Eugene Carson Blake, Where Are You Now?

eugene carson blake arrested 7-4-63 baltimore

This photo depicts one of my favorite moments in Presbyterian history. I’ve shared it before; the events of recent days have made me think about it again.

This is the Rev. Dr. Eugene Carson Blake, who was the Stated Clerk – the top church executive –  of the Presbyterian Church from 1951 until 1966. This is a photo of Blake being arrested while protesting a segregated amusement park in Baltimore in 1963.

During his time as Stated Clerk, Blake was a strong advocate for Christian unity, being a major voice of the ecumenical movement and calling for a merger of ten mainline denominations into one body. His focus on church unity led him to also serve as the President of the National Council of Churches while serving as Stated Clerk, and later, as the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches.

But his focus wasn’t exclusively on Christian unity, and it certainly wasn’t on unity at any cost. Blake was head of the denomination during the civil rights movement, a time of intense division in the church.  He knew all too well the differing, and often heatedly debated, opinions within the denomination’s membership over matters of racial equality and justice. These were explosive issues, and any statements about them coming out of the head office – regardless of content – had the potential for further division, and possibly even denominational schism.

And yet, fully aware of that reality, Blake took a strong, uncompromising stand in favor of social justice. He wrote and spoke powerfully against racial discrimination and segregation, and calling for civil rights and equal justice under the law for all people. He stood up for racial equality and non-discrimination in the church as well, against many who appealed to wrong-headed interpretations of scripture to defend their impassioned arguments supporting the racist status quo.

It’s funny; I remember being a young boy in the 1960s and hearing my own Presbyterian relatives bemoaning the “radicals,” who were probably even closet Communists, who had gotten control of the church and who were turning it away from God and toward the very gates of hell itself. Only years later would I do the math and realize they were actually complaining about Eugene Carson Blake and his unabashedly progressive anti-racist theology.

It was precisely that theology that led him to protest racial discrimination, and yes, to even be arrested for his beliefs. It was that strength of character that led him to help organize, and to participate in, Dr. Martin Luther King’s March on Washington in 1963. It was that clarity of prophetic witness that caused him to speak on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that day, just a short while before Dr. King gave his immortal “I Have a Dream” speech. He participated in that march, and gave that speech, all the while worried in the pit of his stomach that his participation would lead to further strife and division in the church – and yet, he was convinced that this was where God had called him, and what God was calling him, and the church, to do. There he stood; he could do no other.

For the most part, Presbyterians today are on the forefront of matters of battling racism and white privilege. In fact, our current Stated Clerk and our two Co-Moderators – the top three officers in the denomination – are all direct beneficiaries of Blake’s forward-thinking and uncompromising stance against discrimination based on race or gender.

However, the denomination still has internal divisions, these days largely over the matter of the place of LGBTQ individuals in the church. I don’t have polling data from Blake’s time regarding civil rights to use as a comparison, but with the church membership currently supporting LGBTQ equality in church and society by an approximate 2 to 1 margin (and trending upward), I suspect the division is significantly less than Blake had to navigate. We have, thanks be to God, amended our constitutional documents to permit the ordination of LGBTQ Deacons, Elders, and Ministers of Word and Sacrament, and to permit our ministers to officiate – and be part of – same-sex marriages.

As wonderful as all this is, it’s still only a partial victory. While our constitution allows LGBTQ equality in pulpit and pew, that same constitution permits presbyteries (regions) and congregations to decide for themselves whether to accept it. That means that there are many places within the denomination where LGBTQ people remain unwelcome. This compromise, made in the name of denominational unity, has resulted in a situation within the church where LGBTQ Christians are something akin to the 3/5 of a person that the U.S. Constitution originally considered slaves. Our memberships and ordinations all come with an asterisk – our acceptability for membership or ordination changes not by virtue of our profession of faith, or our preparation and qualifications, but simply by virtue of having crossed a geographical boundary. We are the only group that the denomination allows to be discriminated against by reason of a biological characteristic. To use another historical parallel, we’re living a supposedly separate-but-equal Plessy versus Ferguson existence in a Brown versus Board of Education world. In trying to save the denomination from splitting in two, this compromise has merely established two under one roof.

Would Eugene Carson Blake have supported acceptance of LGTBQ Christians openly participating in the full life and leadership of the church? I’m pretty certain that, in his own historical context, he most assuredly wouldn’t have – in fact, I’d be surprised to learn otherwise. But as firmly as I believe that, I’m just as convinced that if he were alive today, and knew what we now know, that he would be working, and writing, and speaking as courageously for us as he did for others in his own time.

A few days ago, Rev. Dr. Blake’s denomination – my denomination – issued a response to the “Nashville Statement,” the vehemently anti-female and anti-LGBTQ document issued by a number of conservative Evangelical Christian personalities. I’ve addressed the Statement in an earlier post.

Since its release, non-Evangelical Christians, as well as people outside the church, have been issuing an unending flood of denunciations of its backward, hateful content. Really, opposing the content of this theological train wreck is as close to a slam-dunk, no-brainer as things get in the church world – or at least, you would think so. After a couple of days of thoughtful deliberation (we Presbyterians don’t rush into anything), the denomination released a response. Unfortunately, it was an intensely disappointing, dull thud of a response.

