Connected

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While scrolling through Facebook this morning, I found links to two recent articles from the New York Times that had been shared by the Covenant Network of Presbyterians. The first one, “Alabama’s Dangerous Defiance,” dealt with the absurd situation playing out in Alabama, with the State Supreme Court defying a Federal Court’s finding that the state’s refusal to grant same-sex couples the right to marry was unconstitutional. The second one, “States Weigh Legislation to Let Businesses Refuse to Serve Gay Couples,” deals with the current rash of state legislatures rushing to try to enact copycat laws that would permit private businesses – including not just wedding photographers and cake-bakers, who seem to be getting an awful lot of attention in these arguments, but pharmacists, doctors, real estate agents, bankers, etc.-  to discriminate against not just LGBTQ folk, but literally anyone who runs afoul of the individual’s “deeply-held religious beliefs.” This same attempt at legalizing discrimination goes even further in some states’ versions of the bills, including not just the private sector, but public employees, as well – from doctors to firefighters to teachers to clerks of court to bus drivers, any of whom could refuse service to you because of some perceived conflict between you and their personal religious beliefs.

I was born in 1960. The civil rights marches, protests, and violence that ripped our nation apart in that decade are things that were going on only on the vague fringes of my childhood awareness and memories – I knew there was something going on, but I was too young to really comprehend a lot of it or feel that it really had anything to do with me. As I got older, I came to understand more about its significance, and I wished that I’d been just a bit older and could have been involved in it – while at the same time, wondering if, at that time in my life, I’d have been on the right side of the debate. I want to think that I would have been, but I’m ashamed to admit that given the cultural soup we were swimming in during those years, I’m not absolutely sure I would have.

Now, fifty years later, not only are we seeing an erosion of some of the gains won during that movement, we’re also seeing many parallels between the current battles for LGBTQ equality and those earlier ones. The issues involved here are an ugly replay of the same kind of shameful bigotry and intolerance, not to mention Constitutional ignorance, that was fought against back then; in this particular instance, some of it is even being waged over the same geography. The idea here, that individuals, by way of the ballot box, have a right to violate other people’s Constitutional rights, and to have those violations shored up by state courts and publicly elected officials who claim the superiority of so-called states’ rights and sovereignty over the overarching federal Constitution as it’s interpreted by the federal court system, are some of the exact same arguments that were used to try to justify denial of civil rights to blacks, women, and other groups, and even to justify slavery itself.

When Abraham Lincoln helped to dedicate the national cemetery in Gettysburg in 1863, he talked about those soldiers who had been buried there, saying that they’d died in order for the nation to have a new birth of freedom, and so that we would remain a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people;” people who were created equally and who have equal rights. Lincoln said that it was the duty of us, the living, to dedicate ourselves to continue, and hopefully complete, their unfinished work.

Over the years, many have done just that, continuing to speak, and write, and protest, and die, in order for our country to live more fully into its founding principles. Now, in 2015, we’re fighting another ongoing battle in the same long war, having to push back against the exact same tired and hateful arguments that the federal courts have ruled time and again are unconstitutional in past battles. No, ballot boxes do not trump Constitutional rights. No, state courts and judges do not trump federal ones. No, religious freedom is not absolute. There is no inalienable right to engage in hatred based on so-called “deeply held religious beliefs” outside of one’s church doors. It’s wrong and immoral enough to do it inside those doors, but at least within their boundaries, you have a Constitutional right to be an intolerant bigot if you wish.

So now, in my fifties, I have the opportunity for a do-over of sorts. I wasn’t part of the historic struggle for equality that took place when I was a kid. Now I can be, and I am. Yes, this particular struggle affects me much more directly than the one fought In the 60s. Even if it didn’t, though, I’m glad to know that I would have chosen to be on the right side of both God’s love and history, and would have worked and spoken out for full LGBTQ equality in society, and in the church, even if I weren’t gay myself.

