I recently started participating in a book study. It is a diverse group of good folks –christian, atheist, agnostic, whatever — each on a journey of personal spiritual growth. Like me, they seem to be pilgrims, seekers, and heretics – awash in questions and doubts, deconstructing former concepts and beliefs, constructing personal truths and unique spiritual paths, — staying the course with authenticity and integrity in our often chaotic intersections with the world we live in, the life inhabiting that world, and the Spirit/God embodied in both the world and its inhabitants.
We are studying Rob Bell’s What We Talk About When We Talk About God. Much of our first discussion centered around Jane Fonda’s remarks made during a 2007 interview with Rolling Stonemagazine, “I could feel reverence humming in me.” Do you have a sense of “reverence humming” and “What is it?” My response to that question was to share a bit of my winter hike expereince. Hiking along an ice and snow laden trail I was bent, literally and figuratively, on keeping my eyes on the trail, following exactly in my hiking buddy’s footprints, and cautiously testing every step for firmness. I finally had to stop and straighten my aching, bent back.
As I looked up, my breath caught. The towering, red-rock canyon walls glistened in the bright, cold afternoon sun. They jutted straight up into a flawless, cobalt blue sky. “Wow, look at that!” was all I could utter. As I stood there taking it all in, I was overwhelmed with feelings of wonder, awe, gratitude, humility, and reverence. My heart was full and overflowed as tears filled my eyes. That, for me, was “reverence humming in me.” It was an experience I will never forget, and one which I frequently recall on hiking trails and elsewhere as I remind myself to “look up.”
Since that experience 28 years ago, I have (I think, I hope, but maybe not?) become more open, receptive, and settled to and into the various sounds, rhythms and vibrations of “the hum.” Never used the word “humming” to describe it, but I like Ms. Fonda’s analogy. “Hum” seems to give some substance to an otherwise intangible, indescribable feeling.
Where does the “humming” come from? For me, at this point in my journey, it comes from a sense of awareness, connection, and gratitude. A keen awareness of the mystery, the miracle, the love, the grace, the wisdom and truth of the of Spirit of God present in our world. A profound sense that I am connected to it all — a part of it, a product of it, a participant in it. And grateful for it all!
Here’s and idea! Let’s all “hum” in concert!!
I don’t know if it classifies as binge watching, but I watched all ten episodes of Netflix’s new series, “Messiah,” in four days. Pretty much a record for me! I have been mulling over various aspects of the program since then (over a week) and can’t seem to clear my mind of it so I just need to say what I think.
I have read several reviews of the program and most of them pan the series citing numerous flaws from ambiguity,poor story lines and character development, to “no deep theological grounding or specificity.” Some of these I agree with and some I do not even while acknowledging that I am by no means schooled as a cinema critic or theologian. I do believe that the program made some salient points regarding the coming of the Messiah – both first and/or second – and our receptivity – historical and/or future – of the Messiah.
The overbearing question throughout the series seems to be, “Who is he? Is the stranger, dubbed Al-Masih (the Messiah) by his followers, the Messiah, Jesus Christ, returned?” “Who is he,” is a centuries old question beginning when Jesus asked Peter, “But who do you say I am?” (Matthew 16:15; Mark 8:29; Luke 16:15). Folks through the ages have answered that question in a variety of ways and will continue to do so. With regard to Netflix’s “Messiah,” I believe perhaps we are asking the wrong question. Maybe the more relative question is, “Who are we; who am I?” Can we see ourselves in the characters portrayed in “Messiah?”
Are we the prostitute, paid by a high-level government official to seduce Al-Masih as a means to discredit him, who upon experiencing his gentle confrontation of her life, “How can you be the person God intended if you are not honest about who you are?” and hearing, even in the wake of her deception, the truth of God’s love for her walks away repentant and changed. Are we the agent who deceptively witnesses this encounter and walks away changed – to the point of quitting his job. Are we, am I, like these two — truly changed when touched by the love of God?
Are we Jabril, the young Al-Masih follower who stays true to his belief in Al-Masih even as Al-Masih has seemingly abandoned them in the desert at the Israeli border? Through injury, thirst, and hunger Jabril is sustained by his belief and the dreamy appearances of his deceased mother who had told him, “God has a different plan for you.” It is Jabril who courageously leads the remnant of followers into Israel, and some critics speculate that he is the real Messiah. Did Jabril’s touch revive the apparently deceased Qamar? Or, perhaps Jabril is not the Messiah but simply a true disciple and as Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, anyone who believes in me will do the same works I have done, and even greater works…” (John 14:12 New Living Translation). In all our claims to be Christian, are we, am I, like Jabril, a true follower of Christ?
Are we Pastor Felix Iguera who was disillusioned with church and ministry to the point of dousing his church with gasoline before it was miraculously saved from a tornado? Iguera experiences a roller coaster of despair, confusion, doubt, and hope only to succumb to his own weaknesses and family frailties. Claiming to be a humble servant and wanting only what God wants, he takes the reins and arranges for AL-Masih to appear on his millionaire, televangelist father-in-law’s show claiming “this is what God wants” Al-Masih agrees, but when he walks away from the appearance Iguera is again in confusion and despair.
