Hang On

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It’s been an interesting couple of months, to put it mildly. Actually, life has been interesting for longer than that, but the past two months or so have been particularly momentous, seeing the culmination of a number of things long in the making.

Coming Out to My Daughters
About two and a half months ago, I guess, I came out to my two daughters and my wife, from whom I’d already been separated for four years. We were still legally married  because we were too broke to pay for the divorce, and mostly in order to facilitate our younger daughter staying within and graduating from her school district. I’d stressed terribly over how, and when, to come out to them. I’d already been out to a number of friends and colleagues, but coming out to family is a whole different thing. If a friend, even a good friend, doesn’t take the news well, and they cut ties with you, it’s a disappointment. Having that same kind of reaction and rejection from a family member is the great terror that robs gay men of cumulative months of sleep as they envision every possible coming-out scenario in their waking and sleeping hours.

Ultimately, the timing of my coming out was determined by unexpected events unfolding, and not by grand plan. My boyfriend had come for a visit, and we’d planned to drive down into southern Ohio and do some hiking and sightseeing in the beautiful Hocking Hills region. We had just left my place, and had set out on the 45-minute drive, when I received a text from younger daughter, asking to borrow my large suitcase for her imminent departure to Switzerland, where she’d soon be starting her undergraduate studies. Beyond the fact that I actually needed the suitcase for my own upcoming move, I realized that when she arrived at the house to “borrow” it, she’d be curious about the strange car parked in the driveway. But your kid is your kid and you’d do anything for them. I figured I’d just pick up a second-hand suitcase for myself in a thrift store, so I told her that it was OK for her to stop by and pick it up. A little while later, as I’m driving, I get a text:

“Dad, are you seeing someone?”

Wow, I hadn’t expected that – but I figured I could brush it aside easily enough.

“LOL! No, my friend George from Toronto came for a short visit and I decided to show him the Hocking Hills.”

“Yeah, are you seeing him?”

Wow. “Are you seeing him?”, not even stopping along the way at “Are you gay?” Had she had suspicions about me for some time? Had she put things together in her own mind before I could make my own announcement? I didn’t think so, but I also know that we human beings can often delude ourselves in the worst way. How am I supposed to say something, via text, while driving, that in even my best-case scenario would be a sit-down conversation of at least an hour? Try keeping the car on the road while processing that. Hell, try not wanting to deliberately drive off the road into a concrete abutment just to avoid the whole thing.

I realized two things. First, I was too big of a coward to actually tell the truth in that moment, in that way. Second, I had to text back quickly, because a long delay in answering the question would automatically give an answer I wasn’t prepared to give. So with a knot in my stomach and with my hands trembling, I typed as quickly as I could.

“Um, no. But in any case, the suitcase is in the downstairs hallway, make sure that you don’t…..”

I deflected. And then, for the next couple of days, I was sick to my stomach. I’d just lied to my daughter. I’d lied about something that was very important, and lying to her about anything just ran contrary to everything I believe about parent-child relationships. After a very stressful and not at all enjoyable day of hiking, I decided that I was going to have to come clean to my daughters, and quickly – which would also mean that I was going to have to come out to my soon-to-be-ex wife, and to my parents, and to the rest of my immediate family, in rapid succession.

I arranged to have dinner with the girls at a favorite local casual restaurant. We had a great time together. After we’d eaten, I started in with the younger, texting daughter.

“You know, you sent me some texts the other day that really took me by surprise. But I’m curious; I wanted to ask you: How would you feel if I were seeing someone?”

“Omigosh! Are you?”

“Well, just answer the question first. How would you feel?”

Slight pause…

“Well, I don’t know. Would it be a woman, or a man?”

Zing. She has to suspect. I actually feel encouraged by this. Maybe it isn’t going to be as  big a thing as I’d been fearing.

“Well, how would you feel if it were a woman?”

“It wouldn’t bother me. I’d be OK with it.” (Older daughter concurs at this point.)

Deep breath…

“OK… and how would you feel… if it were another man?”

Momentary awkward silence.

Older daughter chimes in: “Well, if that were the case, I just want to say I’d be OK with it. I mean, I’d have to get used to it, but we’re all who we are, and if you’re gay, that doesn’t change anything between us.”

Unfortunately, younger daughter, whose line of questioning had started this chain reaction to begin with, was not anywhere near as conciliatory. She was taking it hard.

