Revive Our Hearts Podcast

Leslie Basham: When a pastor and his wife invited Rosaria Butterfield into their lives, they realized something about their guest, and they wanted her to realize . . .

Dr. Rosaria Butterfield: . . . that being a lesbian was not the biggest sin in my life . . . being an unbeliever was. So they lived and shared the gospel, and they modeled for me how to apply a life of faith to the fallen world and the many trials in which people living in a fallen world face and we struggle with. 

Leslie: This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth for Monday, February 8, 2016.

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth: Well, if you missed yesterday's Revive Our Hearts, you need to go back and listen to it, read the transcript. You don't want to just read the transcript on this one. You want to listen to it, so you can catch the heart and the passion and the joy and the winsomeness of our guest today, Rosaria Butterfield.

We had almost no notice in scheduling this interview, but it's one I've wanted for a long time, and I'm so thankful, Rosaria, that you extended a trip and a time away from your family to share with us. I love you, and I love the grace of God in your life.

Rosaria: The joy is all mine! I'm so glad to be here.

Nancy: You know, I came to know Jesus as a four-year-old child. It's my first conscious memory. Of course, in eternity past God planned all this, right? And there was the Word from my parents into our home, into my heart, so that wasn't the first moment I got exposed to the gospel, but that's my first conscious memory.

So I have no memory before Christ, and I'm thankful for God writing my story that way. But I love the reminders from friends like you of what it cost Christ, and the process through which God, by His Spirit, draws our hearts. It looks different for all of us.

Rosaria: Yes, it does.

Nancy: Your book says you were an unlikely convert. The title is The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert. I'm reminded, when I look at that, that there is no "likely" convert. There is no one who would seek after God, there is no one who would pursue Him, there is no one who would choose Him, if He didn't pursue us.

I'm so thankful to see God's grace in your life, and to be reminded of God's grace in my own life—and in the life of anybody who names the Name of Jesus. It's His grace. Thank you for being with us.

Rosaria is a pastor's wife, and she's the mom of four adopted children. She is homeschooling the younger two of those children, and their home is a beehive of hospitality and ministry and prayer and compassion and stuff (just having children)! Busy lives. 

In your previous life you were a tenured English professor at Syracuse University, and we shared yesterday (we won't rehash the whole story, because I do want those who didn't hear it to go back and listen to it) of how a pastor reached out to you when you were this militant feminist, liberal, atheist professor. He wasn't intimated to reach out and to say, "Come join my wife and me for dinner."

Rosaria: And I will tell you, too, I never would have used that string of adjectives to describe me.

Nancy: Of course. You were a human being.

Rosaria: Well, and I would have said that I was a peace activist, and I believed in diversity and compassion and kindness and care. I thought that feminism and gay rights was actually the path to that.

Nancy: And so, in your view, what you were doing made total sense in the way you were thinking. You're a brilliant woman! Thankfully, this pastor treated you with respect. He and his wife treated you with compassion and kindness, which was disarming.

Rosaria: It was and always is.

Nancy: And as we look at the lines being drawn in our culture and in our world, and we're here as evangelical Christians thinking about how do we be salt, how do we be light, how do we make a difference? Those of us who love Christ cannot say we just have to write off the secular culture: "These secularists! They're wrecking our culture!" We know that's not the right way to think.

But sometimes I think we feel helpless about how our lives could ever intersect with those who come from a polar-opposite worldview in their way of thinking. I look at your credentials and say, "Oh, she is so smart. She is so educated. (What? . . . a nineteenth century literature scholar.) That's way above my pay grade!"

Yet, it was kindness and hospitality and a willingness to listen and to treat you as a human being created in the image of God that started to wear down defenses that you didn't even know you had built up.

Rosaria: That's exactly right.

Nancy: So, over the course of two years—coming back to where we ended yesterday—this pastor and his wife, Ken and Floy Smith, welcomed you. They received you as Christ had received them, had endless conversations. In the meantime, you're reading the Bible, and the Bible is undoing you.

Rosaria: It is. I'm reading the Bible for a research project. My post-tenure book, I thought, would be an analysis of the "Christian Right" from a lesbian/feminist point of view, undermining the Bible to have any authority.

My friends, of course, knew that I was reading the Bible. The gay and lesbian community is a community highly given to hospitality, so my home was open constantly for people who wanted to talk through ideas and issues—students, faculty members, neighbors. 

