(A brief introduction: If you have received this link from a friend or family member who is part of the gay or transgender community,please do invest the few minutes to read this, and then consider if perhaps you are currently in the place I was a few years ago. I had no gay friends, I knew nothing about gay or transgender Christians and believed my interactions with them to be within the dictates of Scripture. And then…)
I had a conversation last week with a friend, Ross Murray, the Deputy Director of Lutherans Concerned. We talked about the work he does for the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Lutherans into the Evangelical Lutheran Church America and its congregations. Over a several day period, Lutherans Concerned staff conducted conversations and email exchanges with Lutheran leaders and congregations in hopes of encouraging a genuine invitation for full acceptance and inclusion of all people into the church body. Their process iscalled “graceful engagement.” (How lovely and honorable a term; I think I may even be a bit envious.)
I am a 25-year veteran of the Evangelical Church. We haven’t learned tolerance for, and inclusion of, the gay community quite as well as some of the mainline denominations. We are the ones that go to church every Sunday, worship for 40 minutes, sit through sermons of more than an hour in length and never leave after communion is over. If that isn’t enough, we go to Bible studies regularly during the week as well. We are fat on information, but skinny on justice towards the gay and transgender community.
The deeper I grow in my faith, the more the complexities of all the personal Bible input over the years can be reduced to very simple statements. If I cannot understand and implement these very basic points, I am of little use in the world and to the God I live to serve. I may know verses ad infinitum and have stacks upon stacks of Bible study books on my shelf, but I need to be concerned if I am not accurately reflecting Jesus Christ and drawing people to Him.
The whole of my faith can be summarized in three words: mercy, compassion and love. Erase these three words from my intentions, actions or reactions, and, I look more like me than Jesus. It has taken me many decades to finally get this. My how-I-show-up-in-the-world theology can be embodied in a few verses:
Micah 6:8: “Love justice, do mercy and walk humbly with God.”
Isaiah 58:6-12 paraphrased: “What God wants is for us to loosen the chains of injustice, set the oppressed free, share our food with the hungry, provide shelter to the poor, clothe the naked, spend ourselves on behalf of the hungry and oppressed and then He will supply our needs, make our light shine in the darkness, guide us, satisfy us and strengthen us.”
Matthew 5-7: The Beatitudes of the Red-Letter Jesus. All of them.
As I have grown in my relationship with Jesus, it has become less about me and more about how I imitate Him. Am I guilty of many of the self-centered behaviors I see scarring my world, defaming my Jesus and wounding the oppressed even further? Absolutely. Years ago, my friendships were limited to only those inside the church; my actions were very vertical between me and God, and my Bible knowledge gave me the “super-ability” to evaluate not only how well I was doing with God (oh, at least a B+), but also how well others were doing, too. The ”today-me” shakes my head at “yesterday-me.” For the time, it was a comfortable Christianity that worked well for me. But when you are a Christian, it is so not about you. Maybe what I have experienced and learned over the past few years can benefit someone reading this. Maybe what I have to share will look familiar enough to you to cause you to make a closer inspection of yourself.
Until 2001, I did not even have any gay people in my circle of friends. None. Yet, armed with my Bible and what I witnessed and heard, I comprehended enough to know that “those gay people” made a choice to be gay, that being gay and a Christian was not possible and all of them were entrenched in a “lifestyle” that excluded the moral values I treasured. There are 6.9 billion people on the planet; we each have about 70,000 thoughts each day, and live on average 67.2 years. And, I had how many gay friends? None. Yet, I created a story in my own imaginings of who they were, how they acted, what they wanted and how they were to be treated. My gay-view was for the most part based on seven verses in the Bible, none of which I had ever read in context. I had not studied one word in the original Hebrew or Greek that was translated as “homosexual,” nor had I investigated the circumstances in which any of these verses were written. And still, I had made my decision concerning about 5% of the world’s population (that is over 300 million people). Are you seeing yourself in this at all?
