In Defense of the Building: A Case for Not Selling Your Church Property Just Yet

It seems like every week I hear someone in the wider church say, “You know, the church is more than the building.”

This is often said in a rather condescending tone, with the sense that the speaker is delivering some novel piece of wisdom. It’s often followed with a line like, “I mean, Jesus never had a building.” Or, “Think of all the ministry we could do if we just sold our buildings and gave the money away!”

I always want to say, “Do you honestly think most Christians don’t know that?”

True, we are often a little too fond of our buildings. We are willing to wage million-dollar capital campaigns to fix aging structures while at the same time letting the associate pastor go for lack of funds. Or, we treat them like our own homes, locking them up tightly, except for a few hours on a Sunday morning.

I have known of many churches like that. Churches that, frankly, do not deserve their buildings. Because if a church is using the building only for themselves, and if they have made it the modern equivalent of a golden calf, they really have little business calling themselves a church.

I know congregations hanging on with ten people in the pews on Sunday morning and another church just down the road. They pump their money into the building and wonder why no one ever comes.

You probably know of them too.

Please hear me; I am not talking about those churches. Those buildings could often see more ministry by being better used as housing for the homeless, offices for nonprofits, or meeting spaces for 12 Step groups.

But I’m worried that in our quest to rid ourselves of buildings, we are throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
We need to be in right relationship with our buildings. They should be tools, not false idols.

I pastor a congregation with a beautiful, historic building from the late 1700s, one that inspires people to walk in off the street to explore it.

While we value our history as a congregation, the members of my church have been adamant about this building being more than a clubhouse for ourselves. We have our Sunday services of course, all held in a sanctuary that is both beautiful and functional.

But we also open our doors to AA three times a week. We host community lectures and events. We open our columbarium for all who wish their ashes to be buried. We grow vegetables in our community garden. And we host whiffle ball games out back in the summer and pass out candy from the big front doors on Halloween.

I will never willingly pastor a church that loves its building more than it loves Jesus; but I will always jump at the chance to serve where the people are willing to use every resource they have in creative ways to serve God and their communities. Including their building.

I don’t believe that this is going against Jesus’ will for the church. However, I do believe Jesus was pretty clear about using the house of God for the wrong purposes.

When the moneylenders set up shop outside the doors of the Temple, Jesus cared enough about the Temple to flip those tables over. The Temple, in and of itself, was not a bad place. What was happening in and around the Temple was what desecrated it.

And so, I take caution from that story. I know that a building is only as useful to the people of God as what we are using it for. If it becomes a place where we fulfill only our own needs, or where we mistakenly focus our worship, it is an albatross around the neck of our faith. We would do well to rid ourselves of it and look seriously inward.

But if we live in right relationship with our buildings, we can use them as incredible tools for ministry. We can use our buildings as signs that we are rooted and planted in our communities, and that we are not going anywhere. We are committed to our neighborhood because we are built into the neighborhood’s own streets. And we exist not just in our towns but for our towns.

So look again at your church’s building. And now visualize all the ways it can be used.IMG_5845

Could that same room that holds coffee hour on Sundays host 12 Step meetings? Could the Sunday school rooms host after-school programs? Could the basement host free washing machines for those who can’t afford them? Could the sanctuary double as a space for free lectures? And could that big piece of land out back be made into a community garden for the food pantry?

As Christians we are called to be good stewards of everything we have been given. Sometimes, that may mean letting go of it. But other times it just takes looking at all we have been given in a new way, and being open to use these tools for good.

But, What Do You Think?

The following was originally delivered as the sermon at the Congregational Church in Exeter on September 13, 2015.

Where I lived when I was growing up, people would sometimes try to convert others to their own particular brand of Christianity. Sometimes a classmate would do it. Other times it was someone on the street, or going door to door, passing out pamphlets. And you sort of learned what to watch out for if you didn’t want to be evangelized, and most of the time you could sneak by them, or cut them off at the pass.

It wasn’t always possible, though. One time my mom got stuck in the line at the DMV with someone who was trying to convert her.

12011156_1042871019098829_2260206330329240522_nOne question I remember being asked a lot by the folks who wanted to convert others was this: Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ? I was a Christian, I did have a relationship with Jesus, but I was a little worried that they were going to tell me I was doing it all wrong and that they knew him a whole lot better than I did. So, to be honest, I’d hear the question and run the other way as fast as I could.

And then one time my senior year of high school, when I was really starting to explore my faith more, I tried to talk to a friend who had grown up in a fundamentalist family about it. She was heading in the other direction from her church and rejecting everything that she had been taught.

We were driving and I told her about this pull I was feeling towards belief and about how my priorities felt like they were shifting. And I could sort of see her getting uncomfortable, and she turned to me with this exasperated look and said something like, “Emily…are you trying to tell me you’ve been saved?”

And I recoiled and said, “oh…no…no…I was just saying I’ve been thinking about some things, that’s all.

This week’s Gospel lesson features Jesus having one of those awkward talks with his disciples. He asks them as a group, “Who do people say that I am?” And they give him some answers. They say some say he’s Elijah. Others say he’s John the Baptist. Others say he’s a prophet.
But after they all give him these answers, he asks the question another way. “But, who do YOU say that I am.”

I’ll bet for a minute there you could hear crickets chirping. It’s sort of like when you’re in class and you give the answer you think the teacher wants to hear, the safe answer, the one you read in all the books and the cliff notes. And then the teacher asks it again but this time says, “now I want to hear what you think”.

Finally Peter tries. He tells Jesus, “you’re the Messiah”.

Peter answered for himself, and he got it right. But I’ll bet just answering that question was a leap of faith for him. I’ll bet it was a lot easier to give the answer that everyone else was giving. When he had to answer it for himself, it was probably terrifying. And yet, when he finally did dare to speak, Peter was the first one to really understand who Jesus was.

I think we can all relate to the disciples here. If someone were to ask you, “Who do you say that Jesus is”, how would you answer? To be honest, I would probably try to put all those seminary classes to good use and come up with the perfect, pithy, theologically correct answer, hoping that others would think I was right. Because I spent a lot of time in seminary trying to come up with the right answers, and reading a lot about what other people said about Jesus. When Jesus asked me that question, I could go and pull out the heavy theological books from seminary, write up a summary in an essay, polish it up, and turn it in and pray for an A.

But then I think Jesus would ask me again, “But, who do YOU say that I am?” And that question would be ten times harder.

