Durham CAN

It has been brought to my attention that what I have written about politicians in this summer’s Sunday school quarterly could leave some folks with the impression that I don’t believe it is possible for elected officials to act in the public interest.

I could make the excuse that Amos and Micah both are occupied with oracles against the leaders of Judah and Israel. However, their own words are not intended to be a condemnation of any who would govern. Instead, they objected to how these leaders governed. I had not by any means meant to suggest that “politician” and “public servant” are necessarily mutually exclusive terms. Neither do Amos and Micah seem to support the idea that those who would lead are necessarily unjust and self-serving.

So in the midst of the more readily found stories of malfeasance, I would like to share a hopeful example of what community leadership can be: Durham CAN. (“Congregations, Associations, and Neighborhoods.”)

Last night, my husband joined folks from all over Durham for a meeting convened by Durham CAN. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss plans to make Durham a better place for everyone. Not vague plans, but concrete policy suggestions – specific proposals for affordable housing (including proposed building sites and blueprints), specific proposals for fair paying jobs, and specific proposals for improving police-community relations. Government officials came to the meeting, having already been briefed by Durham CAN (so that they wouldn’t be blind-sided by any of the proposals). They came prepared to share their own commitments with the assembled body. Among those who spoke were Bill Bell (the mayor), Ellen Reckhow (a County Supervisor) and Steve Schewel and Cora Cole-McFadden (members of the City Council.)

My husband came home from the meeting feeling glad that we live in Durham, and feeling actually excited about certain of our elected officials. Excited on the level of, “I can’t wait to vote for that person again. They really do care about _____.”

There are some politicians who do indeed work for “justice for all.” Some of them do it once in awhile, some of them do it more often than not. Praise God! Let us pray that there would be even more of them.

When gay men marry… women

This article was first published on the now closed Affirming Christianity blog, on 22 July 2012. But the story it tells follows chronologically from the blog entry immediately previous to this one: my childhood scripture reading primed me for the insights that my teenage self drew from my older relative’s story of her first marriage.


I was fourteen years old when an older female relative took me aside to give me some advice: “You are going to start dating soon. And when you do, do not trust any boy who does not try to get into your pants!” Not the usual advice you expect an adult woman to give a young teenager who hasn’t had her first serious boyfriend yet – unless, perhaps, that woman has been married to a gay man, which my kinswoman had done.

Over the years, I learned more and more of her story – how she had dated a young man for many years, but they had never been more physically intimate than to exchange a brief kiss goodnight. “I just figured he was a good Christian boy,” she said. I learned about the call she received during his last year in seminary, asking her to marry him. She said yes, married him shortly afterwards, dropped out of college, and moved to another state with him. It was only then that she found out that rumors of him having a boyfriend prompted seminary officials to demand that he marry if he expected to receive a diploma from their school. After several years of marriage with no sexual relationship (“we were like roommates…”), one of her family members learned of it, and persuaded her to leave. Her husband begged her to stay. It was no longer a matter of concern for his ministry – he had only been a pastor for the first year of their marriage, because the double life he was leading was so stressful for him – particularly giving marriage advice to others. Instead, he wanted her to stay to spare himself and his family the shame of a divorce… and to prevent any embarrassing questions from his family, who had suspected him of being attracted to men for a long time.

At the time, I remember thinking this was the most outstandingly bizarre story I had ever heard of church discipline gone wrong. But since then, I have heard variations on this theme over and over again: the first husband who was gay and had not known it, or had known it and hidden it, and the shame of the woman for having had been divorced – not to mention the damage of the years spent with someone who was not at all attracted to her. I can tell you from personal experience, having had a long-term closeted gay boyfriend – despite my kinswoman’s warnings – that it is impossible not to take it personally. And, as I have learned from a handful of the many other women I have met over the past 20+ years who have similar stories to tell, sometimes the boyfriend/fiance/husband encourages the girlfriend/fiancee/wife to take it personally, in a sub/semi-conscious bid to remain in the dark about his own desires.

