Wednesday, June 13, 2012

An Open Letter to Chase or Why I Will Marry Same Sex Couples

The following is my response to an email I got from my friend Chase (click here to read his email). Throughout my ministry I have mourned the position of UMC that prevents Chase from being ordained or married because of his sexuality. This letter represents where I am and is not meant to pass judgment on others in different places. If you do feel guilt, I invite you to struggle with me in that. Based on my interpretation of Scripture, I do not believe homosexual acts to be sin. This letter is based on that premise, so if you disagree with that, you probably won't agree with any of it. All I ask is that you accept that deeply committed Christians who love Jesus and the Bible as much as you do, have a very different perspective than you might. If you disagree, feel free to engage me, but please leave Chase out of it. The Church has already hurt him enough.

Dear Chase,

Thank you for your bearing your soul to me in your letter. Your vulnerability reminded me of Harvey Milk and your call for urgency reminded me of Martin Luther King Jr. writing from a jail cell, also to a bunch of clergy that were calling for patience.

I am sad that you have renounced your membership in the United Methodist Church. I’m sad because I know how much you love her and how much she loves you. I’m sad that she hasn’t been faithful to you. You were waiting to marry the church you loved, and she not only left you standing at the altar, but she added insult by denying you the opportunity to marry your partner within her walls as well. The people called Methodist broke their Baptismal vows to surround you with a community of love and forgiveness… instead they called you incompatible, unordainable, and unmarryable. 

Through Baptism, God placed you in a church that would nurture you, confirm you in your faith, and help you hear God’s call into the fullness of who God created you to be. When you told them God created you for ordained ministry they celebrated. When you told them God created you for relationship with another man, they turned their backs on you.  Perhaps when scientists discover the gay gene a modest proposal would be for us to stop Baptizing gay babies. That way we wouldn’t have all this trouble down the line when God starts getting crazy ideas like calling Baptized gay people into the ministry.

The United Methodist Church isn’t alone. They follow in a long tradition of the Church trying to exclude the “other” because they were “incompatible” for ministry: incompatible gender, incompatible skin, incompatible race, incompatible health. And before you say those are all examples of things people are born into and homosexual acts are a choice, the list doesn’t end there. The Church tried to exclude the “other” for incompatible diet, incompatible foreskin, incompatible income, incompatible dancing (remember, nobody puts baby in the corner)... The ridiculous list goes on.

When the Ethiopian Eunuch met Philip and wanted to become a Christ follower, he asked a loaded question, “What is to prevent me from being Baptized?” Well… for starters, castration made him “incompatible”. Philip Baptized him anyways—an act as subversive then as today me officiating your wedding, Chase. Why did Philip break the rules and perform an early-church chargeable offense? Because he knew God’s grace and love didn’t know the bounds of incompatible. I agree with Philip and with you Chase… incompatible, what a horrifying, bitter word.

Chase, some will argue with our generalization of The United Methodist Church as a people who turned their backs on you. When I read your letter, I nodded my head in complete agreement. But, what have I done to really stick my neck out for you and others? What have I really done to leave the safety of straight elder privilege and into the place of oppression you and others have been segregated? To agree and not take action, or worse, to say, “Wait, have patience” is to stand on the side of injustice. Thank you for calling me and others to account for that.

MLK faced a similar battle. While he sat in a Birmingham jail cell, White moderate pastors who were too afraid to see a dip in their offerings, kept silent or repeated the call for patience. Here is a bit of what MLK had to say to those White moderates:

For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see that "justice too long delayed is justice denied.” …Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, "Wait.”…I had hoped that the white moderate would see this need. Perhaps I was too optimistic; perhaps I expected too much. I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action. ...So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an arch defender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent—and often even vocal—sanction of things as they are. But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.

So yes, it is true that almost half of those present at General Conference voted to no longer call you and others incompatible. I’m guessing that many would affirm your marriage and ordination. But how we would vote is not the question you asked. It is one thing to anonymously punch a button and cast a vote for full inclusion of LGBT persons; it is quite another thing to stand with them in their suffering. To stand up with you even if that means giving up our security and power.  Maybe “stand up” isn’t the best theological phrase to use in this case… maybe “lay down” would be more appropriate. No greater love is a love that lays down, not a love that hides behind a stole for fear of losing a job. As a pastor, I am called to be faithful, not called to keep my job.

