Facing Death

Jennie’s wife called me early one day and asked if I would be willing to come to their house and meet with their family as they prepared to say goodbye to Jennie. She had been fighting a long battle with a terminal illness and everyone believed she was nearing the end. As I entered the room, I felt a sense of hope, and I was brought to tears by the sight of Jennie, laying in her hospital bed, holding hands with her wife of 39 years and surrounded by their adopted children and 7 grandchildren. There was a deep sense of peace and calmness in the room, and as I approached the bed Jennie motioned for me to come near. 

“Pastor,” she whispered, “Thank you for coming. I know I’m nearing the end, and I wanted to speak with you one last time. I’m so afraid of what’s next, and I’m hopeful that God will still accept me into eternity, despite the fact that I am gay.” I took and deep breath and asked Jennie to explain why she was questioning God’s love for her.

“Well, when I came out in High School, I was told by my youth leader that if I chose to live this lifestyle God would not accept me. He said that if I chose to be gay, I would deny my place in God’s kingdom. And that if I wanted to be saved, I had to repent of my sinful temptations and choose to be celibate. This one conversation sent me into a decade-long battle with depression and anxiety. Despite my efforts, and after spending many weeks at retreats and conferences trying to learn how to ‘not be gay’ I gave up. I could not change myself, I could not ‘pray the gay away,’ and yet I could not stand the thought of being alone for my entire life. Now, after 39 wonderful years of marriage, raising children and doing my best to love others well, I must say I would make the same choice if I could do it all over again. Because I can only hope that my marriage, and the love I’ve felt throughout my life, is a dim reflection of the way God feels about me. I can only hope that God has loved me all along.”

 I leaned in close to Jennie and whispered in her ear: “Jennie, what is your deepest longing?” Jennie took a breath and responded, “To be known and loved.” 

“Well, I believe that is everyone’s deepest longing,” I said. “And don’t you think that because we are made in God’s image, infused with the breath and light of Christ, that God’s greatest desire might be to meet our deepest longing?” Jennie paused, assuming there was a right or wrong answer. “I sure hope so!” She was smiling now.

“Jennie, there are many big questions about the Bible, as you know, and history has proven that we will never be able to answer most of them with any level of certainty. God is always bigger than our minds can comprehend. However, our inability to answer these theological questions doesn’t change the fact that we are all made in God’s image; made from love and for love. Do you believe that you’re loved?” Jennie paused. “Yes,” she whispered.

“Then perhaps you’ve answered your own question,” I said. “God loves you just the way you are. Look around this room at the many people you’ve touched throughout your life. This is evidence of God’s love and presence in your life. Accept that you are loved and that you’ve always been loved.” Jennie looked around the room with tears in her eyes as she reflected on the ways she’d loved and been loved by others.

As I drove home that night, I was struck by the power of these moments when we are faced with eternity. As a pastor, I wrestle with theological questions every day, but in the end, as we all prepare to take our last breath, many of the questions that seem so important in life fade away. Death seems to shake us free from our search for temporal certainty and draws us deeper into the reality of God’s transcendent and eternal love.


June is PRIDE month. In light of recent events, I’ve been thinking a lot about equality and diversity. Many of you are aware of my theological evolution that’s taken place over the past few years. At its core, my journey has led me to a bigger view of God and to a greater level of acceptance and love for all people. I’m continually learning that in order to know God we must always be growing and allowing our ideas about God to evolve and increase.

As a child, I believed that God was a white Christian man who lived in the clouds. I also knew that God made me, and that in spite of God’s gracious love, I lived a life of sin, apart from God. So, God sent Jesus to die for my sins. God punished Jesus in my place, and if I wanted to be in relationship with God I needed to repent and accept Jesus into my heart. In His great mercy, God wrote a book of rules to help me avoid sin and live a moral life. Furthermore, despite growing up in the church, training in theological institutions, and serving in various leadership positions with Christian churches and organizations, as a young man I had no meaningful way of responding to life’s big questions:

Why would a good God allow suffering?

What about the numerous contradictions throughout the Bible? 

Why do some churches allow women to serve and others do not?

Should I believe scientists or the Bible?

Did God write the Bible? 

Why do some Christians follow some of the commands in the Bible but ignore others?

If God commands us to be perfect then why is nobody perfect?

Why do some churches prohibit homosexuals from serving but welcome the leadership of divorced people?

While I still do not have answers to many of these questions, I’m learning that God is always bigger than we think. God is not a man. God is bigger than gender. God is not white. God is all races and ethnicities. God is not heterosexual. God is not bound by sexuality. God is not a Christian. God is present in all people and cultures. If God looks like you and your theology affirms all of your culturally conditioned opinions and beliefs, then your God is too small. 

Many of us have been challenged in this season. Our ideas and perspectives have been tested. We’ve been left with doubts and questions about who God is and what God is like. My encouragement to you is; don’t be afraid of those questions. Lean into those questions. 

Do not allow any pastor, church, book, individual or organization put God in a box. God doesn’t belong in a box. God simply belongs. God is belonging. John writes that God is love. Paul writes that Christ is all and in all, and that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. Jesus said that anyone who serves others and stands up for the marginalized and oppressed in society will inherit the Kingdom of heaven. 

Our journey of discovery should lead us into a deeper and broader knowledge and experience of God. God is all things and in all things. God is in the Christian, the Muslim, the atheist, the black person, the white person, LGBTQIA+ individuals, people from everywhere with a variety of views and beliefs. God is in all of creation. There is beauty in diversity, and the diversity of creation and humanity reflects the heart and being of God. We certainly see God’s extravagant love modeled in the life and ministry of Christ, and when we base our view of God on the person of Christ then our theology will lead us to love more freely, to give more generously, to accept all people without condition, to celebrate diversity, and to trust the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives and the lives of others. 

What if God really does desire to love everyone all the time? Then my job as a pastor certainly becomes simpler and the role of the church in the world becomes less about managing behavior and more about reflecting the gracious and generous love of the God of all creation. 

A Response to the Anti-LGBT Bill Passed in the TN State Senate

* This article was previously published by The Tennessean and the Knoxville News Sentinel *

In January I read an article announcing the passing of a new bill in the Tennessee State senate that would allow adoption agencies to discriminate against same-sex couples who hope to adopt a child.  If passed, this bill would prevent hundreds of loving families from embracing a child in need and providing a loving and stable environment for a child that otherwise would never know the love of a parent.