There were a number of positive elements in the statement, which can be read here. And it does refer and link to the “Denver Statement,” an excellent and sometimes witty response to the Nashville Statement. But overall, it ended up being just a timid document that shied away from a bold stand for social justice in order to not offend the denomination’s most conservative members, while apparently being less concerned with offending and hurting a large number of others who found themselves once again somewhat under the bus. This was not, you might say, a Eugene Carson Blake moment.

Yes, I hope that someday, we have a courageous, denomination-wide affirmation of LGBTQ people in the full life and leadership of the church in the same manner the we’ve done with women and persons of color. But at very least, the statement could have strongly defended our position that one can be a faithful Christian while holding LGBTQ-affirming views – a position that the Nashville Statement pointedly denies in its Article 10. The Presbyterian response makes ambiguous mention of the Nashville Statement staking out positions “that go beyond anything the PC(USA) has officially taken a stand on.” But this is not one of those things. By our decision to consider both positions equally faithful, we have indeed taken a stand on this particular matter and consider the claim made in Article 10 of the Nashville Statement to be sinful nonsense. The fact that the denomination couldn’t even make a strong denunciation of this point – that it opted for a unity-over-justice position – was hurtful and insulting, and shows that despite the progress we’ve made in the denomination, we’ve still got a long way to go.

I would willingly be arrested defending the civil rights of the current leadership of my church. Given this less than enthusiastic response to the Nashville Statement, I have to wonder if they would they do the same for me.

I have tremendous respect for our denominational leadership. I’m proud of them. I love them. They hold exceedingly difficult jobs, and I’m convinced that they try to do their best to lead wisely, to find the right balance between Christian unity and prophetic witness. And on a personal level, J. Herbert Nelson, our Stated Clerk, rocks an awesome bow tie; not everyone can pull that off. Beyond that, I am genuinely, personally grateful for the strides made in recent years, even if I’d wish for more, which allow me to serve as an out gay ordained minister. But in this case, by way of an overly timid response to this ugly scar on the faith called the Nashville Statement, our denomination has blinked. We’ve missed a major opportunity to do the right thing – to decisively, boldly defend social and ecclesiastical justice for LGBTQ Christians both within the denomination and beyond, against forces within Christianity that would reject and harm us. I grieve over this lost opportunity. Somewhere, I believe Eugene Carson Blake does, too.

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Go There

go there

The First Baptist Church in Greenville SC has adopted a non-discrimination policy which will accept LGBTQ Christians into full membership of the church, and permits performing same-sex marriages upon request. That’s big news, because this particular congregation played a major role in the origins of the notoriously anti-gay Southern Baptist Convention, and was itself a member of that organization until 1999, when it realigned its affiliation to be part of the more moderate Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

There’s a lot of really good stuff that the pastor, Jim Dant, says in the article, which you can read here, and also here. I empathize with his trying to find a path of unity in any church matter where people are of different beliefs, regardless of the specifics of the disagreement. My own denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA) continues to seek a similar path of unity even after we’ve amended our constitution to allow ordination of LGBTQ church leaders like myself, and allowing same-sex marriage. In this case, it’s especially hard to find that unity when the church has held anti-LGBTQ doctrines for centuries. But a comment in one of the articles caught my attention: Speaking about Dant, the reporter writes, “He told Greenville Online a crucial step of the process was assuring church members no one would tell them their personal convictions were wrong.”

I understand the desire for unity that gave birth to this idea, but is it really appropriate to remove from the table any possibility for Pastor Dant to preach an inclusive gospel to members of his congregation? Is it appropriate to agree to not talk about the terrible harm that traditional church doctrines have caused to literally millions of people? Imagine a segregated southern church in the 1960s agreeing to allow blacks as members and leaders, as long as those in the pews holding harmful racist and bigoted views could never be told their beliefs were wrong.

I’m truly pulling for Pastor Dant and his congregation; they’ve made a positive step forward. But it’s an incomplete and transitional step at best, and at worst, it’s one that permits outdated and dangerous biblical interpretations and bigotry to remain unchallenged. Pastor Dant is quoted as saying that when the discussions began last fall, “what I heard was, ‘We need to do the right thing, regardless of what anybody thinks or says about us.’” That’s an excellent and Christlike attitude. But the approach of not being able to call parishioners’ anti-gay stances wrong is a Faustian bargain that runs contrary to this ideal – and frankly, it won’t result in the hoped-for unity that spawned it; if anything it will only make the divisions worse by pushing it under the surface.

I know that people can typically only stretch themselves so far before they need some mental downtime, in order to prepare them to push and stretch themselves even further. But there are some issues that really can’t be made in half-steps, and I believe that full equality of LGBTQ people in both church and society is one of them – a person can be neither almost pregnant, nor partially equal. In adopting a policy of acceptance and inclusion within the church, it’s necessary that we call out people’s continuing to hold outdated understandings of LGBTQ issues in the church as harmful, and yes, wrong. It needs to be said with genuine love and compassion, but it still needs to be said.

Sometimes, the Church has to suck it up and speak a potentially unpopular message – even if it means some people will become upset, or even leave the congregation. Trying to decide when it’s best to do that, and when it’s best to be comforting, postponing the unsettling message for another day, is one of the most difficult parts of a pastor’s calling. I’ve been there myself, and I’d be lying if I said that I’d never shied away from what I believed needed to be said, opting instead for a message that I knew would be safer for me. I admit my own imperfect record in this matter, so I won’t come down too hard or self-righteously on Pastor Dant. But I firmly believe that this is one of those critical times in the history of the Church when it must be that upsetting, unsettling prophetic voice – leading people into right paths even when they hadn’t really asked, and don’t even want, to go there. Pastor Dant, as a pastoral colleague who’s your friend and not your enemy, I’d ask you to seriously and prayerfully consider going there.