One night of the week was special. In the lesbian and gay community, it's standard to designate one night of the week to be open to everyone. And so, Thursday night, pretty much anyone who needed to come over would, and I would serve a big dinner, and we would just talk.

My friends let me know, one particular Thursday night, that this Bible reading was changing me, and they were concerned.

Nancy: Did you know that it was? Could you tell?

Rosaria: Well, you know, I'm a bookish kind of woman, and every research project changes me, so I did know that, but it didn't register until a transgendered friend really put the question in a pointed way.

I went back into the kitchen, probably to get another bottle of wine and to get some more bowls for pasta filled, and this is what she said. She sat down, and she said, "Rosaria, before you go back in that dining room and serve again and talk, I just need to talk to you. I'm worried for you. This Bible reading is changing you. I'm really concerned."

Nancy: And your response was?

Rosaria: It's funny . . . has this ever happened to you, where a friend will make an observation, and you're such a workaholic, so busy, so keyed-up, that you haven't asked the right questions. So you can't get the right answers out.

I hadn't observed that or asked it in that way and her concern for me, it opened up something in me. I realized that I did have a question that I was afraid to articulate—even to me. But she was a trusted friend, and so I said (I give pseudonyms in the book; I call her Jay in the book), "Jay, this is just a research question, but what if it's true? What if it's true that Jesus is a real and risen Lord? What if we are all in trouble?"

What Jay said to me, when I said that, was, "Well, I know that. I was a Presbyterian minister for fifteen years. If you'd like, I'll pray for you, that Jesus would heal you. I prayed that for myself, but He never did," she said.

Nancy: Wow. So there was some history there.

Rosaria: Yeah, that was a really powerful moment, for a number of reasons. One is that, it sort of gave me a secret, tacit permission to keep reading the Bible. Because here was this dear friend, unbeknownst to me, who had rooted around in this Book for a life purpose and help, so that was really powerful.

But there was something about her use of the word "healing" that really bothered me. I believed "gay is good." I did not believe that I needed healing. I found that word to be patronizing and pathological.

I also didn't like that this Jesus didn't "heal" (whatever that meant!) Jay, if she prayed for it. I mean, who was this God who heals some but not others? That's not fair!

But, finally, it made me realize (I had read the Bible through a few times at that point) that the Bible actually didn't say that I needed healing. The Bible said I needed repentance unto life! And I didn't like those terms, either.

So, I left that conversation disoriented and disrupted, but motivated to keep reading and to keep searching.

Nancy: And it was bringing you face-to-face with this sin issue, this heart issue, that wasn't homosexuality, it wasn't any ideology, there was an underlying heart issue.

Rosaria: That is true, though I was a little afraid to go there. That is absolutely right.

Nancy: It sounds like you were starting to sense it, though. "What if something's wrong?" And that something wrong, you were to going to come to see, was sin.

Rosaria: That is exactly right, but I really didn't like the terms of this discussion at all!

Nancy: And you continued talking about the Bible with your friends Ken and Floy.

Rosaria: Oh, absolutely! Ken and Floy were my faithful weekly . .  When I look back on it now as a Christian, it looks like a discipling relationship, because that's what it was.

Nancy: And as you talked with them, certainly they knew your belief system and your background. How did they deal with this whole issue of your lesbianism?

Rosaria: You know, that's a great question. It's a funny thing. I think people presume, here's this evangelical pastor and here's this lesbian activist, so obviously, we must have just been hashing it out over Romans 1, over dinner, every night.

That's not what happened at all. Instead, what really happened, what Ken and Floy Smith did, was they realized that being a lesbian was not the biggest sin in my life, being an unbeliever was!

So they lived and shared the gospel, and they modeled for me how to apply a life of faith to the fallen world and the many trials, and the many trials which people living in a fallen world face and we struggle with. 

Nancy: And that started to do something. Obviously, there's a peep-hole going on in your heart.

Rosaria: It started to undo me. I think, had they confronted me about homosexuality, had the first night they said, "Now, look, Missy! You know homosexuality is a sin. It is a very deep, dark dangerous sin. Let's go to Romans 1. This is going to be your undoing. You're a God-hater. This is really serious."

I would have rejected that, and I would have become defensive.

Nancy: But they knew that wasn't your ultimate issue.

Rosaria: In fact, in Ken's words, we can never talk about "sins plural" before we talk about "sin principal." So, the thing they wanted to talk to me about was really my worldview: "People are born good, Rosaria, you really believe that? How does that explain this and that and the other thing?"

