Sunday, June 28, 2009

A place of healing, a place of hope

Oh, there's nothing as sweet as fellowship
As we share each other’s hearts...
Sweet, sweet fellowship...

- the group Acappella

It's been a long, long time since I could say that about a church. Thanks be to God, I can say it today.

For the last four years, I have been waging a 3-sided internal battle. On one side, I've been wanting to again be a part of a fellowship of Christian believers. On another side, I've not wanted to go any place where I am not wanted (having become an "I'd rather switch than fight" kind of fellow). And on yet another side, I've not wanted to end up the one round peg in a set of otherwise square pegs.

In my search, I found churches where I could be active, but closeted; I found churches where I could be out, but the theology was way too watered down. And I found churches who were accepting of anyone, because they were just desperate for live bodies - anyone with a pulse was welcome as long as they were willing to pitch in.

Then for the last year, Chris was working until midnights on Saturday and then he was working again on Sunday afternoons. I was simply too jealous of our one-morning-a-week-to-sleep-in to give it away looking for a potential church home, so the idea sat on hold.

Then the move to Champaign came, and we were both finally on the same Monday/Friday schedule. Once we got settled in, I went to the GCN "Welcoming Churches" website, and instantly one church stood out among the rest. Their website, the person we talked to on the phone, everything about them shouted "welcome."

What sold us both was the welcome, and the worship...

We came in the door, and someone immediately welcomed us with a cheery “Hi, have you been here before?” When I introduced myself "and my partner Chris,” the response was “We’re SO glad to have you here!...” We were ushered into the sanctuary and plied with coffee, banana-nut bread, and then led over to see the church's beautiful stained-glass windows. Specifically, the newest one… this one:

If you note, the top of the window has the pink-triangle that was both a symbol of shame in World War II as well as the symbol of the early gay community. Below it are rainbows, symbols of the GLBT community from the 70's until the current day. There is red-ribbon which is the reminder of HIV/AIDS sufferers world-wide, and the heart with tongues of flame symbolizing the presence of the Spirit resident in the hearts of believers. The peaceful, pastoral scenes symbolize a place of peace and rest, while the hands of the community supporting the clasped hands of two men and two women symbolized the support this church wanted to give the GLBT community. (You can see it more clearly over here...)

Down at the bottom, there are two scriptures - I don't remember the first, but the second is Galatians 3:28 - "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

The lady who greeted us told us proudly that to the best of her knowledge, this is the only GLBT-affirming stained-glass window in a church the US. (I'm sure it's the only one in a Presbyterian church in America.) The bottom line, she said, was that this church wanted us (and people like us) to feel welcomed and affirmed.

It was all I could do not to weep tears of joy....that anyone would make a commitment in the very structure of the sanctuary to share that message. How could we not feel at home?

This next item will sound ridiculous and trivial, but it's worth mentioning, especially to my Lutheran friends. I've been in churches which fought tooth-and-nail about having coffee in the sanctuary, or even in the narthex. Not this congregation...they have no narthex to speak of, so when the church was being remodeled, they put nooks on both sides of the back of the sanctuary, for coffee-pots and coffee-mug racks (no styrofoam cups here; this congregation believes that "being good stewards of the earth" means not filling up landfills!). A group of members provide fresh baked goods to go with the coffee every Sunday, and it's just expected that responsible people will (a) take their coffee and sweets to their pew, (b) clean up after themselves, and (c) wash their own mugs afterwards! And a stone sanctuary floor means no carpet to get stained...

The church was built in 1911. Back 15 years ago, the massive roof beams were found to have some sort of rot problems, and the church was all but condemned to be bulldozed. A way was found to re-strengthen the beams with some hardening resin, and the church interior was remodeled as well. The seating is now in the form of a T, with seating on either side of the beautiful wooden altar, which is on the floor-level with the congregation. The former altar space is now occupied by a small but respectable pipe organ, and a beautifully restored stained-glass figure of Christ looks down from above the organ.

Chris came from a very relaxed, family/house-church style of worship - where the "prayers of the congregation" were actually done by the congregation, where there were no bulletins, no order of worship, just a retired pastor and his flock gathered in folding chairs and couches around a piano in a community center. I had come from a congregation that regularly had 1,000 people a Sunday for worship, with a pre-printed liturgy in a bound bulletin, multiple hymnals - while not hardly as lock-step as many Lutheran communities are wont to be, it was hardly spontaneous worship.

