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Love Reality

By November 16, 2013 5 Comments

Yesterday the staff of the Chimes, Calvin College’s student newspaper, released their weekly issue with a special insert called “Listen First.” In this feature, eight Calvin students (one a recent grad) explain in their own words what it’s like to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender at Calvin. Some have been out already; for some, this was an announcement, at least to the wider Calvin community. One student chose to remain anonymous, for reasons he describes. All of them speak bravely about their pain, their gratitude, and their ongoing questions and fears.

You can read the feature online here.

This feels like an important moment for our campus. Not because this has been such a taboo subject for us. Actually, we’ve been intentionally studying, thinking, writing, and talking about “the issue” on campus for many years. At the same time, we’ve been working hard to care for our LGBTQ+ students. My colleagues in the Student Life division have shown particular creativity and leadership, especially among our Christian college peers. In partnership with student leaders, they have created programs, events, groups, and lots of opportunities for learning and thoughtful reflection. Many of us across divisions have tried to create safe spaces and healthy conversations. I’ve seen first-hand what goes on, and many faculty and staff are acting with amazing integrity, commitment, and compassion.

With this Chimes feature, though, it feels as if the “grownups” are stepping back. This is reason for celebration: students are taking the lead—and doing it with such wisdom! The feature includes a clear statement of purpose, careful definitions, and a respectful presentation of all concerned. The editorial staff decided that what the campus needs right now more than debate is to hear real students’ stories, so as they developed the feature, they laid some ground rules:

[T]o avoid more polarizing discussion, the writers have left out any reference to positions on moral and political questions. We do not want to continue to discuss in a way that causes us to forget to listen before speaking, or blurs our vision of Christ as the source of absolute truth and love. We hope the stories might stop abstract conversations and shatter false stereotypes.

No need to worry that “kids these days” don’t care about biblical authority or holiness or sexual ethics. They do. But they are also sick and tired of the “grownups” engaged in abstract battles or hostile stalemates over exegetical niceties or political slogans that ignore real people’s experiences, fears, and hopes for the sake of a tidy policy.

Sometimes young people are wiser than their elders. I’m rejoicing in these students today, because they understand that theology and exegesis are empty and vain unless they begin with the task that L’Arche Community founder Jean Vanier commends as fundamental to the Christian life: love reality.

Reality might be uncomfortable, or confusing, or more painful than we wish. It may be far more beautiful than we had hoped. But we have to listen and look, and pray for the compassion and clarity of the Holy Spirit. I think that’s what these students are asking of the campus. I think that’s what the next generation is asking of the church—and all the institutions and people who have raised and trained them.   

As the older generation, our job is not only to teach but to bless. So I want to bless the students who’ve courageously told their stories on this campus. I want to bless the many gifted, beautiful students (and friends, colleagues, acquaintances…) I’ve known who happen to be LGBT—I have been greatly blessed by them, and grateful for their trust and honesty. And I want to bless this current generation of Calvin students who are doing difficult theology, in real time, in real life, right now.

Thank you for what you are teaching us, what you are demanding of us in this moment.

You see, the big thing for me is to love reality and not live in the imagination, not live in what could have been or what should have been or what can be, and somewhere, to love reality and then discover that God is present.

Jean Vanier, quoted in an interview with Krista Tippett on On Being


Thanks to Ron Rienstra for the graphic above.


  • Eric Nykamp says:

    To the students who told their stories:
    "You give me hope for the church now and in the future. Thank you for being brave in sharing what you wrote about your lives, you heartaches, your insecurities, and your joys. Thank you for doing this in a way that takes seriously your faith, your community, and scripture. My own perspective on LGBT issues changed dramatically when I met similarly brave people like yourselves whose commitment to the church was so strong in spite of many within the church thought of them as the "enemy." Thank you for standing up, and showing us how to listen to one another with civility. Your faith is inspiring. Thank you for sharing the gift of your stories. You inspire me."

  • Marchiene Rienstra says:

    Deb, once again I am so grateful to you for your eloquent grace and loving honesty in what you write.
    Your words always stimulate my thinking and resonate in my heart.
    I am glad you are in the position, and have the God-given gifts to speak and write as you do about what is real, and matters, right now, where you are, where we all are.
    And, I have to say it, I am so proud of you!

  • Emma S says:

    Thank you for putting into words why this feels like a different moment than so many of the conversations that have preceded it, but I've been sitting with some unease about your essay for a couple of days now.

    "Love reality" sounds fundamentally and problematically conservative. I know that love done right is transformative, but done wrong, it's so often used to justify oppression. I guess I want to ask: whose reality?! And when I ask that, I'm gladder than ever to see "the grownups" stepping back.

  • David Timmer says:

    Emma S – To understand what Jean Vanier meant (and didn't mean) by "Love reality," it helps to read what he said in the context of the interview with Krista Tippett (remembering also that he's a Frenchman speaking extemporaneously in English):

    ". . . And I have my weaknesses and I have my fragility, physical ailments of the heart, I have to take things quietly. And intellectually, I get tired much more quickly. So it's just the acceptance of reality. And you see, the big thing for me is to love reality and not live in the imagination, not live in what could have been or what should have been or what can be to this reality, and somewhere to love reality and then discover that God is present in the reality. That doesn't mean to say that we're just to be passive to welcome reality, because we also have to know how to react in front of reality.

    "Reality is a beautiful reality, but how to just to live that reality and live it with my own body, my own weaknesses, my own need for greater sleep, to get to sleep after lunch and all the rest of — and this is my reality. And I know that in so many years', time — would it be five years —I might be in a wheelchair, or whatever it is."

    So Vanier was speaking immediately about accepting his own circumstances with gratitude and creativity. But I think he would extend that attitude to accepting the reality of the disabled people with whom he lives in community, or any one else's, for that matter.

  • Debra Rienstra says:

    Thanks, Dave. Yes, it struck me that Vanier's thoughts could be applied to many contexts, including theological conversations about LGBT matters in the sense that those discussing "the issues" can't pretend people do not experience same-sex attraction, or say to such people "no you don't" or "get help and get over it" or "just live as if you don't." That's a way of turning away and not seeing. When LGBT people say, "This is what I have experienced and this is my reality," we all have to receive that seriously. Theories are easy; people are much more complicated. That's what I meant by "love reality." See, listen, respond with compassion.

    I am honestly baffled by what Emma S seems to think I meant. Perhaps what she is referring to is that a group in power can end up oppressing a group with less power by forcing them to adapt to a preferred "reality" imposed upon them. What I am suggesting here is exactly the opposite: the group in power listening and accepting the reality attested to by the group in less power.

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