It's no secret that sex sells in our culture. We are sexual beings. But the menu for sexuality has changed dramatically in recent decades. Homosexuality used to show up as a seasonal dish; now it's a main course.
Micah and I joked about how people might perceive us. I made an effort when talking to strangers to mention our wives and kids. Micah restrained himself from holding my hand. We only posed together for two pictures. We only shared a bed once and not in the Honeymoon Sweet at the Overlook Bed and Breakfast. There were ordered separate mattresses and ignored the sign telling us to bathe with a friend.
The town of Big Fork is situated on the north eastern corner of Flathead Lake. The area is flamboyantly conservative: Tea Party representatives, Ten Commandments signs, and independent evangelical churches abound. My gay aunt and her partner routinely drive past religious billboards and icons, confronted on every street corner by pop evangelicalism. They've grown convinced that Christians in their area are insecure, but they only know them from a distance.
Micah and I talked with my Aunt Ann and Melissa over dinner. They asked about Eugene Peterson. They had Googled him, but were more interested in my intrigue with the man. I praised his writing, his ability to draw connections from the biblical world to ours, and his opus: The Message, a paraphrase of the Bible in contemporary language.
"Eugene did not want people to view the Bible as if God spoke in exalted, spiritual language," I explained. "The Message shows God speaks to the common person in a common tongue."
We continued to discuss spiritual matters with my aunts (as I came to call them, my love for them as people outgrowing my dislike for homosexuality as a practice). We defined what a Christian is, and Ten Commandment billboards did not make the essentials list. Rather, Jesus is central: His forgiveness, sacrifice, resurrection, and invitation to follow Him. "I mess up all the time," Micah said, admitting his orientation toward sin and failure. "But I know God forgives me and accepts me because of Jesus."
We discussed the true meaning of "born again," pointing to Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus (John 3). I stressed the need for God's intervention in our lives; self-help projects do not merit eternal life. Nor do certain labels for certain types of Christians.
The conversation ensued the following day. My aunt asked if I thought there were any gay people in my church. "I've only known of one in seven years," I said. "But I would not be surprised if others struggled with homosexual tendencies."
"Would we be accepted in your church?" she asked.
"Probably not," I replied. "As a church we do not believe homosexuality is God's design or desire. We don't bring it up all the time, but you would probably feel that belief at our church."
It grieved me to tell my aunt the truth, but I had no choice. She asked me to speak for my church, and I did. Sadly, the line between loving people and endorsing a practice gets fuzzier at the institutional level. I would invite my aunts to a family dinner without reservation. However, I could not reserve them a seat at my church's Love Feast. Some aspects of life remain exclusive.
I made sure to tell my aunt that when issues like this become personal, folks tend to show love. Individuals are better at showing love than institutions. Churches are institutions. Christians are people.
As a Christian, I hope I showed my aunt love. Both of them. I think I did.
I believe Micah did, too.
Even Eugene Peterson, the consummate pastor, reached out to my aunts. He inscribed two copies of The Message, one for each of them. He handed me the books and said, "Tell them I wrote The Message for people like them." The cast of "common people" comprises gay and straight, male and female, Jew and Gentile, sinner and saint.
My Aunt Ann and Melissa received Eugene's gift with gratitude. I pray they will receive God's gift of grace in time.