Attention: O&A Doesn't Just Mean "Gay Friendly"

So, let me tell you about another argument people offer up, without the apparatus of a staged conversation,[1] as a reason why their congregation doesn’t feel that declaring itself O&A is necessarily a good idea:[2] “We don’t want to be known as a ‘one issue church.’”

Put less diplomatically, as some people have done, the reservation is expressed this way:

“We don’t want to be known as the ‘gay church.’”

I want to address this matter because it can prove to be an obstacle for churches in entertaining the radical notion of becoming Open and Affirming. (Also, I have something of a personal interest in broadly addressing this matter, since some of my critics have voiced their concern that I am also in danger of being known as a “one-issue guy,” beating only this particular theological drum—to the exclusion of other important theological questions.)[3]

This is worth talking about. The charge that focusing on LGBTQ inclusion carries with it the danger of consigning oneself or one’s congregation to a box reserved for single issue (and thus ) matters marked, “identity politics” (e.g., race, gender, ethnicity, etc.), misses a very important point.

Open and Affirming is not simply code for “gay friendly.” In writing up a resolution about our denomination declaring itself Open and Affirming, I was cautioned by more than a few people that O&A is seen by many to be a euphemism for militant gay friendliness.

“Urging churches to be O&A is a sure way to turn people off, because there’s a long history behind that designation that many people hear as a call to become a ‘gay church.’”

Ok. I get that, if by “Open and Affirming” what people mean is just another sneaky way to squeeze into the life of the church the “agenda driven politics” of the LGBTQ community (perhaps a straw man argument all its own?).

But the thing is: Nobody I know is making that argument.

Open and Affirming, though it carries a specific and important association with the LGBTQ community is so much more than making churches “gay friendly”; it is a call to the church to fundamentally reorient its understanding of hospitality and justice. The full inclusion of LGBTQ people only scratches the surface of the church’s radical vocation to love those who’ve been kicked to the margins.

When a church becomes Open and Affirming, it soon finds that welcoming LGBTQ folks is just the beginning. Pretty soon, if you’re anything like serious about your faith, you begin to ask,“Who else has been left out that the church should be welcoming in? About who else has society generally said, ‘You need not worry about those folks. We’ve got much more pressing concerns. Their stuff (even if we think they have a right to it, which oftentimes we do not) can wait?’”

Immigrants (legal and otherwise)? People of races different from mine? The poor? AIDS patients? Those who can’t get health insurance? The disabled? Drug addicts? Ex-cons? Prostitutes and tax-collectors? Lepers? You know, the disposable people?

Open and Affirming, after you live with it a while, instead of narrowing your focus to one beleaguered group, broadens your vision. It is a way of beginning to take seriously what otherwise gets so casually tossed about by popular Christianity: What would Jesus do?

Indeed, what would Jesus do? Which question is another way of asking, “Who would Jesus love? Who would Jesus welcome? Who would Jesus see cast off from the rest of ‘normal’ life, drop what he’s doing with the highly accomplished and well situated, and go hang out?”

Open and Affirming congregations, I want to suggest, are much less “single issue” churches than those congregations that spend the bulk of their time in extended instances of applied ecclesiological navel-gazing.

To the extent that a church spends the bulk of its time hand-wringing about its impending demise, for instance, it’s a single issue church.

Congregations that obsess about attracting young families are much closer to being single issue churches than O&A congregations.

You might just be a single issue church … if you spend more time talking about not having enough money than about what kinds of interesting things you’re going to do with the money you’ve got.

You get the idea.

The point is that becoming O&A doesn’t limit the horizon of discipleship; in fact, it stretches it in revolutionary ways, offering a point of access to the radical hospitality and the institution-challenging justice practiced by Jesus himself.

Perhaps discipleship, when all is said and done, is a single issue: Does the faith you practice assist you or prevent you from following Jesus to the wrong side of town?

  1. I’ve written quite a bit about why churches should declare themselves Open and Affirming. These pieces have often started with reconstructed and condensed versions of conversations I’ve had with real people. However, that literary conceit upsets some—understandably, I think, because as the author, I always get to appear in control. I have an unfair advantage in such an exchange, since it’s perhaps a bit too tempting to paint people who have a different set of convictions on the issue as less than thoughtful. Let me set the record straight: I believe that many of the people who disagree with me on the issue of the full acceptance of LGBTQ people in general, and on the issue of becoming Open and Affirming in particular, are just as thoughtful and committed to their faith as I am. I just think they’re wrong. (I don’t suppose that’s going to win hearts and minds either.)  ↩
  2. This post, like other posts I’ve done on this issue is specifically written for those people who agree with me that full inclusion of LGBTQ folks in the life of the church is appropriate, but who have yet to press the conversation in their congregations. If, however, you happen to be someone who is not convinced that LGBTQ folks should be welcomed into the life of the church, you probably ought to stop now, and go find another article to read, because the rest of this post is only going to irritate you. I don’€™t mean go away for ever, just for the rest of this post.  ↩
  3. Let me attend to that specific charge but briefly: I do, in fact, write and comment on a wide range of issues that extend beyond the acceptance and embrace of LGBTQ people. If you’re really that interested, you can go back through the archives of my writings here or here and check.  ↩

