I’m giving thanks for the whole queer family today.
We are pastors, soldiers, legislators, moms and dads, single people, educators, coaches, artists, musicians, welders, bureaucrats, athletes, and administrators. We are tired, we are wrinkled, we are smooth and young; we are beautiful. We are young urban radicals, comparatively dull suburbanites, and hardworking outdoorsy folk. We are every race and shade, every shape and size, all religions and none.
We are funny, and sympathetic, and no better dancers than the rest of you, and sadly some are really terrible people, because we are human.
We are the ones people look at twice and the ones people never identify as LGBTQIA+. We are the young cashier at the drive-through, and the brilliant professor in high heels, and the linebacker who hits the hardest, and the butch who looks smoking in a black t-shirt, and the spruce executive with the beautiful neckties, and at least one silver-haired mama wearing pearls and drinking a mocha at your local Starbucks.
We are fearfully and wonderfully made, in the image of God, whose diversity is beyond human imagining, categories, prejudices, and phobias.
I am the older sister. I grew up taking blame for naughty things my brother did, and taking the spankings, too. At least, that’s how I remember it.
“Memoir is not an act of history but an act of memory, which is innately corrupt.” Mary Karr, The Art of Memoir
I’m reading Mary Karr’s book, and I’m noting how one-sided all our stories are, and impressed by how generous she tries to be when recalling stories about other people. So I will confess I know there were times the spankings were related to my behavior. I know I was far from perfect; in fact, I spent quite a bit of time in the office of the head of the lower school at St. Agnes in my 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade years. A core unrest whipped me around and around; I climbed out a window, and I kicked my teacher, and I pulled a fire alarm, or so they tell me. I think I am innocent of that last one. But who knows?
By adolescence, I had learned how to control myself a little better – or to pretend to, to pretend to be that professional good girl an older sister and first-born ought to be. As my brother got involved in typical teen-age shenanigans, I became pious and careful. I might disappoint my parents (I did), but it wouldn’t be on account of sex or drugs.
“Now his older son was in the field. Coming in from the field, he approached the house and heard music and dancing.He called one of the servants and asked what was going on.The servant replied, ‘Your brother has arrived, and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he received his son back safe and sound.’Then the older son was furious and didn’t want to enter in… (Luke 15:25-28, CEB)
I think in the church we’re very likely to identify ourselves with the older son, to convince ourselves that we’ve always been well-behaved, loyal, hard-working, all the ideals of this American culture. The truth about me is that I have been all those things, but I’ve still managed to leave home, worry my parents, shock everyone who knew me by (1) going to seminary, (2) getting divorced, (3) getting married again, (4) getting divorced, (5) coming out, and (6) getting married again. To my family back home in Virginia, who thought of my brother as the imp and me as the nice girl, I have engaged in a complete role reversal. My brother is the steady one, long-married, established. I am the rogue, the prodigal, the sinner.
When I read this chapter now (Luke 15), I read it differently than at other times in my life. I can only read it as myself. We are all corrupt this way.
I read it as a person whose whole life is viewed differently, as a woman whose choices are well outside the realm of youthful sins, errors or peccadilloes. I read it as a woman whose marriage is considered suspect not because it’s #3 but because my spouse is a wife. I read it as the niece who was not welcome at a funeral, as the sister whose brother would not come to the wedding. I read it as a pastor’s wife subject to never-ending micro-aggressions not only from the people who question our “lifestyle,” but from the people who claim to support us. I read it as a pastor whose employability in a progressive denomination plummeted just for being queer.
When I read these stories now, I am grateful for these stories and Jesus’ assurance that God loves us, and seeks us, and returns us to the fold.
It’s only in some human eyes that I ever left it.
Holy God, sometimes we get lost in the wilderness of judgment, in the dark corners of oppression, in the foreign land of inhospitality. You nose us out, search for us, welcome us home, and in every case, rejoice when we are together again. Thank you for that. Amen.