Roy Moore and George Wallace are connected in this battle. But I feel very much a part of who, and what, has gone before me, too.  I feel connected with those who stood up for the exact same issue In the past, whether the actual physical battlefield was Christopher Street in the West Village, or a Birmingham jail cell, or a Presbyterian Church in Seneca Falls, New York (google it), or Culp’s Hill in Gettysburg.

Or Alabama.

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Back-dated Chicago-Blogging: “Marriage Matters,” part 2

Since the weather on Friday morning looked a lot like it did the day before, and since I really didn’t want to repeat getting soaked again, I brought my umbrella with me when I left the hostel, guaranteeing that it would be dry when I got off the metro. Once I arrived at the Gratz Center, I quickly found my morning cup of coffee and sat down in the lobby waiting for the caffeine to kick in. While sitting there, I struck up a conversation with the man sitting next to me, and while it didn’t dawn on me at first, I gradually realized that I was chatting with a denominational trailblazer of sorts – Scott Anderson. Anderson is the first openly gay person to be ordained as a minister after the constitutional changes that removed the language specifically prohibiting non-celibate gay and lesbian people to ordained positions – whether as Deacons, Elders, or Ministers of Word and Sacrament. That restrictive language itself only dated to 1996; its removal in 2011 had the effect of returning to the more historical tradition of each local presbytery having the authority to decide for itself on such ordination matters. In any case, Anderson gained some national notoriety because of his unique place in the church’s history. I enjoyed meeting him and our short conversation.

The first thing on the schedule this morning was a brief prayer session, featuring a responsive reading of a Psalm that alternated between “Anyone” in the gathering reading a portion of the text – sometimes resulting in one spoken voice, other times several different voices joining together – and “All” responding. The short service was led by Daniel Vigilante, a recently ordained pastor who made news as being the first openly gay person to be ordained and installed to service in Minnesota. It turns out that he’s also a pretty talented pianist, providing the musical accompaniment for this and at least one other service that I attended while at the conference. I’m very happy for Vigilante and I applaud his groundbreaking status. At the same time, I hope that the day isn’t far away that the ordination of an openly gay pastor will focus solely on pastoral gifts, and that one’s particular sexual orientation would draw less than a yawn from people. I don’t imagine that Vigilante, or Anderson, or any other LGBTQ person, wants to be known for being a “gay pastor,” but rather, simply a good pastor who just happens to be gay.

After this was the morning plenary session, given by Amy Plantinga Pauw. Pauw’s presentation was informative, enjoyable and inspiring, as she went through an analysis of the institution of marriage from a Reformed Protestant perspective, and why the concept of marriage equality is theologically consistent with this perspective. You can read her whole presentation here. And you can find a good story about her presentation here. I don’t mean to distill a very thoughtful and engaging presentation to a catch-phrase, but she did leave those of us in attendance with the repeated call to arms, of sorts: Why should Christians support marriage equality? IT’S TIME. Indeed, it is.

After the morning plenary, I attended Matthew Vines’ workshop, during which time he laid out a very brief outline of his personal story and of his new organization The Reformation Project. As he explained in the workshop and on the organization’s website,

we will equip [trainees] with the tools and training they need to go back to their communities and make lasting changes to beliefs and interpretations that marginalize lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. Once they go back, we will continue to offer them personal, financial, and infrastructural support for months and years to come. We will ensure that even those with the biggest and most daunting of goals will have the means to accomplish them.

Crucially, the aspiring reformers that we train will not be seeking to change their churches by asking them to ignore or look past the Bible. The Bible is not anti-gay. It never addresses the issues of same-sex orientation or loving same-sex relationships, and the few verses that some cite to oppose those relationships have nothing to do with LGBT people. Careful, persistent arguments about those passages have the power to change every Christian church worldwide, no matter how conservative its theology. The mission of The Reformation Project is to train a new generation of Christians to streamline that process and accelerate the acceptance of LGBT people in the church.

