Henri Nouwen and a Response to the Orlando Attack
Last Saturday, June 11, my morning coffee companion was Henri J.M. Nouwen and Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life written and published in 1975. Much of his basic premise is that “the spiritual life is that constant movement between the poles of loneliness and solitude, hostility and hospitality, illusion and prayer. That morning I was contemplating Nouwen’s words reflecting solitude not as a state of loneliness, but as a condition of our heart and soul that makes “it possible to convert slowly our fearful reactions into a loving response.” How was I to know that the very next morning, June 12, the nation and I would be horrified by the Orlando attack on the LGBT community?
I am a christian, a follower of Christ. I am also a lesbian. For most of my life I kept my same-sex orientation a secret and did everything I knew to do to not have the attractions and not be gay. It was a secret that took me to the depths of depression, the doors of insanity, and the brink of suicide. In my journeys into contemplation and spiritual solitude I have moved toward acceptance and reconciliation—acceptance of myself as a lesbian christian woman and reconciliation between that fact and my basic spiritual beliefs. I certainly identified with Nouwen’s counsel that in our solitude the events of the world around us “as well as the many personal disappointments and pains, no longer can be seen as unavoidable concomitants of our life, but all become urgent invitations to a response; that is a personal engagement.”
Faced with the burdens of our reality, the few “extremists” or “fanatics” become “indispensable reminders that no lasting healing will ever take place without a solidarity of heart.” These few “force us to ask ourselves how many games we play with ourselves and how many walls we keep creating to prevent ourselves from knowing and feeling the burden of human solidarity.” Nouwen proclaims that we fluctuate “between the humble confession that the newspaper holds more than our souls can bear and the realization that it is only through facing up to the reality of our world that we can grow into our own responsibility.”
Do we and how do we protest the realities of our world out of solitude? Hopefully we do as “life can teach us that although the events of the day are out of our hands, they should never be out of our hearts, that instead of becoming bitter our lives can yield to the wisdom that only from the heart a creative response can come forth.” Nouwen reminds us that, “When our protest against war, segregation, social injustice, (the Orlando attack against the LGBT community,) do not reach beyond the level of a reaction, then our indignation becomes self-righteous, our hope for a better world degenerates into a desire for quick results, and our generosity is soon exhausted by disappointments. Only when our mind has descended into our heart can we expect a lasting response to well up from our innermost self.”
Can we, in the solitude of our hearts truly listen to the pains of the world—most especially now the pains of our LGBT community? Nouwen asserts that we can for in the solitude of the heart “we can recognize them not as strange and unfamiliar pains, but as pains that are indeed our own. There we can see that what is most universal is most personal and that indeed nothing human is strange to us.” When we stand in solidarity with our fellow humans, our LGBT brothers and sisters, in their suffering and pain, then “our first attempts to alleviate these pains can come forth.” Feeling another’s pain leads us to compassion, which “brings healing and new strength. The paradox indeed is that the beginning of healing is in the solidarity with the pain.” Nouwen recalls our history “when men and women have been able to respond to the events of their world as an occasion to change their hearts, an inexhaustible source of generosity and new life has been opened, offering hope far beyond the limits of human prediction.” My thoughts go to the work and movement of Ghandi in India, Mandela in South Africa, and King in America.
Nouwen reminds us that spiritual “movement from loneliness to solitude, therefore, is not a movement of a growing withdrawal from, but rather a movement toward, a deeper engagement in the burning issues of our time.” Our acceptance, affirmation, and welcoming of our LGBT persons has been an issue in our nation for decades. Does not the senseless, violent attack targeting the LGBT community known to frequent Pulse, prominently known as a gay club, elevate the issue to that of “burning issue?” Must we not respond and engage this issue from the solitude of our hearts!
