What If I’m Wrong? (About LGBTQ+ Inclusion)

What If I’m Wrong? (About LGBTQ+ Inclusion)

“But what if you’re wrong?”

It’s the question that characterized the religious context I lived most of my life in more than maybe any other. It has its corollary in, “Are you sure you’re right?” and both questions brought into focus what was most important to that community, and by extension to God: we dare not risk being wrong. If in doubt, err on the side of caution. Countless preachers urged us not to trust them, but to “search the Scriptures” for ourselves. It wasn’t a responsibility to be passed on to anyone else.

We wanted to be faithful – to love God and obey him and stay as far from sin as possible. The constant questioning of ourselves, of our motives and our thinking, was meant to keep us safe.

More often it kept me frozen – “But what if you’re wrong?”

That question was never more present or profound to me as it was in the days and months when I began to intentionally explore the “issue” of LGBTQ+ Christians.

It was actually the very question that drove me to ask more – “But what if I’m wrong?” I’d been raised by folk for whom that subject was settled absolutely. The Bible was “clear,” and sex was created for marriage between a man and a woman. Period. And they didn’t just believe that, they argued for it loudly and publicly, vehemently attacking the “gay agenda” and “gay lifestyle.”

And while the methods often felt misguided to me, I shared the underlying conviction and straightforward sexual ethic.

But…what if we were wrong? What if, as much as we were seeking to be faithful, there was something we were missing?

I’d been in churches that welcomed those who “struggled with same-sex attraction” in non-coercive ways that were full of grace and patience and hope (and I’d received much healing in various areas of my own life in those communities), but what if there was more? What if we were still missing something?

So when I was introduced to a community of people who were working to build bridges between the LGBTQ+ community and conservative evangelical churches, I got involved. I asked lots of questions of pastors who’d had a change of heart and mind, and I listened to scores of stories from LGBTQ+ people. Some of those stories were told publicly, and some of them were entrusted to me privately. They all changed me.

I realized something was very much missing – we were not loving real people, with their real lives that don’t neatly fit our “biblical” prescriptions. It wasn’t an “issue” for me anymore, it was people. I heard too many stories of rejection by families, condemnation by church communities, and suicide attempted. (The stories of successful suicides are all second hand.)

I was introduced to a very different reality than I’d seen before: the ugly, deeply rotten fruit of traditional church teachings on sexuality. And when the fruit is persistently bad, something is terribly wrong with the tree. Something needs to be reconsidered or even thrown out altogether.

But…what if I was wrong? I’d studied the biblical texts – original languages and contexts. I knew that there were good arguments that those texts decrying same-sex sexual activities shouldn’t be read in the traditional ways. But those arguments weren’t water-tight. They raised questions, but didn’t seem conclusive.

My mind and heart had shifted, but these different possibilities in the text felt shaky to stand on. I could never be sure I was right about them.

I found a mentor in Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who was deeply committed to non-violence and yet entered into a plot to assassinate Hitler. He was captured and executed a few weeks before Nazi regime collapsed.

In his vast writings on Christian ethics, Bonhoeffer observes that there are times when what is required to keep your conscience clear and what is required to love your neighbor contradict. In that contradiction, it is better to bear guilt yourself in order to love your neighbor.

As I looked at the lives of my LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters who had found acceptance and affirmation of all of who they are in affirming churches (and more importantly, in their own hearts before God), I saw the fruit of their lives blossoming – love, joy, peace, patience, compassion, goodness, faithfulness, self-control. 

Looking at the life of Jesus, I realized that maybe we’d been missing the point. Jesus was far more concerned with loving people than with getting it “right” – or even with them getting it right. The Samaritan woman at the well who was concerned about the right way to worship God. Hungry disciples on a Sabbath walk through a wheat field. A woman condemned by the religious leaders for adultery. Outsiders casting out demons in his name.

Even if I was wrong, if I was missing something, I was no longer willing to risk their lives on the altar of being right, whatever the cost to me.

I’ve never regretted that decision. And as time has passed, I have only become more convinced that God’s heart for his LGBTQ+ children is love and complete affirmation and inclusion in the community of his followers. He has called them “clean” and we are in defiance of his Spirit when we insist otherwise.