To bolster my own uniqueness on this crowded orb, I could proudly tell you that I “am fearfully and wonderfully made,” but did I allow the queer community the same honor? No. Without the investment of time, relationship or dialogue, I designated myself as the Story Teller, Judge and Assessor of Others. And I did not even see that I was doing it! I could have given you 50 verses as to why I was right and justified, and I would not have listened to the contrary. If anyone had spoken to me about my attitudes towards the gay community at that time, I would have felt justified in my theology. I was a “good” person, but remained snugly entrenched in my comfort zone.
I felt compelled to tell “the truth in love” and did so quite a few times. (I’m cringing as I type this.) Not the “truth-will-set-you-free” kind of truth, but the “let-me-lock-you-up” kind of truth. Some of you that have spent time with me in the last few years could never imagine I was ever like this. Of course, I would have been polite to you and you probably would have liked my company, but I would not have seen you as an equal in the eyes of God. My Christianity was a list of do’s and don’t’s for me and for you.
So, why the shift? Concurrent processes were happening in my life from 2001 to 2006. My marriage of 20 years was ending and I was hurting enough to glue myself onto God. I was spending more time hiking, a sacred place for me to think and pray. And, it was on those trails that I ran into Netto. My wonderful buddy Netto. A Native American, the best female athlete I have in my friend circle, an agnostic and a lesbian. If it were any other time in my life, I would not have been ready for a friendship with her.
My know-it-all attitude was already being confronted by having my Christian marriage ending over fidelity+ issues and I was open to considering that maybe I did not have all the answers, maybe I did not understand as much as I thought. I was in that scary place of failure and being unsure. I was ripe for change.
To stretch in any area, to grow, to shed the comfort of assurance is unsettling and intimidating. My comfort zone was broken just enough to allow challenge to some of my core beliefs about several things. So, for me, it was crisis that opened me more to God’s Spirit. My own voice and opinions were becoming less loud in me; I was hurt and willing to listen. This was a pivotal point in my own faith walk. In several areas of my life, I moved out of the known and into the unfamiliar, which was scary. Letting a lesbian into my formerly well-ordered, well-understood, well-indoctrinated world confronted the more horizontal part of my Christianity—the way I treated people. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is very easy to do when the tribe you travel in looks and acts just like you. What about when your neighbor is, you are told, amongst the most dangerous threats to family and faith? Or not of your faith, your political party, your heritage, your sexual orientation? What if your neighbor is homeless or poor or uneducated? Or disabled or a minority? Or obese or young or old? How are you doing with those “others” ? I really hope my sincerity about this journey resonates with some of you who are reading this. I have been there. It is far easier to ignore all those “others,” but could you ever really justify that Jesus would have done that? He hung out with the ones ignored by others: the extortionists, the prostitutes and the smelly laborers. I think He might be with the ones most of us would steer clear of: ethnic minorities, transgender teens, illegal immigrants, sex workers and the homeless. Would you follow Him there? Or just wait for Him at the 10 o’clock service? The stretch is near impossible for most of us to imagine and I really do empathize.
I stepped outside the known and over the next five years, Netto and I hiked about 3000 miles together. Really. Hiking together is just code in my life for conversation on trails. Over this time I was able to really get to know Netto and dozens of her friends. Balancing the seven verses about same-sex behavior in the Bible in tension with the love mandate of Jesus pushed me into that “I don’t know” space. Yuck. I was growing in my own relationship with God; it was less about rules and more about grace and mercy. Grace and mercy through me from Him. It flowed outward to those around me, and I had to understand it before I could extend it. I often say this: you cannot export what you do not have. I can now see that the way believers treat the needy, the less powerful and those on the edge says more about their own relationship with God than just about any other indicator. When I see grace come out of a person, that is what is in their reservoir. When I see anger and intolerance, then it is obvious that unresolved pain is in their reservoir. I was personally going through massive, miraculous, marvelous healing, so grace was filling the newly available places in me. Grace was filling my reservoirs and it was coming out.
