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

Born and raised in the Briar Patch

I am beginning to understand that worship planning is my briar patch.

I wonder how many of you remember the stories of Br’er Rabbit – a trickster figure in the stories of African Americans in the southern United States, Br’er Rabbit stories are rooted in the storytelling traditions both of the Creek (Native American) and African peoples.  In one of the most famous stories, Br’er Rabbit is captured by Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear, who are tired of his trickster ways.  Br’er Rabbit begs them, “Whatever you do, PLEASE don’t throw me in the briar patch.”  Naturally, that is just what the two larger animals do, and Br’er Rabbit squeals so loudly that they are sure they have killed him – until they realize that he is not squealing in pain from the thick tangle of thorns, nor from fear at being lost in the darkness under a dense maze of branches – instead he is squealing from laughter!  Br’er Rabbit finally manages to gasp, “I was born and raised in the briar patch!”

Like Br’er Rabbit’s briar patch, worship planning seems to have little (but necessity) to recommend it to many pastors.  The task can seem overwhelming!  Simply writing a sermon that stays on message, bears some obvious connection to the selected scripture passage, and fits in the allotted time can be daunting.  Now let’s see if we can keep that sermon free from heretical error, avoid unintentionally snarky references to parish business, and avoid embarrassing our spouses or children with a story that is too personal.  While we are at it, it would be great if we could preach something that is easily digested by  a newcomer, without being boring for a long-timer.  Now we just have to select the hymns, write the call to worship, select or write a few prayers… Oh no!  The children’s sermon!  We forgot the children’s sermon.  And a baby threw up on our alb last week and we forgot to take it to the cleaners.

Phew!  Now all we have to do is go up and lead this thing for an hour without any mistakes, or at least to make our mistakes gracefully. Don’t get shaken up when that kid on the sixth row screams during the sermon, waking the guy in the pew in front of him.  Can we locate the encouraging faces of the few smiling nodding parishioners? Great!  As for the rest, let’s find that point just over the tops of the heads of the majority who will be frowning in hopefully deep thought.  Uh-oh, we looked one if them in the eye.  Are they angry?  Maybe they are just misunderstanding.  And now we are just rambling from the pulpit until that one person finally nodded and released us – thank you Jesus!  And now we are running late again.  The organist will want us to cut a verse from the last hymn.  It doesn’t save more than a minute or two, but it makes a big psychological difference – it helps the congregation understand that we do notice that they are disapprovingly aware of the time.

But above all, we must be open to the movement of the Spirit!  If we can somehow dial back the volume on those other 30 concerns that are swirling through our heads.  Such as forgetting to announce whatever that very important announcement was that was told to us just before we walked down the aisle.

Worship planning!  Sermon writing!  Sunday mornings in the pulpit!!! The dread!  The horror!

So why is it I squealed with delight when I opened up the lectionary in order to list all of the Psalms that didn’t make it in, in order to find ways to include them at other parts of the year?  Picking hymns – and finding a way to lift phrases and themes from each hymn in order to more clearly tie them to my sermon – that weekly activity was like play!  And children’s sermons?  Don’t get me started!  I loved doing those so much that I even did them at a church that had no children!

I was born and raised in that briar patch.  My Dad, a United Methodist pastor, brought worship to the Sunday dinner table, asking us to think through how it had gone:  what was the sermon about?  What did we like?  What didn’t we understand?  How were the hymns related – or not? How were the scriptures related – or not?  Worship criticism (in the style of literary criticism) formed the main part of our conversation after church on Sundays.

Dad and I would go to other worship services together from time to time, and then would dissect them together afterwards, figuring out what made them tick.  Starting when I was about six.  And earlier than that, Dad would consult me when he was working on his sermons:  he would read me a bit of scripture or lay out a theological problem and ask me what I thought.   As I grew older and began to play piano, Dad would ask me to play the melody of a hymn he was unfamiliar with when he was planning worship – so that he could decide if he could pick it up easily enough to lead the congregation, or if it he would go find another hymn with words he liked slightly less well.  He would already have checked to see if it could be switched to a more familiar tune with the same meter – which is part of why I knew about the hymnal’s metrical index in elementary school.  Its existence was clearly a revelation to many of my seminary classmates, when it was pointed out by our worship professor.

I want to apologize for my incredulity in that moment.  And also for the time when I responded to a student pastor who was asking “when do pastors get their Sabbath?” with the insensitive remark that leading worship was not work, but the culmination of our work, in which we too were worshipping God.  Yeah, not so much for her.  I was wrong to judge.  I also owe an apology to those students that I implied were unprofessional in wanting to use pre-written prayers, instead of writing their own collects for each service.  I didn’t understand how – unusual I am.