But I had also come from a group of people who'd introduced me to Taize' (teh-ZAY) singing, to Maranatha's worship-n-praise, and to all-night prayer-vigils locked-in at the church sanctuary. I'd been through the "worship wars," the our-way-or-the-highway worship committee meetings, and encountered people who either believed that synthesizers were of the devil, or people who believed that they'd rather stay home than listen to one more organ prelude. As a result of all that (not to mention the emphasis on high liturgy at seminary, I've generally concluded that more diversity in worship meant more ways to experience God. But it had been a long time since I'd experienced that diversity.

Until we walked into McKinley Presbyterian Church.

Our first Sunday, I was greeted by some of the same Taize' songs I had sung back nearly a dozen years ago - the memory of which literally brought tears of joy to my eyes. As we sang we looked around the congregation - taking in the physical beauty of the sanctuary and the peace of the community. Chris and I were astonished that we were just one among many same-sex couples present, surrounded by a congregation for whom it was just no big deal in such a way that we instantly felt both welcomed and accepted.

As the Christ candle was lit, the congregation was invited to come forward and light candles symbolizing their prayers for peace - something which the congregation has done since the Sunday before the current Iraq war began. The beauty of the pipe organ did not overwhelm the congregation, but seemed to lift it up and support it. The prayers of the congregation were "popcorn-style" (whatever popped up, so to speak), and even the Lord's Prayer was said in a format that came from Tanzania or another African group of believers.

In short, everything was familiar, everything was similar - but nothing was the same.

My ELCA Lutheran friends will understand this image ... you know the kind of worship services that you have at the regional Synod conferences? Where everything's a little edgy, everything's in somewhat the same location, but nothing's exactly as you've known it at your home church and it all feels new and a little strange, but somehow cool?

Welcome to our worship - each and every Sunday.

Today, the Gospel reading was the woman who was bleeding, and touched Jesus' robe. The sermon dealt with healing and restoration - and talked about how the women who bled and the girl who died were both ritually unclean and untouchable. Their healing was not only physical healing, but social restoration - being returned into the community from which they had been excluded.

Today, as communities around the world celebrate Pride Week with parades and marches and so much more, Chris and I simply celebrated being home - being healed and restored to a sense of community in new and powerful ways. It is not so much that we are in a gay-friendly church - it's that we can worship here, and no one really gives a rat's patootie what we are. We are simply two among many of the Children of the Heavenly Father in ways that I have never before experienced - and as the old song says, it's a good feelin' to know....

I am looking forward to the ways in which God will use this community in both our lives.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Synchro Blog - Bridging the Gap, and loving our neighbours

And yes, I spelled "neighbours" correctly - specifically for some friends I've never met in Canada....

New Direction Ministries is a former Exodus ex-gay ministry based in Canada. Earlier this year they left Exodus because they disagreed with the direction and rhetoric of Exodus, which cost them a lot of support and funding. Since leaving Exodus their goal has been to be an important voice in trying to "bridge the gap" between gay people and religious people.

I heard Wendy Gritter, the director of New Directions, interviewed on Gay Christian Network's GCN Radio (you can hear the whole interview by going here, going to the May 29, 2009 show and click on "Listen to this show"), or you can also download an MP3 recording of it there.

I was so touched with her commitment to building bridges between all the parties in the gay/Christian/gay Christian issue that when she mentioned the idea of a concerted effort to blog together about how to "bridge the gap" I couldn't help but participate. You can see more on their Bridging the Gap SynchroBlog project here as well as the "day of the Synchro" post here.

If there was one thing I'd like to share with my fellow Christians on this Bridging The Gap day, is would be this: please, please - listen to your gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered neighbors. Listen to what we have to say - about our lives, our faith, our doubts, and our fears. Please don't assume that because you know we're gay, that you know everything you need to know about us - because you don't.

There is only one way we will ever bridge this gap between the gay community and the Christian community - and that's when men and women on both sides stop shouting at each other, and start listening. When Christians start to hear the woundedness and loneliness in the gay community, when they can see gay persons as human beings, and not as stereotypes - and when people in the gay community stop to listen beyond the "going to hell" chanting to see that there are people of great heart and great love in the Christian community, that is when we will start to grow closer.