I think back to those folks I knew growing up. “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?” You know, in a way they were really asking, “Who do you say that Jesus is?” Except, I’m pretty sure that for most of them, there were right answers. And I’m not sure they were really wanting to hear my answer, so much as the answer they were looking for, the answer, they and their church all believed was true.

But I’m glad Jesus doesn’t ask us what everyone else says about him. He asks what we say about him. Because the reality is there is a lot of stuff that is said about Jesus that I don’t believe. And, unfortunately, when I ask my non-Christian friends what they think Jesus was all about they sometimes tell me what they hear churches saying about this issue or that one, and it’s not pretty.

If Jesus really were the person some of the voices that were loudest around me growing up said he was, I don’t think I would want to get close enough to him to find the answers for myself.

But the good news is that Jesus doesn’t call for all the voices around us to answer that question. He calls for each of us to answer that question. And in order to answer it, we have to get to know Jesus for ourselves. We have to, as the street preachers used to say, have a personal relationship with him.

And, unlike what those street preachers used to say, we have to trust it, and we have to trust that our relationship with Jesus is as valid as anyone else’s.

But that’s not always easy. During one of the hardest times of my life, a few years after I was ordained, I had to ask myself that question again: who is Jesus to me. And for a while there, I wasn’t sure. My doubt and faith were wrestling with one another, and I just didn’t know.

I would not want to go back through that time. But I’m glad I lived through it. Because it was that grappling, that questioning, that helped me to answer the question for myself today. It was that season in my life that deepened my faith, and made me believe that God truly did love me.

We are fortunate that we are in a religious tradition that encourages us to ask questions like that. We have a lot of testaments and testimonies to faith from those who came before us. And we do believe things as a body. But we don’t have a checklist of things you must believe to be a part of this community. We don’t make you take a test, or answer the questions of a catechism correctly, when you come to the door. We just welcome you, and we welcome your questions.

For us as individuals, that’s both wonderful, and a little terrifying. It means that you don’t come here on Sunday mornings because I’m going to have the right answer up here in the pulpit. I might have the answer I’ve come to, and what I think is true, but that’s not to say that you will agree or that it’s the right one. And we don’t come here because we have the cheat sheet hidden somewhere in the church.

We come because we are all journeying down the same road, trying to answer for ourselves, the question Jesus asks of us. “Who do you say that I am?”

Sometimes we will try to answer that together. But sometimes we can only answer it for ourselves. And we have to trust that whatever we say, if we are truly answering out of our relationship with Christ, it will be enough.

I’ll close with this. There’s always been one thing about that passage we read this morning that has bothered me. When Peter answers correctly, when he says “you’re the Messiah”, Jesus tell them all, “don’t tell anybody”. Now, I think there were a lot of reasons for that. Some had to do with where he was heading, and his own coming death and resurrection. But I wonder if there was another meaning there too.

I wonder if Jesus said that because he wanted people to find out for themselves. I wonder if he said that because he didn’t want us to take the shortcuts to the right answers, instead of really getting to know him. I wonder if he said that to discourage generations of followers who came later from taking the easy route, from just buying into the soundbites about faith that they hear all around them. I wonder if he said that because he wanted to make that journey with us, and because he was our companion on the road to that answer, and not just our destination.

It’s sort of the difference between flipping to the back of the math textbook and writing down the right answer rather than actually showing your own work. It’s easy. But in the end you’re no better for it.

So, on this gathering Sunday, where we start a new program year, I home you will join me on the journey of asking the big questions. And as we bless the backpacks of our students today, we send them out into a world where they will ask big questions and seek worthy answers. And they will do it with our blessing, just as they will in church school each Sunday, or in youth group, or even when they go off on their own one day. We are literally blessing them for the journey today.

And it’s a journey all of us are on. Because more than anything, the life of faith is traveled on a road paved by our own questions. And this is a place where you can ask those questions, gathered together in this community, gathered together on this journey, and gathered together to ponder Jesus question to us all: who do you say that I am.

I love walking this road with Jesus, and I love walking it with all of you. Even when it’s clouded and we can’t see up ahead. Even when it leads us to some places we’ve never gone before. I love it because I know we are all trying to answer that question, both together and as individuals, and we’ll never get the answer quite right. At least in this lifetime. But we keep trying. And we keep our hearts open. And slowly, together, we begin to find the words to answer our biggest questions. Amen.

An Open Letter to Sunnie Kahle (and Christian tomboys everywhere)

Dear Sunnie,

You don’t know me, but this morning I read an article about you. (You can read it here: http://www.abc27.com/story/25061872/little-girl-taken-out-of-christian-school-after-told-shes-too-much-like-a-boy  ) Ever since then you keep crossing my mind. As I went around town today in my jeans and button-down shirt and sweater, I thought about you. As I came home from the gym tonight, I prayed for you. And all the while, I wished I could write you a letter…the kind of letter I wish someone had written to me.

This is me when I was a few years younger than you.

This is me when I was a few years younger than you.

I don’t know how to get one to you, though. I thought about trying to send it to your grandparents for them to read to you, but I’m not sure if it would make it there. So instead I’m writing this and posting it on my blog. Maybe somehow these words will find their way to your grandparents and they will share them with you. Or, maybe years from now you’ll find them online, and know that a lot of people were thinking about you today.

I read this morning that Timberlake Christian School, your school, has asked you to leave. The reason why, they say, is that you are not following “Biblical standards”. They say that you should be wearing dresses, and letting your hair grow out, and acting more “like a girl”. And they are saying that unless you do those things, you can’t go to your school anymore.

You are eight years old, and this probably sounds pretty silly to you. Don’t worry; I’m 37 years old and it sounds pretty silly to me too.

I’ll bet that I was a lot like you when I was eight years old. I didn’t like dresses. I liked playing football and collecting baseball cards. My favorite things were airplanes and science kits. And I liked cutting my hair short.

A lot of people called me a tomboy. I think they meant that as an insult, but I actually thought that was pretty neat. Maybe you do too. Or maybe you don’t. Which is okay, because if you don’t you can call yourself whatever you want. You get that choice, just like you get to choose what kind of clothes you wear, and what hobbies you like.

But here’s what bothers me most of all, Sunnie. These people who are saying you can’t go back to school with your friends are telling you that Jesus is the reason. Like you I was raised in the South. I spent the first part of my life in Virginia, just like you. And my parents always taught me to respect adults. But I was lucky because my parents also would tell me that sometimes adults are wrong.