When the story breaks that Al-Masih, by his own admission and hard evidence, is a mortal man, Iguera returns to his church and in what seems to be an act of lost faith he does indeed burn it down. This brings me to a question of our faith. If the true Messiah, Jesus, is not the literal Son of God, does that negate his message to the world? Does that mean Jesus was not God’s anointed? Is our belief in Jesus as God’s Word to the world based solely on our belief that he is the literal Son of God? Are we, am I, Pastor Iguera?
Are we Aviram, a hard-nosed, tormented, vengeful, often brutal Israeli agent, who is intent on catching Al-Masih and exposing him as a fraud? Aviram is unwavering in his purpose even as he is shaken by Al-Masih’s knowledge of his past bad acts. He flirts with belief yet remains hard-hearted. Not until he is facing imminent death and tormented by his sin, his “failure to choose goodness,” does Aviram say, “I’m sorry,” as the plane crashes. Are we Aviram — tormented with shame, hardened, and unable to accept God’s love?
Are we Eva Geller, the CIA agent, sparing with Aviram, and equally determined to debunk Al-Masih and uncover his real intent? Eva has issues. Her identity is in her work. She has a strained relationship with her father, grief and guilt over her late husband, is distraught over not being able to have children, and is sensitive about her mother and her Jewish heritage. In her own words to Aviram, “I am as messed up as you.” She too is shaken by Al-Masih’s knowledge of her past which further solidifies her efforts to find “the truth.” Even as she finds evidence of “the truth” of Al-Masih’s identity and suspects that the U. S. government shot down the plane carrying him back to Israel, she appears to continue to run from the truths of her personal life and emotional distress – she remains a lost soul. Are we Eva?
Yes, “Messiah” has spawned questions and controversy among viewers and critics. Of course, Christ, the Messiah, has stirred questions and controversy for centuries. Ultimately the question “Who is He?” is only answered by each of us individually in our own unique way based on our beliefs. In regard to the question, “Who are you/Who am I?” I am drawn to Al-Masih’s words, “How can you be the person God intended if you are not honest about who you are?” Honestly, answering that question is not easy. “Messiah” offers numerous character mirrors. Do we see ourselves in them, and what can we learn from them?
Joe Dallas, ex-gay author and speaker, will be presenting a conference, Speaking of Homosexuality with Compassion and Truth, at our local Southern Baptist mega-church this weekend. Some folks in our LGBTQ community are planning a silent vigil near the church during the conference as a means of local LGBTQ visibility and as an expression of opposition to the ideas and beliefs espoused by Mr. Dallas and the host church. I am conflicted as to whether I will participate in the vigil.
I am weary! I am bone tired of this “culture war” and the religious and political struggle inherent in it. I want to scream, “Stop it! Just stop it!” Regardless of which side of this issue one might come down on, just stop the divisive, demonizing, demeaning, and denouncing rhetoric. Stop the protest and confrontations. Why do we publicly battle over something as private and personal as one’s sexuality? One’s sexuality and gender expression is a matter solely between the person and his/her God. The sexuality or gender identity/expression of another person is not my business nor concern.
My concern is for one’s well being — do they have enough to eat, do they have a safe place to live, do they have a family/community that gives them a sense of belonging and love. My concern is for one’s character – do they show love, kindness, patience, joy, goodness, faithfulness, honesty, and peace.
My concern is for one’s life – are they able to live a meaningful life knowing the love and support of family, friends, and community, freely exercising their faith tradition, participating in purposeful, satisfying work, contributing to the common good, and engaging in all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities our nation offers.
Why not declare this “culture war” at a stalemate and call a truce? As long as battles to “win” the war continue, we all lose. We continue to beat up one another in a battle that will never be “won.” There will never be agreement one way or the other! Can’t we just keep our opinions and beliefs regarding sexuality issues to ourselves and live in a manner that respects the dignity and sacredness of every individual’s life, life journey, and where one might be in that journey.
I respect Mr. Dallas’s life and his life journey. Honestly, our journeys were somewhat parallel thirty years ago. I purported to be ex-gay and desired to help those struggling with same-sex attraction. However, through various God encounters, my journey has taken me in a different direction. In no uncertain terms my God assures me of the sacredness of my life, and the sacrament of my relationships. Most especially my eighteen–year covenant relationship with my wife—three of those years legally married. It appears that we don’t all have the same road map. I take issue, as I believe Mr. Dallas does, with expecting or coercing anyone to change and use another’s roadmap.
The fact that we have allowed this “culture war” to become politicized has deepened the trenches. The various court rulings, established laws, and pending legislation that target the already marginalized and vulnerable LGBTQ community have polarized our communities even more. One would think we might have learned from the prohibition era that it does not bode well when government seeks to legislate regarding what is perceived a moral issue. A particularly disturbing aspect of these legislative proposals is the discrimination/denial of services that would be allowed on the basis of “one’s sincerely held religious beliefs.” Ugh! That’s a conundrum for me! I am not a theologian, but I simply don’t recall Jesus excluding or denying his presence or service to anyone. Perhaps all of us with sincerely held religious beliefs need to ask ourselves, “What would Jesus do?”
I still don’t know what to do about the conference and silent vigil! I do know that I am exhausted and weary of this “war.” Should I participate in the silent vigil in solidarity with my LGBTQ community? That’s important to me, yet I don’t want to draw added attention to the “battle lines.” Maybe I will go to the conference to listen and show respect for those attending and their beliefs — “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” (Matthew 7:12) Whatever I do, I desire to live in the wisdom of Romans 12:18 and “as much as it is in me to live peaceably with all men.”
