By Danny Bradfield
The theme of this year’s General Assembly was, “Lord, Teach us to Pray.” It’s the request Jesus’s disciples made, and it’s a request many still make today.
A theme that focused on prayer was a very important and meaningful theme for me personally, because I know that prayer is such an important part of a life of faith, and that I, perhaps, don’t always pray as I should or as often as I should. It also allowed me to recognize how helpful prayer has been to me when dealing with various issues in my life.
One of those issues that I have had to wrestle with was how to respond to the growing movement for acceptance, inclusion, welcome and affirmation of people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender. I mention this particular issue for several reasons:
- It is an issue that I struggled with, especially in regards to my own preaching and pastoral leadership.
- It is an issue that many of you have also struggled with at one point in your lives, and perhaps are struggling with still.
- It is an issue that this particular General Assembly focused on, with its resolution on “becoming a people of grace and welcome to all.”
- Finally, it is an issue that Bixby Knolls Christian Church is focusing on this year under the leadership of our Open and Affirming committee.
To start, let me share a bit of my own journey. In college, a friend of mine with whom I often participated in Bible studies shared with me some of the Bible passages which appear to condemn homosexual behavior. I think I had probably shared with him that my own mother had just come out to me as a lesbian, and this was how he responded. I knew from her struggle and from the struggles of others that homosexuality was not something they had chosen for themselves. It’s not a choice.
And so it didn’t make sense to me that God would condemn a person for something that they didn’t choose.
So I prayed.
And I studied the Bible.
And I learned about things like biblical translation and interpretation, stuff that would take far too long for me to go into right now, but I came to the realization that the Bible is not anti-gay, and that our reading of the Bible as a book that condemns gay people is based on centuries of prejudice affecting how scripture is translated and interpreted, as well as a misunderstanding of the particular issues surrounding ancient sexuality that the Bible does talk about.
In fact, I came to learn that what the Bible is really all about is “removing the divide between US and THEM,” as Brian McLaren puts it. And I don’t hold the views I do in spite of the Bible, but because of it. As fellow Disciples pastor Derek Penwell wrote for the Huffington Post earlier this month, Christians like me, and like all those who voted last week in favor of extending hospitality to gay Christians, “don’t pursue justice for LGBT people because they haven’t read Scripture, but precisely because they have.”
Time passed. Eventually I received – and accepted – a call to ordained ministry. And for a while, despite what I had come to learn, I didn’t say much about homosexuality from the pulpit. Why stir up trouble, right?
Then I got to know a particular youth in the community where I was serving. After several very long, very personal and in depth conversations with him, he told me that he was gay; and that I was the only person he had ever told that to face-to-face.
Even his parents and closest friends didn’t know.
And then he told me that he would often cry himself to sleep at night, because he didn’t think that anyone could or would ever love him, because he was gay.
And also, he said, he was pretty sure that God didn’t love him, either.
Well that just blew me away. This 17 year-old teenager had received from the church one message – one message – that overshadowed everything else, and that one message was that he was not worth God’s love.
I prayed about that, too. And in praying, I realized that to remain silent on the issue would be to give the appearance of siding with those who told this young man that he was unlovable.
He was so afraid that I, a person he had come to know and respect, would turn against him once I knew his secret, that my love for him would stop, that I would reaffirm his belief that he is unlovable.
I reached out my arms to him. I embraced him. I said, “You are gay, and I love you.”
And he started sobbing.
Ever since, I have realized that I have a responsibility as a preacher of the gospel to be sure that ALL people know that they are loved. Through a lifetime of Bible study and prayer I have come to the belief that there is no such thing as a person who is beyond God’s love. There is no such thing as an unlovable person. I am convinced that nothing on earth or in heaven – neither death nor life, angels nor rulers, things present nor things to come; not height, not depth, not anything in creation – can separate anyone from the love of God. And if I preach nothing else, THAT I must preach.
But the questions still remain: Why do we need to pass a GA resolution on being a place of welcome for all? Why should our congregation publicly declare itself “open and affirming?” We already welcome everyone, why do we need to single out a certain group for an official statement? Why can’t we just keep on as we are, being welcoming without making a big deal of a public declaration?
