Moment after moment, my YES became louder, stronger, and more resolved. I did not go to Synod with many expectations. I certainly did not anticipate the Spirit opening me up in the ways she did. Nor did I anticipate the overwhelming experience of being loved and welcomed that came my way. But this is who God is, and this is how She works.
Reading this story about Jesus, I have to wonder something: instead of assuming that Peter was telling Jesus something he already knew about himself, what if he was hearing something for the first time... something new, some deep-seated revelation that perhaps made him think or feel, "Oh crap!!!" Perhaps his blessing of Peter was the only way he could think to respond to such a statement. Maybe it was like hearing something that contradicts all the voices in his head. Maybe Jesus had to deal with voices that told him, " You aren't good enough. You'll never amount to anything. You'll never make a difference. You aren't important."
There are days where I just want to force myself to let go of the label of Christian, and there are days where I can't help but hold onto it white-knuckled. It is a label, an identifier, that means the world to me, yet it comes with so much baggage some days. I love Jesus. I love talking about him. I love asking questions about the meaning of his teachings, about the significance of his life both for those in his immediate presence and for us today. I love the idea of a community gathering together around the table, learning to love each other amidst the messiness of life, learning to show grace, to forgive. A community whose mission and identity is wrapped up in the idea that God loves all of creation and invites creation to reciprocate that love. A community that recognizes the brokenness that exists in the world, and who wants to be a part of the ways in which God is working to redeem that brokenness, heal the wounds of the world.
When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved — Mark 13:11-13
In two of my classes last week, the topic of sexuality came up. One professor, an ordained United Methodist Elder, openly shared his belief that the denomination's stance against ordaining partnered queer persons and celebrating their unions is absolutely and completely wrong. Still vulnerable and weakened from events of recent weeks, I nearly lost it. I crossed my arms, avoided eye contact, and retreated internally. One of my classmates, an ordination candidate in the United Church of Christ, pointed out three categories of people involved in this controversy.
Those who feel called to stay and who do so...
Those who feel called to leave and who do so...
Those who feel called to stay, but for whom the burden of that call is so unbearable that they leave...
Little did I know that a private message I received from a fellow member of the Gay Christian Network nearly four years ago would drastically change the entire course of my life.
I'd been a part of the online community for a short while, and at the time, was not involved in any sort of faith community. My previous home church, a Baptist church in west-central Indiana had asked me to step down from all ministry activities and suggested I stop attending services because of my identity as a gay man. These events led to a spiritual drought and a six-year hiatus from any church.
In winter of 2008, I received the aforementioned private message from a GCN member who lived in one of Chicago's many suburbs and whose son lived in the city. He'd read many of my posts, and felt led to tell me of a church community on the edge of the Lincoln Park and Lakeview neighborhoods, Holy Covenant United Methodist Church. It would take a few more months before I could muster up the courage to take his advice and attend a worship service at Holy Covenant, but finally, two weeks before Easter of 2009, I woke up and made the trek down to the red-bricked, mural-emblazened building that would become my home, my refuge, my safe haven away from a world that told me it didn't want me, not as I was at least.
From there, the rest seems like history. Immediately, I was made to feel welcomed, loved, and valued. The people of Holy Covenant made it a priority to get to know me and to be a part of the healing work God was doing in my life and on my severely broken heart. I experienced my first ever Maundy Thursday service, which coincidentally was the first time I'd been offered communion since leaving my former denomination. I was welcomed to the table as a broken but whole person, never asked to leave a part of myself at the door. Even to this day, I cannot put into words how significant this was for me.
That summer, I marched in Chicago's Pride Parade for the first time with my new community. Along the route, I had a conversation with a few other church members. The question was asked whether or not I'd ever considered going to seminary and pursuing a vocation in ministry. I had, in fact, but had been led to believe that my sexual orientation made me unfit for answering that call. These new friends told me otherwise. They affirmed that my orientation was part of who God made me to be. I'd never really heard any of this before. And so I visited the seminary suggested to me (Garrett-Evangelical in Evanston, Illinois) and applied for admission soon thereafter. While my acceptance letter came quickly, I postponed going for another year for the sake of discernment. More changes were to come.
