The highest use of a shaken time is to discover the unshakable. (Harry Emerson Fosdick, A Faith for Tough Times)
As GLBT Christians we live in a shaken time. As the 20th century draws to a close and a new millennium dawns, the instability of our place within the church is palpable. We have faced a litany of defeats and disappointments.
The United Methodist Church has tried and defrocked ministers for performing same-sex marriages. The Baptist Church has kicked out congregations — most recently in Georgia — for welcoming GLBT Christians into their congregations. The Lutheran Church has also kicked out pastors for being openly gay. The Catholic Church has silenced important voices speaking for the inclusion of GLBT Christians within that institution. With very few exceptions like the United Church of Christ or the Unitarians, GLBT Christians are excluded from occupying the pulpit. In fact, most denominations, either explicitly or implicitly, prevent GLBT Christians from fully participating in the life of the congregation.
It’s easy to become discouraged in the face of such defeats and exclusions. It’s easy to throw up one’s hands and declare the battle to be welcomed into the church as futile. It’s easy to be shaken spiritually by the shaken time in which we live.
Instead of giving up, however, Harry Emerson Fosdick’s words — written in the midst of the Cold War — should challenge us. Instead of being shaken by the times, we should use this time of instability to discover the unshakable. Instability can break us, or it can make us stronger. Our resolution for the new millennium should be to discover the unshakable.
Stirred but Not Shaken
Despite the struggles over the issue of whether or not GLBT Christians can fully participate in the life of the church, there are many examples of people who have refused to be shaken from the fold. These heroes and heroines have been stirred to lay the groundwork — the firm foundation — that can help GLBT Christians build an unshakable faith in the coming centuries.
The groundbreaking ceremony, so to speak, of that foundation-laying took place on October 6, 1968, when a young Pentecostal preacher named Troy Perry opened his Huntington Park, California home for a worship service. Today, the denomination founded by Perry, The Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, has more than 42,000 members and adherents in 15 countries. The denomination continues to grow and prosper.
MCC’s revelation to GLBT people that they can reconcile their faith with their spirituality has prompted GLBT Christians to work for the right to worship “in spirit and in truth” within the denominations of their childhood. The battles that have ensued have been painful for those on both sides of the issue.
A decision to march in the 1988 gay pride parade in Raleigh, North Carolina, was just the beginning of Rev. Jimmy Creech’s painful controversy within the United Methodist Church. His conviction to minister to GLBT Christians, despite what the denomination said, resulted in one of the most public fights over the issue of homosexuality and the church.
Ten years later he was put on trial for performing a holy union for a lesbian couple. He was acquitted of the charge. The United Methodist Church clarified its rules and nearly a year later, after performing a similar service for two men Rev. Creech was convicted of the charge and defrocked. Despite the discipline handed down to him, Rev. Creech continues to fight for full rights for GLBT Christians within the church. His resolve has not been shaken.
The Methodist Church suspended Rev. Creech’s colleague, Rev. Greg Dell, in March 1999 after he, too, performed a same-sex union in his Chicago, Illinois church. The church told him he could return to the pulpit if he signed a pledge to never again perform such ceremonies. Rev. Dell has refused. He now is director of In All Things Charity, an unofficial network of clergy members and other United Methodists who support full inclusiveness of gays, lesbians and bisexuals in the life of the church. Despite the personal cost, he has not been shaken.
Rev. Janie Spahr was chosen as co-pastor at Downtown United Presbyterian Church in Rochester, New York, in 1991. Despite the congregation’s acceptance of her sexual orientation other churches in the area challenged her appointment. A ruling by the Permanent Judicial Commission finally denied her the job. Rev. Spahr has not been shaken however. In 1993, That All May Freely Serve, began with the specific goal of allowing Rev. Spahr to assume full pastoral duties at the church. The organization is working to change Presbyterian rules against allowing openly gay pastors to serve within the denomination.
Rev. Mel White spent most of his life as a ghostwriter for men like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. During his time with these men he struggled with all his might to overcome his homosexuality. He tried therapy and even shock treatments to rid himself of his orientation. Finally, he accepted himself, came out to his family, friends, and employers and seemed to have lost it all for the sake of his sexuality. Today, Rev. White leads Soulforce, a powerful organization for non-violent change within the church. His historic October 1999 meeting between 200 GLBT Christians and Rev. Falwell seems to have worked a minor miracle in getting the former Moral Majority leader to tone down his hateful rhetoric against GLBT people. Rev. White has also held a remarkable meeting with the King of Gay Bashing, Rev. Fred Phelps. It remains to be seen if the meeting had any lasting impact, but just the fact that Phelps sat in the same room with Rev. White is, in itself, a minor miracle. Despite the shaken times in his life, Rev. White has discovered the unshakable.
