Can Evangelical Americans Sleep Through This One, Too? —David P. Gushee’s Evangelical Winds-a-Blowing

Photo by Rev. Steven Parelli

A personal first-hand story: David P. Gushee’s address “Ending the Teaching of Contempt against the Church’s Sexual Minorities” delivered at The Reformation Project Conference in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 8, 2014

The hurricane I never heard, I never saw
Twice in my life now I have slept through what would have been two exceptional once-in-a-life-time experiences. I regret it on both accounts. The first occurrence was at age 17 when I slept the whole night long in a small room in a missionary’s home in the steep hills outside of the town of Robert, Martinique, while hurricane winds blew against the island so hard that it took two months of rehabilitating the necessary facilities before public schools could reopen.

When I asked everyone — from the missionaries to my traveling companions from Central New York — why they let me sleep through it all, they told me, with horror, that I was the lucky one.

The evangelical winds of change — gathering now?
Two nights ago, knowing in advance the ‘storm-winds of evangelical change’ gathering about, ready to descend from the lofty pulpit of the Washington, DC, National City Christian Church at The Reformation Project, I was psyched and ready to witness with my own eyes and ears the historical address that David P. Gushee, the featured speaker of the conference, would give in his defense for personally affirming and welcoming on all levels within the church the queer Christian community.

I totally missed it — well, almost all of it!
But I slept . . . through most of it, although I was in and out of sleep at times! I was exhausted from my days of conferencing for a week at ILGA in Mexico City and now three days here in DC. My husband’s jabs to my side did little to avert the sleep.

“Unchristlike!” — Say it again and again, 14 times!
But I did catch the force of his address, like when David Gushee said he wanted his listeners to note that he carefully chose the word “unchristlike” and that he would use it 14 times throughout his address.

Those by-gone Jewish-hate-verses of the Bible
From the very first words of his address, before sleep engulfed me, he pulled me in. The parallel between the church’s centuries of hatred for the Jewish people and their now like-hatred for the LGBT community was stunning. David said the pre-WWII Christian community, by-and-large, believed their anti-Semitism was scriptural, as the church now does in its animosity toward LGBT Christians. And then, I dozed off again.

Love — the central message of the Bible that brings change
I was momentarily awake when he said Gentile Christians who helped the Jews during the holocaust of World Word II did not do so because they could correctly exegete the often-cited Jewish-hate-verses of the Bible, but because they could feel, know and live out the Golden-Rule verses of the Bible.

An inter-generational movement
At one point, Gushee corrected his written manuscript: He had written that this was a youth movement. No, he said, as he assessed the actual age continuum in the audience before him, that this was an inter-generational movement. All he had to do was look out over his audience, his said, to see that! I believe we all clapped. I think I did. And then, this tired, 61-year-old LGBT Christian, from the other side of the millennium-divide, fighting back the sleep, dozed off again.

Telling my dis-believing daughter her local evangelical pastors will one day change their views
On Monday morning, talking to my daughter on the phone who loves “both her dads” but is not welcoming and affirming asked me why the event, if it was so historically significant, wasn’t, for example, on CNN news.

I told her Gushee is big in the evangelical academic world, and that while I can’t predict what will be the impact of his words (and his newly published book), it is a force that has to be reckoned with both in the world of scholarship and, at some point, even in the common pew.

So, how will the Rick Warrens and the Tim Kellers respond?
But then again, will the Rick Warrens and the Tim Kellers, pastors of the church-going evangelicals, undaunted and unimpressed, sleep through this one, too — like I did, when I slept through the night-long hurricane winds of Martinique? I hope not.

It’s time to awaken and say (as horrifying as the storm may be – and more accurately because it is already horrific for all presently engulfed by it) that evangelicals do not want to be (any longer) on the wrong side of history, not to mention on the wrong side of the gospel.

To read Gushee’s address to the conference, go here.

