Why I Stay (In A Church That Still Isn’t Sure It Wants Me)

This past week there’s been a blog post floating around in which a man explains why he stays in the Presbyterian Church. Like this man, I also get asked all of the time why I stay. Unlike him, I only ever get asked for one reason. “Why do you stay in a church that still isn’t sure if it wants you because you’re not straight?”

It’s a fair question, and one I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about—particularly recently—and so I figured I’d share my thoughts.

Ten days ago, I sat at a table in the dining hall of our seminary across from a friend and classmate. “I’ve never seen you this worked up,” he said. He was right. I was beyond panicked, vacillating between nausea and the humiliating urge to burst into very public tears. I was waiting to meet with my committee who would either approve or deny my moving to the next stage of the ordination process. It’s a nerve-wracking experience for anyone, but what had me most worked up was knowing that it may not matter what I did or said or how qualified I seemed. I knew there was a decent chance that some on that committee may vote against me simply because I’m am part of the LGBTQ community. I felt so frustratingly helpless and I kept thinking, “It shouldn’t be like this.”

I was approved. Next month I’ll go before a larger body and face the same anxiety. Next year, I’ll undergo an even more stringent review. The fear of it stays with me like a knot in my gut and it shouldn’t be like this. So I wonder sometimes along with those who ask me, “Why do I stay?”

It wasn’t always like this for me. I grew up in an amazing church that claimed me wholeheartedly. It was the first—and sometimes only—place where I felt certain that I was wanted. It was, in many ways, my surest sense of home.

When I came out during my first year of seminary, I made the difficult decision to transfer my membership and ordination process from the church I’d grown up in to the church I’d found in Austin. I knew that it meant never getting ordained in the sanctuary where I spent so many happy years, but I also knew that my coming out would be a deeply painful and divisive issue in my church of origin, and I didn’t want to make something so personal such a political issue. I left home rather than letting it leave me.

Since then, I have become a vocal advocate for LGBTQ rights within the church. Last Friday I was interviewed on stage in front of a few hundred people as part of the It Gets Better anti-bullying tour. I was asked again, why I stay in the church and pursue ministry when it is so hard. I said, “I had to move a thousand miles away to find the freedom to be who I am, but if we’re going to tell all these kids that it gets better, then somebody has to be willing to stay and make sure it does.” Whether it’s staying in the towns that kids can’t get out of, or in the churches that kids call home to make sure that they are welcomed, somebody has to stay.

After the show a teenage girl came up to me and thanked me for sharing my story. She said she knew she was gay, but that she was experimenting with her faith and she’s glad to hear someone say the two aren’t mutually exclusive. I know that they’re not and others should get to know that too.

This summer, I worked at a unique church in downtown Philly that serves meals four times a week to those in the city who are hungry. There is one man who has been coming for meals there for a long time, and has eaten standing up at every meal because he didn’t feel safe. This summer, he sat down at the table to eat for the first time in years. That church worked to be a home for him. My church did the same for me when I was a child.

I can’t help but imagine a world and a church where every child of God for whom the church has become a fearful place (whether because of their sexual or gender identity or some other reason) finally gets to take their place at the Table and know that they are wanted and they are home.

This is the church I believed in as a child. And it’s the church I believe in now—even on my hardest days. And that is why I stay.

 

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Relational Faith: An Experiment in Co-Preaching

For Theological Education Sunday at Faith Presbyterian Church in Austin, TX—Molly McGinnis and I decided to co-preach. We collaborated on the lectionary texts to develop a common theme, and then I preached a short sermon on the Old Testament text and Molly preached on the New Testament text. Here are our sermons with scripture included.

Exodus 32:7-14

The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshipped it and sacrificed to it, and said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” ’ The Lord said to Moses, ‘I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.’

But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, ‘O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, “It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth”? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, “I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it for ever.” ’ And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

Sermon – Layton Williams (Some material taken from a sermon I wrote in Fall of 2011)

“Don’t talk back to me!”

We’ve all heard this phrase before, right? As kids we’re taught that the paragon of morality is silent obedience. To question is to disrespect. To challenge is to incur greater punishment.

I remember watching Disney’s Cinderella as a kid, and in it the stepmother demands unquestioning obedience. Whenever anyone starts to protest one of her commands, she points a long, serious finger at them and says, “silence!” So fully did I buy into this idea as a child that any time I did something that might get me in trouble and an adult opened their mouth to reprimand me, I would point my finger at them and say “silence!” before they could utter a word. Somehow, it was never as effective as I wanted it to be.  But sometimes, it’s just easier to demand silence.