After all, these relationships are not part of some nefarious gay plot to keep both gay men and their unwitting female partners unhappy. Instead, they usually arise out of the man’s own conservative Christian upbringing: he is devout, he is faithful, he is a good person… ergo, it is inconceivable that he could be gay. Oftentimes, he really does not know that he is attracted to men. Or he doesn’t at first. Or not until after he is married. Or if he does, he thinks he can put a stop to his “sinful desires” through distraction – “Look here! A naked woman!” It works for so many other men, why not him? The ongoing torture of unwanted desire that will not go away can be excruciating – and a challenge to his faith in God.

I learned this last part in seminary, where I was thrown together with intelligent faithful people of many denominations from all over the U.S., some of whom prayed every day to be released from their attraction to people of the same sex. One of these individuals was finally reconciling herself to her sexuality after praying that prayer for seven years. On the other end of the gay seminarian spectrum was a friend who did not know until he was in the parish and married that he was attracted to men. After all, he had always been told it was a choice, and he would never choose such a thing! Even after the marriage ended, it took him a couple of years to traverse the distance between, “I was not in the least sexually interested in my cute, smart, funny wife,” and “I actually am interested in a sexual relationship with someone – but only if it is a man.”

I met friends in seminary who switched denominations so that they could be ordained when they finally accepted their sexuality, as well as other friends who dropped out of the ordination process because they felt so strongly about not leaving the denomination that would not fully embrace them. I met a number of people who were so extraordinarily gifted for ministry that they seemed to glow when they were ministering to others – preachers who would vibrate with Gospel Truth like a struck bell when they preached – but they are not serving churches today because they are gay, and so they are in exile.

I remember having trouble sleeping the night after that relative of mine first began to share the story of her first marriage. I was so angry at the man who had hurt her. But that didn’t last long. My anger rapidly turned to the seminary officials who had pressured him into a marriage that they themselves had reason to believe he was ill-suited for. And then I was angry at the church in general for caring more about outside appearances than how a person felt in their heart. No wonder so many of us were white-washed sepulchres – it was what was demanded of us! That was when I began to wonder – if the only thing that made him unsuitable for ministry was who he wanted to date… how much did that matter? The church had, by this time, given up on disallowing ministers to divorce, in order to prevent them from staying in sham marriages for the sake of appearances. But they had made no effort to prevent this other kind of sham marriage – in fact, they had even legislated in a way that would encourage it.

I began to become disillusioned with the church that day, though I did not see it until years later, when God had shoved me back into congregational life after some years of trying to live a Christian life apart from the church. (When I start to despair of the difficulty of working out Christian community in the church, I remind myself that it is nothing compared to starving for Christian community outside of it.)

As I grew older and came to understand the value of a loving partnership, I had another reason to be in favor of openness and of embracing gay marriage and gay pastors – loving partnerships between two adults that support one another and up-build one another are a means of grace – in loving companionship, we draw one another closer to God. A relationship of this kind is rare enough that it should be celebrated between any two adults who find it.

I understand that there are many faithful, thoughtful people within the church who disagree with me on this issue. Each of us has our own story, and none of our stories are exactly alike. But I am beginning to think that the gay man married to a straight woman is one of many archetypal stories of life in the church, and I wonder how many straight Christian women either have a woman like my kinswoman in their family, or have been that woman themselves.

Maybe you disagree with me about how best to extend Christian love to gay men and women. But the policies that exclude same sex loving people also have harmed many straight women who have suffered lasting impacts from being married to gay men. “One man, one woman” marriage did not spare them.

Affirming Christianity

One of the benefits of having so many new visitors to the blog is that I am discovering broken links!

For a long time, one of the websites listed under “Sarah’s other writing” has been a blog that I contributed several articles to in 2012. This blog, “Affirming Christianity,” was convened by a seminarian in Wales, and I was the only contributor from “across the pond.” The common thread among the contributors was our hope for full inclusion of LGBTQ individuals in the life and ministries of the church.

Several people clicked through on this link, or tried to, only to discover that the link went nowhere. So I’ve deleted Affirming Christianity from my list of other writing.

