When I was a student at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Missouri, I took a class called White Soul. It was January of 1992, I’d been a student at SPST for a year by then, and already my life had been changed in many ways by the professors who taught me and the challenging classes I took.
White Soul was a class taught by Dr. Tex Sample, professor of Church and Society, and mysteriously a son of Brookhaven, Mississippi, where my mother grew up. The class was a look at country music and how it serves as the white man’s blues. Garth Brooks was at his peak at that point and was leading the way in converting many young people to country music. I learned quickly that Garth’s “Friends in Low Places” was a favorite on campus, and somewhat of a tongue-in-cheek model of the Gospel. Jesus was notorious for having friends in “low places,” after all.
The class was available to those outside campus as well. One particular day, Tex had played a song by Dolly Parton called “Family.” The first part of the song says:
For they know not what they do
When it’s family, you accept them
‘Cause you have no choice but to
When it’s family, they’re a mirror
Of the worst and best in you
And they always put you to the test
And you always try to do your best
And just pray for God to do the rest
When it’s family
Some are addicts, drunks and strays
But not a one is turned away
When it’s family
Some are lucky, others ain’t
Some are fighters, others faint
Winners, losers, sinners, saints
It’s all family…”
I think someone made a comment about ideally, a symbol for the Kingdom of God, or the Communion of Saints, could fit this image. Of course, it, like real families, fall short. This discussion sparked a pastor among us to stand up and tell us a true story about one of his young parishioners.
This young man, we’ll call him Dave, went home from college and decided it was time to tell his parents the truth about himself, which was the result of a long journey of struggling and discernment. He had them sit down in the living room, telling them that he had something very important to tell them.
He was gay.
At first, his parents didn’t speak. They just stared at him. Then, very slowly, as Dave stood there very nervously, his father got up and took the elbow of his wife. He whispered to her to go into the kitchen, which she did obediently. Without speaking, Dave’s father went to the living room closet and reached high onto the shelf of the closet and brought down what looked like a shoe box. He gently laid the shoe box on the coffee table. Slowly and wordlessly, he opened the box and lifted out something wrapped in a thick cloth. He laid the cloth on the table and unwrapped it, as if it were delicate.
It was a handgun.
Dave’s father stood back up, looked down at the gun, and looked up at his son. His jaw set, he spoke.
“Son,” he said, putting his hands on his waist, “Your mother and I are going to go out for a while.” He looked down at the gun, and back at Dave. “You know what to do.”
There was a collective gasp in the classroom when the pastor told that story, and for a moment Tex was quiet.
I never forgot that story and how it made me feel. I’ve told it in several different churches; usually when I preached on the Prodigal Son and got to the point in the story when he decided to go home and see if his father would take him back. The father in the story I told was a stark contrast to the father in the Prodigal story who ordered a feast in celebration of his son’s return.
I have no idea how that son in the pastor’s story felt, and what a struggle he must have faced in having to accept that his own father would reject him so viciously. I’m a white, heterosexual woman. I’ve known my own share of rejection. I have my own stories of feeling rejected by the Church that shaped me and helped make me who I am. So much so that I finally had to walk away from what was once my spiritual home, in order to find healing and strength. Many dear friends couldn’t understand how I could leave. That’s ok. I lived my story. It is, in fact, my story. No one else’s.
But despite my claim to deep spiritual and emotional pain at the hands of the institutional church, it doesn’t come close to that boy’s pain. Or the pain of many, many LGBTQ people who claim the United Methodist Church as their spiritual home, despite everything.
I tried not to pay attention to what was happening at General Conference’s special session last week. The UMC is not my home anymore, and sometimes I’m sad about that. I have many family and friends who are, in fact, still very much a part of the UMC. I care about them and what happens. I confess I do not understand how LGBTQ persons have persevered so long, banging on the denominational door that remains stubbornly shut. I’m not that strong. I was born into, taught, inspired, shaped by, educated by, and employed by the UMC. It was my home for 44 years. I get not wanting to give up on your home. Leaving was a very personal and painful decision for me.