Sunnie, the adults that told you that Jesus doesn’t like the way you dress, or that Jesus wants you to act “more like a girl”? They’re wrong.

Jesus does love you, Sunnie. You know how I know? Because Jesus loves me too. And Jesus loves everyone like us, who grows up preferring shorts to skirts, and jeans to dresses. Jesus loves us when we cut our hair short. Jesus loves us when we out hit the boys in baseball. And Jesus loves us when we don’t want to wear a pink bow in our hair.

The pastors at your school may disagree. That’s okay. Tell them that there are pastors out there who think that they are wrong about Jesus. I’m one of those pastors. And if you came to my church, or the churches of a lot of my friends, no one would say a word about what you were wearing or what your hair looked like. (Actually, we might…we might tell you we like your sneakers or your t-shirt…but that’s it.)

Sunnie, I don’t know who you’ll grow up to be in ten years. I don’t know who you will love, or what you will be like then. And that stuff doesn’t matter right now. Know why? Because you’re eight, and you have plenty of time to figure it out on your own time. No one else gets to do that for you.

So, Sunnie. I hope you keep being you. I hope your grandparents keep being incredible. And I hope your friends’ parents tell them that you had to leave school not because you did anything wrong, but because the school did something wrong.

But most of all, Sunnie, I hope you know that God loves you. God loves you so much, and God loves you exactly as you are now, and exactly as you will be. Never doubt that, no matter what people say or do to you. Just like they don’t get to tell you how to dress, they don’t get to take Jesus away from you either.

Keep being awesome, Sunnie.

Pastor Emily C. Heath

 

Update 3/26/14: Within about two hours of this blog post’s publication it found its way to Sunnie’s family and it was read to Sunnie. To those who made that happen, thank you.

Additionally, a number of people have commented or emailed saying the “true story” hasn’t come out. There have been both insinuations and outright assertions about Sunnie and Sunnie’s gender identity. Of course no evidence that their assertions are true has been presented. But, even if it were, here’s my question: Why does it matter?

If Sunnie, or any child for that matter, is trying to figure out who they are, why wouldn’t Christians want to support them? I think people have expected me to say, “Oh…well in that case…throw Sunnie out!” Really all I can say is clearly that school, a school that could not support Sunnie the way Sunnie needed to be supported, does not deserve to get to claim someone as brave as Sunnie as a student.

I believe Jesus said, “suffer the little children to come onto me” and not “suffer the little children to come onto me…but only if they are gender conforming”. I think a school that truly sought to follow him would do the same. But, that’s just my opinion. And, really, this has always just been about supporting Sunnie.

Turn the Other Cheek?: Jesus on the space between passivity and “stand your ground” – Sermon for February 23, 2014

Safety cards handed out in the aftermath of the Otherside Bombing in 1997.

Safety cards handed out in the aftermath of the Otherside Bombing in 1997.

Scripture: Matthew 5:38-48

If you have ever gotten into a discussion or a debate about religion, you probably know what it’s like to have a bunch of soundbites from the Bible thrown at you. I’m always interested in how people who mostly seem uninterested in church or faith seem to know how to quote the Bible when it supports their argument. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. “Those who don’t work don’t eat”. “”Wives be obedient to your husbands.” Spare the rod and spoil the child”. (Actually that last one isn’t even in the Bible.)

The point is, we hear certain phrases over and over, and we are told they come from Scripture, and we internalize them without really knowing the context or where they come from or what they might really mean. And in doing so we go down this dangerous path where the Bible is the book full of one-liners that we can pull out when we need them, and not a book about a man who changed everything. And today’s lectionary reading is no exception.

Today’s Scripture passage comes from the Sermon on the Mount, a series of teachings Jesus gave after he was baptized. And this sermon contains a lot of the phrases of Scripture you may know: the meek shall inherit the earth. Be perfect as your Father is perfect. Blessed are the peacemakers. Our Father who art in heaven.

And it contains this phrase that I’m sure you’ve heard before. Jesus starts this passage saying, “You’ve heard it said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.

Turn the other cheek. You’ve heard that before, right? Maybe as a kid you got in a fight with a brother or sister and your parents told you to be the bigger person, to turn the other cheek? It’s come to mean “brush it off” or “ignore it” to us. And maybe that doesn’t sound half bad sometimes.

But sometimes that line gets used in some dangerous ways. Once years ago I was doing some pastoral care with a woman who was being abused by her husband. And when I would ask her what her plan to get out of this abuse was, she would tell me “well, Jesus says to just turn the other cheek”.

At its worst his passage has come to mean a sort of passivity in the face of what is very wrong. An acceptance of being mistreated and degraded. Even a sort of self-destructiveness…you’ve hit me once, so hit me again.

But I don’t think that’s what Jesus ever meant it to be. A Biblical scholar by the name of Walter Wink talked about this passage in his writings and he clarified the context a bit. He talked about how for those who were slaves, who were considered to have less rights than others, those in authority would strike them when angry by hitting them with the back of their hand on their right cheek. They wouldn’t hit them with a fist, or on their left cheek, because they wouldn’t even hit them directly. Even the manner of violence suggested that the person being hit was less than human.

And so when Jesus says, “turn the other cheek” he’s saying something powerful. It’s not “let them hit you again”. It’s, “make them see that you are their equal, and that if they are going to hit you, they have to at least acknowledge what they are doing. It’s a powerful way of changing the conversation. The one who is seen as subhuman refuses to be seen that way anymore. In the moment of attack, they claim their whole humanity.

And that is a big part of what Jesus’ message was. His followers were generally not powerful people. Some of them were people who had been oppressed their whole lives. They didn’t have much. Some were slaves. Some were very poor. All were subject to a brutal Roman regime and corrupt religious authorities. These were the powerless. These were people who knew what it was like to be struck on the right cheek.

What Jesus is saying is that you are not lesser anymore. Maybe you cannot change the way that the authorities treat you. At least not yet. But you can claim your whole worth as a beloved child of God, created as equal as anyone else. This is not a divine call towards being a doormat. This is a divine reminder that you are God’s creation.

It’s a pretty radical message when you think of it. It’s one that subverts everything, and changes the game. I think of the woman I counseled. I think of the children I saw when I was a hospital chaplain who were brought into the ER after being abused by parents. I think of people who have been treated as lesser for any reason, and I hear “turn the other cheek”. And now I know that it’s not Jesus saying “take it”. I know it’s Jesus saying, “refuse to take this anymore”.

