Books

Book Review: A Gracious Heresy

I’ve heard the story from my Presbyterian colleagues about the Rev. David Bailey Sindt, who stood up at the 1974 General Assembly with a sign that read, “Is anybody else out there gay?” Other mainline denominations have their semi-famous gay icons, but what of the gay and lesbian people who took their own stands on less-remembered occasions? 

Connie L. Tuttle was one of them. The first out lesbian to graduate from Columbia Theological Seminary, Rev. Tuttle stood in protest during an Atlanta Presbytery meeting in the 1990s, compelling those in attendance to remember that they were discussing people, not merely policy, as they considered Amendment B. That event forms the spine of her memoir, A Gracious Heresy: The Queer Calling of an Unlikely Prophet(Resource Publications, 2018). She had no official standing to speak at the meeting, yet she stood, in a visible yet silent protest. 

Tuttle tells her at times tumultuous life story in frank prose. She does not spare herself and thereby gains the credibility that allows her to tell the truth, as any worthy prophet would, about the people whose preferences and prejudices affected her along the way. The narrative is grounded in the events of the world, giving the reader a sense of what it was like to be a young woman formed by the social and political climate of the late 1960s. Her childhood experiences as an Army brat exposed Tuttle to a non-denominational and accepting form of church, and that is what she hoped to find when, as a 20-something lesbian single mother, she began searching for a spiritual home and found it for a time in a Presbyterian congregation. In response to a strong sense of calling, she went to college in her 20s at Agnes Scott, with the goal of then going onto seminary. 

Call is not so much words as it is feeling. Not the imposition of feeling but the rise of relationship beyond words. (p. 23)

Tuttle’s writing voice communicates a sense of her energy and drive, whether she is remembering cooking for a community meal, taking a road trip, or learning how to be present to patients as a chaplain. Throughout she shares a vision of community in which people care for and nurture one another, despite the unkindness she faces from sexist and homophobic church and academic leaders. (For those who know anything about the Southern Presbyterian Church in the 1970s and 80s, many familiar names appear in the text.) She takes us into classrooms and meetings with faculty, including a story from her first day of classes, when the professor teaching “Formation of Ministry” informed the students they must guard against “zipper problems.”

Shocked, I looked around. Zipper problems? Two things bothered me about this statement. One: there were enough women in the room for him to have come up with a different euphemism. Or did this just refer to male clergy? And two: WHAT? You mean to tell me that the people who are supposed to model the highest standards of ethics are no more than clay-footed mongrels panting after any women in heat? (p. 143)

As I said above, her tone is frank, and that frankness was much-appreciated by this reader. Sexism and homophobia have not gone away in the decades since Tuttle graduated from Columbia, in the church or in the wider world. I take great encouragement from her determination to push back even then, and from the cause of that determination: she had a call to follow, and she was going to find a way to respond to what God put in her heart. 

When asked to describe her gifts for ministry during an assessment required for her seminary graduation, Tuttle explained that her wide experiences prepared her to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves, particularly those who had been hurt by the church.

I want my life to be prophetic and my actions to be pastoral. (p. 182)

What a worthy aspiration!

Connie Tuttle was never ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA). She went on to found Circle of Grace, “a small, progressive, ecumenical, feminist, Christian house church” in Atlanta, Georgia. She is part of the RevGalBlogPals blogging community; you can find her writing at The Gracious Heretic. I recommend her book to all who love to read call stories, and especially to readers who wonder why LGBTQ+ people stick with the church. (Short version: God called us.) Rev. Tuttle may be a heretic; she is certainly a prophet; she is also a hero.

I received a copy of the book in exchange for my honest review. (Cross-posted at RevGalBlogPals.)

Church Life, LGBTQ, Ministry

Dear Mainline Church people (a response to the Nashville Statement)

Dear Mainline Church people,

I’m writing this in response to the Nashville Statement, a pernicious manifesto issued today by a coalition of conservative Evangelical Christians. In a season when the church could be speaking out against White supremacy, agitating for peace in a troubled world, finally getting some clean water for Flint, and mobilizing to help after Hurricane Harvey, they felt it was instead the time to reiterate their condemnation of LGBTQIA+ people and to be particularly specific in their disdain for trans* people.