It was a gray day with intermittent light and heavy showers. We needed the rain and I found myself humming, perhaps about the rain, perhaps about the call.
There shall be showers of blessings
This is the promise of Love.
There shall be seasons refreshing
Sent from the Savior above.
Showers of blessings.
Showers of blessings we need.
Mercy drops round us are falling,
But for the showers we plead.
I was again waiting for a call. My now eleven-year old great niece was diagnosed with Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG), a rare and devastating brain tumor, almost three months ago. She tolerated the six-weeks of focused radiation treatments very well and with occasional medication has been fairly symptom free. The doctors say she is doing better than any child they have ever treated with DIPG. We are thankful!
Last Friday she had an MRI to see if the radiation had had any effects on the tumor and as a prerequisite to possible participation in an immunotherapy clinical trial at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston. From the initial diagnosis we have been keenly aware of the devastating statistical prognosis for DIPG patients. While there has been no denying the science of the disease, we have steadfastly prayed along with possibly thousands of others in our social media and home communities for God’s grace and healing for our girl. Family, friends, community members, total strangers have reached out with love, concern, compassion, and generosity. From the Make-A-Wish Foundation who sponsored a trip so that our girl could get her wish to “swim with the dolphins” to the local community sponsoring an event to raise funds for medical expenses and contributions to DIPG research there has been an outpouring of support that has confirmed our belief in God’s work of grace and goodness through good people. We’ve prayed for a miracle of healing while we’ve experienced the miracle of God’s love and grace everyday since the diagnosis.
The call came from my sister. “Are you ready for this?” she asked.
“Yes, what does it show?”
With a trembling voice she replied, “They can’t see it. It is not there!”
“What! It’s gone! We prayed for a miracle. Praise the Lord!” She was waiting to hear more from my niece so we quickly hung up amid tears of joy.
These last months as I have prayed for healing, grace, wisdom, comfort, and strength for our girl and her family, I have been continually reminded of and prayed John 11:4, a verse I claimed for myself during some difficult days many years ago.
This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.
Yes, to God be the glory! While trying to soak in the reality of our answered prayer and this miracle, I found myself somewhat incredulous. Before the diagnosis I had prayed for the best even as I prepared for the worst, which is exactly what we got. Perhaps this time we have repeated that scenario, but with a different, positive result. Now that our prayer for the tumor to be gone is the reality, why does it seem incredible? Is it some flaw in our faith? Do we lack the capacity to fully believe in God’s power and grace? Are we so steeped in the modern science of medicine that we dismiss the Great Physician? Is incredulity inherent in miracles? I am reminded of the words of the tearful father with the epileptic son in Mark 9:24. Lord, I believe; Help my unbelief!
I have read the MRI report stating, “There are no focal areas of abnormal signal, restricted diffusion, or abnormal enhancement within the brain. No mass, hemorrhage or acute infarct is present.” I have seen the before and after MRI images confirming no presence of a tumor. The doctors in Austin, Houston, and Boston have described the report findings as “rare, very rare.” One stated she has never seen this type of results following radiation treatment for DIPG. Doctors have conferred and are confident they did not misdiagnose. The consensus is that the original diagnosis of DIPG was correct, and there is no disputing that the once large, entangled, inoperable tumor is now gone. Lord, I do believe; help my unbelief.
This is not the end of our girl’s medical treatment. As scientists, the doctors are encouraging continued immunotherapy treatments in clinical trials to combat any possible remaining cancer cells. Only time and periodic MRI’s will tell if the tumor returns. Regardless of what the future may hold, in the here and now, we, and thousands of others, are celebrating and giving God the glory for this miracle of grace and healing.
As the showers continued outside, my heart was flooding with song:
There shall be showers of blessings
This is the promise of Love.
There shall be seasons refreshing
Sent from the Savior above.
Thank you, God, for your showers of blessings—your miracle of healing, the miraculous medical interventions and technologies that you have allowed man to develop, your grace that sustains our faith, your faithfulness even as our faith falters with doubts, the love and support of friends, family, and total strangers—your kingdom here and now on earth. Thank you for the faith of a child who told her parents as they were driving home from the doctor visit: “You all just didn’t have enough faith. I knew it would be gone.”
We continue with prayers of thanksgiving and for sustained healing and good health for our girl.
Again, it is 3:04 am, and I have been awake for an hour with these thoughts banging around in my head. So I might as well get up and write it down. I am not one to bandy around scripture, and in this instance I feel a bit compelled. In doing so I claim Matthew 10:27
What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roof!
Day before yesterday seemingly out of the blue a portion of scripture popped into my head, “I am going to do a brand new thing.” I immediately associated that with our current local issue regarding changing the name of Robert E. Lee High School. I let a day rock on and the scripture kept coming up so I looked it up. Literally, I googled it as I have a hard time holding on to chapter and verse. Isaiah 43:18-19
Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not
perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and
streams in the wasteland. (New International Version)
I found it interesting that when I went to my Bible(s) these verses were marked with dates and notes. Apparently, I had been here before—learning to let go of the old and letting God do a new thing.