Jesus always seems to be encouraging us to persist, because persistence will get God’s attention. No parent is going to give a child a scorpion instead of an egg, and if your neighbor is already in bed and won’t give you some extra bread out of hospitality, he might do it out of annoyance to get you to go home, already. Later we’ll get a widow practically stalking an unjust judge. Don’t give up, he says.
And I tell you: Ask and you will receive. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened to you.Everyone who asks, receives. Whoever seeks, finds. To everyone who knocks, the door is opened. (Luke 11:9-10, CEB – I read Luke 11:1-28 today)
I hear you, maybe we didn’t get what we asked for in the form we expected. Etc.
I would simply ask those who embrace that interpretation to consider whether or not they are speaking from some naive or even smug privilege.
In my denomination, we’ve been ordaining women practically forever, but there remain churches who see women as second-class candidates. We were the first Christian denomination to ordain gay and lesbian people, and we’re nominally open and affirming to all LGBTQ+ people now, but the situation on the ground is more complicated. Queer and trans clergy and candidates for ministry are knocking, seeking, asking, and we can get through the hoops right up to the point of receiving a call to a church. Then it’s in the hands of a small segment of a local congregation, a group of volunteers, certainly taking their responsibilities seriously and perhaps worried about getting it wrong and being blamed if the church suffers due to the choice they make.
And as we wait for emails or phone calls, as we are turned down by committees, as months become years, our knuckles bleed, our hearts hurt, our spirits flag.
I haven’t searched for a settled call since I came out, so I am speaking for others here, but it’s honest to say that I’ve considered the possibility of searching and decided I don’t want to risk myself. I’ve pieced together other work, much of it speculative. I don’t earn a full-time salary even by combining the other work, and I rely on my spouse’s employer for benefits such as health care and even life insurance. I wonder if I could ever earn those things again in the work for which I was trained.
Other doors have opened, of course. Other requests were granted. The love I sought for all my life was found. I write this not because I am disappointed in my life but because I wonder about my church, and other varieties of church, that make statements in forums that have limited bearing on actual employment for people like me and think that’s enough.
I hope what we need is merely time, that this will change, but the truth is that people who are genuinely called by God are languishing, wondering if they got the message wrong, when maybe they were just more open to the Spirit than the rest of church world. My heart hurts for them.
Holy One. We are still knocking. Please, open the door.
When a disaster occurs, or a terrible thing happens in the world, when a bomb goes off on the sidelines of a marathon or a shooter unleashes hatred in the form of ammunition at a political event or an elementary school, we all shudder, and as we listen to the news stories or read the follow-ups in the paper or online, it’s human nature to look for a story, for a person with whom we identify.
For me, that person, this week, was a young man named Luis Vielma, one of the first faces I saw when photos of the victims in last Sunday’s Orlando shooting began to circulate online. There were so many of them, 49; for some reason I attached myself to this one.
Luis Vielma was an Emergency Medical Services student at Seminole State College and was enrolled in a CPR class this summer.
The college president, Dr. E. Ann McGee, released a statement on Monday saying, “We are saddened by the tragic events this weekend and the loss of one of our own, Seminole State student, Luis Vielma. We continue to think of, and pray for the victims, their families and friends, the LGBT community, the Hispanic community, our students, and all of Orlando. These events have truly shocked and saddened the Central Florida community.”
Mr. Vielma also worked at Universal Studios at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. His high school friend Eddi Anderson told the Tampa Bay Times that Mr. Vielma loved his job there.
J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter book series that spawned films and the theme park, mourned Mr. Vielma’s loss on Twitter, posting an image of the smiling young man in a Hogwarts costume.
He’s young, smiling, pretty adorable, wearing a grey v-neck sweater vest and a white collared shirt and a Gryffindor tie. That’s gold and burgundy, in case you don’t know your Harry Potter house colors.
Lucy was in the fifth grade when she wanted to dress as Hermione for Halloween. That child is a planner, so we started in August collecting the pieces of her costume from various catalogs and stores. The piece de resistance was a Gryffindor scarf I made for her, like the ones the kids wear in the first Harry Potter movie.
