On Presbyterians, Exiles, and Apologies

Behind my desk there are two framed certificates on the wall. One is from 2001. It is reads “Certificate of Ordination as Minister of Word and Sacrament, Presbyterian Church (USA)”. The other is from 2010. This one reads “Certificate of Ordained Ministerial Standing, United Church of Christ”.

When I transferred my ordination to the UCC in 2010, I wasn’t sure what to do with that first certificate. The Presbyterian Church had trained me to be a pastor at one of its denominational seminaries. It had shaped me as a candidate for ministry. I had been a member of PCUSA churches, interned in a PCUSA congregation, and served honorably for over eight years as a PCUSA minister.

But, in 2010, I left.

I didn’t want to. I loved being Presbyterian. I can still tell you all about the Book of Confessions, and my favorite parts, from Heidelberg to Barmen. I love the Presbyterian commitment to education and loving God with our whole mind. I am deeply Reformed, down to the bone.

And I am also gay.

In 2010 I had to make a choice between the church I loved and my life. I knew, for my own mental health, that I could no longer be a part of a church that asked me to either abide by an unfair ordination standard applied only to same-sex relationships or to remain silent about it in certain settings if I chose not to abide.

I have been out since I was 18. I never hid that fact. But I lived within the strictures of the PCUSA’s ordination standard. I did this not out of shame, but out of a sense that I could not ask someone to partner with me and live in the shadows. As even my father told me when it became time for me to leave the PCUSA, it wouldn’t be fair to someone I loved.

When it became clear that change was not coming fast enough, I had to ask myself questions about staying. I came to understand that remaining in the PCUSA would be fundamentally damaging to me, and to my sense of integrity. And so, reluctantly, I left.

Within a year of leaving the PCUSA I met my now-wife. We dated openly, celebrated our engagement publicly, and married in a church of my new denomination. When DOMA was overturned, and when the Supreme Court later made equal marriage the law of the land, we rejoiced with the whole-hearted support of our denomination. I have come to understand what it means to be accepted and loved by my church, just as I am.

rainbow-sealYou might think that after all that I am angry at the PCUSA.

For a while I was. I think I had good reason. But then, I wasn’t. As much as my treatment, and the treatment of every other LGBTQ person in the church, was unfair, I still love the Presbyterian Church deeply. I hang my ordination certificate in my office so that every day I will see it and remember the gifts I received from the PCUSA. And I rejoiced when the PCUSA took steps to include LGBTQ people in leadership and marriage.

Over the past few weeks, though, I have felt some of those old feelings of frustration return.

There is an overture being considered in the PCUSA right now which calls on the denomination to apologize for its past treatment of LGBTQ individuals because “there will be no chance for healing and reconciliation until the PCUSA admits its mistakes and makes a statement of apology”.

The Covenant Network, which believes itself to be an ally to LGBTQ people, has come out against the statement. (For historical perspective the Covenant Network also urged past delays on votes which could have included LGBTQ people in the ministry sooner out of concerns for “unity”. As a PCUSA seminarian at the time I had a hard time with that stance as well.) Other PCUSA “allies” have also spoken against the apology saying it does not have consensus or that it will create further division.

Let me say first that division has already been created. The fact many LGBTQ Presbyterians are now exiles in other denominations should tell you that. Those of us who were forced to leave will not have a voice on Presbytery and General Assembly floors, and so I urge you to listen to what we have to say now. We are, literally, not in the room.

Beyond that I hear some say that the apology is “forced”. If a minority of GA made the majority apologize, it would indeed be forced. But this is an overture that will require a majority voice. If a majority of the delegates at GA find this is appropriate, then they will represent the majority will of this connectional church. The same thing happened when LGBTQ people were banned from ministry, and yet this same argument was not made.

I hear others say it won’t matter to LGBTQ people. Curiously, I have not heard this from LGBTQ people. (And particularly not from any of us who lived through the worst of the ’90’s and ’00’s as candidates or clergy.) As an LGBTQ person, I can tell you it would matter to me. I will personally be okay without an apology from the PCUSA. I’ve done my work. But, I would find the apology deeply meaningful and healing. I would also see it as the start to real reconciliation between those of us who have left and our former church, as well as a sign of healing for those who have stayed, and their partners.

I have also heard people ask “have we apologized to other groups” such as women and African-Americans, who also bore grave injustices at the hands of the Presbyterian Church. No. You haven’t. You should do that, by the way.

Mostly, though, I believe in this overture because I believe in the power of making amends. In the recovery community one of the major steps towards healing and wholeness is looking at the people you have hurt and saying “I’m sorry”. Until you do that, you can’t really heal. And I want health and healing for the PCUSA. There is so much good that the PCUSA does in this world, and so much more that it could do. The world needs a healthy Presbyterian Church.

As for me, I have made my peace with the Presbyterian Church. I have looked at my resentments and forgiven the PCUSA for the pain. I have found gratitude for the good gifts I received from the PCUSA; gifts that continue to inform my ministry every day. I have claimed my own “serenity to accept the things I cannot change and courage to change the things I can”.

