Reflections of a Father
On Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2001, beginning my third year at Fuller, my firstborn and only daughter, Jennifer Lingenfelter, declared to her mother and me that she was in love with a woman and was a lesbian. She met Marta, her chosen partner, in her clinical internship for her doctorate in psychology. After completing her internship, they became friends, then lovers, beginning what has become a long-term partnership. As one can see from her story, she rejects the view that her sexual orientation was a “decision.” Her attraction to women has been as the core of her sexuality since junior high school.
Initially, this was distressing and even disheartening news to me. This is not what I had imagined for my daughter, and yet it did not come as a complete surprise. My wife and I remembered an intimate “love” relationship with a teen girlfriend during her high school years that disturbed us, and to which we responded with repression out of fear and anxiety. We recalled her disdain for dresses and feminine attire, even in elementary school, and knew that “romantic” relationships with boys had always been unsatisfactory and painful experiences for her. Yet my wife and I had never dreamed that she would live in a lesbian relationship for the rest of her life. How should we respond? Was it our fault? I could remember many times when I was clearly a failure as a father, and wondered how that might have contributed to this momentous decision by my daughter to become partner to another woman.
Our initial anxiety had to do with family and friends. What can we say? How will others view her and us? Should we hide this or declare it openly? How do we deal with this biblically and in our church and Fuller relationships? Was it possible that some kind of therapy or ministry could help Jennifer to become heterosexual? But as we thought about these questions, we concluded they were foolish. All our efforts in the past to help, encourage, and affirm heterosexual relationships had no effect. To try to “fix it” would only damage our relationship further.
Early on, we read books that Jen gave us. For Jen the book Stranger at the Gate (by former Fuller faculty member, Mel White) was extremely helpful and encouraging. We struggled with White’s theology but empathized deeply with the pain of this man in his journey of same sex attraction. We also read articles that engaged the passionate debate between theology and science—whether or not same sex orientation is genetic or social-psychological—and came away with deeply mixed findings, feelings, and uncertainty about both cause and effect. My wife and I have pondered our understanding of scripture, our theology, and our understanding of science and culture as we looked in all of these areas for some sense of comprehension as to our daughter’s sexual and spiritual journey. I was very familiar with literal readings of scripture and had used Romans 1:26, “God gave them over to degrading passions,” previously in a written review of someone promoting gay and lesbian issues just a few years earlier. As we pondered the stance of churches that we belonged to, we knew that gays were excluded and, if not excluded, marginalized in these congregations. We told Jen’s story to our closest family and friends, affirming our love and acceptance of our daughter and her partner, yet having no clear way to negotiate the gaps between our Evangelical culture of sexuality and our lived experience.
Through all of this one thing emerged about which we were certain: Jennifer is and always has been our precious daughter. She is flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone and we have cherished her from the first day we held her in our arms. For me, this was a time of inner turmoil, a conflict between the values and prejudices I had learned as a child and young adult, and the profound forgiveness and love of Christ that I experienced as a rebellious husband, father, and young professor in the State University of New York.
The tension for me is summed up in my understanding of the book of Romans. From the time of my childhood I understood that there is no one righteous, not me nor anyone else (Romans 3:10-11). During my mature adult years, I came to understand the power of Paul’s statement in Romans 11:32, that God has given everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all. I saw that people in my culture, and peoples in cultures that I have studied from around the world, have patterns of disobedience, patterns of rebellious relationships that defy the mercy and grace of God. At the same time, I have seen the mercy of God reach out to so many people in so many places; a healing touch to people in all kinds of brokenness. I also am convinced that when we give ourselves to Christ, that means presenting our bodies as living and holy sacrifices and that we should not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of our minds. These things have been a key part of my theology and my practice of acceptance of self and others as I seek to live and walk in the light of Christ at home and abroad.
I know from my research of cultures and peoples around the world that sexuality is a powerful human drive that varies from person to person, including same sex attraction. Sexuality has great potential for distortion, abuse, and destructive consequences. We do not know what causes same sex attraction, but we do know that people in most cultures repress and even abuse those who have same sex attraction. Jennifer experienced that repression from us, and sometimes abuse from others in her relationships.
I don’t know how to relate lesbian partnership to other forms of sexual behavior rejected in the scriptures. At this time I have no clear answer theologically. For example, I do not see lesbian partnership as sexual abuse, or promiscuity; and heterosexual adultery has elements of both abuse and promiscuity. I see evangelicals ready to forgive and accept those who have suffered the wounds of divorce, a practice that Malachi says God hates;
yet just as ready to reject and even hate gays and lesbians who live in loving commitment to one another.
So as I ponder these things, I have come to accept Jennifer’s partnership with Marta as more beautiful, caring, compassionate, and Christ-like, than Jennifer’s former “defective,” “ashamed”, and “black cloud” state of body and mind. I see that my choice as a father is fairly simple. I continue to love my daughter and accept her as the person God created and redeemed her to be. I seek to love and accept her partner Marta in the same way. I see their relationship as one that has been a blessing to each as they have come to know and love each other.
I also sense the person of Christ much alive in Jennifer’s life. She and Marta are now mothers of adopted children – a teenage girl and two boys, aged four and five who were abandoned by their male and female genitors, people who never served as loving parents. I see these two boys desperately in need of a grandfather and wonder who
else is there but me to provide that love. And why should I not love them since I am commanded to in Christ? But more so, why should I not love them because they are two boys who are loved and compassionately cared for by my daughter?
Jennifer and Marta are our family and delightful friends. They are people with much love for us and for others around them. How do I deal with their lesbian relationship theologically? My dilemma is I cannot read the Bible altogether as Mel White does. While I agree with his analysis of the sins of Sodom (Ezekiel 16:49-50), I see contradictions in other texts that have not for me been resolved. Yet, whatever the “falling short of the glory of God” for Jennifer and Marta, my falling short was and is greater! Further, I am confident that in the grace of Christ, I and they, who embrace that grace, may stand forgiven in the presence of God—not because of anything that we have done, but because of Christ.
I continue to support Fuller’s community standards while at the same time cherishing the new opportunities we have to speak to each other lovingly and humbly about such matters. Jennifer and I are open to have conversations with students and others about our journey together as father and daughter. We also, as sojourners together in Christ,
welcome conversations about how we might make the church a safer and welcoming place for those women and men who, like Jennifer, have from childhood struggled with same sex attraction in a world that condemns it.
Sherwood Lingenfelter 2011