Well, first of all, it’s not just about those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. It’s about everyone. It’s about welcoming all people. And when a group has been made to feel particularly unwelcome, then we need to work extra hard to let them know that the welcome is extended to them as well.
The GA resolution that focuses on sexual orientation actually mentions many different categories of people: “race, gender, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, nationality, ethnicity, marital status, physical or mental ability, political stance or theological perspective.” It’s about everyone.
So it’s not just those of different sexual orientations that we are including when we say that we are “open and affirming.” But since that is the group that has been so horribly excluded, judged, and condemned by the church, we do need to make a special effort to invite them and make it known that they, too, are welcome.
One of the things BKCC’s own Open and Affirming committee discovered very early on is that declaring ourselves to be Open and Affirming means Open and Affirming of everyone, every person. Like the GA resolution, our own Open and Affirming process focuses on the welcome offered to people who differ in terms of “race, gender, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, nationality, ethnicity, marital status, physical or mental ability, political stance, or theological perspective.”
The need to express and declare a particular welcome to those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered was illustrated for me some years ago by a friend of mine. He is an openly gay pastor in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and I asked him how hard it was to be a gay pastor in a church that wasn’t quite sure it wanted to welcome gay pastors.
He said that finding acceptance within the church as a gay man has been challenging; but what’s been even harder for him, he said, was finding acceptance within the gay community as a Christian. In other words, as hard as it was for the church to welcome and accept a gay man, it was even harder for the gay community to welcome and accept a Christian.
The reason, of course, is that the church has, for many years, persecuted, abused, and condemned people because of their sexual orientation. Many in the gay community wonder: How can any person who is gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered be a part of a church that is so openly hostile toward people like them?
Well, it blew my mind that he would find it harder to be accepted in the gay community than in the church. People who are lgbt have been hurt, deeply and terribly, by the church. They have good reason to distrust the church and religion. A public declaration by the church that it is open and affirming is an important step church in healing this divide and working toward reconciliation. It lets the gay community know that, although we may have once denied you a place at the Lord’s Table, today we are working as hard as we can to overcome our past prejudice and welcome you in every way we can, and to affirm all the gifts you have to offer to the church.
You know, the interesting thing here is that my friend’s experience has helped me understand better what I talked about in my sermon two weeks ago, when I mentioned that the gospel of John contains a lot of anti-Jewish bias. You might remember that I said John was probably a Samaritan, and had probably experienced a lot of the prejudice and hate that Jews of the time directed at Samaritans, and thus it made sense that John would find so much to criticize about the Jews.
So the experience of my gay-pastor-friend helped me understand the experience of Samaritans in relation to the Jews of the first century.
In fact, what I’ve learned over the years is that the experiences of people who are not like me are incredibly valuable in helping me understand scripture. Over and over, I have found this to be true.
When we deny fellowship to anyone for any reason, but particularly when we deny fellowship because they are different than us, we really are depriving ourselves of so much, including the opportunity to develop a deeper understanding. The more diverse we are, the stronger we are, the stronger our faith is, and the stronger our witness to the world is.
After so much prayer and Bible study, it is so clear to me now how important it is to be a people of grace and welcome to all. It is so clear how important it is that we declare ourselves open and affirming. It is so clear to me that we need to strive to include all forms of diversity, including race, gender, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, nationality, ethnicity, marital status, physical or mental ability, political stance or theological perspective.
Because what else can we do, other than let all people know that they are loved by God; that there is no such thing as a person beyond the reach of God’s love; that nothing can separate anyone from the love of God; that the most important thing in life is to love God and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
It’s something worth praying about.
Now I know that many of you feel the same way I do, and are growing impatient for us to complete the process of officially declaring ourselves open and affirming. However, it is also important that all voices are heard, and that everyone has a chance to ask questions. If you have questions, or you’d like to share with me your story, let’s set up a time and meet.
Also, the Open and Affirming committee has set up a survey that can be completed online….