Sometimes it’s also just easier to offer silence. When I found out I would be preaching here at Faith where my friend Molly is doing her internship, I got really excited about this idea of co-preaching. I told her I’d take the Old Testament text and she could take the Gospel and we’d preach on a common theme. And then I read my text, in which God threatens to annihilate the Israelites for their sinfulness and Moses has to talk God down. And I thought—Layton, what have you gotten yourself into? And suddenly, silence seemed like a really good idea.

But is silent, passive, obedience really what God asks from us? I think this passage—difficult though it may be—clearly tells us no. That’s not what God wants from us at all.

When God comes to Moses, the sin of the people that has so upset their God is idolatry. The history of God’s interaction with Israel is one of relationship, an ongoing sacred conversation that began with Abraham generations before. But in their impatience waiting for Moses to come back with words from God, the people have created and begun to worship a golden calf. The people create a static god that offers them only silence, and expects only silence in return. They choose a flat, lifeless image instead of the living God who both offers and demands relationship.

In anguish and anger over their idolatry, God refuses to acknowledge his relationship with Israel at all. “Your people… have acted perversely,” God tells Moses. “Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them.”

Perhaps the easiest thing for Moses would have been silent obedience. To “let God alone.” But Moses knows that something important is at stake: this sacred relationship between God and God’s people. And so he does something crazy. Moses talks back to God. He reminds God that the Israelites are God’s people with whom God established a covenant relationship. Moses is willing to challenge God’s anger and doubt, to risk some sort of greater punishment—precisely because he is and has been in relationship with God. Moses knows God and so Moses can look God’s wrath square in the face and say, “I know you, and this isn’t you.” He’s right. And amazingly—God responds. Moses changes God’s mind.

Moses knew that silent obedience was the easier answer. But he also knew it wasn’t the right answer. The living God calls us into conversation and relationship and without these things God becomes for us a lifeless idol. The living God challenges us to talk back. In the uncertainty of our times—plagued with moral ambiguity and conflict and doubt, it can be tempting to look for a static image of God—an easy set of rules that demand only that we shut up and shut down and follow. But sometimes the most faithful thing we can do in such a world is stand up and say, “No!… Why?” God calls us to struggle against injustice, to challenge the status quo, to ask hard questions about faith and morality and God’s will, to talk back. God calls us to relationship because that is how we know and love one another. That is how we know and love God.

Several years ago, Mark Ferrari wrote a novel called The Book of Joby—a modern spin on the book of Job. In the story, God and Lucifer bet on the righteousness of young boy named Joby Peterson. The stakes of the bet are high: if Lucifer wins God must wipe out all of existence. God tells his angels and other agents of Heaven that they must not intervene on God’s behalf to help Joby, lest the wager’s terms be violated and Lucifer win by default.

As Joby’s life progresses, a number of the archangels and other heavenly beings come into contact with him, and one by one they defy God’s command and speak out in an effort to spare the boy from the cruelest effects of the bet. When the day of the wager’s reckoning arrives, those who went against the divine command guiltily await their anticipated damnation, but God surprises them.

When Lucifer insists that they be damned for disobeying God’s will, God says, “Did they?” and then continues, “It was only my command they violated. Not my will… I will concede that, had they disappointed me by doing otherwise, I doubt you could have lost the wager, Lucifer” (Ferrari 621). When Lucifer protests in fury, God reveals exactly what he was betting on. “I was betting that, at the core, My creation was so soundly imbued with the laws of love and faith, compassion and real justice, that even if I, Myself, should command it to ignore those laws, it would still not do so” (Ferrari 621).

In Ferrari’s book, God’s deepest hope is not that the angels obey his command to be silent, but that they know and love God deeply enough to defy a command which contradicts their experience of who God is. Moses dares to know God well enough to talk back. And God dares us to do the same.

We draw nearer to God through daring to be in relationship – with one another and with God. It is not always easy, but God is not interested in easy—in faith in idols or idle faith. God wants more from us and we’re offered so much more in return. We get to really know God. To know God so well that even if God’s own self forgot who God was, we could say, “We remember. We know who you are. We can show you.”