After the morning workshop, we were left to have lunch on our own. I ended up having a bite, and an interesting conversation, at a place just down the street from the Gratz Center with Mark Achtemeier – another traditionalist-turned-progressive who’s been pummeled by church conservatives for his theological shift; and Randy Bush, a Covenant Network board member and the pastor of the East Liberty Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh.

In the afternoon, we were treated to the plenary session given by William Stacy Johnson, a theology professor at Princeton Theological Seminary and author of A Time to Embrace: Same-Gender Relationships in Religion, Law, and Politics. I have to say that Johnson’s presentation may have been the high-water mark of the already high tide of the overall conference. You can catch two competing news reports of his message here and here. This was a really strong speech.

After this, we adjourned for a delicious chicken dinner. This evening, my table-mates were an older couple from California, Matthew Vines, and several really great students from Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The table conversation was lively and enjoyable. Still, I was actually in a bit of a hurry to finish up, because this evening I’d planned to ditch out of the evening worship service (honestly, even pastors can get worship overload sometime) and meet up with some long-time friends who live in the Chicago area. We had an absolute blast that evening, having a light snack and a few adult beverages, mostly just enjoying the company and the conversation.

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Here’s a picture of the three of us. It was great getting together with these guys; I really wish we’d had more time together. We ended up at Cru Kitchen & Bar, a nice restaurant not far from Fourth Pres. In fact, while we were there, there was a gathering of young adults from the conference scheduled at the same location. They all filed in when the three of us were on our second drinks, and took up the bulk of the dining area immediately behind us. The staff apparently saw all the grey hair at our table and realized that we needed to be isolated from all those young Presbyterians, so they drew the curtain immediately behind us for separation.

After this, one of my friends drove me back to the hostel. Knowing that I’d be checking out early the next morning, and not wanting to be too disruptive for the other roommates, I got most of my poop in a group, ready to go for a quiet morning departure, and then crawled back up into the upper bunk. And there was morning, and there was evening, the second day. And somehow, I managed to not lose my umbrella.

Back-dated Chicago-Blogging: “Marriage Matters,” part 1

I’m back home now from the Covenant Network of Presbyterians‘ Marriage Matters conference. My bags are unpacked, the stacked mail will be sorted through tonight (junk mail, junk mail, junk mail, rejection letter, junk mail, bill, junk mail…), and most, not all, of the phone messages and email replies have been taken care of. Now I have time to tell a bit about the conference.

This trip was done on the extreme cheap. I was very blessed and grateful to receive scholarship money to pay for the event, and the church agreed to pick up the travel and lodging expenses. Still, in order to be as frugal with the church’s money as possible, I didn’t stay at the official conference hotels, or even an “unofficial” hotel, for that matter. Instead, I decided to be a bit more adventurous – I booked space at the Wrigley Hostel, a literal stone’s throw from Wrigley Field, offering a great price and almost door-to-door transportation via the Red Line between it and the conference downtown at the Gratz Center of the Fourth Presbyterian Church.

I got into town Wednesday evening, before the conference and pre-conference workshop kicked off the next morning – which, while I’m thinking about it, why was it called a “pre-conference” workshop? Why wasn’t it just considered part of the conference? I didn’t get that, but just like the question of why men have nipples and other similar imponderables, I guess there are apparently some things you just go with.

The hostel was pretty much as advertised online – basic, no-frills dormitory-style lodging with some common areas for socializing, with a very diverse group of mostly (much) younger, mostly international travelers passing through. That combination of youth and international flavor would have made the stay interesting enough; add to that the fact that I was staying there over Halloween and it was all the more interesting. Overall, I have no problem with spartan accommodations when traveling on the cheap, and I didn’t here. I will say, though, that being assigned to an upper bunk in the room gave me regular reminders that I’m not 25 any more. Oy.

I crawled down out of my upper berth early Thursday morning, trying to get ready without waking up the others in the room. I grabbed some toast and a piece of fruit in the kitchen – literally just outside my bedroom door; I had to walk through it to get to the room – and headed to the Addison stop on the Red Line, where a very nice  transit employee walked me through buying a three-day metro pass.

