Message 2, Repentance & Renewal:
Christians are called not just to a single instance of repentance. Rather, they’re called to repent throughout their lives, trusting Christ for life every day. Dr. Rosaria Butterfield has a unique perspective on repenting and trusting Christ. In this session, Dr. Butterfield describes her conversion, and explains her experience in following Christ in order to encourage and challenge listeners to live as a light in this dark world.
How do I tell you about my conversion to Christianity without making it seem like some alien abduction or a train wreck? Truth be told it felt a little of both. The language normally used to describe this odd miracle does not work for me. I did not read one of those tacky self-help books with a thin coating of Christian themes, examined my life against the tenets of the Bible the way one might hold up one car insurance policy against all others and cleanly and logically make a decision for Christ.
While I did make choices along the path of this journey, they never felt logical, risk-free, or even sane. Neither did I feel like some victim of an emotional earthquake and collapse gracefully into the arms of my Savior like some holy and sanctified Scarlett O’Hara having been claimed by Christ’s irresistible grace. Heretical as it might seem, Christ and Christianity seemed eminently resistible.
My Christian life unfolded as I was just living my life, my normal life. And in the normal course of life questions emerge that exceeded my secular feminist worldview. Those questions sat quietly in the crevices of my mind until I met a most unlikely friend, a Christian pastor.
Had a pastor whose name is Ken Smith not shared the gospel with me for years and years, over and over again, not in some used-car salesman way, but in an organic, and spontaneous and compassionate way. Those questions might still be lodged in the crevices of my mind and I might never yet have met the most unlikely of friends of all, Jesus Christ himself.
I had a normal childhood. Somehow I always feel like I have to start there. I was raised in the Catholic faith. I’m actually named after the rosary. And I attended predominantly liberal Catholic schools. My liberal Catholic all-girl high school discipled me in the life skills that I use today. I learned there to read deeply and well, to diagram a sentence before I even dare to interpret it, and to look out for the unloved and the unlovely, and draw them in.
I had what I believed to be a completely heterosexual adolescence. In college, I met my first boyfriend and it was a heady experience. And at the same time, this strange and slightly indiscernible undercurrent of longing inserted itself in my intense friendships with women. I didn’t make much of this at first and so from the age of 22 until 28, I continued to date men. And at the same time, feel a sense of longing and connection that simply toppled over the edges for my women friends.
The repetitious sensibility rooted and it grew. I simply preferred the company of women. But in my late 20s enhanced in part by feminist philosophy and my LGBT political advocacy, my homosocial preference morphed into homosexuality. The shift was subtle not startling. My lesbian identity and my love for my LGBT community developed in sync with my lesbian sexual practice and life finally came together for me and made sense.
Once I met my first lesbian lover, I was hooked. I studied Freud. I cheered that the DSM had long since removed homosexuality from its list of disorders, thus rendering homosexuality in the eyes of the world and the academy normal. With no prohibitions or constraints by the time I had graduated from Ohio state with my PhD in English Literature in critical theory, I left the Buckeye State with my first lesbian partner.
We moved to New York for me to begin a tenure-track position in the English Department at Syracuse University. Well, my life is a lesbian seemed normal. I actually considered it an enlightened chosen path. Lesbianism seemed like a cleaner and even a more moral sexual practice, always preferring symmetry to asymmetry, I believed I’d found my real self.
What happened to my Catholic training? I believed now that it was anti-intellectual and superstitious. The name Jesus, which had rolled off my tongue in a little girl’s prayers and then rolled off my back in college, now made me recoil in anger. As a professor of English in Women’s Studies, I tired of students who believed that knowing Jesus meant knowing little else.
Christians seemed like bad readers to me. Ironic I thought given that they believe that the Bible was the true truth. Christians use the Bible in a way that Marxists would call vulgar to end a conversation rather than to deepen it. But the most frustrating thing about Christians, for me at this time, was that they simply would not leave consenting adults alone.
I cared about morality and justice and compassion. As a 19th century scholar fervent for the worldviews of Freud, Hegel, Marx, and Darwin, I strove to stand with the disempowered. And my life was happy and meaningful and full. My next lesbian partner and I shared many vital interests, AIDS activism, children’s health and literacy, Golden Retriever rescue, our Unitarian Universalist church just to name a few.