Perhaps in writing now I am exhibiting that I still don’t have the “wisdom to know the difference”. I don’t know if these words will have any effect on anyone. And yet, as a product of the Presbyterian Church, and as one who still deeply loves the church, I offer them for the consideration of those who still dwell within its walls.

And I also say this, expecting no reciprocity but remaining hopeful that perhaps someday it will come: When I made my ordination vows I fully intended to remain a Presbyterian minister until the day I died. For my part in not remaining faithful, I am sorry. Having had to leave continues to grieve me more than you know.

Reclaiming Progressive Christianity, Starting with Remembering Our Values

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post that two weeks later is still getting a lot of traffic. The title of the piece is “I Don’t Think I Want to Be a Progressive Christian Anymore“, and it is an accurate depiction of how I was feeling at the time. After a little time, though, I’m realizing I was wrong: I do still want to be a progressive Christian.

But here’s the challenge; in the very recent past the term “progressive Christian” has come to be conflated with “emergent Christian” and “post-evangelical Christian”. And I’m not saying that you can’t be one of those things and also be a progressive Christian. This is a big tent movement, and you can. But I am saying that it’s not right to co-opt a term that has been used for several generations to define a theological movement for your own benefit. And it’s especially not right to do it when you are not familiar with, or not willing to honor, the values that progressive Christianity has been trying to model for the larger church for years.

10245585_250411955164792_8829165948251833523_nMy elders in the progressive Christian movement, some of whom are now dead and cannot speak for themselves, deserve more than to have their legacies misrepresented by those who never knew them. And those of us who came of age in the progressive movement over the last few decades are now being called on to bear witness to the history and values of this tradition, and to help to articulate a vision for the future for the movement.

So, I think I do still want to be a progressive Christian. But I want to say a little about what I understand that term to mean, starting with a few values I’ve learned along the way. Here is what I think the progressive church is called to be:

– Transparent

The progressive church has taught me again and again that Jesus’ was right when he said “the truth shall set you free”. It has also taught me that “sunlight is the best disinfectant”. One of the Christian men I respect most has a habit of telling organizations with which he works that “I will not be your institution’s secret keeper”. They hire him anyway, and they’re better for it.

– Accountable

We don’t just answer to ourselves (or kid ourselves and others by saying “I answer to God”). We need accountability from our peers. Denominations get a bad rap with some, but a healthy denomination is one of the best ways of making sure that a Christian leader will be held accountable to a high standard. It’s when a clergy person or other leader becomes a long ranger that the trouble happens.

– Prophetic

Wayne Gretzky famously said, “I skate to where the puck is going; not to where it has been.” For progressive Christians that means that we have to be future focused, and innovative. For instance, the progressive church started talking about LGBT rights in the early 1970’s. By contrast, some well-known leaders who are now claiming the progressive labels have just come forward as allies in the last several years. That’s not being prophetic. That’s being popular.

– Repentant

We will make mistakes. We will fail people who could have used our voices. But when that happens, we need to be the first to stand up and apologize. As a former Presbyterian pastor, I often saw people who sat in positions of power never speak as allies. In the past few years many have now come out as allies, which is great. But sometimes I just want a little acknowledgement that they regret not having done so earlier. Likewise, I know there are probably many things I am not doing now that I should be. When I realize what they are, I hope I have the character to confess, apologize, and make amends.

– Humble

True humility is not about putting yourself down; it’s about raising others up. And what I valued most about the progressive leaders in the generations before mine was their humility. They admitted there were things they did not know. They listened to those who were marginalized in some way. And they stepped aside and gave up the mic when they didn’t know from firsthand experience what they were talking about. (And they never drew attention to themselves when they did it.)

– Witness-oriented

The other thing I learned from progressive Christian leaders over the past twenty years is that they were never, ever, interested in celebrity. In fact, they were quick to shy away from the lime-light. They didn’t mind teaching, or speaking, but only if it helped others in their Christian journey. Karl Barth kept a picture of John the Baptist above his desk. In that picture John was pointing towards Christ. For Barth it was a reminder that the task of every Christian was not to gain followers for one’s self, but instead to use one’s life in order to witness to, and glorify, Christ.

– Bold

The progressive Christians I have know are bold people. That’s different than being brash or provocative. Instead, being bold is about being willing to risk one’s status or power for what one believes is right. In the 1990’s and early 2000’s I watched people risk their pulpits and ordinations to stand up for people like me. Some of these same people had done the same thing a 35 years before that when they stood up against segregation. They weren’t fearless; they were scared to death. But they did it anyway. They are some of bravest people I have ever met, and few in my generation can hold a candle to them.

– Non-idolatrous

The progressive Christians who taught me were also well-trained Reformed theologians. They lectured constantly about the importance of confronting idols. And they practiced what they preached. They refused to worship anything other than Christ. They would not worship at the altar of money. They refused to collude with empire, as Walter Wink taught us, choosing instead to confront it. They would not profit on the backs of others, particularly those who have been in any way marginalized. They did not seek power or status or comfort. They sought only God’s will for God’s people.

