Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing
— John 15:4-5
It’s early afternoon here. The sky is ashen gray, clouds blanketing the heavens for an unforeseeable distance. There’s a mist in the air indicative of spring wanting to break through and breathe new life into the earth. The wind is crisp but not so cold as to need a heavy coat. I’ve been on winter vacation for nearly six weeks now, splitting my time between deskwarming (aka showing up to school to lesson plan, clean my classroom, or busy myself with audiobooks and Netflix) and staycations in Nonsan or in Seoul. This week is my last respite before the students return, and while I thought it would be rejuvenating, it has been filled with heavy emotions mostly having to do with faith and with the church.
It slipped my mind that my last week of vacation coincided with the United Methodist Church’s Special Session of the General Conference called to discuss matters of “human sexuality” and to determine a “way forward.” Though I left the denomination in 2012, my having graduated from a UMC seminary and being close friends with many UMC members and clergy-persons means I’ve still kept myself apprised of the denomination’s happenings, particularly as they relate to the church’s stance on LGBTQ+ persons and the inclusion in/exclusion from the life of the denomination.
I won’t go into the specifics of the conference except to say that for many LGBTQ+ people of faith, it was a weekend of feeling dehumanized, of having their inherent worth and value called to question yet again, and of being told in no uncertain terms, “We don’t want you here.” The denomination’s legislative body yet again refused to remove language discriminating against queer people from its governing policies (the Book of Discipline), upholding law that prohibits queer people from being ordained in the denomination (apart from being celibate) and from having their marriage ceremonies officiated by UMC clergy or celebrated in UMC spaces. It was a weekend of tears and cries and screams, of deep, deep sadness and mourning, and for many, of hope dashed against the rocks.
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another — John 15:12-17
For many of my queer friends, the question is often posed to them by non-UMC friends, straight and gay alike, “Why don’t you just leave?” As someone who left the UMC because I could not pursue God’s call on my life into ordained ministry without sacrificing my integrity, I can attest to how frustrating and sometimes infuriating this question is. The question often comes from a place of care and with good intention, but only recently did I realize that it’s basically the same question these queer friends are asked by the conservative members of the denomination: “If you don’t like the way we do things here, why don’t you just leave?”
The answer? Because we shouldn’t have to leave. Because the Church should be a place where all God’s children are not simply told they are welcomed, but are actually welcomed! While Yeshua ben Joseph never said anything about homosexuality (at least not in our recorded canon), he had plenty to say about legalistic church leaders and people of faith (see Matthew 12:33-37 or Matthew 23, and probably a few others). He had very strong feelings about hypocritical lip service. Watching the live stream of the UMC’s conference this weekend, watching Twitter and other forms of social media, I couldn’t help but feel a fire of righteous anger building inside me.
I have too many thoughts for one post, truth be told, and far too many feelings. As someone who voluntarily disconnected myself from the denomination, I’m still discerning how much space I should take up in the conversation. But I’ll say this. At 10 years old, I knew I was gay. There was no choosing, no deliberate point when I thought, “Well, I guess I’ll be a homo.” But because of church leaders and “good Christians” who felt it was more important to drill Leviticus 18 and 20 and Romans 1 and 1 Timothy into my head than to show unconditional love to a kid trying to love God while figuring out who he was, I was handed years of sadness, thoughts of self-harm, and mounds of self-loathing with which I still struggle. At nearly 35, I’ve had years to come to my own understanding of Scripture. I’ve had therapy and chaplaincy training and spiritual direction. I’ve been blessed beyond measure to have countless friends stand by me through the sadness and the self-harm thoughts. It’s because I had people who chose to love me more than they loved their own ideas of what might be right and what might be wrong that I’m still alive.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness”
— Matthew 23:27-28
Whether UMC or Southern Baptist or Pentecostal or Nondenominational, hear this. There are kids in your churches who are starting to realize they are gay or lesbian or bisexual or queer or transgender — kids who also genuinely and sincerely love God and want to live like Jesus. You have a choice. You can hold onto archaic interpretations of Scripture because your pastor told you to think or feel or believe a certain way. You can take those interpretations and use them as rationale for making these kids believe they are monsters worthy of God’s condemnation and ultimate damnation. Or you can relinquish your fear of something that’s different from you, something you don’t understand, and lean into what Jesus named as the two greatest commandments: love God and love neighbor. Don’t risk these kids’ lives all because “the Bible says.” Think of each of those kids as your child or your grandchild, as your flesh and bone and blood. Don’t disconnect them from a community of faith. Don’t disconnect them from God.
photo credit: Michael (via Flickr)