At any rate, I see some application for the verses in our current REL issue as most of the arguments in favor of keeping the name center around our personal memories and traditions of the school. “It is our heritage!” claimed one proponent of saving the name. I agree! It is our heritage, and we will fondly remember some of our high school experiences and traditions. Also, it is time to turn from focusing on our history and heritage and begin looking forward to this “new thing.” The new school under construction “springs up” even now. It is time to turn from our heritage and focus on our future legacy. It is time to ask, “What will be our legacy, our bequest to future generations and our community?” In answering that question, let’s begin to truly “perceive” all the possibilities of this “new thing” this “brand new thing?” (The Living Bible)
We know the deeper context of Isaiah 43—man’s rebellion and God’s redemptive grace—has universal application. I find verses 5-7 somewhat, maybe particularly, relevant to our current circumstances. Apparently, the people have become divided and scattered, but God says he will bring them from the east and the west. He will command the north and the south to “Give them up! Do not hold them back.” Sons will come from afar and daughters from the ends of the earth. To me that sounds a bit like unification and reconciliation.
Have we become a divided and scattered people? Do we need unity and reconciliation? Could this turning from the old and moving forward with this “brand new thing” possibly be a step on our way through the desert, the wilderness? I don’t know! I only ask the questions. My personal answer is “Yes!” because I certainly don’t want to thwart or hinder the possibilities of this “brand new thing”—new school with a brand new name.
Perhaps, if we harden not our hearts and let the better angels of our nature be our guide we will come to experience all the possibilities of this “brand new thing.” Through and in it all let us remember Lincoln’s words, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bond of affection,”
Lou Anne and I were recently invited to participate in this “Who Is My Neighbor” lecture series. It was a wonderful experience, and we met lots of good, kind folks. Thanks to all those who showed up to warm the room and our hearts. It was a cold, wet Sunday morning outside. After our talk several folks approached me and asked if they could have a copy of my talk. Well here is my prepared script, which doesn’t mean this is exactly what I said, but hopefully, close enough. Namaste!
Who Is My Neighbor?
In thinking about the title for this series, it struck me that neighborliness – who is my neighbor and how do I relate to and treat my neighbor — has been an issue through the ages. After all we know from scripture that on numerous occasions Moses, Jesus, and Paul offered instruction and guidance on neighborliness. When we were first asked to speak today, I immediately thought of the November 8, 2005, Texas Constitutional Amendment Election in which Texans voted on Proposition 2 – the amendment to define marriage in Texas as only between one man and one woman. Prior to that election, I wrote a letter and Lou Anne and I distributed it to our neighbors. My opening statement in that letter 13 years ago answered today’s question: We are your neighbors!’ The “we “ of today’s discussion is the LGBTQ+ community.
Let me say first that our LGBTQ+ community as a subpopulation is just as diverse as our population as a whole. I think this is fairly evident in the “alphabet soup” identifiers. Let me assure you there are efforts afoot to remedy that somewhat cumbersome moniker. If we must label there are other options floating about — DSG-Diverse Sexualities and Genders; GSM-Gender and Sexual Minorities; and the favorite among our younger folks, Queer. For today I will simply use “our community.” Who is your neighbor? We are! Let me introduce you to a few of our folks. (Real folks, not so real names.)
Meet John and Richard—two gay men in a 20+year relationship and legally married for many of those years. Both professionals, one retired. Both Christians attending a welcoming and affirming congregation in the area. One serving on the church board of directors. A visit with them always includes conversations about church, and grandchildren.
Meet James and Sal—a young transgender man and his spouse. Both continuing their educational paths and pursuing their career aspirations while building their dream house. Both active as advocates for our community.
Meet Ron and Rebecca—a straight couple working, operating a business, and raising a family. Both fierce advocates for their gender non-conforming child.
Meet Gary—a middle-aged man with a promising career cut short decades ago by the cruelty of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. An advocate for our community, always a charming host, and a proclaimed Atheist.
Meet Betty and Julie—a lesbian couple in a 26-year relationship, married for 12 years. Both retired – a military nurse and university professor with a degree in Religious History. They stay engaged with friends, the publishing industry, and their “kids,” three small dogs, a cat, and a 38 year-old parrot. Christian backgrounds, but with no current religious affiliation, perhaps leanings toward Buddhism.
Meet Charles and Mike—Generation X gay men, medical and tech professionals. Baptist and Seven Day Adventists background. Want no part of organized religion.
Meet Blake and Slade who are queer youth navigating the uncertain and sometimes treacherous waters of school, legal hurdles, and public facilities.
And then you have Lou Anne and me. We have been together for 17 years, the last two legally married. With four children and seven grandchildren between us, we stay quiet busy. Both from the Baptist faith tradition, and only a couple of years ago choosing to leave the Baptist church.
So, our community is diverse and our spiritual/religious beliefs, experiences, and levels of participation are varied. As I share with you today, I can really only speak of my experience, yet from study and visiting with other members of our community, perhaps I can make some general comments about our faith journeys.
I believe for most in our community our spiritual beliefs have been both a solace and a source of seemingly unbearable struggle. From the Bible to the Quran most world religions-Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu-espouse beliefs that being LGBTQ is wrong-a sin-and unacceptable. Thus in matters of faith and religion, Gender and Sexual Minorities folks are naturally set –up for angst and turmoil.
