Thursday, May 22, 2014

This Treasure in Jars of Clay

Roughly a month ago, a headline came across my facebook feed that immediately caught my attention: "Dan Haseltine, Front-man of Christian Band Jars of Clay, Takes to Twitter to Support Gay Marriage." I've been a huge fan of Jars of Clay since their debut album twenty years ago. I listen to them almost daily and quote them in sermons and blogs frequently. So the headline surprised me because I'd never heard Dan or any member of the band say anything in favor of gay marriage. As I dug deeper into the story, I came to realize that it was more complicated than the headline would suggest.

Dan had taken to Twitter with some questions that indicated he was wrestling with the Church's traditional stance on gay marriage. Many people interpreted his comments as a defense of gay marriage and a twitter firestorm erupted with many people attacking and condemning Dan and the whole band for being apostates and heretics. Dan wrote a blog article seeking to clarify his statements, which was humble and honest. (It's a great read if you want to understand what happened.) In short, he said he wasn't coming out in favor of gay marriage, but was instead publicly and honestly wrestling with the issue and wondering if there isn't a different way for Christians to approach the issue other than the well-worn trenches already established. Unfortunately, even with the explanation, many people were upset with his comments and the fact that he would wrestle with the issue at all and many nasty things were said by those attacking and defending Dan (though the band constantly spoke with and asked for grace and decorum).

Because Jars is my favorite band, because their music has been so influential on my faith and ministry over twenty years, because I deeply respect the members of the band, and because I know what it's like to have my faith on public display and occasionally misspeak in ways that upset people, the controversy touched me personally and it's taken almost a month for me to come to the point of being able to write about it. As I've followed the controversy and backlash for the past month and peeled away the layers of my own emotions, I've found my thoughts coming to rest around three perspectives.

A Historical Perspective

One thing that strikes me as troubling is the way that honest inquiry on the part of Dan was shot down as unChristian, unGodly, unholy. I saw one comment on twitter that said Dan should take this up with his pastor, not discuss it publicly. Many others took a variation on the classic "The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it" to say there's nothing to discuss and anyone who wrestles with applying scripture to daily life is a heretic and apostate.

I'm saddened by how it seems that many in the Church are unwilling to even discuss difficult topics and prefer to stake a flag and lob stones at anyone that disagrees with them. The church has continuously wrestled with difficult topics from the time of Christ. I can understand why many in the Church read the Biblical witness and conclude that homosexuality is a sin (I don't), but to speak as though church doctrine has always been a settled matter ignores the historical arguments the Church had over the divinity/humanity of Jesus, circumcision, inclusion of gentiles, Gnosticism, Pelagianism, Arianism, the Great Schism, the real presence in communion, infant/adult baptism, infallibility of the Pope, sacraments, everything related to the Reformation, divorce, abolition/slavery, women's ordination, and on and on. 

From the moment Jesus ascended into heaven and left the Gospel in the hands of human beings, the Church has always wrestled with what we believe and understand about God and the Bible and how they impact our lives in our current age. Wrestling honestly with an issue like homosexuality and gay marriage isn't unChristian; it's the definition of a living faith.

A Cultural Perspective

The fact that the story took off in the first place is in large part because some mainstream media misread Dan's tweets and started posting articles with titles like the one above. As Dan explained in his blog, he was asking questions, not stating positions, but the media seemed to make a leap that since he wasn't openly hostile towards LGBT people, he must be in favor of marriage equality. At the same time, many Christians made comments that took the opposite position, saying if he didn't clearly condemn homosexuality and gay marriage, his position was no different than being in favor of it.

This raises a couple questions in my mind that bear consideration: 1) What does it say that it's considered newsworthy when a Christian doesn't openly attack our LGBT neighbors? 2) What does it say that we can't seem to recognize a middle ground where people are "undecided" or looking for a new way to examine a taut issue? 2b) If everything is simply black and white, then where do we find room for learning, listening, creativity, compromise, or wonder?

A Theological Perspective

I once heard a friend say that the church has classically operated under the model expecting new disciples/members to first Believe (what we believe) and then Behave (do what we do) before they Belong (you are one of us). That is certainly the pattern I see in many of the negative comments directed at Dan and Jars of Clay: because you don't Believe exactly what I believe and won't Behave and say things the way I think is correct, then I won't listen to your music and you aren't Christian (you don't Belong).

But when I look at how Jesus acted with people, he used a different order. Usually he told people they Belonged (you are healed; you are forgiven; follow me), then they Believed (Jesus is a prophet/the messiah/the Son of God), and then Jesus told them to Behave (go and sin no more; go and do likewise; go in peace).

I wonder if the church wouldn't be better off if we focused on building loving relationships more than scrutinizing each other's theological nuances. After all, it was through being in relationship with Jesus that the Twelve became disciples. They belonged before they behaved. The old hymn doesn't say "they will know we are Christians by our doctrinal purity." It says we will be known by our love, an idea that comes straight from the mouth of Jesus (John 13:35).

Conclusion: A Personal Perspective

When I was twenty years old, I began to wrestle honestly and publicly with my religious beliefs around homosexuality. I had been taught and believed that it was a sin, but my justifications for my position felt inadequate the more I thought about them. I spent almost two years reading, studying, and seeking counsel from people I respected. I am grateful for the fact that through it all, those in my life who fell on both sides of the issue walked with me, gave me space to ponder and question, and, above all, demonstrated through their actions that I belonged regardless of where I landed.

I pray for Dan and for all people that wrestle with difficult issues that they would be loved and supported as I was. Beyond that, I pray that the Church may become known as a place where such questions are expected and people can disagree yet still belong to one another in Christ.

The Bible verse that Jars of Clay takes their name from is 2 Corinthians 4:7, which reads "We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us." In other words, the treasure of God's all-surpassing love and grace is greater than the fragile, earthen vessels of our lives. Such hope has held the Church together through centuries of disagreements and it will for centuries to come.

“To grip the rose unfearful is to meet the thorn.” –Jars of Clay, "No One Loves Me Like You"

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