Children that grow up without families face many unique challenges.  Any psychologist will tell you that healthy childhood development depends on many factors.  The most important element is a loving support system.  In fact, some studies suggest that in order for kids to fully develop, they need at least eight different adults in their lives who serve as a consistent loving presence.  Studies show that the gender or sexual orientation of those adults has no negative impact on the development of their child.  The only necessary qualification is that the adult provides consistent love and support.

For those of us who have been fortunate enough to know the love of a parent, we know that this consistent and loving presence builds a solid foundation upon which we can pursue healthy and productive lives.  The outcome for children who grow up never knowing the love of a parent is not so positive.

Almost half of all foster care youth end up in jail within two years of aging out of the system.  Professionals will tell you that this outcome is primarily caused by a lack of stability and the absence of a loving and stable family environment. 

Currently, there are slightly less than 8,000 children in foster care in the state of Tennessee.  There are 4,000 foster families, and the majority of those families are willing to take only one child at a time.  In addition, not all of these families are willing to adopt the child they are fostering.  Also, as a child gets older, their chances of being adopted decrease exponentially.  Most adoptive families want a baby.  Keep in mind, these are just foster kids.  We are not counting the millions of kids in group homes or on waiting lists from other countries who are praying each night for someone to want them.  Currently there are an estimated 140 million orphans throughout the world and less than 1% of them will be adopted.

My wife and I are in the final stages of completing an adoption.  We have been in this process for four years, and trust me, it has not been easy.  Our reason for adopting stems from our extensive global travels, witnessing first-hand what life is like for a child who grows up without a family.  Despite the heartache and exorbitant expense of adoption, we believe that every child deserves to be known and loved by an adult (or adults) who will commit to caring for them.

To those serving in positions of power in my home state of Tennessee,

Please consider the consequences of the bill for which you are about to endorse.  While you may believe you are using your religious convictions, and your interpretation of the biblical text, to justify this bill that seeks to prevent loving adults from caring for our most vulnerable population, this resolution is not reflective of the heart of Christ.  God’s will in scripture is clear: take care of my children.  Christ’s teaching is clear: love the least of these.  There are no exceptions to Christ’s command.  God’s command is to love without condition.

How would our world change if we focused more on caring for the vulnerable than we do about promoting a political agenda?  We cannot get lost in the smoke and mirrors of our own prejudice and prevent capable and loving people from remaining faithful to God’s call on their lives to care for orphans.  If our goal is to care for these children, then we certainly need all the help we can get. 


Reverend Mark W. Wagner

Practicing Radical Hospitality

This week, as I was studying the passage I would be teaching from at church on Sunday, I began to reflect back on a BBQ my wife and I hosted at our home earlier this summer. We invited friends, family and even a few new neighbors to enjoy great food and fellowship. At the time, I was proud of us for practicing such great hospitality, and I even dropped a few proverbial tokens in my “good deeds” piggy bank. But is this really the type of radical hospitality that Christ is urging me to offer others?

My scripture lesson came from the gospel of Luke, and while most scholars believe that Luke did not know Jesus directly, we do know he received first-hand accounts from Jesus’ closest disciples. In Chapter 14 of Luke’s story, Jesus attends a dinner hosted by local religious leaders (these are the rabbis and ‘pastors’ of the community).

At this dinner, Jesus offers what may be one of our clearest teachings on this concept of radical hospitality: As he sits in a room full of privileged faith leaders, Jesus turns to the host and says, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (Luke 14:12-13 NRSV). Jesus’ words must have stung a bit.

This comment would have been a major blow to the host of this dinner, as the only people he had invited were literally his friends and rich neighbors. Jesus’ words were not only hard for the original readers of this text to hear (religious leaders were highly esteemed in those days) but they also prove challenging for the church today. Am I supposed to interpret Jesus’ words here literally, inviting only the poor and marginalized from our communities to our next BBQ? Or is Jesus merely calling out these leaders for doing a poor job of caring for their own community? Perhaps Jesus is also making a statement about generosity and our ability to give without hopes of repayment?

As I prepared my message on this text I felt convicted. I had never even invited a poor person to my house, much less to an intimate gathering of friends and family. Growing up, my white Christian American middle-class culture largely taught me to insulate myself from the marginalized people of society. Giving money instead to the many organizations devoted to providing them with resources. But we certainly don’t see Jesus advocating for this type of giving. Jesus doesn’t make donations to humanitarian organizations, Jesus donates himself. Jesus invites those who often go uninvited into a relationship. Practicing radical hospitality is about extending the invitation of relationship to those individuals in our community who largely go unseen and might be longing for a friend. Who are those people in your town?

CH 10: Who Speaks for God?

Jim Wallis, the best-selling author and founder and editor of Sojourners magazine, asks,

“Is there a reliable guide to when we are really hearing the voice of God, or just a self-interested or even quite ungodly voice in the language of heaven?  I think there is.  Who speaks for God?  When the voice of God is invoked on behalf of those who have no voice, it is time to listen.  But when the name of God is used to benefit the interests of those who are speaking, it is time to be very careful.  The crucial difference is who benefits from the voice of God being spoken and heard.”

Jesus never stands with those in power.  Throughout the New Testament, we never see Jesus defending the interests of the religious elite.  We never see him fighting to protect religious institutions or traditions.  In fact, he repeatedly speaks against these institutions and traditions in order to advocate for the marginalized.  Moreover, the only people Jesus ever seems to condemn are the religious leaders.  When Jesus is confronted by the Pharisees in their many attempts to deceive him, he always sides with the powerless, the oppressed.  Off the top of my head:

Jesus invites poor and uneducated fishermen and blue-collar workers to be his closest companions and disciples, he cleanses the lepers and the demon-possessed (who have been outcast by mainstream society) and restores them to their rightful place in the community, Jesus openly forgives and empowers a woman caught in adultery and a woman guilty of promiscuity (requiring no penance), he forgives and blesses prostitutes and thieves, he praises the good Samaritan that crosses cultural and socio-economic boundaries to radically love a brother in need, asking nothing in return.  I could go on.

We can trust the voice of God only when that voice is leading us to love the least of these.  Who is benefiting from the voice of God being spoken and heard?  If we are preaching a message that promotes upward mobility, increasing our wealth and securing our personal and national borders, then we are not preaching the gospel of Christ.  If we are preaching a gospel message that does not guide us deeper into the forgotten corners of society, standing in solidarity with the oppressed and marginalized, then we are not preaching the gospel of Christ.  My friend Lina says, “The gospel is not good news unless it’s good news for everyone.”