Now, my Church people, some of you make space for your LGBTQIA+ siblings; we can really be part of the body of Christ with you. Some of you think you do it, but maybe you stopped at making a statement without doing any further work to figure out what might make us feel welcome to do things beyond coming to worship, or worry that if you have a rainbow anywhere on your premises, people will think you’re “the gay church.”

Meanwhile, our Evangelical cousins, empowered by the political success of the right, have doubled down on theology that is exclusive and cruel. They’ve affirmed their own superiority, denied the full humanity of LGBTQIA+ people, and declared that anyone who doesn’t agree and come over to their side of the line they are drawing is not a faithful Christian.

For Jesus’s sake and in Christ’s name, mainline pastors and leaders, have the conversations you’ve been putting off. I say these things with all love. Get clear about what it means to be welcoming and affirming. Fix up the forms parents fill out at Sunday School; why do they need to be gendered? Consider new signage for your bathrooms. Be ready when one of your young people comes out to you, ready to love and embrace that young person instead of setting them on the path of rejection. Have a Bible study and discuss alternative interpretations of scripture used by others to condemn, equipping yourselves for larger conversations in your neighborhoods.

Maybe even buy that rainbow flag for the outside of your church, so we know it’s safe to come inside.

Faithfully,
Martha

Sermons

Falling Upward

I picture it as a beautiful day when the disciples, those small town guys, stood outside the Temple in Jerusalem and admired its workmanship.

It wasn’t Jesus’s first visit to the big city, according to Luke, who tells a story of 12-year-old Jesus going with his parents to Jerusalem for one of the high holidays. On the way home, his parents assumed he was hanging out with the other kids, somewhere in the throng of people on the dusty road. When they realize he was nowhere to be found, they went back to Jerusalem and searched for him for three days. Three days! Imagine how distressed they must have been. Finally they discovered he had been at the Temple all along, talking to the priests, discussing the Holy Book with brilliance well beyond his years.

This visit is different. This time the priests do not admire him. He’s turned over the tables in the Temple, one of the stories that finds its way into all the gospels. He arrives at the Temple and he absolutely goes off when he sees how his Father’s house is being used and misused.

This time they not only don’t like him. They decide he needs to die.

The Temple was in the process of being rebuilt, a huge public works project under Herod’s rule. You might remember that this second Temple, built after the exile, never felt quite like the original in spirit, and certainly was less elaborate. Herod set out to create a legacy for himself by making it more elaborate. So it’s fancy new construction that the disciples admire, only to have Jesus tell them that it won’t last. And it’s not a huge leap to take him literally, because it was only about forty years later that the Temple his companions admired would be laid waste, never to be rebuilt.

Everything’s going to fall down sometime.

Whether they want to hear it or not, Jesus is warning his friends of the troubles about to come. They will be challenged after his death and have to testify to their faith. Their families no doubt disassociated from them, perhaps because of genuine disagreement, but maybe also just to keep themselves safe from political danger. The only hope he offers is that if we endure, we will gain our souls.

It’s important to note that Jesus spoke to the very particular situations of the people around him that day, but that he also speaks to us, so many years later. It’s happened to me, and probably to you, too. Life is going along on the accustomed path, and then without much warning, or perhaps with hints you missed and can only see in hindsight, everything goes smash. It can happen at work, or school, or in our relationships.

We’re all going to fall sometime.

If our faith really matters to us, if we are truly committed to the values that go hand in hand with our beliefs, then we will almost certainly face times when we will be on the unpopular side of arguments, when we will have to speak up for what we believe and identify ourselves with Jesus at great cost.

The cost was certainly great for Jesus, in human terms.

Next week’s gospel reading will find him on the cross.

We all going to fall down sometime. Even Jesus.

It’s the human experience, one he shared with us.

In his book, “Falling Upward,” the Franciscan priest Father Richard Rohr writes,

“Failure and suffering are the great equalizers and levelers among humans. Success is just the opposite. Communities and commitment can form around suffering much more than around how wonderful or superior we are.” (Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, Jossey-Bass, 2011, p. 158)

Out of what looked like failure to the world’s eyes would come a movement following Jesus, a movement passed down to us over millennia, continually formed and reformed in the face of loss and death and endings, continually born into new expressions of faithful testimony and action.