I know my faith journey was filled with the gut wrenching agony and heart breaking struggle between who I am and what my religion said I should be. My solace came more from my faith and my personal study and interpretation of scripture than from the institutional church/religion. After years of praying, “Lord, please remove this ‘thorn in my flesh,’” trying to be straight and do the “right” things, I finally threw up my hands in surrender and clung to verses such as “For God so loved Brenda. . .,” my adaptation of John 3:16 since I am part of “the world.” I interpreted Mark 12:30-31 “. . . love your neighbor as yourself” as Christ’s command that I love and accept myself. I was both overwhelmed and encouraged as I began to contemplate and embrace the glorious rich mystery and my only hope of glory, Christ in me. (Colosians 1:27). I began to question the doctrines and dogma of “church” and ask just what exactly does God expect of me. I found my answer: To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with my God. (Micah 6:8)
Bolstered by my confidence that God loves me, and that I am commanded to love God, myself, and my neighbor through just, kind and humble actions, I set out on my own personal spiritual journey– a journey that took me away from traditional doctrine and dogma. Honestly, doing that felt so foreign and really scary, and this is perhaps another common element in the faith journey of folks in our community. Moving away from the familiar, even the familiar that was excruciatingly painful is difficult, yet we do it through faith. A faith similar to that expressed by Paul Tillich when he said, “Faith is the courage to accept God’s total acceptance of each of us.” Or, perhaps the faith of Martin Luther, “Faith is an active, reckless confidence in God’s goodness.”
On my faith journey I have had a few experiences that I can only describe as mystical – an experience that cannot be explained outside the realm of Spirit. Perhaps this is a third common element in our faith journeys. There are those occasions when God speaks or intervenes in our lives in ways that we could not imagine. These incidents often bring shock and awe, guidance and gratitude. They are mystical experiences that change us and the direction of our lives. I am reminded of Karl Rahner’s words, “The Christian of the future will have to become a mystic—someone who has experienced something or Someone—or he or she will be nothing at all.”
My faith journey took me away from the traditional anti-LGBTQ teachings of my Baptist faith, and I stayed away from church for several years as I was welcomed, affirmed and supported by an inclusive ecumenical community during my initial coming out process. However, I returned to the church when I met Lou Anne. It was not a difficult return for now I was grounded in my faith and spirituality and not religious doctrine and church dogma. I enjoyed returning to the customs of Bible study and congregational praise and worship. As long as the focus was on Christ and serving the Kingdom, I was content. Even though I was removed from teaching and leadership positions after coming out in the “We are your neighbor” letter in 2005, Lou Anne and I stayed in the church. When the pastor began to preach openly from the pulpit against same-sex relationships in the spring of 2015, I felt I had to leave to maintain my sense of authenticity and personal integrity. Today, I have no institutional church affiliation. I am a follower of Christ and a christian (with a small “c”) and a member of the universal catholic church (all small “c”). I am a pilgrim and a seeker on this faith journey.
All of our faith journeys are unique and personal. Some in our community through the pain of condemnation and sorrow of rejection have totally abandoned the church, yet not their faith. Some reject all things “God.” Some proclaim to be Atheists. It is interesting to note that in a Pew Research Center report, America’s Changing Religious Landscape, issued in May of 2015, that more LGB Americans consider themselves Christian than ever before. (NOTE: Transgender individuals were not accounted for in this particular survey.) A reported 48 percent of LGB respondents identify as Christian, and this is up from 42 percent in 2013. This rise is in contrast to the overall decline in the percent of Americans identifying as Christian that was 78.4 percent in 2013 and fell to 70.6 in 2015. The Pew report also indicated an additional 11 percent of LGB respondents identified with Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu faith traditions.
Thus 59 percent of LGB respondents identified as people of faith. This high number was somewhat surprising for me and perhaps for you as well given the gay vs. religion paradigm so prevalent in our media and “culture wars.” It would appear that many in our community have stayed in, or they are returning and reclaiming their faith traditions.
So we ask, “Who is our neighbor?” We are all one another’s neighbors. We could argue that with the rapid communication and global connections—economic, geopolitical, and social–supported by our increasing modern technology we are quickly becoming global neighbors. Since we are all one another’s neighbors, let’s be neighborly to one another. Let’s love one another as we seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. Welcome to the neighborhood! Or, as we say in our community, the gayborhood.
As the dialogue and apparent divisions within the Baptist General Convention of Texas and local congregations over the issue of a welcoming and affirming stance toward their LGBTQ members continue, I encourage us all to stop and ask ourselves, individually and congregationally, this question: Who are we welcoming and what do we really want to be the focus of our affirmation? The “who,” I believe is relatively simple. We want to welcome ALL peoples into the love of Christ and the fellowship of His Body, the Church. Answering the question, “What do we want to be the focus of our affirmations?” may be a bit more complicated. Or, maybe not!