Ich bin Oberliner

I just returned from a week-long vacation, much of which was spent in Oberlin, Ohio of all places.

Oberlin is a small town in northern Ohio a bit southwest of Cleveland, that would appear to be a perfect example of typical, picturesque All-American small town. The reality, however, is that there’s very little that’s typical about it. It was founded in the 1830s at the same time as Oberlin College, which was founded by two Presbyterian ministers who were strongly committed to a progressive understanding of the Christian faith. Women and blacks were admitted as students at Oberlin from the get-go, which would make the place atypical enough, but the town carried that understanding of the faith further, making it a hotbed of abolitionism and an important node on the Underground Railroad. Commitment to issues of social justice is just in the DNA of Oberlin.

Despite its very small size, the college is a very highly regarded school and a world-class conservatory of music. The campus is a veritable walking museum of architecture, with many examples of works by some of America’s most noteworthy architects. The town also boasts its own Frank Lloyd Wright Usonian house, which is now owned by the college and is open to the public.

Another atypical aspect of the place is that in June of every year, some of the finest violin makers from around the world converge on Oberlin for a gathering sponsored by the Violin Society of America. This event is an intensive two-weeks of hands-on time in the workshop, attending seminars, learning new techniques, and sharing of ideas among some the uppermost tier of the art and craft. This year, the 60 attendees came from 14 different countries, coming as far away as Australia – which is not quite, but almost as far away as a person can possibly be from Oberlin, Ohio. Of course, the gathering isn’t all work and no play – it’s also a time of friendship, camaraderie, and with just the right amount of silliness thrown in, too.

Because George is one of those attendees, I’ve been to Oberlin for at least a part of the last two gatherings. But more about that in a bit, since my vacation actually started in Columbus.

***

I drove to Columbus on Monday afternoon and evening, arriving there around 9:30 or so. I had discussed spending most of Tuesday with my older daughter, and I really wanted to spend time with my younger daughter, too. She’s a full-time student at the Franklin University in Switzerland, but she’d been home for several weeks of summer break. Our relationship at the moment has been strained at best, and until this time I’d been told that she didn’t want to see me. Still, via text messages, I’d told her that if she changed her mind, I’d be there in town and would like to spend some time with her. As of Monday night, I still didn’t know if I’d be spending time with one or both of them.

I was supposed to meet elder daughter around noon, so in the morning I popped my head in at the Worthington Presbyterian Church just down the road from the hotel, where I’d previously served as a pastor and where I’d been a member for more than 25 years. It was good to see some of the old gang and hear about what was happening there. After a short, but nice, visit, I headed out to meet up with Erica.

I picked her up, and we ended up at Stauf’s Coffee Roasters in Grandview. Stauf’s was one of my favorite hangouts back in the day, so it made me happy to know that now, she’d discovered it and enjoyed it, too.

We sat and talked about life in general, and politics in particular. She was shocked but very pleased to learn that we both wished the same person could become the next President – something that would never have happened before my politics slid from one side of the spectrum to the other.It was so nice to just have a nice, enjoyable conversation with her after some of the tensions of the past year.

staufs-grandview

Stauf’s – many a business lead, and many a sermon, developed here

 dirty franks

 After Stauf’s, we trekked downtown to have lunch at Dirty Frank’s Hot Dog Palace on South Fourth Street. Dirty Frank’s has just about every variation on a hot dog that you could imagine, as well as brats and other things, too. The most hilarious thing I saw on the menu was The Glenn Beck – “Just a plain old weiner.” In the end, I decided to get a West Virginia Slaw Dog, something I hadn’t had since I was a teenager slipping down across the border into Morgantown for high school-era shenanigans.

 Here again, it was just nice to be able to spend time with Erica. But now, it was time to find out whether Andrea was willing to spend some time together.

erica at dirty franks

Daughter #1 at Dirty Frank’s

After finally reaching her, she decided that yes, she’d spend some time with me. She’d just gotten home from work, and said she’d need an hour and a half or so to relax and clean up. In the meantime, though, she didn’t want me at the apartment. So Erica and I decided to go to a nearby park and let Lexi the Wonder Dog stretch her legs a bit.

erica and lexi-1

erica and lexi-2

After about an hour in the park, we picked Andrea up and went out to eat – again – this time at the Cheesecake Factory, since Andrea was starved. Erica cringed at the idea of turning around and going to another restaurant, but I explained that if I had to stuff more food down my throat just to be able to spend some time together with her sister, then that’s exactly what I’d do.

The meal was uneventful. Conversation started out strained but polite, and since there was no screaming or throwing of cutlery, I put this meeting in the Win column. I actually got a smile or two out of her when she momentarily forgot that she was still upset with me. A little bit of progress. I’ll take it. Of course, as I type this a week later, I just got a hostile response to a text message I sent her, so what are you going to do?