“But you’re the one that asked if I were seeing a man!”

“I was kidding!”

No you weren’t, I thought to myself. But this wasn’t the time to argue about that.

“What about the church that you just took the new job at? Do they know? Are you going to have to quit your job?”

“No, the church knows; I told them the very first time we talked.”

“Oh… wait… so they knew before we did?!!”

This was not going well. The remainder of the meal was tense, on at least one front.

Coming Out to My Soon-to-be-Ex-Wife
Two days later, I came out to their mother over lunch. When I got to the big declaration, her response was to smile and say “I knew it! Honestly, I’d have never suspected it, but after you went up to Toronto to see your friend twice so soon, and then you said you wanted to see George Takei at the Pride Parade, I really started to suspect it.” Of course, she had a number of questions, and maybe she’ll have more as time unfolds, and I tried to answer them as best as I could, even while I try to work out the answers to some of them myself.

A major factor in deciding to come out when I did was that younger daughter was leaving the country for school – remember the suitcase? I knew that I’d be coming out once and for all in very short order, and I wanted to do so with her in person, rather than via phone, Skype, or blog post. I’d deferred the start of the new pastoral position so that I’d be able to see her off at the airport when she left. Unfortunately, that was not to be. After our dinner, she got word to me via her mother that she didn’t want to see me, or talk to me, or hear from me, or have any contact from me. This has been the single negative reaction that I’ve received over my coming out (at least the only one actually spoken). It hurt, and continues to hurt, in a way beyond description. Before, I’d been Pops. Now, I didn’t even exist.

But, she’s eighteen. I remember being eighteen, and so black-and-white certain that I knew how the world worked and that I had all the right answers, well past eighteen. Just as I’d hurt other people with my own actions, I’m getting some of it back now, and just as those people had been patient with me until I came around, I can only do the same in the hopes that she will. I think she will, but it’s going to take some time. So I wait.

Coming Out to My Parents
In the midst of all this, I was shuttling back and forth between Columbus and New York, making final arrangements for the new job. During one of those trips shortly after coming out to the girls and their mother, I doglegged through Pennsylvania and did the same with my mother, and my father and his wife. It was grueling. Telling them was difficult – not, as I explained then, because I’m ashamed of who I am, but rather, because I knew that this news had the potential to cause them pain, and that was the last thing I’d ever want to do. As it turned out, those conversations ended up going about as well as I could have ever hoped – and far better than they did in the nightmares that had awakened me in the middle of countless nights. After the initial awkwardness, Dad’s response was “Well it sure isn’t the kind of news I’d ever wanted to hear, or expected to hear. But as far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t change anything. You’re my son, and I love you, and I’ll always love you, and nothing can ever change that.” He went on, “The only thing I worry about is that you’ve just had such a tough time of things for so long now, and I want things to be good and go easy for you for a change, and I just worry that this is going to continue to make things difficult for you.”

Telling Mom went differently, but ultimately just as well. After the initial shock, and running through the religious issues she had with the news, she thought very carefully about what I was saying. She ended up asking me some incredibly good questions, very thoughtful questions. I’d given Mom and Dad both copies of Matthew Vines’ book God and the Gay Christian, since I knew they’d both have reservations on religious grounds. At one point, Mom said “Well, I guess it’s just the way I’ve always said – hate the sin, but love the sinner.” Realizing that even that was a step in the right direction, I said, “Well, I hope that at some point, you get to the point where you don’t believe there’s any sin in this to hate.” She said, “I guess the first time I really saw this out of the abstract, as a real human issue, is when I saw the movie Philadelphia.”

“Well, if you’d like, I could recommend a few other movies that might help you as you think through all of this. Would you like me to send some to you?”

“Yes, I think I’d like that.”

In my nightmares, I’d envisioned having to dodge things being thrown at me, and being banished from the house. Don’t imagine that coming out to your parents is any less scary when you’re in your fifties than if you did it in your twenties. In reality, I was amazed at how accepting of this new reality they both were. I thought that the ability for me to be amazed by my parents had long passed. I was wrong. I’m sure that there will be bumps along the way, but my parents are amazing.

