PFLAG PANEL (PART 2): What I wish I had said to Fr. Brennan

Last night I was invited by PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) and Growing American Youth (a local LGBTQ+ youth safe space for the greater St. Louis area) to speak on a panel of religious leaders about our faith tradition’s stance on LGBTQ+ people. In my first post, I confessed my naivety coming to the event hoping to have a thoughtful interchange about LGBTQ+ people and faith among inclusive religious leaders. One leader, a Catholic priest named Fr. Larry Brennan, made that impossible, and reminded me that the majority position in Christianity is still misogynistic, homophobic and trans-phobic. If my first post was “confession,” this second post might be called: “What I wish I’d said to Fr. Brennan.”

To be clear, I spoke a great deal last night, probably too much. I countered Fr. Brennan’s presentation of Paul’s letter to the Romans. I clarified that the majority of US Catholics affirm same-sex marriage. Fr. Brennan said he wished the current pope “wouldn’t talk to reporters,” when asked what he thought of Francis’ words: “who am I to judge?” I said I really valued much of what Pope Francis has to say. What follows are responses I wish I had made to two of his substantial points. Last night was emotional, and I found myself trying to referee this priest. I wish I had slowed down and responded to two points in his argument:

First, Fr. Brennan quoted a letter from Pope Paul the VI, which he said characterized all sexual behavior outside procreative sex within heterosexual marriage as “dishonest.” He made his argument from the Latin word “inhonestum,” (significant because the official English translation does not use “dishonest”).

Those who hear me preach regularly know that I quibble about words and translation. For preachers words are currency. Words matter. This word, “dishonest” was chosen carefully by Fr. Brennan. He called same-gender love “dishonest” because in his mind, it does not fulfill the only true and full intent of sexuality, the procreation of children within a marriage. I, obviously, disagree with his theological position.

“Dishonesty” was the wrong word to choose in that room. In response to his remarks Fr. Brennan heard story after painful story from youth and adults about how much honesty can cost a queer person. Many of them were kicked out of their homes, scolded by their priests, removed from their youth groups. Several had friends who had completed suicide. Honest stories were shared with a priest who called same-sex love “dishonest.”

Engraved over the entrance to the library at my seminary are the words of the Rev. William Sparrow: “Seek the truth, come whence it may, cost what it will.” Last night I heard people share painful truth, and I saw a priest respond with callousness. He characterized their stories as “attacks.”

I wish I had said to Father Brennan:

“I think you have a strange definition of dishonesty. You have heard so many deeply honest stories tonight. If you believe God loves human beings, if you believe that God made these particular human beings in God’s own image, then let them be honest. Let them tell you how their love has been a blessing. Let them tell you how their sexuality has been a blessing. Let them share their truth about their gender identity with you. Encouraging people to deny their truth, THAT is dishonesty.”

The Second point Fr. Brennan made involved a program he is personally involved with called “Courage” for folks who want to lead lives of chastity in response to same-sex attraction. He said that “Courage” models itself on the “twelve steps,” The twelve steps he mentioned are originally of Alcoholics Anonymous, and they are closely related to The Episcopal Church. An Episcopal priest, The Rev. Sam Shoemaker, helped to mentor the founders of A.A. as they worked to develop a program for recovery. The twelve steps assume that a behavior is a problem. Alcoholism is a disease. The first step of AA is: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.” I wish I had taken him to task on what I believe is an abuse of a life-saving program.

I wish I had said to Fr. Brennan:

“Same-sex attraction and transgender identity are not disorders or diseases. While Courage may not attempt to “pray the gay [orientation] away,” I firmly disagree with a program which treats same-sex love like a disease. I could never call Courage a “ministry.” I hope your program gets sued by AA for abusing their method. For many years the church took the position, “hate the sin, love the sinner.” That position is flawed. Love is not a sin. Gender is not a sin. Sexuality is not inherently sinful. God created us to love one another, and cis-gendered heterosexual married partners avoiding contraception do NOT have a monopoly on love. God’s love is surprisingly big, inclusive, and God challenges us to live truthfully. Your program, in my view, encourages dishonesty.”

I hope I have another chance to meet Fr. Brennan, one where I am more prepared to share across disagreement. I hope he and I both “read the room” a little better before we respond. My colleague, Rabbi Susan Talve demonstrated what pastoral ministry looks like last night, as she closed the panel by responding to pain with compassion. She looked a woman who had spoken through tears in the face and said, “I hear you. I am sorry. You are strong.” Fr. Brennan and I both could learn from the good Rabbi. I hope to meet this priest again, because I believe God’s surprising love includes Fr. Brennan.

PFLAG Panel (part 1): Confessions of a Naive Gay Christian

Last night I was invited by PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) and Growing American Youth (a local LGBTQ+ youth safe space for the greater St. Louis area) to speak on a panel of religious leaders about our faith tradition’s stance on LGBTQ+ people. I sat alongside the legendary Rabbi Susan Talve, a force for justice in St. Louis over the past several decades, the Rev. Josh Privitt a young assistant minister at St. Peter’s UCC Church, Dr. James Croft, an atheist philosopher and leader at the St. Louis Ethical Society (a good friend who also wrote a great post about the evening). All of us came to represent our traditions’ embrace of people across the spectrum of orientation and gender identity. I would have loved to speak with these panelists about our various understandings of scripture, how we deal with the “clobber passages,” and (especially with James) whether or not religion can be redeemed. That was the panel I prepared for and expected. I was naive.