I braided her thick straight hair the night before, into dozens of tiny plaits; when we undid them the next morning she had a huge head of wavy hair more like young Hermione’s – as seen in the movies – and she went off to school delighted.
At recess, kindergartners ran up and asked to hug her.
I’m telling you all this because I love my girl and don’t want anything bad to happen to her. Lucy turns 21 today.
Luis Vielma was 22. His funeral was yesterday. Somewhere his mother, Tina, is still weeping.
Whose story touches you?
At a vigil service outside my wife’s church this week, we read all 49 names, with a little bio of each. Many were Hispanic, about half of Puerto Rican background. Some were parents who left young children behind. Some were couples; a double funeral will replace a wedding for some. Some were successful in their work and others were just trying to get their lives together. They were executives and hairdressers and pharmacy technicians. One was a mom who went to the club with her son, because she loved to dance salsa. It was Latin night, you see, and the people who gathered at Pulse felt safe to dance and be together, in a nightclub they saw as a kind of sacred space, a sanctuary.
As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?
My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, “Where is your God?”
These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I went with the throng, and led them in procession to the house of God, with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival.
A multitude, keeping festival. That’s Psalm 42, verses 1-4, from this week’s lectionary. Here’s the thing. No matter what year we live in, no matter what country, no matter what our native tongue, these ancient songs of lament and hope, of question and steadfast belief, have something to say to us, to say for us. They remind us that people don’t change all that much. We celebrate and we grieve. We sing and shout, we weep and mourn.
We’re more alike than different. Luis the soccer player and Lucy the singer, one a Catholic boy and the other a Protestant girl, both confirmed in high school, both their mothers’ beloved children, their fathers’ talented darlings, with friends and classmates who would say kind things about them, and teachers who would praise them, and pictures taken dressed up like students at Hogwarts.
They are more alike than different, except for one thing. I can call my daughter on the phone today, or FaceTime with her, send her text messages with birthday cake emojis. Luis Vielma’s mother can only weep and pray.
By day the LORD commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.
I say to God, my rock, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I walk about mournfully because the enemy oppresses me?”
As with a deadly wound in my body, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me continually, “Where is your God?”
Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God. (Psalm 42:8-11)
All week I’ve been thinking about how terrifying it must have been, hiding in a dark nightclub, wondering where a murderous person with a gun had gone or held hostage by him, wondering if anyone would care enough to help. Lots of them called or texted their mothers, some who would die from deadly wounds in their bodies.
And here’s a thing that is hard to hear as a Christian, hard for me to hear from my UCC colleagues who are there in Orlando as trauma responders: some of the survivors don’t want to talk to religious people. They don’t think we really care, or that if we do, it’s only in the service of changing them to be more like us.
As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:27-28)
In his letters to young churches, Paul writes something like this on three occasions. It’s nothing new for human beings to be obsessed with their differences, with finding ways to collect themselves in groups based on their characteristics, their language, or their names for God. He wrote to the Galatians because other evangelists had come among them, from a group called the “Judaizers.” The Galatians were suddenly thrust into a huge debate among the early Christians that applied only to men. On one side, the Judaizers wanted all followers of Jesus to live by Jewish law, and that included circumcision. Gentile converts wanted to follow Jesus, but they didn’t want to fulfill that particular expectation if it wasn’t absolutely necessary. Paul thought it wasn’t. He wrote to assure them that through the power and grace offered of Jesus Christ, they were all one.
Paul writes something like this in three epistles, but this is the only time he mentions gender, what people in his time would have understood as one noticeably obvious and definable marker of difference. We have a much longer list of differences today, related to orientation and identity. Yet Christians have mostly been on Team Tradition with their definitions, and we have used those definitions not only to exclude but to persecute people who don’t match them just the way we like things to be. We may look back at our first century ancestors and say, “Why were they worried about something so unimportant?”
