“Room to navigate”: A Review of Generous Spaciousness: Responding to Gay Christians in the Church

gen spaciousnessGenerous Spaciousness: Responding to Gay Christians in the Church
by Wendy VanderWal-Gritter
Brazos Press, 2014 (281 pages)

“Gay and Christian?” ask the bumper stickers I see around town. “Yes!” they answer, the exclamation point anticipating, it seems, a certain amount of surprise.

“Gay Christian” wasn’t a real category for most other categories of Christians until recently. It was an impossibility or a contradiction, a thing the imagination couldn’t conceive of or wouldn’t permit. But now it doesn’t have to be imagined. Gay Christians are visible, active members of many churches. It’s become harder and harder to deny their existence because, well, here they are.

And that’s why Wendy VanderWal-Gritter’s book, Generous Spaciousness, asks a different question than the bumper sticker does. The book isn’t concerned with whether or not a Christian can be gay but rather how a Christian who is gay can fit into the church — or even more precisely, how the church should be actively provide a place for gay Christians to fit.

VanderWal-Gritter is a good guide for this exploration. As the longtime leader of New Direction, a Canadian ministry formerly affiliated with the Exodus network, she used to believe herself that gay Christians didn’t exist — only ex-gay ones. That changed. Over the last few years, along with many of her peers in the ex-gay movement, she began to question the psychological and moral assumptions fundamental to her ministry. Too many gay Christians were getting hurt trying to overturn their orientation. Too many would-be ex-gay Christians just couldn’t become ex-gay.

So VanderWal-Gritter began to humbly and prayerfully develop the principle of generous spaciousness. It’s a fairly simple idea: gay Christians should be given the respect, and the latitude, to work out for themselves how to understand and respond to  their orientation. “People need the grace of generous spaciousness as they navigate making sense of their experience of same-sex attraction,” says VanderWal-Gritter (53). “Generous spaciousness . . . gives the individual room to navigate the journey” (140).

“Generous spaciousness” means gay Christians should first of all be welcomed into churches. It means they should be trusted and supported. And it means, most of all, that if they come to a different understanding from my own, or your own, about their sexuality (especially if our understanding was formed within the safety of “heterosexual privilege”), they should still be loved and affirmed.

As she develops the idea of generous spaciousness, VanderWal-Gritter relies primarily on personal experience and personal encounters. Her voice echoes the evangelical trend of emphasizing narrative and “story” over discursive reasoning. And as someone who has been in the trenches, as it were, on both sides in the conflict over Christianity and homosexuality, she has a lot of “foxhole stories” to tell.

These stories tend to reflect two themes: first, most gay Christians endure unimaginable anguish as they try to reconcile earnest faith with their sexuality, and second, these Christians have felt the Spirit leading them to diverse, and sometimes apparently contradictory, positions regarding their sexuality.

Only after VanderWal-Gritter establishes the tensions, internal and external, pervasive in gay Christians’ narratives does she turn to Scripture. And in Scripture, too, she finds tension, but also a way to live with tension. (“Tension” is probably the most repeated word in Generous Spaciousness, with “uncertainty” coming in second. Both are to be embraced; our relationship with God, says the author, is both a journey and a wrestling match) VanderWal-Gritter asserts that the question of homosexual behavior, the issue of whether Christianity permits same-sex partnerships or requires celibacy, is a “disputable matter” of the kind outlined by Paul in Romans 14.

Just as the early Christians’ conflicting — and fervent — convictions about sacrificial meat were pious and defensible on both sides, so too are our differing opinions on homosexual morality. And just as the early Christians had to subordinate their opinions to their unity, so too must we.

Ultimately, VanderWal-Gritter’s message is an exhortation to create space for individual piety to define and express itself within a nurturing community. “The individual needs to follow their own path,” she writes. “God is more than able, through his Holy Spirit, to lead, guide, correct, and convict. Your role is to listen well, pray diligently, and ask open-ended questions that will help the individual better discern what God is showing them” (97).