And it was hard to argue that she and I were anything but good citizens and caregivers. We cared about feeding the poor, housing the homeless and teaching reading to the illiterate. Indeed the LGBT community that I come from values hospitality and applies it with skill, sacrifice and integrity. I honed the hospitality gifts that I use today as a pastor’s wife in my gay and lesbian community.
I began researching the religious right and their politics of hatred against people like me. Well, to do this, I began reading the Bible and looking for a Bible scholar to help me wade through this complex book. I took note that the Bible was an engaging literary display of literally every genre and type. It had edgy poetry, deep and complex philosophy and compelling narrative stories.
It also embodied a worldview that I hated: sin, repentance, Sodom and Gomorrah? Absurd! Well, at this time the Promise Keepers came to town. And they parked their little circus at the university. While, I was on a war against stupid, and so I wrote an article published in a local newspaper. It was 1997.
The article generated many rejoinders, so many that I kept a Xerox box back before the technology days — remember those Xerox boxes? Kept one on each side of my desk one for fan mail, one for hate mail. I’ve never been a fan of distraction, so you’ve got to get through your inbox quickly. But one letter that I received completely defied my filing system.
It was from Ken Smith, a pastor then of the Syracuse Reformed Presbyterian Church. It was a kind and inquiring letter. Ken did not argue with my article rather he asked me to defend the presuppositions that undergirded it. In his letter he shared his love for the Bible, his concern that college students were not reading the Bible as part of our literature curriculum.
And he described Jesus as someone who entered into history, not someone who emerged from it. I thought that was insane. I believe that people proceed from history and are shaped for good or for ill by the culture that molds them. I did not know how to respond to this letter, so I threw it away.
And later that night I fished it out of the departments’ recycling bin and I put it back in my desk where it stared at me for a week, confronting me with the worldview divide that demanded a response. As a Postmodern intellectual, I operated from a historical materialist worldview. But Christianity is a supernatural one.
And I realized that if I was going to understand how this book, the Bible, got so many people off track and how this man Jesus persuaded so many people to follow him, Ken’s letter showed me that I needed to understand Christianity from a supernatural point of view, as a supernatural idea.
Well, at this point in my life, the category of the supernatural was exclusively reserved for Stephen King novels, who was a big donor to the English Department so, I became quite good at those. With the letter, Ken initiated two years of bringing the church to me, a heathen. Oh, I had seen my share of Bible verses on placards at Gay Pride Marches.
The Christians who mocked me at Gay Pride Day were happy that I and every one I loved is going to hell was as clear as the sky is blue. But Ken’s letter did not mock, it engaged. And so when he invited me to his home for dinner to discuss these matters more fully, I accepted. You see, my motifs at the time were perfectly clear. Surely, this would be good for my research but something else happened.
Ken and his wife, Floy, and I became friends. They entered my world. They met my friends. We did book exchanges. We talked openly about sexuality and politics. And they did not act as if such conversations were polluting them. They did not treat me like a blank slate.
When we ate together, Ken prayed in a way that I had never heard before. His prayers were intimate, vulnerable. He repented of his sin in front of me. He thanked God for all things. Ken’s God was holy and firm and yet full of mercy. And at their first meal in their home, Ken and Floy also omitted two important steps in the rule book of how Christians should deal with a heathen like me. Number one, they did not share the gospel with me. And number two, they did not invite me to church.
So it made me wonder if I was chopped liver or something. I mean, I knew what they’re supposed to do. But because of these omissions to the Christian rule book as I had come to know it, I felt that when Ken extended his hand to me in friendship, it was safe to close mine in his. You see, I was not Ken’s project. I was Ken’s neighbor. This wasn’t friendship evangelism.
This had the beginnings of friendship. I started meeting with Ken and Floy regularly, reading the Bible in earnest with pen in hand and notebook in lap. At the time, I met a man in the church who had also had a long history of sexual sin much like my own, but who had become a follower of this God-man, Jesus. He also encouraged me to dig deeply into the Bib
le. So I simply started to read the Bible the way that I was trained to read a book. Examining it’s textual authority, authorship, canonicity, internal hermeneutics. I read the way a glutton devours. And slowly and overtime the Bible started to take on a life and a meaning that startled me. Some of my well-worn paradigms no longer stuck.
And I had to at least ponder the hermeneutical claim that this book was different than all the others because it was inspired by a holy God and inherently true and trustworthy. Well, this led me to go through the presuppositional truth claims just to check my sanity here in this moment. And the logic claims go like this.
