• March 2012: Our God-given ministry of reconciliation

    In my early twenties as a young Christian, I used to believe that if you wanted to be a “proper Christian”, you could expect God’s call on your life to take you out into the mission field—which to me meant the likelihood of going to spend the rest of my life in Africa, India or some such place. Any other life-choice was just “worldly”. This thought tormented me, as I simply could not imagine spending my life in one of those countries, away from all that is familiar to me, trying to convince people of a very different language and culture to turn their lives over to Christ, especially when my motivation for being there was not one of love for the people but one of blind and reluctant obedience. I just could not imagine this ever working or being at all effective.

    God did call me into the mission field as it happened, but the “field” was not at all the kind I had imagined. As you’ll know from my blog, it was into the field of pastoral care for lesbian & gay Christians that God called me. I've also since learned that wherever we live and work is our mission field. We don't have to be called somewhere else, although occasionally that happens.

    Prior to this call, I had spent more than a dozen years working in professional photography, architectural photography mainly.

    My Father was very proud of me when I was pursuing professional photography. With hundreds of my pictures published and on sale—focussed mainly on beautiful landscapes, cathedrals, stately homes, museums and galleries, and royal events—it was a career that left something to show for it. My Father could never understand me giving up this career for a way of life that meant “living by faith”. Perhaps it would not have been so bad if I had become a CofE vicar or even a Baptist minister (at a push). But to give up all security, trusting God for my income and, worst of all, being a pastor to poofs (as he would have seen it), was something we could never even discuss, although many years later I discovered that he did come to respect my work. But I think he would have found its easier to tell his friends that I had gone to be a missionary in India! I suspect that when asked, he told people I was “some sort of counsellor”. That would have sounded boring enough not to provoke awkward questions.

    When my father died last summer, as a family we all saw that he was absolutely ready to entrust his life and future into God's hands; he had an unswerving faith in the sovereignty of God. He may not have understood my life choices, but in his own way he was every bit a true man of God.

    24 years on from starting Courage, I still feel cautious about how I describe my work in some settings. For instance, what do I tell the neighbours? One has to think carefully about this, because they will still be living next door afterwards. If they are the sort of people who believe in the stereotype that all gays are potential child-abusers, life could become very difficult, especially as our neighbours have young children. You really need to know people well before saying too much. Sometimes it is enough just to say that I am a pastor; the thought of being drawn into any discussion about “religion” is enough to put them off from the outset. Some are more curious and ask “Oh, what church?”. If I think they are not going to cope with venturing into areas of (homo)sexuality and I need to put them off, I’ve been tempted to say something like, “Oh, I’m a pastor to those whose lives have been chewed up and then spat out by the church; scapegoats that the church does not want.”

    It feels shocking to talk like that. But my experience over a quarter of a century is that this is still a good summary of what happens to Christians who are honest about their gay sexuality. The RC and evangelical Protestant churches especially simply don’t want to know.

    At the GCN conference in January this year, Justin Lee told us that according to a recent major survey in the United States looking into how the Church was perceived by the younger generation, the responses were not that people saw the Church as doing good in society—supporting those in need, helping the poor and oppressed, or any of the many good works that in fact really are being done in the name of Christ. The vast majority of people simply perceive the church to be anti-gay. Which is as bad a saying, for instance, that the Church is a racist organisation. Christians polarised in the debate over homosexuality seem unable to see this or recognise the dire consequences for the Church's mission or credibility in the 21st century. But it is a plain and tragic fact that the Church is believed, above all, to be an organisation which chews up and spits out gay people.

    The reaction from some quarters of Christian leadership towards the question of gay marriage, being mooted in Parliament, makes this underlying attitude blindingly obvious. Jesus’ tirade of accusations—fired at the religious leaders of his day in Matthew 23, seem just as appropriate today. The chapter begins as follows:

    “Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practise what they preach. They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” (Matthew 23:1-4 NIV)

    There follows a whole chapter of woes towards the Pharisees and teachers of the law. Personally I do know some wonderful Christian leaders who do not fit this stereotype at all. But overall, sadly, the situation hasn’t changed much in the past 2000 years. The Church still ties up heavy burdens and lays them on the backs of gay people (and many others too) and are not prepared to budge an inch when it comes to helping us. I see the fruit of their work in my office every day as people come and pour out the heartbreak at being pushed out of their churches where they have quietly served for many years.

    “Ah, but it’s not what society thinks about us that really matters”, I hear someone say, “but what God thinks!”. Yes, but God gave to us the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18-20) not a ministry of condemnation. So I do agree—what God thinks is of paramount importance.

    So why don’t we recover that sense of calling to pursue a ministry of reconciliation? You don’t have to go to Africa or India to be a missionary. Our mission field is right on our doorstep, starting with our neighbours.

    Jeremy Marks

    27th March 2012

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