I sometimes wonder if we, christian folks and congregations, have not allowed ourselves to be overly focused on the sexual orientation and same-sex marriage issues. Do we really want to spend our time and energies squabbling over these issues and in the process threatening our unity in and ministry for Christ? Enough is enough already! Let’s truly practice our belief in the priesthood of the believer and respect the spiritual discernment of our brothers and sisters in Christ and our congregations in these particular matters. If we continue contentious dialogue or debate, insist on being right or winning the other side over to our “right” way of thinking, or denying fellowship, we are all wrong, and we all lose with the greatest loss being the cause of Christ. We can respectfully state our beliefs and our respect for the others discernment process, acknowledge our disagreement, and agree to disagree. When we do this, we can then turn our energies and cooperative efforts toward focusing on far more meaningful areas of affirmation.
What might be the affirmations of a welcoming and affirming congregation? Here are a few suggestions for starters:
— Let’s affirm God’s sovereignty over all our lives.
–Let’s affirm our love of God and our love for our neighbors.
–Let’s affirm the sacredness of every person – every human life. Let’s live out that affirmation by treating everyone with respect, seeking to listen to and understand their stories and struggles, and participating in their lives in ways that engender human flourishing, spiritual growth, and opportunities to reach one’s God-given potential.
–Let’s affirm the sacramental nature of all relationships for every relationship has the potential to be a portal of God’s grace in and to our lives.
–Let’s affirm and encourage fidelity and commitment in marital, covenantal relationships.
–Let’s affirm the value of our children and our families by offering support, encouragement, and guidance to parents as they nurture and guide their children.
–Let’s affirm our desire to follow Christ and be His Body and Presence in and to the world.
I believe the BGCT and local congregations can be both welcoming and affirming. I believe this as I recall the first scripture verse I ever committed to memory: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” — Philippians 4:13
I have been particularly distressed, disappointed and saddened by the news coming out of the Baptist General Convention of Texas this week. The BGCT sent letters to Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas and First Baptist Church in Austin indicating that any affirming stance toward LGBT members taken by the congregations would place them outside the bounds of “harmonious cooperation” with the convention.
This is disturbing for several reasons. One being that this action seems to fly in the face of the centuries long Baptist tradition of local church autonomy and subsequently our long held Baptist belief of soul competency or priesthood of all believers. Another concern is the question of creedalism. By drawing “lines in the sand” and delineating requirements for participation, is the BGCT leading Texas Baptists more toward a people of creed and less a people of confession? Also, the timing of the letter might be a bit suspect in that it was sent shortly before Wilshire Baptist was voting to affirm, or not to affirm, its existing bylaws providing for a single class of membership which would translate into full inclusion for LGBT members. One might view this as the BGCT’s attempt to influence the vote. (Or maybe the peculiarities of our recent national election are skewing my perceptions!) Finally, this is distressing in that it seems to signal the opening volley in what could be a very divisive and contentious struggle within our Texas Baptist congregations and community. It makes me sad when good folks, good Christian folks, bicker and argue with the end result sometimes-perhaps often-being damaged and broken relationships and congregations. Not to mention the damage this does to our mission and witness for Christ!
I was given some hope by Marv Knox’s editorial, “A welcoming way ahead for the BGCT,” and his discussion around extending grace even as I cringed at some of the comments and suggestions. David Hardage, BGCT Executive Director, is quoted as saying, “I believe a church can be welcoming but not affirming.” Speaking frankly as a gay christian woman and as a member with my partner and now wife of a “welcoming but not affirming” Baptist congregation for almost fifteen years, I have some difficulty with this statement. Although congregation and staff were respectful and kind in most ways, there were actions and words that were at times hurtful. When I made a public statement outside the church regarding the 2005 Texas Marriage Amendment, I was called in and told I could no longer hold any positions of leadership in the church. I was then chairing a church committee, teaching a Sunday School class, and answering the prayer line during our televised services. My sexual orientation, which I had come to view as a minuscule part of who I am as a person and a christian woman, and my covenant relationship with my partner suddenly became prominent in how I was viewed and what I could do to live out my calling in Christ. It hurt! I felt discounted, less than! We also were denied participation in a church family outing with the only explanation being given, “We just think it is best.” It hurt! I felt rejected! When my partner offered a copy of her recently published memoir, sharing her coming out story after decades of struggle with hiding her sexuality, to the church library, the senior pastor would not place it in the library deeming it inappropriate. It hurt! I particularly felt confusion and discord around this incident. We had been hearing much in the church, including from the pulpit, about the importance of our stories, listening to one another’s stories, trying to understand others, and fostering deeper relationships. This action, which screamed, “We don’t want to hear your story!” bewildered me. Was this hypocrisy?
Even with the incidents and the underlying feeling that we were “second-class members,” we continued to attend and participate in the work and ministry of the church because sharing the love and work of Christ remained our focus. We visited with our pastor on several occasions and though always kind and respectful of one another, we understood each other’s differing beliefs regarding homosexuality and same-sex relationships. We agreed to disagree on these matters, and continued in our commitment to work and minister together. Acknowledging and discussing our differences personally and privately with kindness and respect was the key, for me at least, to being able to continue in a “welcoming but not affirming” congregation. Sadly, this changed in the spring of 2015 when the same-sex marriage issue was being considered in the Supreme Court, and our pastor began to speak openly from the pulpit against same-sex marriage. On April 26, 2015, I read a letter to my Sunday School group (and sent copies to all the staff) informing them that I was leaving the congregation “with no animosity or ill will toward anyone” and why I was leaving. That’s my experience of “welcoming but not affirming.”