What a gift and what a calling – this sacred relationship.

We belong to God. We belong to each other. That is the call of our faith.

——————————–

Luke 15:1-10

Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’

So he told them this parable: ‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.

‘Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’

Sermon – Molly McGinnis

The Lost Sheep. We probably all know what it feels like to be alone, uncertain, stranded—lost. Whether it’s lost from home, in a new place, or at a loss about what to do. This “lostness” or feeling of being lost is something that we have all experienced, but the feeling usually goes away. We figure out where we’re going. We make new friends, and settle into a new place. But there are people who never get away from feeling lost. There are people in our world, our city, and even in our churches, who live in a perpetual state of “lostness.”

They are the hungry people who eat from the food pantry. They are the people experiencing homelessness who use this place as an address. They are the prisoners who wait for execution. They are the people suffering from Diabetes and HIV, who can’t afford their medication. They are the LGBTQ people whose churches have condemned them. They are the teenage parents whose families have abandoned them.

They are us. Because they are God’s and so are we.

In today’s lesson, we see Jesus in a familiar setting—preaching and teaching to the public.  The scribes and Pharisees are at hand, monitoring his every move. It’s hard to tell what they are thinking. Maybe they feel threatened. Their authority is being challenged, and they don’t like that. But the text points us toward something else, too. They are grumbling. What an interesting choice of words. Grumbling. It doesn’t say that they were mad, or upset, or threatened. It says that they were grumbling, a word that is also used to describe the Israelites traveling in the wilderness with Moses. The Israelites were God’s chosen people. They were the people of God. The scribes and Pharisees, leaders of the synagogue and descendants of the Israelites, were also the people of God. Perhaps they, too, were in the wilderness.

Jesus comes in and turns their world upside down, challenging not only their authority but also the way that they viewed themselves in relationship to other people. Jesus eats with tax collectors and sinners, welcoming them into his household. Through his actions, he is telling the whole world that they, too, are the people of God. And that they are welcome.  Jesus makes room at the table for the whole community, even the ones who don’t seem like they belong, because everyone fits together in the space that God has created.

When the woman loses the coin, she is utterly distraught. Now, this wasn’t like losing a quarter in the sofa cushion. That coin was probably worth a day’s wages. Obviously she is upset about losing that much money. But there is something else happening in this text. She didn’t just lose a coin; she lost one of 10. There is an emphasis on the incompleteness.

She searches frantically all over the house. When she finally finds the coin, she is so happy that she calls everyone together to celebrate with her. She doesn’t put it in a safe somewhere and lock her front door. She throws a party! She invites the whole community to share in her happiness.

Her house has been turned upside down, a fitting metaphor for what Jesus does in the Gospel and in our lives. He enters into the community, building a house that is big enough for everyone, calling them together in joy and celebration. Jesus doesn’t grumble about eating with sinners and tax collectors. He doesn’t worry about breaking social norms. He doesn’t focus on following the Law to the letter. He teaches us that the life of faith is incomplete even when one is missing. And the whole family of God suffers when anyone experiences “lostness.”

In the parable, all of the sheep are “in the wilderness.” Not just the one who is lost. The shepherd leaves the flock “in the wilderness” while searching for the lost sheep, who is also “in the wilderness.” Without the 99, the 1 is lost. Without the 1, the 99 is incomplete.

I think The Beatles said it best: “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.”* We belong to God. We belong to each other. That is the call of our faith.

* “I Am the Walrus” by The Beatles, 1967

Read more from Molly at mollyfide.wordpress.com

On Writing: A Love Letter

* I intend for this blog to be issue based and professional. This is something of a personal interlude in the midst of that. But if I’m asking you to invest in my writing, it seems worthwhile to reveal a little about why it matters to me. 

I’m currently taking a class about women and voice. Coinciding with our reading assignment for this week, I was asked to reflect on a series of questions about when I have felt silenced and voiced. I had written my answers down and each chance I had to share back I simply read the words I had written.

One of the questions was “Where are the places in your life where you speak freely and honestly? I had written in response, “In my writing. Beyond that, I am only just beginning to learn how to trust others to be a free and honest space for me.”

My professor asked me, “Which writing? Your blog? Because people give responses to that.”
I said, “Yes, my blog. And sermons. All of my writing.”

She wondered aloud why I felt that way about my writing if not other conversational and relational spaces. I spoke instinctively, without knowing what I would say.