When I left the hostel, the skies were grey but dry. I have a history of leaving a trail of forgotten umbrellas behind me when traveling, so I decided to leave my current one back in the room – probably the worst decision I made all day. It was pouring when I exited the Chicago & State stop, and even though it was just a short walk to the Gratz Center, I was pretty well soaked through by the time I got to there. My saturated wool sweater made me smell like a wet sheep, so I peeled it off and hung it over a chair to dry. At the same time, this first day of the conference there were problems keeping the temperature in the building to levels anywhere this side of hell, which quickly made a mockery of the claims made on the label of my deodorant. Before long, I was wishing I only smelled as bad as a wet sheep. I feel for anyone who had to sit next to me this first day.

Weather and climate control issues aside, I quickly registered for the conference and crawled into a cup of hot coffee. As I did, I got the opportunity to meet Brian Ellison, the Executive Director of Covenant Network, with whom I’d previously communicated via email but had never met in person. It was great to finally meet him.

The workshop scheduled for this morning was led by Kimberly Bracken Long, an associate professor of worship at Columbia Theological Seminary. The primary focus of the workshop was to consider the issue of developing a marriage liturgy that would be universally appropriate regardless of the sexes of the two partners. In doing so, we looked at the current PC(USA) liturgy. We also reviewed same-sex or universal marriage or blessing liturgies coming out of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the Episcopal Church of America, and the United Church of Canada (the largest Protestant denomination in Canada; a melding of most of the formerly separate Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Brethren, and others). The table I was part of looked specifically at the UCC liturgy, and I was actually very impressed with most of it.

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The group of us in the Marriage Liturgies workshop

In the afternoon, we heard the first of plenary session speakers, Macky Alston. Alston comes from a long line of Presbyterian ministers – in fact, his father, in addition to being a pioneer for civil rights in the 1960’s, was the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of the United States (our official title for the Grand Exalted Poobah of the denomination). Among other things, Alston is a documentary filmmaker; his recent documentary “Love Free or Die,” about Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson, won the 2012 Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Prize. Alston offered a very moving, sometimes gut-wrenching, sometimes inspiring glimpse into his own life as a gay man growing up in a church which largely shunned him. Challenging those gathered there, he summarized the findings of focus-group studies that he’d conducted regarding people’s opinions on matters of LGBTQ equality in church and society. He pointed out that while there were certainly compelling scriptural arguments for inclusivity, too often, progressive Christians didn’t make them – opting instead for more secular, non-faith-based appeals, thinking that these arguments would appeal to a broader swath of the public. At the same time, opponents of inclusivity within the church consistently used scriptural arguments. That means that when the public, largely consisting of the great Christian “middle ground” – those non-extremists who are trying to honestly reach some thoughtful opinion about LGBTQ inclusivity that was consistent with their faith – heard the arguments, the only scriptural arguments they’ve heard were for from the opponents to inclusivity – so they thought that the opponents’ arguments were the only “Christian” position possible. In short, in their attempts to make the progressive Christian position more accessible and acceptable by making it more secular, they actually made it less so. Alston argued for progressives to change course, to make their arguments from scripture – but not in a dry, academic sense. At the Thanksgiving dinner table, don’t make Cousin Sue’s eyes glaze over by discussing the finer points of koine Greek. Simply make the argument for love and justice, from a scriptural basis. This, along with people’s direct personal interaction with LGBTQ folk, are what have consistently proven to change people’s long-held thoughts.

Of course, Alston said much more than that, and much more eloquently. It was a great kickoff session.