Coming Out to Everyone Else
With the immediate family now having been told, I was able to make the final, once-and-for-all coming out announcement, via a blog post,  to everyone else who hadn’t already been let into the circle of trust, to borrow a phrase from Meet the Parents. I did this the day after leaving the Columbus congregation – they’re dealing with a lot of other turmoil and transition at the moment; I didn’t want to add this drama onto them as well – and the day before starting in New York, so that I would be starting here completely out to everyone from the get-go. That single blog post had exponentially more hits than anything else I’ve ever posted here. Still, I’ve been encountering people who had missed the announcement, necessitating a series of re-coming outs. That will continue into the future, I suppose. Here again, the only comments I’ve gotten have been positive and very supportive. Of course, I’m not so naive as to think that the news was met with universal acceptance. I’m sure that there are a number of people who are not supportive; they’ve just chosen to say nothing rather than offer their thoughts openly. That’s more civil, I suppose, but I almost wish that I’d know if someone has written me out of their lives over this. Even worse is the scenario where a person says they’re OK with the news, but they really aren’t, and they gradually, quietly just disengage. There are a few people that I think may be doing this at the moment. I hope not.

Saying Goodbye
My last day of pastoring in Columbus was Sunday, August 17th, and I couldn’t have imagined a more wonderful and heartfelt sendoff from the congregation in my dreams. It was a great service, and a deeply emotional final sermon, followed by a touching reception. This congregation had meant so much to me, for so many years. I was so blessed to have been part of them all of that time.

(Not) Saying Goodbye
The very next day, my younger daughter left the country, without my being able to see her, much less talk with her, hug her. I actually considered hiding behind a column or a plant at the terminal, just to be able to at least see her before she left. As hard as it was, though, I respected her wishes that I not be there, no matter how much it hurt. And it hurt a lot.

Saying Hello
The day after daughter left for Switzerland, I left for Auburn, New York, and the day after that, I was already at work in the new position. A parishioner very graciously allowed me to stay in an unoccupied, but fully furnished home of theirs, enabling me to transition into the new surroundings quickly, and allowing me to make the full-scale transition more gradually. I’ve been living with limited stuff, out of suitcases (including the second-hand one I bought at the thrift store to replace the one that daughter took to Switzerland) and banana boxes. I can’t wait to get into my own place. The new congregation is also wonderful. I’ve spent the past month getting to know the people, the congregational culture, the city. I definitely like it here.

Back to Columbus – The Dissolution
My wife and I had finally gotten our dissolution paperwork filed, and of course, the hearing was set for three weeks after the new job started in New York. So last week, I had to drive a 14-hour round trip to appear in front of a judge for what couldn’t have been more than two minutes, answering Yes, Yes, Yes, No, Yes… to a handful of questions that we’d both already answered in the paperwork. Ah well. After being separated for four years, almost to the day, and with not even a wisp of fanfare, our marriage of 26 years (actually 22 together) was over. We joked in the elevator on the way out of the building. A few hours later, we met up again for a celebratory happy hour drink at the restaurant where older daughter worked. Then, back to Auburn the next morning, and back to work.

And Back to Columbus Again – the Real Move
Tomorrow morning, I drive back to Columbus again. This time, I finish up the last of the packing and start giving the house its final cleaning. The movers show up early Monday morning to pack everything up and, sometime a few days later, deliver it to my new permanent home in Auburn. There are a couple of things I need to drop off, a couple of goodbyes to share, and a set of keys to drop off at the landlord’s. And of course, older daughter and now ex-wife and I will go out for a nice dinner. Then early Tuesday morning, I leave the city I’ve called home since August of 1984.

This past week, a parishioner here commented that she was staggered, thinking of all of the upheaval and changes that I’d navigated in just the past couple of months. I thought a lot about that comment. The real truth is that – as my Dad had alluded to – there have been a near-continual string of major disasters and problems, which won’t be detailed here now,  that I’ve had to get through in my life, running back to probably about 2001. As much as I’d never wish any of those truly awful experiences on even my worst enemy, I really think that going through them taught me how to endure all these multiple, very stressful things in recent times. As difficult as so many of these things are, I’ve taught myself to compartmentalize them, and to be able to continue in a reasonably normal, sane, even good-natured way, even with things being very different while inside each of those various other “compartments.” I do also know this, and I know that there’s a risk of sounding superficial or corny, but I know that there’s no way that I could have gotten through all of this anywhere nearly as well, by simply relying on my own strength or smarts. The collective pressures and stresses that all of these things placed upon me could easily have crushed me like a Dixie Cup, and yet, somehow, I’m still here. Yes, I attribute that to God. Some people might think that clergy have a lot more about God figured out than the average person. I doubt that, actually; I think that we’re just taught a larger and better vocabulary to camouflage the gaps in our understanding. I think that the net result of my education has been that I’m less sure about what I think I know about God than when I began – and maybe that’s the whole point. But I do know that somehow, inextricably embedded within the deepest depths and the highest highs of our experience, there is an incredible, mysterious Something that is so real that you can feel the Something on your skin, hear the Something in your head, feel the Something in your heart, as real as anything you’ve ever experienced in your life. Others may call the Something something else; I call the Something God, and if the past two months, and the past decade, has taught me anything, it’s that I really can do all things through the Something that I also call Christ, who strengthens me.

