the meat or jelly between two slices of bread.
On so many issues of life, I wind up in the middle, because that's usually where I think what's true and right lies, where the facts as I see them lead me. Because of this penchant for the middle, I can leave people on either side of me unhappy.
Some months ago, for example, I wrote a column in which I said that even if states enacted legislation providing civil unions for homosexual couples, the Church, the Christian faith, and marriage would not be threatened.
I got a short email from an acquaintance who describes himself as conservative in politics and faith. He wrote simply, "Are you out of your mind?"
I wrote back, in effect, that the odds were better than even that I am out of my mind, but that the interests of state governments in people's intimate relationships are different from the interests of the Bible or of the Church.
Government first became involved in laws regulating marriage as a means of refereeing disputes that might arise between couples and their families of origin or among the couples themselves over finances, property, the custody of children, and the safety and well being of spouses and their kids. Economics and what we might call interpersonal justice--between spouses and toward children--are what the state tries to enforce in marriage.
The Church, on the other hand, is interested in marriage as a covenant established by God for women and men to enjoy lifelong relationships of intimacy under the direction and blessings of God. Furthermore, it is counter to the interests of the Church for Christians to impose their morality on others. Jesus has deputized us to make disciples. That never happens by legal coercion; it must come from gentle persuasion, empowered by Christians' reliance on the Holy Spirit to live their lives and speak words that reach the wills and hearts of the skeptical.
In a sense, marriage under the auspices of a state and the marriage recognized by God and the Church are two different institutions, although they can be co-terminous. (I, for example, am authorized by the State of Ohio to "solemnize" marriages. But to me that state stuff is just an add-on, a service I can provide to couples to satisfy state regulations. Real marriage, to my mind, is a covenant between God, a woman, and a man.)
So, I wrote to the guy questioning my sanity that while I would never preside over a civil union of a homosexual couple and would not regard it as a marriage from a Biblical perspective, I feel that the state may have an interest in refereeing and regulating elements of such relationships, analogous to the interest it has in refereeing and regulating heterosexual marriages. Otherwise the disposition of property and the custody of children could become messy business.
So, at least one conservative dismissed me as a liberal. That's not the first time it's happened either.
But I sometimes get dismissed in other ways. Last week, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) of which I'm a part, met in its Churchwide Assembly and voted against legitimizing homosexual unions as a rite of the Church and also against the ordination of practicing homosexuals. In this, I believe, it was simply upholding the teaching of the Bible. Marriage, the pithy saying puts it, was instituted to happen between Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.
The Church was saying in these decisions, "We welcome all people, including those whose sexual orientation is different from others. We are all sinners in need of forgiveness and we all struggle with sinful impulses and temptations to rebel against God's revealed will. But we will not say that certain selected sins are now okay."
God's law exists in part to be a mirror that we can hold up to our lives and thereby see our need of God's grace and power in our lives. When I hear God's command, "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor," for example, once I get past my defensiveness and self-justifying excuses, several things happen in me. First, I recognize that apart from outright lying about the actions of other people, whether by gossip or by failing to speak well of those whom others condemn, I bear false witness against my neighbor. I violate God's will for my life.
Second, knowing that I'm in the wrong and personally incapable of "reforming" myself, I throw myself on the mercy of God for forgiveness and for the power to live my life differently, power I cannot generate on my own and power which, because of Jesus Christ, I can receive by simply turning from my sin (repenting) and receiving God's offered help.
These two things that happen to us when we measure our lives against's God's law will sound familiar to anyone who has gone through a Twelve Step program. Such programs begin with the simple insight that we're overtaken by an addiction that is destroying us and our relationships with God, with others, and with ourselves, an addiction which is too big for us to address in our own power. Secondly, we rely on our "Higher Power." The relationship isn't accidental. Alcoholics Anonymous which first promulgated the Twelve Steps is an outgrowth of the Oxford Movement, a Christian effort designed to help alcoholics get free of the power of their addiction.
The Church, in a sense, is a support group for recovering sinners. In its fellowship, we're encouraged to to take a look at our lives through the eyes of God. In it, we're all invited to struggle to live lives that respond to the love and will of God. And in it, we learn that God can transform the lives of those who are honest enough with Him to admit both their impulse to sin and their actual sins.
The only sin that Jesus says is insusceptible to divine forgiveness is what He calls "the sin against the Holy Spirit." The sin against the Holy Spirit isn't a specific violation of God's law. It's the refusal to pay heed to the reflection of ourselves we see when we look in the "mirror" of God's law. In these moments, God is trying to communicate with us, trying to get us to turn away from sin and turn to Him and the new life He offers through Christ. When we refuse to be convinced or convicted by God for our sin, we build a wall between ourselves and God. It isn't that God doesn't want to reach out to us and hold us to Himself; it's that we have decided to turn a deaf ear to God's words of forgiveness and love.
Had the ELCA decided to back the ordination of practicing homosexuals or the blessing of homosexual unions, it would have deprived people of hearing God's call to repentance in one aspect of life and thereby enabled them in building walls between themselves and God.
Last week, when I wrote that I approved of the ELCA's action, one blogger wrote a very gentle and irenic email to me, saying that while he had originally intended to put a link to this site on his web log, he could do so no longer. I note also that another blogger has eliminated a link to this site from hers. I suppose that for them, I'm indecipherably conservative.
I don't set out to be the Earl of Sandwich. I just seem to land there after prayer and study. It can be unpleasant sometimes. But maybe a voice from somewhere in the middle can be useful. I hope so.