So because I remember the connection we shared over time, and because of the call of Christ on my life to show radical love to all people, I will make my signs of protest clear. I will speak honestly, without fear of consequences. I will lay myself down for you and 'your people'—who are also my people.

I suppose my statement could be framed a bit more directly, so here goes—I will officiate your wedding or any other wedding I am asked to officiate. I will fight for the Church to one day ordain you, should we be lucky enough to have you back. Sure there may be a trial, but at least I will be able to account to God for my ministry. For me, I would much rather be a defrocked unemployed ex-elder than a play-it-safe sell-out with a guaranteed job.

This is a deeply personal issue for me. It is personal because of people like you and BJ and Tim and Brad and Justin and Michelle and John and Michael and David and Stephen and Audrey and Arden and Mark and Nathan and Robin and Sarah and the countless others who have changed my life because of the love they have shared with me. I have known you as compatible and I will be damned if I continue to remain passive in a church that labels you otherwise. I will be damned if at the end of my life I look back and regret not speaking truth to injustice I so clearly see. I will be damned if I am shuffled into the goats only to hear Jesus say, “I was transgender and you turned your back on me.”

To my fellow clergy… the words I have written represent were I am presently on my journey. I know you are each at different places. Most of you that will read this are at least in a similar place theologically. I pass no judgment on you for how you choose to be present as pastor to the LGBT community. I do, however, invite you to join me. Lay yourselves down with me... with lesbians, gays, transgender, bisexual, queer, questioning, asexual, intersex, and others labeled or treated “incompatible” by our Church.

Today I met with a pastor of a large church who has been committed to this for a long time. He mourns the fact that when a same sex couple wants to be married he has to farm them out to another inclusive church. It pains him that he cannot officiate as their pastor. I respect his choice as he is clearly making a difference by the vast numbers of LGBT who have found a community that accepts them. He feels called to fight for change from within, without breaking the rules… I respect that. I do, though, invite him and others to pray about joining me and thousands of other UM clergy around the world in ecclesial disobedience… to embrace our vocation by laying down our careers in the company of Philip, Jesus and the LGBT community—in a perichoretic orgy of love in the name of the Father, Son and  Holy Spirit.

I love you Chase. I give God thanks for your holy witness and challenge to the people called Methodists, for your holy presence to those who are troubled, and most of all, for your holy friendship.

Yours always,


Sunday, June 10, 2012

Letter From a Holy Friend or Why I've Lost Patience with the United Methodist Church

The following is an email I got today from a dear friend I went to Duke Divinity School with. When I met Chase he was seeking to be an elder in the United Methodist Church. I could see Chase’s call as clear as any other minister I have known, if not more so. Throughout my ministry I have often thought about Chase and mourned the position of UMC that prevents Chase from being ordained. Chase’s story and his very life is one of the main reasons I am seeking to live out the rest of my calling as an advocate with the LGBTQI community—either inside or on the peripheral of the local church.  Here is Chase’s email, printed with permission. I will post a response in the coming days.

* * *

Hi all!  

Though a few of you have the honor of putting up with my tedium on regular occasion, many of you to whom I write today I haven't seen in too many moons. The vast majority of the twenty or so of you I'm writing today I have known through Duke Divinity School, and are out and about doing work within the context of the United Methodist Church.  Some of you have taken your holy orders as elders or probationary elders, and some of you are fastidious in your work of social justice and societal welfare.  Thank you for your work; goodness knows the missional life is under appreciated.  For my part, I understand that the daily work in ecclesial setting is taxing to say the least; your expressions of the holiness-of-the-ordinary have my endless gratitude.

