I was wrong: A letter to the UMC

This week, the United Methodist Church gathered in St. Louis to debate the church's position on LGBTQ issues, such gay marriage and ordination of LGBTQ people.

This week, the United Methodist Church delegates voted for the Traditional Plan, rejecting a more inclusive vision and affirming teachings against homosexuality.

Photo credit: Sid Hastings, AP

Ten years ago, in 2009, my own denomination - the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America - voted to allow ordination of LGBTQ people and to sanction gay marriage, according to a concept called "bound conscience," which allowed individual pastors and congregations to make their own decisions.

The vote on human sexuality was held on Aug. 19, 2009, in my hometown of Minneapolis.

That same afternoon, a tornado ripped through the city. Some, including Minneapolis conservative Baptist pastor John Piper, saw it as a sign of God's anger.

Two weeks later, I started seminary just miles down the road from the Minneapolis Convention Center.

I started at Luther Seminary, the largest and considered most conservative of the denomination's eight seminaries. I had been largely spared the debate and acrimony over the Convention. When it happened, I was driving back to Minnesota from Florida, where I'd lived for two and a half years, working as a sportswriter.

I was spared for another reason. I was naive and uneducated, unsympathetic and, in many ways, foolish.

While I'd been a Lutheran all my life, I had always shunned the idea of being a liberal Lutheran. I spent much of college and my 20s attending conservative Evangelical, non-denominational or Baptist churches. Mostly, because I liked the music. Still, I found a certain comfort in the idea of Scripture's absolute truth. I had a certain affinity to pietism, and one seminary professor during a semester at Berkeley even called me a fundamentalist.

Early in seminary, I found myself drawn to the more conservative students. Some were considering leaving the denomination over the Decision. In some ways, I envied the more vocal liberals, who had rejoiced over the Decision. I longed to embrace it, deep inside, but I felt that I couldn't. We needed rules, right? Didn't I need to be a certain way in order to be loved?

I watched as some friends did leave, as others grew more miserable. I took a course on sexual ethics and wrote a paper about my misgivings regarding the Decision. I was longing for Scriptural proof that could lead me into acceptance.

I read the paper again recently and noticed my heart at war with my brain, and, in some sense, with my own self-loathing, my own feeling of inadequacy and wondering if I, as a woman, could really be called to be a pastor.

Even in this paper I wrote of longing for God to change my heart. I prayed for revelation.

But my personal experience was so limited. My experience of diversity was little. I grew up in a white, upper-middle-class suburb where a gay-straight alliance group at my high school was protested against and shunned by most vocally Christian students. I attended a public university, and while I experienced more racial diversity there, I still didn't make friends with anyone who identified as LGBTQ.

It is easy to hate, or to dismiss, who you don't know.

As I prepared to leave on pastoral internship, I found myself praying this prayer: that God would show me the "proof" I needed that this decision was acceptable in the eyes of God. I found arguments that the Biblical texts were rooted in "their time and place" unconvincing, because I hadn't heard a convincing positive proof text. But I may not have been paying attention. My eyes were veiled.

That year, 2011, I was invited to intern at Community Lutheran Church in Las Vegas. My supervising pastor assigned me to read his book, Gospel of Grace. It's a book about reading the Bible and discerning within it Timeless Truths, amidst some cultural norms or random texts. His text was a clear, concise, 21st Century depiction of Luther's urging to interpret Scripture with Scripture, to view the Bible through the lens of Jesus' life, death and resurrection.

Still, in one of the book's final chapters, my supervisor outlined his own theological support for affirmation of LGBTQ people, marriage and role in ministry. He told the story of Acts 10, of Peter's vision to mission to the Gentiles. God says to Peter: "What God has made clean, you must not call unclean."

I felt immediately unsettled and shaken. Yes, it was God who made clean. If God could invite those outside the Jewish community into God's people through Jesus, then why would it not be plausible and even probable that God had also invited LGBTQ people into God's kingdom, alongside the rest of creation?

I realized I'd been standing on the wrong side of history, on the wrong side of God -- the same God who shared a drink of water with the Samaritan woman, the same God who raises the dead, the same God who makes all things new.

Who was I to determine who was clean or unclean?

Still, I didn't fully change until I met Bruce. He was (and is) the worship leader at my internship congregation, and he is one of the most compelling ministers I have ever encountered. Bruce holds within him - in his singing voice, in his joyful laugh, in his loving heart - the Holy Spirit, and he shares it with everyone he meets.

Bruce was a talented singer, choir director and performer in some of the best shows on the Vegas Strip (think Phantom of the Opera), but what he wanted to do most was to share the love of Jesus.

He told me about visiting churches in Vegas with a friend of his, another talented singer, musician and director. They attended churches they loved and asked the pastor about becoming involved in the music program.

"You can come," they were told flatly. "But you need to sit in the back row."

Watching Bruce direct a packed church choir in front of thousands at Christmas Eve worship, I couldn't imagine him sitting in the back row.

Listening to him witness to me, ministering with him and growing so deeply in my own faith, I couldn't imagine him not being a minister of the Gospel, simply because he was gay.

I realized I'd been quenching the Spirit. I missed it. I missed God's revelation. I missed the truth of the Gospel. I tried so hard to be good that I missed what God had already made perfect.

When I first heard of the ELCA's Decision, in 2009, I may have been one of those who imagined that tornado as a sign of God's anger, or somehow disapproval. But that was more about me than it was about God. I still had a latent idea that God wanted me to be someone else in order to be loved and accepted.

The ELCA's 2009 decision made me a better pastor. It put me into contact with some of the finest ministers I've ever met, people who also happen to identify as part of the LGBTQ community, including my successor in my first-call congregation in Chicago.

I know many of you out there still struggle with this. I know some of you in the UMC are gratified by the decision, and others are broken-hearted today.

I offer you my story as a sign of hope, that people can change.

I am praying for you.

And to my siblings who identify as part of the LGBTQ community, those of you who minister and those of you who worship and those of you who lead, I paraphrase my friend Elle Dowd and say, Some of the best religious leaders I know are queer.


Popular Posts