Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors

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I promised to write about my personal experience in witnessing the Greater NJ Annual Conference 2015 vote on legislations for inclusive language and support of all Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Trans (LGBT) people.  You can read about GNJAC2015 and the legislation in my prior blog posts and at our conference website GNJUMC.org

The short summary of my experience: I learned some things about myself and I learned some things about my people – my church and my family.  I am now aware of how accustomed I am with the people I love being uncomfortable with the concept of homosexuality.  I see now how easy it is for me to help others to remain calm in the storm of controversy.  I understand now why the protective shell of “it’s all good” that I’d built around myself collapsed when the legislation voting results were read by Bishop John Schol at GNJAC2015.  I felt a rush of unexpected emotion.  Even if only by a slight majority, and even if only in our conference, and even if only for this moment – I was no longer someone lesser than ...!

In talking to people in my congregation after the conference, they made it clear that they want this topic to be over.  “The vote is in, legislation passed, why are you still discussing this, Lisa?”  ”We are an open community – we accept everyone, and we’ve had gay people here before.  We don’t need to do anything more.”

Why do I want to discuss this topic? Because even though I am blessed and grateful that our Greater NJ Conference voted in support of change – real change has not happened.  Real change will happen when the UMC Discipline no longer defines LGBT people as second-class Christians.  

I was asked to explain why this change to our Discipline is so important? “No one is turned away from our services or membership.”  Yes, but the language says that LGBT people cannot be fully themselves in our church.  “Would a gay couple even bother to bring their child to Sunday School?”  Of course they would - my son attended Sunday School!  And I asked in return, “do you think there are no gay Christians?”  

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Here is why I feel it is important that we continue to work for real change in the UMC Discipline, and I’ll use the UMC.org page on church policy for homosexuality to make my point:

Persons of sacred worth.  “The United Methodist Church affirms 'that sexuality is God’s good gift to all persons. We call everyone to responsible stewardship of this sacred gift.'  The statement continues: 'Although all persons are sexual beings whether or not they are married, sexual relations are affirmed only with the covenant of monogamous, heterosexual marriage.' The church states elsewhere that marriage should only be between a woman and a man."

o   The Discipline is stating that sex is a gift from God only affirmed by a heterosexual marriage.  Not for homosexuals, whether they are in a monogamous relationship or not.  LGBT persons must remain celibate.

Homosexuality.  “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching,” 

o   We accept LGBT persons in our membership, but loving a person of the same sex is incompatible with the UMC interpretation of Christian teaching.  This is very hard for me to understand because the UMC is a church built on John Wesley’s methods of reading the Bible and discerning in our hearts what God is telling us through Scripture, with the help of the Holy Spirit and with God’s freely given Grace.  It is at UMC that I learned of God’s love, God’s forgiveness, and that we are to leave all judgment to God.  "For Wesley there is no religion but social religion, no holiness but social holiness."  

o   No one is asking for our church to condone indiscriminate or promiscuous sex.  We, as a church, do not condemn the heterosexual person who boasts of having many sexual encounters.  We work with that person and strive to teach them about God’s love and forgiveness, to help them to learn to respect their bodies and their lives - to make better choices guided by God's Grace. 

o   But our Discipline prevents our clergy and church leaders from providing a sane, wholesome sexual expression for LGBT individuals.  For homosexual persons celibacy is the only alternative.  Monogamous, committed, loving relationships are off the table.

Ordination & Marriage.  "Elsewhere in its Book of Discipline, The United Methodist Church bans the ordination of 'self-avowed practicing homosexuals,' and it forbids the performance of same-gender unions in the denomination’s sanctuaries and by its clergy in any setting."

o   We have divorced and remarried couples in the UMC.  We have divorced clergy.  And our clergy are allowed to officiate the re-marriages of divorced heterosexual couples - sometimes even 3rd or 4th marriages.  These couples are able to receive pastoral counseling and congregational support during times of marriage crisis and re-marriage.  Same-sex couples do not have this support.  How many same-sex marriages would benefit from such support?  How can we, as Christians, condemn a loving relationship to isolation, and offer no support?  

o   Often people speak of sin when talking about LGBT persons.  If divorced heterosexual persons who remarry are considered adulterers by Biblical standards (Luke 16:18), and the UMC recognizes them as forgiven through God’s Grace, then why would we support one sinning group over another?

*** Note *** IVP Bible Background Commentary on the Luke passage:  "Here Jesus articulates a stronger view of the marriage bond than anyone else we know of in antiquity, and his statement thus intensifies the law of Moses. Like most other statements of general principle in the ancient world this one does not exclude exceptions (Matt. 5:32, 19:9, 1 Cor. 7:15); Jesus' purpose is to protect an innocent party from being divorced, not to punish the party who has been so betrayed. His statement addresses especially the wife because in Jewish Palestine only the husband had full rights to divorce." The point of the passage is to protect the person who has less rights and less power.  My point is the same - all persons with less rights and less power should be protected.