On July 14, 1999, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith moved to silence Sister Jeannine Gramick, SSND, and Father Robert Nugent, SDS, and their work with New Ways Ministry. The two founded the ministry in 1977 to “provides a gay-positive ministry of advocacy and justice for lesbian and gay Catholics and reconciliation within the larger Christian and civil communities.” The Vatican order states they “are permanently prohibited from any pastoral work involving homosexual persons and are ineligible, for an undetermined period, for any office in their respective religious institutes.” Despite this, both Sr. Gramick and Fr. Nugent are not shaken and remain committed to ministering to gay and lesbian Catholics.
There are other stories of those stirred, but not shaken from the fold. Rev. Steve Sabin lost his pulpit at Lord of Life Lutheran Church in February 1998. He continues to pastor the church, which has voted to keep him in the pulpit even though they may face expulsion from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Two Baptist churches in Georgia continue their full acceptance of GLBT Christians despite being kicked out of the Georgia Baptist Convention in November 1999. Other churches, too, have been kicked out of their denominations in recent years, but continue to keep their doors and hearts open to the GLBT Christians in their midst. These are people who have made the best of shaken times, and have discovered the unshakable.
Each of these people echo Kathleen Norris’ words from her book Amazing Grace:
“… I refuse to be shaken from the fold. It’s my God, too, my Bible, my church, my faith; it chose me. But it does not make me “chosen” in a way that would exclude others. I hope it makes me eager to recognize the good, and the holy, wherever I encounter it.”
Discovering the Unshakable
What is the secret that these people have discovered? What do they know that makes their faith unshakable?
The answer to these questions is twofold. All these people, and many more like them who remain unshaken in shaken times, have learned the true meaning of Jesus’ words “whosoever believes” and “the kingdom of God is within you.”
It sounds simple, but learning these two things — really learning them and making them the center of your life — takes life long, and diligent practice. I’m sure each of the people named in this article have days where they run low on energy and faith, and have their doubts about God. They would not be human if they didn’t. But, each of these people exhibit a strong belief in the unshakable … the certain knowledge that “whosoever believes” is saved and that truly “the kingdom of God is within” them and everyone, friend and foe alike.
Truly believing, and then living, these words begins with realizing one’s self worth. If we feel bad about ourselves for any reason then we are reticent to take Jesus at his word when he says “whosoever believes” is saved. We feel we are not worthy of such saving grace because we believe we are bad people.
Who can blame us? Most GLBT people have been told for most of their lives that they are intrinsically bad people, hated by God for who they are. When we internalize these words, and begin to believe them, they become the center of our being. We’ve been told so many times that what we are is an abomination to God, we can’t even begin to believe that we qualify under that category of “whosoever” that Jesus speaks about.
Our first step is to realize that anyone who ever abused us with a Bible passage that they say condemns us were wrong — dead wrong. We are not hated by God or condemned by God. We are not destined for God’s wrath, but for salvation, according to Paul. [1 Thessalonians 5:6] We, as GLBT people, are included. We are part of the “whosoever” Jesus came to save. We are chosen by God to be part of God’s kingdom … and it’s time for us to start truly believing it, even in the face of condemnation.
Henri Nouwen offers some advice when those words of rejection and condemnation come our way:
“… you have to keep unmasking the world about you for what it is: manipulative, controlling, power-hungry and, in the long run, destructive. The world tells you many lies about who you are, and you simply have to be realistic enough to remind yourself of this. Every time you feel hurt, offended or rejected, you have to dare to say to yourself: “These feelings, strong as they may be, are not telling me the truth about myself. The truth, even though I cannot feel it right now, is that I am the chosen child of God, precious in God’s eyes, called the Beloved from all eternity and held safe in an everlasting embrace.”
This is why I can read Romans 1:21-23 and feel no condemnation as a lesbian Christian. Paul talked of people who “knew God” but did not honor God, people who claimed to be wise and “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles.” I am not among those people. I know God, and give God honor. I do not claim to be wise … I am a seeker just like others … ready to hear God’s instructions and not my own. I worship the immortal God, not images of man or animals. I am not one of those Paul talked about who were given up by God. Neither are most GLBT Christians. These passages do not condemn us because they do not speak about us. They do not tell the truth about our faith.
When people use Romans or any other Bible passage to condemn me as a homosexual I remember Nouwen’s words. I know those who use the Bible in this abusive way are controlling, power hunger and in the long run out to ultimately destroy me. They do not speak the truth about me. My fellow GLBT Christians, they do not speak the truth about you. Jesus speaks the truth about you when he invites “whosoever” to come to him. You are a part of that “whosoever” … you are among the beloved children of God. Begin to believe that truth. It is that knowledge, that we are the beloved “whosoever” Jesus invites to be part of his kingdom, that is our firm foundation upon which we can begin building our strong, unshakable, faith.