This compassionate emphasis on the individual is the book’s defining strength. VanderWal-Gritter’s insight and experience reminds us that, whatever our convictions, we must remember that the question is one of persons and not abstract ideas. Generous Spaciousness is thus an illuminating read and valuable contribution to the controversy that is defining the twenty-first-century church.

The emphasis on the individual is also the book’s central limitation. VanderWal-Gritter’s point of view is consummately evangelical; personal revelation is paramount, and both tradition and philosophy are treated as secondary aids, almost dispensable, instead of primary authorities. (The book would make no sense, say, to a Catholic for whom the Church universal, and not just the church isolated and local, has a say in shaping morality.)

Generous Spaciousness might be, therefore, a good place to start when considering how charity should be expressed toward gay Christians, but not a good place to finish. Its scope is too narrow, and it leaves too many questions and objections unanswered, to give it the final word.

(Full disclosure: I received a review copy of this book from Brazos Press in exchange for an honest review.)

Face to Face

The Hebrew word פָנִים (pānîm), or face, has many usages that are immediately familiar to English-speakers. This word can indicate the part of something facing the observer: the face of the temple, the face of the earth, the face of the deep. It can also have an anatomical meaning for both humans and animals. And it occurs in several idioms that express emotion, for example, “Cain became very angry, and his face was downcast” (Gen. 4:5) and “Hannah’s face was no longer the same” (1 Sam. 1:18).

The face is the part of the body, and thus of the person, that is most capable of expressing emotion, and so it becomes a symbol for interpersonal relationships and the way we respond to other human beings. To have a downcast face—from anger, sorrow, or shame—is to break the bond established through the eyes, to cut oneself off from the other. On the other hand, to turn one’s face upward, as in prayer, is to seek contact, to seek relationship (Ez. 9:6). After Eli consoles Hannah, asking that God will grant her prayer for a son, her face is “no longer downcast,” and, having committed her cause to God, she is restored to peace and ease within her community.

Furthermore, the face, the seat of emotion, can come to represent the whole person by means of synecdoche, a figure of speech in which a part represents the whole. Because of this emphasis on personhood, the face can also bear with it the ideas of real personal presence, relationship, and meeting.

So much for the human, but what of the divine? Of the four hundred times that פָנִים is used as a noun in the Old Testament, over a quarter of those speak of the face of God, who cannot properly be said to have a face at all. Astonishingly, the usage and meaning of the word פָנִים remains much the same for God as it is for humans. In other words, it symbolizes real personal presence, relationship, and meeting. Thus Moses is set apart from all the other prophets, because he is said to have met God פָנִים אֶל־פָנִ֔ים, face to face.

The expression “make one’s face shine” appears eight times with Yahweh as the subject, and the light of Yahweh’s face is an “all-encompassing sign of God’s favor, a gracious presence of God in the human world.” Those who receive wisdom from God have likewise this shining face, for they reflect God’s presence in a physical way (Ex. 34:29–30; Ecc. 8:1; Ps. 34:5). The presence of God is a gift, and it changes people.

Therefore, in the Aaronic blessing—which is used often in our Anglican liturgy, and often in many others, I’m sure—God’s face shining on his people represents the bestowing of his favor, yes, but also his presence, his real, personal presence:

The Lord bless you
and keep you;
the Lord make his face shine on you
and be gracious to you;
the Lord turn his face toward you
and give you peace. (Num. 6:24–26)

Or rather, perhaps the blessing of God, the favor of God, is his real, personal presence.

***

“O God of peace, you have taught us that in returning and rest we shall be saved, in quietness and confidence shall be our strength: By the might of your Spirit lift us, we pray, into your presence, where we may be still and know that you are God; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

– The Book of Common Prayer, 1978

 

Prepared for Biblical Hebrew at Calvin Theological Seminary. Information about the OT significance of the word פָנִים was found in the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, vol. 11, s.v. “pānîm.” Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000.