Room at the Table – A Thanksgiving Reflection

As a child, I remember Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners in our home were always a big production. This was the time of year when mom and dad would pull the extra table leaves out of storage and magically make the dining room table two-sizes bigger to accommodate all the family and other guests who would gather at the table.

The table itself was then impeccably decorated with the finest China we owned, appointed with freshly polished, real silverware and glimmering gravy boats and bowls taken out only for these special occasions. In the end, the turkey, ham, stuffing, gravies, potatoes, yams and vegetables made the already beautiful table smell so good. You couldn’t wait to sit down at that table and take part in the family fellowship.

However, as a child, that beautiful and bountiful table was not set for you. Instead, there was a bare, rickety card table, holding the barest essentials of salt, pepper, and the everyday plates, cups and bent and marred tableware. This was called, “The Children’s Table,” and it was far less inviting and appetizing than “The Adult Table.”

You knew, though, that you had graduated in both age and respect within the family when one day, as you headed over the adult table to fix your plate and take your usual place at the lowly children’s table, one of your parents stopped you and pointed out that you now had a place set at the adult table.

What a glorious day that is … to graduate from the children’s table, where your cousins and siblings had begun to make the meal unbearable with their childish talk and antics … up to the deeper, more engaging conversations at the adult table.

As we consider the state of the world today, however, we can see that many segments of our own society remain at the spiritual children’s table … relegated to the margins, given scraps from the adult table with their real needs largely ignored. Our world has increasingly segregated itself into separate tables where the like-minded, or the ethnically or spiritually similar all gather together, excluding those who don’t think, or look, or worship as they do.

This is not the state of the world that the Holy calls us to tolerate. Instead, the Holy commands us to make room at the table for everyone. There are no children or adult tables, white or black or brown tables, LGBT or straight tables, Republican or Democrat or Libertarian or Tea Party tables. There are no Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist or atheist tables.

There is but one table in this world – the table of unity – that the Holy calls us to create, not just in this world, but in our own heart. We cannot relegate anyone to the children’s table of this world, no matter how different or other we may consider their ways and beliefs to be. Instead, the Holy calls us to constantly say, “Yes,” to those who seek to come to our table, to put in a few more leaves and magically expand the feast to fit everyone who seeks room at the table.

Why Christians Should Embrace the LGBT Community

There are to be no second-class citizens in the United States! We established a long time ago that “separate is not equal,” and all American citizens are entitled to enjoy equality under the law. Any society that presumes to refer to itself as “decent” and “civilized” must not in any way discriminate against any group of people through its laws or their enforcement.

We should have learned this painful lesson during the struggle for African American civil rights, and we must now apply that lesson in this struggle for full and equal civil rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (hitherto referred to as LGBT) people. LGBT people are entitled to the same rights and privileges that accrue to all other citizens of the United States

Gay people are certainly entitled to full and equal civil rights, including the right to marry! The lies and other nonsense purveyed by many self-proclaimed arbiters of “morality,” often cloaked in the guise of religion, that same-sex marriage destroys “the sanctity of marriage” is ludicrous on its face!

I have been married to my wife for fifty two years, and I can’t see how same-sex marriage will in any way negatively impact my marriage or in any way destroy the sanctity of my marriage! No rational person can believe that same-sex marriage in any way compromises the institution of marriage, an institution that has taken many forms in our history.

As a Christian, I am profoundly embarrassed and outraged by those professing Christians who are in the vanguard of discrimination against LGBT people; who spew hateful rhetoric, borne out of their ignorance and/or their hatred and/or their avariciousness, that is diametrically opposed to anything Jesus said, lived, or taught to all who would claim to be His disciples! Indeed, Jesus saved His harshest words for those who claimed to be “godly” and yet sought to put yokes of bondage onto others!

Christians love other people, and the only Gospel to be found in Christianity is comprised of: grace (God’s unmerited favor to us), faith (trusting God over and above seen circumstances), love, peace, reconciliation, and inclusiveness. There is no other Gospel!