Number one, if this book was written by men who were inspired by the Holy Spirit, then its admonitions about sin were not applied cultural phobia. Indeed, prior to reading the Bible for myself, I believe that the whole category of sin was merely applied cultural phobia. And, but if God is good then his goodness is unrestrained by time and it anticipates and guards against the ill-treatment of people.
I noticed as I read the Bible that its admonitions about sin were often followed by offers of grace. And that struck me as odd. You mean the God of the Bible deals differently with people when people deal differently with Him? And number two, if God is the creator of all things and if the Bible has his seal of truth and power then the Bible has the right to interrogate me in my life, not the other way around.
You see even as a Postmodern reader, I understood the idea that authority could only depend upon that which was higher than itself. Who is higher than God? I wondered. My friends knew I was reading the Bible and, this was a bit of a concern. First the dean of the chapel took me out to lunch and shared his belief that the Old Testament was completely dispensable and, with it, any prohibition about sexuality or immorality.
But I had been reading and studying the three different narratives of the Old Testament. The ceremonial law, the judicial law, and the moral law. And it seemed to me that you couldn’t really dispense with the entire old testament without violating a universal rule about canonicity, no creating canons within canons.
In fact, I had just gone over this rule in my graduate seminar in Queer Theory that week, and it’s a universal rule. And it made me wonder if the chapel dean ought not sit in my graduate class, and, you know. The chapel dean’s position seemed like a hermeneutic of convenience conforming the text to my experience and not a hermeneutic of integrity where the text gets the chance to fulfill its mission.
You see, even a Postmodern reader-response critic, like the person I used to be, knows that each text has a kind of internal mission. The internal mission of the Bible is to transform the nature of humanity. Any heathen knows that, that’s why it’s so scary. So even non-believers, of course, know that this is a dangerous text.
And I was puzzled that the chapel dean seemed to have such little understanding of the book that he had studied longer than I did. Next, at dinner gathering that my partner and I were hosting, my transgendered friend Jay cornered me in the kitchen. She put a large hand over mine and said, “Rosaria this Bible reading is changing you.” I felt exposed. She was right. I said, “But what if it’s true?”
“What if Jesus is a real and risen Lord?” “What if we are all in trouble?” Jay exhaled deeply and sat down on the chair across from mine, her eyes looked wise and sad and she said, “Rosaria, I was a Presbyterian minister for 15 years, I prayed that the Lord would change me but he didn’t, if you want, I will pray that he will heal you.” Well, this encounter gave me secret tacit permission to keep reading the Bible.
After all, my dear friend Jay had also read it cover to cover many times and routed around in it for life purpose and help. But the bomb she dropped also enraged me. Who is this Jesus, who heals some, but not others? No peace and social justice activist want some unequal opportunity god.
The next day when I returned home from work, I found two large milk crates spilling over with theological books, Jay’s books from seminary. She was giving them to me. In Calvin’s Institutes, in Jay’s handwriting was a warning: “Watch Romans 1.” Oh, you laugh. I didn’t laugh. Romans 1:21 through 27, “For even though they knew God they did not honor Him as God or give thanks but they became futile in their speculations and their foolish heart was darkened.”
“Professing to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man, and of birds, and of four-footed animals and crawling creatures. Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity so that their bodies would be dishonored among them.”
“For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the creator. For this reason, God gave them over to degrading passions, for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural.” I found the verb clauses here to be particularly arresting.
“Did not honor God, did not give thanks, engaged in futile speculations, became fools, exchanged the incorruptible for the corruptible”; God gives us over our lusts, and when we look at the world through our lusts, we dishonor our bodies and worship the world. This verse seemed to provide a haunting literary echo to Genesis 3, where Eve’s desire to live independently of God’s authority made perfect sense to me.
If I were Eve I would have done the same thing. And at the same time the seemingly innocent sin, intriguingly to me at this time attributed to Adam because of headship, served as the leverage for the whole world to come tumbling down fierce and fast, bloody and brilliant. The two verses (one in Genesis and one in Romans) stood out as bookends of my life, not just my life that’s the rub.
If the Bible is, as its internal testimony purports, an eternal frame relevant and responding to the needs of all of humanity, then Genesis 3 and Romans 1 stood out as the table of contents of what ails the world. Indeed Romans 1 does not end by highlighting homosexuality as the worst and most extreme example of the sin of failing to give God the glory for creating us.