I met my now-husband and life partner, Frankie, who was also welcomed into the Holy Covenant community, regardless of his difference of faith beliefs as a practicing neo-pagan. Holy Covenant loved me, and I loved him, and so they grew to love him as well. I was given various opportunities to serve, including serving communion, reading scripture, singing, praying during worship, leading a small group, serving on a committee, and so much more. As time progressed, all of the brokenness I'd experienced as man coping with depression and the effects of being raised in a physically, verbally, and emotionally abusive household started to mend, albeit slowly. I was learning to love myself through the love with which I was being covered by this amazing family of faith. I decided to pursue ordination within the denomination in which I'd found a new home.
Herein lies the struggle. Although churches like Holy Covenant exist where all people are welcomed regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, the United Methodist Church's written polity refers to the practice of homosexuality as "incompatible with Christian teaching" and therefore individuals such as myself are believed to be unfit for ordained ministry. It didn't make sense. I'd known gay clergy, gay partnered clergy, in our denomination. What did it all mean? As I began seminary and developed relationships with people serving elsewhere in the district and conference, I learned the answer to my questions, and they were disheartening.
In order for me to be ordained in the UMC, I would quintessentially have to go into a professional, vocational closet. In meetings and on paper, I would be "single," making no reference to my sexual identity or my relationship status. I would have to leave a part of me outside of the ordination process. I'd known others going through the same thing who seemed to be okay with it all, who seemed sane and mentally/emotionally healthy, and so I pressed forward. I continued in my seminary education, served another church in the city for my second-year internship, and proceeded to have my local church declare me as a candidate for ordination.
The time came for me to meet with my district committee on ordained ministry for their approval and certification of my candidacy process. I met with mentors and fellow clergy for advice on how to best express myself on paper and in speech. I found myself using the term "significant other" for Frankie instead of "husband" or "partner." It hurt, deeply. In the meeting itself, I shared my excitement for getting to work with The Marin Foundation this year—a non-profit whose mission is to bridge the relational gap between the evangelical church and the LGBT community. I spoke of my passion for full inclusion of all people. I have no doubt that anyone in the room had any misgivings over my sexual orientation or relationship status. I was partnered, and it was easy to tell that my partner was not of the opposite sex.
And so we sat there with this invisible rainbow elephant in the room. One committee member asked me why I'd felt it important to mention my relationship in my paperwork, especially using such red-flag language as "significant other." He continued, "You're not going to have a problem here. We simply want to make you conscious of what is and is not going to make it possible and easy for you to make it through the whole ordination process. There are people at the board level who will rip you apart if there's even a hint of you being, well, you know." Another person asked why I, with my passion for inclusion and with my knowledge and awareness of the state of our denomination not being inclusive, would stay here. Why not go elsewhere? By the time they were ready to deliberate and vote on my certification, I was nearly in tears and ready to leave the room as quickly as I possibly could.
The committee certified me, and I felt no joy. It had been made clear what I would have to do and how I would have to portray myself in order to receive clerical credentials in the UMC. While it was never articulated so directly, the message was clear: You cannot be ordained here as a whole person. You have to split yourself. We don't want all of you. Only part of you is truly worthy of this calling. You have to hide. You have to lie. You have to be someone other than you.
In the weeks since, I've prayed and fought and yelled and screamed and cried and talked and sat in silence. I've wrestled with what to do. Slowly, the recognition of what was being asked of me came, and I could not foresee myself complying. My family at Holy Covenant taught me how to be a whole person and gave me the strength to start loving myself, truly for the first time. It would be a grievous sin for me to undo all their hard work, and all of my own. My identity and relationship are something God loves and finds joy in and takes pleasure in. I am God's beloved in the entirety of who I am, and God has not asked or called me to change. I am worthy because my Creator has called me worthy, and to lie or be inauthentic would be to make unclean what God has called clean, to make bad what God has called good. I cannot do that... I will not.
Two weeks ago, I submitted my letter stepping out of the ordination process for the United Methodist Church. I've met with a pastor of a United Church of Christ / Disciples of Christ congregation who is supportive of my decision and willing to help me get involved with his congregation and begin the ordination process in his denomination. This morning, I stood before some of the people I love most in my life and told them I was leaving. Even now, the pain feels unbearable. I've felt like I was giving up, but I realized that to stay and to hide would be to do just that. In leaving and pursuing my call to ordained ministry in a setting where I can be a whole person, I'm honoring the work that my friends and family at Holy Covenant have put into getting me to this point. With my partner, friends, and church family gathered around me this morning, their hands laid on me and on each other, I felt surrounded by and covered with more love than I feel I could ever deserve or be given. I listened and cried as friends came up, sharing my pain and expressing their pride in my strength, courage, and apparent bravery. I spent time holding one of the young boys I've grown to love, and got the chance to hug another. I know I'm always welcome there, and I leave knowing just how much I've loved, supported, and valued.
