On Being a Friend, Not a Salesperson

Last night was a special night.

Justin Lee, executive director of the Gay Christian Network, came to town and spoke about “Transforming the Conversation” between Christians and the GLBT community (LGBT? Does the order matter? Must stop obsessing over minutiae!).

Justin is a captivating, hilarious speaker – easy to listen to and agree with. The thing that struck me most about his talk was how universal his suggestions were. They would certainly lead to better relationships between Christians who disagree on the subject of homosexuality and between the church and non-Christian gays and lesbians, but they would also lead to better relationships, period.

I’ll be honest: I came into this presentation expecting to nod in agreement the whole way through and think thoughts along the lines of, “Yeah! If only (unenlightened person x) were here to finally hear the truth!” So imagine my surprise and disappointment when, on his very first point, Justin pointed the finger, rhetorically speaking, at me.

“Take more interest in the person than the position,” he said. “A person more interested in you than changing your mind is a friend. Someone more interested in changing your mind is a salesperson.”

I’m a debater. I love to know what I think and state my opinion and have it out with those who disagree – not because I hate them, but because I love the exchange of positions, aaaand also because I like the feeling of out-arguing the other side. Facebook is a terrific venue for this sort of usually unproductive exchange. As Rachel Held Evans said in her Facebook status the other day, “Wow, that uninvited post about politics and/or religion totally changed my mind, said no one ever.”

And I’ve struggled with seeing even friends as opponents when the subject turns to politics or religion (or both). Not that debating with friends is bad, or even totally unfruitful, but the question for me is: Am I doing this because we’re friends and having a good time as friends, or am I doing this because I’m more interested in myself and my opinions than I am in them? It’s an uncomfortable question, and one I’ll be pondering for a while.

—–

On a personal note, I was lucky enough to be invited to late-night dinner with Justin, a couple of guys I know from grad school and a group of undergrads. I didn’t take a poll, but I’m pretty sure that for the first time in my life, I was the only straight person in a group of more than two. It was a great experience. We didn’t talk about anything revolutionary; it was just the kind of random, fun conversation you experience in a group at IHOP close to midnight.

But I couldn’t help thinking a few different times how much pain must be represented in the eight people around me. I experienced my share of bullying in school, but I’m sure it’s nothing compared to some of their experiences. I’ve spoken to gay and bisexual students before; I’ve seen the accounts of more high-profile members of the LGBT community, and I’ve read the underground magazines from gay students and alumni at two conservative Christian universities. I am fully confident I have no idea what it’s like to have lived in their shoes – whether to be out and faced with the ostracism, bullying and rejection, even from their own families and churches, or to be closeted and grappling secretly with the fear, shame and self-loathing brought on by a culture of silence or, worse, hostility toward anything gay.

Yet they are warm, funny, kind people, and they have much to offer if the church is willing to accept it. I only hope and pray we come to our senses, listen to the sage words of our Justin Lees and learn how to turn homosexuality into an “agree to disagree issue” before it’s too late.

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