Here is where this passage finds its crescendo. “Being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil, full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice, they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful. And although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same but also give hearty approval to those who practice them.”
You see this last line grabbed me by the throat. He told me that if we cannot receive a blessing from God, we will demand acceptance from man. And as the faculty advisor to many LGBT student groups on campus, this got my attention.
But I also took note of the theological diagnosis. Homosexuality in the Bible is not the endpoint of the problem, not for God or for the world. Homosexuality is not the unpardonable sin nor is it the worst of all sins, at least not to God, but it is presented here as one step in the journey. Homosexuality then seemed consequential not causal.
Homosexuality from God’s point of view is this, an identity routed, ethical outworking of original sin. And therefore it seems solidly biblical to say that some people are born this way, because truth be told we’re all born this way, distorted by sin in one way or another.
By failing though to rigorously relinquish my identity to God’s story and failing to understand that the fall rendered even my deepest and most primal feelings untrustworthy and untrue, I had added to my ledger of original sin by creating for myself a category of personhood that God did not. Well, I had taught, studied, read and lived a totally different notion of homosexuality. And for the first time in my life I wondered if I was wrong.
This stopped me in my track. You see, somehow it was easier to hate the Bible and keep reading it when it squared off against me. But now that it was getting under my skin it became a foe of a different and a more menacing kind. So I did the only natural thing. I tried to toss the Bible and its teachings in the trash, I really tried.
But Ken was my friend at this point, and he encouraged me to keep reading, and only because I trusted him did I do this. As I read and re-read the Bible, I kept catching my wings in its daily embrace. I was fighting the idea that the Bible is inspired and inerrant that is that its meaning and purpose has a holy and supernatural authority that has protected it over the years of its canonicity and that it was the repository of truth.
How could a smart cookie like me embrace such things? I didn’t even believe in truth. I was a Postmodernist. I believed in truth claims. I believed that the reader constructed the text, that a text’s meaning found its power only in the reader’s interpretation of it. Without the reader, a book is just paper and glue I told my students over and over again.
How could this one book lay claim to a birthright and a progeny totally different from all the others? That this book was supernatural, was becoming more and more evident to me and my hermeneutical bag of tricks had no system of containment for it. As I was reading and discussing these things with Ken, he pointed out to me that Jesus is the Word made flesh and that knowing Jesus demands embracing the Jesus of the whole Bible not the Jesus of my imagination.
Not the Jesus that would get whatever leftovers my flesh would permit. And after years and years of this something happened. The Bible got to be bigger inside me than I. It overflowed into my world. And then one Sunday morning, two years after I first met Ken and Floy and two years after I started reading the Bible for my research, I left the bed I shared with my lesbian partner and an hour later I showed up in a pew at the Syracuse Reformed Presbyterian Church.
I say this not to be lured, but to remind us that we never know the treacherous journey that some people take to share the pew with us Lord’s Day after Lord’s Day. Conspicuous of my appearance, I reminded myself that I came there to meet God, not to fit in. The first sermon that I heard Ken preach was intended for children and I was greatly relieved.
I thought this is just my speed. Ken started to talk about the narrow gate and the wide gate and made some big deal about some silly prop that was in his pocket that some kid was going to get later — I never got that part. Actually, I did not get most of the sermon. I didn’t. My mind kept wondering to last year’s Gay Pride March of all places to go, right? In church.
Wide as it was with people just like me. And that made me wonder why does my mind keep travelling to the wide path. I kept going back to church to hear more sermons. I had made friendships with people in the church by this time and I had really appreciated the way that they talked about the sermons throughout the week, how the Word of God dwelt in them, and how they referenced it in the details of their days.
You should know that English professors even radical tenured Postmodern ones simply love cross texting. It was just so exciting to me that people are actually quoting a book and making sense of it in the context of something else. But it also made me very worried for these people. You see, I wondered cross-referencing the Bible with your life? You see that places you inside God’s story, inside God’s ontology. Is this safe? Is this deadly?
I pondered these matters. Ken at this time was preaching through the gospel of Mathew with its totally bewildering cast of characters and problems. Unsuspecting folks separated unto the gospel, seeds choked by the world, feeding thousands with some poor and nameless kid’s bread and fish.
