Sunday was the one-year anniversary of my ordination to the diaconate and the six-month anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood. Did you know that priests (and bishops and archbishops, for that matter) never stop being deacons? The diaconate is not a stepping stone to a “higher” office; it’s a permanent calling that undergirds all other ordained ministry. I am now a priest, but I am still and forever a deacon.
At my diaconate ordination, the bishop exhorted me with these words: “You are to interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world. It is the Deacon’s office to encourage and equip the household of God to care for the stranger, to embrace the poor and helpless, and to seek them out, so that they may be relieved.”
I take those ordination vows very seriously, and right now, “the needs, concerns, and hopes” of many in our world are centered on last week’s momentous reversal of Roe v. Wade. I have heard from many of you as you process this decision, some with exuberant joy, others with worry or anger, but most with a confused sense of “I expected to feel happy, but instead I feel conflicted.”
My reading of scripture, church history, and ethics has led me to firm pro-life convictions (this is why I am also against the death penalty), and so in many ways I rejoice with those who rejoiced last week. I hope and pray this ruling will mean fewer children are aborted. One of the things I admire most about the early church is their steadfast commitment to protect the lives of the vulnerable. Christians were known for rescuing unwanted infants, elderly, and people with disabilities who had been discarded outside the city walls to die of exposure; they took them into their own homes and cared for them as family. Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan had taught them that strangers, enemies, and the vulnerable were all now their neighbors, and called upon his followers to love them accordingly. The early church embodied this new and expansive neighbor-love in truly radical ways.
And yet my rejoicing in last week’s decision is also tempered by some of the same concerns that many of you have expressed to me. In this week’s letter, I wanted to particularly address the conflicted feelings that I have heard from many of you. Many in our community have held a pro-life stance in the past, but along the way, something has shifted:
Perhaps you don’t read scripture in the same way you used to, and the old scriptural proofs feel unconvincing. Perhaps you’ve even encountered scriptural arguments in favor of abortion under limited circumstances. You wonder: what is a uniquely Christian, biblically faithful, morally and ethically coherent stance on abortion, and how can you possibly arrive there?
Perhaps you find the culture wars and divisive political rhetoric that accompanies the pro-life stance harmful and un-Christlike and want to distance yourself from it.
Perhaps you are sensitive to the ways abortion debates touch on some of the most personal and intimate aspects of human life and have the potential to stir up deeply felt memories, disappointment, and loss.
Perhaps you worry about the consequences to maternal health and to the poorest and most marginalized among us, who are disproportionately impacted by this decision, and about the lack of social safety nets to care for them.
Perhaps you feel disenchanted with a pro-life stance that feels inconsistent, seemingly caring little for the health, safety, and flourishing of all people after birth and throughout their lives until the time of death.
Perhaps you feel angry at the church for shaming women who have had abortions, for espousing theologies harmful to women and children and failing to protect them from abuse.
Perhaps you are aware that the abortion rate has steadily fallen in the 50 years since Roe was enacted, and you wonder whether there is a better way to lower abortion rates than court decisions.
Perhaps you are simply weary and alarmed by the deepening political trench warfare in which we find ourselves, and overturning Roe feels like a grenade has been lobbed into the midst of it.
Whatever your reason for feeling conflicted, I want to say two things. First, wrestling with ethical issues is a necessary part of living faithfully as Jesus’ disciples. We are not partisans, but Christ-followers, and our ethics must flow from that identity and no other. The pages of the New Testament are filled with communities of Christians feeling conflicted, uncertain of how to think about the complex social issues of their time and how to behave as the unique counter-cultural community known as the Church. Together, empowered by the Holy Spirit, informed by scripture, and liberated by the death and resurrection of Jesus, they navigate these issues. Sometimes — often — they get it wrong or disagree with one another, and we see Peter, Paul, and John step in with a pastoral word of correction or challenge. This is the work of discipleship; it is okay to have questions. Often, it's a sign you are listening to the fears and anxieties of your neighbors.
And second, if any of the “perhaps”es on my list above — or one that I haven’t named — are troubling you, please come talk to me. Now, because I am a pastor and not a legal scholar, policy maker, or doctor, I am better equipped to respond to some of those “perhaps”es than others. But so often, I think what the world needs from pastors is not our opinions adding to the cultural noise, but simply our prayer, listening, and presence as we seek Jesus together. And so I repeat the invitation I extended on Sunday: come talk to me, wherever you are and however you are feeling. I would love to hear from you.
I have been so grateful for the way the lectionary has given us readings from Galatians the past few weeks. Paul so carefully, faithfully, and often challengingly points the church back to the costly self-giving love of Jesus on the cross. This is the foundation of our faith, the basis of our freedom in Christ, and the necessary starting point of all Christian ethics.
I’ll close with the words we read Sunday, words I pray we will embody more and more as a community: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become enslaved to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”