Now, I want to be clear about what this is not. This is about claiming your full humanity and not being mistreated. But this is not “stand your ground” Jesus. This is not Jesus saying escalate the situation. This is not Jesus saying choose violence. Jesus does not tell his disciples, “if anyone hits you on the right cheek, deliver a stiff right hook to their left.”

See, Jesus is better than that. And Jesus wants better than that for us. He preceded the line about turning the other cheek by saying “you have heard an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” and then he presents “turn the other cheek” as an alternative. We love quoting “an eye for an eye” in our culture. We want to see the one who hurts others get theirs. But Jesus himself says, “wait…there’s a better way”.

Walter Wink calls this “Jesus’ third way of nonviolent resistance”. He cites many examples of people from Ghandi to Desmond Tutu to Martin Luther King as examples of this. They all refused to embrace the ways of the people who oppressed them and saw their people as lesser. But they all also refused to extract an eye for an eye. A tooth for a tooth.

What Dr. Wink calls “nonviolent resistance” I simply call refusing to stoop down and claim the ways of the bullies and abusers and oppressors of the world. I call it claiming the image of God in ourselves. We are not to be abused, and we are not to become abusers of God’s creation either. We are better than that. And we have to find better ways of responding.

When I was a junior in college, 20 years old, very early one morning the phone rang in my dorm room. My roommate answered and I could hear across the room that my mom on other line. And my roommate said, “Hang on, hang on…she’s right here.” And when I got on the phone my mom sounded scared to death, and she said, “Were you in the bombing?”

In the middle of the night, at a gay club only a few miles away, a bomb had gone off. I had known before that moment that there were people who hated people like me. But until that moment I hadn’t really understood that some of them wanted us dead.

In the aftermath I’m sure there were a few hot-heads in my community who wanted to retaliate with violence. But their voices didn’t win out. And there were those too who wanted to hide, and who thought that they would be safe by never going back out. But here’s what most of us did. We went and stood in vigil as close as we could get to the site of the bombing.

And that night we went to all the other gathering places of our community. We gathered in larger crowds than I’d ever seen before. We gathered to say that a bomb planted in cowardice in a dumpster would never make us too afraid to claim our humanity. Refused to be treated as lesser. But refused to stoop down to the level of those who hated us too. Had we, it would have done us more harm than good in the end.

I tell you that story as an example. Because I think things like that bombing still happen everyday. Sometimes on that level, with that amount of news coverage, and sometimes not. Sometimes we never hear about them, but they blow lives apart just the same.

Our job as Christians in the world is to see everyone as a child of God, as a part of God’s creation. And it is to stand with those who are being treated as anything less than that. That means people who are being discriminated against, yes. But that also means people who are living with violence. Children who don’t have enough to eat. Teenagers who are being bullied. Elders who are being neglected. Young people fighting addiction in our Valley, and there are many, who are being targeted by heroin dealers. The ones who are constantly in life being struck on their right cheeks.

Our job is to make sure, first, that we are not the ones doing the striking. And then, to stand in solidarity and to turn the other cheek and say “you don’t get to treat people like that anymore”. You don’t get to do that because they are children of God. And, and maybe this is what they need to hear the most, you don’t get to do that because YOU are a child of God. And God created you for something better.

This week I’ve been watching the news coming out of the Ukraine, and there have been a few images that have moved me profoundly. Clergy of both Orthodox and Eastern Catholic traditions have been out in the streets, praying with both sides, and anointing the dying. They’ve been opening sanctuaries for those who have been wounded. And, most dramatically, in one situation they stood between protesters and armed forces, refusing to let the unarmed be hurt. They literally risked life and limb to make others see the true humanity in one another. They turned the other cheek, and they taught others how to do the same.

So, how are you going to turn the other cheek? First in your own life, but then as a person who lives in a larger community. How are you going to help turn the other cheek when you see something wrong happening? How are you going to turn the other cheek and demand the full humanity of all of God’s children? How are you going to turn the other cheek and change the game for everyone?

Christ himself has called us to nothing less. Because Christ himself has prepared a better way for us. We need this. Our community needs this. Our world needs this. Let’s get ready, and let’s follow him.

Falling: Recovery, Silence, and the Church

Untitled copyTwice in my life I have competed in contact sports. After a childhood spent envying the boys on my block who could play on the football team, I joined my college’s rugby team. It was a club sport at my school, more adventure than varsity, but it was one of the few places I had found where women could play a rough-and-tumble game without others trying to protect us. After college I found my way to the local judo dojo where that same truth held. There on the mat we sparred together, a mix of genders and abilities, starting standing face-to-face and ending with throws and pins to the floor.

What struck me about both sports was what I learned at my very first practice. My first night on the rugby pitch I learned how to throw a tackle. But, more importantly, I learned how to be tackled. A friend of mine knelt down on the field and, as I ran at them, threw a perfect tackle just above my knees. I soared over their shoulder and hit the ground safely. We did this again and again that night until being tackled was second nature.

My first night in the dojo was similar. Before I was allowed anywhere near the other students, I spent an evening sitting on the mat and practicing falling backwards. Each time I fell backwards I would strike the mat with one arm to absorb the blow. Once I mastered the art of falling down from a sitting position, I fell backwards from a standing position. That first night I thought judo must be the most boring athletic endeavor ever, but after I was thrown to the mat the few times I realized the point.

With both sports the idea was this: you’re going to fall. You’d might as well learn how to fall safely, with minimal injury, so that you can stand back up.

So what does this have to do with the church? At first glance maybe not that much. But last week I found myself lying face up in our village market’s parking lot thinking otherwise. I’d slipped on a patch of Vermont black ice while carrying a bag of groceries, but as soon as I had felt myself lose balance I immediately, instinctively, did what I had learned in the dojo: I fell back, didn’t panic, and tried to distribute the impact as broadly as possible. In the end the only thing injured was my pride. I stood back up, picked up the groceries, and drove home unscathed.

And that’s when I started to think about the church. Recently a clergy friend told me that he had been advised by older clergy mentors to hide the fact that he is in recovery from addiction. I immediate felt sad about that. This is a person with sustained sobriety, and an incredible story of recovery. His testimony could be a powerful witness to God’s healing, as well as one of hope to those “still sick and suffering”. But his congregation might never hear it.

My friend had been told that clergy shouldn’t show weakness. They shouldn’t admit to perceived failures. They should allow those around them to live under the impression that, no matter what is going on, everything is fine. And, while I do believe clergy need to be careful not to overshare our personal lives or to preach our own stories more than the Gospel, I believe this is the attitude that not only contributes to clergy burn-out but hurts our whole church.

