Brighten the Corner Where You Are

Back in the old tent-meeting days, they used to sing a sweet little hymn called “Brighten the Corner Where You Are.” They probably still sing it in Bible schools. It seems a good way to motivate shiny-eyed children to live for Jesus without having to grow up, cross the seven seas and face missionary perils. The song enjoins us to bear good fruit wherever we happen to be planted.

As Christians, we all need to do this. Following Jesus is not a passive activity. Even the corner of the world closest to us is desperately in need of light. And as GLBT Christians, we especially need to make our light visible – whether the world wants to see it or not.

My friends Lucy and Dora (whose names I have changed to protect their privacy) have been Christians since long before they were a couple, and they have been a couple for decades. Longtime dedicated Pentecostals, they had begun to feel stifled in the little, predominantly-GLBT church they’d long attended and wanted to find a bigger church. At the time I was going to a very large church in a progressive denomination, where gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender worshipers are welcome. I invited them to try my church out, and one Sunday morning they showed up. They were so impressed by the inclusiveness of the congregation, and the many opportunities it offered for Christian service, that they decided to stick around.

Then came Pentecost – that holiest of days for Lucy and Dora. The pastor stood in the pulpit to deliver his sermon, and they listened – first in rapt anticipation and then in shocked astonishment – as he then proceeded to debunk everything the Bible says about that first Pentecost, informing us that rather than having spoken in the various languages of the world, those present in the newborn church had merely been so excited that they’d been babbling gibberish. Nor could he resist telling us that anybody who believed otherwise was, in effect, an idiot. Dora and Lucy sat stonily through the rest of the service, deeply stung by the insensitivity of this supposedly-inclusive preacher’s sermon. And, needless to say, they never came back.

People would ask me where Dora and Lucy had gone. I didn’t tell them, because I knew they probably didn’t really want to know. They were so busy being proud of themselves for welcoming gays and lesbians into their congregation that the revelation they had insulted two lesbians’ convictions would have merely been irksome to them. Whatta we want, anyhow? We’re supposed to remain prostrate with gratitude for our welcome – and never, ever forget how slavishly grateful we’re supposed to be.

Eventually, I had to leave that church myself. Not merely because I resented the insensitivity to Lucy and Dora, but because I had grown tired of being treated as a pawn in church politics. I began to feel less like I was wholeheartedly welcomed, and more as if I were simply useful – not to Jesus, but to those who claimed to be serving Him. Useful to some as friend, and to others as foe, but nonetheless, far more useful than genuinely welcome.

Most of us are searching for a place where our unique, individual talents can be made useful. We want to be recognized. We need to be appreciated. And so we search on and on, following the passion for Christ that God has placed in our hearts. We are so accustomed to being unwelcome that when we find a church in which we are welcome, the pressure we feel to go along to get along – even if it compromises much of what we believe – can be overwhelming.

Those of us who choose to stand up for orthodoxy and tradition, within a church or denomination that welcomes us (and thinks that ought to be enough), can find ourselves plunked down smack on the opposite side of the fence from those who support our inclusion. We may be driven, by conscience, to stand beside the very people who oppose our welcome. Our usual allies may react as if we have betrayed them. What all too often occurs to nobody else is that, for GLBT Christians to have genuine freedom of worship, we must follow our convictions regardless of who else in the church likes it and who doesn’t. We owe our loyalty, after all, not to any particular faction within the church, but to God.

Our fidelity to orthodoxy, even when it is unpopular, nonetheless has much to recommend it. By holding fast to what we believe is right, those of us who are traditionalists force those who ordinarily oppose GLBT inclusion to see us as real, individual Christian people, and not simply as symbols of certain trends in the church that they think they don’t like. If they know that at least some of us might be their allies in some struggles, and not merely always their opponents, many straight conservatives will be more likely to accept us. This helps to break down the wall between us and them.

In truth, we are no more likely to oppose tradition, or to encourage innovation in general, than anybody else is. Innovation on tradition is not a bad thing – if you happen to personally believe in it. I am not speaking against it per se. What I am saying is that we should be able to freely choose that option – if, indeed, we believe it to be the right one – instead of simply having it forced upon us whether we want it or not.

What we need to offer traditionalists is something akin to a line-item veto. Liberals tend to present conservatives with a bill that is lengthy, complicated and loaded down with various riders regarding this and that. GLBT Christians need to insist on a bill of our own – dealing squarely and as simply as possible with the issue of our inclusion in the Church. If those who generally support gay rights want to promote all these other issues – many of which cannot be reasonably demonstrated to have anything to do with us – let them plead the case for those issues distinctly. This has the added benefit of denying anti-gay Christians the excuse that they must veto our inclusion because of all those other, messy and problematic concerns.

Our goal should be inclusion in EVERY denomination – not just those that are, right now, more welcoming to us. We are always expected to settle for the crumbs that fall from the table. We should not rest until we can sit up to the table, along with everyone else, and partake of the entire feast. We deserve to have the same wide and free range of choices that everybody else does. And we should settle for nothing less.