There was a fifth panelist, a Roman Catholic priest and theologian, seated between Pastor Privitt and Dr. Croft. Fr. Larry Brennan of the Archdiocese of St. Louis came to represent the Catholic perspective. (I write about what I wish I’d been prepared to say to Fr. Brennan in a second post). Before I go any further, I have to say, I may have interfered with Fr. Brennan’s representation of the “Catholic perspective” a couple of times during the event. I know too many wonderful inclusive Roman Catholic people to let someone who holds a misogynist, homophobic, and transphobic position define “what Catholics believe.” I talked about my wonderful Catholic friends and cited research that show the majority of US Catholics support marriage equality.

What I came to realize through the event was my level of privilege as a progressive Episcopalian. My experience of faith has been nurtured by churches that have come to see same-sex attraction as a “gift from God” (as the Rev. Ed Bacon once told an astonished Oprah Winfrey). I live, and move, and have my being in faith circles that affirm same-sex attraction; faith communities which are actively learning about trans identity and the use of pronouns.

I realized again last night that I am in the minority. The vast majority of Christians still worship in churches that openly persecute LGBTQ+ people. Last night, after our introductory remarks, the Question and Answer session was almost entirely directed toward Fr. Brennan. With tears and anguish, person after person shared their stories of shame, self-hatred, and friends who had committed suicide. My church is a sanctuary, an outpost, in a tradition that still inflicts so much pain. I am saddened and yet grateful for that reminder. I am also emboldened to continue the work to upset the status quo in Christianity.

The Way of Jesus

Some of you saw an invitation I made this week. I invited a certain Missouri State Representative out for coffee, and to talk about Scripture. Representative Rick Brattin, from Cass County near Kansas City, stood in the Missouri House Chamber this week and said that religion makes

“a distinction between homosexuality and just being a human being.”

That’s a quote, from a Missouri legislator, on the floor of the Missouri House, and He’s making a distinction between homosexual people and human beings. I want to take this man out to coffee. I would even offer to buy. I’m fairly sure coffee wouldn’t violate any ethics rules.

I’d like to talk with him about Scripture. As a Christian, as a preacher, I’d like to ask him not to propose to speak for me. As a gay man, I’d like to ask him to stand up for my rights, and the rights of others who stand on shakier ground if Governor Greitens does not veto this bill, SB 43 which was passed by the house, the bill Mr. Brattin was “debating.” (Click hear to contact Governor Greitens to ask him to veto).

This Bill would make it harder for an employee to take an employer (or a renter to take a landlord) to court for discrimination on the basis of race, gender, religion, disability, age, you name it, the bill makes it harder to legally prove discrimination. The media has called this bill a “license to discriminate.” Representative Brattin’s remarks were in support of the bill and against and amendment.

So far my invitation has gone unanswered. After news of his words spread across the internet, Brattin’s public Facebook page came down. I’ve sent him an old fashioned letter as well. If any of you in the congregation have occasion to speak with the Representative, feel free to pass along my business card. I’m not exactly optimistic that he’ll take me up on my invitation, but I hope I’m wrong. We’re fellow Christians. Representative Brattin and I have different takes on Christianity. But we are fellow Christians. We understand the faith we have received differently. Since we haven’t yet met to talk about Scripture, I’m not sure about this, but I would venture to guess that we read today’s Gospel especially differently.

Jesus words today are famous: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Some Christians read those words to mean, there is no truth, there is no life, there is no way to heaven outside of Jesus. Jesus is THE way. The definite article holds sway in this form of Christianity. This Christianity intentionally involves a level of anxiety. Outside the church, there is no salvation. I know that several of you, in our pews, are recovering from this kind of Christianity. For some of you, even hearing this passage of Scripture read aloud makes you a bit nervous: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” You’d like to get up right now, see if there’s coffee out there. You’d like to disengage.

I’m going to ask you to stay put. If we avoid scriptures like today’s Gospel. If we actively skip those pages in the Bible. If we turn away when we hear Christianity used to justify discrimination, we cede our faith to the forces of misogyny, bigotry, and homophobia. We need to reclaim our faith. We need to stand up for a more inclusive vision of Christianity.

When I read stories about Jesus, I read about the Son of God who turned over tables in the temple, furious about what God’s people had allowed their religion to become. I read about a man who constantly debated the meaning of Scripture with religious teachers. I read about a young preacher who spoke with authority when he read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and said:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me BECAUSE he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor…freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Today this scripture has been fulfilled your hearing.”

I am not going to let fundamentalist Christianity have the last word on Jesus, because  our world needs the Good News, not the Fake news. We need the truth. We need the life. We need Jesus.

The early followers of Jesus weren’t called “Christians” they were called, “the way.” It has a sense of movement: “the way.” Our presiding Bishop is fond of calling us “The Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement.”