The reality for all of us is this: we fall short, we mess up, we lose our traction, and end up on the ground. In short, we live life. Clergy and lay together. But often we don’t talk about that in church. Instead we bring ourselves to worship in our Sunday best and hide the truth that sometimes things just aren’t that great.

It’s no surprise. For too long we’ve been taught to do just that. We clergy have taught, often by our own example, that appearances are more important than honesty. We’ve taught that appropriate vulnerability is career suicide. We’ve taught that falling down defines us no matter whether or not we get back up. And, inadvertently, we’ve taught a sanitized, powerless Gospel.

Somehow we have taught that Christians are people of perfection, and not people of redemption.

This past year, as the Boston mayoral race heated up, eventual winner Marty Walsh ran television ads that briefly mentioned his recovery from alcoholism. I watched the ads and thought, “that’s brilliant”. He, as Robert Kennedy used to say, hung a lantern on his biggest problem, the thing that might have come out in sneaky attack ads and bombed his candidacy. Instead, his recovery became a part of his story. It showed that he knew how to get back up and rebuild.

But the more I thought about it, the more I felt sad for the church. If an admission of being in recovery can actually help someone in the hardball world of politics, why is it so feared in the very place where redemption should be celebrated? Why aren’t we, people who talk about grace and forgiveness and new life, in the business of teaching people what to do when they fall? Why don’t we acknowledge these things so that we can help people know where to turn when they need help to get back up?

In my ministry I’ve never hidden the fact that I am in recovery. I’m blessed to be able to say that because of that I’ve been able to be a first call for parishioners and non-parishioners alike when they finally hit rock bottom. But I’ve also never talked about it in my writing all that much.

This Sunday marks another year of sobriety, one day at a time, for me. It doesn’t matter how many years, but I can say that it’s far more than a much younger me ever thought I could string together the first time I admitted I needed help. I give thanks every day that I got it.

I also give thanks for the ones who I’ve met in recovery who have taught me that falling down in life is as inevitable as falling on the rugby pitch or in the judo dojo. Most have had much more dramatic and devastating falls than my own. Most have made far more dramatic and inspiring recoveries. And, though they may not have realized it, and though most have never stepped into a pulpit, they have preached the Gospel to me in the most powerful ways I have ever heard it.

I only wish that those of us who did occupy the pulpits could preach the Gospel of redemption with such power and transparency and strength.

But then again, maybe we can.

The End of Exodus International is Not the End of the Ex-Gay Movement

imagesAlan Chambers, president of prominent ex-gay ministry Exodus International, made headlines this week with his public statement of apology and announcement that his organization will close. The closure of Exodus has elicited celebrations from the LGBTQ community and allies who have long known the harm being done in God’s name by groups like this. And while there is indeed cause for rejoicing, we must also remember that the struggle is not over.

Exodus was probably the most well-known reparative therapy ministry in the country. Exodus taught that gays and lesbians could either change or repress their sexual attractions through a process of prayer and counseling. So its disappearance is a major change in the ex-gay ministry landscape.

But in the cities and towns of this country, the ideas behind Exodus’ ministry continue to thrive. In my own community there are churches that teach that gays and lesbians can change their sexual orientation. Or, they argue that being gay is like having an addiction: you can just choose not to partake in the thing that causes you to “sin”.

Even fairly mainstream groups like “Celebrate Recovery”, a resource created by Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church that is used in many churches and billed as a Christian alternative to Twelve Step programs like AA, teaches that gays and lesbians can change. Exodus may have closed, but their ideas are still going strong, and they may even be thriving in your hometown.

In some ways, this is even more dangerous than Exodus International. While Exodus remained in business, those of us in the LGBTQ community could point to them as a clear example of dubious practices. Their assertions that being gay was a choice, or the result of childhood trauma, or distant fathers, were fairly easily disputed. Their practices of teaching gays and lesbians to put rubber bands around their wrists and flick them when they experiences a same-sex attraction were ridiculous. In a way, they were so public and so easy to dismiss that they did those of us who believe ex-gay therapy is deadly a huge favor. They were their own worst press.

Now reparative therapy has gone underground. But it hasn’t gone away. Not yet, at least. But it needs to, or else it will kill more LGBTQ youth and young adults.

One of the favorite quotes of those who believe in reparative therapy is that God “loves the sinner but hates the sin”. The idea is that God loves the gay or lesbian person, but hates their “sin” of acting on their same-sex attraction. So, a gay or lesbian person who engages in relationships with others of the same-sex are much like an alcoholic who continues to drink. God may still love that alcoholic, but God hates their drinking.

It has always struck me as an odd analogy. Because when I think about the best comparison between gays and alcoholic it is not between an active alcoholic and a gay person who accepts themselves. Instead it is between an active alcoholic and a gay person who is doing everything they can to reject themselves. In both cases the person is doing all they can to destroy who they are, and to bury their true selves.

Recovery comes in many forms. And that’s why true health, and truly living into God’s love for us, comes when we stop trying to destroy ourselves, through addiction or through a refusal to accept ourselves, and instead come out. We come out of addiction. We come out of the closet. We come out of the secret places where we have been kept, and come into a world where we are no longer kept captive by fear or addiction.

This is the business of “change” that I wish more Christian churches would claim as their work. Instead of the pastor telling the gay high school kid that he just needs to pray harder, what would it look like if the pastor instead affirmed them and talked about loving themselves enough to make healthy relationship choices? Instead of pressuring the young woman who felt attracted to other women into a loveless marriage that will end in divorce, what if Christian counselors instead supported a marriage to which she could actually commit herself? And instead of telling the parents of a gay kid that there was hope because their son could change, why not tell them that there is hope because they have a kid who knows who he is in the world?

When I was 18 years old I walked into the office of my college chaplain expecting nothing but judgment. The fact I expected judgement is not surprising: I had grown up just outside Orlando, the headquarters of Exodus International. But when I told him I was gay the first thing he did was tell me that he affirmed me, just as I was, and that God still loved me. All these years later, I know that first time coming out to a Christian clergyperson made all the difference in my journey. I have often thought about what might have happened had I walked into a different clergyperson’s office. I’m thankful that I didn’t. And I mourn for all the LGBTQ people who did, and who ended up at places like Exodus.