That is the long and short of how I got to this place. I have been where the bulk of the Christian church is today in its views of the gay and transgender communities. For the last five years, I have been solidly working within the gay and transgender Christian community. The division is obvious, the breach is wide and the opportunity for dialogue is now.
I call the work I do “repairing the breach” from Isaiah 58 :12; I have an advantage, as I stand in this broken down, cavernous space between the church and the GLBT Christian community. I’ve been on one side, and I know the other. The traditional church is fearful that the family, traditional marriage and their interpretation of the Bible is undermined by GLBT Christians demanding their place at God’s table. It may even feel like a betrayal of your faith to simply listen to what they want to say. Perhaps where I was then is where you are now? Have you ever read those seven verses in context, for yourself or with a concordance? Have you ever gotten close enough to a GLBT Christian to see that the fruits of the Holy Spirit indeed reside in them? Have you ever listened to their story? Not the one you think you know. I was wrong and, not just a bit wrong. I had to put my comfortable ignorance at risk in order to listen to them and to God.
Martin Luther King said, “People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other, because they have never communicated with each other.” This so resonates with me. I was guilty of it. I made up my own story about gay and transgender people according to my limited understanding about them. Are you doing that the same thing? When you humbly step outside your own understanding to engage another person that is nothing like you, it can be challenging and scary. It is safe to be able to fold things up into tidy packages and place them in the “I understand this” box. But what if you are wrong about them? What else might you be wrong about? This is a terrifying experience to those who thrive on control and having all the answers (you know who you are). If you are that person, you can barely consider the thought of dismantling this fortress. If your modus operandi is to push for answers, assess blame and always be right, this will torque your brain in many painful directions. But when was following after Jesus ever promised to be easy?
Fear blinds us, fear prevents love, fear causes hate and destruction. The Bible tells us the opposite of love is fear. If you are not loving the person that looks the least like you, the problem is you. No excuses. We need to get this right and stop blaming “others,” Jesus offered no caveats on the treatment of others. “But, they sin Lord, they are wrong, they don’t deserve it.” And, you sin, you’re wrong and you don’t deserve it, either. You know this is the truth.
What would it look like to question your “truth”? Could you lay down the seven verses and the sword and try “graceful engagement”? Could you try to see the beauty and uniqueness of the other person? If this scares the stuffing right out of you to do dialogue and risk being wrong, you may very well need some grace in your reservoir, and that is for you and the Holy Spirit to work out. Some one-on-one mentoring in your personal relationship with God may be needed. I know I could not have been welcoming and loving to the “others” in my life in the place I was ten years ago. Kind? Nice? Yes. But loving? No.
So, how are you showing love? And, in my area of particular calling, how are you showing love to the gay and transgender communities, Christian or not? Speaking “truth in love” is usually a smokescreen for judgmental behavior masquerading as spiritual concern. If you have not earned respect and trust in the life of the other, you have no right to go down that path, anyway. Your responsibility is to serve and love. You can never argue people into the arms of a loving God. I wrote a blog post, “Three Things GLBT Christians Want You to Hear”; perhaps you might start there for some insights. Ask questions, and listen. Ask a GLBT Christian their story and humbly begin to replace your story about them with their story. Take the chains off them, take the chains off your mind. You will find commonality and people who really do love God. Focus on the places where you can come together in agreement. The process may well be long; it took me over five years to see my gay friends as spiritual and relational equals. Having gone through this process myself, I know you will be a better student of the Holy Spirit. My process was not intentional; God directed me through it for His purposes, and now I can look back and see why. I did not get up one morning and decide to go hug a homosexual; it was a process.
As for the non-churched queer community, they never bought into the God-rules, so stop laying them on them as if they had. I Corinthians 4:15 tells us not to be meddlers in the world. When the gay and transgender communities protest for their civil rights and you feel “threatened,” it is not persecution directed at you. You are meddling. Civil rights are determined by our courts and government, not by the Bible.