– Hopeful

When Rev. John Robinson sent the Pilgrims, ancestors of today’s progressive Reformed Christians, off across the ocean he said God had “more truth and light yet to break forth out of (God’s) holy Word”. It was a message of hope. And hope is central to the message of progressive Christianity. Every piece of writing, every sermon, every speech must point to the fact that our hope comes not from our own words, but from the one who is constantly working in this world to create all things anew. And living into that hope means that we get to make the choice to either participate in that work joyfully, or get out of the way.

– Community focused

Progressive Christians value the life and stories of the individual, but we also highly value the community. Our interdependence on one another is what makes us stronger, not weaker. And so we need the voices of many, and not just a few. And so, because progressive Christianity is bigger than any one of us, this needs to be a group discussion. What values would you add? I’d love for you to tell us all about them below.

Martin Luther King, John Lewis, and the Luxury of Hindsight Hope

Yesterday in worship, during our time for children, I talked about Dr. Martin Luther King. The children and youth at my congregation, from pre-K on up to high school seniors, are exceptional in so many respects. Yesterday was no exception. When I asked our elementary-aged students what they knew about Dr. King they told me stories about discrimination, choosing non-violence, working for justice, and about Dr. King’s life in general. The parents of our church have taught them well, and taught them that opposing injustice is a part of what it means to be a Christian. They give me hope.

As I was sitting there, though, I was aware of how easy it is for me, and for all of us who didn’t grow up in the Civil Rights Movement, to know just how wrong the Jim Crow era was, and just how right Dr. King was. Though I am from the South, I was born years after Dr. King’s assassination. Unlike my parents, I went to integrated schools and was taught by them that all people were equal for as long as I can remember. There was certainly racism all around me, but I knew it was wrong.

Dr. King and John Lewis, marching with other Civil Rights leaders.

Dr. King and John Lewis, marching with other Civil Rights leaders.

When I went to college in Atlanta I began to learn more about the specifics of Dr. King’s legacy. I learned the ways that even the street names in Atlanta were shaped by race and who lived where. I read Dr. King’s speeches. And sometimes, when the injustice of the world seemed unsurmountable, I visited Dr. King’s tomb.

But I also began to wonder: what would I have done as a white person if I had been alive during the Civil Rights movement?

I’d like to think I know the answer. I hope I would have done the right thing. I hope I would have marched, and been arrested, and stood in solidarity, no matter what the personal cost. I hope I would have been a true ally who stepped aside and gave the mic to people of color. And I hope I would have done all of these things because my faith compelled me to do so.

But the reality is that most white folks in Atlanta, even those who knew what was happening was wrong, did nothing. In Atlanta I learned that when Dr. King returned to the city with his Nobel Peace Prize no one wanted to acknowledge it. (It was finally the Jewish community, shaken by the recent bombing of The Temple on Peachtree Street, that stepped up and threw a dinner for him.) Moments of white solidarity were few and far between. And, decades later, I came to find out that sometimes they were misremembered a bit too favorably.

In Atlanta I went to a fabulous Presbyterian church downtown. It was committed to justice and inclusion for all people, and their social justice work was remarkable. I was proud to be a part of this congregation, and I often pointed to a particular story related to the Civil Rights movement to show exactly why. As the story went, when Dr. King was assassinated, this church, just blocks away from Dr. King’s neighborhood, had opened up its building to students and others who were coming to Atlanta for the funeral and who needed a place to stay. The fact a white church in Atlanta would do that so willingly in 1968 was held as truly remarkable. When I heard the story repeated it was with assurances that the church would have done nothing else except be hospitable

And then one day, a man who had been a part of the congregation for decades told me the real story. “Do you think they were happy about it?”, he asked me. “No one wanted to do it…the pastor had to finally force them to do it by telling them how bad they would look if they didn’t!” It turns out the church, while certainly one of the more progressive of the white mainline downtown establishment churches, had wanted little to nothing to do with the Civil Rights Movement. It wasn’t until the movement literally came to their neighborhood, in a time of national mourning, that they were forced to take a side.

I don’t tell that story to shame that church. The church learned from that experience, grew, and became more prophetic. But the happier, sanitized version of that story is what usually gets told, with more than a little self-congratulation. The reality is a lot more humbling and, in my mind, a lot more powerful.

I think about that story because I wonder what I’m doing now that I’ll look back on years from now and want to remember with a sort of revisionist history. How am I well-intentioned, but not actually willing to act? What struggles for justice am I remaining neutral about, and how to I get myself engaged? What don’t I want to look back on forty years from now with regret and shame over my lack of courage? These are the questions I’m asking myself on this Martin Luther King day.

And on this day, I’m also thinking about the ones who have gotten it right, and who have kept moving forward from one struggle for justice to another. And I’m remembering something I saw in Atlanta when I was about twenty years old. I was marching in the Atlanta Pride Parade down Peachtree street and towards Piedmont Park. As we turned onto 10th Street I saw a man standing near the end of the route, waving at us and cheering us on.