Sola Fide (lines from Measure for Measure)

“Alack, when once our grace we have forgot,
Nothing goes right; we would, and we would not.”
- Angelo, Measure for Measure, 4.4

I’ve never understood this bit about God not giving us more than we can bear. First, because that’s not quite what the verse says, and second, because, in my experience, God very often gives me more than I can bear. But even as a young child, I got hushed by Sunday school teachers for asking why, if this is true, Christians commit suicide. I was a difficult child.

But semantics aside, I’ve always struggled with faith. I know people able to will themselves to faith, to satisfy any sorrow with the belief that God is doing what’s best for them. I don’t doubt that, I just almost never want what’s best for me, and I usually suspect that I will manage to squander “what’s best for me” and make a mess of that too. I have very great faith in my ability to squander things.

I’ve also noticed that there are at least two ways to struggle with faith.  The first seems noble, admirable; it is to wrestle, Jacob-like, with God. It is to struggle like Job, who questioned God up and down, for chapter upon endless chapter. God showed up to rebuke Job, yes, but God talked to Job. The second kind of struggle, my kind of struggle, is to take control, or to take control back, from God. To say, I know what I want and I know how to get it, and I will be doing that now, thanks. I haven’t made a complete biblical inventory, but characters like this don’t seem to end well.

***

When I was clinically depressed, in college, I remember dozens of times when, physically exhausted after hours of sobbing, I would pray the words I had been taught would change things: “Lord, I surrender this to you.” And then, after the second or third time: “Really this time, Lord. I’m giving this to you, so why aren’t you taking it. Take it. I’m giving it to you. Take it. Take it.” My memory of that time period is of countless prayers going into the void. It was like praying to a brick wall, praying to an empty room, praying to a made-up god.

I did everything I knew to do. I went to church faithfully, even when I didn’t want to. Once Philip couldn’t go with me, and I went anyway, which I never do. This is faith, this is faith, this is faith. About halfway through the second song, I had to leave because I couldn’t stop crying. I was sitting near the front, and it was humiliating to flee past all those joyful people while trying to stanch my tears. A middle-aged man, about my father’s age and build, followed me to the parking lot to ask  if I was ok. I told him I was really homesick, which was partly true, and he hugged me and asked me if I was ok to drive. Then I left, still crying. I recognize it now as a moment of real beauty in my life, because that’s mostly what fathers and father figures are on this earth to do, to tell girls that they are loved. But at the time it meant very little to me. There is a pain that shuts out love.

There’s more to this story, but in the end, I was finally diagnosed and put on antidepressants, and they worked. Which is no great surprise, of course. I never believed that I could “pray away” depression; that’s silly and I hope we’re all past that. I just didn’t know that depression could make God absolutely disappear. I still don’t know what to make of the fact that only chemicals restored prayer as a conversation, allowed me to hear from God again, allowed me to be comforted by God again. Things shouldn’t work that way. God should be stronger than depression.

***

Praying into the void. I felt that again this spring, albeit briefly, when we were trying to make a decision about my grad school this fall. I had prayed for weeks that I would be admitted to my top choice, a prestigious school with full funding about two hours from us. It would require a split household, but we’d heard from many others who had done similarly. I was admitted, but instead of relief there was dread. The stress of imagining a life with two homes—for a homebody, this is hell. My second best option, or rather, my most practical option, was here in Grand Rapids.

For many days I either didn’t eat or ate way too much; I hardly slept; my stomach never calmed. I woke up confident in one choice and went to sleep fully convinced of the other. As the anxious days wore on, the void returned. I prayed for wisdom and felt nothing. No word, no peace, no comfort.

In the end, a wise and generous priest counseled us, told us to pray that God would close a door, told me some other things I needed to hear. At the end of that meeting, I felt as conflicted as ever, but by the following morning, Philip and I both knew. So we made the choice to stay here in Grand Rapids. It was a choice toward wholeness and humility, away from ambition and prestige. That sounds really noble, written out, but it was also a choice, potentially, toward more limited options. Choosing against options is essentially choosing against probability. Probability of what—happiness, success, financial solvency? Hard to say here in the dark present, hard not to fear the worst.