After eating, Erica needed to get some new shoes, so the three of us went to a nearby shoe store. For some reason, I decided to buy a new pair of casual summer shoes, too, thinking that it’s been years since I bought a pair of shoes anywhere other than a thrift shop, and I thought it would be a nice time to treat myself. Andrea helped me pick out which of three different pairs I’d honed in on. We were having a nice moment.

As I was trying them on, Andrea said, “Why are you wearing a ring? Are you married?”  Oh boy, here we go. At this point, I figured any good vibes were going to disappear. Recently, George and I have started wearing matching rings – maybe a kind of pre-engagement commitment ring of sorts; nothing fancy, just an inexpensive stainless steel band that we wear on our right ring fingers.

“No, I’m not married.”

“Well, that’s an interesting choice of fingers you’re wearing it on. Are you engaged?”

“No, I’m not engaged, Andrea. It just means I have a boyfriend; nothing more, nothing less.”

She walked away. I braced myself for the shitstorm that I assumed was imminent, but to my surprise, it never came, and the mood remained moderately pleasant in the car.

All too soon, I had to go, moving on from Columbus to Oberlin. During my time in Columbus, I learned that Andrea was flying back to Europe on that Friday. It was bad enough that I was barely able to see her at all during her stay, I wanted to at least be able to see her off at the airport. But I knew that even asking that on this day would be pushing it, so I decided to wait and follow up with her later. I’d just have to keep my fingers crossed for now. On to the next stop.

***

Oberlin has accidentally become an important place for me in the unfolding story of LGBTQ issues over the past year and a half. I was out here, among the violin makers, before I was completely, officially out everywhere. It was while I was at Oberlin last year that the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to allow ministers to officiate same-sex marriages if it were legal in their state and if their conscience directed them to do so. They also passed an amendment to their constitution to change the definition of marriage from being between “a man and a woman” to being between “two people.” I was sitting in the dormitory room in Asia House on campus, watching live streaming of the floor debate and vote when those measures passed. And this year, I would be here awaiting the Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, potentially bringing marriage equality to all states. So even beyond the company I keep while I’m there, Oberlin is a special place to me.

I got there just after 9:00. Just outside of town, I discovered that the charger for my phone had failed somewhere along the line, and it had gone completely dead, leaving me unable to call George to let him know when I’d be getting there, or to find out where on campus he was, or to get him to let me into the locked dormitory. I stopped and bought a new charger, but the phone was so dead it wouldn’t even let me turn it back on, let alone make a quick call. I guess I lucked out a bit; when I pulled into the parking lot I could access the WiFi with my laptop and I emailed him to let him know I’d gotten there and my phone situation. We finally got together, and with just enough time to run over to the Cowhaus, an excellent ice cream shop in town, which just happened to be featuring Two Scoop Tuesday, a great two-for-one deal.

Wednesday morning, George and I stopped in at the Slow Train Cafe for a danish and coffee breakfast, before he had to get to his morning workshop. Besides continuing work on a violin he has in progress, George’s big thing this year is to learn a new antiquing method for his instruments. He currently uses a method that had been taught over the past few years at Oberlin by Antoine Nedelec and Jeff Phillips, violin makers from Dallas and Salt Lake City, respectively. This year, the workshop is featuring a different technique, being taught by Stephan von Baehr, who operates a shop in Paris. Nedelec has given von Baehr the nickname “The Animal” based on the relatively intense methods he uses in his antiquing process.

Stephan von Baehr leading a workshop on his method of antiquing an instrument

Stephan von Baehr leading a workshop on his method of antiquing an instrument

While we were in the Slow Train, Emilio, one of von Baehr’s assistants, also stopped in. He had forgotten his wallet and didn’t have any cash, so I gave him a few dollars so he could get a coffee and a muffin. Afterward, I briefly stopped into the workshop with George to reacquaint myself with some of the people I remembered from last year, and to meet some new people as well. Before heading to Oberlin, George had been in contact with Bill Sloan, one of the other attendees – of whom I’ll say more later. George would be arriving before Bill, so Bill asked George to save him a workbench near the presentation space in the workshop, so he could get a good view of the antiquing sessions.

After the brief socializing, I said goodbye to George and decided to go sightseeing. As I mentioned before, Oberlin has a number of works by noted architects – many by Cass Gilbert, a theater by Wallace Harrison, two buildings by Minoru Yamasaki, a museum addition by Postmodernist guru Robert Venturi, and a number of lesser-known but still very accomplished architects. I’m not sure where the Frank Lloyd Wright house is – no doubt out in the countryside outside of town – but I’ll have to hunt it down the next time I’m there. So, George fiddled – or at least, made a fiddle – while I got to know the town a little better.

Someon bearing an uncanny resemblance to Donald Sutherland peering down from a column capital in the colonade of Asia House

Someone bearing an uncanny resemblance to Donald Sutherland peering down from a column capital in the colonnade of Asia House

One of the neat things about the workshop is that the group works in teams to prepare their own dinners each day. Some of the teams can get really into their menus, and there’s special recognition for the best culinary effort of the gathering.

Kitchen duty. George's team provided dinner during the first week, before I arrived in town

Kitchen duty. George’s team provided dinner during the first week, before I arrived in town

The violin makers cook and eat at Baldwin Cottage, and on Wednesday, they had invited the bow makers – a separate group who were meeting at Oberlin during the same period – to share dinner with them.