GLBT Christians come from all across the political spectrum and from every religious tradition. This affords those churches that accept us a unique opportunity to learn and to grow. If they have taken on the responsibility of providing a safe haven for spiritual refugees (and this is what gay-welcoming congregations have indeed done), then they have no reason to expect we’re all going to be meek, obedient, mindless little drones. Many of us have wandered far, on a lonely and battering quest to find a spiritual home. What we need to hear is, “Welcome, fellow traveler, into this shared journey with us” – not, “We are BorgÂ…we will assimilateÂ…resistance is futile!”

Again, I am not trying to say there is anything wrong with being liberal in your theology, or with supporting a more progressive doctrine in the church. If that is what you believe in, then that side of the struggle is the one on which you quite rightfully belong. But even then, it should be because you feel, as an individual believer, that this is the right direction to take – not because you feel you have no other choice in the matter. It degrades the dignity even of progressive GLBT Christians to have their choice, and their voice, taken away from them by those who feel that we all must demonstrate “loyalty” to them, in exchange for their support for our inclusion. In all too many instances, I have been told, by fellow GLBT’ers with real fear in their eyes, that simply because I am a lesbian and ought to be grateful I am “allowed” a place in certain congregations, I “have no right” to stand on my traditionalist convictions.

The Holy Spirit seems to work by allowing us believers to hash through issues, however messy the process may sometimes get. Every contested issue in the church deserves to be fully considered on its own merits – regardless of what it is. We can help the Spirit by helping to keep each issue in the Church clear and distinct – as the truth deserves and as the pursuit of truth demands.

Those whose agenda is really served by the muddying of the waters are not liberals, but their hard-Right adversaries. Any cause worth bringing to the fore is worth being illuminated and considered on its own merits. If it deserves to stand, then ultimately it will stand. If it deserves to fall, then inevitably it is doomed. Those who actually fail to trust in the Holy Spirit’s guidance here are quite often those who claim the greatest allegiance to tradition.

We have the chance to help straight Christians grow by giving them the opportunity to welcome us because it is the right thing to do, even if it is hard. When we allow those who simply want something out of us – those with an agenda – to use us, we compromise our ability to function as salt and light in the Church and in the world. This places us in the position of supplicants, or charity-cases, who must bow before our mighty hetero benefactors. Excuse me, but we should bow before nobody but Almighty God. Who lovingly fashioned each and every one of us to serve “Him,” regardless of our sexual orientation – or (who knows?) perhaps even because of it.

There is, in truth, no automatic connection between insisting on the retention of traditional doctrines like the bodily resurrection of Christ or the Virgin Birth and keeping gays and lesbians shut out of the church. Even the staunchest traditionalists must interpret biblical teaching on morality inconsistently in order condemn gays, in an exclusive way, while allowing all that they claim the Bible allows for straight Christians.

I think I would have been a restless, questing and questioning pilgrim even if I had been straight. My concern for wholeness (which is what “holiness” really means) and well-roundedness in my Christian walk was what led me, for a time, into the Catholic Church. I tire of brand-names, of the ruthless competition for membership that leads many congregations and denominations to pitch themselves to this narrow interest or that one. Some on the conservative end seem to ape the Religious Right simply because it is popular, offering uncritically whatever is comfortable to those accustomed to their tradition simply because it is comfortable. Some on the liberal side seem to offer little besides an alternative to this for its own sake; they are the “non-Religious Right,” the way 7-Up is “the Uncola.”

Wherever in the church’s theological and political spectrum you happen to decide you belong, make sure you make your membership matter. Make your voice heard. Don’t let anybody shame or guilt you into compliance with anything you cannot support in good conscience or respect. The Holy Spirit may indeed take you somewhere very far from the tradition in which you were raised. But it makes a great deal of difference whether you go there because it genuinely seems right to you, or whether it is because you have been made, by those whose acceptance of you is strictly conditional, to feel that you must in order to please them.

I see my role as helping to reconcile the better elements of the Christian faith in our times. I can only do this, though, if I claim my rightful place in the church and proceed boldly and with full confidence that I belong. I can’t do too much if I let myself think of myself as a victim, or a supplicant, or a charity-case. I refuse to think of myself like that. If others insist on seeing me that way – whether they want me in the church or out of it – that is their impairment entirely, for I refuse to let it become mine.

It could be that, instead of our merely being a troublesome and problematic fly in the ointment for the church – an element that tears it apart – the very fact that we come from all over the spectrum may uniquely suit us to help pull the church together. Could this be a part of God’s plan for GLBT Christians? Perhaps even a unique way that we can brighten the corner where we are? Could it be that Lucy, Dora and I have been gifted with a call to help bring the Body of Christ a new unity that, at the places formerly broken and then mended, makes it even stronger than before? Those of us in the various churches, all across the spectrum, might thereby gently push, pull, nudge and coax our straight brothers and sisters – so comfortable and complacent where they’re at without us – into reaching out in a greater understanding of one another, and into a truer sense of wholeness.

The task, after all, may not be to get us all to agree, but rather to respect one another. I suspect that this is Jesus’ real concern.

I choose to stand up for doctrinal tradition within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. I also choose to stand up for full GLBT inclusion within my denomination. This means I make some strange bedfellows, and if I cause somebody else’s narrow little mind to explode, then so be it. I am an individual, uniquely and lovingly created by God – and I have every right to be who God created me to be, in all the fullness of what that means. I have to answer to God how I choose to stand as a believer – I don’t have to answer to anybody else for it.

And neither do you.