As part of this listening effort, I make this gentle request to my straight Christian sisters and brothers. When someone speaks to a gay person like me, the one thing they don't need to do is tell me about those seven bible texts - so infamous in the gay community that they are known as "the clobber passages," because we keep getting clobbered with them by church folks. So many of us GLBT people have been told by well-meaning Christians that their homosexuality is the one sin that will keep them out of heaven - as if there were such a thing!

Let me start this "getting to know you" conversation. Let's face it - it's impossible to "know" a person from a few paragraphs of writing on one day. So I invite you, gently, to get to know me a little more....or maybe a lot...
After I'd left seminary, I started a post-seminary blog called Ragamuffin Ramblings. Even after I left seminary, it was more than a year before I could face coming out to my Christian friends, especially those who had supported me in my ministry quest. This blog post was that coming-out.

In response to Peterson Toscano's question on a GCN forum, I wrote "What I wish straight Christians knew." You may be surprised at what you find there...

For a year before I came-out in that first post above, I had been blogging about my coming-out process on "A Rainbow Flag in Narnia," to keep my "outing" process separate from my "after-seminary" process. During that time, I had a "close encounter" with a former pastor, who tried to liken homosexuality to alcoholism (just say no, in so many words), and out of that came this posting about how homosexuality was much closer to "being a Gentile in Bible times" than "being an alcoholic."

In response to a request from Christian Cryder (a fellow bloggger, church planter and minister in Montana) I wrote this - which is definitely "get a fresh pot of coffee and a donut or two" posting. It is a response to a bunch of questions that brother Cryder had about my faith and my understanding of homosexuality.

Five years ago, I wrote this post asking the church what was really incompatible with Christian teaching. Only two people had the guts to respond to this post in five years of blogging...
My prayer in spilling all of this digital ink is simply this - to give you, the reader, an insight into my life and faith. My hope, throughout this exercise, is that stories will be shared and heard, and people who are concerned about issues of faith and homosexuality will hear common voices.

For now, I leave this effort in God's hands, and leave you with my favorite prayer from the Lutheran Book of Worship, which I have used throughout my journey of faith:
Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen. (LBW page 137)
Amen, indeed.

(Credit where credit is due: The image of cross at the beginning of this post is a drawing by my friend and talented Ohio artist Jason Ingram. The image of the cross surrounded by the rainbow is the logo from Affirm United, a GLBT-welcoming ministry within the United Church of Canada. Thanks to Peter Fergus-Moore for the hat-tip!)

Monday, June 08, 2009

Thoughts on "holy unions" and same-sex marriage

Late afternoon, Saturday...

I am sitting in a shady spot at The Badlands Offroad Park in Attica, Indiana. All around me there are the rasps and roars of off-road vehicles - everything from the bumblebee buzz-whine of 125cc 2-stroke dirt bikes to the throaty roar of high-powered dune buggies, and everything in between. For folks who would forsake pavement to ride through the great outdoors, The Badlands is a mid-US mecca for off-roading (I forget how many hundreds of acres they have here). Today Chris is just doing a blow-the-dust-out and get-acquainted ride on his Yamaha WR426 (I mention it only because someone, somewhere, may want to know what he rides, I guess - and because I care enough to know, believe it or not!).

Riding a motorcycle holds no thrill for me - I have enough trouble balancing on four wheels - but I enjoy being outdoors when it's cool and breezy, and Chris has been longing to come to The Badlands ever since he first thought about coming to Champaign.

So here we are. It's cool, shady and breezy, and I have a sufficient supply of pretzels and Diet Coke, and about 3 hours of battery time on ye olde laptop. So as he's off on his first dream-ride, I have some time to catch-up, reflect, and ponder life around me.

For a number of reasons, my thoughts have been turning to questions of faith, and questions of church. One of the valuable lessons which the two decades have taught me is that questions of church are quite, quite separate from questions of faith. I will be forever grateful to the communities which helped form my faith - but I am also very glad that there were non-church communities that helped my faith survive when the church world failed me.

For many of my former seminary friends still in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), this is the weekend of several Synod conferences...gatherings of the regional governing conferences within the ELCA. It is a time when bishops are elected, and policy is either set (for a region) or recommended to the greater Churchwide Assembly for action. Synod conferences can be a time of stunning boredom, of great inspiration, or great frustration (sometimes in equal measures!), especially as the regional synods act on resolutions which can indicate an area's stand on certain issues.