The Unshakable Kingdom
To realize we are among the “whosoever” is to know that we are heirs to the kingdom of God. But what is the kingdom of God? Jesus’ disciples asked this question many times. Jesus always answered them in parables. One parable about the kingdom of God, in Mark 4:14-20, stands out for GLBT Christians.
“The farmer sows the word. Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them. Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop — thirty, sixty or even a hundred times what was sown.”
God sows the word within us, but often we do not hear it. When we have no spiritual life, or are not seeking our spiritual center in God, the word may come to us and cause us joy, but we forget it as soon as someone uses the Bible to persecute us. Often we get too busy to hear God’s word. We’re too busy building careers or trying to find that perfect life outside of God that the word gets lost and eventually is choked out of our lives. But, if we seek our spiritual center in God, when we hear the word we accept it, and bear fruit.
This is what Jesus meant when he said, “the kingdom of God is within you!” [Luke 17:21] Inside of each of us are the resources God needs and can use to cultivate a strong and unshakable faith. The foundation for providing that “good soil” Jesus speaks about is the first step we’ve already taken … accepting our place as a “whosoever” … a beloved child of God.
When the word begins to grow in that “good soil” we’ve provided for it, our faith grows like that mustard seed into “the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” Our faith becomes strong like the mustard tree, bearing the weight of our doubts and insecurities without breaking.
However, our faith is not just for us alone. The mustard tree provides shelter for the birds, and we too, must be about providing shelter for our fellow human beings. When our faith grows in the fertile soil of the kingdom of God, we are able to provide a safe space for those still seeking their spiritual center in God. We become a place of rest to our fellow travelers.
Those names mentioned earlier in the article are fine examples of this. There are numerous testimonies, including mine, of people whose lives have literally been saved by the MCC congregations created by Rev. Troy Perry. Rev. Perry’s vision, and his willingness to follow God’s command, has provided strong branches where weary GLBT Christians can land and renew their strength and faith.
Rev. Creech and Rev. Dell seek to provide the same oasis within the United Methodist Church. Rev. Spahr has created a place of rest within the Presbyterian denomination. Rev. Sabin’s small church is a safe haven within the Lutheran church. Rev. Mel White is providing space for people to explore what it means to live in Christian community even with people they are theologically distant from, like Rev. Jerry Falwell. Sr. Gramick and Fr. Nugent continue to seek to provide comfort and space for GLBT Catholics.
All these people tilled the soil of the kingdom of God within, received the word, and grew a strong and unshakable faith. The word has produced a life saving crop for spiritually starving GLBT Christians around the world. Surely, the kingdom of God is within each and every person mentioned here … but it is also within you.
Does that mean you have to go out and create a new ministry? Does this mean you have to challenge an entire denomination and put your life and career on the line? No. I hold these well-known names up as examples, not for us to follow in their grandness, but for us to follow in their humility. By watching them, we learn how we can become spiritually centered. By understanding their journeys we can begin to map out the terrain of our own hearts and spiritual journey.
If, on the way to growing your unshakable faith, you find yourself creating a new ministry for GLBT Christians, that’s wonderful! But, if your faith walk leads you just down the street to a church where you can grow and love within your community, that’s just as wonderful! God can do great things in our lives on grand scales or on small scales. We only have to accept our place as a beloved “whosoever,” and begin to till the soil of our heart, making it ready to receive the word, so the kingdom of God that is within us can begin to flourish.
Do not be fooled into thinking that this spiritual journey will be easy. It’s not. I continue to struggle daily, even knowing my place as a “whosoever” and tilling the good soil of the kingdom of God within me. There will be days where nothing seems to be happening, when God seems distant, and your faith seems weak. In these times it is good to remember who is off balance. It is not God who has moved off-center … but us. God is always available to us … ready to sow the word in our hearts. Our struggle is to constantly be in that place to receive those blessings. Often we get distracted by other pursuits … jobs, relationships, wealth. They can easily become the center of our attention. Jesus puts us back on track by reminding us that we must “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness.” [Matthew 6:33] If we do that … if we really look first to building that kingdom of God within us, we are promised that “all these things shall be yours as well.” “All these things” include food, shelter and clothing … and, yes … love, jobs, and the money we need to get by.
God insists that we seek God first. In doing that, we constantly have our eyes, our hearts and our minds, on something that is unmovable. Despite all the turmoil in the world God is the same “yesterday, today and forever.” In shaken times, God remains the only unshakable thing. A single-minded pursuit of God, the unshakable, ultimately makes our faith unshakable as well. As we begin to dedicate ourselves to seeking first God’s kingdom we can truly say that we are “grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken.” [Hebrews 12:28]
Founder of Motley Mystic and the Jubilee! Circle interfaith spiritual community In Columbia, S.C., Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, she earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She is also a musician and animal lover.