I suppose there is no one way in which our minds change. Sometimes all it takes is a nudge: a bit of new information and we swing like a door on oiled hinges. But there are other times when, like Job, the only thing that will move us is an interrogation from a storm-clad God. Only after the hurricane asks what we know of the wisdom of the ibis, the dwelling of darkness and light, the storehouse of the snow and the procedure for hooking a leviathan do we allow our minds to unfold a new map. At other times our minds change like the glacier ice of the anthropocene. An ever-so-slight rise in tube-bound mercury, the absorption of the sun’s warmth over a decade—and things begin to thaw, slow, but still unsettling.
It is fascinating, this mind-changing stuff. A somewhat popular theology magazine that still bears the curious title The Christian Century has, at varying intervals since 1939, run a series of essays by prominent theologians in which they describe how their minds have changed. When I have the chance to peruse the back issues it is these essays that I find the most interesting.
This week I am thinking of these essays and of the changing of minds in general as I prepare to participate in a significant service in the life of the congregation I serve. A little over a year-and-a-half ago, an overwhelming majority of the congregation voted to “affirm LGBTQ+ persons” in all aspects of church life. Out of respect for those who disagreed, the decision was initially received with sobriety. Now, too soon for some and too late for others, it is time to receive the decision in worship. The order of service indicates that about three-quarters of the way through I will stand before the gathered community and offer reflections on I Corinthians 12.
I have decided that I will start with a confession. Some months after finishing seminary, a friend and I got together one last time before parting ways. I was headed off to doctoral studies; he to lead a church. Neither of those paths were surprising. He was obviously called to pastoral ministry and was very gifted. I was, at that time, more interested in the theoretical architecture of faith than in its lived reality. We reminisced, as friends do, with mutual pleasure. Our professors had been stuffed, like scarecrows, with the quirks tenure permits. Our hikes along Shenandoah Valley’s edges had been filled with the grace and languor native to that landscape. Our weekly card games had been tips-of-the-hat to denominational ancestors who shunned “face cards.”
As we waltzed through the conversation, I sensed that my friend was uneasy. This was odd. It was not until our conversation turned toward the future that I understood why: some months prior my friend had begun a romantic relationship with another man. He told me the story and asked what I thought. I can only imagine how disappointing my response must have been. I said, “I don’t know.” I had spent two years immersed in the study of the Christian moral life and all I could say was “I don’t know.” I do believe I affirmed his faith and call to ministry, but about the rest of him all I could say was, “I don’t know.”
I am not sure what effect that conversation had on my friend, but I know that it has had an effect on me. I have carried his story with me for more than a decade. It came to mind each time college students shared with me their struggle to reconcile their faith with their sexuality. To feel my mind change has been to have my friend’s character stand in contrast to the map of the moral landscape I had been given. To feel my mind change was to recognize in myself, especially in the visceral responses of my youth, phobias that bore a striking resemblance to hardline hate of people I knew to be morally incompetent. To feel my mind change was to recognize that the gay folks I knew were not the depraved lot referenced obliquely in scripture.
I am not naturally the sort of person who likes to take public stances. My mind tends toward moral description rather than prescription. I am at ease with the ambiguity of “I don’t know.” I am occasionally tempted to hide behind the excuse of therapist and educator alike, the phrase “you need to decide for yourself.” Yet I do have views and I have changed my mind before. I was once firmly, politically and morally opposed to having a dog. I once thought the suburbs to be nothing other than wastelands of the common good. I once praised international travel. I once thought highly of universities and the welfare state. I have changed my mind on all those things, swinging as if on oiled hinges.
And yet I will struggle to stand in front of my congregation on Sunday. I will be unable to forget the mentors whose views I am rejecting, an entire epoch of biblical interpretation, those members of the global church deeply troubled by a pastoral change I support. I will step behind the pulpit knowing that, in the minds of some, my thinking exemplifies the slippery slope. But my mind has changed. My friend’s relationship with his partner was a good thing. It bore good fruit. Among other things, it shielded him from the oxidizing effects of loneliness that can cause even the strongest lives to crumble. My friend’s ministry was also a good thing. It bore good fruit in the lives of congregants and fellow pastors.
I will hope that those who attend the service where I will share these reflections—especially those whose sense of self and sense of love does not align neatly with the contours of the old moral map—will see in me what I see in them: a member of Christ’s body. But there will be no guarantee of that. It has taken some time for the sun to do its work. Still, I will suggest in line with Paul’s letter, that if there must be suffering, that we suffer together. I will suggest that if there must be honoring, that we be honored together. And I will suggest that if there must be rejoicing—as indeed on this day there must—that we rejoice together.
Even as I say those words, there will be a part of my mind, my seminary self, that will wonder how this makes sense in the hierarchy of theology’s sources. That self would want to describe this change of mind as a privileging of reason and experience over scripture and tradition. Perchance that is true, but that is not what it has felt like. What it has felt like is recognizing the work of God in the life and ministry of queer folks. It has felt unsettling because, along with the melted ice, the easy-to-hand “I don’t know” response is also gone. This week I wish I had access to those old magazines with their learned essays, but the editors have locked them behind a paywall. I would like to know if it has also felt this way for others.
Author’s note: This essay was written during the week of October 7, 2018, prior to the church service where the LGTBQ+ affirming decision was joyfully received in worship.