It was out of these regional resolutions that the ELCA Churchwide Assembly in 2007 took the step to "memorialize" (without getting painfully technical, to make a non-binding recommendation to the Church at large) that ELCA bishops did not have to enforce the rules on clergy in committed same-sex relationships. The rules still stood - clergy should be monogamous within traditional marriage, and celibate outside of it. Nothing changed there.

But up to that point, the rulebook essentially said that clergy found to be in committed, monogamous same-sex relationships were to be removed from the roster of ordained clergy, period - effectively defrocking them. What happened in 2007 wasn't a giant step forward - as I wrote earlier, the bishops still hold the gun, and it's still loaded - but the action two years ago allows the bishops to not have to "pull the trigger" and remove partnered GLBT clergy. The action of the ELCA allows their bishops to choose mercy (imagine that in a Christian organization!...), where there once was no room for it.

I've seen updates this weekend on Facebook from my former classmates attending their synod conferences, and some of them are hearing the same old language on same-sex marriage and partnered GLBT clergy - abomination, sin, death, rejection. But the joy, for me, is hearing them some of them angered by it, resisting it - and speaking out against it. For those of you who are in that group, and are reading this, my partner and I give thanks to you, and give thanks for God for you and your voice.

That, by the way, is one of the reasons I am "out" - not because I feel the need to convert anyone, wear a rainbow flag banner, or any of that nonsense, but to simply put a face (or a pair of faces) on this issue. My prayer is that men and women of faith, when they hear these discussions about same-sex relationships, will realize, "That's Steve they're talking about. My friend... coworker.... fellow student... church member... neighbor. We're talking about Steve, and his partner Chris. Not some fear-based mythical stereotype, but a person I've worked with, and laughed with, and prayed with, and lived with."

Several people have asked me if I want to have a "holy union" ceremony (the Presbyterian church we attend does that), and I think they are surprised by the answer. You see, anyone who spends time with us doesn't have to ask if we are a couple. It's not because we are some lovey-dovey, please-get-a-room kind of people, but because we care for each other, deeply - and I think that kind of love and care becomes obvious, even if you aren't used to seeing it between two men.

We are committed to each other. At one point near the start of our relationship, Chris said something like, " think you'll keep me for a while?...." and I jokingly told him that we'd see how we do for the first forty years, and still occasionally tell him that he only has 38 years left before he can re-negotiate this deal between us.

To be honest, there is nothing that a church can do to legitimize our relationship that McKinley Presbyterian Church in Champaign hasn't already done. The pastors and members greet us as a partnered couple; no one bats an eye when we hold hands when we pray in worship; it's just no big deal in so many ways that I can't even begin to explain to someone who has not seen a truly open-and-affirming congregation. This congregation already recognizes our relationship; we don't need a ceremony or a party to get there. My family doesn't need a holy-union to recognize our commitment to each other, either. We celebrate that union every time we get together with them.

My dream would be to have a "holy union ceremony" where it would matter most - in Chicago, among my former seminary and AA sisters and brothers; or in Kansas City, among my former church members and AA friends who have loved me, supported me, and know my faith; or in Springfield, MO, among Chris's family and friends. It would be the chance for our family and friends to join us in celebrating a life-long commitment to love, to publicly affirm our belief that God says to Chris and I, "This love is good in My sight," and to build community as the early church did - with some really, really good food. (Wonder if Arthur Bryant's or Oklahoma Joes's would cater? Now that would be a "dream wedding"!)

It couldn't happen at LSTC in Chicago, nor at Atonement Lutheran in Kansas - the ELCA just isn't there yet, and won't "get there" for some years to come, I think. I don't think we could even do it at the Hollis Center, an ELCA-supported retreat center west of KC - too much church support would be jeopardized if the word got out. Maybe Arthur Bryant's up at the Casino wouldn't be such a bad idea, after least we wouldn't have to worry about Fred Phelps picketing us there...

The only legitimacy that my relationship with Chris can gain is in legal and civil rights - rights of survivorship, joint property ownership, being treated as "family" in a hospital setting, and things like this. That's the reason why we are advocates for same-sex marriage - not for the cake and candles, or the chance to be his-and-his Bridezillas - but so this bond between us can receive the same legal and social blessing from the rest of the world that McKinley Church has already bestowed upon us.

Until that day, we will soldier on as we have, trusting in God's acceptance and love, and praying for the same from His followers. May it come quickly, Lord.