At the School for Leadership Training at Eastern Mennonite Seminary in January, we planned to offer keynotes, case studies and workshops on discernment. As SLT neared, churchwide rifts between same-sex attraction theologies were deepening.
We didn’t want to make things worse; we didn’t want to claim we knew the right discernment strategies. Yet not to name lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender-discernment links would be to ignore an elephant in the room.
So we planned an “Elephant in the Room” worship service. We didn’t provide discernment guidance. We simply sought a context to offer LGBT-related hopes and fears to God.
The service wasn’t perfect. Some on opposite LGBT theology sides thought there was an appeal to emotions when the focus should have been on the scriptural and theological wrestling the times cry out for.
Yet what happened seems a story worth telling. First, however, let me link it to the Acts 10 story of Peter and Cornelius. When asked to preach on this just after the “Elephant” service, I found the two stories almost demanding to be joined.
Particularly illuminating seemed the worship planners’ request that I ponder “double conversion.” On two sides, in this riveting narrative from the early church, the Holy Spirit is at work.
Cornelius, though a military officer outside the faith communities Acts highlights, prays constantly and wants to live faithfully. When in a vision an angel tells him to visit this stranger Simon in Joppa, he is both terrified and obedient. He sends two slaves plus one of his devout soldiers to find Simon.
Meanwhile, Simon Peter — his quest to follow Jesus often blending confusion, passion, betrayal and love — has a vision of “something like a large sheet” coming down from heaven with all kinds of creatures on it. A voice tells him to kill and eat the animals.
Shocked and horrified, Peter objects. Not only are the animals unclean — as Leviticus 11, Ezek. 22:26 and 44:23 or Daniel 1 insist — but the clean/unclean distinction is key to his people’s countercultural witness.
Scarier yet, as we often stress to each other today, Peter knows visions must be tested against God’s word. As both Deut. 13:1-5 and Gal. 1:6-9 underscore, any of God’s people swayed by dreams that go against God’s commandments are to be cast out, even killed. No wonder “By no means, Lord” is Peter’s response to the command to eat unclean animals.
Amid his bewilderment, the visitors from Cornelius show up. Finally Cornelius himself arrives and falls at Peter’s feet but is told to get up; Peter is just mortal.
The two dream-addled mortals sort things out. I had this strange vision, says Cornelius. Oh my, and I had the oddest one myself, reports Peter.
Finally it all falls together for Peter. Each vision interprets the other. He sees what God means to do. He reports to those gathered to ponder the unfolding mysteries, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”
Cornelius, a Gentile, a man outside the boundaries of the people of God as then defined, has to trust a vision breaking in from beyond. Peter, thoroughly within the boundaries, has to trust a vision insisting age-old walls need no longer keep Cornelius and other Gentiles outside. Together, Cornelius and Peter must learn that in Christ both can experience God’s welcome. But what travel adventures, whether physical or in faith understandings, each must undergo to achieve such a dramatic double breakthrough.
This takes me back to the “Elephant” service. As our LGBT theological divisions deepen, commitments to faithfulness are only strengthening. Cries of conscience are intensifying. People are dreaming dreams and seeing visions.
Some are convinced a hedonistic culture is driving an emotional contagion seducing the church down the wrong path. They dream of a church faithful, cross-shaped, countercultural, even if the price is to be called a bigot.
Others are certain there can be no avoiding confrontation with those hate-filled aspects of culture that have led to suicide, torture and even killing of some of us deemed today’s unclean. They dream of Christians being faithful even when the price is to be called disobedient to the church.
I don’t know how many people were dreaming which dreams at EMS the morning of Jan. 22. I do know this: Some were having visions in which God said one thing; others were dreaming of a voice from above commanding something different.
Scores to hundreds of dreamers dropped into a basket at the foot of a cross (beside which was an elephant) LGBT-related fears and hopes written on paper. And I know that tears were falling. And falling. And falling.
Why the tears? I can only guess this: What we’re doing to each other is traumatizing us. We don’t wish to destroy each other. Yet we don’t know how to obey the God whose voice we are hearing and honor the person who hears God saying the opposite. So we continue toward a house divided.
Yet for those precious moments at the foot of the cross, we were united in our anguish. We were like the soldiers singing “Silent Night” across the trenches at Christmas before they picked up their weapons once more.
I don’t know how we build on such evanescent moments of unity. Even the story of Peter and Cornelius is part of the LGBT battleground. So I can only testify to my own fallible dream. In my dream, a voice says no one in the LGBT wars is unclean. God shows no partiality based on our views. Rather, God is inviting each of us not only to weep for a minute together at the foot of a cross in Martin Chapel but also to linger there for days, for months, for years — until we learn what a double conversion, even across this divide, might look like.
Michael A. King is dean of Eastern Mennonite Seminary in Harrisonburg, Va.