“How does the story of God at work in our world impact our decisions as we are involved with the lives of the people in our congregations?”
Pastor Mary Anne Isaak, reflecting on the lives of queer people and their loved ones within the congregations she’s served and on her own life as a woman in ministry in a denomination that makes little space for female leadership, turns to the Bible for guidance.
“I’m talking about scripture, a process I call story weaving. Taking a particular piece of scripture and holding it up against a part of my own life and saying, ‘How does this story of God at work in ancient times parallel my experience today?’”
In the pages deleted from her chapter in On Holy Ground, Mary Anne holds up the story of God’s response to Israel’s request for a king. She originally shared her story weaving reflections at the study conference, “God, Sex & Church: A Theology of Healthy Sexuality,” put on by the Board of Faith and Life of the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches in 2015.
“I used 1 Samuel 8 and following to show how Scripture holds space open to validate two opposing visions of God’s dream for the world. When the people ask Samuel to anoint a king, his response makes it clear that a king is not part of God’s original plan for them. In fact, Samuel equates choosing a king with rejecting God as their king. Samuel warns the people of the consequences; they persist and God listens to the people saying, ‘For I have seen the suffering of my people because their outcry has come to me’ (1 Samuel 9:15-16). Then, God goes a step further and actually leads Samuel to the person they shall crown king. Is it possible the church’s response to homosexuality can be compared to Israel’s adoption of monarchy?”
As mentioned previously, there are those who “find [it] bewildering” that “anyone would seriously use these texts to argue for an inclusive position in terms of accepting sexual intimacy outside of a covenantal relationship between a man and a woman.” Bryan Born questions the appropriateness of using Israel’s request for a king in this way. “Through the prophet Samuel, God warned the Israelites that it would be a disaster… Clearly this prophecy was fulfilled in Israel’s history.”
The US and Canadian MB Executive Boards describe Mary Anne using this passage “to raise questions about whether ‘homosexuality’ (to use her word) should be seen in a similar way as the OT monarchy (a compromise) and whether ‘queer’ individuals are like Esau who still gets a partial blessing from his father.”
Considering the MB context in which Mary Anne has pastored for the last 26 years, and knowing that her desire is to preserve the unity of a church (hers and the larger MB family) made up of people who do not agree on the question of LGBTQ inclusion, I see the logic behind the use of this biblical story. She draws attention to God’s accommodation of Israel’s request as a response to their suffering. Even though monarchy was “not part of God’s original plan,” it seems that God’s compassion motivated him to “make room” for an alternative plan. God goes so far as to assist Israel in implementing this alternative. It is as if God is saying, “Israel, if you really need this, if this will alleviate your suffering, I will allow it.” Mary Anne seems to be asking, “Can the church allow (make room for) gay marriage as a compassionate response to LGBTQ suffering?” Seeing God accommodate or compromise with Israel in this story creates the room Mary Anne needs to chart an ethical path toward including LGBTQ people in the life of the church, especially by way of offering or blessing gay marriage.
The third way alternative churches like River East adopt is paved with such readings of scripture. In the MB context, this may seem like a big step in the progress toward LGBTQ inclusion. It certainly provokes great resistance from the powers that be: they fear its threat of creating change. Unfortunately, this path does not lead to healing and flourishing for queer folks. Many times, despite the intentions of those who choose this path, it produces further harm and trauma.
As a queer person, I do not want my story weaved with the story of Israel’s request for a king. Though there might be room for my marriage to be “allowed,” such a “compromise” does not honor or celebrate the beauty of my relationship with my wife. Not condemning me is not enough.
When Samuel prays, God responds, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. Just as they have done to me from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. Now then, listen to their voice; only, you shall solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them” (1 Samuel 8:7-9). Samuel concludes his warning by saying, “And on that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you on that day” (1 Samuel 8:18). It is when the people refuse to heed Samuel’s warning and persist in their demand for a king that God tells Samuel to give them what they want. Both Samuel and God know that the path of monarchy will not lead to shalom; rather, the monarchy will be the source of great injustice and further suffering.
Israel’s demand for a king sounds a lot like when the “lost son” in Jesus’ parable in Luke 15 requests his inheritance from his father. In this story, the son charts his own course that eventually leads him to rock bottom. With nowhere else to turn, he makes his way back to his father to beg for mercy.
My mother told me years ago that she prays every day that I hit my rock bottom, come to my senses, repent of my “gay lifestyle,” and come home to beg forgiveness. When I came out to my parents after reconciling my faith and sexuality in 2013, they warned me that choosing this path was a rejection of God that will end in my suffering. Her prayer is that I will experience suffering enough in this life to prompt my return as a prodigal daughter, because she fears that if I do not, my suffering will be eternal. There are days I wish we could “agree to disagree” in order to “make room” for relationship. As it is, my parents refuse to be around me and my wife because they believe that even tolerating my relationship would be condoning sin, which would mean they would be complicit in my eternal condemnation. However, that wish is not actually what I wish. I do not want to be tolerated by my parents. Meaningful and healthy relationship is only possible if I am truly seen, affirmed and loved. Trying to preserve a relationship with parents, friends and churches who are unable to fully embrace and love me as a queer person has serious negative impacts on my health and wellbeing. This is also true for many LGBTQ people.
I understand that the path Mary Anne weaves toward making room for LGBTQ people is motivated by a desire to alleviate the suffering we experience in spaces and communities that condemn us. She wants us to experience love and belonging. I urge those motivated by such compassion to more critically examine such a path from the perspective of LGBTQ people. The path I walk is paved with scripture and illumined by the Spirit. There is another way that does lead to justice, peace and flourishing for LGBTQ people. That journey, however, will require letting go of that which persists in harm.
My next post will examine content from and about the 2015 study conference on sexuality that creates barriers to LGBTQ inclusion and perpetuates harm. To find our way to a truly healing path, we’ve got to better understand the path that isn’t working and keeps leading us to dead ends.