Address to the 2010 Covenant Conference
St. Philip Presbyterian Church, Houston

by Robert C. Dykstra
Professor of Pastoral Theology, Princeton Theological Seminary

November 4, 2010

Matthew 11:2-6 (NRSV)
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

There is a new city park in Manhattan called the High Line that is unusual for having been constructed on abandoned elevated railroad tracks running along the lower west side of the city. No trains had used the tracks since 1980, and a lot of people in the neighborhood understandably saw their massive infrastructure as an eyesore and wanted to tear it down. But about a decade ago still other neighbors got the idea of covering the tracks, which run above Tenth Avenue for over 20 city blocks, with a walking path and landscaping with wild flowers and grasses native to the region. Just last year, the first section of the beautiful High Line park opened to universal acclaim. The remaining section, covering another ten city blocks, will open next year. Because the park is situated high above the hubbub of traffic and life at street level, there is a real peacefulness one experiences up there amid all that natural beauty. It is a wonderful place of solace hovering over all that intense human energy and complexity that is New York City.

But one odd thing that struck me as particularly memorable on my first visit to the park, in addition to concurring with the park’s rave reviews, was a series of little signs placed at intervals along the way that read: “Keep it wild. Stay on path.” I understood, of course, what those signs were trying to tell us patrons; all that lush new landscaping had to be preserved, after all. But I also found myself wondering if whoever had created those signs had done so with a touch of irony. Or was it just I who took their words to heart that day, who found in them, to some bemusement, a pithy way to capture the central dilemma of my life, of my own Christian path and pilgrimage? “Keep it wild. Stay on path.” Am I the only one who senses a mixed message here, who finds in this message the story of my life, a fate perhaps inevitable to a child born of pious Presbyterian parents in the rural Midwest? You bet, I want to keep it wild! Oh, okay, yes, I understand: stay on the path.

Keep it wild. Stay on path: The great Christian family divide

Keep it wild. Stay on path. Which is it? Which will it be? The injunction of my heart, my physical body, my sexuality, my interests, curiosity, passions, and desires to keep moving out into the world, to keep exploring, to keep discovering something new, to keep pushing out beyond the limits, beyond the familiar, beyond the orthodox, beyond the traditional, to keep it wild? Or the injunction of my parents, my teachers, and, I fear, my little portion of the Christian universe, to keep it holy, to keep it safe, to keep it familiar, to keep it close to home, close to that which I love and to those who love me, to stay on the path? Must it be one or the other? Can it not be both at once? Sure, I can preserve the park’s wildness by staying on the path, but in so doing will I be able to preserve my own? Must we Christians tiptoe through life, avoid all things wild, only to arrive at death safely? Keep it wild. Stay on path. Which is it? Which will it be?

I remember Mel White, the former Fuller Seminary professor who went on to found the gay rights activist organization Soulforce, saying in a lecture at Princeton Seminary a few years ago, “If you are gay, pray that you weren’t born into a Christian family.” Devastating words, damning words, really, and we know exactly what he means. Pray that you weren’t born Christian if you’re born gay.

In his book Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation, my seminary classmate Dale B. Martin (2006), who teaches religion at Yale University, cautions the church against believing that some notion of Christian “community” or metaphor such as “family” somehow automatically protects or guards “against the unethical application of Christian notions,” since “no one can identify in our physical world this idealistic moral
‘community’ to which they refer.” He writes:

All actual Christian communities are just as prone to sin and self-deception as is any ethicist advocating “love.” The invocation of Christian “community” may appeal to those who have experienced Christian groups as open-minded, loving, and benevolent. But to
many of us – most lesbian, gay, and other “nonstraight” Christians – Christian communities have just as often been a source of hatred and sin (p. 167).

Martin goes on to say:

This realization came home to me with something of a shock while reading a book on the ethical use of the Bible written by two scholars who…take their lead from [Stanley] Hauerwas’s work, Stephen E. Fowl and L. Gregory Jones (1991). To illustrate the importance of Christian community and identity, Fowl and Jones tell a story. A woman and her husband are hunting in the mountains of Colorado. She becomes separated from him and lost in the forest. As night falls and the cold increases in the wilderness, she becomes more and more lost and frightened. “Finally, through the trees she sees some
lights in a secluded cabin. She has no idea what might happen to her if she knocks on the door, and she is very anxious. A person opens the door, and the woman says urgently, ‘Please help me – I’m lost.’ The people in the house comfort her and tell her, ‘It’s OK. You’re safe. We’ll take care of you. We are Christians here’” (Martin 2006, p. 167,
quoting Fowl and Jones 1991, p. 72).

