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Faith and Values: Tolerance, a step toward embrace

UPDATED: Sat., Oct. 28, 2017, 9:45 p.m.

For years, I wanted to preach or write about “The Only Thing I Can’t Tolerate is Intolerance.” This column isn’t that! I’m still working on that difficult topic.

What I do want to invite you to wrestle with is this spiritual question: How can we see tolerance as one (big) step toward more fully embracing either our own humanity or someone else’s? I was stimulated to ask this question of myself – and you – after reading a radical story.

First United Methodist Church in Austin, Texas, voted on Sept. 24 that no couples can say “I do” in its sanctuary while the denomination bans same-gender weddings. The congregation has a number of LGBTQ members.

After more than a year of laity-led conversation and discernment, this “Bible Belt” faith community voted 266 to 20 (93 percent) in favor of the new wedding policy. I was particularly taken by what the church’s senior pastor, the Rev. Taylor Fuerst, said:

“My hope, which I already see being borne out, is that it will have a uniting effect on the congregation. It communicates even more to our city that if you are in the LGBTQ community that you are not tolerated here, but you are embraced.”

Whether or not you agree with the decision made by this congregation, take a moment to reflect on the pastor’s deeply loving statement: “… you are not tolerated here, but you are embraced.” Wow! This congregation has a firm grip on the loving responses Jesus modeled in his life.

Most of the time, Jesus tolerated (“put up with”) the religious leaders’ obsessive compulsion to “keep the law,” even when it arrogantly motivated those same leaders to treat the common people as second-class Jews. But however he regularly challenged them, he was always inwardly ready to embrace them as God’s children. He knew they weren’t, deep-down, “the Other” – and neither were the people they tried to control through religious fear.

I recently read a review of “The Origin of Others,” by Nobel Laureate for Literature Toni Morrison. Morrison explores the sense of belonging as the heart of human experience.

Beginning with her own childhood, she clearly identifies so many people who do not feel they belong with and to anyone. They are the “Others” Morrison’s book affirms. They may be tolerated as “Other,” but they definitely aren’t embraced as “Someone.”

Jesus embraced those children of God whom religious leaders only tolerated – as long as they obeyed the “law,” which primarily meant all the rules that were mostly commentary on the Torah. Our own religious and cultural “laws” are sometimes written, but often are simply “understood.”

It is too common to suggest oneself is “Someone” by defining someone else as an “Other,” a stranger, someone different. Ironically, that invariably means no one is authentically a “Someone”; but every person is merely an “Other” who is different from – to be feared by – all “Others.”

The result of this word-salad game is that tolerance is the only semi-healthy thing to determine a relationship. But no one gets embraced!

If we settle only for tolerating others, we may in secret be only tolerating ourselves. To experience spiritual maturity, realize tolerance is only a first step. “Tolerance only” is the cry of spiritual preschoolers!

What is the greatest commandment, Jesus was asked (Mark 12:28-31)? I paraphrase: “You shall love God … and the second is this, You shall tolerate your neighbor as yourself.” Tolerate? Did he really say Tolerate? Of course not! “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Can you enthusiastically embrace yourself right now? Literally and figuratively? If not, that’s where your spirit-journey needs to start – today.