When I was in high school, my youth leader was trying to explain the rich theological concept of incarnation. She described Jesus as “God with skin on.” It was so simple and yet so profound. The word incarnation is defined as “a person who embodies in the flesh a deity, spirit or abstract quality.”
It is a Latin word that simply breaks down into two parts — “in-carn” or “in the flesh.” Jesus took that which was immaterial and made it matter. Something we could see and hear and touch. The abstract became real.
This mystical impact of incarnation was not a onetime miracle 2,000 years ago, but still happens all around us every day. God takes that which is abstract and puts “skin on it.” Maybe it’s our prejudice against someone of a different race, religion or political party? Maybe it’s the poor, the rich or the stranger? It’s difficult to maintain a strong ideology when it confronts you in the flesh. I know this firsthand because it happened to me.
Twenty years ago, shortly after I graduated from college and entered full-time youth ministry, God “put skin on” the issue of homosexuality in the form a friend. He was the father of one of my students. I was close with this particular family and walked with their daughter as he and his wife divorced the year before.
What none of us knew was the real reason behind the divorce.
Months later, I ran into this father outside of his suburban family context and discovered his secret. He was a gay man.
The first thing he said to me was, “I know that you hate me for being gay.” But the fact was I didn’t hate him. In spite of the larger evangelical Christian culture around me telling me otherwise, I felt a genuine love and acceptance for him. I knew this was the first step in a long journey towards reconciling that which I had been taught with that which I knew to be true in my heart. And this journey started with an incarnation.
Homosexuals were no longer the “other.” They were no longer an abstract concept to be debated or a people group to be converted. I now knew someone who was gay. God has continued over the past 20 years to place LGBT people in my life. As these friendships grew, so did my understanding of the Scriptures regarding homosexuality in the Bible.
I am now an open and vocal ally for the LGBT community in the church. I am also an ally for Christians who still struggle to find theological space for the full inclusion of LGBT people.
Some may see this as a cop-out or too much of a compromise, but I see it as living in the messy middle. I did not always stand where I do on this issue, so I can relate to my Christian friends and family who are where I was only a few years ago. I also know what it takes to change someone’s heart and mind.
Typically, opinions in matters like these, or any other serious cultural issue of our time, are not swayed with well-crafted arguments. People are changed by relationships. Hearts are opened through living life together and sharing our stories with one another.
Recently I had coffee with someone from my church. He is a pastor and a teacher and was curious how I was able to reconcile the Scriptures with my position on LGBT inclusion. Even though we both knew that we didn’t agree, it was the most honest and genuine conversation I have had on this issue. All we did was share stories about our LGBT friends. We met in the messy middle and put flesh on the ideologies God would have us make real.
Lisa Ho is an associate chaplain at Ohio Wesleyan University and attends Terra Nova Community Church.