Reflecting on this story, Martin says:

Doubtless, Fowl and Jones intend the story as one of reassurance. I assume they expect the reader to breathe a sigh of relief at the last line. But when I first read the story a chill ran up my spine, and when I have recounted the story to audiences of “people like me” –
gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, and other “sexual minorities” – the chill was felt throughout the room, often accompanied by gasps. For many of us, the story sounds like the beginning of a horror movie. Why did the couple so quickly blurt out their religion? Were they members of some kind of self-consciously separated sect? After all, this is supposed to take place in the mountains of Colorado, the home of virulently homophobic institutions such as “Focus on the Family” and the American Air Force Academy, not to mention countless other right-wing groups, hate groups, and disturbed individuals living
in the hills. Are we supposed to assume that the couple helped the woman only because they were Christians? Are Fowl and Jones implying that ordinary Coloradans who didn’t wear their Christianity “on their sleeve” would harm the woman? For many of us,
identifying this couple as “Christian” says nothing reassuring about their ethics at all. The mere label “Christian” does not carry the same value for many of us that it apparently does for Fowl and Jones. We’ve experienced some of the greatest hate from Christians (p.167).

To say that we are family or community or even, perhaps especially, that we are Christians to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, queer, or questioning persons may be to invoke the ominous beginning of a horror movie. Go to any shelter for homeless adolescents in New York or, I’m guessing, in Houston or any other major city, and I promise that you’ll find there beyond all proportion young people evicted by their families and communities for identifying as sexually different. The recent spate of suicides of gay teens is no aberration except for the publicity they have received; gay boys have been in the highest risk group for adolescent suicide now for decades.

Dan Savage, the Seattle columnist who in September started the “It Gets Better” YouTube campaign that has “gone viral” in the past few weeks, says he did so because for gay “teens, it’s been getting worse out in the boonies, in the exurbs.” In the videos, gay adults offer their testimonies of how their lives have improved as they have gotten older in order to encourage gay teens not to harm themselves. “The ‘It Gets Better’ idea came to Mr. Savage,” reports Brian Stelter (2010) in The New York Times, “while he was riding the AirTrain shuttle to Kennedy International Airport [in September] and thinking about Billy Lucas, a 15-year-old from Indiana who committed suicide Sept. 9. The local news media reported that Mr. Lucas was bullied regularly.” Stelter writes:

Days earlier, Mr. Savage had blogged about the suicide, and a reader had written: “My heart breaks for the pain and torment you went through, Billy Lucas. I wish I could have told you that things get better.”

Mr. Savage said he felt the same way. But how to tell them? He gives talks at colleges regularly, but not at middle schools or high schools. “I would never get permission,” he said, blaming a system of “parents, preachers and teachers” who “believe they can terrorize gay children out of being gay as they grow up.” His realization was this: “I was waiting for permission that – in the era of YouTube,
Twitter, Facebook – I didn’t need anymore” (p. A16).

To say that we are family or community or Christians to gay youth may be to invoke the beginnings of a horror movie. Or go to any page of a textbook on church history and read between the lines there of the split between flesh and spirit, between desire and faith, between mysticism and orthodoxy, between sex and salvation, between keeping it wild and staying on the path that has predominated in Christian discourse down through millennia. Then ponder how in welcoming someone gay by identifying as Christian you unwittingly may signal a threat instead. If you are gay, pray that you weren’t born into a Christian family? How hard it has been for our Christian family to hold together our many selves, our keep-it-wild selves and our stay-on-path selves, and how devastating the consequences for those foolish and courageous enough to try.

Desire is love trying to happen

Peter Brown (1988, 2008), the church historian and Augustine scholar at Princeton University, traces in meticulous detail the Christian origins of this great divide in his book The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity. Reflecting on the apostle Paul’s fateful 40 verses on marriage in the seventh chapter of his first letter to the Corinthian church, the pivotal chapter on Christian marriage for a millennium, Brown recognizes that Paul himself “determined that his own state of celibacy should not be adopted by the church of Corinth as a whole” and instead “strove [in this letter]… to point out that marriage was safer than unconsidered celibacy.” But in the fact that Paul’s words there lacked any “warm faith…that the sexual urge, although disorderly, was capable of socialization and of ordered, even warm, expression within marriage” and instead focused almost exclusively on “the dangers of porneia, of potential immorality brought about by sexual frustration,” the apostle “left a fatal legacy to future ages.” Brown writes, “An argument against abandoning sexual intercourse within marriage and in favor of allowing the younger generation to continue to have children slid imperceptibly into an attitude that viewed marriage itself as no more than a defense against desire” (pp. 54-55).