I admire and wonder all these people I see who will not give up on getting those doors opened. Someone said this week on Facebook, that we need to keep perspective. That the hungry were fed this week through the food pantry, people were comforted by the ministry of the local UMC, youth experienced learning about God. And, it was said, LGBTQ people aren’t kept from being parishioners, members of leadership committees or worship leaders. The restrictions are against “only” marriage and ordination.
But I know a few families from my former parish, whose children are gay, lesbian and/or transgender. I don’t think it would a comfort to them or their children to know that they can worship or join committees in the church, but they aren’t good enough to have their relationships of love blessed or to be ordained to lead.
When I was in college, one of my professors, who became a dear friend, once said to me that when he’s confused about what God wants, when it seems that the Bible contradicts itself on certain things, he looks to Jesus. He reads and studies the four Gospels. He studies what Jesus said and did, who he was and is. Because after all, Jesus is the one who, as Christians we believe, is the incarnation of God. The Word Made Flesh.
I’ve always used that approach. Jesus’ main teaching, the core of his life and death, is Love. He lived for Love, he died for Love. Who killed him, after all? The Church authorities. The people who lived by the letter of the law. And I believe the Resurrection is the message that nothing, not life or death or principalities or anything on earth or in heaven can separate us from the love of God. Not even the Church.
The thing that really ticked off Jesus, was hypocrisy. That set off his temper in a big way. He touched, he healed, he lifted up, he invited. People. He didn’t ask them who they loved, but he commanded that they love. Above all else. The law of God is summed up in the commandment to love your neighbor, love God and love yourself.
Homosexuality or any other sexual identity that is freaking Christian people out, doesn’t even make God’s Top Ten Commandments. Jesus never ever mentioned it. He came to invite us all to the party called the Kingdom of God. To Life, Wholeness, Joy, True Life.
I know the issue is fear. We’re terrified of what we don’t understand. I don’t claim to understand LGBTQ people. How can I? I don’t live in their skin. They don’t understand me either. We love differently, but we all love. Everybody wants to be loved. Everybody.
Sex is a thing we don’t talk about. We sure didn’t talk about in my house growing up! We didn’t talk about it in church. Now it’s being thrown in our faces– or at least I think many people feel that way. You’re going to make me think about what those people do?
I know for a fact that I had people in my congregations that were adulterers (which, by the way is on God’s Top Ten list of Don’ts). No one talked about it. They were leaders in the church. Sometimes, in fact, they were some of the most judgmental people. I’m not saying we should have kicked them out, but people turn a blind eye to adultery, child abuse, sexual abuse and domestic abuse in the church much too often. And then we call people who just want to be in a committed, loving, monogamous relationship and to have that blessed in the Church— sinners. Repugnant. Perverts.
I don’t get it. I know sex is a powerful thing, and for many people, a very frightening thing. But these days, we’re letting our fears blow up into rage and hatred and assure ourselves that God hates all the same people we do. Anne Lamott, a Christian writer, says it’s a sure sign that we’ve made God in our own image, when we believe that God hates all the same people we do.
I don’t understand the perseverance, the courage, and the relentless faith that keeps LGBTQ people wanting to take their place at the Table of Christ in the UMC when they keep getting battered and threatened and insulted by the leaders of the institution and the the hard, sharp cover of The Book of Discipline. They are stronger than I am, and I wish them well. I pray that they will persevere in bringing justice and inclusivity to the United Methodist Church someday. They have fought this battle for over 40 years.
I have many heterosexual friends, both laity and pastors in the UMC who are fighting that battle with them, and I pray for all of them. I thank God for them. Some may say that I don’t have a right to say anything about it, because I left. Maybe that’s true, maybe it’s not. But in a way, the United Methodist Church is still my family, even though we don’t speak much. I wouldn’t be who I am without it.
I believe that God will bring about God’s justice, mercy and love in this world and in the next, but apparently, it’ll be a sometimes bloody fight against the ever-powerful forces of hate and evil that claim to work in God’s name. I believe in the Communion of Saints and the Kin-dom of God (which ultimately includes all God’s people).
And I believe in love. In all it’s myriad of expressions. For me, it all stems from the source of all our lives… in whom we live, love and have our being.