They modeled for me how understanding original sin, as an experience that distorts all of us. We know, as Christians, that original sin distorts us, actual sin distracts us, and indwelling sin manipulates us. And we're Christians.

They were starting to model for me how the covenant of grace responds to the problem in a holistic way, because we can't fix the problem. That was intriguing. So, it was both intellectual and compassionate. Without me really knowing I was being discipled, they were discipling me in a holistic way.

Nancy: And also, it sounds like you were seeing that they recognized themselves to be sinners in need of a Savior.

Rosaria: Oh, absolutely! In fact, when Ken would pray before we would eat, he would often repent of his sin of that day, and it was striking to me that he would do that, because many of the sins that he had committed that day were some of the sins I had committed that day . . . only I didn't see them as sin!

I presumed that if I just worked hard enough to be nicer to those people I had been short with, all would be fine. So, it was a disarming experience.

Nancy: They were being repent-ers themselves, before calling on you to be a repent-er.

Rosaria: Yes. They were modeling repentance unto life, and they were also modeling what it meant to love the sinner, and hate your own sin.

Nancy: Okay, I'm going to fast-forward here. At some point you ended up in church, two years into this relationship.

Rosaria: I did. It was crazy! Two years into this relationship (with the Smiths), I left the bed that I shared with my lesbian partner and, an hour later, I ended up in the pew at the Syracuse Reformed Presbyterian Church.

Nancy: Wow. Which says, among other things, you don't know the background and the story of somebody who may be sitting next to you in church and what God is in the process of doing in their life.

Rosaria: That's right. So, I ended up there and Ken was preaching through the Gospel of Matthew. 

Nancy: Were you scared?

Rosaria: I was.

Nancy: By that time, you felt comfortable with that couple. 

Rosaria: Well, I felt comfortable with many of the people in that church—they were my colleagues at the University. But I had just gotten to a point where I really felt like I need to get some of these questions answered—these questions that were deep now and were almost maddening to me. My secular feminist worldview could not contain them.

I needed to go to church and meet God and not worry about the fact that my butch haircut and my jeans probably just were not the normal dress code of this particular group.

Nancy: But that was not off-putting to them, because they cared about you.

Rosaria: They did. They were not put off by it. Oh, I'm sure they had to kind of work on it a little, and I didn't tell anyone I was coming to church. I just showed up.

Nancy: Did you feel welcomed?

Rosaria: I did. I was drawn into the service. I was drawn in by the music. I started college as a music major, so I love to sing. The Reformed Presbyterian Church sings psalms acappella, and I can sight read, and I found the music to be beautiful. 

But the message was disarming. So I found myself continuing to go back to hear more messages, to work through some of these deep questions. One of those deep questions that was really hitting hard for me was, I wanted God to show me on my terms why homosexuality was a sin.

It occurred to me, as Ken was preaching through the Gospel of Matthew, that what the Bible was calling everyone to do was to submit in heart to the will of God first, and then ask our questions later.

One of the things that the authority of God would suggest is that, if there is no one higher than God, it was not my right to ask that question of God. Indeed, the opposite was true. God had the right to interrogate my life and my culture.

Even as a post-modern professor, I understood that. The question is, "Who is higher than God?" As a post-modern professor, if your paper [as my student] was due on Tuesday and you gave it to me on Wednesday, you got a bad grade.

Nancy: So, there was some sense of absolutes.

Rosaria: I did understand some things about authority, and I was starting to question now whether my confidence in my ability to reason my way through things, whether that was safe or not.

Nancy: And you were really coming to see God's authority, but also the authority of His Word.

Rosaria: Yes, I was, because I had been reading the Word for up to five hours a day at this point, because I was on a research program. It's not uncommon for me, when I write on a book, to read that book even up to thirty times.

So the fact that the Lord convicted me that I needed to stop writing this research project and start living as a Christian after seven times reading the Bible, that's a short rope for me.

Nancy: So when you started into reading Scripture, you were judging it, critiquing it, but there was that turning point of realizing that, if this is the authority, I have to be willing to be judged by it.

Rosaria: Right, that's all true. And the turning point came in this particular way: Ken was preaching at this point on John 7:17, "If anyone is willing to do God's will, he will know concerning the doctrine."

And Ken said that offered a biblical paradigm, that obedience comes before understanding. I almost jumped out of my chair! In fact, maybe I did. Maybe I jumped out of my folding chair, because it was so crazy to me!