As we got closer I could see it was Congressman John Lewis, Dr. King’s trusted advisor and a man who had braved the worst of the brutality that racism had to offer. Here was a man who had beaten at Selma. Here was a man who had watched his friend die for justice. Here was a man who had nothing to prove, and who didn’t have to be there. And yet he was.

When I think about wanting to be a good ally, I think about John Lewis. He showed me that day how, as Dr. King said, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. And he taught me that I can’t stay home just because the fight isn’t mine.

I hope I would have done the right thing fifty years ago. But I can choose to prayerfully do the right thing now.

john

Advent Hope (Or, Why I Quit My PhD Program)

Over the last few years I have written short daily devotionals for each day of Advent and Lent. I enjoyed doing it, but there were times when it felt a bit draining, particularly in the clergy obstacle course that is the season of Advent and Christmas planning.

So this year I am doing something a little different. I am not writing daily posts, but I am committing to blogging. Maybe it will be once a week; maybe more. But, if I miss a day I won’t feel like I’m failing Advent. (Ever feel like you get grades for your liturgical seasons? Just me?)

The sanctuary at The Congregational Church in Exeter. The manger is filled with strips of paper on which the prayers for hope of the congregation have been written.

The sanctuary at The Congregational Church in Exeter. The manger is filled with strips of paper on which the prayers for hope of the congregation have been written.

Today seems as good a day as any to start in Advent because it is a memorable one for me. Thirteen years ago today I was ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament. When I knelt in the chapel of Columbia Theological Seminary and my friends and colleagues laid on hands I thought I knew how this journey would go. I was ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA) to a specific call as a hospital chaplain. I thought I would spend a few years serving as a chaplain, go to graduate school and get a PhD, and then teach in a seminary somewhere. I had hopes, and I was going to work to make those hopes realities.

And for a few years I was on that exact course. I spent hours in a pediatric emergency room responding to the families of children with traumatic injuries. I crammed for the GREs. I earned a second masters degree in systematic theology that would boost my chances of getting into a PhD program. And then, early in 2005, I dropped six PhD applications into the mail and waited.

Here’s the part where you expect me to say I didn’t get in anywhere, and I had to change my hopes. Part of me wishes I had received back rejection letters. But I didn’t. Instead six offers of acceptance came back bringing with them my choice of programs. In the end I picked the one I thought made the most sense and headed off for the ivy tower, ready to join the ranks of the academy. My hopes had been realized.

Except for one thing. I hated academia.

Sure, I’ve never met a PhD student who was thrilled with their life. Graduate work is quiet drudgery. You live in a little apartment while your friends are buying houses. You drink too much coffee and eat too much crummy food. You feel grateful for the meager stipend you are lucky enough to get for being a teaching assistant. And you read. A lot. And you write. A lot. And you try to make your professors happy, but you get a sense that this is going to be a years-long academic gauntlet.

I expected all that. I expected things to be hard, and I was fine with that. But what I didn’t expect was how empty the whole thing would make me feel. I didn’t expect that each class and paper would feel meaningless. I didn’t expect the existential angst that would come from devoting years of my life to a dissertation that would most likely sit in an university library unread. I didn’t expect that I would feel like I was on the sidelines, sitting on the bench, while all my other clergy friends got to play in a game that mattered. And I didn’t expect that I would start to think about how to get through the next 35 years doing something I hated.

It wasn’t until later that I came to realize that, no matter how much we complained, a lot of my classmates actually didn’t hate it that much. I began to realize that they had a legitimate calling to academia. And, more importantly, I did not.

And so, I had to go back to what got me there in the first place. And I realized that becoming a PhD student had little to do with my hopes, and everything to do with my fears.

The reality is that when I was ordained in 2001 the Presbyterian Church (USA) (the tradition in which I was ordained) still prohibited practicing LGBT people from being ordained. (Despite recent news reports to the contrary, this is still the case in many presbyteries.) I had been out since I was 18, a fact that did not change while I was in seminary, and I know my ordination committee was well aware of this fact. (One member pulled me aside to assure me of this.)

And yet, I was never asked whether or not I would abide by the rules as they then stood. It became our little game of chicken. Our own ecclesiastical “don’t ask, don’t tell”.

If I had it to do over today, I might do things differently. But I was 24 when I was approved for ordination, and living in the South. Not even the local United Church of Christ jurisdictions were approving LGBT people for ordination yet. And so, cheered on by professors and well-meaning clergy who assured me I could do more good “inside the system” than outside, I played the game, and I was ordained.

But I knew that there were still things I could not do. I could not pastor a church, because I could not love a congregation the way a pastor must love their church and not be honest with them. Likewise, though I was not yet partnered at the time, I knew in the future that I could not love someone as a partner and ask them in any way to hide who they were in my place of ministry. I knew plenty of clergy who did this, and I saw what it did to them and their families.

And so, even though I loved preaching, even though I loved the parish, I convinced myself that I didn’t belong there. And I instead came up with a new set of hopes; ones revolving around chaplaincy and academia, relatively “safe” places full of LGBT clergy.

But deep down inside I knew it wasn’t my calling. No wonder I was miserable. I had traded in hope for convenience and safety. And hope, real hope, rarely guarantees us either.

