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Colossian Blog
May 31, 2017 | Jennifer Vander Molen

The Unpredictable Practice of Showing Up

Today we welcome Jeremy Bork to The Colossian Blog. Jeremy is a 2017 graduate of Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. Living into his call to youth ministry and love of creation, he will serve this summer as the Assistant Chaplain at Camp Fowler, an RCA wilderness camp in the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York. He recently accepted a call to Westminster Presbyterian Church in Grand Rapids, and will transition into that role in the fall. He participated in a Colossian Way pilot group earlier this year.

Last spring I was asked to participate in a small group at Fellowship Reformed Church to test out and offer feedback for a curriculum that sought to engage church conflict around human sexuality. Without much consideration of what they were asking and what I’d be getting into, I said yes. I would later learn that small yes was a greater yes to The Colossian Way, and that yes would come with a cost. For the next ten weeks I gathered every Thursday with members of Fellowship to listen, wrestle, pray, play, apologize, testify, and give thanks. Resisting the world’s seduction toward division, we showed up, sat around one table, read the same sacred texts, prayed to the One we all follow, told our stories, and shared our visions for the future and present of the church. We chose community over tribe, hospitality over hostility, empathy over judgment, and compassion over fear.

The Colossian Way insists that participants speak their truth in love. Both words matter. First, truth: say what you need to say. Don’t water it down to get everyone in the room to agree with you. At best that leads to a superficial, integrity-lacking illusion of unity. Instead speak fully and boldly the truth you need to say. Second, love: speak kindly and compassionately. Never say something to intentionally hurt another person. Be aware of the effects your words might have on another, and be ready to receive how someone else experiences your truth.

During these ten weeks, we tried our best to speak our truths in love, but too often our gentle, West-Michigan-nice fronts walled us from faithfully speaking our convictions. During our last meeting, Brian broke the barrier. He turned to me and shared about how badly he wants to love me but how his traditional convictions about biblical texts that address same-sex behavior haven’t changed. He genuinely wanted to know how his beliefs affected me and what he could tangibly do to make me feel loved. I thanked him for his honesty and responded transparently. I shared about my sincere thankfulness for our friendship and that he loves me best when he listens to my story to understand and not to respond. I also shared that while I would perhaps worship at Fellowship sometime, I would never bring my boyfriend. Our vulnerability opened others in the room to share what they had wanted to for nine weeks. It was sloppy and beautiful.

Let’s Talk LGBTQ

With current denominational and institutional divisions around beliefs about LGBTQ people, the student counsel at Western Theological Seminary (my very recent alma mater) felt like this was a needed topic to address. Considering I had been at Western for three years without a single public conversation about something that affected me so directly, I felt like this was long overdue. Together we pitched a community conversation to the seminary leadership.

Once the event was approved, it only made sense that it would be facilitated by representatives from The Colossian Way, considering they are what we hope to be: a community that creates space for people to willingly, bravely, and hopefully enter into conflict trusting that Christ holds all things together. Their vision is honorable but uncommon: Christian communities that behave like Christ.

On Tuesday, April 25, the Student Counsel of Western Theological Seminary hosted a community conversation titled Staying in the Dialogue in the Midst of Difference: Let’s Talk LGBTQ. As a result of student counsel’s organization, Stacey Duensing’s tenacity, and my pestering, the seminary took an important first step: breaking the silence.

I was a panelist for the discussion, along with Brian, the pastor of Fellowship and fellow participant of the TCW group the year before. While on the panel, Brian asked if I felt like “The Token Gay” during last year’s pilot.

I grinned and spoke my truth: “Absolutely! But it didn’t bother me, because I knew going in that that’s what I would be. It was important enough to me that an actual LGBTQ person was part of the pilot that I was willing to be that person. It also didn’t bother me, because it was only for 90 minutes a week. At the end of our meeting, I could walk away. That has not been true during my three years at Western. I don’t get to walk away. I am the token gay always.

As much as I wear my pain-avoidant smile, being me here is exhausting. I hadn’t realized just how depleting seminary has been for me, and I don’t think I’ve completed grasped how long it will take to heal, to be restored, to return to being just Jeremy.”