By the time of Justin’s Apology in the early decades of the second century, when it became clear that Jesus would not be returning to earth as quickly as expected, Brown observes, “strict codes of sexual discipline were made to bear much of the weight of providing the Christian Church with a distinctive code of behavior.” Sexual desire came to be seen as the one human trait that united the otherwise heterogeneous amalgam of women and men, rich and poor,
slave and free that comprised the early Christian church. What could unite such a motley crew, could unite so socially divergent a group of persons, into one body? The answer, Brown writes, was sexual desire, and particularly its renunciation:

By concentrating in a single-minded manner on sexual restraint and on sexual heroism, the Christians of the age of Justin had found their way to presenting themselves as the bearers of a truly universal religion: in stressing the vulnerability of all human beings to sexual desire they had been able “to discover or invent a common human condition which underlay…complexity…, [thereby] deriving simplicity out of confusion” (Brown 1988, 2008, p. 60, quoting Carrithers 1983, p. 11, on the Buddhist notion of a universal human
condition of “suffering”).

Within the church’s first centuries, the goal of the early church fathers became, as Brown magisterially traces, the elimination among Christians not just of sexual behavior first outside of marriage and then eventually within marriage as well, but even of all sexual desire as the path to righteousness and certainly to church leadership. It became increasingly difficult for Christians to “keep it wild.” Instead, authentic Christian faith manifested in one’s “staying on the path.”

But be careful what you pray for. As the orthodox rabbinic scholar Daniel Boyarin (1993) points out in his book Carnal Israel:Reading Sex in Talmudic Culture, heaven doesn’t answer halfway prayers. Boyarin tells of an ancient myth in the Jewish Talmud in which the Jewish exiles returning from Babylon pray that they will be freed from illicit sexual desire. But Desire, personified in the myth, warns them against praying for his elimination, saying, “Be careful, for if you kill [desire], the world will end.” This is because,” Desire tells them, God does “not answer halfway prayers.” This suggestion that heaven does not answer halfway prayers, Boyarin says, “gives us the central clue to the rabbinic psychology” of desire: “In order for there to be desire and thus sexuality at all, [the rabbis] are saying, there must also be the possibility of illicit desire. Desire is one, and killing off desire for illicit sex will also kill off the desire for licit sex, which is necessary for the continuation of life.” Despite its “destructive and negative” possibilities, “the desire for sex is itself productive and vital,” and therein the rabbis, Boyarin asserts, reject the sexual dualism favored by the early church fathers (pp. 61-62). For the rabbis, all things are from God. All things are good.

Or to bring us quickly back to the present century: as the British Dominican monk Sebastian Moore (2007) puts it, somewhat heterodoxically for a Roman Catholic, in his lovely book The Contagion of Jesus: Doing Theology as if it Mattered, “Desire is love trying to happen” (p. 120). Desire is love trying to happen. Desire is key to all prayer, the very reason that we pray (p. 125): “God,” Moore writes,

is a god of desire, not of power and prestige, and Jesus knew God as the object of all our deepest desires – for joy, for laughter, and the love of friends, for sexual fulfilment. All of [Jesus’] life and teaching can be summarized as encouraging to all our innate desire, which is also God’s desire for us, to break through our fear and self-loathing. And sin is that fear, fear of desire, fear of life and fear of falling into God (p. 120).

Desire – including sexual desire, which for Moore is desire in its most exciting and universal form and includes for him desire between two persons of the same sex – is love trying to happen. “A theology that downgrades desire as such,” Moore writes, “is going to make of the desire for God something rarefied and otherworldly, instead of being what it is, the hunger for the reign of God and his righteousness, the building of his Kingdom” (p. 148).

I find compelling Moore’s (1981) claim that “the only serious form of the religious question today is: Is human self-awareness, when it finds its fulfilment in love, resonating, albeit faintly, with an origin that ‘behaves’, infinitely and all-constitutingly, as love behaves?” (p. 15). Or as my friend John McDargh (1995) translates Moore’s question into the poetry of the biblical tradition: “Does God have regard for me?” or “Am I a source of delight to the Source of my delight?”(p. 226). The only serious form of the religious question today: Does God have regard for me? Does God desire me? We yearn to be desired by the one we desire. Desire is love trying to happen.