I would argue that for our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters, a message of “Be single or be excluded” is not good news.  A message of “Unless you live up to our moral standard, you will not be permitted to answer God’s calling on your life to serve God’s church” is not good news.  A message of “I get to decide what God is speaking into your life, based on my reading of Scripture,” is not good news.  Christ did not promote a gospel of moralism.  Christ did not promote the growth of institutional religion. Christ preached a gospel of grace and radical acceptance for all people.  Today, I believe Christ would stand in solidarity with our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters who have been misunderstood, misrepresented and marginalized. 

Two weeks ago, I posed this question: should our theology cause harm?  The answer is clearly no. Thankfully, the apostle Paul writes specifically to this question in his letter written to the church in Rome:

“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.  The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” – Romans 13:8-10 NRSV

Have we fulfilled this law?  Are we truly upholding Christ’s commandment to love one another as we fight to exclude those we do not fully understand?  Shouldn’t we read all of scripture through this lens of love?  Shouldn’t this lens of love supersede our attempts to use scripture to draw lines of morality in the sand?  Perhaps the voice of God is speaking but we are slow to listen for fear that our Christian traditions might be disrupted?  Should our theology cause harm, or should our theology draw people into the gracious embrace of God’s Kingdom? This is a question that we must all answer, as we sit and listen to the voice of the Spirit, embracing the major themes of scripture through the lens of Christ who is love.[1]

Maybe you’re wondering how the rest of our story unfolded?  Well, two days after we resigned from our jobs I began emailing everyone I knew, sharing my resume and sending sermon links.  Though I did receive some interest, there were no clear open doors or opportunities.  My new theological convictions posed a challenge for me as an Evangelical pastor and faith leader.  Who in my network of Evangelical faith leaders would hire a pastor that affirms LGBTQ+ individuals? 

A week had passed when I received an email from our friend Jen who was at the time the senior pastor at Ellensburg First United Methodist Church (EUMC).  She expressed her full support for us, and she committed to pray for our upcoming transition.  She also shared a bit of classified information: She was leaving her position as senior pastor at EUMC in July.  She asked if I would ever consider stepping into such a role?  Kalle and I smiled and said we’d ‘pray about it’. 

Well, we did pray about this potential opportunity.  We also forgot about it.  Until several days later when I got a phone call from Pastor Jen.  Her call should be classified as a miracle.  She asked if I wanted to take the next step in the hiring process?  I laughed it off, thinking I could never do anything like that.  I’d never even attended a Methodist Church service.  I’d never been a senior pastor.  I’d never officiated a wedding or funeral.  Wouldn’t they want a seasoned Methodist minister?  Surely there were more qualified candidates?  Well, I said yes, and the next thing I knew I was on a phone interview with two district superintendents and a few church members. 

Two months after leaving our jobs as college pastors at a church where LGBTQ+ individuals are prohibited from serving, I was leading a church service alongside an elder at EUMC, an LGBTQ+ individual who is a faithful follower of Christ and a well-respected leader in this community.  This person is now one of my good friends and partners in ministry.  And, as if God’s miracle couldn’t have been any clearer, the church also happened to be hiring a college minister, and they promptly invited Kalle to apply for that position. 

Five months later, Kalle and I are still serving alongside one another, preaching and teaching the truth about God’s radically inclusive and grace-filled love for all people.  We are following God’s leading in our lives, growing in our awareness of God and growing in our understanding of what the Bible is and how to faithfully and responsibly interpret and apply it to our lives.  Please come visit us at Ellensburg First United Methodist Church.  I preach most Sundays, and I occasionally help out with music.  God is present and active among us in this diverse community of believers, and there is a richness and authenticity here unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.  Perhaps that’s because this community has attempted to embrace the journey of discovery and been led to a deeper well of grace and truth.

As a word of encouragement for those who are considering this new perspective and wondering how it will affect your life and work and community… know that it will.  You will suffer, and you will hurt if you decide to stand in solidarity with your LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters (just imagine how they feel).  You will lose friends and you will lose respect from other Christians.  Let me say, as someone who has walked through this valley recently… it’s totally worth it, and there is a mountaintop ahead. 

The journey of following Christ is a journey of downward mobility, as we are led into the depths of the pain and suffering that Christ suffered for us.  Following Christ is not easy, the road is narrow, and the way is difficult.  Why do we expect anything different?  

I have chosen to conclude this post with an excerpt from Richard Rohr’s most recent work, Universal Christ, as I believe his words supply a nice ending to this journey we’ve taken together:

For you who have loved Jesus – perhaps with great passion and protectiveness – do you recognize that any God worthy of the name must transcend creeds and denominations, time and place, nations and ethnicities, and all the vagaries of gender, extending to the limits of all we can see, suffer and enjoy?  You are not your gender, your nationality, your ethnicity, your skin color, or your social class.  Why, oh why, do Christians allow these temporary costumes, or what Thomas Merton called ‘the false self,’ to pass for the substantial self, which is always ‘hidden in Christ with God’ (Colossians 3:3)?  It seems that we really do not know our own Gospel. 

You are a child of God, and always will be, even when you don’t believe it. (Rohr, Universal Christ)


[1] 1 John 4:7-12

CH 9: Where do we go from here?

The Christian apologist and Professor of English literature at Oxford and Cambridge Clive Staples (C.S.) Lewis once wrote that, “It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true word of God.  The Bible, read in the right spirit and with the guidance of good teachers, will bring us to Him.  We must not use the Bible as a sort of encyclopedia out of which texts can be taken for use as weapons.”[1]

For hundreds of years white European and American people used individual verses from the Bible to justify the unjust and brutal treatment of African Americans and other people of color who were bought and sold as property.  It took an embarrassingly long time for us to realize that this went against the very nature of who God is, God’s design of all human beings in God’s image, and how we as Christians are called to treat our neighbors.  Interestingly, the Bible never actually condemns slavery.  Biblically, those who fought for slavery were justified.  The Bible only explains how we should treat our slaves more fairly.  So, if the Bible doesn’t condemn slavery, then what caused Christian people in Europe and America to stand up against this horrific practice?  The words on the pages of the Bible certainly never changed.

No, the primary catalyst for the abolitionist movement was that Europeans in power finally came to their senses and acknowledged that African Americans and other people of color are also made in God’s image and therefore deserving of dignity and equal opportunity.  And it was Jesus’ stance on radical inclusion that led these abolitionists to stand up against slavery.[2]  Jesus broke the pattern of historical exclusion among religious circles when he spoke out against racism and hatred towards certain tribes (e.g. Luke 4).  The truth is, only when people in power, especially Christian pastors and leaders, acknowledged the atrocities of their actions were they willing to go back to the text of scripture, which they had used to justify slavery in the first place, and reexamine their traditional interpretation and application.  They began to read scripture through the lens of Christ and his life and ministry of radical love and inclusion, which ultimately led to the abolition of slavery. 