I always felt so sorry for that kid. And then Jesus’ cutting question to impetuous Peter, “Do you still lack understanding?” Well, one Lord’s Day, Pastor Ken just stopped right there, left the podium, came out, turned to steel blue eyes on us and said, “Congregation, did Christ ever say this to you?” Well, this startled me because this had been my question. This question was for me.
I had read the Bible seven times through at this time. I had been studying this for two years. Do I still lack understanding? And I wondered, who is speaking here? That old man behind the pulpit or the God-man behind the foundation of the world? You see there was something about the hermeneutic of preaching that disarmed me. And truth be told it still does.
The image the crashed like waves in a raging sea of me and everyone I loved suffering in hell, vomited into my consciousness and gripped me in its teeth, not because we called ourselves gay but because we are proud. We wanted to be autonomous. We rejected the Bible’s interpretive authority over our sexuality, our sexual identity and our sexual practice. It was our hearts and our minds first.
Our bodies followed and I heard it finally. I counted the costs and I did not like the Math. This was my crucible and this is my crucible. You see, if the Bible is true I was dead and if the Bible is false I am simply the biggest fool on earth. But God’s promises rolled in like another round of waves into my world. And one Lord’s Day, Ken was preaching on John 7:17.
“If anyone wills to do God’s will, he shall know concerning the doctrine.” This verse exposed the quick sand in which my feet were stuck. I was a thinker. I was paid to read books and write about them. And I expected that in all areas of my life understanding came before obedience not the other way around. I wanted God to show me on my terms why homosexuality was a sin.
I wanted to be the judge not the one being judged. Perhaps I thought like Eve in the garden, I wanted to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil so that I could become and replace God. And I wondered, hadn’t I already done this, hadn’t we all? If my consciousness fell in Adam’s sin, as the Bible purports, no wonder I couldn’t think my way out of this quandary. This wasn’t a game of thinking and matching of wits.
Could I echo God’s call for obedience? That was the question. Could I will to do God’s will just this once? The stakes were so very high because they always are. But the verse promised understanding after obedience and I wrestled with the question, did I really want to understand homosexuality from God’s point of view? Or did I just want to argue with him?
I prayed that night that God will give me the willingness to obey before I understood. Starting with my own sexuality was too scary. It was too impossible. So I’d started with Jesus. I prayed that God would be pleased to reveal his Son in me. I prayed that I would be a vessel of Jesus. And then I moved to gender.
I don’t know why but I had a driving somewhat oxymoronic desire to make biblical sense of my place in this world as a woman defined and covered by God. And so I prayed that night that God would make me a godly woman and then I laughed out loud at the insanity of this prayer. I prayed that God would give me the faith to repent of my sin at its root.
And what is the root of my sin? I wondered. You see I did not then and I don’t now think that homosexuality was the root of my sin. According to the Bible, homosexuality is a fruit of a larger issue. It is an ethical outworking of a state of mind, the practical outworking of original sin. Perhaps because I was an old Marxist at heart, the concept that ideas have a material force always seemed quite on target to me.
But it left me pondering, could original sin be for real? I mean I’d heard about this my whole life, but, is it for real? And could it really distort me like this? Is what I love a reflection of the real me? Or is it a distortion of it? How does one repent of a sin that doesn’t feel like sin at all but rather not bothering another soul kind of life?
How had I come to this place? What is the root of the sin of sexual identity? Is it the sex or the identity or both? I was a jumble of emotions, but I prayed that the Lord would help me to see my life from his point of view. I just prayed that he would give me eyes to see. And the next morning when I woke up and I looked in the mirror, I looked exactly the same.
But when I looked in the mirror of the Bible I wondered, am I a lesbian or am I an atheist, am I the master of my own destiny, am I exempt from blame because what I do and what I do in bed is self-contained and does not affect anyone but my lover, or has this all been a case of mistaken identity?
If Jesus could split the world, asunder, divide the soul and the spirit, judge the thoughts and attentions of the heart, could he make my true identity prevail? Who am I? Who will God have me to be? You see I still felt like a lesbian in body and heart, that was, I felt my real identity. But what is my true identity?
You see the Bible makes clear that the real and the true have a troubled relationship on the side of eternity. For many people in the Bible their true identity and calling comes only after a long struggle with God, with wilderness, and with dreams and hopes and plans. The Bible makes clear that my future and my calling will always echo an attribute of God, obedience constrains.