Most pastors were not born and raised in the briar patch.  It is pretty uncomfortable to be thrown into a dark and tangled thicket filled with blood-drawing thorns when it is not your natural habitat.  I take my hat off to you pastors who wrestle each week with your worship preparation in spite of all the fear one or more elements of it inspire in you.  You are martyrs in the best sense of the word: you witness to your conviction that God loves you and your congregation and all the world – and that this love is so great that your very legitimate misgivings about worship preparation (this is, after all, very serious stuff!) are not worth comparing to your deep need to share this love.  Thank you for continuing to toil in the briar patch.

Secret Drawer

When I was almost five, I moved for the first time.  The parsonage committee at the church Dad would now be serving bought a new bedroom suite for me – the typical little girl’s late 70s “French Provincial” bedroom set – white with gold paint trim.  Everything matched – the bed, the dresser, the desk with a bookshelf, and my favorite piece – the nightstand!  There was a drawer in the nightstand, and it became “my secret drawer.”  I put in it all the little odds and ends that were special to me, that I did not want to share with anyone.  Little trinkets from birthday party treat bags, plastic figurines from the tops of my own birthday cakes, buttons and ribbons and bits of fabric that I had begged off of Mom, bookmarks from Vacation Bible School… the detritus of my life – the “can’t you clean off your dresser?!” leftovers – the tiny precious things that a young child values and stakes her identity on – this was what “my secret drawer” was for.  And I wanted it to stay secret.  I would only open it when I was alone.

When I was in the first grade, I was pretty bored.  And easily distracted.  And I didn’t totally understand the point of doing worksheets in class.  It took me forever to get my work done.  When it was time for us to finish up our work, I would just stuff the sheets into my desk.  But sometimes the teacher would catch me at it, and tell me that I needed to take home the sheets and finish them at home.  They weren’t any more interesting at home than they had been at school, so I hid them away… in my secret drawer.  The drawer that had before held only treasures now held shame – the work I knew I was supposed to do, but could not bring myself to do.  I hid sheet after sheet in the only private place I had – my secret drawer.

Eventually, as the 1st quarter came towards its close, the teacher finally noticed that she had almost no grades for me.  She called my mother.  And my mother staged a search of my bedroom.  She looked everywhere, and couldn’t find the worksheets.  She deduced that the worksheets were in my secret drawer, and waited for me to come home.  She took me back to my bedroom, sat down on my bed, and told me, “Your teacher called me.” Dread! Fear! But the worst was yet to come.  “She told me that you haven’t turned in anything this school year.” Not true – it couldn’t be true, could it? “She told me that she had sent you home with work, but you didn’t bring it back.” Uh-oh. “I know that it is in your secret drawer.  Open your secret drawer!”  NOOOO!!!

But after expending a great deal of effort whining and bargaining and outright lying and finally crying, I did what I had to do.  Or, I tried to do it.  But I had stuffed so many crumpled worksheets in there that I couldn’t open the drawer!  It was stuck!  Mom managed to help me force it open about an inch or two, and then carefully reach in her hand and unstick the drawer (like a wizard! a drawer opening genius!) – and then she removed the drawer and began taking out worksheet after worksheet.

“You are supposed to do these!  Not just hide them!!” Well, yes.  I might be six, but that did not mean that I was an idiot.  Of course I was supposed to do them.  Why else would I have hid them?  I couldn’t throw them away – the teacher had given them to me – it was like they had some sort of magical importance.  I had been stuck between two imperatives:  my teacher’s “you must do these” and my brain’s “I can’t do these alone!”  My anxiety was so intense – I was afraid of doing the work incorrectly, to the point of needing a reassuring presence right beside me in order to do it.  But I knew that was weird, so I was too ashamed to ask my mother to sit down and watch me do it – especially when she was busy with 2 younger kids.  Perhaps if I hid them, I thought, my anxiety would go away.  But it didn’t.  It was right there, every time I opened the drawer, or finally even just when I saw my nightstand.

Mom smoothed out each crumpled sheet and piled it up, then she carried them to the kitchen table.  She wanted to be sure I did the work, so she did the thing that I had been unable to ask her to do.  She sat right beside me as I did worksheet after worksheet.  And it was easier than I had thought.  I was able to do it with the reassuring presence of my Mom, and I turned in every sheet the next day.  After that, I didn’t need to hide my work anymore, but I did have to bring it home.  I did all of my schoolwork at the kitchen table, with my Mom nearby.  That sort of solution did not fly with my second grade teacher (she wasn’t too pleased when she passed out a worksheet the first week of school, and I stuck it directly into my bookbag – and even less pleased with my explanation, “But Miss Johnson let me take all my work home!”) but I found that a year of having done all of my work in my own kitchen gave me the assurance that I could in fact do the work – and so I was finally able to work in class.

These days, I still have a secret drawer of sorts, and I still stuff things in there that I am ashamed of – but I am glad to have many people I can call on when I need a safe and reassuring presence to help me take something out of the drawer, smooth it out, and sit beside me as I work it out.  Thank you all!