But there is only one part of faith that I understand, and by that I must abide. I do not know, not really, how not to live an anxious life or how to embrace being thwarted or how to actually believe that I can make it through sixty more years on this earth. The one thing about faith that I know, though, is that on those rare occasions when you hear from God, when you actually do, you honor that. If there is one thing you know, even one thing, you do not second-guess it. When God speaks, you listen not just then but every moment thereafter.

Our decision brought a flood of peace to anxious days, and I believe that God, not bound by time, intends for it to calm not just those days but all days.

The Tweetest Thing

Look, ya’ll, I know this Twitter thing ain’t new. Ever since Diane Rehm, the matriarch of public radio, starting croaking “or send us a tweet” at the tail end of her call for calls, snail mails, and e-mails, non-twitterers like me were officially behind the times.

I do know how to tweeter. It’s actually one of those things my employer pays me to do, even if they shouldn’t. I can hashtag with the best of them.

I just never thought that I personally had anything to twit about.

Honestly, Twitter always frightened me. It was a place where the Me-Monsters could yell at no one in particular, in poor syntax, about their uninteresting exploits. It was a place where, new updates cascading down the page ad nauseam,  the attention deficit could scratch their itch indefinitely, and the mimetically susceptible would boil over (into violence, of course) due to the profusion of new mediators. It was a place, in short, where all my weaknesses (except syntax) would be exploited.

I can say, now that I have finally waded, chest-deep, into the Twitter stream, that all these fears were justified. But there was something I didn’t expect, and that thing is keeping me here, anchored, I hope, mid-stream and with my head above water. That thing is this: Twitter is a place where you can win.

There is, of course, the obvious way to win on Twitter—collecting followers—but that wasn’t a way could win. Ain’t nobody catching Katy Perry.

It wasn’t until Erin scored her first celebrity re-tweet that I heard the sweet chirping of my own social media vocation. That was something I could do too. Game on.

I won’t give you a play by play, but within a week of resuscitating @PZoutendam, and after notching three or four minor victories, I scored this:

NPR Twitter

That’s right—not one, but two NPR personalities, tweeting at me, my wife, and each other about my tweet. Beat that, fellow nerds.

All this may make me look like just another Me-Monster, drunk on small beer. But here’s the difference: I know this is small beer. This is all fun and games. I’m not saving the world, changing my own life or anyone else’s, 140 characters at a time. I’ll save the serious stuff for real sentences with real people.

Social media is kinda dumb, ya’ll. And as long as that’s the case, I’ll be #winning it.

The Grammar of Love

“Hey, babe? . . . Babe?”

This is usually how I know Erin is awake. She wakes up with a question, something I need to weigh in on. It is often urgent, plaintive, and it typically hovers around this theme: “Will I die?”

You might think this a rather philosophical start to the day, an attempt to question one’s own mortality, the hard but honest truth being Yes, you will die; everyone will die eventually. But the question here is not, “Will I die eventually,” but, “Will I die right now?” I’ve found that the truth here—No, you will not—offers little comfort, so I usually just hold her hand through the rest of her concerns: “I feel like I’m dying. My legs aren’t working. I don’t think I can get out of bed. This kitty needs me to stay here. Don’t laugh when I’m being serious.”

Mornings are hard on some of us.

I was preparing to help navigate us through these rough waters again today. (“Babe? . . . Hey, babe?”) But then this: “I think I should get an eHarmony account.”

*curious silence*

“I’ve heard you can get matched with some really weird people. I think we should make a fake account.”

And I thought this a very good idea for so early in the morning.

One particular character Erin told me about was a wannabe James Bond, a playboy petroleum engineer, at least according to his projected image. He wanted to travel the world with a beautiful woman at his side, he wrote. In his free time, he “enjoyed reading articles on, science dining eroticism and, wild sex.”

Though I silently feared the allure of this man’s money and the prospect of world travel, Erin put those fears to rest. Wealth and luxury could not overcome her editorial instincts. His prose was too redundant, his lapsed commas too unbearable.

She disposed of him with the first of, I hope, many damning dismissals: “He did not prove himself a capable grammarian.”