What is bigger? I wondered. My lesbian identity or God’s authority over me? Who is this Jesus? Did I know Him? Did I still lack understanding? Could I trust him? And then one ordinary day I came to Jesus. There are no altar calls in Reformed Presbyterian Church, so no fanfare or manipulation. The guy whose back of the head had stared at for years, you know, gets a haircut every five weeks.
He had no idea. We were singing from Psalm 119, line 56. “This is mine because forever all Thy precepts I preserve.” After saying these words I checked them in the Bible just to make sure the Psalter didn’t have some wacky misprint in it. And the Bible used a helping verb and noted the verse like this: this has become mine. Something about that helping verb really bothered me.
Two weight bearing walls seemed to collapse in my mind. The first wall came crashing down because I had just sang condemnation onto myself and I was actually in tune enough with the Holy Spirit to feel his convicting rebuke. You see the Bible was not mine. I have scorned it, and cursed it, and despised it and I was studying it so that I could tell you to do the same. But I had been reading and re-reading this book.
And the use of the helping verb here ‘has’, and ‘has become’ really got to me. See, two years of laborious reading embodies the helping verb ‘has’; it shows process, journey, pilgrimage and danger. But I was not in Christ and therefore I could not possibly keep these precepts, God’s law not in word or heart-change or deed. And here was the shattering of the second wall.
I had read the Bible many times through and I actually saw for myself that it had a holy author. No matter what I was saying to everybody else at the time. I saw for myself that it was a canonized collection of 66 books with a unified biblical revelation. I heard for myself that when the words, this is mine, came out of my mouth in congregational singing, I was attesting to this one simple truth.
That the line of communication that God establishes for his people required this wresting with Scripture and that I really and truly wanted to hear God’s voice breathed into my life and I wanted God to hear my pleas. The fog burned away. The whole Bible, each jot and tittle was an open highway to a holy God. My hands let go of the wheel of self-invention. I came to Jesus alone open handed and naked.
I had no dignity upon which to stand. As an advocate for peace and social justice, I thought I was on the side of kindness, integrity, and care. It was a crushing revelation to discover it. It was Jesus I had been persecuting the whole time, not just some historical figure named Jesus, but my Jesus, my prophet, my priest, my king, my Savior, my Redeemer, my friend, that Jesus.
In this war of worldviews, Ken and Floy were there. The church who had been praying for me for years was there. Jesus triumphed and I was a broken mess. I lost everything but the dog. And he was a nice dog and you would have liked him. Of course, there’s only one thing to do when you meet the living God. You must fall on your face and repent of your sins.
And I could only think of one sin from which I dared repent at that point in time, and that was pride. My life was filled with pride, really 10 years of gay pride post, of Gay Pride Marchers. I had pride posters, pride t-shirts, pride coffee mugs, I had a rainbow flag, my dog drunk out of a pride doggie bowl. You know, sometimes the marketing of morality can just really slap you upside the head, even if you’re an old Marxist.
So I repented of my pride. The pride that led me to believe that I could invent my own rules for faith and life and sexual autonomy. The pride that said I was entitled to live separately from God. The pride that led me to believe that self-worth was self-invented. Repentance is bitter sweet business. Repentance is not just a conversion exercise. Repentance is the daily and hourly posture of the Christian.
Repentance is our daily fruit, our hourly washing, our minute by minute wake up call, our reminder of God’s creation, Jesus’ blood and the Holy Spirit’s convention — comfort. Repentance is the only no shame solution to a renewed Christian conscience because it proves only the obvious: that God was right all along. Conversion was a train wreck. I did not want to lose everything that I had to gain Christ, but I had to.
Softly the voice of God sang a sanguine love song into the rubble of my world. I weakly believed that if Jesus could conquer death then he could make my world right. I drank from the means of grace that God provides: Bible reading, prayer, Psalm singing, fellowship of the saints, and then later church membership and the Lord supper. I took respite in private peace and then Christian community.
And eventually God placed me in a covenant family as a wife and a mother, and a teacher and a writer. And God has blessed me richly. God radically changed me from the heart. And the proof of conversion is a heart changed by Jesus. We do not look to ourselves to see if we measure up. We do not use our personal feelings as some kind of proof of gospel life. We do not look to ourselves because we don’t measure up. That’s the point.
Jesus measures up for us. What about homosexuality? Did I ever get some private special email from the Holy Spirit as to exactly why it’s a sin? Did I ever feel that unnaturalness that Romans 1 outlines, or as someone recently asked me, “Rosaria when did the yuck factor about homosexual sex finally hit you up upside the head?” This should be a warning that you asked me those questions you’ll end up in a book.