Most of you, I believe, are aware that I formally renounced my membership in the United Methodist Church a few years ago, saddened by the denomination's double-speak on "prophetic voice" vs. "long-term dialogue and holy conferencing" as part of its hospitality-free polity barring LGBT persons from particular-sacramental work. It was a dichotomous decision for me--both tremendously difficult to per force leave behind a people and institution that formed me into who I am and yet concomitantly a decision of great ease---wheresoever I (and my fellow LGBT persons) are banned from formal ecclesiastical work, I cannot remain.  For me, it was and has been a decision of personal ethics, turning away from an endlessly abusive system which calls congregants and those who tend them to abide by a book which disparages beautiful identities as 'incompatible with Christian teaching.'  

Incompatible. What a horrifying, bitter word.  

Imagine what it must be like to be called 'incompatible' with all of Christian teaching. Incompatible in relationship to the polity of the church. Incompatible, implicitly noted, with one's relationship with God and neighbor.  

Though incompatible and far-too-broken to break the bread for those gathered for eucharist, we are of "sacred worth."  You'll forgive me, I hope, as I call this double-speak just what it is - bullshit.  

I watched as the General Conference of the United Methodist Church made a mockery of authentic engagement, saddened to witness the further detriment of this denomination; emancipated, as it were, from the emotional violence, I still (and always will) have a strangely-warm place in my heart for the people of the UMC and the parishes and institutions they comprise.  Oddly enough, it was the UMC (once considered a progressive denomination among protestants) which helped me escape literalism and hold on to confounding concept that God could change God's mind, as God did with the people of Nineveh (yes, believe it or not, I still have a copy of the canon somewhere about, though I'm still peeved that it is a closed-canon).  

Some of you are working tirelessly and to speak truth to power, flying right in the face of the discipline (as your retired bishops did).  And for that, I thank you. 

I cannot speak to what others of you are doing amid this onslaught of ecclesial fratricide, so I include you in this bold request.  When next you don your stole and liturgical vestments, when next you hold out your hands over the bread and wine, when next you speak on behalf of your denomination in word, order, sacrament, when next you remember the mighty acts, when you next lecture to a class or lead a faculty meeting----please also remember me.  Remember how much power you have, however neophyte you might feel in the context of your career.  Remember the connections we shared over time, and whether in the context of those connections, you found me worthy to be with you, as we together would proclaim our unworthiness.  

Whether out of fear, vows, anxieties, belief systems - I confess that I hold bitterness with some of you, particularly those of you I met and loved through our theological education.  I've been desperate to see your signs of protest, your willingness to speak honestly, your willingness to stand up for me and 'my people'--who are also your people, as many of you continue to baptize LGBT persons into the methodist flock.  I've been desperate to see your willingness to stand trial - with my commitment to be present with you should such bureaucratic devilry come to you.  

I suppose my request could be framed a bit more directly, so here goes----- Would you stand trial for me?  If you are empowered in any way whatsoever and believe injustice is afoot, would you stand trial on my behalf--in the service or my ordination (and one day, my marriage)?  

For many of you, I imagine this hasn't been much of a personal issue, and I wish to have it be so, as I hope our connection and friendship would make it personal for you.  Would you speak so boldly that you're censured, dismissed, or defrocked?   Until so many of you go that far will the church begin to listen.  Would this have been about the status and role of women in the clergy or (may it never again be so) divisions in the ranks about the rights of persons of all ethnicities and races, I would have gone to the mat for you.   Would you do likewise for my kindred?  So much violence and abuse has been done by your church against my identity that it seems unlikely I would return to your denomination - but I care too much about the good that is left within your fractured body (and the young persons in your congregations struggling with sexual orientation hearing what their pastors say...and do not say).  Your silence can be rather deafening. 

A few of you on this list are deans, tenured faculty, retired faculty at Duke (and a few other spots).  With no apologies for directness, you--most empowered of all--seem to have done very little.  I've been watching and listening - hoping, even, for you to say publicly what you've said to me privately.  I expect more from you, and live with a disappointment grounded in hurt for your inaction. Please turn your whispered support into something substantial. Maybe even reconsider and recall words of moral vision that (while once fully well-intentioned) now carves the heart out of the ontological joy concomitant with being grafted into--rather than intentionally anathematized of--the kingdom of God and ordained service to it.