I left my PhD program after two and a half years. My only regret is that I didn’t leave earlier. I also left the Presbyterian Church, choosing instead to transfer my standing to the United Church of Christ. And, finally, I went out into the parish, the very place I’d been so terrified to go, but yet the one place I was sure God wanted me.

Along the way I learned something about hope. It’s not about goals or plans or hoping that everything will work out easily and with the least degree of resistance. Instead, it’s about trust. It’s about trusting God enough to believe that God is creating something new and good, and God will make a way for you to do exactly what you are called to do.

And it’s also about knowing that if your hopes aren’t big enough, if they are in any way dictated by fear and not faith, you will end up settling for being miserable.

Thirteen years later, my ministry has taken me to a place I never expected. I’m not at a seminary teaching. I’m also not living with a tacit understanding between self and denomination. And I’m not compromising my hopes anymore.

Instead, I wake up in the morning next to a wife I love dearly. One I will never ask to hide for me. I walk from our home down the street to my study in the church office. I spend my days preaching, writing, praying, talking to parishioners, working for peace and justice, and serving the church and community. But, more than that, I truly believe I spend them (to steal a phrase from the Westminster Catechism) glorifying God, and enjoying God forever. And I am truly, deeply happy.

And now I know. On that day thirteen years ago, I may have had hope, but my hopes weren’t nearly big enough. And so this first week in Advent, when hope is what we think about, that is what I know about the subject: A hope that depends on our fears, and not our faith in what God can do, is no hope at all. And I truly believe that God wants more for us than that.

The “Next Big Thing” for the Progressive Church: Putting the Horse Before the Cart

“So, now that we have LGBT equality in the progressive mainline church, what are we going to do now? What’s the next big thing?”

I get asked that question from time to time. The tide seems to have turned in many ways when it comes to the inclusion of LGBT people in the church and in our country as a whole. Doors to ordination are opening, marriages are being blessed, and the church is growing more comfortable with talking openly about sexuality and gender. And so, the question is already being asked by some: What shall we work on next? What big issue does the church need to face?

I have a few thoughts. First, I don’t think the church is anywhere near coming to the end of discussions about full inclusion for LGBT people. Yes, we are far better off than we were ten years ago, and even further from where we were before that, but we aren’t close to being completely inclusive yet. (By the way, we’re not quite done with debates over the role of women or confronting our complicity in racism, either.)

Calling of the Disciples, by He Qi

Calling of the Disciples, by He Qi

But, for purposes of discussion, let’s just say it is time for the mainline church to start looking for the “next big thing” that will unite us in purpose and divide us in debate. What will it be?

I have some ideas. Caring for the environment is on the top of the list. Responding to immigration and other humanitarian crises is too. So is interfaith understanding. And I don’t think it will be too long until the church seriously begins to discuss economic inequalities. There are a lot of possibilities.

I was thinking about that last week. I was sitting in a discussion talking about my views on why it’s important for progressive ministers to be able to talk about our faith, and about what Christ means to us. I was talking about discipleship, and why it matters for our often progressive church. And I was talking about how we’ve lost so much of our theological heritage, and language of faith. And then the question came, part-curious, part-suspect:

“But what about social justice? Does that not matter to you?”

Like I said, the person who asked didn’t know me. They didn’t know that for the past twenty years I have been openly gay. They didn’t know about the times anonymous anti-gay hate letters showed up in my church’s mailbox during my last call, or about how I’d grown up in a place where being gay could literally get you blown up, or about how Heidi and I had needed to file separate federal tax returns even after we got married.

And they didn’t know about the times my faith had compelled me to take action. They didn’t know about how we had stood in the New York State Capitol for the better part of a week as right-wing Christians protesting against equal marriage had yelled at us that we were going to hell. I’ve gone a few rounds in the social justice arena.

But the person who questioned that? They aren’t alone. So many times when I talk about why the church needs to reclaim discipleship, starting with asking ourselves “who do I believe that Jesus is to me” even my progressive Christian friends look at me sideways. Those of us who see ourselves as progressive evangelicals often find ourselves being told that we are too dogmatic, too conservative, or too focused on what doesn’t matter.

Except, I think it does matter. I think it matters more than we know.

I often worry that the progressive church has begun to define itself not by our affirmations, but by our repudiations. When compared with our more conservative brothers and sisters we are so quick to say “we aren’t like that”. We proclaim “not all Christians believe that way” with ease. But when it comes to talking about what we DO believe, we often find we lack the words.

I am sometimes worried that we in the progressive church put the cart before the horse when it comes to social justice. It’s not that I believe we are advocating for the wrong things; it’s that I believe we sometimes advocate for the wrong reasons, acting first and then wedging theological meaning in later.

I am glad that churches stand up against anti-gay measures. I wish more would. But I want us to talk about why our Christian convictions are compelling us to do so.

I give thanks for every church member that stands and protests against the death penalty, but I want us to be able to talk about what the crucified Christ taught us about the value of human life.

