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.

Go the Extra Mile

What relationships have given shape to your identity? Stated more succinctly: Who has shaped you?

Many of us can point to a teacher who introduced us to our favorite subject or author. Many of us can recall a friend who recommended a style of music, or our favorite band. Sometimes to our chagrin, we’ll find ourselves sharing an opinion and then say, “O gosh, I sound just like my mother. She would have said that.” We are shaped, all of us, by our community, consciously and unconsciously.

In my previous gig, my old job, I worked for The Episcopal Church’s office for “Lifelong Formation.” I was the young adult and college-student specific minister, but I loved the name of the office “Lifelong formation.” No matter our age, or sense of maturity, we are, all of us, in formation. We have been formed. We continue to be formed.

So, how are you shaping up?

At the end of today’s Gospel, Jesus sets the bar pretty high. “Be perfect,” like God is perfect. A priest friend in Connecticut recently wrote that while perhaps Beyonce wakes up “feeling ‘flawless,’ most [of us] rise from bed a few minutes late, somewhat dehydrated, and in great need of a tissue. Certainly no one removes a sleep apnea mask to declare, “I woke up like this.” Perfection can seem unachievable.

I think part of the problem we have with this Gospel is a problem of translation. You see “perfect” in English misses part of the sense of the word in Greek, which is “telos.” If you’ve studied Aristotle, you’ve heard that word telos. It means perfection, yes, but it is more directional. To engage in seeking teleological perfection is to journey with purpose, to move toward a point at the horizon which is perfection. And according to Aristotle, in life, we don’t reach telos. Telos is the goal toward which we strive. Perfect, in this sense, is not the enemy of the good. Perfect is the direction toward which the good is shaped.

Thousands of years of doctrinal development away, it can be important to remember how MOST people experienced Jesus. Jesus was a preacher, a very talented preacher. His words, his phrases shaped people. His words, edited together by the Gospel writers, still shape people. And these weeks of Epiphany, we are spending time with the greatest sermon we have, the Sermon on the Mount. How do we preachers relate to our greatest Preacher?

In the great mosques each Friday, the Imam climbs the minbar, the pulpit to deliver a sermon. Traditionally Islamic pulpits, unlike our pulpit, have stair-steps that face out toward the people. The Friday preacher climbs several stairs and turns around to look out over the gathered crowd. In the mosque, the preacher traditionally stops one step short of the top. This reminds him, and the congregation, that every mosque’s primary preacher is not the person currently talking, but the prophet himself. The current preacher gives a sermon as a substitute. Formation belongs to the master.

With a similar sense of humility, I want to offer a couple of thoughts on Jesus’ words from today’s Gospel. Jesus turns his hearers’ expectations upside down. “You have heard an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, Do not resit an evildoer.” “You have heard it said…love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” These words may seem foolish in today’s climate, but this is the perfection toward which Christians have sought to be shaped. Still, reading Jesus’ words today can create a sense of tension

I want to look into this tension for just a moment. Formation is happening all the times and it can happen when we are tense. If you’ve ever climbed up a mountain to the edge of tree-line and seen the little bristly pine trees up high, you’ve seen tense formation in action. Pine trees that high up have raw bark on one side of their trunk and just a couple of branches pointing in one direction on the other. They look like little scraggly flag poles. Those sad trees have been blown into their shape by the wind. I bring them up because the winds seem mighty strong these days. Will you be shaped by incivility? Will you respond to hatred with hatred? Will you respond to mockery with mockery? Will you respond to cynicism with cynicism?

A few months ago I shared with you something I learned about Jesus’ words: “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.” That line can seem pretty pathetic, weak, but I once heard an African theologian explain how she read strength in Jesus’ words. She said that to turn the other cheek you had to turn your whole face. “Turning the other cheek” means looking your assailant in the eye. It means facing hatred with humanity.

Jesus strikes a similar vein of wisdom with another oft-quoted line from this sermon: “go the extra mile.” You may have heard that one before. You might have seen the words on one of those black-bordered motivational posters that seem to hang in ever Human Resources Office maybe with a picture of running shoes. Well, these words belong to Jesus, and they are as surprisingly radical as anything he preached.