Jesus makes it abundantly clear that we are to love and not judge or condemn others! Any professing Christian who thinks that he/she is representing Jesus by doing the very opposite of what Jesus told us to do is not only seriously misled, but is woefully misleading the public, many of whom are gullible enough to take the purveyors of the false gospel of legalism and perfectionism seriously.

Moreover, we are under the Constitution of the United States and we are not a Theocracy! Since when are we to take a group of people’s understanding of the Bible, an “understanding” far more informed by their preconceived prejudices than it is by anything else, and enshrine those prejudices into our laws of the land; impose those prejudices onto a minority group that all too many professing Christians and others view as being relatively “safe” to persecute?

The discrimination against LGBT people in the names of “Christianity,” “morality,” “tradition,” “the well being of our children,” and any other specious reasons given for this oppression has many of us saying: “Enough is enough!” We’re not going to take it anymore!

For those of us who are Christians, we are sick and tired of having those who would hate and/or discriminate against others presume to speak for us! For those of us who are heterosexual, we are sick and tired of watching our LGBT sisters and brothers be oppressed! For those of us who are LGBT, we are sick and tired of being viewed and treated as second-class citizens, denied marital and other rights and benefits that heterosexual taxpaying citizens are given and take for granted.

In sum, LGBT rights activists demand full and equal civil rights that every other citizen of the United States possesses, and we won’t rest or stop until that goal is achieved!

Jesus: Man of Steel?

I consider myself an orthodox progressive Christian. The first part of that definition refers to my beliefs about doctrine, the second to how I believe I should live my life. Though the two terms pertain to different things, I see no logical conflict between them. People keep telling me that “America” disagrees, but can offer me no intelligent reason why.

Now, I used to work with a woman named America, and she was beautiful. I sort of had a crush on her. I don’t think they’re talking about her, because for all I know, she might agree with me. I don’t work with her anymore, so I can’t ask her.

I suspect “America” is being used as a synonym for “everyone in the universe,” though I don’t think that’s correct, either. Nor do I see any reason why my views must magically be invalidated because a majority of people — however huge — disagrees with me. I hear this nonsense most often concerning lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and the Christian faith.

Those who oppose full LGBT inclusion in the Church have largely given up appealing to “everyone in the universe,” or even “America,” when citing the multitudes who supposedly agree with them, because as poll after poll now shows, that just isn’t true. The one cardboard-cutout majority they still claim to have on their side is “orthodox Christianity.” We kept hearing appeals to this during the recent Duck Dynasty publicity stunt — excuse me, controversy. “Orthodox Christianity” disapproves of “homosexuality,” we were told, again and again and again and again.

When the delegation from our local chapter of Dignity, the LGBT Catholic organization, was disinvited from a workshop on pastoral care, the excuse given was that our theology did not meet the standard of “orthodox Christianity.” People always say this with a slightly-hysterical edge to their voices, as if they’re afraid we’re going to argue.

And we should. Because — contrary to what they imply — there simply is, no longer, any consensus against “homosexuality” even in orthodox Christianity. An increasing number of quite conservative Christians are actually reading what the Bible has to say that (supposedly) deals with the subject, and discovering that about committed relationships between same-sex couples, it says exactly nothing. That’s right — nothing at all.

I doubt we can convince every conservative Christian of that, because the way many of them interpret the Bible makes reasoning with them next to impossible. Though I’m doctrinally orthodox, and believe every word of the traditional creeds, I’m an Episcopalian who was raised Lutheran, so I don’t interpret Scripture the same way they do. At the risk of sounding intolerant, my way makes sense to me, while theirs strikes me as, well, wacky.

They seem to see the Bible as sort of an epic comic book. The major characters had superhero powers. Jesus was sort of like Clark Kent: God hiding inside a man-suit. Even though twenty-one centuries ago, when He walked the earth, human civilization handled relationships very differently than they do today, and not only gay marriage but anything remotely approaching the modern conception of heterosexual marriage was unheard of, they’re sure Jesus disapproved of “homosexuality.” That He peered ahead into the future — with His Superman sight — foretold what society would be like in the Twenty-first Century, and definitively pronounced all same-sex unions anathema.

