Grateful for the Gifts

The single most liberating moment of my ministry was saying yes to the call from First Christian Church in Lynchburg, Virginia. I’d gotten in trouble before, offering an honest welcome to people who weren’t quite like the rest of “us.” But here, I’d be in trouble if I didn’t. This is what representing Christ as a minister is supposed to be all about! At every turn I met people hungry to fulfill the vision of Jesus for a fully inclusive community. Coming to Lynchburg was like dying and going to heaven, but better—it was a glimpse of the kin-dom of heaven on earth.

Shortly after I arrived I met with the elders. “So,” I wondered aloud, “You have gay and lesbian lay leadership in the church.” Heads nodded. “You’ve had an openly gay man on staff.” Yes. “The church is a safe place for glbt singles and couples.” More heads nod. “You passed a series of Essential Affirmations years ago that includes welcoming everyone, regardless of sexual orientation or family structure.” Yes. “And you hosted Soulforce when it began.”  Proud smiles now.

“But you don’t call yourselves Open & Affirming.” Some looked down. “Help me understand. If it quacks like a duck…?”

At that moment we invited each other back into a continuing conversation about becoming a truly welcoming community of faith. We named the resistance: well, we don’t like labels; we don’t want to be thought of as a gay church; it seems divisive; everyone in town already knows so why say it; we’ve got a good thing going, why risk it now?

“But what about new people looking for a safe church,” I asked, “people who weren’t in town when Soulforce made news, students and young parents new to the community? Do we just wait for them to stumble on us? What if we went looking for them? How would they know we really mean it if we won’t say the words out loud?”

What followed were stories—lots of them. I heard about the studies the Wednesday Morning Bible Study did in the early 90s, the Faithful Planning process that named welcoming as a key ministry, the visit with Allen Harris and Craig Hoffman who came from New York because there wasn’t a gay Christian in Lynchburg willing to risk talking to a church group in those years.

I heard about Mel White and Gary Nixon and the launch of Soulforce in the late 90s, and the rejected hospitality from Thomas Road Baptist Church, and a loaves and fishes miracle in our fellowship hall.

I heard the heart-wrenching testimony of a mother whose gay child committed suicide.

I heard about a man dying of AIDS who found acceptance at the church and was offered communion before everyone else, so his weakened immune system wouldn’t be compromised by anyone else touching the bread and juice before he did.

And I heard of Angela, a child who had contracted HIV through a blood transfusion and was dying. She had been asked not to come back to her previous church. But David and Kaye Edwards made sure she was welcome at First. One Sunday near the end of her life she sang “Jesus Loves Me” during the children’s moment, and those who remember still cry when they tell the story.

Sitting around that table together sharing stories, it became clear to the elders that we had to speak truthfully about who we were called to be. Word and deed belong together. To be welcoming in word but not in deed would have been hypocritical enough. But to be welcoming in deed without using the words that unwelcome people needed to hear would be equally dishonest. Our light would be hidden under a bushel.

We owed it not only to God but especially to our glbtq brothers and sisters who needed the church to name our calling out loud.

Might it offend a few? Perhaps. Would we be misidentified as a predominantly gay church? Only by those who didn’t really know us. But the harder questions were raised by some in our community who worried what would happen if the congregation brought it to a vote and it wasn’t unanimous. Would our glbtq community still feel welcome if the church said anything less than an unequivocal yes? Where else could they find a church home?

The elders hosted a congregational forum and fielded questions and concerns. People spoke up to offer absolute support regardless of gender identity or orientation, while others sounded a note of caution not about the nature of the welcome but about becoming identified as a single issue church. We agreed that nobody—gay or straight—wanted a single issue to define us. But there was consensus that unless we say it in language that is truly inviting, the door isn’t really open. And we believe in a wide-open door.

The congregation met in 2008 to seek consensus and in the end, it was overwhelming. Yes, after 17 years of conversation, relationship, study, and gutsy social action, we’re willing to call ourselves Open & Affirming. It’s who we are as Christians. When we say we welcome as God welcomes, we mean that welcome is open to all.