And then Sunday morning, June 12, 2016, happened! With my shock and horror of the attack, with my heart both numb and yet heavy with sorrow and compassion, and with Nouwen’s word fresh in my heart, I was moved to engage, to seek a creative response — to bring our local LGBT community as well as our community at large together in a gathering to remember and honor the Orlando victims, and to stand in solidarity in our pain and sorrow as well as in our hope and resolve for positive change and a brighter future. Over 200 people gathered at a local park on Thursday evening, June 16, and we did just that. My words to that gathering and to everyone, everywhere:
On behalf of East Texas PFLAG and our other sponsors – Tyler Together, Pineywoods Voice, Tyler Area Gays, Tyler Transgender Support Group, East Texas Islamic Society, and Life Covenant Church – I want to say welcome and thank you for your attendance and participation this evening. We are gathered here as a community to stand in solidarity with Orlando and the families and friends of the victims in the horrific attack on the LGBT community there last Sunday. Earlier this week, our president called for our nation’s flag to be flown at half-mast in memory and honor of the victims in Orlando. Tomorrow our nation’s flag will return to full mast “normal,“ if you will. But life will never be the same for friends and families of the Orlando victims, nor for the LGBT community, most especially for those whose lives were murderously taken last Sunday morning. They have no life to live. We want to take this time to remember and honor those killed and reflect on 49 lives, 49 sacred souls with names and faces that were snuffed out by an act of senseless violence fueled by hate and terrorism. As we seek to come to grips with, and process the shock and horror of the attack, we grieve and we support one another. For those of you who may not be an integral “part” of the LGBT community, we want you to know that your presence and your shared grief and support is important, desperately needed, and much appreciated.
Now, we will remember and honor the victims, their families and friends as we join one another in the bonds of our common humanity – our sorrow in loss and our hopes for positive change and a brighter future. John David Creamer, pastor of Life Covenant Church, will lead us in prayer.
(As each name and brief bio of the 49 victims was read a volunteer from the crowd walked to the front carrying their picture. A bell was rung.)
As we prepare to leave this place may we carry these sacred lives with us. May the light of their lives continue to shine in us and through us and may their light guide us and give us courage. Courage to act in ways that champion acceptance, not accusation; courage to seek out and participate in conversations and community, not condemnation; courage to speak and act in ways that foster love and compassion, not hate and violence. Courage to know, not just in our heads, but also in our hearts, that every human life is sacred and to live respectfully of one another and our beautiful, God-given diversities. In doing these things, then, and only then, will we truly remember and honor these 49 beautiful, sacred lives.
Join me in 49 seconds of silence as we remember these, reflect, and resolve to act and live in ways to honor these 49 and ultimately ourselves and our community.
Anwar Khalifa with the East Texas Islamic Society will close our gathering.
It was an outpouring of community solidarity, grief, compassion, and love. In his closing, Anwar asked all the clergy present to come to the front and join him for the closing prayer. A very moving and much needed gathering together. It is my hope and prayer that as a local community, a nation, and a world we will seek the solitude of our hearts and that our hearts will change in ways that nurture our compassion and desire to live in solidarity with all humankind.
Appeal for UNITY Amidst the Christian and Gay Divide
NOTE: This post first appeared in the T. B. Matson Foundation blog,Weighty Matters, on July 11, 2015.
Long before the recent Supreme Court ruling making same-sex marriage legal in all of our United States, the debate regarding the religious or moral “rightness” of same-sex intimacy was at fever pitch. The Court ruling, far from settling the issue and “putting it to bed” (pardon the pun) has, in many ways, added fuel to the fire, and the temperature continues to rise.
First, let me be straight regarding who I am. I am an out, gay, Christian woman in a fourteen-year covenant relationship with another Christian woman. We worshiped together for many years at the First Baptist Church of Tyler, TX. I believe First Baptist would be considered a fairly conservative Baptist church affiliated with both the Southern Baptist Convention and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. I will not go into the details of my years of struggle coming to accept my sexual orientation and the journey, with God’s grace, toward reconciliation of who I am and my Baptist faith and beliefs. When asked how I reconcile being Christian and gay, the short answer is that I am a child of God through the saving grace of Jesus Christ and a woman who happens to have a same-sex orientation. However, my story and struggle is not the point of my writing today.
I write today because I am saddened and heartbroken, and to pose a question: What are we doing? What are we doing to our Christian brothers and sisters, to our churches, and, perhaps most importantly, to our witness to the world of the all-inclusive love and grace of Jesus Christ? Perhaps that is a question we should ask ourselves daily and not just in regard to current issues of sexual orientation and our lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender folks.
