“So you’re in seminary? That’s great. I love being a pastor,” said the man in the waiting room of the hospital. “But I’m really worried about the state of the church. It’s so full of people now who just take the Bible and make it mean whatever they want it to mean.”
“Like how?” I asked.
“You know,” he said. “Like homosexuality. It says right there in the Bible that it’s wrong, but there are these denominations now that allow actively sinning, unrepentant homosexuals in the church, even let them be priests and pastors!”
With an effort, I kept my hackles from rising. “I hear what you’re saying, but at the same time, if I took everything I read in the Bible literally, I couldn’t be in seminary training to become a pastor, because I’m a woman.”
“I don’t see it that way,” the man said. “I mean, I don’t know how I’d even do ministry without the women of my church, you know, teaching Sunday school and things like that.”
Oh well. So much for the hackles.
He continued: “God made men and women differently, but He meant them to serve the same church.”
“Well,” I offered, “Maybe God made people straight and gay, and still meant them to serve the same church.”
He didn’t even pause for a moment, lest actually listening to what I said might in itself constitute a terrible sin. “No.” Simple, flat, no room for dissent.
This conversation happened at a particular moment in time last Monday, but I feel like I’ve had it a hundred times. It has happened more frequently since I entered seminary, and it has taken on more urgency as the political climate has finally begun to acknowledge the cultural sea-change of the [agonizingly] slow increase in the acceptance of homosexuality. This conversation has shaped me and changed me as I’ve wrestled with it. It’s become the go-to question when I need a standard against which to measure my evolving descriptions of compassion, justice, and the kingdom of God: “How does what I believe about ____ speak to my LGBT neighbor?”
Yet in the midst of being shaped and changed, I’ve failed to hold myself accountable for shaping and changing the conversation. Often, I’ve remain silent when I could have spoken. I’ve refrained from drawing lines and making statements for fear of pissing someone off. But the people I didn’t want to piss off weren’t members of the LGBT community. They were members of what I perceive to be the majority in my context: those who come down on the side of anti-gay rhetoric and policies. People like the man I had that conversation with last Monday.
And you know what? Sometimes discretion is the better part of valor. Sometimes you have to pick your battles. Sometimes it’s important to tell the truth, but not the whole truth.
This isn’t one of those times. When it comes to the issue of civil rights, more is at stake than my sense of comfort and equanimity. Not only am I an openly professing Christian, I am in training to be a leader in my church. I am also a person with friends and loved ones outside the church, looking in. I am their one of their windows. What I say, and even more, what I refrain from saying, has implications for how my neighbor perceives the church. It has implications for whether my congregation will ever include members of the LGBT community. It has implications for whether their voices will be heard, not just in my community, but in the Church’s.
To be honest, I started out from the same place as that man I had that conversation with a week ago Monday. Ever since I was old enough to form an accurate concept of what homosexuality was, I’ve been asking myself, my faith, my church, my Bible, my God, what the right thing to believe about it is. I can sympathize with that man I talked to, because when you narrow what the Bible says down to a couple of proof-texts and you leave out any questions of context or interpretation, then “What does the Bible tell me to believe?” starts to look a lot simpler. But it doesn’t look any better. In fact, as we threaten or lose the companionship of our LGBT brothers and sisters, it starts to look an awful lot worse.
Today I affirm the Bible as the source and norm of my faith and life. I also affirm that the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered members of my community are a valuable part of my Christian community, created in the image of God and precious to the communion of saints and sinners just as they are.
But I did not come here by myself. I was led here by Spirit, scripture, study, discernment, experience, church, and in no small measure, by the members of the LGBT community who had the strength to say, “Don’t look through me. Look at me.”
I was reminded of this recently when a friend of mine shared the thoughts of playwright Doug Wright on gay rights and this election via Facebook:
I wish my moderate Republican friends would simply be honest. They all say they’re voting for Romney because of his economic policies (tenuous and ill-formed as they are), and that they disagree with him on gay rights. Fine. Then look me in the eye, speak with a level clear voice, and say,” My taxes and take-home pay mean more than your fundamental civil rights, the sanctity of your marriage, your right to visit an ailing spouse in the hospital, your dignity as a citizen of this country, your healthcare, your right to inherit, the mental welfare and emotional well-being of your youth, and your very personhood.” It’s like voting for George Wallace during the Civil Rights movements, and apologizing for his racism. You’re still complicit. You’re still perpetuating anti-gay legislation and cultural homophobia. You don’t get to walk away clean, because you say you “disagree” with your candidate on these issues.
Political content aside, this comment struck uncomfortably close to home when I considered how I talk and think about gay rights and the church. What I might say, while trying to look a gay friend in the eye (and probably not succeeding), might sound like this:
My comfort zone and reputation in my seminary and potential synod and congregation mean more to me than standing by you and saying what I actually believe. The choice to remain silent so as to keep myself open as a sounding board for the opposing and sometimes hateful views of more conservative members of my church is more important to me than speaking out and risking their alienation. Your personhood does not matter as much as their opinion of me. Perpetuating a culture of homophobia by means of my silence is more acceptable to me than rocking the boat of a conservative congregation.
Today is Reformation Day: in 1517, Martin Luther started protesting the system of indulgences formalized by the Catholic Church by means of the 95 Theses. In our prayer service today in chapel commemorating this stand he took, we asked God to reform the church where it is corrupt. My liturgy professor likes to remind us that the worrying thing about making petitions to God is that God likes to make us the answer. So I will post this entry, which I have been wrestling with for over a week, in that spirit.
I could be wrong in what I believe about homosexuality; let me put that out there. That’s always a risk one takes when one commits to a side of an issue. I had my doubts about this post, about putting out in a public way this line that potential congregants, potential peers, even potential candidacy panels or bishops may read and refuse to cross. I hate that the line is there: I don’t like lines, I don’t like being unpopular, I don’t like saying the hard thing.
But I believe that my call is not to please people, but to pastor them. My call is not to preach the easy word, but the hard, countercultural one of law and gospel. My call is not even to stand in solidarity with my church, but to lead it in the call to reform, and to serve the oppressed.
For the sake of this call, and for the sake of my moral integrity, and for the sake of my LGBT brothers and sisters, I ask their forgiveness where, by intent, complicity, or silence, I participated in discrimination against them. For those who declare their identity and orientation to the world, I thank them for asking that people look at them, not through them, even at the cost of pain, humiliation, loss of dignity, even loss of life. For those who do not yet feel that they can reveal themselves, I pray that the day is coming when you can look in the mirror and truly see yourselves as created in the image of God…and I pray, for the world’s sake, that it joins you.
Happy Reformation Day.