Thursday, March 12, 2009

A Dialogue with David Powlison about the Hill Essay and Homosexuality

I'm grateful to David Powlison for taking some time to talk with me and to help me think through the good issues raised by Wesley's article and the ensuing discussion.

Interesting discussion regarding Wesley Hill's article, isn't it?

Yes it is -- and remarkably edifying and on-topic compared to some comment threads.

I was really encouraged to see the civil nature of the disagreements! In your view, where do you see the commenters agreeing and disagreeing?

The opposing views aren't far apart.
  • They agree that homosexuality is wrong.
  • They agree that the church should be a place where honest, lifelong redemption happens.
  • They agree that it's important for fellow believers to incarnate and express God's mercies, clarity and patience with each other.
  • They agree that the love of God in Jesus Christ is higher and deeper than any human relationship.
  • They agree that the gospel, expressed in Word and deeds, makes a decisive difference in how we live.
  • They agree that redemption is painfully unfinished until Jesus returns.
But they differ in emphasis and expectations.

How so? In what ways are some of these differences matters of of

Emphasis expresses how each of us reads the particular needs of the hour in ministry.

If standing against homosexualist advocacy is the burning issue, then opposing it clearly is called for.

But if encouraging brothers and sisters with ongoing struggles of loneliness, temptation, and shame is the burning issue, then offering grace in word, attitude, and deed is called for.

But what if both are burning issues?

Then we are greatly challenged. Can we do both simultaneously? It's easier to be either fierce or kind. Being challenged to do both simultaneously helps both become stronger, truer, and more redeeming.

Advocacy of the Christian sexual ethic can lapse into the polarizing stance that characterizes most politics: are you for or against homosexuals? Isn't there a third alternative? Redemptive love walks a third way that politics rarely understands and factionalism never understands.

On the other side, tenderness towards strugglers can lapse into sentimentality, muting the call to transformation into the image of Jesus Christ – Jesus Christ, this single, celibate man whose suffering (including his experience of utterly forsaken loneliness) saved, saves, and will save our lives.

Can we be tenderly fierce and fiercely tender? Can we maintain simultaneously awareness of many complementary truths: sin, suffering, the diverse forms that Jesus' grace takes, the diverse forms by which true change registers, unto the glory of God?

Where do you personally land on the issue of emphasis?

We've got to do both – the good news depends on it. But I think that the believing church is usually better at knowing homosexuality is wrong than it is at creating a climate of grace for those who struggle in following Christ.

You said that you think some of the differences strike you as matters of expectations. Can you give a couple of examples?

First, we all believe in "the already and not yet." Redemption makes a dramatic difference, we rejoice, we die to self and rise to new life, we change. And yet, redemption is still incomplete, we groan, we still struggle, and all tears are not wiped away.

Perhaps it helps all of us that some of us sound the trumpet call while others of us play minor-key cello. Perhaps it helps all of us if the cellos question the trumpets, "Are you setting the bar a bit too high, and unwittingly disheartening strugglers? Are you forgetting sorrow and patience?" And perhaps it helps all of us if the trumpets ask of the cellos, "Are you setting the bar a bit too low, and unwittingly disheartening strugglers? Are you forgetting joy and vigor?" After all, Psalm 31 closes with "Be strong and let your heart take courage," and yet Psalm 31 gets there via anguish, outcry, anxiety, and need. Psalm 31 is the road Jesus walked, and it is the road we walk.

Where do you personally land on expectations of change?

I want both instruments to play well and to play together. If we lose either, we lose the music of the gospel.

What's another example regarding differing expectations?

We all believe that the love of God is sufficient – finally, ultimately, foundationally, truly – and that God’s love is powerfully and normally expressed in loving each other (per the writings of the apostle John) .

When a man or woman of faith walks in extremis – upon a cross, locked in solitary confinement, standing alone before a classroom of hostile disputants, about to go under anesthesia for delicate surgery, crossing into the darkest shadow of imminent death – we keenly feel our fundamental aloneness. The heart knows its own bitter sorrows and fears, and no outsider shares its most intimate joys. To my ears Wesley Hill slightly idealizes marital intimacy, and to that degree slightly exaggerates the uniqueness of his particular form of loneliness. Both in extremis and at the crux of the human condition, God promises to be with us and he proves true, our hope and joy.

But most of the life of faith is social. When Wesley Hill writes that he must “trust that God in Christ can meet me in my loneliness not simply with God’s own love but with God’s love mediated through the human faces and arms of my fellow believers,” he writes wisely, not just about himself but about all of us. If I were to expand his statement a bit, and slightly tweak it, I might put it this way:
I must trust that God in Christ will meet me and you in our loneliness and in every other evil of the human condition, every aspect of sin and misery that cries out for our Redeemer. God will meet us, each and all, transforming us into his image, not simply by giving his own love directly, unmediated through brothers and sisters. He will also meet us, each and all, transforming us into his image, with his own love mediated through the human faces and arms of our fellow believers.
Where do you personally land on expectations regarding the balance between the unmediated and the mediated experiences of God’s immediate love?

I cannot count the times and ways that each and both have met me and shaped who I am. In the incarnation of Jesus, they are forever joined and become one flesh, hence New Testament fellowship is so incalculably rich, both with God and each other.

Many thanks, Dr. Powlison, for sharing your wise thoughts.