Change will come. There will be a day when all God's children are welcome at the table, both receiving God's blessing and presiding over God's gifts of meal and water, regardless of who they love. I desperately long for that day, and I pray for the strength to be a part of the work God's Spirit is doing to get us there. I know much of that strength will come from my Holy Covenant family.
I will come back... someday soon. We will still have conversations, exchange emails, share meals and drinks, offer each other love, prayer, support, and encouragement. I cannot tell you how much you've changed me, how much your love has given me new life and restored my joy. Thank you for taking me in, helping me answer my call, affirming and celebrating my relationship, sitting with me in times of grief, depression, sorrow and joy. I love you all so much. Know that as you've given me a piece of yourselves, I have left a part of myself with each and every one of you. Though we may feel divided, we are one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world.
Sitting down today with some classmates, we talked about a shooting that happened recently in Evanston. A 14 year old young man was shot through the chest on his way home from a party. Our group leader spoke of a candlelight vigil that was held in his honor for the boy's family. People who gathered spoke of the communal nature of raising children, yet of the 200 people gathered, only ten were persons of Caucasian descent. So much for community, right?
In times of such visible evil, such tangible sin, where is the Creator? Does God take sides, and if so, whose side is God on? What does God have to say about the ways in which we treat each other? I'm not simply talking about the violence and murder. I'm talking about something as simple as responding to the homeless person on the street who asks for some change. I'm talking about giving thought into what purchases we make, not because we want to be thrifty, but because we care about the person on the other end of that dollar bill who makes the things we buy. I'm talking about taking control over the way we think of and perceive those around us... the ways we label and judge and criticize them.
We were talking about what it means to carry a prophetic message into a congregational setting when we came across the dilemma over how to deliver a challenging message while not isolating yourself from those whom you serve. Simultaneously we were discussing how to be faithful to God while honoring the covenants and oaths we make to the denominations who ordain us. In a moment of righteous anger and frustration, I believe I said something like this: "As for delivering the tough message, Jesus said he came to bring life and life more abundantly, and since he's not here in person, that leaves us to do the work, or at least to be a part of it. And since we can't do it alone, nor should we have to, if we don't bring those we serve into a place of action outside the church walls, then we may as well shut the doors. I'm not there to play house... and when I am, I still leave sorely disappointed. Last time I checked, my obligation is first and foremost to the Gospel as I understand it... not to some organizational charter. I understand the reason for being asked to be faithful to a denomination... there has to be some unity. But don't ask me to put your set of rules over and above the red letters." Some of this may have been in my head and not spoken, but that's the blessing of hindsight, right?
Is Jesus ever really missing from the work we do to build community, to see the world around us redeemed? I don't think so. He's only gone when we ask him to be... when we want to take the credit, as if redemption is our idea. But when we ask him to be present, and to empower the work we feel he's called us to be a part of, then he shows up, loves both on us and through us, and makes it possible for us to change the world around us, and change it in a way where his handprint is visible. But we have to be willing to do it. Even more so, we have to be willing to step outside and across the lines we've drawn that keep us from sharing that work and that burden with those who are also called to catalyze redemption... people of different colors, genders, nationalities, denominations, belief systems, sexual orientations, or any other identifier we use to delineate "us" and "them."
Jesus isn't missing from the world. He's there with both the sinner and the sinned against, loving on both equally. What's missing most of the time is our attention, our conviction to live out the challenge he's called us to. What's missing is our love for his other children. And as long as that's gone, the process of redemption, I think, gets stunted... slows down. I don't want to be the one to put limits on how God changes the world. I want to be the one who is there when God does something big... or little. When something redemptive happens, and I'm there, I get to see Jesus, even if by another face or name than I usually see or hear. Redemption is hard to miss...
Unless you're missing...
I have something to admit... I like contemporary Christian music...
There. I said it. And I'm glad I did. We're talking Point of Grace, 4Him, Nichole Nordeman, Jennifer Knapp, PlusOne, Jars of Clay, Third Day, Big Daddy Weave, FFH, Al Denson, Twila Paris, Avalon, dcTalk, Casting Crowns, Newsboys, Rich Mullins, David Crowder, Sonic Flood, Kari Jobe, Bethany Dillon, Jeremy Camp, Hillsong, Ray Boltz, Sixpence, Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman, Stephen Curtis Chapman, and several more. This doesn't include the slew of praise and worship groups present, or my list of Southern Gospel artists either.