Hardage continues to say regarding welcoming but not affirming, “I believe that (it) is not only possible, but also biblical. . .” From my experience, I would agree it is possible; however, given subsequent feelings of hurt, rejection, hypocrisy, and public denigration, I am not sure the actions were “biblical.”
From my perspective and experience there is a greater question we must ask and answer with regard to “welcoming and affirming.” It is, “Who are we welcoming and what needs to be the focus of our affirmation?” The “who,” I believe, is relatively simple. We want to welcome ALL peoples into the love of Christ and the fellowship of His Body, the Church. Period! What needs to be the focus of our affirmation gets a bit more complicated. A topic for later thought!
Note: In the spring of 2015 I made one of the most difficult decisions of my spiritual pilgrimage. I left the church congregation that I had been a part of for almost fifteen years. Below is the letter I read aloud to my Sunday School group and sent to my pastor and church staff informing them that I was leaving and why I was leaving as well as why it was important to me that they know why I would no longer be attending. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find a truly inclusive, welcoming and affirming congregation in my area, and admittedly, I often miss the corporate worship and fellowship. My current worship usually occurs on the hiking trail, in the kayak, or while sitting in my back porch swing listening to the birds and watching the squirrels play. I find fellowship on those occasions I am blessed to sit with friends and share our lives and stories.
April 26, 2015
It is with both sadness and hopefulness that I share with you that this is my last Sunday to be with you in Sunday School and worship at First Baptist Church. After wrestling – praying and seeking discernment — with this decision for several months, my Lord has given me clarity and peace with the decision. I leave with no animosity or ill will toward anyone. I am truly grateful for my years (13 or 14, I forget) at First Baptist and the fellowship with the singles group. Each of you has blessed my life in tremendous ways! I hope and pray that blessing has been mutual.
I want to share with you the reason(s) for my leaving. Far too often in our lives and fellowship folks just disappear or quit showing up, and we are left confused and questioning as to “what happened.” I don’t want to do that. I value personal authenticity and the integrity of our relationships far too much to just disappear. Some of you know, or after fourteen years have figured it out, that I am gay. I really prefer to refer to myself as a woman and a committed christian who happens to have a same-sex orientation. Lou Anne and I have been in a loving, committed, monogamous covenant relationship for over fourteen years.
It has become increasingly difficult for me to maintain a continued sense of personal integrity and authenticity as a member of First Baptist knowing the public stance that the church, our pastor, and the Southern Baptist Convention as a whole has taken on same-sex relationships. As one who believes firmly in the traditional Baptist concept of “soul competency” or “soul liberty,” I truly respect everyone’s freedom to follow their conscience or soul dictates in matters of religion, theology, and scripture interpretation. As I shared with our pastor in May 2012, we truly have Unity through Christ – His love for us, our love for Him, and our desire to share His love with the world – and unity does not mean nor require uniformity in thought and/or action. So, to maintain my sense of personal integrity and authenticity, I believe it is better that I seek a more inclusive, affirming congregation whose beliefs and public stance regarding same-sex relationships are similar to my own than to remain at First Baptist.
Also, for the sake of the fellowship here at First Baptist, I believe it is better that I leave. Over the last fourteen years I have placed my focus on Christ, His love and His work in our lives, and I have remained mostly silent on my life and my beliefs regarding sexual orientation. The one time I did speak out in a somewhat public forum that was separate from the church, I was promptly removed from Sunday School teaching and leadership responsibilities. I cannot continue to edit my life and remain silent. I know that issues around same-sex orientation and relationships can be divisive. Families, congregations, even full denominations have become contentious and split over these issues. So, in the grand scheme of things, I believe it is better to leave First Baptist, than to stay and possibly risk creating conflict.
Be assured that my heart’s desire for us – each of you, First Baptist, and myself – is that we continue to be the church, the body and presence of Christ in and to the world.
In Christ’s Love,
Last Saturday, June 11, my morning coffee companion was Henri J.M. Nouwen and Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life written and published in 1975. Much of his basic premise is that “the spiritual life is that constant movement between the poles of loneliness and solitude, hostility and hospitality, illusion and prayer. That morning I was contemplating Nouwen’s words reflecting solitude not as a state of loneliness, but as a condition of our heart and soul that makes “it possible to convert slowly our fearful reactions into a loving response.” How was I to know that the very next morning, June 12, the nation and I would be horrified by the Orlando attack on the LGBT community?
I am a christian, a follower of Christ. I am also a lesbian. For most of my life I kept my same-sex orientation a secret and did everything I knew to do to not have the attractions and not be gay. It was a secret that took me to the depths of depression, the doors of insanity, and the brink of suicide. In my journeys into contemplation and spiritual solitude I have moved toward acceptance and reconciliation—acceptance of myself as a lesbian christian woman and reconciliation between that fact and my basic spiritual beliefs. I certainly identified with Nouwen’s counsel that in our solitude the events of the world around us “as well as the many personal disappointments and pains, no longer can be seen as unavoidable concomitants of our life, but all become urgent invitations to a response; that is a personal engagement.”
Faced with the burdens of our reality, the few “extremists” or “fanatics” become “indispensable reminders that no lasting healing will ever take place without a solidarity of heart.” These few “force us to ask ourselves how many games we play with ourselves and how many walls we keep creating to prevent ourselves from knowing and feeling the burden of human solidarity.” Nouwen proclaims that we fluctuate “between the humble confession that the newspaper holds more than our souls can bear and the realization that it is only through facing up to the reality of our world that we can grow into our own responsibility.”