Recently, a close family member confided in me that they were wrestling with the issue of LGBTQ+ inclusion.  They mentioned that they had met with their pastor and discussed this issue with her extensively.  They mentioned that their pastor, a gifted female with a knack for communicating and a deep love of people, still couldn’t reconcile LGBTQ+ inclusion with what’s written in the Bible.  I lovingly reminded my family member that it has only been in the past 30 years or so (give or take) that their pastor would have been allowed to serve in any position of leadership in the church in America.  Despite Paul’s clear acknowledgement and affirmation of female faith leaders (e.g. Romans 16) and the many women who surrounded and supported the ministry of Jesus, people have used (and still use) individual verses from scripture to prohibit women from leading in the church (e.g. 1 Corin. 14:34).  Thankfully, many churches have overcome these historical stereotypes and ancient cultural norms to see a bigger picture of God and to embrace a better method for interpreting the biblical texts.

We must remember that the living God is the ultimate authority.  The question is not, “What does the Bible say” but “What does God say?”[3]  In order to faithfully discern God’s purpose and meaning, we must read and interpret scripture through the lens of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, who is “the image of the invisible God.”[4]  In other words, when we study the Bible, we must always be asking ourselves, how does this passage reflect God’s purpose for humanity and God’s revelation of Godself through the person of Jesus Christ?  Jesus said that “He who has seen me has seen the Father.”[5]  Only when we reclaim this holistic method of Biblical interpretation will we truly arrive at the meaning of Scripture, discovering a new perspective that is actually more congruent with the Evangelical tradition, one that more accurately reflects Jesus’ heart for all people.

The most responsible method of biblical interpretation is to move from a ‘micro reading’ of scripture towards a ‘macro reading’ of Scripture.  In other words, we can’t just pick and choose individual verses from scripture and use them to bolster our own views and perspectives (By the way, you can almost justify any worldview by using this ‘proof-texting’ method of interpretation).  All scripture must adhere to the larger themes of the Christian faith, the common threads we find throughout the canon: grace, forgiveness, mercy, love, diversity, inclusion, etc… All Scripture must fall under the authority of Jesus Christ; his life, ministry, death and resurrection.  We must continually ask ourselves, what does this particular passage mean in light of the fact that all of history is moving from, in and towards redemption through Christ?  Moving further inward, we then must examine the purpose of each book, as written by the author to his particular context, in order to understand the meaning of each individual passage.[6]

David Gushee and James Brownson are two Evangelical pastors and scholars that have courageously examined the topic of LGBTQ+ inclusion and have revisited the passages that have traditionally been used to condemn any behavior outside of heterosexual norms. [7]  They have examined these passages through a more holistic “Christ-lens.”[8]  Their conclusion is clear: there is a way to remain faithful to the meaning and purpose of the biblical text, while leaving space for the affirmation and full inclusion of our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters.  If we are open to considering this new perspective, then we will be able to move towards an open dialogue regarding LGBTQ+ inclusion, moving closer to affirmation and reconciliation. 

A friend of mine called me after my first blog post went public and asked, “Hey, I’m interested in learning more.  Where do I start?”  The first thing I would suggest would be to pray and ask God to guide your journey.  In Acts 5:38-39 wise Gamaliel, a religious leader, offers some great advice to the Pharisees, the earliest adversaries of the Christian faith: “…if this plan or this work is of men, it will come to nothing; but if it is of God, you cannot overthrow it – lest you even be found to fight against God.”  If we trust God’s power in our lives, then we shouldn’t be afraid to consider a new perspective. Even if this new perspective challenges our traditional reading of the biblical text.

My second suggestion would be to ask the Lord to bring some LGBTQ+ Christians into your life.  Take some time to listen to their stories and try to see and understand their perspective.  Then, read Changing our Mind by Dr. David Gushee as an introduction to this journey of discovery.  Dr. Gushee does a wonderful job of introducing this new perspective and he guides you as you begin to reexamine your own beliefs, while presenting a compelling case for considering a new direction.  Before you do, however, you must promise to have an open mind! “How do I do that,” you ask?  Well, the first step is to embrace reality. 

The fact is, LGBTQ+ Christians do exist.  So, how do we reconcile this reality and still uphold the authority of Scripture?  How do we remain faithful to this ancient text that we’ve been trying to study and understand for centuries (remembering that our interpretation and application of scripture never stops evolving) while allowing for a new perspective on LGBTQ+ inclusion?  While I cannot provide a decent answer for you in a short blog post, I would say: Let this be the start of your own journey of discovery!  Kalle and I have been led to new revelations of God’s mystery and majesty.  God is so much bigger and more diverse and beautiful than we ever imagined. The Holy Spirit brought us from a place of closed-mindedness to hearts that are fully open to embracing people that we once didn’t understand.  Isn’t that what loving your neighbor is all about? 

One thing that was clear to me as I began this journey of discovery was that this issue is not “black and white.”  After much prayer and research, I began to realize that this is an incredibly complicated issue that affects millions of lives.  I know some of these people now.  I also know that over the past ten years entire Christian denominations had “come out” and declared that they are open and fully affirming (e.g. Presbyterian Church USA, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, two-thirds of the United Methodist Church in America, and even some Baptist churches).  That means some churches fully accept and affirm LGBTQ+ individuals and some do not.  My question is… which side more accurately reflects Jesus’ own radically inclusive life and ministry?  Those that exclude or those that affirm?  I just have a hard time believing that when I get to the pearly gates Jesus is going to look at me and say, “Hey Mark, I really wish you had been harder on the homosexuals.  Couldn’t you read the Bible and realize how much I hate same sex marriage?”  That’s just not the Jesus we see in the scriptures, and that’s not the Jesus I know.

[1] This is a paraphrase from a letter written by Lewis to a colleague.  The full meaning remains intact.

[2] For more on this check out Eric Metaxa’s book Amazing Grace

[3] Several critics, in an attempt to defend their perspective that the Bible is God’s Word and the sole authority for our faith, have pointed out to me that a few NT authors do refer to the ‘Word of God’.  Let me be clear, the Bible did not exist when these accounts and letters were being written.  Therefore, when the authors of the NT refer to the ‘scriptures’, they are largely referring to the Jewish scriptures (among other ancient sacred texts), and when they refer to the ‘Word of God’ (e.g. John 1), they are speaking specifically about the spoken word of God, God’s creative order, the Logos, the Christ, and not about the Bible (look it up in your Greek dictionary).  Thankfully, the Bible now serves as an invaluable tool for us today, but we must not forget that God has been living and active among us since the beginning of creation and did not just show up after the Bible was written.