So, I wonder what’s going to happen next month? I can only imagine. All I can do is just hang on, and enjoy the ride.

God and the Gay Christian: Some Thoughts

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A few years ago, Matthew Vines faced a major life crisis. He’d grown up as part of a very conservative Presbyterian church congregation in his native Wichita. Now, as a twenty-something Harvard undergrad, he’d reached this moment of painful truth. For years he’d been more or less blissfully oblivious to it, and later, as discomforting realization began to creep in, he tried to repress it. But on this particular angst-ridden evening, standing in the toothpaste section of a convenience store, Matthew Vines finally admitted to himself, “Oh crap – I’m gay.”

This kind of self-realization poses enough worries and resultant problems for anyone, but for a devout Christian who is deeply ensconced in the conservative Evangelical branch of American Christianity, it’s all the more difficult. In the midst of this newfound self-awareness, and the inevitable opposition to the news that he encountered from family and friends – all of whom loved him deeply, but who, based on their interpretation of the Bible, were not open to the possibility, let alone the acceptability, of being simultaneously a deeply committed Christian and gay.

This led Mathew Vines to do something drastic. He put his undergraduate studies on hold, and began a lengthy and very detailed scholarly study of the biblical texts which the church has traditionally interpreted as denouncing same-sex relationships. Not a biblical scholar himself, he turned the work of many very well-regarded Bible scholars, from across the full spectrum of Christian thought. In the process, he discovered that the traditional, “non-affirming” position, which has been the prevailing interpretation of these texts for most of Christian history, is far from the only interpretation of them. He discovered that not only was the non-affirming interpretation not the only theologically and scholarly rigorous interpretation, but he came to believe – as others have – that all of the best and most rigorous biblical scholarship shows that the traditional interpretation of these passages has been simply wrong. In this process, not only Matthew, but also his deeply conservative and traditional parents, came to accept the validity of the non-traditional, affirming interpretation of the scriptures.

Following up on this in-depth research, he gave an hour-long presentation summarizing his findings to an audience gathered in a local Methodist church (his home congregation denied him a venue). This presentation was recorded and uploaded to YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ezQjNJUSraY  where it went viral – to date, it has been viewed by at least three-quarters of a million people. It was this video that first introduced me to Matthew Vines. And now, Matthew Vines has written a book, God and the Gay Christian, in which he details the arguments in favor of an affirming interpretation of the Bible and weaving in parts of his own personal story, while he makes his larger point: that a person can identify as a conservative Evangelical Christian, holding to the full authority of the Bible, while also ascribing to an affirming interpretation of the scriptures.

I was especially struck by his scholarship and the video because his research regarding the church’s stance on homosexuality very closely paralleled my own. Matthew Vines grew up in a congregation of the Presbyterian Church (USA) – a congregation that has since, sadly, voted to leave the denomination largely over its decision to allow openly gay and lesbian ordained ministers, elders, and deacons. I am a long-time member of the same denomination, albeit in a significantly less conservative congregation than his. My original entry into Christianity was via a very conservative, non-Presbyterian strand of the faith, and I’d retained this conservatism, and the traditional, non-affirming stance toward gays after becoming a Presbyterian. I’d been disturbed at my denomination’s gradual movement toward an affirming, inclusive stance with regard to LGBTQ issues. At the time, I thought that the denomination was being unfaithful to the Bible, throwing out the scriptures in favor of a position defined more by current secular thought than the Bible. In my mid-forties, I discerned a call to the ministry, first as what the Presbyterians called a Commissioned Lay Pastor, and later as a seminary-trained Minister of Word and Sacrament. During the coursework to become a CLP, I’d dug into the scriptures, their origins, and the interpretive methodologies that we Presbyterians had historically adopted more deeply than I ever had before. At the same time, the denomination was loudly arguing about “the gay issue” and whether to amend our constitution to be more affirming. It was also around this time that I first encountered a person who was simultaneously deeply Christian and openly gay, and the cognitive dissonance that this set off in my brain led to many questions. Still very conservative theologically at that point, I set out on an in-depth study to refute the non-traditional, affirming biblical and theological arguments that were being put forth. At the end of my efforts, however, I ended up at the complete opposite end of the spectrum of the matter, and I had to grudgingly and sheepishly admit to myself, “Oh crap – they’re right.”