I always thought that understanding came before obedience. After all, I was paid to read books and write about them and tell other people what to think. But all of a sudden, this paradigm about how to understand the Scriptures was opened up to me, that if I obey, understanding would follow.

That was really frightening! I remember going home and praying that night, just a simple prayer that the Lord would give me the courage to obey before I understood.

Nancy: That has to come from the Lord, but it is really the relinquishing of the right to be in control.

Rosaria: It was, and I'm a control freak. Even as a believer, I still struggle with that.

Nancy: We're daughters of Eve, right?

Rosaria: We are. So I really mulled over that. And I was mulling that over, I was noticing that my Christian friends mulled around in the Scriptures, too. They would use the sermon, throughout the week, to apply it to their lives. And I thought, Do these people know how dangerous that is?

Nancy: Did it seem mindless?

Rosaria: No. It really seemed dangerous, because it seemed like they were saying that they were living within the story of the Bible. And I certainly knew that that would blow up my life pretty quickly! And so I wondered how they managed to do that?

Nancy: And how did you resolve that?

Rosaria: Well, that's the thing. There wasn't a lot of resolution, because very quickly, right on the heels of one Lord's Day would come another Lord's Day! In this next Lord's Day, we were singing from Psalm 119, line 56, and it went like this: "This is mine because forever all Thy precepts I preserve." All of a sudden, after I sang that one phrase, I immediately stopped singing, put the psalter down, opened my Bible and checked to see if the psalter had some wacky misprint in it, because that verse really scared me!

And the Bible represented it like this, "This has become mine . . ." There was something about that language that was my complete undoing. First, the Holy Spirit had just convicted me of sin, and I was actually in tune enough with the Holy Spirit to notice it.

Because this Bible was not mine! I had cursed it and spurned it and demeaned it and condemned it and taught thousands of undergraduates to do the same! There was no way that I could stand in any kind of a claim that this Bible was mine. I was condemned by saying that. It was a lie!

But the second thing that sort of dismantled me was, I realized that when I said those words, I really meant them. I wanted that Bible to be mine!

Nancy: "This has become mine."

Rosaria: I wanted those sixty-six books and that unified biblical revelation to be mine. And when I sang, "This is mine," in corporate singing, I was really attesting to one simple truth: The line of communication that God has ordained for His people is found in the Word of God.

I not only wanted that, but I wanted God to hear my prayers. And everything came tumbling down at that moment. It was very painful, because I really thought that I had been on the side of kindness and compassion and justice, diversity, goodness, care, and even morality.

It was my complete undoing to realize that it was actually Jesus I had been persecuting the whole time. Not just some historical figure named Jesus, but my Jesus—my Prophet, my Priest, my King, my Savior, my Friend . . . that Jesus!

Nancy: So you've realized you're no longer the good person that you'd always thought you were, but that you were a sinner in need of a Savior.

Rosaria: Right. That began a fairly long journey of what repentance means. Seeing yourself in the miry pit is maybe a little bit like a drunk waking up in her own vomit, and it's not a pleasant thing.

Nancy: I want to pick up that thought of repentance and what it looks like. You say, "Conversion put me in a complicated and comprehensive chaos." Everything had to change.

Rosaria: It did.

Nancy: You said, "In a nutshell, I lost everything but the dog!"

Rosaria: That's true.

Nancy: We're going to unpack that and hear how God in His mercy gave you the gift of repentance—not just at that moment, but that began a lifestyle of repentance.

Rosaria: Right.

Nancy: This is riveting, because God's grace is riveting! His power is so amazing, His Word is so powerful, the gospel is so powerful—it converts, He converts! You weren't seeking Him, but He was seeking you and gave you the grace to respond. 

We're going to pick up with this conversation in the next Revive Our Hearts. I know many of you would like to have a copy of Rosaria's testimony. She's written a book titled, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert. She tells in this story her journey into faith, as the Lord drew her.

We're making that book available today to anyone who makes a donation of any amount to Revive Our Hearts. We'll be glad to send it to you. Just give us a call at 1–800–569–5959, or you can visit us online at ReviveOurHearts.com. Let us know that you'd like to make a gift to the ministry, and also that you'd like to have a copy of Rosaria's book.

I want you to hear what Rosaria has to say about repentance. It's really helpful thinking for all of our hearts, so be sure and join us for the next Revive Our Hearts as we continue to unpack this story of God amazing grace.

Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth is an outreach of Life Action Ministries.

*Offers available only during the broadcast of the podcast season.