Baldwin Cottage on Wednesday afternoon. Only the cooler on the front steps gives a clue to the good times about to play out on the lawn in a little while.

The weather was sunny and dry, and they had decided to set up tables on the front lawn.  Pete Goodfellow, one of the attendees from Australia, had prepared several water-cooler jugs’ worth of Mojitos to get things started, accompanied by some delicious appetizers of small servings of gazpacho and some kind of baked potato thing that was very good. Before dinner, the group got into some fun and games, trying to see who could cut through a log with a two-person saw the fastest and thinnest; who could carry the log around a predetermined course the quickest,  and a kind of tug-of-war while perched atop some precarious little stools:

vsa tug of war

Stepstool Tug-of-War. I did mention Mojitos were involved, didn’t I?

Dinner this evening was, as usual, incredible – a Thai curry dish, beet salad, orange and pomegranate salad, couscous with lamb, and panna cotta with blueberry sauce for dessert.

Wednesday's dinner - thanks to Chris Ulbricht for the picture

Wednesday’s dinner – thanks to Chris Ulbricht for the picture

It was a great end to a great day. After dinner, I think George and I went to a shop downtown and I bought an Oberlin T shirt. We also stopped back at Cowhaus, wondering if, since they had a Two-Scoop Tuesday, they also had Wonderful Wednesday or something like that. Unfortunately, it was just Regular Old Wednesday, but we still got some ice cream, and then George got back to the workshop while I just hung out a bit.

George in the midst of some antiquing on his instrument, in the

George in the midst of some antiquing on his instrument, in the “Scratchatorium” – the workshop where the makers distressed the finishes on their instruments to artificially age them, using an assortment of wire brushes, stones, and even a meat cleaver, to achieve a realistic appearance of a hundred years or more of age on the instrument

On Thursday, while George continued his activities, I checked out the Allen Memorial Art Museum, which had a relatively small but extremely impressive collection of paintings, sculpture, and other works from many different ancient cultures through modern and postmodern works.

alan art museum oberlin

The Allen Memorial Art Museum – the Cass Gilbert original building to the left, the Robert Venturi addition to the right

The violin makers’ workshops were actually in the lower level of the Venturi addition to the Allen, in what’s usually the sculpture studio, a woodworking shop, and other ancillary spaces.

I also tried to get through to Andrea via text, to ask her if I could be at the airport to see her off the next morning. I was shocked that she not only agreed, but she also invited me to go to breakfast with her and Erica before she had to check in at Port Columbus at 10:00. This was a very good thing.

At some point during the day, we also went back to  the shop where I’d bought the T shirt. I had inadvertently picked up the wrong size and needed to replace it. They were out of my size in the style I’d bought, but they had a similar design in the right size and we got the exchange taken care of.

I don’t actually see much of George during the days at Oberlin. That isn’t a complaint; it’s just an observation. The violin makers often work until late at night, and even sometimes into the wee hours of the morning, just enjoying the unique example of collaboration and collegiality that the event is. George kept trying to explain what the schedule was like, almost apologetically, and I had to keep reminding him that I completely understood the nature of the gathering – in fact, it reminded me very much of the magic, the energy, and the creativity of my experiences in my architecture design studios back in my days at Penn State. I love checking in on what George and the others are doing in the workshop periodically, but I’m very much aware that I’m an outsider – a welcomed outsider, as far as I’ve ever experienced, but an outsider nonetheless – so when I stop in for a visit, I try hard to stay out of people’s way, to largely be a fly on the wall and to be as relatively invisible as possible. I remember how nice it was to have someone stop by to visit in the architecture studios and to see what you were up to, but there was always more work to do, and the next deadline always looming, so after a visitor had been there for a while, they brought as much pleasure in their departure as they had in their arrival. Despite my interest in what they’re doing, and my fascination with their talent and the beauty of their craft, I try really hard to not be “that guy” when I’m there.

Thursday’s dinner was just as delicious as Wednesday’s. But while some of the makers also have great culinary skills – at least one of them was a former chef – not all of them shine in the kitchen, so on this day dinner came from a restaurant in town – an excellent little Korean restaurant that George and I had actually had lunch at the day before. At this point, I can’t even remember everything on the menu, but suffice it to say it was all fantastic, and there was more than we could possibly eat. On Thursday of the second week, the group also typically gives out various awards – the best meal, the winners in some of the fun activities, etc. George was tapped to make the presentation to Chris Germain, the head of the VSA, for having organized the event once again. A good time was had by all.

I think it was about this time that George and I had to make a run into Amherst, the next town to the north of Oberlin, to a hardware store for something he needed. In the process, we also found a Giant Eagle grocery store. I took the opportunity to stop in and buy another gallon of Lemon Blennd concentrate. Lemon Blennd is a Pittsburgh-area tradition, at least for people of my age. It’s a sweet, lemon-orange-flavored concoction that is absolutely, incredibly thirst-quenching over ice in the summer. I learned in adulthood that it’s also a pretty good mixer with whiskey or bourbon. In any case, I’d just finished my last gallon of concentrate, and I knew that Giant Eagle, being a Pittsburgh-based operation, sold it, so I took the opportunity to pick some up since it isn’t available anywhere in Auburn.

Nectar of yunz gods

Nectar of yunz gods

Later, George went back to the workshop. I knew he was going to be there late; in fact, he hadn’t gotten back in by the time I had to leave the next morning for Columbus.

