Same worship song, one week apart, yet today I’m pained. This emotional ache is not a new place for me. I’ve frequently found myself here over the past decade, and it’s become increasingly more difficult to withstand.
For me, the worship portion of church services used to be so “me-centric.” I owned those song— me and God, me and Jesus, me and the Spirit. I happily sang about the goodness, greatness, and bigness of God. His grace, mercy, and love, all lavishly rich and overwhelmingly undeserved. But, my “ownership” started to shift a decade ago as I began to hear the words of worship songs through the filter of the alienated, in particular, those for whom I advocate in conservative churches—lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Christians.
Today, as I regularly do while not traveling, I attended one of various non-affirming churches in Northern Nevada. This morning, the worship team led the congregation in “Oceans.” My listening filter was on and in high-alert because, as is the case with most of my travel, while away, I worship with fully inclusive congregations of mostly LGBT Christians. Last week I spent four days in Atlanta with a small group of LGBT Christians and allies who had completed a three-month training with The Reformation Project. Morning chapel services ushered in 12 to 14 hour days of learning and interaction. Several times, the worship team of Kevin, Erin, Laura Beth, Alisa, and R.V. led us in “Oceans.”
You call me out upon the waters
The great unknown where feet may fail
And there I find You in the mystery
In oceans deep
My faith will stand
And I will call upon Your name
And keep my eyes above the waves
When oceans rise
My soul will rest in Your embrace
For I am Yours and You are mine
Your grace abounds in deepest waters
Your sovereign hand
Will be my guide
Where feet may fail and fear surrounds me
You’ve never failed and You won’t start now
Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders
Let me walk upon the waters
Wherever You would call me
Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander
And my faith will be made stronger
In the presence of my Savior
Oh, Jesus, you’re my God!
Singing and listening to “Oceans” in the midst of LGBT Christians, those who have long been dismissed, shamed, alienated, and rejected, it is an utterly different experience than being surrounded, as I was today, by a congregation who, by ignorance, choice, or passive complacency, are guilty of denying equal status to LGBT believers.
And so, I listened this morning, same song, one week later. My eyes traced the words on the screen as my spirit begged and plead, asking those surrounding me:
Will you allow yourselves to go out to the great unknown, to the mystery where your reasoning fails?
Are you prepared to go where it is so uncomfortable and where only faith in God can support you?
Will you allow yourselves to be overwhelmed by non-knowing to find God’s heart on this issue?
Do you know that the grace of God is so deep, and it is not just for you or what is acceptable and comfortable to you?
There’s no boundary to what you can ask and risk—please, please, risk more. Go where it you may not want to go for the sake of others. God is out there too. Way out on the edges. And when you seek, and trust, your faith will be made stronger.
After the service, Thom and I went to brunch. Thom had been a married Salvation Army pastor for 28 years, until he came out. He is now married to Norm. At one point in our conversation about the service, Thom teared up and could barely get his words out. He removed his glasses, choking back his pain filled words, and wiped the tears from his eyes. “You know, Kathy, one of the most difficult parts of going to these churches is the worship, to hear people around me singing about trusting God with the mystery, and grace and love. And I know they exclude me. They think none of that is for me because I am a gay man.”
Same song, one week later. In the Kevin, Erin, Laura Beth, Alisa, and R.V.-led version of “Oceans,” I heard unrestricted hope, reaching, and gratitude. But, this morning, I felt that the words were bound and contained. Of course, there were people struggling and asking God on their own behalf to give them the confidence to face personal crises. I’ve been there. Going through a divorce was one of the most painful experiences of my life. Every song I could possible turn to a prayer became: me and God, me and Jesus, me and the Spirit.
Yet, there is more to being followers of Christ. Empathy and compassion demand that we have the capacity to move from me-centric worship and prayer. It took me years to make the shift. Empathy and compassion require that we hear words coming from our own lips as the prayer of and for others, for Thom. Others who may be quite unlike us, who may challenge our understanding, yet who making it clear that they are seeking inclusion in the Body of Christ.
For me, it has become increasingly painful to worship in the midst of those who are exclusionary, again, whether that action is rooted in ignorance, choice, or passive complacency. And so, over brunch, I ached with Thom as we wondered together, when will the conservative Christian church realize the damage they are doing to LGBT believers who want to be part of the family? When will those who lead and attend conservative churches risk going to the deep ocean and allow themselves to be overwhelmed by mystery? When will they expand their faith and cede to God guiding them to a place beyond their own borders?
Oh God, may the words we sing to God in worship become genuine prayers that push us beyond ourselves to include the beauty and diversity of LGBT Christians in our churches.