Now, if the orthodox theology in which they claim to believe is correct, then Jesus was both God and Man. That means He was not only totally God, but one hundred percent human. Though God knows everything there is to know and ever will be, Jesus — while He walked this earth — did not. Not if he was, indeed, fully human, and not just God in costume, because an essential aspect of our humanity is that we don’t know everything. Which means that He had nothing to say about committed relationships between people of the same sex, lived out in the open, because in His days as an earthly Man, they did not exist.

Jesus spoke, in the Gospels, about things with which He was familiar, and that His hearers would understand. We don’t know if He would have been a Republican, or a Democrat, or a capitalist, or a socialist, because none of those existed at the time He lived among humankind. To put words into His mouth about all sorts of Twenty-first Century stuff — no matter who does it, or in service to which cause — is idiotic. It is, moreover, unorthodox.

What Jesus did do –and at this, He was indisputably a genius — was teach His hearers everything they would need to know, in a way that they could transmit to future generations. He did this in such a manner that nothing essential would ever be lost in translation. Thus did He teach that we should do unto others as we would have them do unto us. That should be easy enough for everybody to understand — even the most hardcore fundamentalists. If it isn’t, that says a lot more about them than it does about Jesus.

God meets human beings wherever they are. He doesn’t reveal more to them than they, in their particular time and place, can handle. There is no sensible reason to think “He” would have revealed anything to people two thousand years ago about committed same-sex love, because at the time such a thing, though it surely did exist, was millennia away from being understood even by the people who took part in it. In my opinion, anyone who attempts to tell me that Jesus, First Century Man of Steel, spoke through the wall of temporal Kryptonite to warn us about the evils of “homosexuality” cannot be taken seriously. It is impossible even to have an adult conversation with people who think like that, much less an intelligent one.

The entire universe may not be coming around to accepting us as human beings yet, but America definitely is. As more and more people recognize that taking the Christian creeds seriously actually requires that all people — including LGBT’s — be treated with equal respect, the term “orthodox progressive” will no longer be seen as disagreeable.

“I’m Spartacus!” — A Winning Strategy for the Churches

Most of us remember the Pepsi commercial showing a scene from the 1960 movie, “Spartacus.” One by one the slaves revolt, standing up and declaring “I’m Spartacus!” Kirk Douglas looks on with a tear in his eye, drinking his Pepsi in inspiration.

It worked for the rebels who stood up for Pepsi. I think it could work, as well, for the churches that say they want to welcome us wholeheartedly but don’t dare.

Whether the designation is called “Open and Affirming,” “Welcoming and Affirming,” “Reconciling in Christ” or whatever, only a brave few congregations in mainline denominations are coming out in full support of us. Many say they want to, yet timidly demur because they would face punishment from their denomination. How can this nonsense be ended?

I think we can, indeed, take a lesson from the friends of Spartacus. What if all the churches that really want to support full LGBT inclusion got together and stood as one? There’s no way a denomination would dare to persecute them if they took it on this way. They couldn’t discipline that many congregations at once without revealing themselves to be the bullies and tyrants they are.
We should, by all means, suggest this. We could call it the “I’m Spartacus” movement. There is strength and courage in numbers, and if all our allies stood together, they would be invincible.

“We welcome them!” one congregation would say. “So do we,” another would proudly second. “Us, too!” a third would chime right in. Before any steps could be taken to squash the declaration, all the true hearts of our allies would be revealed.

Why did it take a “mad man” (or woman) in New York City to think up such a bold idea? It’s been right under the churches’ noses all along.

“I’m Spartacus!” Think about it. In our community around this world, we have already discovered what unity and solidarity can do.

The Faces Of God

“We without God cannot, and God without us will not.”

St. Augustine

God, as revealed to us by Jesus Christ, often uses fallible human beings to carry out “His” work in this world. Of course these human vessels in no way limit Who God is. But when they fail in their witness and service to us, we tend to blame God.

