The fury of asking for love

I’ve been a member of the United Methodist Church my whole life. I’ve been angry at the church since I was in high school.

That doesn’t sound terribly healthy, and I assure you there’s more to it than that. I’ve gotten a lot of good out of my Methodism. But this week brings to the forefront, again, the reason I’ve nearly left multiple times.

I was in high school the first time I knew someone who was rejected by the Methodist Church for being gay. I knew this person to be good, kind, and a great disciple, someone who brought others to know the love of Jesus. I couldn’t figure out what else the church might want in a person. Apparently it also wanted that person not to have been born gay.

When I was a sophomore in college, a dear friend of mine shared with me that he was gay, and also that many religious people in his life had rejected him. Again, the dichotomy hit me in the face. My friend was a person of faith, and he was strong enough in that faith to see that people rejecting him were missing the point — but it hurt him all the same.

The Methodist Church’s official position

The Methodist Church added language to its Book of Discipline in 1972 that says homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

¶ 304.3 Qualifications for Ordination

While persons set apart by the Church for ordained ministry are subject to all the frailties of the human condition and the pressures of society, they are required to maintain the highest standards of holy living in the world. The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals1 are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.2
1. “Self-avowed practicing homosexual” is understood to mean that a person openly acknowledges to a bishop, district superintendent, district committee of ordained ministry, board of ordained ministry, or clergy session that the person is a practicing homosexual. See Judicial Council Decisions 702, 708, 722, 725, 764, 844, 984, 1020
2. See Judicial Council Decisions 984, 985, 1027, 1028

In practice, what this means at a high level is that if you say you’re LGBTQ, you can’t get ordained as a Methodist minister, and no Methodist minister can conduct a marriage between two men or two women, and a Methodist church can’t host such a ceremony.

What this means at a day-to-day level and a personal level varies a lot, depending on the particular Methodist church you wander into. For many years, individual and groups of Methodist churches have disavowed these and related statements in our Discipline, and have welcomed all people into their congregations as full members, participants, and leaders. Some Methodist ministers have conducted weddings for gay and lesbian members. And some of them have been kicked out of their positions in the church for it.

Many other Methodist churches haven’t taken a formal stance, but in practice, have welcomed all members, and have created loving, affirming faith communities that welcome LGBTQ members just as they would anyone else.

And many Methodist churches are horrified that the rest of us “welcome” LGBTQ members in an inclusive way. They think we are misguided at best and have wandered from Christ’s teaching.

One of the great benefits and, simultaneously, one of the great drawbacks of the United Methodist Church in the United States is that we span the entire political and theological spectrum. Whoever you are, at the moment you’ll find a home in the Methodist Church. And whoever you are, you are bound to disagree with a lot of the other people here.

There are some very real differences with our rapidly growing church communities in some African countries and other areas where being or living as an LGBTQ person is illegal, as well.

Making Methodist policy

Every four years [usually in a Summer Olympics year], the Methodist Church holds its General Conference, a meeting of delegates from all over the world to talk about church policy. Every four years since I was in high school, I’ve gotten my hopes up as the topic of inclusion comes up, and every time, I’ve had my hopes dashed again. Each time, it’s gotten more personal for me. It’s harder and harder for me to ignore the ways that the official position of the United Methodist Church harms more and more of my friends and family. And frankly, it should be too much for it to harm ANY person at all. The very idea that a church is actively and willfully excluding people — I still can’t get it right in my head.

I’ve stuck around this long because I’ve found enough reason for hope to stay. I remember after a General Conference in the mid-1990s, standing around with several members of my church at the time, discussing our heartbreak. The people I was talking to all happened to be gay men. And we all felt called to stay, to “be part of the solution.” This must have been 1996.

I’m not a patient person. But faith communities are tricky. There’s no perfect one, of course. And I have found lots to love and support in the Methodist churches I’ve been part of.