Here’s the source of my heartache and sorrow. More and more regarding the gay/same-sex marriage and Christian paradigm, I see battle lines being drawn, troops being mustered, and “war” strategies taking shape. I see the flourishing of a “them vs. us” mentality and thinking. I recall reading the call to arms by Matthew Vines, founder of the Reformation Project, to “eradicate homophobia through the preaching and teaching of the Bible.” (ABPNews, 9/13/2013) That was almost two years ago! Now, eradication of homophobia would be a good thing, a very good thing; however, I don’t know that it will happen through the preaching and teaching of the Bible. After all, did decades, perhaps centuries, of Bible teaching and preaching eradicate homosexuality? Go figure on that one!
Then there is the NALT – Not All Like That – Christians Project, launched in 2013 “to give LGBT-affirming Christians a means of proclaiming to the world—and especially to young gay people—their belief and conviction that there is nothing anti-biblical or at all inherently sinful about being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender” (notlikethat.org). I am in agreement that it would be a good thing for LGBT-affirming Christians to be more vocal, to speak up and share their convictions in their congregations, Bible study groups, at work, at school, wherever they might be, in any circumstance and, particularly, in response to something hurtful or derogatory that has been said or done. Both The Reformation Project and the NALT Project are great, and they have done and continue to do good work. Yet, the fire still rages and the temperature still rises.
If we want to truly talk about and strive toward “reformation,” let’s talk about relationships. Let’s sit with one another and share our stories, our faith journeys, our soul yearnings, and see and come to know the Christ within – within ourselves and our brothers and sisters in Christ. This is how true soul formation and reformation occurs.
What hinders us from sharing our stories? Could it be the “other?” How do we perceive, approach, behave toward, and relate to people whom we believe to be different from who we perceive ourselves to be? How do we get to know the “other?” Do we want to know others, to seek to understand, and to strive to live with respect and acceptance of those we perceive as different? If we answer “Yes” to these latter questions – and I hope we do – I would propose that we start sharing our stories, our heartfelt convictions, and listening to one another as opposed to entering battle heralding our proclamations and unfurling our regimental flags.
I sometimes wonder in this gay/same-sex marriage and Christian paradigm, if both “armies” are more focused on attempting to change, convert, and convince the “other” side than on loving one another and fostering unity in the body. Again, I would ask a question: With regard to this issue, what is our desire? Is our desire to be “right,” or is our desire to be in relationship with our brothers and sisters in Christ and to be a witness to the abounding love of God through Christ?
I am reminded here of Paul’s urgings to the Ephesians “… to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call – one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Eph. 4:1-6 Emphasis is mine.) I see the division among Christians on the gay issue, and I am saddened. I see and hear the “gay-bashing” from many Christian groups, and I am saddened. I am equally saddened by the “church and/or Christian-bashing” coming from various factions of the LGBT community, even at times from the Christian LGBT community. Where is the humility, gentleness, patience, bearing with one another in love, and eagerness to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace? This breaks my heart.
As Christians, regardless of our beliefs on the gay/same-sex marriage issue or any other aspect of our present-day culture, we are bound together in Christ. I want for us, the church, the body of Christ, to be inclusive and affirming of one another, bound by Christ’s love for us, our love of Christ, and our desire to share His love with others. I want for us, the church, through and because of our bond in Christ, to be able to sit with one another in covenant community and engage in civil and respectful dialogue about all sorts of issues and questions – even, especially, the hard ones. Yes, we may disagree on some things, and – since Christ binds us – we can agree to disagree, be respectful of one another’s “soul competency,” and carry on with the mission to share the love of God through Christ. As Christian brothers and sisters, gay and straight, I want for us, the church, to live in unity and the peace of Christ, knowing that unity does not require uniformity in thought or action, nor does the peace of Christ mean there is no disagreement. I want for us, the church, to be the Presence of Christ in and to the world. Somehow, I don’t think we are being that, the Presence of Christ, in our responses to the gay/same-sex marriage and Christian paradigm. I am saddened and heartbroken. Again, I pose the question: What are we doing?
More and more, I am being called back to Matthew 10:27, a verse I claimed many years ago: What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear proclaim from the roofs. (NIV) I also like The Message translation: Don’t hesitate to go public now. Well, I have gone public!