We must be partners with God in “His” work. That is clearly how God wills it. God chose to work in Jesus, and now “He” chooses to continue the mission Jesus started in the ongoing efforts of Christians around the globe. There are times when I forget that both sides of St. Augustine’s equation are equally necessary – and there are times when I leave trust in God out of the equation altogether. Then, once again, God manages to show me that where “His” will is, there is always a way.

When I first came through the doors at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Phoenix, I was almost at the end of my rope. I had left my former congregation in disgust because of the struggle over LGBT issues there. I still have many friends at that church, and I know they are still committed to full inclusion and working to change the situation for the better. But the turmoil polluting that religious body, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, had penetrated into their congregation. I was in dire needed of fresh air.

But I could no longer really bring myself to believe that anything would change. My spirits have never been lower than they were when I departed from the church I’d really come to think would be my spiritual home for life, the church in which I had buried both of my parents. I joined First Congregational UCC hoping for a new beginning, but I was scarcely able to visualize that. Despite the warmth of my new congregation’s welcome, and the obvious happiness of those who were already members, my heart was dragging on the ground.

Would God surprise me yet again? It wasn’t long before I found out.

Almost right away I noticed a difference, part of which seems due to the fact that the United Church of Christ is in general more welcoming and inclusive to LGBT people. The denomination’s benevolence goes a long way toward making individual congregations relax and, not feeling threatened, able to truly minister to us. But there is also a certain intangible something beyond that. Some churches have it, and, sadly, most don’t. I was glad to find that this congregation has it in abundance.

That certain something is the Spirit of Christ. It benefits those to whom it is given as much as it does those with whom they share it. It enables God to shine forth from them as they radiate “His” love to others. It makes their own, human faces – as was Christ’s – the very faces of God.

Our countenances do not glow the way Moses’ did, when he came down from the mountaintop. We need not veil ourselves to keep from freaking everybody out. God’s face, as it shows forth in those who bear “His” love to others is very warm, very human, totally approachable. And like a breath of pure, fresh air, it radiates God’s love into every nook and cranny of our lives.

Sometimes, God does seem to come to me without human intervention. Though I’ve never yet encountered a burning bush, I’ve come to realize that this does happen. It’s always a surprise. Yet it’s happened often enough that it shouldn’t surprise me.

As I have come to enjoy a richer church life, my prayer life has improved. More and more I have begun to recognize that prayer is really a two-way conversation with God. Every once in a while a thought will come to me – clear, strong and out of the blue – that I know comes from God. I could never prove it scientifically, to those who insist on disbelieving it, yet I know in my heart, as much as I know anything, that it is true. It doesn’t come in any booming, Drano-commercial voice from out of the sky, but I know it doesn’t simply come from me.

Of course God has been there for me in the past, and more times than I seem capable of recalling. Although, again, I could never prove it, with scientific rigor and precision, for those who are skeptical, my prayers have been answered probably dozens of times, in ways too creative and quirky to be dismissed as more coincidences. There have even been incidences when God has worked in my life in ways in which “He” clearly took the initiative. Perhaps there have been more of those than anything else, as I frequently seem to be too dense to know what I ought to pray for.

One of the most memorable of these came a few years before, when I first realized I was an alcoholic. It wasn’t the last time I stopped drinking, but it was the first – and it led to my eventual sustained sobriety. I had been up late on another of my lone, home drunks, collapsing – as always – without the slightest intention of ever stopping drinking, much less of admitting I was an alcoholic. The next morning, September 1st, I got up with something I always boasted I never got: a roaring hangover. Sick as a dog, I dragged myself into work as always, but I knew there was just something different about this time.

On one of my many bathroom breaks that day, as I sat there in that stall feeling sick and sorry for myself, it all of a sudden came to me. I was an alcoholic (duh!), just as my father and several other relatives were, and I could not drink anymore. At all. I can’t begin to describe what a surprise this “sudden” revelation was to me. The “duh!” part of my realization came only as an afterthought.