I have my reasons though. Growing up, raised under the teaching of "in not of," I believed that music within this genre set me apart. In reality though, it just made me part of the in-crowd of Christianity. It made me part of the "us" group instead of the "them" group. Back then, this was something that made me proud. It made me feel like I belonged.
Additionally, this music provided a way for me to escape the reality of the self-hatred I've dealt with for so long. If my focus could be on the message of the music rather than the truth of who I was, then I would be alright. Everything would be okay. The pain would eventually disappear and fade into nothingness. I could hide behind the clichés and the platitudes. At least that's what I thought.
During the six years I spent away from a faith community after coming out, this brand of music was the last thread connecting me to my Christian belief system. I wasn't going to church. I wasn't reading my Bible (something I still struggle with). I wasn't talking to God. All I had left was the music, and in a fight against crippling, overwhelming depressive symptoms, I could not let go of it. I would not let go of it. I felt that it was keeping me alive. If I let go of the lyrics and the often shallow theology, I would be letting go of God for good. This scared the living hell out of me.
These days, I still have my picks that I can listen to and still find nourishment, and there are artists or songs that I can barely stomach, mostly because two years of seminary education and three years of attending a progressive United Methodist church have drastically changed how I perceive God and my relationship with God. Still, in the place of life that I'm in right now, one song recently came to mind.
One of my favorite CCM trios has always been Phillips, Craig, & Dean. This group of Evangelical pastors turned CCM staple has always had a way of putting music out there that speaks to me. Granted, some of the theology can be troublesome, but the song in question still has relevance. It's called "Blessing in the Thorn". The chorus goes as follows:
When does the thorn become a blessing When does the pain become a friend When does my weakness make me stronger When does my faith make me whole again I wanna feel your arms around me in the middle of my raging storm So that I can see the blessing in the thorn
When I first heard this song in middle school (which makes me feel old), I imagined it being sung with a tone of sadness, of longing, and of hopefulness. This morning when it came to mind, in light of my conversations with Blake recently about the hostility present in my life, something changed. It didn't come to me as it had in the past. Instead, I imagined singing or speaking these words with a tone of anger, of frustration, of questioning, and of despair. I imagined a sort of Psalm 13 conversation with God, yelling, maybe even cursing.
It's taken a long time for me to realize and accept that it's okay for me to get pissed off at my Creator, and to express that emotion authentically. I was raised to believe that whatever happens, God's will was never to be questioned or challenged. While I'm sure the village responsible for my upbringing had good intentions and sincere beliefs, I think they were mistaken. I think that, as children of the Creator, we're allowed to question. If the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15 who tells Jesus that "... even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table" (Matt. 15:27, NRSV) can have her daughter healed after changing Jesus' mind, I think it's okay for the rest of us to question God and the ways in which God acts in our lives. It's alright for us to have doubts about what God's doing in, around, and through us. If prayer is meant to be a conversation between friends, then it makes sense for the occasional argument to be perfectly natural.
Recently, because of conversations with Blake and Audrey and others about my ordination process within the UMC, it's come to my attention that some of my hostility relates to a topic with which I thought I'd found peace: my sexuality. Turns out, I've still got an issue with it. Don't get me wrong, I have no intention of separating from my partner and re-entering the world of Exodus, Alan Chambers, reparative therapy, and excessive chauvinism. I've had a long, had battle in getting where I am. Apparently, there's still more work to be done and more healing to experience.
The short list: I'm hostile towards God for creating me this way (this is not an opening for a nature vs. nurture debate) and for doing so apparently with a very big purpose; I'm hostile towards those who raised me to believe that any sexuality other than hetero is wrong; I'm hostile toward my body for betraying me; I'm hostile towards all those who made me feel "less than" because I didn't have the perfect body, perfect smile, perfect wardrobe, perfect hair, or perfect _______; I'm hostile towards those who believe that who I am was in any way, shape, or form a "choice"; I'm hostile towards those who force me into a box of superficial descriptors simply because of who I am; and I'm hostile towards any who would make me feel shame for who I am. This isn't a comprehensive list by any means, but it's a starting point, a launch pad from which I can start to find peace and acceptance. It's a reality I must face if I'm ever going to live into the authenticity I so desire for my life and for my ministry. It's my thorn, and while I haven't found it yet, I know there's a blessing somewhere within it.