“Go the extra mile” referred to a specific policy in the Roman Empire. Rome learned this tactic from the Persia, an earlier empire with great territorial ambition. “If anyone forces you to go one mile” references the power that a Roman Soldier had over anyone who lived in territory conquered by Rome. The soldiers marched across the empire on Rome’s highways, and they carried heavy equipment. When a soldier got tired or didn’t like the look on someone’s face, by law, he could impress a bystander to carry his pack for up to one mile, but no more. All along the road there were mile markers to facilitate this service to the Empire.

In this context, Jesus’ words, “go also the second mile” would have shocked his hearers. This policy was hated, understandably, by the occupied people. Being forced to march away from your work, to spend precious time and energy for no pay, was humiliating. Why would Jesus want to make it worse? As a tactic for calling the system of oppression into question, Jesus’ idea has legs. Can you imagine the Roman soldier, looking at the tired farmer who he has just marched a mile away from his field, as the man sets off another mile down the road. “You don’t have to continue,” he might blurt. The oppressor is forced to see beyond his prejudices. The soldier is faced with another human being, someone who is paying him a kindness, and he has to ask questions about the legal and social framework empowering some at the expense of others.

“Go the extra mile” read this way reminds me of another preacher, who stood just a step below Jesus. I’ve seen Dr. King’s words, his commentary on Jesus’ message on many signs and t-shirts lately, maybe you’ve heard these words too:

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

These days, I think we are having to become more conscious about the question: “who is shaping you?”

Who do you “friend” on Facebook? Who do you “follow” on Twitter? Who do you read? Who do you listen to? Who do you watch on television? In a political climate that seems to reward bragging lies and hate speech, in a social media world that rewards salacious rumors and outrageous headlines with more clicks and “likes,” it is easy to become blown about by the winds.

Question the value of that formation. If you find yourself anxious because of what you are reading in the paper, or on some blog site. if you find yourself angry in response to a news story on the radio, hit pause. Go and find some good news. Facebook won’t point you there. Twitter won’t raise these items up to the top of the feed. You’ll have to go and look.

Read some poetry. Pick up a collection of Dr. King’s sermons. Take the time to reconnect with a friend or spiritual advisor over the phone or better yet over a meal. Take a walk down in Tower Grove Park and keep an eye out for the owls. Look for good news. Open up the Bible. Go and find THE good news, the Gospel. Spend time with Jesus, the master preacher. If you’re on your smartphone clicking through articles and getting angry before you even get out of bed in the morning, well you’re already starting the day so many steps behind Beyonce. Get intentional about your formation.

A number of us gathered on Wednesday night as we continued our conversation about “Faith and Activism.” We read an article by Richard Rohr, the Franciscan priest. His writing focus on the connection between political activism and contemplative prayer. Richard says, unless we are deeply formed, all our activism is likely to burn us out.

That’s one reason that most revolutions fail. Too many reformers self-destruct from within. For that very reason, I believe, Jesus and great spiritual teachers first emphasize transformation of consciousness and soul. Unless that happens, there is no lasting or grounded reform or revolution. When a subjugated people rise to power, they often become as controlling and dominating as their oppressors because the same demon of power has never been exorcised in them. We need less reformation and more transformation.

“Go the extra mile.” These words from Jesus ask us to question our operating assumptions. If you really want to “resist” systems of oppression, Jesus says, surprise the oppressors with persistence, with kindness, with service, with love. Be formed, deeply formed, by life-giving love.

This isn’t easy work. We won’t get there alone. Perfection isn’t a goal that any of us can reach on our own. To stretch in that direction we will need to be intentional about our formation. We will need solid communities who know how to support and challenge one another, communities like Holy Communion tries to be. We will need friendships. We will need worship. We will need to return again and again to Word and to Table. We will need the words of Jesus. To reach for perfection, we will need to ask: who is shaping me?