Be careful what you pray for. Heaven doesn’t answer halfway prayers. Our Christian theologies of sexuality have left us largely bereft of a theology of desire, and even, if we take Moore’s perceptions to heart, of a theology of desire for God, of God’s desire for us. Christian theologies of desire down through centuries are relegated to the margins, to the mystics, to the women who couldn’t quite get published, to heterodoxy or to the minority report, in our own day
to feminist or pastoral theologians whose courses always come last in seminary catalogues though often first in the esteem of seminarians whose own hearts swell with unsanctioned desire.  The church’s teachings on desire remain undeveloped, unrefined, unable to deal with even commonplace sexual complexities of little schoolchildren and certainly not those of so-called sexual minorities in real-world situations of life and ministry.

The Internet is not the only reason young people jump off bridges. Who among us would argue with my friend and colleague Donald Capps’s (2001) conviction that “the Christian community itself bears a certain responsibility for…cases of [clergy] sexual misconduct because it has failed to develop a discourse of desire that is truly worthy of itself” (p. 235). And the effects of this failure ripple far beyond clergy sexual misconduct alone, to schoolyards, dormitory rooms, military barracks, and church pulpits and pews. Because of this, of course, we gather here today.

On not wanting what we want: The splitting of kindness from desire

But it’s too easy merely to blame the church fathers for the situation we find ourselves in, to point a finger to a distant age, to wash our hands of it and call it a day. The church fathers, after all, surely found themselves living in much the same state of ambiguity that we recognize in our own lives and in the theological quandaries we face today. In the most important matters of our lives – in love, in sex, in childrearing, in church, in government — we’re usually lucky most of the time simply to muddle through. Muddling through amid the complexities of life is often the most we can expect (on muddling through, cf. Phillips 2005, p. 189).

Desire is a tricky thing, a complex set of experiences, a tough nut to crack. We know in this age after Freud that most of the time we’re not even fully conscious of what we desire. Freud would understand when we try to convince ourselves, as good Christians, not to want what we want, that is, to “will” away from ourselves all desire, unaware that desire is love trying to happen. We don’t always know what we want. We don’t always even want what we want.

I think of a somewhat amusing, somewhat sobering psychological study conducted by Henry E. Adams (1996) and associates in the department of psychology at the University of Georgia. They wanted to find out if homophobia is associated with homosexual arousal. So they divided a group of about 60 college-age men who claimed to be exclusively heterosexual into two groups, based on a survey instrument designed to measure homophobia – one a group of homophobic young men and the other of nonhomophobic young men. The researchers had to fudge a bit on calling the second group nonhomophobic in that they discovered they could find almost no heterosexual college men who showed no signs of homophobia. So better to say that subjects were divided into an extremely homophobic group and a much less homophobic group. Men in both groups were then “exposed to sexually explicit erotic stimuli consisting of heterosexual, male homosexual, and lesbian videotapes” while wearing a little electric rubber band around their genitals to measure their state of arousal. The researchers’ finding? Only the extremely homophobic men showed significant evidence of arousal in response to the male homosexual stimuli, although as indicated by follow-up questionnaires these young men were completely unaware of or denied any physiological response to the gay videos (pp. 440-445). Desire is a tricky thing. We don’t always know what we want.

In an essay titled “On the Universal Tendency to Debasement in the Sphere of Love,” published in 1912 and recently retranslated as “Concerning the Most Universal Debasement in the Erotic Life,” Freud (1912/2007) wrestled with the problem of unconscious desire, specifically as it manifests in what he called the “psychic impotence,” including what today we might call erectile dysfunction, of men with women they deeply loved. Why is it, Freud wanted to know,
that men find themselves unable to become aroused with the women they love even when they strongly desire to do so and even though they can become physically aroused with women they degrade or deem somehow beneath them in status? How is it, Freud wonders, that the erotic life of such men, in his words, “remains split in two directions that are characterized in art as heavenly and earthly (or animal) love”? He writes:

Where they love they do not desire, and where they desire they cannot love. They seek objects that they do not need to love, in order to keep their sensuality far from their beloved objects (p. 253).

