For the sake of the bride

July 15th, 2014

The season of Lent in 2014 was a turning point for me. I experienced the dying/rising process in a new way as the forty-day period progressed. I entered Lent on Ash Wednesday as one kind of person; I emerged from it at Easter dawn as another kind of person. The rest of this book is my attempt to describe this transformation, and to tell you why it was so important for me to be changed.

During the season of Lent in 2014, the debate over same-gender relationships reignited in the Body of Christ in general and in my own United Methodist Church in particular. The flame of debate has been burning for more than forty years, but in the spring of 2014, it exploded with a new level of heat and destructiveness. The traditional sides engaged in a demeaning point/counterpoint conflict, a tug-of-war, leaving many casualties along the way. Discussions turned derogatory. Unchristian attitudes and actions were exhibited by leaders who should know better, and by those who used social media to throw in their two-cents’ worth via what seemed to be a neverending spate of comments.

All of this was justified—by both sides—because there was “something essential at stake.” The battles congealed into an all-out war, which each side was determined it had to win. As one who was just beginning my ordained ministry in The United Methodist Church when the controversy began in 1972, some of the rhetoric and logic was familiar. The pro/con arguments were largely warmed-over versions of longstanding positions.

But in the spring of 2014, I saw a darker picture emerging—a contentiousness between professing Christians and a persecution of the LGBT community by professing Christians. In the season of Lent, the Holy Spirit broke my heart one morning by speaking into it these words: “My Bride, the Church, is being abused. Her gown is being torn to shreds by siblings who are trying to end up with the biggest piece of the cloth, and who would rather expose her nakedness than give up the fight. Enough is enough!”

I was stunned—so much so that I kept the experience to myself. I’m old enough to know the difference between a passing feeling and a sacred impression. Whatever I was feeling needed more time to ponder and to test. Shortly after this, I found my wife, Jeannie, having her own similar, painful experience— along with some of her friends. Soon this rippled out to include many of the men and women whose thoughts I follow and whose witness I respect. As this was happening, I heard the inner voice say, “Are you getting this? Are you realizing that I am raising up a new generation of believers to restore the Bride’s intended beauty and to renew her witness? And do you now believe that I want you to be one of the people involved in this?”

Added to the current moment was an earlier decision to re-read the writings of E. Stanley Jones, the person whom overall I consider to have been my primary mentor in things pertaining to theology and Christian living. When I began my re-reading of him, I had no idea that this would merge with my Lenten experience. But it has. And that will become clearer as the book unfolds.

So here I am, convinced that I must try to put into words what has largely been beyond words for some months now. It still is, and that is why I must tell you that while this book is not timid, neither is it terminal. I have come out of Lent 2014 with my boat on a stream that is flowing, not standing still. With each of my previous books, I have had after-publication thoughts, because I have never viewed my writing as a final word. I am even more convinced that this is the case with this book. In the course of writing it I have gone back to re-word and re-express parts of it, because the landscape keeps changing.

But at some point I have come to see that I cannot wait indefinitely to capture the thoughts and feelings that now are transforming my beliefs about the Church and its witness to the world. A work in progress (which is all any writing can be) is better than silence. But I must offer it to you with great humility.

Because the book requires some space to unfold, I must plead with you not to pass judgment until you have read the whole thing. Do not let one sentence, paragraph, or chapter force you to make a conclusion before I have even made one myself. The abuse of the Bride through the culture war about same-gender relationships, as well as a host of other things, cannot be briefly described, much less interpreted. So I ask you to be patient at least to hear the points I am trying to make in their entirety. After that, you must decide what you think about all this, and where you wish to stand relative to it.

As you will shortly see, I am doing my best to write as both one who has been part of the culture war in the past, and as one who has decided not to be part of it in the future. I am writing both as a previous agitator, and hopefully, as a future apologist for a new and better way—a way that will take our abused Bride and make her what God intends for her to be.

In trying to find and navigate this new way, I may end up losing friends on both sides of the traditional debate. But that is a risk I must take. However falteringly, I must make the attempt—for the sake of the Bride.

excerpted from "For the Sake of the Bride: Restoring the Church to Her Intended Beauty" by Steve Harper Copyright © 2014 by Abingdon Press. Used with permission.

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