As I was exiting the Buchanan Chapel, I bumped into Matthew Vines and introduced myself. Vines is a gay man who grew up in a conservative, Evangelical, Presbyterian church in Wichita, Kansas, who made media waves about a year ago when he posted an hour-long youTube video detailing his personal research into what the Bible says – and doesn’t say – about homosexuality. He was scheduled to lead one of the workshops available at the conference. I ended up attending his workshop on Friday and speaking with him informally a few times during the conference. His presentation in the original video is quite remarkable (he certainly isn’t the first to make the arguments he makes in the video, but he presents the information very effectively and passionately; I’ve recommended it to a number of people over the past year), and he’s even more impressive in person. Since creating the original video, he’s started an organization called The Reformation Project – but more about that in a follow-up blog entry.

After a delicious jambalaya dinner, evening worship included a message from Frank Yamada, President of McCormick Theological Seminary. His message was based on Genesis 2 – the second creation account, detailing the creation of man and woman; one of the texts often held up as an argument against same-sex relationships and marriage. Yamada offered the view – effectively, I thought – that the primary point of this text is not really about gender-specifics, but rather, that human isolation and loneliness is not good; that it is a good thing for us to form relationships with another whom we find to be an appropriate companion, regardless of whether that companion is of the same or the opposite sex (Yamada didn’t specifically mention it, but I always note when reading this text that God didn’t create a woman for the man and order the man to accept her as his companion – rather, God created the woman and left it for the particular man to choose whether this was a suitable companion for him. To repeat: God left it to the human being himself to determine who would be his appropriate companion/helper). Yamada stressed that being isolated and alone was, to quote God, “not good” – and that accepting only such relationships that are between two people of the opposite sex, and refusing to accept such relationships between those of the same sex, is actually working contrary to God’s will. He added to this point by referring to Galatians 3, that in Christ there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female – that these are meaningless distinctions in the eyes of God. It was a very good sermon.

After this, I headed back north on the Red Line and to the controlled mayhem of the hostel. And there was morning, and there was evening, the first day. More to come.

Here I Stand.3 – A Place at the Table

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Later this week, I’ll be attending Marriage Matters, the annual conference sponsored by the Covenant Network of Presbyterians. CovNet is an organization made up of congregations and individual members of the Presbyterian Church (USA) committed to working for full inclusivity for LGBTQ persons within the PC(USA). This includes issues related to their ordination as deacons, ruling elders, or ministers; creating more LGBTQ-welcoming and affirming congregations nationwide; and working for the PC(USA) to revise its Book of Order to change the definition of marriage as being between “a man and a woman” to being between “two people.” Every day, as more and more Christians reach the conclusions that a person’s sexual identity is inherent, and a gift from God – actually, a significant part of their having been created in the imago Dei – and that same-sex marriages are expressions of love every bit as worthy of blessing by God and the Church; and as more and more states are legalizing marriage equality; this becomes a more significant issue for the church. Increasingly, Presbyterian ministers in states where same-sex marriage is legal have to choose either to refuse to officiate at these weddings – often for their own parishioners, friends, and even family members – or, as a matter of freedom of conscience, to break their ordination vow to uphold the requirements of the Book of Order. The way things stand now creates a truly bizarre twist of polity: an ordained minister in the PC(USA) may be openly gay or lesbian. They may be part of a long-term, non-legally recognized same-sex partnership. They may be part of a legal civil union where such unions are legal. They may even be part of a same-sex marriage where they’re legal. But they may not have their marriage officiated by a fellow PC(USA) minister, or held in a Presbyterian church. This makes no sense at all.