I prayed for God to help me keep the new, bold, strange resolution “He” had obviously led me to make. And from that time on, for long thereafter, every time I happened to be near booze, a funny, inexplicable, sick feeling would come over me. I’ve been told no drunk remembers the hangovers, but for some reason that last, dramatic one seemed indelibly etched in my gut. Odd as it may seem to call it a gift, I know that that’s exactly what it was.

A couple of years after that, my dad happened to mention the date of his own A.A. “birthday.” He had never told me before just when it had been. Nor would it have done anything for me, had he done so, except – in the contrary frame of mind I had toward him then – to steel me against wanting to mark it, myself, in any way. But when he did tell me, I nearly fell out of my chair. He had first gotten sober one September 1st.

Now I know better than to dismiss God’s little quirks. One day very recently, as I sat in prayer, feeling that perhaps nobody else understood me, one of these very clear thoughts came to me. All of a sudden, I thought, “God understands.” It came to me, again, not in any audible voice, but the thought was all at once there: “My child, I understand.” And I knew that it was true.

I have taken, more and more, to letting these thoughts come to me – to welcoming them in. They usually (although not always) come during prayer-time, they are very clear, and they are consciousness-changing. Sometimes they are as simple as “I love you, I am with you, and I will always be with you.” I don’t need a scientific experiment to prove to me that they are from God, and that these thoughts – like God – are very real.

Every Wednesday night, my church has a Scripture meditation group. It has actually become, over time, more of a therapy group. We are thinking of changing the name of it to the “Let Go and Let God” Group. I have made some of the most wonderful and nurturing friends I’ve ever had in this little group alone.

God continues to walk with me so powerfully in this congregation that it defies belief. My heart doesn’t drag on the ground anymore. When I almost stopped being able to believe, God picked me up and carried me forward.

There is, truly, something special about the church to which God has led me. Not too many years ago, it was a dying, inner-city congregation made up mostly of old folks from its past. Then they decided to call an openly gay pastor, Dr. Stephen Wayles. A few years after that, they elected to become an Open and Affirming congregation, welcoming in gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender folks, as well as members of other groups long spurned in “respectable” Christian circles. Since that time, their membership has nearly quadrupled.

“The Spirit of God is in this place,” a friend of mine said recently after I brought her on a visit. And indeed, if that Spirit is contagious, I seem to have “caught it” much more powerfully since I joined.

Again, with my bitter departure from my previous church, my faith had faltered. Forgetting how many times before God had been with me, working powerfully in my life, I allowed myself, once again, to wallow in self-pity and despair. And once again, God had to remind me that “He” will never leave me.

The dark days are, in many ways, still upon me. Right at the beginning of our current economic implosion, I lost my job. It’s tough to get a job, now, and thus far I have been unsuccessful. But God keeps holding me in “His” arms. “He” simply refuses to let me go, and this time, “He” has given me the added grace of helping me to remember that.

I was led to this church exactly at the right time. I am now surrounded by more love and support than I have known for years. Perhaps ever. Just when I thought I’d nearly lost my family, with the death of both my parents and all relatives living so far away, God has given me a brand new family. I can say with certainty and gratitude that whenever I have needed God the most, God has always – always – been there.

The human face of God is far from perfect. I’ve had to learn patience with those who all too often fail me. I can’t say for certain why God has chosen to use us to bring “His” love to one another; I suppose it might be easier if “He” simply eliminated the middleman and did it all singlehandedly every time. But as Jesus’ command to us makes clear, we are to love God with all our hearts, souls, minds and strength – and we are to love each other as we love ourselves. The two-part nature of that command tells us how true St. Augustine’s maxim really is.

Many people have ministered to me over the years. Sometimes God has even reached me, more or less, directly. I continue to learn, as time goes by, that I must be open to every creative way God chooses to reach me. And in the ongoing adventure that is this life on earth, I don’t want to miss a single one.