Do we and how do we protest the realities of our world out of solitude? Hopefully we do as “life can teach us that although the events of the day are out of our hands, they should never be out of our hearts, that instead of becoming bitter our lives can yield to the wisdom that only from the heart a creative response can come forth.” Nouwen reminds us that, “When our protest against war, segregation, social injustice, (the Orlando attack against the LGBT community,) do not reach beyond the level of a reaction, then our indignation becomes self-righteous, our hope for a better world degenerates into a desire for quick results, and our generosity is soon exhausted by disappointments. Only when our mind has descended into our heart can we expect a lasting response to well up from our innermost self.”
Can we, in the solitude of our hearts truly listen to the pains of the world—most especially now the pains of our LGBT community? Nouwen asserts that we can for in the solitude of the heart “we can recognize them not as strange and unfamiliar pains, but as pains that are indeed our own. There we can see that what is most universal is most personal and that indeed nothing human is strange to us.” When we stand in solidarity with our fellow humans, our LGBT brothers and sisters, in their suffering and pain, then “our first attempts to alleviate these pains can come forth.” Feeling another’s pain leads us to compassion, which “brings healing and new strength. The paradox indeed is that the beginning of healing is in the solidarity with the pain.” Nouwen recalls our history “when men and women have been able to respond to the events of their world as an occasion to change their hearts, an inexhaustible source of generosity and new life has been opened, offering hope far beyond the limits of human prediction.” My thoughts go to the work and movement of Ghandi in India, Mandela in South Africa, and King in America.
Nouwen reminds us that spiritual “movement from loneliness to solitude, therefore, is not a movement of a growing withdrawal from, but rather a movement toward, a deeper engagement in the burning issues of our time.” Our acceptance, affirmation, and welcoming of our LGBT persons has been an issue in our nation for decades. Does not the senseless, violent attack targeting the LGBT community known to frequent Pulse, prominently known as a gay club, elevate the issue to that of “burning issue?” Must we not respond and engage this issue from the solitude of our hearts!
And then Sunday morning, June 12, 2016, happened! With my shock and horror of the attack, with my heart both numb and yet heavy with sorrow and compassion, and with Nouwen’s word fresh in my heart, I was moved to engage, to seek a creative response — to bring our local LGBT community as well as our community at large together in a gathering to remember and honor the Orlando victims, and to stand in solidarity in our pain and sorrow as well as in our hope and resolve for positive change and a brighter future. Over 200 people gathered at a local park on Thursday evening, June 16, and we did just that. My words to that gathering and to everyone, everywhere:
On behalf of East Texas PFLAG and our other sponsors – Tyler Together, Pineywoods Voice, Tyler Area Gays, Tyler Transgender Support Group, East Texas Islamic Society, and Life Covenant Church – I want to say welcome and thank you for your attendance and participation this evening. We are gathered here as a community to stand in solidarity with Orlando and the families and friends of the victims in the horrific attack on the LGBT community there last Sunday. Earlier this week, our president called for our nation’s flag to be flown at half-mast in memory and honor of the victims in Orlando. Tomorrow our nation’s flag will return to full mast “normal,“ if you will. But life will never be the same for friends and families of the Orlando victims, nor for the LGBT community, most especially for those whose lives were murderously taken last Sunday morning. They have no life to live. We want to take this time to remember and honor those killed and reflect on 49 lives, 49 sacred souls with names and faces that were snuffed out by an act of senseless violence fueled by hate and terrorism. As we seek to come to grips with, and process the shock and horror of the attack, we grieve and we support one another. For those of you who may not be an integral “part” of the LGBT community, we want you to know that your presence and your shared grief and support is important, desperately needed, and much appreciated.
Now, we will remember and honor the victims, their families and friends as we join one another in the bonds of our common humanity – our sorrow in loss and our hopes for positive change and a brighter future. John David Creamer, pastor of Life Covenant Church, will lead us in prayer.
(As each name and brief bio of the 49 victims was read a volunteer from the crowd walked to the front carrying their picture. A bell was rung.)
As we prepare to leave this place may we carry these sacred lives with us. May the light of their lives continue to shine in us and through us and may their light guide us and give us courage. Courage to act in ways that champion acceptance, not accusation; courage to seek out and participate in conversations and community, not condemnation; courage to speak and act in ways that foster love and compassion, not hate and violence. Courage to know, not just in our heads, but also in our hearts, that every human life is sacred and to live respectfully of one another and our beautiful, God-given diversities. In doing these things, then, and only then, will we truly remember and honor these 49 beautiful, sacred lives.
Join me in 49 seconds of silence as we remember these, reflect, and resolve to act and live in ways to honor these 49 and ultimately ourselves and our community.
Anwar Khalifa with the East Texas Islamic Society will close our gathering.
It was an outpouring of community solidarity, grief, compassion, and love. In his closing, Anwar asked all the clergy present to come to the front and join him for the closing prayer. A very moving and much needed gathering together. It is my hope and prayer that as a local community, a nation, and a world we will seek the solitude of our hearts and that our hearts will change in ways that nurture our compassion and desire to live in solidarity with all humankind.