I respect every minister who holds a placard in front of the White House and speaks about climate change, but I wish I heard more about how God created the world and called it good, and why that’s why we can’t be silent.

When I walk into a voting booth, I take my faith with me. When I cast my votes, I do so in accordance with what the Gospel has taught me. I cannot separate the two. And I give thanks for that.

But before I got to this place, I first had to become a disciple. I had to read the Gospel for myself. I had to want to follow the Christ they talked about. And only then could I go about the work of living my faith in the public arena, both in the larger church and in the world.

And so when people ask me what the “next big thing” in the church will be, I tell them this: discipleship.

There are a lot of reasons why the church doesn’t wield the influence we once had in the public sphere, but I think the main one is this: we have forgotten our foundation. We have forgotten what it means to be disciples. And people can see through us.

Few people are interested in joining just another public advocacy group. And those who are can find far more effective ones. The progressive church is not the Democratic Party at Prayer, to borrow a phrase. And if we continue to lose our theological literacy, and our ability to talk about our faith, that’s all we will end up being. Without a bedrock of belief, the whole enterprise of church-based social justice will crumble.

But that doesn’t have to happen.

It’s time for progressive Christians to claim discipleship. It’s time to get radical, not about our politics or our policies, but about our faith. It’s time to stop throwing the baby Jesus out with the bath water, and start putting the horse before the cart. It’s time to remember what, and who, we worship. It’s time to develop the language of faith. And it’s time to see our social justice work as a natural product of our discipleship, not something that competes with it for the church’s time.

And only then, when we have gone back to the source and found what ultimately binds us together with God and with one another, can we go out and find the next, next big thing. And whenever that happens, we will be better for it. And we just may find that when it comes to changing the world for the better, the Gospel of Why We Are Different Than Other Christians can’t hold a candle to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Does “All Are Welcome” Really Mean “All Are Welcome”?: Some tips on finding a welcoming church

From time to time someone will email me asking for help in finding a church. Quite often they are looking because they experienced some sort of rejection from a former faith community. If I know of a a church in their area that is truly welcoming to all, I’ll share that information. But often I know nothing about their particular city or town, and I don’t feel comfortable recommending a church without at least some information.

29671_389906276786_3698836_nOne thing I do caution spiritual seekers, particularly those who are LGBTQ or who have had other experiences of rejection in the church, about is to be “wise as serpents, and gentle as doves” when it comes to what a new church claims. Just about any church out there will tell you “all are welcome”. But what does that really mean?

All are welcome could mean this: we will not turn you away at the door. You can come in, sit through the service, and maybe even have coffee afterwards. Depending on the church, you may be greeted warmly and genuinely, or you may get subtle (or not so subtle) signals that people don’t think you belong. My hope is that the latter will never happen to you at a church, but if it does run!

So what happens when you go to a church and people do seem to welcome you? Maybe they have even been enthusiastic about the welcome. What if they have not only shared the coffee and the cookies, but they’ve invited you back for worship next week and Bible study on Wednesday? This is when you might be tempted to say, “Great! I’ve found my church!” And maybe you have. In fact, I hope that you have.

But for those who have in some ways been marginalized by the church, this is where you might want to ask some explicit questions about what that welcome means. You want to find out now; not a year down the road.

There’s a church near me that claims that they welcome all. And I believe that people in that church genuinely would be glad to see anyone come through the doors. In fact, a few local gay folks have even asked whether they would be welcomed in church, and the answer has been “yes”. But being welcomed to attend and being welcomed into the full life of a church are two very different things.

In the case of this particular church, for instance, women are not invited to hold leadership positions. Additionally, while they might welcome LGBT people to attend and worship with them, they believe that being gay is a sin. A gay couple could be welcome to attend, but they could never get married in that church. In fact, they may be pressured to somehow “change” their sexual orientation. This will all be done under the guise of “love the sinner, hate the sin”, and with the belief of the church that they are legitimately being welcoming.

So, how do you determine that a church really is as welcoming of everyone as they claim? My first suggestion is this: ask a lot of question. Ask about the role of women in the church. Ask explicitly about whether gay and lesbian couples will be blessed and accepted as equal in the eyes of the congregation. Ask about who is allowed to hold leadership roles in the congregation. And then ask more questions. If there is something you are scared to ask, that probably means it’s even more important than you think that you go ahead and ask it.

So, here are some examples of what to ask. And here are the responses you should get before you commit yourself to any church. And remember, in this case “welcome” doesn’t just mean “you can come to worship”. Welcome means that you invited into the full life, sacraments, celebrations, and ministry of the church. Don’t settle for anything less:

Am I welcome if I’ve never been to church before? YES!

If I’m a single parent? YES!

If I don’t believe the earth was created in six 24 hour days? YES!

If I’m divorced? Or if I’m divorced and remarried? YES!

If I didn’t grow up in this denomination? YES!

If I believe there is truth in science? YES!

If English isn’t my first language? YES!

If I’m gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, or I love someone who is? YES!

If I’m in recovery from addiction? YES!

If I like to read “Harry Potter”? YES!

If my spouse/partner is of a different faith? YES!