***

I got into town just a little after 8:00. As things developed, the breakfast got nixed because Andrea had gotten very little sleep the night before, and she still hadn’t quite finished packing. It also ended up being helpful if I drove her to the airport, which I was more than happy to do. I helped her finish packing, and weighing her bag to make sure it would be under the airline maximum. During all this, she actually seemed very much at ease and pleasant.  Just before leaving, she remembered she was supposed to bring some basic gardening gloves with her to the archaeological dig she was headed for, so we stopped at a convenience store along the way and picked some up for her. She also thought it would be helpful to have a pair of sunglasses, and all of a sudden the inexpensive pair I had in the car – which she’d teased me about the other day – seemed to be pretty nice, and she asked if she could take them along with her. I told her of course she could. “Thanks, Pops.” That was the first time I’d gotten called that in a long time. It was nice.

It was just about ten when she was checking in, and that was also the time the Supreme Court was supposed to release its ruling in Obergefell, the same-sex marriage case. As we stood in line, I quickly checked my phone and saw that the ruling had just been released, and in favor of marriage equality. I quickly flashed the phone to Erica, but didn’t say anything to Andrea about what would be a touchy topic for her. So technically, I wasn’t in Oberlin when I got word about the decision, but this was all part of the same trip.

After that, things went smoothly. I at least got a hug before Andrea disappeared through the TSA security. I dropped Erica back off, we said our goodbyes, and I was northbound again.

When I got back to Oberlin, the violin makers were in the midst of their end-of-the-event discussion of what went well, what didn’t, how things might improve for next year, etc. After that, George and I did one last special Oberlin thing. I’d mentioned an attendee named Bill Sloan earlier. Bill is a doctor from Los Angeles, who just happens to own two wonderful violins – the 1714 “Jackson” Stradivarius, and a Guarneri del Gesu dating from 1742, if I recall correctly. You can catch a short video of these two beautiful instruments being played together here. Bill had brought both of the instruments with him to Oberlin, and he and George had made arrangements to play the Bach Double Concerto for Violin on the two violins. So Friday evening, the two of them sat down in the front parlor of Baldwin Cottage and played – a little tenuously at first, since they hadn’t practiced at all together, but by the second movement, they’d found their groove. It was really a magical experience – George on the Strad and Bill on the del Gesu. Sitting there, listening to them playing on two of the finest violins in the world, I was grateful for just how lucky and blessed I was to be there.

George and Bill Bach Double

I got a chance to examine the instruments up close, to compare them and ask questions about some of the details of each of them. Of course, I was very nervous just holding these instruments. In getting a picture of me with the Strad, I was holding it out away from me, almost as if it were radioactive. Bill laughed and stepped in, saying “Oh come on, hold it up close to you like it’s yours and you love it!” I still felt a little nervous, but the second picture was much better:

me and jackson strad

The Jackson Strad

When they finished, Bill took off for Cleveland to attend a concert. George and I went down to The Feve, a nice restaurant/bar in town, to get a bit to eat and hang out with some of the crew on the last night there. After dinner, we headed upstairs where a large group of the makers were gathered around two long tabletops enjoying several pitchers of beer. When we walked in, someone called for a toast for George and me. That was heartwarming, but I don’t want to get a swelled head – by that point of the evening and with the beer flowing, I suspect they’d have drunk a toast to the paint on the wall. Still, it felt good, and almost before we could sit down, there were glasses of beer sitting in front of us, which was nice. It was a great way to celebrate both the end of another two-week VSA workshop, as well as the terrific news coming out of the Supreme Court earlier that same day.

***

Saturday morning, it was time to leave Oberlin and head to Toronto, to wrap up the week at George’s and to also celebrate the end of Pride Week, and to catch the Pride Parade while in town. This would actually be the first Pride parade I’d gone to, and since it was still part of my Big Gay Year, I figured I’d do it large in Toronto, versus a smaller local one. George was insistent that he get on the road first, so he could get to the condo first and clean up a bit. Apparently, things had gotten out of hand as he rushed to get things ready to leave, so he wanted a bit of time to make the place presentable. It was pouring rain when we left – as it had been several times while we were there. We’d both gotten on the road relatively early in the morning, and the drive up was just nasty, with hard, driving rain, and very high winds while crossing the Peace Bridge, really pushing the car around as I was making the crossing.  Also, just as I hit the Buffalo area, I discovered that the phone charger I’d just bought a few days earlier had crapped out on me, and my phone was almost about to completely die again. Of course, as I’m battling the wind, the rain, and a phone just about ready to become a paperweight, I get a call from Erica. I quickly ascertained that she wasn’t calling for any emergency, and I told her my predicament and that I’d call her back as soon as I could.

Once across the border, the rain let up a slight bit, and I pulled into the first place I could to get yet another charger. Then, while sitting in the parking lot, I called Erica back.

“Hey, I just wanted to say that it didn’t really sink in what you were showing me on your phone when we were at the airport yesterday. I didn’t see anything about the SCOTUS decision until today. I just wanted to say congratulations.”

After making some joke about it really not being anything I had a hand in, I agreed that yes, it was a pretty big deal, and that while there’s still a long way to go for full equality, I was really happy about it.

“So, I couldn’t help but notice that you’re wearing a ring. Are you engaged?” Here we go again.

“No, we’re not engaged.”