[4] Colossians 1:15 NKJV

[5] John 14:9 NKJV

[6] For example, one of the major themes of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome is that we are justified by God’s grace through faith in Christ.  That we all fall short of God’s glory, and none can boast in their actions or behavior.  Another example: a major theme of Paul’s letter to the church in Colossae is that there should be no division among you, that “Christ is all and in all” (Col. 3:11).  We must read each sentence of those letters through the lens of their major themes.  Remember, these were originally written as continuous letters, without verse numbers and section headings.

[7] There are seven primary passages in scripture that have been used in this way: Genesis 9:20–27, Genesis 19:1–11, Leviticus 18:22, 20:13, 1 Corinthians 6:9–10; 1 Timothy 1:10, Romans 1:26–27.  Additionally, many people reference passages that describe the distinction between male and female as a defense of hetero-normativity (Genesis 1 and 2, Jesus’ teaching on marriage).

[8] Changing our Mind by David Gushee and Bible Gender Sexuality by James Brownson … and if you’re interested in learning more about the intersection of the science of gender and the biblical text check out Sex Difference in Christian Theology by Megan DeFranza

CH 8: Disruption

* Disclaimer – The following posts are riddled with proof-texts (i.e. extracting individual verses to promote or support a personal viewpoint).  In order to focus on the major themes of the Biblical scriptures I typically try to avoid proof-texting, but for the purposes of this post referencing individual verses helps provide clarity.

When I sit down with someone to talk about LGBTQ+ inclusion now (and I’ve had countless conversations on this topic), the conversation normally goes something like this:

FRIEND: “Mark, how can you think that it’s okay to be gay? It’s pretty clear in Scripture that it’s a sin.”

ME: “Really? Where exactly does it clearly say that in Scripture?  Actually, faithful committed same-sex relationships were likely a foreign concept to the authors of the Biblical texts.  Many scholars agree that they were writing specifically about sexual idolatry.  Regardless, it’s certainly not clear.”

FRIEND: “Well, I know there’s something about homosexuality being an abomination in Leviticus…or is it Judges?  Either way, I know it’s in there.  And I know Paul says it’s wrong too.  Just read that one verse in Romans. Also, God made males and females. That’s clear according to science.”

ME: “Yeah, well the truth is, it’s not black and white. It’s a complicated issue, and there are so many questions about the context and culture surrounding those few verses that you’re referencing, and many theologians believe it’s possible that none of those verses are actually referring to faithful monogamous same-sex relationships.  Lots of smart people believe the questions outweigh the answers regarding the history and meaning behind those passages. There are a few books I’d recommend if you want to check it out for yourself.  What do you say?”

FRIEND: “Wow.  Well… I’m not sure I’d trust those liberals who write those kinds of books.  Anyway, maybe I will research it a little more someday, but for now I have to trust what my pastor says.”

ME: “That’s fine. But if you ever want to find out for yourself, just know that there are some brilliant people with new and healthy perspectives on this incredibly important topic.  Ultimately, I’d encourage you to pray and ask the Lord to reveal the truth about God’s heart for LGBTQ+ individuals.  More importantly, ask God to bring some LGBTQ+ Christians into your life to share their own stories with you.  Remember, God is bigger than the Bible.  God is alive and doing new things all the time in our world!  Isn’t that reassuring?”

That’s usually when the conversation ends. “Check, please.”

In January, my pastor and I met to discuss this topic, and he was anxious to hear about where we stood.  Thankfully, at this point I had met with lots of people to explain our new discoveries, and I was getting pretty good at sharing how Kalle and I had come to this conclusion.  However, he wasn’t too interested in hearing how we came to our conclusion, or even about our research.  He was more interested in hearing about how this new perspective might be received by the church board and other members.  That’s understandable.

Our initial meeting went well.  He was open to my perspective and conceded that our views might be more consistent with the views of our college students, which would allow us to grow our reach on campus.  He said he admired my passion for theological study, and he was aware that this was an important topic that we should all try and learn more about someday.  I assured him that I had spent the better part of two years researching and praying about God’s heart on this topic.  More than what we think the Bible might say regarding this issue, I had been seeking the truth about what God says concerning LGBTQ+ inclusion.  I hadn’t come to this conclusion lightly, and I was excited about the new relationships we’d been building as a result of our newfound openness.  He seemed optimistic and I was ecstatic that we would get to keep our jobs and continue ministering to college students at CWU. 

The next day, however, he called me back into his office.  After giving it a little more thought, and after chatting briefly with another board member from our church, he realized that he couldn’t budge on the issue of LGBTQ+ inclusion.  He said that according to the church’s policy (and the views of the denomination) this was a deal-breaker.  He asked Kalle and I to either uphold the church’s policy of prohibiting LGBTQ+ students from serving… or leave.  When I pressed the issue, asking if we might be able to meet with the board and share more about our perspective and our heart behind why we came to this conclusion, his response was clear: “No, that’s not an option.  This issue really is black and white.” 

At the end of February, we were given an ultimatum: we could keep our jobs and prohibit LGBTQ+ students from fully participating in the college ministry or we could leave.  Seeing as we had just been led down this path of new life by God’s great hand of grace, understanding the truth of God’s diversity and inclusiveness, we knew we could not compromise on our theological convictions.  We had to leave.

* Sidenote: The church was incredibly gracious throughout our resignation process.  Our pastor even apologized on behalf of the leadership, as he realized that this issue should have been discussed before we were hired.  While we did not want to resign, we all realized that this was not the best fit for us, and everyone involved was respectful of these differing views.  All in all, our departure was healthy which we are thankful for!

I had hoped that we could begin to dialogue about this issue with the church staff and board of elders.  Couldn’t we all sit down and talk openly about this topic, consider different views and perspectives and pray together as a community of faith about this issue that has caused so much harm to LGBTQ+ individuals?  I mean, this issue is not resolved by any means.  In reality, the topic of LGBTQ+ inclusion in the Christian church has caused many scholars to scratch their heads for decades.  Also, in the past twenty years, science has begun to catch up with us and we finally know the truth: LGBTQ+ individuals cannot change the way they are.  Sexual identity is core to who we are as human beings, and so is our sexual orientation.[1]

When my pastor informed me that neither he nor our board of elders were interested in hearing a different perspective on this topic, I began to wonder why.  There is another perspective worth considering.  When Kalle and I invited the Holy Spirit to guide our process, opening our minds to a new and different perspective, our minds and hearts were transformed.  We prayed every day for a year that if we were wrong about this that God would help correct our views.  Instead, God continued to guide us down this path towards inclusion, inspiring our biblical study and bringing new friends into our world.