Administrative Order.  "In a section of the Book of Discipline on 'Administrative Order,' dealing with responsibilities of the General Council on Finance and Administration, the church states the council 'shall be responsible for ensuring that no board, agency, committee, commission, or council shall give United Methodist funds to any gay caucus or group, or otherwise use such funds to promote the acceptance of homosexuality or violate the expressed commitment of The United Methodist Church ‘not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends.’ The council shall have the right to stop such expenditures. '"

o   This is the most disturbing passage of all to me.  Think a moment on this one.  Suicides of LGBT persons is a serious and real issue.  Imagine the lives that could be saved with a UMC supported suicide prevention program that helps LGBT teens feel the loving acceptance and assurances of God’s love, and belief in that they are not broken or rejected - but truly whole with God's gifts, including their sexuality.

o   Tyler Clementi, a Bergen County gay teen, committed suicide in 2010.  His mother, Jane Clementi, in a NY Times article, said that it was because of their church’s teachings that she resisted her son’s coming out as a gay teen.  She could not support her son, and she could not “come out” herself and tell her church family and friends that Tyler was gay.  

o   This is the real harm that a few sentences in our church’s rather large book of Discipline can cause.  This is not just an evangelical church issue – this is a UMC issue!  People, in our congregation, are afraid to talk openly about their LGBT children, grandchildren, sisters, brothers, friends, or themselves.  Secrets have the power to kill!

To read the UMC official position on homosexuality, click on this link:  http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/what-is-the-denominations-position-on-homosexuality

Fear is real.  I witnessed fear at GNJAC2015.  Clergy can lose their jobs and their benefits if they officiate a same-sex marriage ceremony.  It is not even safe for some clergy to be vocal in their support of LGBT persons, because it may alienate them from their congregations and possibly limit their own careers.  If the Discipline were changed, these good clergy persons could more freely counsel their congregations on the love of God for all God's children.  They could more freely respond to their own LGBT children.  To learn more about this real fear, I urge you to learn more about Rev. Frank Schaefer, who was put on trial, defrocked, and reinstated for performing his gay son’s wedding http://franklynschaefer.com/media/  The UMC.org has this page http://www.umc.org/news-and-media/special-coverage-frank-schaefer

The Bible.  There are many biblical arguments for and against full equality for LGBT Christians, just as there have been many biblical arguments for and against the abolition of slavery and the merging with the African American churches.  Go all the way back to Jerusalem and Paul's contemporaries used the Bible to argue their position to keep the Christian Gentiles out of the church.  In my mind, Jesus weeps at our narrow interpretations of his teaching.  In my soul and in my heart, I know that Jesus loved the sinners, embraced them and encouraged them to live good lives. He taught us to Love God, Love Each Other, and Let God be the Judge.  We are not to judge one another.  Click here to read “Debating Bible Verses on Homosexuality” in the June 8 2015 edition of the NY Times as just one of many Biblical debates.

In my heart, I weep at my friends and family’s narrow understanding of what it means to be truly accepted.  I am a woman, married to a man that I love with all my heart.  I'll be honest - I love the freedom of being in a socially accepted marriage.  To be able to hold hands in church and to talk freely about life at home with such a loving man.  But, I will not deny the 18 years I spent during the 1980-1990's in a committed relationship with a woman.  Some would say I’m the “B” in LGBT.  But I say that I simply fell deeply in love with the person that God placed into my path.  She and I had a monogamous relationship.  She and I raised my son and he grew into a loving, heterosexual Christian man who is now married to a loving woman.  She and I grew apart after many years of personal struggles, separations, and re-commitments, and finally we moved on.  Our story is not unique - it is human.

You may say – "ahhhaahhh!  Some commitment you had if you are now happily married to a man!"  Yes, I “divorced” her, and I paid her alimony too.  She helped me raise my son, and I helped her start her new life without me.  I remained single, and celibate, with no intention to remarry until I unexpectedly met my husband.  It is through my husband, that I began attending Hillsdale UMC, and through my church that I began Bible studies.  I have read the Bible cover-to-cover.  I am a Disciple and a Public Theology Advocate, a member of our Church Council and many ministries.  I truly believe the Holy Spirit has guided me on my faith journey.  And I truly believe that God is Love, and has been present in my love journey as well.

Still, until very recently, I lived with a fear that my church – my people – would no longer like or respect me if I spoke about my experience as a bi-sexual woman.  That fear is real and not completely gone.  The words of the Discipline promote that fear.  My church – my people – who are do not want to discuss this very personal, very controversial topic – promote that fear with their discomfort.

But I am a strong woman.  Strong enough to love and raise my son in with a same-sex partner during an era when he could have legally been taken away from me.  Strong enough to risk loving and building a new life with a man.  Strong enough to become a Disciple and Public Theology Advocate.  But what about those who are not strong enough? What kind of church are we if we cannot help a person be fully who God made them to be? 

What do the words “incompatible with Christian teaching” mean? Couple that with the words “bans the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals” and "forbids the performance of same-gender unions in the denomination’s sanctuaries and by its clergy in any setting" and “cannot use funds to promote the acceptance of homosexuality” – what is a young, gay Christian person to think?  How awful could a person be for there to be such rejection by our beloved church?

This may be the last blog post I will write on this topic.  There is a fine line between advocacy and overkill.  If you wish to speak to me about this subject, please feel free to contact me or leave a comment on this blog.

Next week I will be attending a meeting of “Congregations for a Better Bergen”, a faith-based organization working for justice.  Those who pursue justice shall find life (Proverbs 21:21)

I continue to ask that you pray for me in the role of Public Theology Advocate as I take a stand for Justice.  Respond to this blog, or contact me directly, with your thoughts, ideas, and concerns about social justice in the Pascack Valley region.

Update June 26 2015:  today the Supreme Court of the USA made a landmark ruling that Same-Sex Marriage is now Legal Nationwide.  

"No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were," Kennedy wrote. "As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death."

Kennedy went on to speak directly to the type of criticism that often comes from conservatives in pushing back against marriage equality.

"It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves," Kennedy said. "Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization's oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right."

In addition, the United Methodist Church of Greater NJ has created an FAQ page regarding the legislation passed at GNJAC2015 - you can read it at http://www.gnjumc.org/pages/detail/1052

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