“I was three when I learned to read. I was four when I decided to be a writer. I claimed writing as my own before any dark things in life got their hooks in me. It has been mine since before any of that, and so nothing and no one can take it away from me.”

It wasn’t until a few minutes later that the truth of my own words really struck me. Wasn’t my very practice of reading out my answers evidence of my relationship to writing? I was very young when I learned to read and write—younger than most I think. And it was never a stranger to me. From the first it was a friend. My oldest friend. My closest and most stalwart companion.

I have had a harder life than some—though certainly an easier life than many. I’ve had my share of pain and fear and grief and trauma—the dark things. I have often and in many ways felt silenced.
But writing has always been with me—my comfort and my conscience. I consider it a gift—not because I am necessarily great at it—but because its presence in my life has always been a means of grace. It is the singular constant: the through line to all the me’s I’ve ever been—including those I’ve forgotten or shoved away.

I wonder at how I’ve gone so long without ever appreciating the gravity of such a relationship. My ability to take it for granted is only further evidence of the gift it is to me, but that is no excuse really. Where is my gratitude? Where is my commitment in equal and opposite measure? Writing has been such a friend to me (what other friend would give you the very means of expressing your gratitude?)—how have I been so unfaithful in return? How has there ever been a question as to where my loyalty, trust, and investment belong? And how can I make up for it—return the favor now?

I must.

Prophetic Risk: On Ministry, Vows, and Breaking Unjust Laws

A few months ago, as I started my ministry internship and began to think about moving to the next step of my ordination process, I found myself struggling with a bit of cold feet. Suddenly the thought of committing my whole life to the church—though I love it—made me uneasy. At the time, I couldn’t quite pinpoint why.

When I returned to my home church in Austin several weeks ago after a summer away, I finally understood my hesitation. Before beginning his sermon, my pastor told the congregation that the following weekend he would be traveling to Maryland to officiate at the wedding of a church member and her wife. Though their marriage is legal in Maryland, our denomination has yet to acknowledge same-sex marriage and thus, my pastor’s participation in the ceremony was arguably a violation of his ordination vows to uphold church law.

I knew that I would have made the same choice; as far I was concerned it was the only choice that enacted justice. But I haven’t been ordained yet, and I have yet to stand before a room of people and pledge to spend my life upholding church law. How could I do so when I already know that there are limits to my allegiance?

I think it comes down to this: We are called to serve the church. We are called to commit to it, to know its deep flaws, and work to make it a better realization of God’s intention. But we are first called to serve God and the true Church that God sees and empowers—which our human frailty so often blinds us to. We are called to strive toward lives worthy of the Gospel, and thus to build a Church worthy of Christ.

We are called to prophetic risk. It’s the call of all people of faith. Prophecy is about proclaiming and grasping hold of that which is already true but which we have yet to realize. We live into its revelation. And I believe that sometimes that prophetic witness requires us to risk—our comfort, our jobs, our ordination, our lawfulness—in the name of justice.

Whether it’s protesting racist laws, marrying a devoted couple in defiance of church polity, or administering a baptism or communion at the request of a dying person before you’re ordained, sometimes the only way to enact justice is to challenge our flawed human understanding of it.

It shouldn’t be easy. We are a church rooted in communal faith. Even now as I contemplate the moments in life when my call might put me in conflict with my church, I wrestle with knowing that the forebears of my tradition might not believe that I am living a faithful life. The tensions between tradition and reform, between rules of justice and enacted justice—are heavy tensions that we are called to live into. But there is comfort, too, in knowing that prophetic risk, sinning boldly, and living in tension are not incidental to our tradition, they are essential.

What ties us most assuredly to our legacy of faith is the certain knowledge that those who’ve come before us—all the way back to Jesus Christ himself—stood where we stand and wrestled with the same unwieldy tension of tradition and prophecy. With bold faith they stepped out to claim their call to the Church of God. They have made prophetic risk itself our tradition.

Our faith demands of us the commitment to dream in thought and action of a world and Church beyond any that could be defined within the limits of our human words and rules. It is this conviction with which I resonate so deeply, and that convinces me in the face of my cold feet and my doubt that I could spend my life committed to our church as it is and the Church that will be. And it is my sincerest hope that the future will bring new prophets who step out boldly to embody faith and enact justice in ways that we have yet to even imagine.