We can’t let this happen anymore. One giant of reparative therapy may be gone, but the movement is not. Now the struggle has come close to home, and you and I are on the front lines.

Journey Through Lent: Days 24-28

Copyright, Salon.com (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

Copyright, Salon.com (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

Note: Sorry for the lack of posts the past few days. I’m catching up after being quite sick.

The cardinals appeared on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica on Wednesday, and announced that they had chosen Jorge Bergoglio to be the next Pope of the Roman Catholic Church. And then they announced his newly-chosen name: Francis.

The symbolism was not lost on those of us who are modern-day fans of a twelfth century saint. St. Francis of Assisi valued humility, simplicity, compassion, and care for the poor. The religious order he founded, the Franciscans, has continued his work for centuries, and Francis has come to be an example of what it means to live a Gospel life.

When I was 17, and exploring Christianity for the first time, I read the Prayer of St. Francis during a worship service. (There is some debate over whether or not Francis actually wrote it, but it’s clear it was written by one of his followers and embodies his spirit.) It’s sheer simplicity and beauty of ideals profoundly moved me, and shook my world. I knew then, for sure, that I wanted to be a Christian. It begins, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,” and continues with a litany of choosing love for other over love of comfort. It’s a prayer about humility, in the best sense of the word.

So far, Pope Francis seems to be seriously trying to emulate his namesake. He chose the bus instead of the Papal limousine. He insisted on paying his own hotel bill. He asked for the blessing of the people before blessing them. It’s a very public statement, repudiating what many feel have been the excesses of the Vatican in recent years. And it’s a humility that is refreshing in religious leaders of all faith traditions.

When I talk about humility, I’m sometimes met with a strong backlash in progressive church circles. “Humility” is sometimes confused with “humiliation”, or a desire to make one’s self lesser. I’ve been chided, “Why shouldn’t we be great? God has created us in God’s own image!”

And, that’s true. But that also points to the fact that as a culture we don’t understand what humility really means. Humility isn’t about denying that we are good (or perhaps even great) or wearing sackcloth and ashes. It isn’t about self-flagellation and low self-esteem. Rather, humility is about refusing to deny who others are, and refusing to see them as any less created in the image of God than you.

It’s not about making ourselves “less”. It’s about making everyone “more”.

There is a story about St. Francis that reminds me of this. In a time and place of great poverty, he was once invited to an extravagant meal with other clergy. As plates were filled at the banquet, he quietly put some crumbs on his own plate and began to eat them. Eventually his dinner companions observed this, and stopped eating. How could they, the ones entrusted to serving God’s people, really claim to be following Christ when other children of God were outside starving?

My guess is St. Francis wasn’t trying to humiliate the other clergy (though they may indeed have been embarrassed.) My guess is that for him personally his understanding of Christian faith meant he could not have done any differently. We know that he was not a killjoy, or a man who disregarded the beauty of creation. In fact, he seemed to delight in it more than others. But we also know he was a man who couldn’t stomach ostentation in the face of pain.

There’s something valuable about that distinction. Many twelve step communities teach about the importance of becoming “right sized”. That means not thinking too highly of yourself, but it also means not thinking too little of yourself as well. It means coming to see yourself as you are: a beloved, worthy, child of God. And it means coming to see others the same way. And then acting accordingly.

So far, Pope Francis has been a good reminder of what it means to right-sized. I’m eager to keep watching him. Though I’m not a Catholic, I’m always genuinely inspired by followers of Christ who try to live lives of true humility, and true right-sizedness. I hope, for both the sake of his church and the church universal, that he lives into the name he has chosen for himself. And I hope all of us who follow the same Christ as Francis did might find something life-giving there too.

 

Chick-fil-a, Beloved Children, and Being the Imitators of God

Ephesians 4:25-5:2
4:25 So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.

4:26 Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger,

4:27 and do not make room for the devil.

4:28 Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy.

4:29 Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.

4:30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption.

4:31 Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice,

4:32 and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.

5:1 Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children,

5:2 and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

When I was growing up, and when I was in college down South, one of my favorite places to eat was Chick-Fil-A. We don’t have any in Vermont, and there are few in New England, but down South they are everywhere. And in high school we would go there when we went to the mall. In college we would even drive after midnight sometimes to the 24 hour one down by the Atlanta airport. And when I was home visiting my parents a few months ago, I confess I went more than once. There’s just something about their chicken that I love.

But I don’t eat there anymore. You may have heard some about them in the news this summer. The president of the company came forward and said some pretty negative things about families like mine. And he has every right to say them, but I just can’t give my money to him anymore.

I know on the other hand, though, that there are a lot of Christians, a lot of good Christians who agree with him. And that’s okay. There is no one monolithic Christian opinion on any issue, and especially not this one. But two weeks ago the pictures I saw on television and on the internet of Christians lined up at Chick-fil-a’s across the country. They were celebrating the comments of the president, and agreeing with them. And they were saying they were there because all Christians agreed with them, and that by buying those chicken sandwiches, they were standing up for Christ.

As I watched the news that day, I felt so hurt by my fellow Christians. Not because we disagree with one another, but because there was an almost palpable glee in those chicken lines. They seemed to think that with every chicken sandwich bought they were striking a victory for Christ. With every order of waffle fries, they were putting those whom they considered sinners in their place. They seemed sure that Jesus Christ would be right there with them in those lines buying lunch. And they seemed to think that every other Christian should be too.

Now, like I said, I think there are good Christians of every opinion out there. But what I saw that day seemed so antithetical to the Christianity I knew. Not because I didn’t agree, but because I refused to believe that the mark of being a true Christian involved eating a particular fast food restaurant. I refused to believe that chicken, and Christ, had somehow been conflated. How did standing in line for a chicken sandwich become the mark for what it means to be a Christian in this country? Especially when other people are standing by watching and feeling so hurt?

I was thinking about that this week while reading today’s passage from Ephesians. The writer, who is called “Paul” but who is more likely a close follower of Paul’s, is writing to a group of communities about what it means to be a Christian. And he’s not talking about chicken sandwiches. He’s not even talking about judgement. He’s talking about something more.

The author writes: Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

The author is writing to these communities about how they should treat one another. He’s also writing to them about how they should be recognizable to the world outside of the church. The marks of true faith, of true Christianity, are found in freedom from anger and mean-spiritedness, and embrace of kindness, and forgiveness. Bitterness is gone. Hard-heartedness is gone. Unkindness is gone.