If I’ve never been baptized? YES!

If I bring my small children? YES!

If I have to work most Sunday mornings? YES!

If I’m more comfortable wearing jeans and a t-shirt to church than a suit? YES

If I take the Bible seriously, but not literally? YES!

If I am a person with a disability? YES!

If I believe all people are created equal? YES!

If I’m a youth or young adult? YES!

If I believe women should be ordained? YES!

If I drink alcohol? YES!

If it’s been a while since I’ve been to church? YES!

If I prefer classic rock to Christian rock? YES!

If I’m a seasonal resident and not here all year? YES!

If I vote for Democrats? Or Republicans? Or any other political party? YES!

If I’ve made some big mistakes in my life? YES!

If I can’t afford to put anything in the offering plate? YES!

If I have doubts? YES!

These are just a few. What would you add? Leave a comment to let others know.

 

Questioning Advent: Day 17 – Socks, Boxer Shorts, and Joy

1456055_550081655069225_381737962_nYesterday a package arrived at our local post office from the UK. My in-laws, who live in Liverpool, had sent a box full of Christmas gifts for my wife and I. Last week a similar one arrived via Virginia from my parents. Heidi and I are lucky. Though we both came out to our parents well before legalized same-sex marriage or “Modern Family”, we never faced familial rejection for being gay. In fact, when we were married last year our families sat in the front pews of the church.

Our wedding day was filled with joy. In fact, most of our days are filled more with joy than with anything else. So, when we come to this third week of Advent when we are called to focus on “joy”, I think about all the blessings I’ve received, including a wonderful marriage, and parents on both sides who support that marriage.

But I know not everyone knows that joy. Because even now, 19 years after I told my parents I was gay, plenty of kids don’t get the kind of response that I received.

The Rev. Jeffrey Dirrim is a pastor in my tradition, the United Church of Christ. Several years ago he started a ministry to LGBTQ youth who were either homeless, or at risk of becoming so. That ministry was called Footsteps because one of the things he did was to make sure they had shoes. Today that ministry has grown into a new church start called Rebel and Divine United Church of Christ. And Pastor Dirrim and the others working in this ministry have become something to those youth that many have never had before: adults they can trust.

When the adults who are supposed to care about you the most throw you out on the street because you tell them who you really are, how are you supposed to believe in joy? When you have a bag packed and ready to go because you think that rejection is coming, how can you feel excited about Christmas? And when many of those same adults do so because of what their churches tell them, how are you supposed to believe in the love of Christ?

This year Rebel and Divine is doing a Christmas shoe and underwear drive. They work tirelessly to somehow turn a $20 donation into brand new shoes, underwear, socks, and more. Then they wrap it, write a personalized card, and deliver it on Christmas morning with an ornament to one of the youth they serve. For many of these young people, it’s the only gift they’ll get this Christmas.

No kid should be treated the way that these young people have been. But I give thanks for the people at Rebel and Divine UCC who are bringing joy to them in the form of wool socks and Converse shoes and boxer shorts this Christmas morning. And I give thanks that there is a way for those of us who have an extra $20 in our pockets to make that joy spread a little further.

I’m joyful today. I’m joyful about a life’s journey that has led to this warm home on a snowy day with the love of my life baking cookies in the kitchen. I’m joyful about a church that embraces us for who we are, and a church that blesses with joy the ministry of Pastor Dirrim and others like him. And I want others to know that kind of joy too.

Question: Can you can spare a little extra this Christmas to spread joy to others?

Prayer: God, you have given us so much to be joyful about in our lives. And yet, this world still feels so joyless sometimes. God, bless the ones who feel rejected at Christmas. Bless the ones who have been left on their own. Bless the ones who do not expect Christmas joy. And bless the ones who want to change that. May they be strengthened by your Holy Spirit to be the bearers of joy to all your children. Amen.

If you can spare something extra this season, and would like to help Rebel and Divine UCC to spread some Christmas joy to LGBTQ homeless youth in Phoenix, please take a look at this link: http://rebeldivineucc.org

Emory’s Controversial, Not-So Gay Friendly, Award

UnknownEmory University has a history of opening its doors to voices of faith strongly in favor of LGBT equality. Visiting professors like Archbishop Desmond Tutu and President Jimmy Carter have talked on campus about why they believe all should be treated as equal by the church. The university has also housed an LGBT Life office for over twenty years, and was the first in the South to offer same-sex partnership benefits. As Emory has evolved from a small Georgia college into a world-class university, they have been quick to point out their commitment to diversity and inclusion.

But now Emory is facing a bit of a problem with that image. Because this fall they have made the controversial decision to grant a Distinguished Alumni Award to the Rev. Dr. Eddie Fox. Dr. Fox is better known in United Methodist circles as the man most responsible for making sure that Methodist doctrine continues to state that homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching”. Despite a strong push to acknowledge differences of opinion on the matter several years ago, Fox led a fight to retain the language that precludes the full inclusion of LGBT people in his church.