My own journey of understanding the issues of LGBTQ inclusivity has been a long one, and one that required a near-seismic shift in my personal theology. I was originally very firmly in the traditionalist camp. Back then, I thought the PC(USA) was moving away from the “true” faith and throwing away the Bible, allowing itself to be poisoned by the whims of the mood of the times. In fact, it was in part through my determined effort to rebut arguments for LGBTQ ordination and marriage equality within the church that I came to realize that those arguments were sound – that they were entirely consistent with our historical understandings of the nature, authority, and interpretive methodologies of the scriptures. I came to realize that for all of these years, the Church had been wrong – and I had been wrong. At the same time as that scriptural study, I came into contact with many gay and lesbian Christians – many of them fellow seminarians, and many of whom I sensed were at least as gifted, if not more so, for the ministry as I am. Through these and a number of other avenues of study, prayer, and personal introspection, I arrived at the theological position that I hold now – that neither being gay, nor acting upon it, are sins. A person’s sexuality is a gift from God, intended in great measure – perhaps the greatest measure – to enable two people to experience and offer love – for that love to help express the love inherent in the very being of the Trinitarian God, in the jointly divine/human nature of Christ, and in the relationship between Christ and us as individuals. Expressing that love within same-sex relationships, if that is a person’s sexual nature, is no sin. To the contrary, to try to repress or obstruct a human being from expressing love in a committed relationship with another is what I view as sinful, and an attempt to obstruct what God intends for them.

As my personal and theological journey progressed, many things happened. Frankly, I lost a number of long-term, good friends. They felt that I was a traitor to the faith, a heretic, an apostate, and clearly unfit for the ministry, of all things. Of course, I also gained new friends, who understood the journey I’d been on and who had been on similar journeys with similar ultimate theological destinations. For a long while after I’d shifted my views, I spent hours and hours explaining to traditionalists how I could believe the way I now did. I wrote literal books’ worth of explanations and arguments. I could, and can, make very lengthy, detailed arguments related to Reformed understandings of the nature of sin and grace, and the nature of scripture and its interpretation. I could, and can, discuss ambiguities in, and likely mistranslations from, the original Greek and Hebrew texts. I could talk about historical context till I’m blue in the face.

But I’ve really almost completely stopped all that. Oh, if someone really wanted to have a true conversation about the issue; if they’re obviously on their own journey of theological discernment the same way I was, I’ll get into all those lengthy discussions. But no more arguing just for argument’s sake. No more simply restating my ground for the umpteenth time in some argument that isn’t going to change anything.

These days, I cut to the chase. I believe that God creates us very good, and in God’s own image, regardless of what our sexual orientation is. Because of that, I don’t believe that either particular sexual orientation, or the physical and emotional expression of that orientation, is sin – rather, oppressing, discriminating against, and excluding people based on sexual orientation is what is sin. I believe that God calls all people, regardless of sexual orientation, to all aspects of life within the church – including all ordained positions and all positions of leadership. This has always been the case, and I believe it’s time for the Church to accept this reality and honor those whom God has so called, by allowing them the space to be open and honest about the fullness of their being, including their sexual orientation. And as part of that, I believe that it’s long past time that the Church recognize the goodness in God’s eyes of same-sex marriages, as a matter of both love and justice. As I encounter more and more LGBTQ people both inside and out of the Church, I’m appalled at how near-universal their stories of oppression, rejection, shunning, and persecution by their home churches are. Over the past two thousand years, the Church has caused irreparable harm to countless millions of LGBTQ people. It’s something that we, the Church will be held accountable for; for which we should truly be ashamed; and for which we should be working aggressively to repent from and to reconcile and make amends wherever and however possible. All of this, I believe, is what is consistent with Christ – God in the flesh – and his teachings.

Thanks be to God, the PC(USA) has already amended its constitution to permit ordination of LGBTQ persons. Now, it needs to become even more welcoming and affirming to all LGBTQ people, those called to ordained positions and otherwise. And it also needs to finally amend its definition of marriage, and to bless same-sex marriages as covenants of love that are seen as good in the eyes of God. In 2012, an overture to redefine marriage as being between “two people” was narrowly defeated at the PC(USA) General Assembly, by a vote of 338-308. I hope that in its next General Assembly in June of 2014, the denomination finally pushes this much-needed correction over the goal line. It’s just the right thing to do. We need to realize that God has a place at the Table for all of us – including our children, our grandchildren, our nieces and nephews; our parents, our grandparents, our aunts and our uncles; and in some cases, even our selves – who have been created by God as LGBTQ, and whom God calls “very good.”