For a moment I was heard, I was seen, I was known. Unlike the countless walks through the halls wondering who affirms my presence and who wishes I wasn’t around, I sat grateful for the chance to name what is true and hopeful that in opening myself others might do likewise.

The conversation continued. Rob asked more questions. Brian and I stayed in the dialogue. We listened curiously, shared truthfully, and questioned genuinely. Our words were unscripted yet deeply formed by our love of God our love for one another.

Some who attended the community conversation were upset that Brian and I hugged after we shared such blatantly opposing beliefs on the panel. Noticing the power difference between the two of us, they were uncomfortable that our gesture implied all LGBTQ people should be reconciled to their non-affirming elders to the point of physical embrace. While I understand where they are coming from, Brian and I didn’t fabricate a friendship on April 25. We are actually, authentically friends.

We drink coffee and talk about church leadership. When we run into each other at the gym, we sacrifice a squat to catch up with one another. We hugged after the panel, because we have a past, we will have a future, and we are grateful for one other in the present, despite all the ways our friendship is complex.

I believe in The Colossian Way, because I believe in the way of Jesus. The ideas of The Colossian Way are not new, but they are radical. It is the simple and unpredictable practice of showing up. It is a foretaste – not a glimpse but a first taste – of the life to come where there’s enough, where everyone belongs, where all of life is connected. It’s an invitation to a way of peace, unity, and empathy rooted in the disciplines of Jesus, and saying yes to this lifestyle will come at a cost.

For me, it has required bravery, vulnerability, fierce truth telling, and active listening. At times it has been tiring, irritating, and lonely. But it has been worth it. I have felt the Spirit move in surprising ways. I have seen God’s image revealed in unexpected people. I have heard a fuller telling of the good news of God’s love. I have tasted and seen that Christ truly does hold all things together.