I ask you, “Why are we?”
Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, Luis or Lucy: we are many kinds of people. We could define ourselves solely by our differences. Lots of people do, because it makes them feel safe, because it makes them feel righteous, because it makes them feel right. The people preaching circumcision wanted everyone to commit to the thing they believed mattered most.
When we are ready to condemn others for their differences, to define them as outside the circle of human consideration and divine love, we create a climate in which hatred and prejudice seem natural and sensible. When we combine this evil spirit of condemnation with the ready availability of semi-automatic weapons, we sentence ourselves to the kind of fearful scenes that played out in Orlando and the aftermath of suspicion and despair that continues.
It’s too easy to attach that evil, hateful spirit to one particular religion. We can find it in any religion and no religion. We can find it in the Orlando area churches now expressing sympathy for the very lives they have reviled in the past. We can find it closer to home, too, anyplace we convince ourselves that we are the only ones Jesus would care about, the only ones Jesus would want to save.
You see, Jesus went to places and ate and drank with people who the religious authorities disapproved. We’ve got him all wrong if we try to turn him into some kind of elitist priss-pot. We’ve got him wrong if we prioritize any characteristic above his love for humankind, for all kinds of humanity.
My prayer for the church and for our country is that we might embrace the idea that Paul teaches in his letter. Jew or Greek, slave or free, we are all one in Christ Jesus. Paul made it clear, not once or even twice, but three times. The culturally insurmountable conditions of his time made not one bit of difference in the eyes of God.
May it be so in our time as well.
We are many, but we are all one in Christ Jesus. Amen.
Our puppy, Teddy, has decided that books are the best chew toy. We’ve caught him several times in recent days surreptitiously removing a book from the bottom of our big Ikea shelf system in the living room. He started with coffee table books, lying down to gnaw the corners of volumes also recumbent due to their extreme height. Then he managed to drag a picture book out and across the floor, and he hit the mother lode: photographs of a post-Katrina trip to Mississippi tucked inside the pages of “The Storm.”
I am in one of those pictures, standing with a small group of children, outside their church, Handsboro United Methodist, where I offered pulpit supply and emergency coverage as a small gesture of support for a pastor on the Gulf Coast, ten days off to keep recovering from the physical and emotional damage of wind and water and loss. Months had gone by and great mounds of debris had been hauled away, but houses remained catty-corner to their original addresses while the people who had lived in them still sought safety.
The children are holding gifts sent by the people of Stevens Avenue Congregational Church UCC, where I was pastor. I traveled to Mississippi with a backpack full of gifts, tucked in the folds of a prayer shawl for their pastor.
In the picture, I’m wearing a dress from LLBean; I got it at a rummage sale for $3.00, at a church where I filled in just after seminary, a real score because it was unworn. That’s a pair of Birkenstock women’s loafers originally purchased for my oldest son when he was at that awkward size between boys’ shoes and men’s, worn by me for many years, through numerous re-heelings, re-solings. I wore a ponytail because a retired colleague’s wife said my hair looked unprofessional around my shoulders, but I kept it long to save money on haircuts.
I remember many things about that trip, the things I saw and many of the people I met and the stories they told me. I cannot forget the people who literally clung to tree branches to save themselves, who lost their brothers, or their dogs, or their homes, or even just their sense of direction.
It’s much harder to remember being someone who tried so hard to be so many things to so many people without leaving an imprint, who tried so hard to be ordinary and good and acceptable.
I want to tell her, “You have no idea of the storms that are coming. You will feel like a house off its foundation. You will learn what it’s like to perch precariously, clinging to what remains.”
And then I might whisper to her, “But keep hanging on, dear one, because beyond the storm there is hope. In the recovery from the storm, there is kindness, and love you won’t recognize at first. Don’t let go.”