Since that time, I’ve moved from identifying as a conservative Christian; to a Christian with progressive beliefs, but who still valued the “conservative” label to the point that I argued that my views were actually the “truly” conservative views; to now, as an ordained Presbyterian pastor who proudly identifies as a progressive Mainline Christian. In that regard, I am not like Matthew Vines, who continues to identify as a conservative Evangelical Christian – and it is precisely that fact that makes his new book so remarkable, and so threatening to a number of conservative, non-affirming Christians. Still, our research, and our conclusions, were almost perfectly parallel. I actually remember being so amazed at his video, which laid out almost precisely my own research and beliefs like no other single source, that I pointed a number of people to the video, via Facebook sharing and other avenues. This sharing was not universally appreciated; by the time the video was uploaded, I had already been serving as pastor to a small congregation for a number of years, and I remember one parishioner in particular who was especially perturbed by the video by this young gay man, who apparently was claiming that “we can say the Bible means whatever we want it to,” and complaining that watching the video resulted in losing an hour of her life that she’d never get back.

I had the pleasure of actually meeting Matthew Vines in October of 2013 in Chicago, while attending a conference of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians. He presented one of the many workshops that I attended there. I was lucky enough to bump into him a couple of times during the breaks, and I shared a dinner table and some very enjoyable conversation with him and three or four others one evening. Since that time, I’d been very much looking forward to the release of his book. Now that it’s arrived and I’ve finished reading it, I can say it was definitely worth the wait. God and the Gay Christian is a very good, and very important, book.

By his own admission, the scholarship presented in Matthew’s book is not new, and not original to him. The interpretations and arguments presented have mostly been around for quite some time. The magic of this book, though – and which I suspect will cause it to have a major effect on attitudes within the conservative Evangelical world – is that it’s probably the single best source for all of these interpretations to be presented together in a single, cohesive location. It does so in a manner that is immensely readable and accessible to the general reader, without diminishing the depth and logic of the arguments. And he provides an abundance of footnotes for even further depth, to satisfy the exegetical/theological nerds among us.

As mentioned earlier, part of the importance of this book is that it’s someone who is still within the conservative Evangelical tent making the case for affirming biblical interpretation. Of course, Matthew isn’t the first to do this either, but in some of the previous instances, the Evangelical movement largely considered these people to be poor deluded souls at best, or liberal turncoats at worst, and in either case effectively shut them out of the Evangelical identity. Only time will tell if the same thing happens to Matthew.

In a number of ways, Matthew has written specifically for the Evangelical – wherever possible, he cites scholars who are more popular within traditional Evangelical circles, rather than others who may be seen as being aligned with progressive Christianity, and whose opinions would be held suspect. Also, most of his biblical citations are taken from the NIV, a translation favored by Evangelicals, with only occasional citations from the NRSV translation officially favored by the PCUSA and other Mainline traditions (both are actually very good translations, with only minor differences where translators were faced with a kind of linguistic fielder’s choice – still, one of the quickest ways to know whether a PCUSA congregation is more progressive or conservative is to see which of these two translations has been chosen for the pew Bibles). These are relatively minor things that a general reader may not even notice, let alone care about, but they make the arguments within the book somewhat more potentially acceptable to a conservative Evangelical than might have otherwise been the case. This is a very good thing.

Another very good thing is his detailed discussion about the dreaded two words in New Testament translation and exegesis, malakos and arsenokoitai. These two words show up in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians in the passage that has traditionally been interpreted as denouncing same-sex relationships. Their translation has bedeviled people for centuries, and while many non-affirming Christians may cede the field regarding the Old Testament same-sex “clobber verses,” 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, containing these two Greek words, is perhaps the non-affirming “ground zero.” Matthew makes a very strong and succinct presentation of the scholarship regarding the meaning of these terms – and especially their meaning when paired together – and the reality that they were not being used to denote the meanings applied to them by twentieth-, and twenty-first, century non-affirming Christians. And the subsequent chapters regarding biblical arguments in favor of same-sex marriage, and the significance of humans – all humans, straight and gay – having been created in the imago Dei, are equally powerful and particularly timely given the ongoing legal and judicial environment, as marriage equality and other LGBTQ equality issues continue to move across more and more states.