I find that language compelling. I hear Jesus’ words today as words of comfort. The Gospel today comes from John’s long account of the conversation at the last supper. Thomas has just asked Jesus, “How will we know the way?” in response to Jesus telling the disciples he is going to prepare a place for them. Thomas is filled with anxiety. Even though Jesus has said, “do not let your hearts be troubled,” the disciple can feel the tension of this night. Where are you going Jesus? How will we find you? Jesus says, “I am the way.”

In our church mission statement we say that Holy Communion: “is a welcoming and diverse community seeking to walk in the way of Jesus…” We chose that language specifically. Faith isn’t about a single choice. You don’t choose once to follow Christ and “poof,” your life is complete. Faith is a journey. We walk that journey step by step, day by day. There are constants: we gather week by week around the Eucharistic table. We say our prayers. We rely on the kindness of friends and strangers. But as much as there are constants, the journey is also constantly changing. The terrain shifts. Some dreams fade. Some companions leave us. What once seemed permanent and definitive turns out to be transitory. Yet we journey on.

Some of you know my friend James Croft, James the atheist. We’ve spoken together at Theology on Tap, debated the existence of God. James likes to tell me, regularly, that my version, our version, of Christianity is not the version in power. The Christianity James preaches against has long oppressed people, he tells me. I should just give up on Christianity. I once asked James if he was an evangelist for atheism. He claimed the title proudly. Yet as often as we talk, I am more and more firm in my convictions.

I won’t give up on the Christian journey, on the way of Jesus, because I believe this way has something powerful to say in our world today. We live in a world where the old certainties are wearing thin. In the twenty-first century we encounter more of the world’s diversity in a day than our grandparents may have encountered across their whole lives. We hear up to the minute news from around the world. We live next door to Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Atheists, and Presbyterians. We are working to make our public spaces, including our churches, more accessible to people with disabilities.

confirmation.jpg

Yesterday, at Christ Church Cathedral, as three members of Holy Communion were confirmed or received and became “official Episcopalians,” for the first time in my ministry I heard the Bishop forego the use of gendered pronouns as someone was confirmed. We are learning to welcome the transgender community. I believe that Jesus is standing in the midst of all of this growing awareness of diversity and smiling.

In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus declares to the wide and diverse city of Jerusalem: “how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” Hold on that unlikely image a moment. Jesus casts himself as a mother bird. He longs to draw all the people to himself, but not as a scolding Father, not to stand over them and tell them how they were wrong. Jesus longs to protect, to nurture, to lead.

Today is Mother’s day, after all, and I find it compelling that Jesus chose such a feminine image for his own ministry. Jesus often defies stereotypes. Following that lead, at the end of the prayers of the people today I’ll pray a collect, a prayer for Mother’s day. This prayer pushes back against the “Halmark-ification” of Mothers’ Day, this singular image of what we hold up as “motherhood.” We’ll give thanks for all the women and men who have mothered others. We’ll pray for all of those who exhibit mothering virtues.

The prayer tries to capture the diverse experience of motherhood. Some of us delight in our relationships with our mothers. For others, the relationship is strained. Mothers day can be painful, for those whose mothers have died. Mothers day can be dreadful for women and men who have lost children, or who have lost pregnancies, or who have been frustrated in their hopes to have a baby. We’ll pray for them as well.

Happy #mothersday to all who express motherly virtues! #prayer #episcopal

A post shared by Holy Communion on Delmar (@holycommucity) on May 14, 2017 at 11:02am PDT

 

A word of advice if you know someone who is grieving on Mother’s Day, or really anytime someone is grieving. One of the worst things you can say to someone is: “God has a plan.” I know many folks who left church when someone from the leadership told them: “God has a plan.” Notice Jesus doesn’t say anything about a “plan” to his friends who are anticipating his death. There’s a subtle but important distinction. Saying to someone “God has a plan” makes it sound like God has some secret, unrevealed to the suffering. Saying, “there is a way, a way forward” that is a statement of faith, of trust. “There is a way,” invites forward movement. Jesus says “I am the way”  I am with you in the pain. I will be with you in the end. When you are ready, I will take the next steps with you.

That Jesus still has something to say in our world. Jesus stands with us in our pain, and offers us a way forward. Jesus stands in the midst of our growing diversity and longs to gather us together. Jesus stands before God’s people and declares that the oppressed should go free, the poor should be lifted up. That Jesus still speaks to me, still speaks to our world. That is a way that we can choose to follow.

As I imagine my meeting with Representative Brattin, I imagine that we would pick up coffee in a shop in Jefferson City and go for a walk. As we wander the streets of the Missouri Capitol, I’d like to talk with him about Jesus. I’d like to hear how following Jesus has helped him to become a better person, a better father, and I’d like to share my perspective as well. I’d like to tell him about all the diverse people I know, the mothers I know, the fathers, and the LGBT people who follow Jesus and find liberation in that following. I’d like to tell him about how for us, Jesus is also the way, the truth, and the life. I don’t know if he’ll accept my invitation, but if he does, I look forward to that conversation.