Of all of us, you have the most power, backed by tenure, institutional equity councils, centers for ethics, and the ability--nay, responsibility--within the academy to engage students, alumni, faculty, and the wider community of theological schools (particularly those with ties to the UMC).   If you live in fear there, why do you still live there?  And what can I do to help you overcome such a burden?  I will show up in every circumstance I can, as I have for Sam Wells anytime he came calling for panel discussions at the divinity school on issues of disenfranchisement and hetero-normativity of the church.

Be patient, we've been told.  Dialogue.  Holy conference.  Empty words, masking an unwillingness to really do anything; mortician's rouge spread thickly upon approaches meant to pacify, never really to empower.  

Would you stand trial for me?  Saint Peter Storey once gave us all a stern reckoning from the pulpit of Duke Chapel in his 2006 baccalaureate address in, as he prepared to make his way out of a toxic environment into another:

"Resist with all your might the temptation to play “church” while the world bleeds. Until you lead your congregation to engage with that real world, your pastoring will be mere pampering, your proclamation will be a religious form of talking to yourself. Jesus wants to lead us past our self–absorption into the only place where it costs something to be the Church – the world. God invites us to join Jesus there declaring the good news that God’s heart breaks in love for that world... that God’s arms are nailed wide open in welcome to all, especially those broken by poverty and bigotry, and shackled by injustice."

Would you stand trial for me and my kindred?  If you will, I will get on a plane and support you, wherever you may be. Will you risk being slapped by your District Superintendant or Bishop or Dean or President?  If you will, I resolve to be with you and stand to take the hit with you.  I'm used to it, and the callouses protect me (at least partially) from the sting. 

Am I asking a lot?  You can bet on Balaam's ass I am.  If these years of emotional vitriol haven't been personal to you yet, I hope they are now, else I have earnestly misplaced my trust and hope.  I am asking you to set aside your quiet whispers for a potent disquietude; I'm asking you to turn over a few tables in the temple; I'm asking you to upbraid the violent language of your church; I'm asking you to openly speak truth to power, as one you said you would; I'm asking you to do risk crucifixion within your order; I'm asking for your civil disobedience - refuse to marry anyone in your congregations until you could wed me to one who would be my betrothed;  I'm asking you to take the floor at your annual conferences until so ruled out of order and carried out in shackles that it makes the front page of the local paper; I'm asking you to do what true friends would do for one another.  I've sung with you, traveled with you, lived with you, laughed and cried with you, studied with you, argued with you healthily in the midst of academic intrigue, apologized for you, and now respect you enough to ask you directly to do more.  

I've asked it of you; so you can ask it of me.  If you need me to come and speak to your parish or board or be beside you as you walk into an office of power, ask it of me.  Please.  

I'm certain I've failed to stand up for some of you in some way; in the ways in which I have, please help me come to reconciliation with you, and help me learn to speak boldly on your behalf.  So long as you're willing to let on un-Methodist come to your aid, you needn't carry your cross alone.  

There's always a place for you in Durham, NC, should you ever need a visit to this wondrous city, by the way.  Alongside two brave and brilliant clinical social workers, I've dreamt, planned, raised capital for, and opened a specialty behavioral health hospital for young people & center of excellence for the treatment of eating disorders, right across the street from Duke (so good luck getting rid of me!).  Here, I am privileged to serve as Vice-President & Chief Clinical Officer.  I like to say that it is a place that's been 'loved into being,' and I am proud to have such an incredible, expert staff.  If I can ever help with your congregant families (either in getting specialist connections for outpatient care near you or care at our hospital), let me know. 

There can be a temptation to say at this point, "but look - you found a different calling about which you are incredibly passionate."  Resist this temptation, please.  I love my work with a fiery passion, and am most glad to have fallen in love with what I get to do in this world.  Resist the urge to pacify and look back to a larger issue of the institutional invalidation of identity.  Because you are a part of the people called Methodist, you find yourself squarely in the center of a political, bureaucratic maelstrom which wounds, disenfranchises, and leaves your church impoverished from the gifts of service, leadership, and care LGBT persons have to offer--just like you. 

It wouldn't be me if I didn't lend you a song - so here's to you, Fred Rogers, for understanding that being different is beautiful, something to be proud of, and (despite what one might see) is only truly handicapping if the community decides it so.