More fascinating to Freud is that though psychical splitting of the idealized sexual partner from a devalued one, and of being able to perform sexually with the latter but not the former, expresses itself more intensely in some men than in others, this problem of “psychical impotence is far more widespread than we imagine. A certain degree of it actually characterizes the erotic life” of all men (p. 255). It is, for Freud, a “universal” tendency to debasement in the sphere of love. Those men who for whatever reasons do not have an actual affair partner or an active fantasy life
or, we might speculate today, who don’t use the Internet to accommodate their so-called animal desires, choosing instead to have sexual relations exclusively with their wives – these men, Freud says, nevertheless still psychologically seek ways to “overcome respect for the woman…in order to feel truly free in [their] erotic life” (p. 256).

Why this splitting or compartmentalizing of sexual desires, according to Freud? It is because, he suggests, of the ways we must learn as children to separate kindness from sexuality, specifically the kindness of our earliest caregivers, our parents – including their tender care for our physical bodies – from our sexual desires for them. The sexual partners we most respect and esteem as adults are likely unconsciously to remind us of these early kindnesses and desires. As British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips (2009) puts it, “If we have sexual relations with people for whom we feel affection, it is as though, in our unconscious, so to speak, we are committing incest. So we do something psychologists call ‘splitting’: there are people we feel affection for, and there are people with whom we have sex, and ne’er the twain shall meet” (p. 83). Phillips writes:

We know someone is reminding us of our parents, Freud says, because we find ourselves idealizing them, or “over-valuing” them…. They are the people whom we mustn’t have sex with. Indeed, the only people we are free to desire are those who are as far as possible
from being idealizable. In order to have sex we either choose “degraded” objects… or, more often, we degrade them ourselves to render them desirable…. It is our unkindness… that makes our desire possible; kindness is the way we stop ourselves from desiring (p. 85).

Desire is a tricky thing. We don’t always know what we want or want what we want, a psychologically complex and usually unconscious set of experiences and conflicts. It’s not just that the church fathers got it mostly wrong, although they did, but that all of us, at least us men, mostly get it wrong most of the time and have to overcome significant odds to hope ever to approximate getting it right. Our natural inheritance of desire feels to us to be at war with our natural inheritance of kindness and with our authentic desire to be kind. We want to keep it wild and to stay on the path, to desire and to be kind, to desire to be kind, but we have grave difficulty in accomplishing both at once with the same person or community and especially, echoing Sebastian Moore, with our beloved Jesus, with God, as the object of our deepest desires – our joy, our laughter, our love of friends, our sexual fulfilment, among them.  We don’t always know how to want what we want, how to desire and to be kind at one and the same time. We somehow come to believe that in order to be truly kind, we must rid ourselves of all desire.

The church fathers may have left us bereft of a nuanced theology of desire, but less perhaps because they lacked sexual desire or were so fully spiritual or sexually heroic themselves, and more because, to the contrary, they were so fully human, so specifically male, so vulnerably once little children, so overwhelmed by unconscious conflict, so much like us today, caught between passionate desire and genuine kindness, caught up in their passionate desire for genuine kindness. They couldn’t imagine and articulate within their own experience, nor reconcile in their theological formulations, how both to keep it wild and to stay on the path.

In search of new stories of kindness

Unfortunately, while Freud in his essay proved quite astute as a diagnostician, he was much less forthcoming in terms of prescription or intervention. What seems clear to me, however, not only as I read Freud here or survey the stark detritus of the centuries-long theological rift between human sexuality and Christian charity but equally evident in the tragic ways this battle has wreaked havoc in my own life, in the lives of every seminary student I counsel, and without question in the lives of GLBT men and women whose prayers not to be born into a Christian home went unanswered – what seems clear to me now is that both in our personal lives and loves and in our Christian works and walks we must rejoin somehow our kindness with our desire.

We need to be kind. We need to be kind. We crave in our lives new stories of kindness. But our kindness, if truly kind, must come with an “edge,” has to have an edginess to it. Kindness that is fully kind and not merely benign or benevolent contains desire, sexuality, aggression, even hatred within it.

It is possible to view the work of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians down through the years in precisely this way. All the hard work, all these many amazing conferences, brilliant lectures from among the keenest minds of the church – Brian Blount (2000), Eugene Rogers (2005), Patrick Henry (2003) (the best lecture I have ever heard, and I have heard a lot of wonderful lectures in my day, was that of Henry at a Covenant Network meeting in Washington, D.C., some years back) – the list and their enormous theological contributions go on and on; and those powerful sermons uttered by young preachers from Southern churches who should have known better than to risk their hides but also sermons by firmly established and securely tenured wizards of the trade; and those daring, strategic, subversive workshops prepared by the politically astute in our midst, a gift not my own: it is possible and even necessary to view the work of the Covenant Network as an act of lavish generosity, of unparalleled, unbridled, overflowing kindness.