The closest I’ve come to leaving so far was about 10 years ago. We were changing churches about the time my youngest was born. We were considering joining another denomination. I looked seriously at two other denominations that affirm people who are LGBTQ. And I ended up back at a Methodist church, because there were too many pieces about this place that speak to my soul, especially our focus on social justice.

Frankly, I have a hard time reconciling that social justice focus with a Discipline that actively rejects a class of people. I find every defense of the Discipline disingenuous. The only real defense I’ve ever seen has been people citing the few verses in the Bible that reject homosexuality. Now, I do get why you think those are important, especially if you say you’re a Bible-believing Christian. If the Bible is God’s holy word, those must matter, right?

Here’s what I’ve never heard anyone adequately explain:

  • People who support LGBTQ exclusion are not up in arms about the fact that we ordain divorced/remarried people.
  • People who support LGBTQ exclusion do think slavery is wrong, even though the Bible discusses it as if it’s obvious that people have slaves.
  • People who support LGBTQ exclusion don’t run around taking an eye for an eye or amputating the hands of thieves.
  • People who support LGBTQ exclusion eat shrimp and wear blended fabrics and don’t stone adulterers and I could go on for a long time but I will stop here.

All of these and many other passages from the Bible are understood by everyone I know as something that may have been relevant 2000 years ago, but doesn’t make sense today. No one has ever explained to me how they “just know” that the few verses about homosexuality are different than the prohibition on eating shellfish.

I used to have more patience with the “hate-the-sin, love-the-sinner” way of thinking, even though it wasn’t my own. It’s pretty prominent in the Methodist Church, especially in more traditional congregations, who would be shocked to hear that anyone doesn’t feel welcome in their house of worship, even though many of those congregations give subtle and not-so-subtle hints that LGBTQ people aren’t actually welcome at all — they will “welcomed” as long as they conform to community demands to suppress themselves, to deny their identities. I’ve lost patience with that over time, as well, because I think I used to believe that would be a transitional state of mind, and as people came to know and understand more, they would realize that being born gay isn’t a sin, it’s just human. Just like being born with blue eyes or dark skin or short or tall or anything else.

I’m out of patience

I’m done with the patient part of my life. I cannot stand by and watch this church actively reject people any more. I have just the slimmest bit of patience left for the ideas in the One Church model, which is one of the proposals before the specially called conference this week in St. Louis. This model would allow ministers to conduct a marriage between two men and two women, but it wouldn’t make them do that. It would allow churches to host such a wedding, but it wouldn’t make them. And it would allow regional church conferences to ordain LGBTQ ministers, but it wouldn’t make them.

The idea here is that there’s room for everyone, and you could still believe whatever you like and be a Methodist. It’s less tactically messy than a church split, in theory, but I think it leaves a lot of questions unanswered. One of my biggest unanswered questions is, Are my apportionment dollars going to support a congregation or a pastor who is preaching that it’s sinful to be gay, or to be gay and not celibate? Because you can bet that there’s a gay or lesbian youth in the congregation every time that happens. How can I live with that?

Our preacher spoke today about the passage in Luke where Jesus commands us to love our enemies.

Luke 6:27-36 English Standard Version (ESV)

Love Your Enemies

27 “But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic[a] either. 30 Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. 31 And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.

32 “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. 35 But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. 36 Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.

No one here is my enemy. I don’t hate anyone involved. I know personally and love people on both sides of this conversation.

But it makes me angry that I feel like people I love are not truly loved by those on the other side. Because when you hate-the-sin, love-the-sinner all over them, that’s what you’re saying. They have an asterisk beside their name. There’s no such thing as separate but equal in the eyes of God, and the church shouldn’t do that, either.

I feel like people I love are in danger from those on the other side who demonize them and call them sinful simply based on the fact that God made them gay. I feel like people I love are left hanging in the wind by many people who would like to see full inclusion but are unwilling to fight for it.

And it infuriates me that I have to ask someone in my church to love my loved ones, to validate them as the beautiful, precious children of God that they are. That is not what I expect from my faith community.

Time’s up.