I don’t believe I’m wrong. But if I am? LGBTQ+ folk are being invited into the embrace of the love of God, and his Spirit is quite capable of guiding them into any change he desires, regardless of their sexuality and/or orientation. If I am wrong? LGBTQ+ youth in our churches will know they can live, loved as they are by God and his people.

If I am wrong? Their lives are worth it.

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Let Your Yea Be Yea

Let Your Yea Be Yea

A couple of weeks ago, over the course of two days, pretty much everyone in the church felt betrayed by Eugene Peterson, a man whose life and work as a pastor has deeply impacted and formed so many of us. He is a prolific writer, and everything I’ve ever read from him – whether it was about discipleship, or theology, or ministry, or even his translation of the Bible, The Message – came out of a pastor’s heart. As I worked on my own Master of Divinity degree and considered my own work in pastoring (something that, while I’ve never held the title, I’ve found is nonetheless part of my life), Eugene Peterson has been a significant model for me.

On Wednesday, Peterson affirmed that if he were pastoring today he would perform a same-sex marriage if asked to by Christians of good faith, and millions of Christians who are convinced the Bible condemns same-sex relationships felt betrayed. On Thursday, he reversed that affirmation, and LGBTQI+ believers who have fought for their faith felt betrayed.

Between Wednesday and Thursday, LifeWay Christian stores threatened to stop carrying all of his books, including The Message. LifeWay is the largest Christian bookstore chain in the country and is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. “LifeWay only carries resources in our stores by authors who hold to the biblical view of marriage,” they said, by which they mean “our interpretation of the biblical view of marriage.” LifeWay has a lot of weight, and they are willing to throw it around.

And on Thursday, Peterson retracted his earlier statement, saying, “To clarify, I affirm a biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman. I affirm a biblical view of everything.”

I can only imagine what it is to be Eugene Peterson, and I don’t know why he did what he did. He’s 84 and has spent his lifetime trying to live faithfully as a pastor and a pastor of pastors. I continue to love him, and respect him in many ways.

But he doesn’t get a pass from me on this. I don’t expect him to be perfect, and I don’t expect him to have everything figured out. But I do expect him to take responsibility for his words. All of them.

Particularly their pastoral implications on the real lives of real people who are rejected and ostracized by the church every day.

When I was in grade school, I was the opposite of popular. I was bullied – overtly rejected and ostracized day in and day out. The other girls weren’t interested in playing with me, didn’t even want to be seen with me. But my parents were friends with some of their parents, and most of us went to church together. When our families were visiting, or we were alone for some reason, some of them would play with me. We would have a good time together. Sometimes they even seemed to actually like me – for a little while. Then we would be back at school and it was like those times never happened.

There was one girl in particular – she was one of the most popular. We both had to walk to where we would wait for our parents every day after school. We weren’t allowed to walk alone, and she agreed to let me walk with her, but told me I had to walk half a block behind or in front of her so she wouldn’t be seen with me. Once we arrived, we’d play and have fun together while we waited, but not if any other friends were around.

After college, I found myself at the same church with her, and we became friends. I asked her about it once. She didn’t even remember any of the things that were so painful to me. “All I remember,” she said, “is how afraid I was they would reject me.”

It gave me a certain sympathy for her – she’d been a child acting out of her own insecurities. She was too afraid of what others would think to be a friend to me, and she let those who would reject her control how she treated me, the one who was rejected every day.

Eugene Peterson is no child. Lives are at stake, and those lives aren’t those of straight conservatives with traditional views on gender and sexuality. LGBTQI+ kids in non-affirming communities have exponentially higher suicide rates than those in affirming communities. And every voice makes a difference.

We all have journeys. Change is a process, and it’s sometimes appropriate to honestly say, “I don’t know – I haven’t figured that out yet.” It’s one thing to be in process. It’s another to say yes or no.

Either Wednesday was true, or Thursday was. Either way, Eugene Peterson owes an apology to the LGBTQI+ community.