Well, that’s not quite what happened. The sinfulness of sin unfolded for me in the authority of the Bible alone. And the growing sweetness of my union with Christ and in the sanctification that this births. At a certain point in my life, I knew that I had to turn the wheel over to God a little like an Alzheimer’s patient, who in a flashing moment of mental lucidity signs over his rights to an able-minded caregiver.
A believer signs over rights of interpretation to the God of the Bible. I learned in that crucible no matter how I felt in my body or my heart, that it was not right to love or cherish anything that God calls sin. Psalm 66:18 put it this way. “If I’d cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.” And the verb that I really noted there was cherished.
I mean at this point of life, I, you know, of course — when I first came to Christ I broke up with a girlfriend. It wasn’t about what I was doing in bed but my heart was not in this. My heart was not in this Christian life, because I cherished my sin. And this verse told me that when we cherish sin, we are separated from a holy God. This verse told me that when I defended my right to a particular sin, I’m cherishing it.
Isaiah 59:1-2 declares this. “Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or his ear dull, that it cannot hear, but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God.” When we cherish sin, we build a wall between us and our maker. We are deceived to believe that sin is not sin. We call God a liar and we use our personal feelings as proof.
All our personal feelings prove is that original sin and the deceptiveness of sin are inseparable. As 1 John 1:10 puts it, “If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar and his word is not in us.” Indeed I came to believe that no matter how I felt at this time, homosexuality is a sin, but it seemed powerfully important to me that so too was homophobia.
And homophobia from the perspective of a Christian is this, the fear and loathing of people who identify as LGBT and the wholesale writing off of their souls. But that still left the question unanswered. Well, what is the sin of homosexuality, the feeling, the practice? Where’s the line that divides between desire and lust. This is what I came to understand.
Homosociality a comfort level deep and abiding, for keeping company, exclusively with people of your own gender is not a sin, neither is it by the way, gay. But once that comfort level shifts to lust, you’re sinning. So yes depending on what we do with them, feelings may be sinful even feelings that seemed to leave consenting adults alone.
To God, what makes the feeling safe is not consent between people but submission to the Word. The question though is this, what should we do with all of this? What was I going to do with all of this? For me I discovered that the root of my lesbianism was pride. I did not want any man to have any authority over me or my body and that is the sin of pride.
For others the root of homosexuality may be sexual addiction or lust. And some sins are harder to battle than others. But for God when we call sin sin and repent of it, we honor God’s authority. So for those in this room who do struggle with unwanted homosexual desires this is a hard and a heavy cross to bear. And I get it.
I also know, though, that if you are in Christ, Jesus will carry the heavier part of this burden. But please, to the Christians who do not struggle with gay or lesbian temptations, please do not add unbearable weight to this burden by thinking that the sin of homosexual practice and identity is somehow bigger or different than all the others or even that its solution is heterosexuality.
The solution to all sin is Christ’s atoning blood. In Christ we are new creatures. In Christ we have a new will, heart and affections for God’s Word and his will. We are redeemed men and women who have been buried with Christ through baptism into death. Romans 6:4, “We are no longer slaves to the sin that once defined us,” although it likely still knows our names and addresses.
So what does a person like me do with her past? Well, I have not forgotten the flowing contours of my past. Body memories still know my name. Details intrude into my world somewhat unpredictably, when I’m home schooling my children or even kneading the communion bread that I make every week. And I take every ancient token to the cross for prayer, for more repentance, and for thanksgiving that God is always right about matters of sin and grace.
I think about what it means to live within the story of the Bible how repentance is a fruit of my new life in Christ. Paul’s question in Romans 6:21 is one I ask myself daily. What fruit did you have then in the things of which you are now ashamed? The layer of my life in Christ always unfolds in this double directional way, praying for sins of the past, repenting for sins of the past that the Lord is bringing to mind, and repenting about sins of today.
And I’ve come to understand that this is part of what it means to have a soul that will last forever. God saved me but he didn’t lobotomized me. In this entire process, I learned that repentance is the threshold to God. If you love your neighbors, you would never deny them this threshold. Repentance is, as Thomas Watson says, “It makes way for the solid comfort that can follow.”
And he quotes from there in Psalm 126 line 5, “They that so in tears shall reap in joy.” Thank you very much.