But your kindness, you need no reminding, is never benign nor benevolent (cf. Capps 2001, p. 245), never dull nor sexless (and not despite your being Presbyterians but because you are Presbyterians), but rather kindness with an edge, kindness knowing what it is up against, kindness aware that the odds in its favor are not kind, kindness with desire and risk and courage contained therein. You stand accused for your kindness. You are opposed for your kindness. You are hated for your kindness, for this gospel of kindness you have been accumulating (and not a day too soon) with desire, even sexual desire, built right in. You are giving us as Presbyterians and the larger Christian church “forms of kindness that are,” to borrow Adam Phillips’s words, “not an obstacle to the satisfactions of intimacy” (Phillips 2009, p. 92) but instead a pathway to intimacy, forms of kindness in which desire is the impetus to all prayer, forms of kindness where desire is love trying to happen. You remind us that we are, in our sexual and other complexities, a source of delight to the Source of our delight. You labor year after year to assure us that we are desired by the One we desire. You help us stay on the path by way of keeping it, keeping us, wild.

Remember that moment in the Gospel accounts when John the Baptist in prison, facing almost certain execution, and – best to tell it like it is – experiencing doubts about Jesus, wonders whether Jesus is the Messiah, the one who is to come? Jesus isn’t quite the Messiah John had had in mind, not the kind he had been preaching, not much one for fire and brimstone, not one excelling in political aspirations or nation-building. John, the fierce ascetic and revolutionary, eating locusts and thirsting in the desert sun; Jesus, the quiet village healer, eating and drinking
as if there is no tomorrow. It is not turning out as John had expected, and he sends his disciples to Jesus one last time just to be sure, just to keep the faith that must have been hard to keep in his circumstances, given how hard it is to keep even in ours.

Jesus responds to him with words that strike us as nothing if not enormously kind. There is no hint of his chastising John for doubting, no lack of recognition that John has every reason to wonder. One detects not a trace of irritation in his reply. Only, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Mt. 11:4-5).

Then this word of blessing, this word of benediction, directed especially to John but perhaps one for our taking, too – here at the end of his life, here at the end of our time together just now: “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (Mt. 11:6). It’s a minimalist blessing. There is no shaming here. He’s not telling John, “Blessed is the one who never doubts that I am the Messiah.” There is none of that. Nor are there triumphant words, words of promised prosperity, false assurances that everything is going to be all right. It is not, of course, going to be all right, either for John or for Jesus.

Rather, given John’s grave circumstances and the plausibility of his doubts, Jesus instead, as my teacher F. Dale Bruner (1987) once put it, offers words that are in every way simply very, very kind. Jesus aims low here in his blessing, saying only, “God bless you, John, if you do not throw the whole thing over because I am different” (p. 413), because I strive not for political power and prestige but to heal the individual, to attend to the brokenhearted, to find the outcast, to tell the marginalized and socially suspect that God has regard for them, regard for you – that you are a source of delight to the Source of your delight. God bless you, John, for doing your ministry so differently from mine and for hanging on for dear life, if you can, to what I’m seeing in the lives of the few I’ve touched along the way, whose lives God has welcomed, whose desires God desires.

Kindness with an edge. Kindness that stirs dissent, that invites, if it comes to it, even one’s own death. I’m so proud of you, John. I’m so proud of you, Jesus. I’m so proud of you, Covenant Network of Presbyterians. I’m so grateful for your gospel of Jesus Christ, for your gospel of kindness to us who desire.

Keep it wild, Covenant Network. Stay on the path.

Robert C. Dykstra
2010 Covenant Conference
Thursday, November 4, 2010

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Brown, P. (1988, 2008). The body and society: Men, women, and sexual renunciation in early Christianity. New York: Columbia University Press.

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Carrithers, M. (1983). Forest monks of Sri Lanka. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Fowl, S. E., & Jones, L. G. (1991). Reading in communion: Scripture and ethics in Christian life. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans.

Freud, S. (1912/2007). Concerning the most universal debasement in the erotic life. In A. Phillips (Ed.), The psychology of love (pp. 250-261), S. Whiteside (Trans.). New York: Penguin Books.

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