The Life of the World to Come

The Life of the World to Come

We said it in church this morning – that last line of the Nicene Creed. The one that reads, “We look for…the life of the world to come.”

For years that meant the life after death to me, and it held deep personal significance. In “the life of the world to come,” I’d see my daddy again. But it was more than that.

When my grandmother was in the last few years of her life, missing the friends and family who were gone, never quite happy, always wanting more of her only grandchild and unable to enjoy me for who I was, I learned to love her beyond what chafed and hurt by believing that in the life to come, she would finally be everything she was meant to be, full of joy and understanding. When I met her then our relationship would be everything it could be, everything it was meant to be.

That same hope got me through several break ups and many bouts of unrequited love. And as I began to realize that so many of the mentors and teachers who have given me the most cannot understand or approve of where their gifts have taken me, I have hoped that in that “life to come,” they will see their way clear to be proud of who I am.

But alongside the comfort, there was also a kind of stuckness. Hope was out there, not here. The great reconciliation, true healing, and abundant life were all beyond the scope of this world.

And sometimes they are.

That’s the first line of the Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” It’s important, that bit. The whole prayer is named for it, after all.

But that’s pretty much where it stopped for me. God was sovereign, in control of all things and working them all together for good. What could I possibly do in light of that other than show my trust in him by waiting as faithfully as I knew how?

But there’s more to the prayer than serenity. There’s courage. And wisdom. And when it comes to it, serenity isn’t worth much without her sisters.

In the past year, I’ve also learned to hear those words in the Creed another way.

The “life of the world to come” starts tomorrow. And tomorrow is what we are making it today.

This life to come is the second part of the prayer – “the courage to change the things I can.” To change the things we can.

“We look for the life of the world to come.”

If the “arc of the universe bends towards justice,” it does so through us. Because we bend it that way. Because the life of the world to come is not yesterday, and tomorrow does not need to use the road maps of the past.

We look for the life of the world to come because we know there is more than this. More than death, yes. But also more than this, more than today. More than what we find ourselves with. There can be more, we can do more. We can make changes. We can take a step in the direction of justice, in the direction of Love.

And it’s never wasted. That’s what the concept of karma is really about. It’s not just that what you put out there will come back to you. It’s that what you put out there contributes to something greater than you. We are shaping the “arc of the universe” every day. We are making “the life of the world to come” – a life and world we will share.

So I have begun to look for life in this life. I look for life in each step, in each choice I make: what will bring life in the world to come? What will bring life to the world tomorrow?

And there’s always something. Something that in the midst of all the things I can’t change, that I can. It is wisdom that helps me do what I can rather than camp out at the door of all I can’t.

I lived there too long. It’s time to begin moving into the life of the world to come. Today.

Walking the Wild Goose

Walking the Wild Goose

When I think back on my years attending the Wild Goose Festival, I think of walking.

The first year I attended, I came to speak with a friend. I was still a somewhat conservative but curious evangelical, recovering from my hardcore fundamentalist roots. My friend and I participated in a pre-festival retreat for the speakers, and I remember sitting and listening to Frank Schaeffer, a fellow recovering fundamentalist, speak (or more accurately, rant) and wondering what I’d gotten myself into. Frank felt angry to me, and wherever I was going, I didn’t want it to be an angry place. I was troubled.

Later that evening, long past dark, the retreat ended with a prayer walk through Shakori Hills (where the festival spent its first two years). Gareth Higgins handed me a flashlight, and we all began to slowly venture into the night, a flashlight here and there to help us along. It was hard to see much of anything, but as we walked, silent except the scuff of shoes on the dirt path, my eyes began to adjust. I realized that Frank and Genie Schaeffer were walking beside me, following the light of my flashlight.

And I knew in that moment that we were walking the same path in a much larger sense. My journey would not look quite like theirs, nor theirs like mine. But we had found ourselves here, walking alongside one another and doing our best to find our way forward.

Our paths crossed several times that weekend, and I began to know the whirlwind that is Frank and the calm that is Genie. I heard Frank talk about struggling with the anger he’d brought with him from his fundamentalism, of not wanting his granddaughter to know him as that “angry man.” I sat with Genie in the heat of an afternoon as we talked of transitions and changes and grace.