To be honest, I was trying to avoid getting into the subject. But she kept discussing it, and I finally blurted out what I was originally trying not to.

“Well honey, the truth is that George and I have discussed what the future may hold for us. We are moving in that direction, but we both have some things to take care of before we take that step. George would have some business-related things to take care of, and of course, there would be legal implications about being citizens of two different countries that we’d have to research. For my part, I have to find a permanent, installed call; an interim pastor’s position is unstable enough for one person; it isn’t anything to invite a second person to pull up stakes and join into the insanity. Most importantly though, I need to try to work on my relationship with you and your sister, to try to strengthen those first.”

“Well you don’t have to worry about me; I’m OK with it. As far as Andrea, she’ll eventually come around, but honestly, you shouldn’t tie your happiness and getting on with your life to whether or not she approves.”

Hm. I wish it really were that simple.

The truth is, as I finally admitted to her, I’d almost actually proposed to George at Oberlin the day before. Yes, we know we have these issues to work out first, and we know that because of it an engagement might be a little longer than most. But with the great news of the day, and with all of George’s international friends there in town to be able to be a part of it, I came within a hair’s breadth of officially proposing to him at Oberlin. Looking down the road, I even considered a potential wedding date just the day after some future workshop ended, so his international associates could just tack an extra day onto their trip and be part of the wedding, too.

“Oh no, you don’t want to propose like that! That’s lame; you can come up with a better way to do it than that!”

“Um, OK, so by this, I’m assuming that you’re OK being around George now?”

“Yeah, I’m OK with it; just for a while make sure there’s someone else around, too, because it’s still just a little awkward since I don’t know him well enough yet, but over time that will work out.”

I really don’t have words to convey how good this conversation made me feel. We talked a bit more, but I really did have to get back on the road, so I finally had to say goodbye.

“OK, I’ll talk to you later, I love you to death, and when the time’s right to propose, you talk to me and I’ll give you some ideas for how to do it right!”

I really, really love this young woman.

But now, on to Toronto.

***

It had been snowing in Santa Barbara since the top of the page (extra points, not to mention birthday candles, to you if you understand that reference) – well actually, it had been raining in Toronto since I got into town. Of course, my new phone was somehow not configured to work across the border, so I couldn’t call George and let him know I was downstairs, outside his extremely security-conscious building. I did finally get into the lobby, where someone called up to let him know I’d arrived. After I got my car parked in guest parking and my stuff upstairs, we called Customer Support and got the phone to work.

Toronto had been celebrating Gay Pride all the past week with a number of events, all culminating with the parade scheduled for Sunday. Saturday evening, George and I went to a little Izakaya-style Japanese restaurant just behind his building. It was excellent food, but we were still hungry afterward, so we walked a block over into the Church & Wellesley  Village and loaded up on some onion rings from a Hero Burger. Also, in my rush when packing, I’d forgotten a jacket, so we looked around for a place where I could pick up just a basic, inexpensive one, but we never found one.

An even more significant disappointment was that as we were walking down Church Street, we discovered that the Timothy’s Coffee shop had closed. I’m no coffee snob, but I really do like Timothy’s coffee, and I try to keep a bag of it at home pretty much at all times. It’s very good coffee, but what was always more important to me was what it represented. Timothy’s – and this particular store – was a favorite hangout. Any time I’d get into Toronto, you could be sure that George and I would end up there before the night was out. Oberlin has some significance to me in my gay journey, and this coffee shop in the heart of the Gay Village did, too. This was the very first place that I felt completely comfortable holding George’s hand in public, or giving him a kiss, without having to scan my surroundings for fear of becoming the next gay-bashing statistic. Timothy’s was our first “safe place,” where I could feel like part of a perfectly normal couple just like anyone else. And while there are other places where I feel that same level of comfort now, this was the first place. And now it’s gone. Crap.

At the same time, I learned via Facebook that a somewhat distant cousin, whom I’d never actually met in person, was also in Toronto for Pride, so we tried to make arrangements to meet for lunch or something while we were both in town. Meanwhile, George and I went back to his place and watched a movie or two and just stayed inside, out of the wind and near-horizontal rain, hoping the weather would improve the next day.

Sunday wasn’t nearly as bad as Saturday. The wind had calmed to almost nothing, and the rain wasn’t heavy, but most of the day came with a near-constant misty rain – never really enough to make you think you’re getting very wet, until you realize after a couple hours you’re soaked completely through, and it really isn’t as warm as you thought earlier on. At least that was my experience throughout the day.

We did manage to meet up with my cousin and his partner for lunch, to talk a bit and watch some of the parade together. The actual relationship between us is that his father and mine are cousins, making the two of us second cousins once removed, or in more common terminology, total strangers. He’s part of my paternal grandmother’s family. She died shortly before I was even born, and because so many in that family had spread pretty wide geographically, I never got to know many of them, which I wish wasn’t the case. So it was nice to meet him and his partner – who, coincidentally, are both named Matt, which I imagine must get confusing at times.

After watching a bit of the parade together, the Matts went their own way and we went ours. They had other friends in town that they were trying to meet up with, and frankly, I couldn’t imagine a couple of male-modelish twenty- and thirty-something guys having a worse time at Pride than spending it talking with two fifty-somethings they didn’t even know. They seemed to be having trouble contacting their friends; I hope they eventually found one another.

