3A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5Then the glory of the Lordshall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” 6A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.7The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. 8The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.
9Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” 10See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 11He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep. (from Isaiah 40)
It slammed into me as I pulled dinner components out of the freezer today.
Part of the reason every fiber of my being is saddened by the persecution of homosexuality and non-conforming gender in the United Methodist Church is because it violates a truth taught to me by my childhood pastor. God’s grace is for everyone. Our job is to love, not judge. God loves us (and forgives our sins) SO THAT we can be light for others.
When I was 15, my father was diagnosed with cancer. It was 1985. I was a sophomore in high school. Initial pathology reports were very, very grim. Cancer was such an enigma -- in the current science of 1985 and in my little corner of the world. In the days that unfolded from initial results, my parents pursued second opinions. There were teary conversations and brutal, brutal chemotherapy and radiation treatments. There were flaring tempers driven by fear and pain and nausea and discomfort.
One day, in the midst of it all, I found myself in Rev. Berg’s office. Rev. Berg baptized me and confirmed me. He taught me how to cook food over a campfire in ways the Girl Scouts never did. He made corny jokes. He loved those little picture riddles that illustrated a common word or phrase (imagine the word sand drawn inside a box – sandbox). He was an adventuresome driver (politely put), and he loved taking the youth into Chicago.
Anyway, you get the picture. I sat on his couch, which in my memory was enormous. I am pretty sure he sat across from me, possibly with his short arms crossed over his ample belly. What did I want to talk about?
I wanted to know what was going to happen to my dad when he died. You know…was he going to heaven or to hell? You see, my dad was a good person, but even without really knowing what his sin had been, I knew even at 15 that he had some pretty heavy sin in his life somewhere. I grew up in a predominantly Catholic community. I had spent more time at age 15 talking about venial and mortal sin than I had about prevenient, justifying and sanctifying grace. I wasn’t quite sure of the nature of my father’s sin…but I felt heavy about it. Respecting my confirmation, probably with some confidence in his own work of teaching, Rev. Berg didn’t just answer my question. He asked what I thought the answer was.
I told him that I didn’t believe a loving God would torment sinners for eternity. I told him that I believed no sin was too big for God to forgive. I told him I believed that my Dad was loved by God. And he agreed.
In the United Methodist Church, we are grappling with a very complicated set of circumstances around homosexuality, gender identity and gay marriage. This is all wrapped up in clergy roles and rules and the global church and power and authority and voting rights and money. Yes…it’s wrapped up in institutional sludge that is old and interwoven and intercultural and complicated. We have a rulebook that explicitly singles out homosexuality as a sin. We have a rulebook that outlines a process for what happens when a member of the clergy breaks rules in the book. We have a trial system with prosecutors and defendants. We have juries and penalty phases.
And we claim to have a God who loves us and forgives us even before we know we need that forgiveness.
Something is not right.
At the heart for me is a question very similar to that I asked my childhood pastor. Essentially it is a question about God’s love and judgment.
I have engaged in plenty of “dialogues” with people very familiar with the rulebook and seemingly familiar with the bible that point to words on a page and say… If you can’t live with it, you should go somewhere else.
It’s not quite that easy. You see God keeps landing me BACK in the United Methodist Church. I was born into a Methodist family, the grand-daughter of a Methodist Elder who was the nephew of a “shouting Methodist” street preacher from Chicago at the time of the Great Awakening. My father didn’t go to church, but I was delivered to church regularly for Sunday School, youth choir, MYF and summer camp. I left the church through college and my early young adult years, but was called back post 9/11. And when I returned, I fell into a United Methodist congregation with a sweet older pastor on the brink of retirement. He called me to come work for the church, recommended seminary classes and offered to pay for some. Through a nasty divorce, I was hired by a United Methodist seminary and I’ve now been there 7 ½ years and completed my MDiv. I left the candidacy process but returned despite all odds. Even during some rough years as I put my life back in order post-divorce, the multi-denominational church that embraced me used the familiar red hymnal. Believe me when I say, God keeps putting me BACK in the United Methodist Church…because the Book of Discipline sure isn’t responsible.
I am at a point in my life and in my calling where I keep saying to God, that if it is God’s will, make a way clear. And the way continues to be in the church of my childhood, the church of my heritage. My care and concern for the institution is beyond rationality. It’s God. It’s God troubling the waters…and to what end I am still not sure.
This much I know. I grew up and was shaped as a disciple in the United Methodist tradition. And I still think that we should allow our gay brothers and sisters to marry within the church. I still believe we should be able to fully include our gay brothers and sisters in the life of the church community. I believe clergy in loving relationships, whether gay or straight, are entitled to be ordained and to work in our churches.
The world is changing. We know more about biology, psychology and frankly, theology. United Methodists are swimming in waters first tested by a reformer named John Wesley who knew that our life experience informed our theology individually and collectively, who understood that tradition needed to be tempered by lived experience. In the Book of Discipline reads “While highly theoretical constructions of Christian thought make important contributions to theological understanding, we finally measure the truth of such statements in relation to their practical significance. Our interest is to incorporate the promises and demands of the gospel into our daily lives.” Further, “Since all truth is from God, efforts to discern the connections between revelation and reason, faith and science, grace and nature are useful endeavors in developing credible and communicable doctrine.”
The promise of the gospel is that we are, each of us, beloved children of a forgiving and merciful God. God’s demand is that we love God and one another and live our lives in ways that express that love.
So I keep praying. And I keep living. And God keeps troubling the water, pointing to injustice and suffering and pain. And as a church, we are currently contributing to that injustice and suffering and pain.
A practical reality: The United Methodist Church is aging at an alarming rate. And young people today have been raised in the bosom of diversity recognizing the gifts of everyone around them regardless of faith, race, gender, sexual preference, intellectual ability, economic background. The voices of the next generation of leaders are becoming louder and stronger. They are not unanimous, but the growing majority seek justice for their gay and gender non-conforming colleagues, peers, friends, family members.
Lately the hip-hop artist Macklemore has wormed his way into my ear. One of my favorite running tunes is “Can’t Hold Us.” There is a fabulous refrain that goes like this:
Can we go back, this is the moment
Tonight is the night, we’ll fight ‘til it’s over
So we put up our hands like the ceiling can’t hold us
Like the ceiling can’t hold us
It’s a mantra that has stolen its way into my psyche. This is where we are. The ceiling can’t hold us. A new generation gets grace in a way we older folk may never get it. Praise God.
The same artist has this winner too:
“When I was at church they taught me something else…if you preach hate at the service those words aren’t anointed.”
And while it was slamming into me as I pulled the components for dinner from the freezer, I was overcome, too, by the prophecy of Isaiah 40. We may be in the season of our own John the Baptist, preaching a message we cannot fathom because it doesn’t fit the rule books.