It happened again over the weekend. I got an email from a gay man that said this:
“Please remove my name from the membership rolls of Northaven Methodist Church and remove me from your email and US mail lists…
As a gay man, I feel that I no longer want to be affiliated in any way with the Methodist denomination in light of the conviction of a Methodist pastor for officiating at a same-sex marriage… of his own son”
UPDATE 12.19.13: This morning, Rev. Schaefer’s home conference voted to revoke his Elders Orders in the UMC. Within the hour, I had yet another letter, from yet another member. Text below:
“Hi Eric, would you please remove my name from the membership role at Northaven UMC? Of course, this is not personal and I continue to support both you and your good works. See my open letter to UMC…
I physically left you in 2008, but maintained membership in my local reconciling church. Today, I am officially done and must move on. Being a fourth generation Texas Methodist, your position of hate on this issue saddens me. However, it is impossible for me to continue even a casual affiliation with you. You see, this ongoing controversy is toxic to me and millions of other gay and lesbian people. It feeds the hate and bigotry against my community. I’ve invested my energy in the hope that you would change. My energy is needed elsewhere, and I’m just not into codependent relationships anymore…”
I won’t share either of these person’s names, both are good children of God.
What I’m sharing with you is the dynamic.
The dynamic is that, once again, the United Methodist Church has been in the news. Once again, the news has been about homosexuality. And once again, somebody is leaving Northaven Church.
The “news” the conviction of Frank Schaefer, a United Methodist minister who –six years ago– performed the wedding for his gay son and son-in-law(1)
I’d been praying for a week over exactly what I needed to write about this. I was gonna write about Frank Schaefer and the trial. But many other beautiful essays have been written about it already.
“The basic game that God’s people have been playing since the beginning is to find a way to leverage their meticulous devotion to the letter of the law to their advantage. Doctrinal and moral purity are pursued ferociously as a means for dominating others. As Jesus says about the Pharisees of His day, “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear,and lay them on the shoulders of others” (Matthew 23:4). Their zeal for moral purity was more about being able to lay heavy burdens on others than it was about devotion to God.”
O man, he speaks God’s truth here.
And even more when he talks about the parable of the Good Samaritan:
“When a teacher of the law asks Jesus in Luke 10 what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus’ summary of the entirety of Torah is to share the parable of the Good Samaritan. That was actually the parable Schaefer cited in his comments about what he did (which were of course inadmissible in his church trial). The reason that the priest and the Levite didn’t touch the wounded man was because of the Torah’s regulations on ritual uncleanliness. They were being “Biblical.” The Samaritan violated the Torah to fulfill the Torah because his heart was “moved with pity.”
Yep. More and more it’s hard to see how we United Methodist elders are not simply modern-day Priests and Levites.
Finally, this incredible conclusion:
“The heart matters to God, and right now Frank Schaefer isn’t the only one on trial; we all are. Based on my understanding of holiness, I do not see how officiating a same-sex wedding for your son is idolatrous or unjust (I have examined the Bible as faithfully as thoroughly as I could). I am starting to wonder whether elevating a book other than the Bible above the Bible is the real idolatry here.”
As I said, you should read the whole essay. I don’t know what else I could add about Frank Schaefer or the trial. So, as I said, I won’t.
But when I got this email, this weekend, I knew I wanted to write about the dynamic.
You see, I’ve gotten letters like this before. Most memorably, I got them after the 2004 and 2008 General Conference.
I get them pretty much every time the United Methodist Church makes “news” over issues related to LGBT persons and the Church. The dynamic is that faithful Christians –both LGBT and straight– decide that they can no longer affiliate with the United Methodist Church.
I would estimate that here at Northaven, we may have lost as many as 100 members during my tenure because of this dynamic.(1a) Now and then, somebody will write me a letter like this, letting me know of the moral stand they are taking.
But more often than not, folks simply fade away. They don’t have a personal need to change the organization, or to “guilt us” over their leaving. They just have the desire to be faithful their own inner core and the leading of God’s Spirit. They believe there is “spiritual violence” being done here against LGBT persons, and they no longer wish to be a part of that. So, they just “leave.” They silently fade away.
Like choosing Costco over Sams, like choosing to shop on “Small Business Saturday” insteat “Black Friday,” they are making a moral choice about who they are and what they are willing to support with their prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness.
After all, the Church a voluntary organization. Nobody ever puts a gun to anybody’s head and makes them stay. So, more and more, people are voting with their feet and their pocketbooks.(2)
As such, I have never been able to “judge” people who make this kind of decision.
It breaks my heart, though.
Every single time it happens, it re-breaks my heart.
My heart’s been broken so many times now, I’m sometimes amazed it still beats at all.
But, look, how can I judge somebody who’s thoughtfully come to this conclusion? Good Lord, the whole problem starts with excessive and unnecessary judgmentalism in the first place! Why would I ever pile on?
But I grieve. And I cry.
And then, I pick myself up, and with trembling knees and shaking hands, re-examine again the reason why I stay.
