Tolerance?

22 06 2014

In 2012, I served as a commissioner to the 220th meeting of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), in Pittsburgh, PA. The most disheartening action taken, by a vote of 338 to 308, was the assembly’s refusal to redefine marriage — making it a covenant relationship between “two people” and not just “a man and a woman.” I voted in the minority, and yet for the past two years, have graciously accepted the assembly’s decision, and abided by the wisdom of the majority. I did this, even though I was told again and again that my position was unBiblical, that I was compromising my faith, and that I had caved in to my culture.

This year however, history was made! The Presbyterian portion of the American Church has declared that God’s gift of marriage is not just for those within the heterosexual community, but for all! This time around, after more passionate discussion and discernment, the vote was 429 to 175, and as a result, the PC(USA) is now in accord with what much of the rest of America already knows — that God’s love and acceptance is not withheld from the gay and lesbian community, and that committed same-sex relationships are no different in the eyes of the Divine than traditional marriage relationships.

In light of this action, I am now being called to show tolerance towards those who disagree with it. I’m being asked to move slowly, to display patience, and to recognize that that people of good faith always have and always will disagree on important matters of faith and practice. And being a strong “feeling” person, this is what I WANT to do.

I’ve been in the pastorate for 29 years, and listening to others is one of my greatest gifts. While I have strong opinions on many things, I have always been eager to listen to people who disagree with me, and only speak up on issues after much thought and prayer.

I’m also a people-pleaser! Like most pastors, I don’t want the church to be a place of rancor and division. I want people to be happy, and at peace. When I look at what is going on in the halls of Congress I cringe, wondering why people can’t . . . “just get along.” I preach regularly on Jesus’ call to display forbearance toward all, and seek to live according to the words of Micah by “seeking justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God.”

Most importantly, I embrace with my whole being the words of Jesus that we will be judged by our love for one another. I believe that to be created in the image of God means that the Spirit of God abides in all humanity; and thus as children of God, all people are deserving of my love.

Tolerance should come easy to me. Grace and acceptance should flow naturally from this heart that truly wants to seek after the things of God. And normally it does. But what does that look like in the face of this decision to redefine marriage?

Do I look at the racist with tolerance? When the Ku Klux Klan seeks to start a so-called “neighborhood watch” in a southern Pennsylvania township in order to deal with a rash of car break-ins, do I not speak up and name the hate for what it is?

Do we look at the extremists from Westboro Baptist Church with tolerance? When they protest at the funeral of Maya Angelou, one of our nation’s most most gifted and gracious proponents of human worth and dignity, do we not stand up and name ignorance for what it is?

And does the world look at radical terrorist organizations with tolerance? When Boco Haram kidnaps 200 young girls because they believe that women do not need an education, does the world not speak up and name injustice for what it is?

I certainly do NOT want to put all people who do not embrace my views of same-gender marriage in the same category as the Klu Klux Klan, religious extremists, or groups like Boco Haram — let me be clear about that! But where does one draw the line?

I can work with people who disagree with me on the authorship of the letter to the Ephesians; and the churches I’ve served over the years have had people who took all kinds of differing positions on membership requirements, capital punishment, and most recently, divestment from companies doing business in Israel. I know the difference between unity, and uniformity; and I can preach a great sermon on the diversity of the body, where there are a variety of gifts, but the same Spirit giving them to each. I know all this, and really believe it to be part of my DNA.

But sometimes, don’t we need to say enough is enough? Are there not some things that God does NOT tolerate? And if so, where is that line to be drawn, and when?

To my brothers and sisters who are so hurt over the changing nature of marriage, I’m so very sorry! But consider the hurt you have inflicted on those people you’ve labeled unforgiven sinners for the past . . . how many centuries? Your narrow and unbending view of the Bible has not allowed me room to disagree with you, nor to perform marriage services for those whose relationships I believe God has called me to bless. And while I’ve maintained union with you throughout this time, now that the tables are turning, many of you want to pick up your marbles and go home!

Today, at least in the Presbyterian Church, we’ve all got the freedom to remain faithful to our own conscience when it comes to gay marriage. And it’s no easier for me to grant you the freedom to deny that gift to people whose lifestyle you believe to be an affront to God, than it is for you to allow me to read and interpret Scripture as I believe the Spirit leads me.

So this morning, as the people in my church come together for worship, I will not be apologizing for anything that happened in Detroit. I will offer a class in a couple of weeks to help people understand what happened, and why; and I will gently and pastorally listen to those who disagree with the decisions that were made. I will welcome anyone and everyone to worship with us, and to become part of the faith community that I call home. And where we disagree on the tough issues of faith and practice, I will show all respect and grace. But I cannot apologize or show remorse for the prophetic decisions made by the church I love, nor can I hide my passion for our continual movement toward the reign of God in this world.

This morning when we sing “Breathe on me breath of God,” I will give thanks for the winds of the Spirit that blew through Detroit this past week, and I will invite all to be refreshed and renewed by that Spirit.

This is the day that the Lord has made! So yes, let’s rejoice and be glad in it. Let’s never apologize for being boldly faithful to the God we love. And may we never regret being advocates for justice, even when it’s hard.


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3 responses

23 06 2014
John Lilley

If only everyone in our denomination, or any denomination for that matter, were as thoughtful and faith-driven as Bob. Bob never shrinks from controversial topics yet, unlike many who believe that smoke, heat and vilification can pass for discourse particularly in the political world, Bob’s views bring light and hope. We may not always agree — though this is not one of those times– but we always respect his views, admire his courage in speaking them, and learn from him. Micah has it right. If only we all could follow those words.

23 06 2014
Shelby Friedman

Great post, Bob! I miss speaking with you, but feel we get to communicate through FB and your blog. 🙂

24 06 2014
Bob Melone

Thanks Shelby – best to Mark!

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