Suggested Posts
Our New Book: All Things Hold Together in Christ
January 17, 2018 | Jennifer Vander Molen
Our New Book: All Things Hold Together in Christ
The Colossian Forum was founded (and our name is rooted) in Colossians 1:17, where Paul points out that "all things hold together in Christ." When we live into this truth and practice Christian virtues, we know that even in the midst of the most hopeless conflict, we can see in a new way how Christ truly holds all things together. This truth is the cornerstone of our new book, All Things Hold Together in Christ: A Conversation on Faith, Science, and Virtue. Conceived by TCF president Michael Gulker and TCF fellow Jamie Smith, this anthology includes foundational readings in theology, philosophy, and science that make our work possible.  It's a fantastic resource to help frame a distinctly Christological engagement with science and culture. Each essay comes from a scholar who exemplifies theology as a practice rooted in the worship of the church, shedding light on how our work at The Colossian Forum has managed to turn conflict into opportunity. These top Christian thinkers show how attending to the formation of virtue through the practices of worship creates the hospitable space we need to deal with difference and disagreement in the body of Christ. Contributors include Robert Barron, Timothy George, Stanley Hauerwas, Alasdair MacIntyre, Mark Noll, and N. T. Wright, among others. All of these essays are an invitation to find resources, inspiration, encouragement, and hope for faithful, creative thinking in the riches of the church's theological heritage and its worship traditions. This is the foundation and frame of The Colossian Way (which is set up as a worship service with a fight in the middle). All Things Hold Together in Christ is available from the publisher for a 40% discount through January 31, 2018.
We Need to Talk about Sex
January 3, 2018 | Jennifer Vander Molen
We Need to Talk about Sex
This post from Chuck DeGroat originally appeared on The Twelve. Like many messy situations we face as Christians, the LGBTQ dialog often leads to places of deep vulnerability that help us live out loving God and loving each other. In this piece, Chuck breaks down the bigger (scary, deep, overwhelming, and vulnerable) discussion of sex in the church.  Pardon the length of this piece, but we really need to talk. It’s become inevitable that I’ll get a call or email once or twice a month asking to consult with a church on an LGBTQ dialogue. Most often, I’m grateful that churches seek to be more informed, engaged and conversant. But this blog is not about the LGBTQ conversation necessarily … it’s the first question I ask when I’m invited in: “How does your church talk about sexuality in general around here?” This is often met with a blank stare. Sometimes there is an honest, “We just don’t.” I might hear about a sermon series on faithful marriage or a small group of men talking about pornography, but that’s about it. We need to talk. What is the state of marriage in your church? I bet it’s not very different than anywhere else. If you’re an evangelical Christian, statistics show that your marriage is less apt to make it than a marriage between atheists. Why aren’t we talking about why this is? Why do we seem more concerned with who sells and buys wedding cakes? I do marriage conferences and I pastored for many years and I’ve counseled hundreds of couples and (I hope I don’t need to convince you) there is great pain in many, many couples in your church. Abuse and unfaithfulness and sometimes plain-old disconnection erode trust, yet many couples in churches tuck their pain away on Sunday morning. Emotional disconnection and sexual dissatisfaction are addressed with coping strategies – a little too much alcohol, a titillating show to watch, the drama of Facebook. We’re prone to hide and our fig-leaved strategies are endless. And (can I say it?) the self-help Christian books with their principles and platitudes don’t seem to touch the depth of pain. Many couples that stay together find a tolerable dance to do to keep the peace. Yes, we need to talk. Single folks in your church are hurting too. They’re not sure at all what to do with their singleness, with cultural and ecclesial expectations around marriage “completing” someone, with their own single sexuality, with their need for intimacy and belonging. Sometimes church is the toughest space to navigate in their week as they watch those smiling couples embrace their children. Often, our only advice to singles is “Don’t have sex before you’re married.” Perhaps we’ll create a “Single’s Ministry” for them. But, their questions are bigger than this. As one late 30’s single woman said to me, “Am I supposed to neatly tuck away my longing for sexual connection like a nun?” I discussed this with a pastor and asked him recently, “What would it look like for your church to have an honest conversation about masturbation?” He blushed a bit and said with a chuckle, “Justification. Sanctification. But no, not masturbation.” We default to humor when we’re uncomfortable. Let’s talk. Let’s talk about your middle and high schoolers. Are we naming the questions and realities they are facing? The Bible seems more honest about teenage lust than most pastors. That erotic tale tucked away in the middle of your Bible is a sexually-charged journey of two young teenagers, exploring their bodies, awakening to their desires. That’ll preach. Or maybe not. When I preached Song of Solomon years ago in an evening service, I invited parents of middle and high schoolers. They came the first week, but many didn’t come back. It hits too close to home. What kind of conversation about sexuality is your church engaging in? It’s easy to talk about “those people,” you know…those people you’ve never met or don’t think attend your church. It’s easy to talk about the “LGBTQ issue,” depersonalizing it as a “topic.” But as I say to many pastors – maybe we should start with you. Maybe we should name the very real, on-the-ground realities that everyone in your church faces before going down the path of talking about “those people.” Maybe the “other” we need to face is the “other within,” our cut off shadow-selves that lurk in secret and fear being found out. Maybe cultivating greater honesty and self-compassion in a context of cross-centered grace is necessary before we start talking about someone else’s life. Maybe we should name things. Maybe we should name the elephant in the room – the reality that mental health professionals like me now assume people are addicted to porn. It’s not the exception, it’s the norm. Yes, men who’ve been formed in the sexualized liturgy of our culture are stuffing the