As year followed year, I’ve walked with many different people at the Goose, renewing friendships and adding them. As I moved farther from traditional evangelicalism, I found new “elders” for my life when the old ones could no longer understand the path ahead of me. I can’t count the times I’ve greeted someone and heard the reply, “Where are you headed? Can you walk with me?” And wherever I was headed, my answer is almost always yes.

I walked alongside Vince Harding one hot afternoon, and was left with an embrace and blessing I will always remember. I’ve walked many times now with my friend Nathan, a young man who I saw come out publicly for the first time during the Q & A of a Goose session, and who the next year told me about his new boyfriend and plans to start seminary. I’ve walked the Goose with Paula Stone Williams, a fellow recovering fundamentalist and one of the bravest people I know. I’ve walked with a newly-out and newly-single father and helped wrangle his two young children.

These days, it’s the first thing I do once I’ve settled in – begin walking the paths looking for friends. Looking to learn what the Goose will have to teach me this year. As the years have gone by, I attend fewer and fewer sessions, my time filled more and more with conversations along the way.

I’ve walked with heroes and strangers. I’ve hugged friends as we’ve passed, and had the joy of introducing and connecting people. This year, I look forward to walking with friends I’ve yet to meet in person, as well as an old friend of my parents who I haven’t seen in around thirty years. I’m eager to see friends from around the country whose faces are dear to me and too rarely seen.

The Wild Goose is far more than a destination; it’s a journey each one of us walks in our own way. And for a few days in July, we have the gift of walking together.

 

I’m thrilled to be speaking at this year’s Goose July 13-16! Join me and save 25% off weekend pass with the code BEMYGUEST.

Proud.

Proud.

The first weekend in June my friend Lauren was in town and we connected for dinner. It was the second time this spring we’ve had the chance to connect, and I’ve been so grateful for these opportunities. We were friends and fellow students in seminary over ten years ago, and we hadn’t seen each other since.

A lot has happened in those ten years. My own faith has come alive in new ways as I have sought to follow Jesus outside the lines and delve deeper into the Love that is the Life of all things.

And Lauren…when we were in school together, Lauren was a “he.” She transitioned a few years ago and I am so glad I have the opportunity to know the beautiful woman she is today.

While we were good friends in seminary, I had no idea Lauren was trans. What I did know was that my friend didn’t fit the masculine ideals our conservative evangelical school had for ministers. (Of course, I hardly fit those ideals either, but since they hadn’t quite figured out the same kind of ideals for women in ministry, I never encountered the same kind of pressure to conform.)

The school nearly refused to grant Lauren’s degree, though in the end, Lauren managed.

As she put it to me, she “zipped up her man-suit every morning,” but it was killing her.

There’s no way I can know what that must feel like. I can barely imagine.

What I do know is that there is life and peace in her now that wasn’t there before. She is at home in her own skin in a way she never was in seminary, and it is beautiful to see.

In that sense, Lauren’s story is much like that of other trans folk I know. They fight to live with honesty in the world with courage that takes my breath away. They have been willing to lose the whole world to gain their own soul. I am beyond grateful for all I have learned from them.

That is true to some degree of every LGBTQ+ person I know, and I am proud of them. Proud to know them, and proud to stand beside them.

June is Pride month, and in a couple of weeks I will be at Chicago’s Pride parade, standing for Love between the parade and the “Christian” protesters who proclaim something else entirely. Cheering on the friends and strangers marching, encouraging them to “Make Love Louder” than the hate.

Because there’s more than one kind of pride. There’s the pride of vanity and privilege and self-aggrandizement. And then there’s the pride that stands tall in the face of all that would demean and dehumanize. The pride that refuses to bow to shame and fear. The pride that won’t hide inside that zipped up suit that isn’t who they are. The pride of those who know Who loves them.

That pride is hard-won, and I am so proud of those who have won it.

Happy Pride, y’all!

Minding My Mind

Minding My Mind

A few months ago I started trying a daily practice of meditation – what’s referred to as “mindfulness,” actually. The idea is to quiet the mind and focus the attention on breathing, continually drawing stray thoughts back in. I’ve been using an app with a seven day series for beginners, just ten minutes a day.