George and I were able to work our way right up to the guard railing and actually had a pretty good place to watch the rest of the parade. It was fun. There were lots of floats and marchers, including different student groups, unions, churches; there were representatives from just about any group you could imagine.

One of the things that’s changed with Pride parades over time, as public acceptance of the LGBTQ community has increased, is that they’ve gotten a lot more “family-friendly” and less, well, in-your-face. This is both good and bad: good due to where the change is coming from, and that it can be a much more welcoming event to include more of the family in; but also bad, because there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done – more here in the U.S. than in Toronto, unfortunately – with regard to full equality, and whether one likes it or not, ultimately the in-your-face efforts are sometimes necessary to jolt people into awareness and action. As Joan Baez said, “It isn’t nice to stand in the door/ It isn’t nice to go to jail/ There are nicer ways to do things/ But the nice ways always fail.” I don’t know about “always,” but she had a valid point. So, given the amount of work yet to be done, I make at least a case for what I’d call “purposeful” in-your-facedness – but despite that, I’m not a big fan of gratuitous shock that doesn’t make an ideological or political point any deeper than “because I can;” in my opinion, those kinds of things only serve to hurt greater LGBTQ acceptance. We didn’t see the entire parade, but we did catch most of it, and in all that we saw, most of the participants were completely PG rated, not even PG-13. I think there were only two groups that would have risen to R-level. One was a pickup truck filled with foam and a bunch of nearly naked but apparently very clean people; and the other was a local group of naturists insanely marching together through the cold and rain in their official non-uniform. If you remember the TV show “Friends,” they occasionally made reference to Ugly Naked Guy, who lived in an apartment across the street from them. Apparently, UNG retired and moved to Toronto, where this day he was pushing himself around on a razor scooter through the entire parade. No pictures of this. You’re welcome.

But there are a few other pictures:

Proud farmers

Proud farmers

Foam rubber hair

Foam rubber hair

Asphalt-shaking bass. Thump, thump, thump, thump...

Asphalt-shaking bass. Thump, thump, thump, thump…

Proud librarians, carrying signs with literary themes

Proud librarians, carrying signs with literary themes

Not really accurate, but he couldn't help himself

Not really accurate, but he couldn’t help himself

Beads, beads, beads for everybody!

Beads, beads, beads for everybody!

Proud drummers of some kind or another

Proud drummers of some kind or another

Proud engineers. This was actually George's old student engineering association from the University of Waterloo.

Proud engineers. This was actually George’s old student engineering association from the University of Waterloo.

And more engineers.

And more engineers.

Proud Anglicans. Blimy!

Proud Anglicans. Blimey!

And finally, a truckload of proud attorneys, as it turns out.

And finally, a truckload of proud attorneys, as it turns out.

Finally, the parade wrapped up. It was a great time, but by this point I was completely waterlogged, and we tried – unsuccessfully – to find a jacket again. Ah, well, time to just go home and dry off.

After all of this, it was time to turn south and get back to Auburn. I came back into the States via – appropriately enough – the Rainbow Bridge. After declaring that I had nothing to declare to the Customs agent, she was apparently skeptical and had me pop the trunk. The shoes that I’d bought in Columbus, and the jug of Lemon Blennd were in the trunk. Coming back around to the kiosk, the raised her eyebrows and asked, “Are you sure you didn’t buy anything in Canada?” “No, not on this trip.” Momentary pause… “OK, go on through.” Passing through Niagara Falls, the falls themselves and a number of other things in town were lit with rainbow colors, maybe in honor of the SCOTUS decision, maybe just because they thought it was pretty. Either way, it was nice. But now it was time to get home.

And more bonus points for you if you got this reference.

And more bonus points for you if you got this reference.

I didn’t roll into Auburn until about 1:00am, and I needed to be at work by noon, so I immediately crawled into bed. End of the vacation.

So now I’m sitting here, more than a week later writing this recap of the vacation. My suitcase is still sitting on the bedroom floor, not quite fully unloaded. Other than that, I’m back into the normal routine of things. There had been enough going on during the week that when I did get back into the office, I actually had to think for a split second what my office email password was. That’s probably a sign that the vacation was just the right length of time. It was a really eventful week, one that I won’t soon forget. But now, it’s time to get back to what one person dubbed “the relentless return of Sunday.” Goodbye, Columbus. Goodbye, Oberlin. Goodbye, Toronto. Hello, Auburn.

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.

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.”

Montreat

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This is Montreat Conference Center, one of three national conference centers affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA). It’s located in a beautiful setting near Asheville, North Carolina, and I’d heard about it for years but never had a chance to go there. People rave about it (see the humorous video in my last post), its great workshops and seminars, as well as its opportunities for spiritual renewal/retreat and general recreational activities. Well, through a series of really great and unexpected circumstances, I’ll be heading to Montreat in late August to take part in a week-long Interim Ministry training program. I’d wanted to take this training for some time, and the stars just aligned to make this possible. This additional education will make me eligible to seek Interim positions at congregations in between called pastorates. I’m sure that the information will be very helpful to me as a pastor in any setting, giving me a few more tools in the pastoral tool belt, whether it’s an installed or interim position. But yes, there’s no question that I’m also looking forward to the chance to get away from things and relax, renew, and refresh as one pastoral relationship draws to a close and a new one, somewhere, is about to begin.