I won’t go into all those here, because I don’t want to drift too far off the point of this blog, which was to note the dynamic. (And, besides, Mary Clair preached a fine sermon about all this yesterday…)
But my answer has always been something like….
I stay for the beautiful people of Northaven Church…
I stay for the dozen or so of our couples who have now gotten married in various states around the nation…
I stay for the beautiful families who are raising their children with us…
I stay for those who, like me, believe at some level that all is not lost for the UMC…
I stay for those who, even if they do think the UMC is lost, still choose to embrace their Northaven family as fellow “members”…
I stay because, even with those who’ve left, every now and then we have folks who come back! Thanks be to God for the, far too rare times, when someone is on the verge of leaving, or does, only to return to the Church at some later time. What a witness to their faith that is!
I have always said that there are dozens of different moral places to stand in the struggle for the full inclusion of LGBT persons in the Church of Jesus Christ.
Some stand as “insiders,” trying to change a system from within.
Some stand as “outsiders,” raging against the machine.
Some are activists.
Some lead by their quiet example.
It was the same in the time during the 1960s and the Civil Rights struggle. Some folks took more activist roles, were arrested, and pushed against the machinery of government. Others changed hearts and minds quietly by how they lived each and every day. Some worked to craft legislation and push the government itself.
As with Civil Rights, it takes people standing in all sorts of positions in order to effect change on LGBT acceptance in the Church of Jesus Christ. There are many faithful places to stand, and all those places are making a difference.
I stand as an “insider,” for now. I stand as a life-long United Methodist who still has the idealistic faith that our denomination can be redeemed, and that there is some social good in not simply abandoning our institutions, but redeeming them. I stand because I know that this is the true heritage of who we are as United Methodists.
In the long view, this is a working of God’s Holy Spirit, and once God’s Holy Spirit has moved the hearts of all God’s children, our institutions must be there to serve all of them. We must fight to bring our institutions along, even when they come kicking and screaming.
So, in a nutshell, these are a part of why I stay. And, let me assure you: the Schaefer decision is causing many of us to ask: “What more should we be doing?” More on this in the weeks to come…
But, again, none of that’s the point of this blog…
The point here today, in this blog, is to count the cost of this heartbreaking dynamic. We who remain as “insiders” –where ever we stand on the issue of LGBT inclusion– should never forget to count the costs.
So, no, I cannot begrudge those who choose to leave.
But I ask two things:
1) I ask that the United Methodist Church hear and understand their stories, and
2) I ask them, as they are able, to tell their stories.
Within the cost of this heartbreaking dynamic are not only in LGBT persons, but also straight allies as well. They get to vote with prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness too.
Many times in the past few years, when the subject of LGBT inclusion comes up with my clergy friends, I will ask them where their own children attend church. It’s often a painful moment, and I’m sure I don’t always get an, ahem, “straight” answer. But many of my older-baby-boomer colleagues will admit that even their own children are abandoning the United Methodist Church too.
Their adult children –who are no doubt Methodist to their core– are choosing to affiliate with Christian denominations (or choosing to be a “None”) that are open and inclusive; places that are not wasting time, energy, and resources standing against LGBT persons.
Bishop Sally Dyck recently named this powerfully in a letter to the members of her Annual Conference:
“Not allowing space for people who long for an open church is counter-productive to fulfilling our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ. The church and its leaders long for “more people, younger people, and more diverse people.” But with “more people, younger people (and not so young), and more diverse people” come people for whom the matters of human sexuality aren’t a stumbling block in faith but quite the contrary. When we aren’t open and welcoming of all people, our statements on human sexuality are an impediment, causing many within the church to become disappointed in the UMC and to feel that we are being hypocritical in what Jesus would have us be and do. We need space so we can grow and be vital.”
(Update! Less than an hour after I published this blog, Bishop Dyck also published a blog from her nephew, making the same points as the preceding paragraphs…)
So, I have a request. I would love for any of you who have already “left” Methodism because of LGBT issues to share your story as a comment below (or on Facebook). Because it’s important for those of us who are left to hear those stories.(3)
I wrote today because didn’t want to let another email like this come to me without acknowledging the real human and spiritual costs, of our denomination’s ant-gay policies.
And if you want to understand why many of us stay and fight, it’s because we know and understand that people like this man are worth fighting for, even when they choose not to say.
All God’s children are worth fighting for.
Friends, this is a heartbreaking dynamic.
And God grieves with us, knowing that it doesn’t have to be this way.
1) By the way, I cannot help but note that Frank Schaefer is also-also a singer-songwriter. He’s got some mighty fine music here.
1a) Honesty requires that I admit we’ve lost members for all sorts of other reasons too, of course; and that this is simply my ballpark guestimate.
(2)I blogged about this repeatedly, especially in analyzing the rising number of the “Nones” in society today. In public opinion polls, the “None” almost always say that the word “homophobic” is of the best descriptors for the Church of Jesus Christ.
(3)My blog is not a “free speech” zone, nor has it ever been. I’ve asked for specific kinds of comments here. Off-topic comments are likely to be deleted…
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