One of the most convicting realizations that I experienced on this journey came when I was meeting with Sharon (remember Sharon from Chapter 6?).  She was in the middle of explaining how she had tried to deny her own sexual orientation since she was about 10 years old because she was being told by her parents and her church that she was “unnatural”.  When she realized she couldn’t change who she was, she tried to take her own life.  She couldn’t live with the fact that every time she saw a pretty girl and experienced that release of oxytocin (oxytocin is a hormone that is released in the body when we experience physical or sexual attraction, which we have no control over), she was filled with guilt and shame.  What if Sharon had the freedom to enjoy a faithful monogamous relationship with someone she is attracted to, just like any heterosexual person?

Think about this:  When you met your husband or wife, or significant other, did you make a conscious decision to be attracted to that person?  NO!  You just were.  It’s no different for someone who is attracted to individuals of the same sex.  They experience the same kind of attraction.  And guess what… we don’t get to tell other people who they are attracted to.  We don’t get to decide how someone else feels

* Sidenote – We also don’t get to mandate celibacy.  Celibacy is a unique and personal calling.  What is more accurate is to say that we are all “called” to companionship as revealed in Genesis 2:18 (Interestingly, the word we translate as ‘partner’ or ‘companion’ here is actually a masculine noun in the Hebrew, ‘E’zer’, which is also used to refer to God throughout the OT).  I’ve received many emails from people saying there is a “third way.”  In other words, “Mark, we don’t have to ‘exclude’ or ‘affirm’, we can just tell LGBTQ+ individuals that as long as they remain single/alone, it’s all good!  That’s pretty rough logic, as any limitation on inclusion is simply exclusion.  Not to mention the fact that this contradicts God’s proclamation that it’s not good for us to be alone. No more trying to mandate celibacy, please.

I know, I know… I’ve heard the same old arguments countless times: “Well then, based on your arguments, should we just let murderers keep on murdering because they feel like it, Mark?”  I think we are all intelligent enough to understand the difference between killing another human (or embracing a sexual addiction, or cheating on your wife, etc…) and making a lifelong commitment to love and serve another human.  There is a clear difference between causing harm and choosing to live in a faithful union with another individual, which is a reflection of God’s heart for covenant relationship, mutual respect and love.

Let me briefly say, if you are one of those individuals who is willing to argue for the exclusion of a certain group of people, let’s go ahead and make sure we get the whole picture.  Here are a few of the “clear” statements from the Bible about how Christians should live (and these are just the ones that kind of make sense for us in today’s culture, excluding the verses that prohibit eating shellfish and child sacrifice, etc…): Love your enemies (Matt. 5), give to everyone who begs from you (Luke 6), do not judge one another (Luke 6), it is not lawful for men to divorce their wives (Mark 10), take nothing for your journey (Luke 10), give food to the hungry, welcome the stranger (alien, immigrant) as you welcomed me (Lev. 19:34), take care of the sick, visit prisoners (Matt. 25), and my personal favorite: sell all your possessions and give to the poor (Mark 10).  Why aren’t there more Christians who have taken a vow of poverty? 

How are there Christian pastors (like myself) that live in nice houses and drive nice cars?  How do Christians justify living a middle-class (or upper-class) lifestyle while so many people in the world go hungry, completely disregarding this clear biblical teaching?  At the end of the day, aren’t we all just picking and choosing the verses we want to live by and those we wish to ignore?

And if this is the case, how could we ever choose to defend an obscure and highly debated teaching that alienates and causes harm to an already vulnerable population, in light of Jesus’ own ministry of radical inclusion?  Should our theology cause harm?  Shouldn’t we default to inclusion and radical love instead of moral superiority (since none of us will measure up anyway according to Paul; Romans 2:1)?  Not to mention the fact that the single commandment that Jesus tells us to live by (the one that fulfills all the law and prophets) is to simply love one another?

The truth is, this issue requires more than a conversation around biblical interpretation.  In order to faithfully engage this topic, we must learn to embrace reality.  In this case, loving our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters means paying attention to their suffering and no longer denying the reality that sexual identity and orientation is not black and white.  I’m going to complicate things a bit more here and share another fascinating fact as related to the real gender spectrum: it’s estimated that 1 to 2 in 2000 children born in the US are born with both sexual organs (This is according to an article published by ABC News, and if you’re interested in learning more just Google it).  These children used to be called hermaphrodites (that’s considered derogatory today), now they are referred to as ‘intersex’.  Today, doctors are asked to choose (with the parents’ approval) the appropriate gender for the child, and most perform the necessary procedure before the child is 18 months old.  Unfortunately, there is a high rate of inaccuracy when choosing the appropriate gender (some estimate as high as 50% rate of inaccuracy). 

Maybe you’re asking yourself, “Why can’t they just look at Chromosomes and choose?  It’s pretty straight forward isn’t it?”  Actually, no it isn’t.  Gender is truly fluid.  Biological sex is determined by five factors present at birth: the presence or absence of a Y chromosome, the type of gonads, the sex hormones, the internal genitalia (such as the uterus in females), and the external genitalia.  To further muddy the waters, the test results are not just either male or female, they can actually be on a sliding scale between the two.  When doctors are unable to line up all of these factors, babies that grow up as female actually have the chromosomal and genetic make-up of a male, or vice versa.  This can result in a tortured childhood, and when the child hits puberty this often causes visible gender confusion, which results in bullying, depression and higher rates of suicide.  Unfortunately, this can be true for LGB individuals as well. 

According to a recent report published by the CDC, nearly one third of LGB youth have attempted suicide in the past year.  That’s compared to only 6% of heterosexual youth.  Sociologists and psychologists claim that these higher rates of depression and suicide are a direct result of being bullied, discriminated against, misunderstood and rejected by family and friends, and being excluded from places of worship and social circles.  Don’t believe me? Sit down with a LGBTQ+ individual and ask them to share their story with you.

In light of this tragic reality, how should Christian leaders respond?  Should Christians ignore these statistics and the reality of this human suffering and continue to uphold “traditional biblical teaching” (or our denominational versions of this biblical teaching) for the sake of preserving a moral standard?  Let’s not forget the whole point (the overarching theme) of Paul’s letter addressed to the church in Rome, that in regard to morality, we all fall short of the glory of God and are saved by God’s unending grace. Praise the Lord!