And, to my gay Christian friends, many of you are wonderful at extending grace. Some on you . . . not so good. You are angry at the injustices, the hate, the discounting and disqualifications laid upon you. You have had a tough road paved with disappointment, pain and non-acceptance. I have heard a thousand stories. Grace needs to be in your reservoir too. Some of you have it to overflowing and have taught me the beauty of extending it to those who really do torment you. You need to walk to this place in the middle too. Pray for forgiveness towards those who treat you unequally. As your oppressors drop their weapons, forgive them and bless them. In I Corinthians 16:9, Paul saw “a great door for effective work has opened to me and there are many who oppose me.” And, it is so now. The door is open, walk through in love too. Many do and will oppose you. If we each walk to the center, maybe we can indeed repair the breach together. A breach is a break, a rupture in relations or promise. This split can’t be pleasing to the Jesus we say we follow. He is a tough act to follow, but that is what disciples do, they follow.
To my gay Christian friends, many of you are wonderful at extending grace. Some of you, not so much. You are angry at the injustices, the hate, the discounting and disqualifications that have been laid upon you and your community. You have had a tough road paved with disappointment, pain and non-acceptance. I have heard thousands of awful stories, so I understand where you’re coming from. I truly do. However, grace needs to be in your reservoir, too. Some of you have it to overflowing and have taught me the beauty of extending it to those who have tormented you, and still torment you. You need to walk to this place in the middle, too. Pray for forgiveness towards those who treat you unequally. As your oppressors drop their weapons, forgive them and bless them. In I Corinthians 16:9, Paul said that “a great door for effective work has opened to me and there are many who oppose me.” And, it is so now. The door is open, walk through it in love, too. Many will oppose you. But if we each walk to the center, perhaps we can indeed repair the breach together. A breach is a break, a rupture in relations or promise. This split can’t be pleasing to the Jesus we claim to trust in and obey. He is a tough act to follow, but that is what disciples do, they follow.
Equality for the GLBT community is coming and as both straight and GLBT Christians, we have a great opportunity to grow in grace and love as we challenge our judgments and fear. We can either do this the world-way of yelling and polarizing or the Jesus-way of engaging with hospitality. Up until now, the church has been very guilty of conducting ourselves in the world-way. We are not looking very Jesus-like to those outside the church. Please, don’t dismiss me and hang onto seven verses as a validation for ugly behavior. Above all else, you are expected to treat every one of God’s creation (that is all of us) lovingly and respectfully–all people, every group of “others.” Start with fellow believers that have a different sexual orientation than you. Then go on to the next group of “others,” and watch yourself grow and become shining lights, salt of the earth and reflections of Jesus.
So, bottom line, are you going to stick with “fear” or dare to respect that we are each “fearfully and wonderfully made”? Can we work on our own relationship with God to get better at love then extend it in the meeting place of graceful engagement? The church should be modeling the right way, the Jesus way to peace. Trade in your fear for His love. There is growth and blessing in stretching beyond your comfort zone, on both sides of the divide.
(A few afterthoughts: Thanks to Ross Murray for working actively in the process of graceful engagement within the Lutheran Church for inclusion of all others. Those Lutherans, they do more than just make great Jell-O salads!
And as for my buddy Netto, a year ago, after eight years of hiking and doing life together, she is now a regular member of a United Church of Christ Church. Her life has significantly changed as she trusts and now loves God. She says, “It was never anything you said to me Kathy; it was how you treated me and treat others.” My friend, who was disgusted by Christianity and Christians, was changed through our relationship. God used this lesbian agnostic to change me and He used a now-able-to-love-Christian to change her. Plan A. His plan.)
Walk humbly with your God
Blessings, peace and Holy Spirit wisdom to you and in you, Kathy