shame and pretending to be ok when it’s not ok. But, this may be a shocker. Women are looking at porn too. And for many women (take a deep breath before continuing to read…) same-sex images and stories are most provocative. Can I name that on The Twelve? Is it ok to tell our secrets, fellow Christians? Can I tell how many women and men have said to me, “I started experimenting a bit in middle school – looking at images, masturbating – but no one ever talked about this, not my parents, not my school, not my youth group, and never, ever my pastor.” And perhaps now it’s time to take seriously what #MeToo and #ChurchToo is highlighting – that sexual harassment and abuse are right here, right now realities in your church, among your people. That men have too long blamed women and what they do or wear instead of doing honest work. The church has too-long been a context where men can groom and prey on women. That many men, even accomplished men with degrees and titles like me, are stuck emotionally at 12 years old. That women are tired of living in a world of immature boys led by a President who confesses that when it comes to assaulting a woman he just can’t help himself. That misogyny is the cultural water we swim in. That churches don’t really know how to invite men to do the important emotional work necessary to grow up. That there are few if any, wise sages and elders to mentor us. That this isn’t a conservative or liberal issue, it’s not about Hollywood or DC, it’s not about being a traditional or progressive Christian – it’s about all of us – as news reports are reminding us every day. A personal story. I’ve told the story elsewhere about how I hit an emotional wall in seminary and jumped into an MA Counseling program at the seminary. Like many, I hoped for a quick and painless cure for my anxiety and depression. But in that community of honest peers and teachers, I learned what John Calvin surely must have meant by “self-knowledge” – my awareness of my arrogance, abusiveness, and emotional/relational unintelligence came into full view. One particularly important moment was on an evening I was counseling a young woman in her early twenties. She had the kind of timeless, simple beauty that made my heart start beating fast just as soon as I saw her. A neuro-chemical sexual cocktail coursed through my body, but I had to ignore it because I was a good Christian guy, I was her therapist, and we had a session to do. I sat with her for 50 minutes, asking questions about her life and interests. We found common ground and laughed. Behind the observation window sat my female supervisor and several female classmates observing my magic. When we were done, she smiled and I smiled and she asked for a hug. I made my way back to my supervisor’s office to debrief, expecting them to congratulate me on a life-changing session. “How do you think that went?” my supervisor asked. She had a kind of wry smile as she asked it. Have you seen that wry smile on a therapist? It’s generally not a good sign. “Really good,” I said. “I think we built a lot trust today. I think she feels very comfortable with me. I think we’re doing good work.” I was already starting to master therapist jargon. My supervisor sat quietly for just a moment. Her wry smile disappeared. She looked me directly in the eyes and said, “Well, oh, ok, if you call flirting for 50 minutes a good counseling session then I guess so.” She asked my female peers if they agreed. I recall their faces, mixed with anxiety and anger. Each one nodded. Then my defenses went up. I battled for a few minutes, but before long my supervisor was making connections in my life that only a Jedi-therapist like her could make. And then she said, “I wonder how your wife experiences being married to an emotional 12-year-old?” I learned in that two years to name things that I never, ever dared imagine I’d say out loud. I learned to repent. I learned to grieve. I began to see women, and be seen. I sometimes felt like my shame was the grave I’d be buried in, and at other times experienced the joy of being known in a way I’d never experienced before. Coming out of hiding, the game we played in our marriage couldn’t last – and so what we thought we were had to die, just 4 years in. The next few years were filled with pain as my wife took her own journey. But from the ashes, something new and honest could be born. Jesus writes redemption stories that require crucifixion along the way. We need to talk, friends. We need to come out of hiding. We need to tell our secrets. Let me end it with this: A few years ago, I got the call and question, like I often do – “Will you help us talk through this LGBTQ issue?” I met with the pastor and we had the bigger conversation about engaging sexuality, intimacy, shame, pornography, misogyny, abuse, and more. It was a full and deep conversation, and he walked away fairly overwhelmed. I didn’t hear back for some time. When I did see him at an event a year later, he asked for a few minutes to catch up. He told me that he decided to get therapy after speaking with me. Tears welled up as he talked about years of porn addiction and marital dissatisfaction. He told me that before he could engage any kind of conversation about someone else’s life that he needed to face his own. His own inner work prompted a larger conversation among the leadership team, most of whom seemed compelled by their pastor’s transformation and longed for their own. He told me that he couldn’t imagine engaging any conversation on sexuality from the place where he was previously. “Chuck, I was clueless about my own stuff. Now I can engage others with empathy and curiosity. Facing my own brokenness allows me to see another human being as human, as a person with pain, with a story, in need of Jesus.” Church, we’ve got work to do. All of us. The work of inner transformation is vital, not as an excuse to avoid the hard conversations but precisely because we must have hard conversations as mature adults. If our political culture has taught us anything in the past year, perhaps it has taught us that character matters, that growing in emotional health and intelligence is critical for leadership, that empathy for another requires us to grow in empathy for our own splintered selves, broken as they are. Perhaps we’ve learned that we can never, ever love the “other” if we don’t love what is “other” about us. Jesus can handle our brokenness. Jesus can handle our hard conversations. Jesus can meet us in places of disruption. Jesus can love what is “other” in us. Jesus can’t meet us when we’re hiding. It’s time to talk. Chuck DeGroat teaches Pastoral Care at Western Theological Seminary. He is a longtime pastor and therapist and has authored four books.