How does Jesus respond to those who are suffering?  Perhaps, instead of living in denial, grasping for an idealistic world where only the righteous get to decide who’s in and who’s out, we might begin to pay attention to the voices of those who have been marginalized and oppressed.  These beloved voices might inspire us to re-examine our traditional Biblical teaching, much like we have done surrounding past issues like circumcision, divorce, women in leadership, and slavery (to name a few), in hopes of discovering a more inclusive and affirming approach? Will we take the time to listen?

In 2015, Gary Gates, a researcher at UCLA, estimated that roughly 4% of the population of America identify as LGBTQ+.  This is an old statistic and also a conservative one, as many LGBTQ+ individuals remain in the closet for fear of being ostracized or condemned by their families or communities.  According to this figure, there were approximately 20 students in our former college congregation of 400 who identify as LGBTQ+.  Simply put, there are a lot of LGBTQ+ individuals in the US.  And if you keep walking down this rabbit trail of statistics you’ll find that of the 9 million LGBTQ+ individuals in the USA, roughly 7 million of those maintain some kind of Christian faith (this is based on PEW Research data which suggests that some 70% of Americans claim some type of Christian faith).

Many brilliant scholars and pastors have gone back to the biblical text to try and figure out if there’s room for this diverse gender spectrum in the greater theological conversation.  The fact is, LGBTQ+ individuals do exist (and there are a lot of them), and they can’t change the way they are.  So, is there a chance that we have misinterpreted and abused Scripture for the sake of preserving our heteronormative Christian culture?  That’s certainly a question that’s worth asking and it certainly wouldn’t be the first time.  Especially considering the fact that LGBTQ+ youth are 40% more likely to attempt suicide because they feel they don’t belong.  This is serious, y’all. 

I have witnessed first-hand the harmful effects of this traditional biblical teaching and the resulting policy of exclusion against LGBTQ+ individuals.  We must understand that the Bible was never intended to be used as a tool to promote our individual ideologies and personal theological convictions (especially when they cause harm).  In fact, this diverse and expansive collection of poems, songs, letters and accounts that were written by many different people (with a limited and ancient knowledge of biology, psychology, and ecology) over a span of roughly 1500 years, hand-picked more than 300 years after they were written and included in the canon, were compiled specifically to do one thing:  Point us to the Christ, the one “who is all and in all” (Col. 3:11).  This begs the question: What if God made us this way and loves us this way?  What if this gender spectrum is another example of God’s beauty and diversity?  What if there is a way to uphold the authority of the Biblical texts as they were intended to be read and used, while still affirming our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters?  Oh wait… I’m getting ahead of myself.

[1] For those who support conversion/reparative therapy, you should note that Exodus International, an Evangelical organization that was focused on “curing” homosexuals, shut its doors in 2011 after 30 years of operation.  Their president, Alan Chambers, admitted a 100% failure rate.  They were never able to alter any patient’s sexual orientation.  You can read more here: https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/10/the-man-who-dismantled-the-ex-gay-ministry/408970/

What is the Bible, Anyway?

The Bible is the written account of the ancient Jewish and Christian people and their inspired experience of God.  The Bible is the written revelation of God, filtered through the human capacity to hear from and understand God.  The Biblical texts lay a foundation and set a trajectory for our Christian faith and practice, which is continually evolving and expanding.  One of my favorite Biblical scholars, Richard Rohr, likes to say that the Bible is “the word of God in the words of men.”[1]  In other words, the authors of the Biblical text were regular people like you and me.  They wrote from a particular place in history, saw through a particular cultural and socio-economic lens, and they had a limited understanding of biology, psychology and ecology.  The authors of Scripture were primarily concerned with telling their version of who God is and who they were, which would ultimately inform our own journey. 

Is the Bible inerrant or infallible?  Well, now that is the great debate.  It’s interesting to note that the Bible itself never claims to be inerrant or infallible.  The concept of Biblical inerrancy is a modern concept that was introduced by conservative Christians in the 19th Century as a defense against modern or progressive Biblical interpretation (mainly combating recent scientific discoveries).  Many of those conservative theologians also claimed that we must interpret Scripture literally.  This, however, becomes a problem when we try to make literal sense out of books like Leviticus, for example.  Unless you are still in the habit of sacrificing goats?  And Mosaic law from the book of Exodus becomes problematic, unless of course you are going to institute slavery back into our system.  Simply stated, we no longer live in ancient Israel, and we now have a greater understanding of ourselves and the world. 

Thus, we now read and interpret Scripture through our own historical-cultural lens.  This doesn’t mean the Bible has nothing to offer us in how we should live our lives, but it does require a greater understanding of the historical and cultural context within which the Scriptures were written in order to faithfully and responsibly apply them today.  When we do not have a firm grasp on what the Bible is and how the Bible should be used, humans tend to misuse the Biblical text, choosing individual verses in the Bible to support and defend our own personal ideologies or political positions.  History has proven that this type of Biblical interpretation causes immense harm (e.g. slavery, segregation, anti-Semitism, etc…).  So how then should we read and interpret Scripture?

In John 5:39, Jesus himself reminds the religious leaders that they will not find Truth in the Scriptures, but the purpose of the Scriptures themselves are to point to Christ!  Therefore, we must read and interpret all of Scripture (Old and New Testament) through the lens of the life and ministry of Christ.  All of history is moving from, towards and in Jesus, who is fully God and fully human.  The writer of Hebrews proclaims, “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory, and the exact representation of God’s being.”  While the Bible is authoritative for the purpose of understanding the history of the practice of the Christian faith, all of scripture must ultimately fall under the supreme authority of the person and work of Christ.  Jesus was clear, if you want to see and understand who God is and what God is like, look at me.

Thankfully, when Jesus ascended into heaven he did not promise to leave us The Bible. He promised to leave us the “advocate” or God’s spirit. We must learn to trust the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives and in the lives of others.

If you’re interested in learning more about my perspective, check out Richard Rohr’s Things Hidden or Peter Enn’s How the Bible Actually Works.  Also, one of my favorite podcasts is called The Bible for Normal People.

[1] https://www.podbean.com/eu/pb-vund5-8d0c20

CH 7: What Does the Church Say?

* Warning – I am a faithful and committed follower of Christ who has spent the past ten years studying theology, first at Fuller Seminary and now at Boston Univ. I am not claiming to have all the answers, but I, like you, am on the faith journey. In the coming weeks, I will be introducing a new theological perspective on the issue of LGBTQ+ inclusion (as revealed to me through study and prayer).  If you are not open to considering a new perspective, this may be where you get off the bus.  Go in peace.