Since my last experience trying to phone my primary care doctor’s office and get a refill amounted to a series of voice mails left by me, which received no answer and led to no renewed prescription, I took the doctor’s advice and today registered for their Internet portal. I looked over my records online and after scrolling down through “conditions” now deemed “resolved” was surprised to see the following category of “active” items:
Personal Health Conditions
The first listed was “never a smoker.”
That sounds legit.
The second listed was “Homosexuality.”
I wonder if my straight friends who are patients there would find a note proclaiming their Personal Health Condition of “Heterosexuality?”
Yesterday I was reading about Matthew Vines, author of God and the Gay Christian, and his continuing effort to be in dialogue with evangelical Christian leaders about the acceptance of LGBTQ people in the church. He was invited to a conversation with Rev. Caleb Kaltenbach, an evangelical pastor whose parents split up because they were both gay. Kaltenbach has tried to find scriptural support for being okay with gay people generally, especially since that group includes his parents.
As a child, Mr. Kaltenbach attended a gay rights march with his mother, and he recalls protesters yelling that God condemned the marchers and throwing urine on them. (His book, “Messy Grace,” part memoir and part advice for pastors on ministering to gays, will be published this year.) He says evangelicals should welcome gay people with “acceptance, but not approval.” Openly gay couples attend his church, he said, but are not allowed to serve on the leadership board. (From the New York Times)
My bold there. I don’t understand why, in a world where there are so many, many, many churches in flavors both denominational and non-, a gay couple would freely choose a church where leadership is forbidden to them due to their relationship status. I wonder about the hurt feelings sustained when they have been around long enough to want to get more involved and discover they are not *that* welcome. In a world where even Tony Campolo is now encouraging churches to embrace and accept gay couples, I hope they know there are other choices.
It’s possible that queer couples who go to a church where they are not received as full members, where they are not allowed to serve in leadership roles, where their status as baptized members of the Body of Christ is somehow “less than,” feel they are on a mission from God. I know I sometimes feel that way, living in South Central Pennsylvania, which is not exactly the most progressive corner of the globe. There are days when it feels like my entire calling to this place is to be an ordinary queer on behalf of Jesus Christ, whether as the interim pastor of a United Church of Christ congregation a few towns over or as the wife of the female Senior Pastor at the Presbyterian Church USA congregation across the street. Every time I answer the door at the manse as her wife, I am representing. Every time I share a family anecdote in a sermon, I am representing. Every time I get home from church first and walk our puppy, and the Presbyterians stop over to pet him before they go home, I am representing.
Some days it feels so ordinary to be there in a church-owned house with my wife and our children that the only thing I stress about is whether the puppy will chew on something that belongs to the church rather than to us. Other days, it feels like I finally know what cross I was always intended to bear, a cross engraved with the words “Queer Christian.” It’s not a death sentence; rather it is a holy burden, and the work of my life, to be queer and faithful.
He says evangelicals should welcome gay people with “acceptance, but not approval.”
This sentence weighs on me. It’s essentially the opposite of the UCC’s category for welcoming churches, “Open and Affirming.” Despite my continuing concerns about whether my family is fully safe, much less accepted, here in South Central Pennsylvania, on the whole we have received an amazing and affirming reception in our churches. This is particularly true at my wife’s church, where she continues to do fruitful ministry, and I do a lot of the things any pastor’s wife might as a volunteer leader: I lead a women’s Bible Study, and I serve on the Fellowship Committee, and this morning I stood witness at a wedding.
I don’t know the experience or the point of view of the gay couples who attend churches like Kaltenbach’s. I do know the feeling of doing what you believe God calls you to do. I also know the experience of being rejected or, worse, ignored by people who will not meet my gaze because they cannot quite get to acceptance, much less to approval. My hope for the couples who bravely return to church each week is two-fold. First, may they know that there are plenty of churches, more all the time, where they and their gifts for leadership and service would be most welcome. Second, if they are choosing to work through it in response to a call from God, may the change of hearts happening in the world reach the places where they are now, and may they be able to see the change and know they were part of it. Perhaps this is the work of their life, too, to be queer and faithful, accepted and approved by God.