The author goes on to call on Christians to be “imitators of God”. He tells them to be “beloved children” and to “live in love”. To live in this way, he says, is to live your life as an offering to God.

When we collect the offering each week, we talk about this. We bless the checks and envelopes and ask for God to use them, but we do something more. We ask for God to bless us, and to accept our own selves as offerings to the world. We ask that God would use us to show God’s love and compassion for the world.

It’s a beautiful moment, when you think about it. It’s a moment of giving. It’s a moment of freeing ourselves from the demands of the world and instead opening ourselves up to the desires of God. It’s a moment of getting our priorities right.

But if we want to truly live our lives as an offering to God, then like the text says, we have to learn how to be imitators of God. And we have to learn to live as God’s “beloved children” both inside and outside the doors of this church.

So, how do we imitate God in the world? It’s a tall order. Imperfect people are being asked to imitate one who is perfect. We’re not always, or even often, going to get it right. But that doesn’t stop us from having to try. That doesn’t keep us from starting with this simple command: live as beloved children of God, and live in love.

And for those of us who are Christian, it starts with this. We cannot be complacent. We cannot say it is enough that we believe. We cannot let ourselves just be defined by our claim to our faith. Being a Christian in name only is meaningless. It completely misses the point of why Christ came here.

And yet, that’s what Christians sometimes feel compelled to do. We choose the easy displays of faith. We wear a cross around our neck, or we put a fish on our car. Or we wear a t-shirt with a Christian slogan.

Or we wait online at a Chick-fil-a. Or we tell others that “real Christians” believe as we do, and therefore they are not real Christians. Or we rest, content in our belief that we are saved and we are right. And to the outside, we look more like a country club or a political party than we do a way of life. We look less like imitators of God, and more like more of the same that they see everywhere else.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. It starts inside the church. How do we who are here, live as imitators of God in our life together? How do we treat each other as God’s beloved children, even when we disagree? I think most of the time we do pretty well. We don’t all believe the same thing here. We don’t all agree on the details of what it means to be a Christian. But I think that we respect each other, and we respect the fact that we are all trying to live our lives as an offering to God.

So how do we take that a step further? How do we take our faith out into the world and help to transform the world with it? How do we live our lives out there as an offering to God?

We don’t do it by making the easy choices. We don’t do it by simply proclaiming what we believe, or, even worse, just what we oppose. We do it by acting in such a way that those who meet us believe that we are indeed imitators of God’s love. We do it by treating everyone, not just other Christians who believe as we do, as God’s beloved children.

I saw two examples of Christians doing that this week. In Wisconsin, the horrific shootings at a Sikh temple horrified us all. So senseless, and so brutal. And, in Missouri, a Muslim mosque was burnt down in an act of suspected arson. The second act at that mosque this month.

In the aftermath, local Christians in both places responded. And they didn’t respond by saying “you believe differently than us”. They didn’t condemn people of different faiths or  say “this isn’t our concern”. Instead, they opened their hearts, and they treated those who had been strangers as beloved children of God.

In Wisconsin, members of the Sikh temple spoke of a Christian pastor who showed up soon after the shootings offering his church and his resources and asking “what do you need?” And in Missouri, a local Christian church offered to host an Iftar dinner for the Muslims who were breaking their Ramadan fast. I would argue that those two churches did more to show their Christian faith, their commitment to the ideas in this Biblical letter we read today, than any other Christians we’ve read about in the American news this summer. Christianity doesn’t always take us to the comfortable places we know. More often, it takes us to the places we never thought we would go.

I’ll close with this. Our national denomination, the United Church of Christ, has started a new outreach. It’s called the “Faith in” project. The idea is that members of the UCC are called to have “faith in” their communities. That means to both live your “faith in” your communities,  but to also have “faith in” your communities. It means to claim your communities as the places in which we live out our faith and act on our Christianity.

We’ve been trying to do that here in the Deerfield Valley for some time, and I think we’ve done a good job. But this passage reminds me of how important it is to recommit ourselves to that task from time to time. It reminds we of what it means to have faith in the places we live, and to use our faith to make those places better. I have faith in the Deerfield Valley because I have faith in God, and faith in the people of this church. We can be imitators of God in the place that we live. And we can treat our neighbors as God’s beloved children. The question that remains as go back into the world today, as offerings to the world, is this: Will my actions tell the people I meet, the people of my community, about God’s love for them? If we can say “yes”, then we will know we are on the right track, and we are becoming, more and more, imitators of God. Amen.

The Religious Right (Side of History)

For Christians in the mainline Protestant denominations, this has been an interesting summer. First, the Presbyterian Church (USA) rejected an amendment which would have opened the church up to blessing same-sex marriages. Then, less than a week later, the Episcopal Church approved a new liturgy to bless same-sex unions and also affirmed the ministry of transgender clergy.

 

For the rest of us mainline folks (members of the United Church of Christ, United Methodists, Lutherans, Disciples, and others) it has been both fascinating and heart-wrenching to watch. Regardless of the outcome, the emotion has been clear. After the PCUSA vote, youth cried on the floor of the General Assembly. The day after the the Episcopal vote, one diocese walked out.

 

Many speculate that some mainline denominations may be headed for an ideological schism. The narrow margin of the Presbyterian decision, just 30 votes, is one indication of just how split that denomination is on major issues of inclusion and Biblical interpretation. Other denominations face similar quandaries. It’s clear that mainline Christians of all stripes are at a watershed.

 

It helps to remember that we have been here before, and more than once.

 

I was ordained in the PCUSA (before having my own departure over LGBT inclusion and becoming UCC). I was always struck by the fact that the denomination had split in two during the Civil War over slavery. The same happened in many of the other major churches of the day. For some, the split was temporary. Methodists rejoined one another in 1939. It took the Presbyterians until 1983. Some never reunited. (Which is one reason the North is filled with American Baptist congregations, while Southern Baptists prevail in the South.)

 

You would think American mainliners would have learned their lesson, but they didn’t. Further splits occurred over the ordination of women, desegregation, Biblical inerrancy, and more. And now, the splits are coming over LGBT inclusion.

 

We’ve known this for years. One of the reasons LGBT inclusion has not yet occurred is that we are so afraid of what a schism will mean. We want to preserve the body of Christ, because that is what we are called to do. But, if we are honest, we also want to remain relevant. Relevance is the catch-phrase in the shrinking church, and a denomination half its size is seen as even more irrelevant.

 

Except, here’s the rub: size does not determine relevance. Doing the right thing does.