There were several inches of snow on the ground the next morning when I met with one of my supervising pastors.  We sat in his office with warm cups of coffee in hand, both wearing heavy flannel shirts and snow boots.  We made small talk for several minutes, and then I shot in.  The question was burning inside me.  I just had to know.  “Pete, why aren’t we allowed to baptize gay people?”  Pete shifted in his chair, almost spilling his coffee on his leg.  “Well, I honestly don’t know much about the issue, and I’m not sure there’s any formal policy.  But I do know that unless they remain celibate, and turn from the homosexual lifestyle, that we definitely can’t baptize them and allow them to join the church.  It’s really the same as any other sin.”  I took a deep breath. 

This answer wasn’t cutting it for me anymore.  So, basically any LGBTQ+ individual that wished to be baptized and join the church just had to commit to being alone for the rest of their lives?  I could see Sharon’s face in my mind.  I could picture John with tears running down his cheeks and David as he shared about his love for God and his passion for pastoral ministry.  I had made new friends whose stories complicated this issue, and I wasn’t satisfied with this typical Evangelical response anymore.  I pressed in on the issue.  “Pete, I know there are a couple places in the Bible where it hints at homosexuality being a sin.  Is that the final answer on the issue?  There’s no room for discussion?”  Pete looked out his window.  I could see the wheels spinning in his head.  “That’s it.  I mean the Bible is the final authority for us, ya know?  And it’s pretty clear in Scripture.  It’s tough but we can’t deny the truth of God’s word.” 

I could tell even he wasn’t quite satisfied with his own answers at this point.  He went on, “Look, let’s keep talking about this.  I’ll do a little digging and you do the same.  Let’s see if there’s some wiggle room here.  Honestly, I’m probably not the best person to ask anyway.  I’m definitely not an expert on this topic.”  I began to wonder how we could deny baptism to someone and not even have a firm grasp on why?  I left Pete’s office that day on a mission to communicate how this policy of exclusion was inconsistent with Jesus’ ministry of radical inclusion as we see it throughout scripture.  I knew there was more to the story than the few highly-debated verses from the Bible.  Now I had faces in my mind of people who had suffered because of our teaching around this issue.  Not only that, but I was beginning to build my own case against the traditional Biblical teaching the excludes LGBTQ+ individuals from participation in the church. 

All Kalle and I had talked about for several months was LGBTQ+ inclusion.  It’s all I could think about.  I had read at least ten books on this topic written by prominent evangelical theologians, and I spent countless hours poring over the various passages in the Bible.  I was reading every translation, in English, Greek and Hebrew, not to mention other ancient literature, trying to get to the bottom of what the Bible really says about homosexuality. If I was going to have this conversation with my supervisors and other leaders in our church, then I had to know how to dialogue about this issue.  The greatest catalyst for my new-found passion were these new friendships, and now God was leading me to advocate for our new friends that had been suffering for too long.

One day, as Kalle and I were talking at our home in Ellensburg, she had a revelation.  We had spent the past two years struggling to understand how difficult life was for our LGBTQ+ friends, and suddenly she proclaimed, “Wait!  I’m not gay.  I will never understand what it’s like to be gay.  How could we ever tell someone that is gay that they’re wrong?   Who are we to tell them how they should feel?” This sounds obvious, but that day it seemed to strike a nerve with both of us.  This seemed to be a new approach to the conversation.  How had we been so blind to the experiences of others?  Or perhaps, more likely, we had been blinded by the traditional stance of our church, and we were just now beginning to see things through a new lens?

Why had it taken me so long to take a hard look at LGBTQ+ inclusion? Had I been avoiding this issue because it made me uncomfortable? Perhaps it was because I didn’t fully understand why the church was excluding LGBTQ+ individuals, or know how to explain it? Or perhaps it was because, until now, I had never really taken the time to build a genuine relationship with a gay person, or someone who is transgender? I had never listened to their stories and tried to see things from their perspective?

In my experience, a large majority of my evangelical Christian friends that oppose LGBTQ+ inclusion in the church don’t actually have any close relationships with LGBTQ+ Christians.  Nor have they spent much time studying this topic.  We fear what we don’t know.  The moment I began listening to the stories of my new friends, the desire to understand their perspective began to grow inside me.  What was their life like?  What was it like being told by people you love and respect that you don’t fully belong because of the way you’re made? 

We met with a friend the following day for lunch at our favorite little spot in town. As we ate we began discussing this topic (because it’s basically all we ever talk about now).  Our friend attends the Methodist church in town and they are what evangelical Christians call “open and affirming.”  This means that LGBTQ+ individuals are fully welcome to participate, serve, become ordained and be married at the church.  Our friend shared a simple illustration that began to help me see this issue from a different perspective:

“Think of it like this,” she said. “Imagine we are all walking on the sidewalk, and all of a sudden the two of us trip on a big rock. We look at each other. You seem unfazed, but the pain in my foot is so great that I can’t help but cry out.” She took a sip of her coffee. “You look me in the eyes and say, ‘Come on! That doesn’t hurt. You’re not really feeling pain in your foot.’ But how can you know what I’m feeling? In fact, it doesn’t matter what you think I’m feeling, it only matters what I’m actually feeling. I’m the only one that gets to decide if something is painful.” I realized this was an oversimplification of the issue, but it started to make sense. Who was I to think that I could tell someone how they feel about another person? It’s not up to me. How silly would it be for me to tell her in that moment, as her foot was throbbing in pain, that according to my personal manual on foot injuries, that type of injury should not be causing her any pain?

I was beginning to realize that I had merely been regurgitating what I had been told my whole life, growing up in the conservative South, working for evangelical organizations and now an evangelical church, and attending an evangelical seminary.  Most people that I had spoken with from our church regarding this issue were not even interested in having a conversation.  They were not even willing to consider a different perspective.  This seemed odd to me because those same people had most likely never even taken the time to study this topic.  I’m talking about taking an in-depth look at the Bible in its original languages, studying the cultural context and the intent of the authors.  Also, remembering that God is alive, and the Holy Spirit is living and active among us, guiding us as we seek to faithfully interpret and apply scripture in order to love God and others.

No longer was I afraid to share with others about what I’d been learning.  I began meeting students for coffee and telling them about my experiences and about my new friendships.  On several occasions I had openly shared with other staff members at our church about what I was learning.  People now knew that Kalle and I fully affirmed LGBTQ+ individuals.  The weird thing was… no one wanted to talk to us about it.  It felt like we had disappeared.  That is, until I shared with our new Senior Pastor about our position on this issue.  He was all ears.

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