As I’ve said, this is a very good and important book. It is very well written and in all likelihood its publication will become a major milestone in the changing of many hearts and minds within conservative Evangelicalism. Without taking anything away from that, there was something that I noticed that I thought was a bit unfortunate. On the very first page of the book, Matthew refers to Christians who currently hold an affirming interpretation of the scriptures, and who support LGBTQ inclusion in the church and same-sex relationships:

To be fair, many Christians now support same-sex relationships. But those who do tend to see Scripture as a helpful but dated guidebook, not as the final authority on questions of morality and doctrine.

That is not my view of Scripture.

To be frank, neither is that the view of scripture held by most progressive Christians, or Mainline Christians in general, whether they hold LGBTQ-affirming views or not. I consider myself a progressive Christian, and I travel in circles of other progressive Christians – including some who are far more progressive than I am – and I may have bumped into one or two people who held out the extremely loose view of scripture that Matthew describes. But it’s simply not true that progressive Christians view the Bible as little more than a quaint book of ancient poetry and fairy tales. In fact, the vast majority of progressive and other Mainline Christians believe that, to use Matthew’s words, “…all of Scripture is inspired by God and authoritative for my life. While some parts of the Bible address cultural norms that do not directly apply to modern societies, all of Scripture is ‘useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness’ (2 Timothy 3:16-17, NRSV)” The extremely small number of extremist progressives who hold such a highly dismissive understanding of the Bible are no more representative of all progressives than are extremist Fundamentalists who hold an absurdly literalist view of the Bible representative of Evangelicals. Portraying progressives in this cartoonishly flat and inaccurate manner does a disservice to both progressives as well as the spirit of civility and unity, in the name of our common Lord, that I know Matthew strives for. It is doubly unfortunate because while having the Evangelicals’ ear, he could have used the opportunity to dispel this unfortunate caricature, but instead, he reinforced it.

In truth, the way that progressive Christians and conservative Christians understand the nature, authority, and even the interpretive methodologies of the scriptures, are very similar. In most cases, it is only a difference of how and where the interpretive methodologies are considered applicable or appropriate. A progressive Christian would not say that the scriptures are “inerrant” or “infallible,” at least in the sense that these terms are defined in our current society. But virtually all progressive Christians would agree that all of scripture is inspired by God, not only in its writing, but in its redaction, editing, and compilation into the canon – and that scripture is indeed authoritative for our lives. In fact, we PCUSA Presbyterians would say, as we state in our Confession of 1967, that “The one sufficient revelation of God is Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate, to whom the Holy Spirit bears unique and authoritative witness through the Holy Scriptures, which are received and obeyed as the word of God written. The Scriptures are not a witness among others, but the witness without parallel.” And this is found in the confessional statement that some deride as being the most “liberal” of our confessions. The ironic evidence of how similar the two camps view the scriptures is this book itself: the vast bulk of the scholarship and interpretive arguments presented by Matthew in the book, which he holds out as being consistent with the Evangelical understanding of scripture and interpretation, are exactly the same arguments made by progressives, who also consider them completely consistent with their – our – understanding of the nature, authority, and interpretation of scripture.

Some people within the world of Evangelicalism have said that God and the Gay Christian is a dangerous book. They’re right. Anyone who holds a non-affirming interpretation of the scriptures should feel extremely discomforted, possibly even threatened, by this book – just as countless others in the past who held interpretations of the Bible that were subsequently shown to be not just incorrect, but harmful, felt threatened. Ultimately though, the arc of the moral universe spoken of by Dr. King will continue to bend toward justice, and therefore, toward a higher understanding of God, a truer living out of God’s will, and a more accurate understanding of the meaning of scripture. Most likely within a generation, certainly no more than two, conservative and progressive Christians will look back on our time and wonder why we were so slow to comprehend the more true, more loving, more scripturally correct, understanding of the relationship between God and the gay Christian. We can only wish that day were already here, but I’m sure that Matthew Vines’ book will help to get us there sooner.

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.