 

When I was in the PCUSA I often heard straight allies decline to push harder for LGBT rights for fear it would “split the church”. No one wanted that, but the reality was that the church was already splitting. LGBT people, and their families and friends, were walking out the door. This was true of many churches, and the irony was that each time they failed to do the right thing, the prophetic thing, for fear of losing relevance, they lost it even more.

 

When Jesus told his disciples to go out two by two he gave them clear instructions: Preach a prophetic truth.  If you are rejected, if your message is not heard, move on. Shake the dust from your feet and keep moving.

 

I don’t think Jesus was telling his disciples to not care about the people who rejected them. I don’t think he was saying “give up hope that they will change their minds”. I think he was saying this: sometimes you won’t get everyone one board, but the train has to keep moving forward. Otherwise it will derail.

 

We talk a lot about the power of the religious right to negatively influence the fate of LGBT civil rights, but we are talking about the wrong religious right there. What LGBT people need now is not more of the religious right. We need more religious and on the right side of history. We need more Christians ready to stand up for the right thing no matter what, even if it means some won’t follow them. We need religious folks ready to shake the dust of fear and rejection off their feet and follow Jesus anyway. People who are willing to take the big risks their faith demands no matter the cost.

 

This will not be the last issue to divide the church. Give it thirty or forty years and something else will come along. By that point the country as a whole will have evolved and moved on and non-inclusion of LGBT people will be an embarrassing chapter in our history, just like all the others through the years. My hope is the mainline church will be re-united by then, but history tells us it may well not be.

 

That’s okay. Because the mark of faithfulness is not found in our membership numbers. It’s not found in a commitment to an non-controversial faith that never makes anyone uncomfortable. It’s found in how well we follow Christ, who taught us to love one another and work for justice. The only fate worse than schism for the church is being lukewarm when it comes to issues of justice. Jesus never accepted us being lukewarm. For those of us who want to be standing on the religious right side of history, that’s a good reminder.

How Not to Be an Ally: 5 Reminders for Christian Clergy Working for Equality

  1. You don’t understand.

This is not meant in a hostile way. It’s just a reminder. If you are not LGBTQ, you have not lived the reality of being LGBTQ. You may empathize, but that’s different than being LGBTQ. Here’s a parallel. I’m not African-American. I may work tirelessly against racism, and do my best to understand the African-American experience, but I will never fully understand what it is to grow up as anything other than white in this country.

You may be the best ally in the world, with all the LGBTQ friends you could hope for, but until you are the 13 year old kid who gets beat up for being gay, or the 22 year old who has to leave their church, or the 40 year old who is denied a marriage license, or the 50 year old who can’t afford top surgery, or the 65 year old who can’t collect a partner’s Social Security, you will never understand exactly what it is to be LGBTQ.

2. You will sometimes pay a price for doing the right thing. We pay a price everyday.

Yes, it’s true. Your support of us will sometimes cost you. You might not get the big steeple church. You might not be able to serve as a church official. You might even end up in jail from time to time. The blessing is that these will be occasional situations for you. They are daily realities for us. When something like this happens, it will feel tragic. But for perspective, put it in the context of the greater, even more tragic, reality of the inequalities in our country.

There’s a story about this. John Lewis once was working with a group of white clergy who were going to be arrested for civil disobedience in the Civil Rights movement. His job was to bail them out immediately upon arrest. The ministers would then be heroically received. Except he didn’t bail them out. He decided to wait a while. He wanted them to truly understand their privilege and the fact that their jail cell was temporary. The jail cell of racism never opened. Remember that what you are doing is right. Maybe even brave. But it’s not heroic. Virtue is its own reward.

3. Let us define ourselves.

Please don’t put your labels on our reality. Two women who are together are not necessarily a “lesbian couple”. A man who has sex with another man may not identify as gay. Someone who is gender non-conforming might identify as trans. Or they might not. We might proudly claim words you don’t feel comfortable using: queer, butch, femme, etc. Those words come from our struggle and our reality. When you say, “oh, don’t call yourself that” we hear it as “I am not comfortable with you”. When you call our marriage a “union” we hear “separate but equal”. Words matter, and letting those who are not as privileged as you choose their own words matters more.

Here’s another example: When you lead worship, do you ever divide the voices up into the “men” and the “women”? Recently I attended a church with an active outreach to the LGBT community, and a few trans members, some of whom were still not out about the fact they were considering transitioning. When we were asked to sing along gender binary lines, some of them were put on the spot in a highly uncomfortable way. Try not to box us in using your understanding of sex and gender. Talk to us. We’ll tell you what works.

4. Whenever possible, listen…don’t talk.

Which leads me to my next point: listen. We have spent much of our life not being able to speak our truth. Now that we can, please let us do it. That’s not to say that we don’t want to dialogue with you or listen to your journey about how you became an ally. It’s just saying that we are often the best ones to speak to our realities.

Recently I was sitting at a table with clergy members, all of whom were allies. One ally was talking about what LGBTQ’s wanted around gay marriage (mainly just civil benefits). Not only did I not agree with him, but most LGBTQ people would not. Another ally graciously interrupted and pointed out that since there was a LGBTQ person at the table, perhaps that person could speak to what marriage meant to us better than an ally. It was a great moment of grace that doesn’t happen nearly enough.

5. Remember we are not a monolithic group

There are so many different identities in the LGBTQ alphabet. There’s a beauty in that diversity that doesn’t come out when one person is chosen to represent us all. A gay man does not understand what it means to be a lesbian. A lesbian does not understand what it is to be trans (unless they are trans themselves). A trans person doesn’t understand what it is to be bi (again, unless they are themselves). Each group has specific concerns and realities. Resist the urge to lump us together as one.

Likewise, remember that we don’t always have the same ideas on how the LGBT community should achieve our goals. Many clergy allies proudly show me their HRC t-shirts and equal stickers, for instance. I really appreciate the fact they are trying to visibly show their support, but I wonder if they realize that many LGBT people, particularly trans folks, would rather gnaw off their right arms than give to HRC? Other LGBTQ folks love them. But ask us who, and what, we would support, and why. It will tell you more about our community.

Finally, remember we love you. Every civil rights movement needs allies, and we are grateful for you. I only mention these things because there are times when well-meaning allies can become roadblocks on the path to the full equality of LGBTQ people. They’re principles I try to put in practice when I advocate for groups that I am not a member of, and they’ve served me well. I hope they might serve you as well. Until all children of God are equal, peace be with you.