Which means that Emory is having a bit of a identity crisis. On the one hand, they are the incredibly diverse academic institution that was just ranked number twenty in the country by US News and World Report. And on the other hand, they are the school that is saying a man who has consistently tried to stand against LGBT inclusion is one of their most distinguished alumni.

To be fair, the award is being presented by the Candler School of Theology, Emory’s graduate school of theology which is affiliated (like the university) with the United Methodist Church. But because Candler is a part of Emory, this means that Emory is also putting its seal of approval on the award. For Emory’s many LGBT alums and their allies, who come from the many schools which comprise Emory (including Candler), this is deeply troubling. (Full disclosure: I am one of these alums, having received my undergraduate degree from Emory University.)

When the Dean of Candler, Dr. Jan Love, was asked to reconsider Dr. Fox receiving this honor, she decided that the award should be awarded as planned. But she also wrote, “Candler not only adheres to all Emory University policies on inclusion but we also fully welcome lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) persons into our community as we do any other students, staff and faculty.” Which, naturally, must feel a little confusing to not only the LGBT students at Candler right now, but also to those of us who are a part of the wider Emory community. Because I’m not so sure how you fully welcome LGBT people while you simultaneously call a person who has gone to great lengths to deny them full inclusion one of your most “distinguished” graduates.

And so now Emory must decide. Are they comfortable with one of their schools honoring someone who has made life a whole lot harder for LGBT Methodists? Or are they the university that lives out the values of inclusion in which they take so much pride? And if they choose the former, are they aware of the message that will send not just to LGBT people at Candler, but also to the gay alum who gets a fundraising letter, the straight ally considering a professorship at Emory, or the out teenager weighing their undergraduate acceptance letter?

My hope is that Candler will reconsider. Not because Dr. Fox is a horrible man. He’s not. Not because he is not a good Christian. I’m sure he is. But because his actions have disenfranchised members of the community which bestows this honor. And because you can’t have it both ways: you can’t be a community which simultaneously respects diversity and bestows its highest honors on those who do not.

But if Candler does not reconsider, I hope the entire Emory community calls upon it to do what is right. Many incredible people have passed through the halls of Candler and gone on to give all of God’s children respect, dignity, and a place at the table. Candler, and Emory, should understand that those are the people who have truly already honored Emory’s values. Now it is time to honor them.

Flying Out Over Boston: Some Thoughts on Marriage Equality and the End of DOMA

We are flying out today, over Boston, the city where marriage equality got its start. We are flying out over Old South Church, the place where we were married. We are flying in to California, a place where yesterday morning our marriage wasn’t legal. And we are flying to General Synod, the biannual meeting of the United Church of Christ, the church that recognized our marriage before the federal government ever did.

Our marriage certificate from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is packed in my bag. I don’t know why. I know it’s not rational, but I just want to keep it close this week.

Yesterday morning it sat on our coffee table as my wife and I did what we have been doing on many mornings for the last two weeks. With MSNBC on the television, and SCOTUSblog pulled up on the laptop, we sat next to each other on the couch holding hands and praying.

When the decision on DOMA came in, it took our breath away and we broke down sobbing. In a good way. I have never cried for joy harder than I did yesterday morning. My father texted us: One down.

It took seven months and nine days after our wedding for the federal government to recognize our marriage. Every day was a day too long, but we are so aware that we were some of the lucky ones. Couples we know who have been married for years felt the full weight of discrimination for so much longer. And then there are the couples we have known who had at least one partner who didn’t live to see federal marriage equality. We mourned for them yesterday.

Yesterday I thought about all the same-sex couples whose marriages I have officiated as a pastor. I thought about two of our closest friends who were married in Massachusetts and who are welcoming twin boys in a few weeks. Their sons will never know a country that does not recognize their moms’ marriage as equal.

I thought about two other friends from Maine who had to be married in Massachusetts because their state did not yet recognize equal marriage at the time. And I thought about two men I married from California last month who will now return with a marriage that will be honored.

And I thought about all those couples from the South who have flown to Vermont in order to have a legal marriage that they knew would mean very little in their home states. I thought about friends I grew up with back home. They are still waiting, and we won’t forget them.

Last night, as I do many summer evenings in Vermont, I went fly fishing. There was a group of high school students swimming nearby. They were celebrating the end of DOMA and talking about what it meant.

When they got close I told them that my wife and my marriage had become federally recognized that day. They smiled and cheered and congratulated me. And they told me that for most of their friends and classmates, equality is a no-brainer. As one young man told me, in fifty years we are not going to believe that we had to debate this.

That gives me hope, because I can’t imagine having a similar discussion during my high school years. I know the world is changing.

Yesterday my wife and I began to jokingly call each other “Federally Recognized Spouse”. As in, “Federally Recognized Spouse, are you coming back downstairs?” We talked about needing to file an amended 2012 tax return. We then spent the rest of the day working on our gay agenda of doing laundry and packing for our trip. But, lightheartedness aside, when we went to sleep last night we did so a little more equal than we had woken up that morning.

Today, flying out with her at my side, I know that we are only traveling towards a more equal future, and that God’s love is there and that it has been with us all along.

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