The easy thing to do would be to just let this pass without mentioning it, given that I have so many new readers from across the United Methodist spectrum. But that would be dishonest.  Not that my convictions have not changed since 2012. Instead, I feel even more strongly that the church has too often offered a poor witness in its treatment of sexual minorities.

Particularly in this post, I’m focusing on the “LGB” in LGBTQ — same sex loving people whose love has been labelled “sin.”

The reasons for my convictions are many, but I began on this journey when I was in the third grade: I was given a Bible by my church, and I began reading it. I read it voraciously. And while I spent most of my time reading and re-reading the gospels and Genesis, I left no part untouched. And I discovered something in Genesis: we are responsible for one another. And I discovered something in the Gospels: Jesus put the real lives of real people above the strict observance of any rules.

Here’s one example of this: each of the four gospels records stories of Jesus healing people on the sabbath.[1] Arguably, if Jesus is God Incarnate, then everything he did in life is significant – he need only have broken the sabbath once in order for us to discern some lesson pertaining to this rule. However, Jesus heals on the sabbath so frequently, he seems almost to have gone out of his way to break the sabbath in this way, to the consternation of the religious authorities. On another occasion, when his disciples were plucking grain to eat on the sabbath, Jesus said, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.”[2] Keeping the sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments, and doing any kind of work on the sabbath was punishable by death.[3] But Jesus was repeatedly much more interested in what the impact of this rule was on actual human beings. (If you are interested in reading more about Jesus’ sabbath healings, check out this article by Morgan Guyton in Ministry Matters.)

There are a lot of “rules” in the Bible. And a lot of them we ignore for various reasons, and other ones we observe strictly. Now, imagining that there is a “rule” in the Scriptures against same-sex intimacy (which is arguable, but I’ll concede it for the purpose of explaining the first step of me getting to where I am with respect to same-gender loving people), Jesus’ regular refusal to strictly observe the Sabbath gives us a model for reading this (or any) rule: Following the example of Jesus, our first thought when we encounter a rule in Scripture ought not to be, “Obviously, God desires for us to always follow this rule!” Instead, Jesus’ own behavior invites us to ask, “How will the unilateral application of this rule impact the lives of actual human beings?”

If you have sat across the table from someone crying as she recounts having been rejected by her pastor as a teenager after confiding that she was attracted to other women…

If you have known someone abundantly gifted for ministry who could no longer serve because he wanted to marry another man (knowing that choosing between marriage and ministry would never be demanded of a person who wanted to marry someone of a different gender)…

If you have heard story after story of straight women who were married to closeted gay men (men who could not acknowledge that they were gay because they were good Christians, and “good Christians aren’t gay”)…

If you have encountered people with stories like these, then you know the answer to this question. How do the exclusionary policies of the UMC impact the lives of actual human beings? It separates them from their church community, it deprives the church of their good gifts, it alienates them from God. It is not the love of some people for others of the same gender that does this. It is the rule that calls this love “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Like the UMC Book of Discipline, the Bible can be read as a book of rules that must not be broken. When the Bible is seen as a rulebook, then prooftexting is bound to happen – Christians will read for the rules. Perhaps it is not surprising that a denomination with so many pages of rules tends to view the Bible as a book of rules when it comes to determining whether it is a sin for two people of the same gender to have sex. Finding a place in the Bible where this kind of sex is apparently forbidden or labeled as sin makes rule-oriented Christians feel more comfortable – they feel they have a clear “answer.” But what if “sin” does not mean “breaking ‘the rules’”? What if sin is something else altogether? What if sin is about our relationship with Jesus? What if we sin when we obstruct others’ relationships with Jesus?

Long before I had heard the words gay, lesbian, or bisexual, long before the word polysexual had even been coined, my scripture reading was informing my answers to those last four questions. It still does.

[1] Matthew 12:9-13; Mark 3:2-5; Luke 6:6-11; 13:10-17; 14:1-6; John 5:1-11; 9:1-16

[2] Mark 2:27 (NRSV)

[3] Exodus 20:8-11; 31:14-15