I’ll be honest. When I planned ahead for this sermon I expected a different outcome for this week’s election. I worried about the aftermath, but I worried about a different set of people being upset and disappointed. Maybe the signs were there, as they should have been for the disciples, but I didn’t see them, or I didn’t want to see them.

Now I’m concerned about my family’s future, and for others who wonder if we will lose rights we gained so recently. At a medical appointment the other day I found myself stammering, hesitant to name my relationship to my wife. We’ve had to reassure our son that no change in a law can unmake our family. And maybe we’re catastrophizing; maybe there is nothing to worry about for us. But the same racism and misogyny I named in recent weeks has been on display for the past five days, making the world seem less safe for some of Will’s classmates. He’s worried about whether kids will bully his friend,

STEVEN M. FALK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Rosario Jaime, a Penn graduate student from California, signs the "wall of solidarity" sponsored by the United Minority Council. (philly.com)
STEVEN M. FALK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Rosario Jaime, a Penn graduate student from California, signs the “wall of solidarity” sponsored by the United Minority Council. (philly.com)

Meyhar, and we’ve talked with him about sticking up for the students who fall into the category of “other,” labeled for their race or religion or national origin. It breaks my heart for children, for anyone, to be at risk simply for being who they are. You may have read the story about the racist messages sent to all the black freshman at Penn this week, and that is just one instance. For me this feels like the Temple falling down, the structure I built around my beliefs that everyone could have a place in America.

 

Father Rohr says,

The genius of the gospel was that it included the problem inside the solution. The falling became the standing. The stumbling became the finding. The dying became the rising.  (Rohr, p. 159)

We all fall down sometime. Sometimes, even when we try not to, we mess it all up ourselves. It’s human to want some reassurance that everything will come out all right in the end, and this speech from Jesus that stirs up our anxieties gives us only an eternal hope. He doesn’t promise us our lives. He won’t get to keep his own.

Next week, you’re going to take a vote on the future of this church, and some of you already have ballots ready to return to be counted as absentee. One of the ideals of our congregational polity is the give and take that happens in the meeting itself, the noble principle that we give equal consideration to each speaker, letting each opinion be heard, and counting each vote equally. We reach our conclusions in our own ways. Maybe we’ve prayed long and hard about our decision – whether in church business or national politics – or maybe we go with our gut.

Up in Maine, the last community I served still has an annual Town Meeting where decisions are made. It can be scary to share our thoughts that way, right out in front of everybody, but in this case, it’s so important for discerning how you will vote in the end. That’s why there have been so many opportunities offered for conversation with the Consistory, in hopes that all voices will be heard, and there will be one more chance in the meeting itself. If you haven’t spoken, or feel worried about making your voice heard, remember that Jesus promised his disciples words and wisdom for the moment they would be most needed.

And if you get it wrong, well, we’re all going to fall sometime.

But don’t let people tell you falling down means everything comes to an end.

As Father Rohr puts it,

I fell many times relationally, professionally, emotionally, and physically in my life, but there was always a trampoline effect that allowed me to finally fall upward. No falling down was final, but actually contributed to the bounce! (Rohr, p. 158)

Believe me when I say this truth is hard-won for me right now. I haven’t come around to it through platitudes or sentiment. I’ve been down in the abyss having words with God this week, and I know it’s true God was right there with me because Christ has been in the abyss of hell himself.

I am disillusioned and disappointed and even distraught, yet I still believe this is the truth. We are people of the Good News. We are people of God’s Hope. We are people of Christ’s Resurrection.

So we do not despair.

We do the work of letting go, and the work of building up again, and the work of arguing with God, and the work of listening to God, which for most of us is a lot harder. We try, knowing another fall will come, another disappointment, another loss, but remembering that whatever happens, we are not alone. It’s the truth, even in the moments when we’ve fallen, and especially when we’re falling upward. In the name of the Creator and the Christ and the Holy Spirit. Amen.