And I’m terrible at it.

My brain is going in so many directions at once. And while sometimes it’s worry about what might happen or rehashing what has already happened, most of the time it’s just a running commentary. Most evenings it’s felt like all I’m doing the whole time is running after stray thoughts. I get one back only to realize another one is already well down another path. It’s like wrangling a pack of pre-schoolers.

And I’m learning that’s okay – learning not to get anxious about getting it “right.” Learning not to get frustrated by my hyperactive thoughts. Learning to struggle to learn something. Learning to give it time.

I have noticed something, though. The app encourages me to “pay attention” to my breath. It coaches me to draw those straying thoughts back to “pay attention.” And I’m beginning to think that, for me, trying to “pay attention” is part of the problem.

When I pay attention to something, I mentally pull back to observe. To pay attention to an experience is to, in some sense, take myself out of it so I can turn around and watch it. 

But I’ve learned something different in the past few years – I’ve learned a little of what it means to be present. For me, at least, that’s entirely different.

When I’m able to be fully present, I don’t need to pay attention – I’m there. I’m not thinking, I’m knowing. I’m not using my mind, I am. My whole self, including my mind, flowing together and simply being. Feeling, responding, improvising, experiencing, living.

I could never pay attention to a kiss and really be present to the kiss, just enjoying the kiss, at the same time. 

Mindfulness seems to work in a bit of the same way. If I can stop paying attention to my breath and just be present with it, my mind stops racing off in eight directions. It’s not easy to shush the commentary (“see, now this is working! Interesting that paying attention is so different…hey, maybe there’s a blog post in that!”).

But it’s a start. Somewhere to try learning more about myself and how I engage life and encounter the world.

If I can just stop paying attention long enough.

A Doubter’s Creed

A Doubter’s Creed

“We believe in God…”

The Creed is an ancient statement of belief that many Christians around the world recite each week. There are several creeds, and the Nicene version is commonly used. Most every line is the result of an argument – as much an assertion about what beliefs “we” don’t accept as of what “we” do affirm.

That history troubles me. I know too well what drawing those lines in the sand between “us” and the other does, what an insistence about what we know to be true of great mystery can become.

It comforts me that the Creed’s actual language is “I believe” rather than “I know” (though it seems it has been treated much more as a statement of the latter).

But what about when I am not even sure what I believe? Then it comforts me to remember that the Latin credo may be better translated “I trust,” than with our modern, enlightenment understanding of “believe.”

But credo has deeper roots than that. Its original meaning is “to place one’s heart.”

Where does my heart find its place, its rest?

Not always in the carefully constructed words of the Creed, words that sometimes revel in mystery and sometimes seem to wall it in.

There is an early tradition in the Eastern church called apophatic theology that says the only way to think about God, the Divine Good, is by asserting what God is not. Everything that we say God is falls short – incomplete at best and too often misleading altogether.

The best of the apophatic tradition leads not just to an intellectual exercise or sort of mental qualifier footnoting everything we assert about who God is. At its best, it opens us up to approaching God beyond our categories. It expands our ability to trust God beyond our understanding.

If Ultimate Reality is Love, definitions don’t come easily.

Love is messy and confusing and full of pain as well as joy. Too often I have experienced love as qualified and redefined past any recognizability or, in truth, any actual loving.

That is not love. Love is not an intellectual exercise. Love is not rejection, not alienation, not abandonment. It is not self-serving and doesn’t keep score. Love isn’t arrogant or presumptuous. Love doesn’t find satisfaction in being proven right. Love doesn’t look back, doesn’t hold back. Love doesn’t give up on people.

The old Anglo-Saxon word “believe” comes from the same root (lief) as the German belieben, which means “belove.”

When I’m not sure how to say the Creed, not sure what I think or “believe” about these things, it helps to know what and who I love. It helps to know I place my heart, my trust in Love.

And it helps to know that when he was asked what was most important, Jesus didn’t say anything about what we were supposed to believe. He said the most important thing was to love.

And when I don’t know what I believe, I do still know I love.