Kingdom at the margins

(originally posted in Isa 61)

I write letters to complete strangers in prison.

I have never been incarcerated, by the way.

There's a couple ways of describing why I do this. Depending on one's comfort with a certain vocabulary, I could say that God told me to write these letters. If that offends, I could instead say that the idea occurred to me and that I had an overwhelming compulsion to follow it. It doesn't matter. How I describe it is not what's important.

In the letters, I don't preach. I don't patronize. I simply try to offer hope, because I know what it's like to be hopeless.

When I received the call to ministry a little over a year ago, I was sure the One on the other end of the line had the wrong number. At my worst, I have broken the laws of the land and the hearts of those I love. At my best, I have been vaguely spiritual while religiously ambivalent. I had been attending church regularly for the first time in my life after a mostly non-religious upbringing, but only because I had children, and a wife that longed to return to her own faith, from which she had become estranged in her college years.

If pressed, I don't know if I could say that I was really even a Christian. If it weren't for Martin Luther King or Thomas Merton, I assure you the answer would be no. Buddhist? Maybe. Christian? No thanks.

The most disturbing part was that I couldn't begin to imagine myself pastoring a congregation. Not only had I zero desire, but I was certain my experience and qualifications left me far short of ministry. I did not know the language and I had not even read the Bible all the way through. I still have a hard time seeing myself as a pastor. And what makes this vision difficult to materialize in my imagination is not theology or the vocation itself. It isn't fear of economic insecurity or ridicule.

It's the church.

Actually, it's what I had thought was the church, informed in part by my own misconceptions and in part by the truth of a broken institution threatening collapse under its own weight.

I'm not here to bash. But I'm not here to apologize either.

The point is that in my call, the biggest point of resistance centers around church as I have both misunderstood and correctly understood it. And if little ole me can look at what congregations have become, fairly or unfairly, then I can imagine that I'm not the only one who has been turned off by the church, to put it mildly. Of course, I don't speak for all denominations or all people and not for all time in all places. But from where I stand in a relatively affluent, white corner of the United States of America, to say the church can be irrelevant or co-opted by the empire shouldn't be shocking.

So I write to prisoners.

I write to prisoners because the message of hope, forgiveness, wholeness and love that wants to flow through this space I occupy so forcefully that I feel irresistibly drawn to the places it is needed most. I have come to believe that we are not individual creatures, that the lines we draw around ourselves to mark where you end and I begin are arbitrary at best. Truthfully, we are connected in ways that you couldn't imagine. Inextricably. We are like threads of a great tapestry woven tightly together. And when you want to know the condition of our social fabric, you must go to the edges, to the margins, because that is where our tapestry becomes unraveled first.

I believe there is something trying to be born in this age. You can sense it in the growing swell of tension and unrest, of disillusionment and disgust. There are communities trying to come together, fighting to be heard over the deafening noise of commercials, news pundits and the voice in your head that keeps telling you to check the Internet on your phone again, and again, and again. I implore those of us who are seeking new community, drawn out of or repelled by church buildings, to meet at the margins. Until the criminal, the addicted, the poor, the mentally-ill, the homeless are set free of the lies that they are obsolete human garbage, then none of us are free.

Years ago, I found God roaming the barren grounds of a homeless shelter in downtown Louisville, KY, lighting cigarettes for broken men. I found myself in the dried, yearning eyes of those men. I don't necessarily believe that it is because the addicted, the criminal, the poor deserve hope more than anyone else, although it may be true, but one cannot grasp hope so long as his fingers are clinched tightly around his hollow idols. You see, one must know he is broken in order to surrender the shattered pieces to God. And it is undeniable that your chances of finding someone who knows that he is broken -fairly or unfairly- tends to be greater in the places where society has thrown away its people. Once I caught a glimpse of the Kingdom at the margins, I've been unable to stay away. It is where I go to find myself and lose myself all at once. And in embracing my brother, I find that I am held in the very hands of God.