In the years that followed, I never felt the need to hide who we were as a church from any prospective member. When people joined the church—which they did more often than nearly any other church in our region—they joined in full knowledge of the sort of welcome we heard at the heart of the gospel. People from all walks of life, including college professors, boiler-makers, students, social workers, small business owners, mid-level manufacturing managers, engineers, and teachers, joined the church.

People in all sorts of family structures joined, too: single, married, and partnered, divorced, separated, and on the rebound, remarriages and those wanting to get married, those who hoped never to marry, gay and straight and various places in between. Some had kids, some didn’t; one was a surrogate carrying another family’s baby; and so many had babies after they got here that we had to tear down the wall between the crib room and the nursery.

The common denominator in all these folks was and remains a commitment to the church’s mission. They want to raise their families in a church where their kids learn love of the other and not fear, and where a young boy who really wants to wear a pink dress to church can run down the aisle for the children’s moment without scowls or raised eyebrows from the pews.

I’m no longer the pastor at First Christian Church in Lynchburg. But my spiritual life is better for having served there. Here’s what those four and half years of life-changing ministry have given me.

Absolute Honesty. Being pastor of an O&A congregation has made me brutally honest about who I am (my gifts and limitations, my prejudices and fears, as well as my skills and growing edges). It’s made me understand more fully who I’m called to serve and how, and the kind of community Christ calls us to be. The identity and mission of the church are clearer to me now than they have ever been.

I can honestly say to people skeptical of church that there is a congregation where, absolutely, you will be welcome, you will be loved, and you will be valued for who you are—not as a number on a spreadsheet or a token outlier to make the rest of us feel “normal” but as a beloved child of God.

I’ve met people in coffee shops and restaurants because they are safer environments than church buildings, and I’ve been able to offer an honest welcome to dip a toe back into living water. I’ve been able to say, “No, we’re not perfect, but with God’s help we’re getting better. And this community will be a place you can explore your faith live out your calling without fear that your questions or doubts or identity will be devalued.”

Humility. Surely Augustine was right about the gulf between the church on earth and the church in heaven. The church on earth is flawed and messy, despite our best efforts. We fail more often than we succeed. Self-interest lives. In the church, and in me.

But serving a church that is willing to stay engaged in radical mission despite failures and setbacks has helped me claim my own flaws and messiness, too, and to be more forgiving of the same in others. My own limitations have come to the surface, and I’m better for seeing them. The humility it brings makes me more open to God’s grace.

Thankfully repentance, confession and forgiveness have become a regular and explicit part of the rhythm of my life. They have opened a place in my soul that helps me care less about my own bruises and more about God’s larger purpose for the world. I’m glad to have a part in it. And to know that while my hands are called to faithful action, the world remains in the gracious hands of God.

Confidence. I’ve become more confident than ever that the church bears a message the world desperately needs.  Salvation is deeply personal—God treasures each one of us. But salvation is also always social, communal. It’s about justice in all the spheres of our community relationships—economic, political, familial, interpersonal.

I won’t ever duck my head again or stand idly by while someone else is being demeaned or dismissed for who they are. I’m able to stand up with confidence rooted in an inclusive faith. I can read scripture with fewer filters and see the personal and communal connected. I’m more centered in my understanding of Christ. I’m able to see through the flaws and cultural biases of the Bible to lift up the central truth about God’s love.

When our young son stood up at the last General Assembly and spoke out against bullying, I know he got some of his confidence from his experience of our O&A church in Lynchburg. It’s not only my spiritual life that’s been enriched, but his. And that gives me confidence in the Gospel.

Faith. I’ve become more deeply aware of my trust in God’s unconditional love for each of us and for all creation. Trust is the key. Trust in God leads to trust in each other.

I trust that God’s love is extended to every bit of creation and to every individual within it. We’re treasures, each one of us, no matter how bigoted or violent or selfish or arrogant, no matter how injured or lost or alienated or confused we are. God calls us by name. We belong.

My trust in the power of God’s love to redeem and make whole has never been stronger. And it’s been built up every day I’ve been able to share Christ’s hospitality with someone who has felt ostracized or cut off. I know a little of what it’s like to be Phillip on the Jericho road assuring the eunuch that nothing can separate him from God.

Hope. I have seen glimpses of the kin-dom of God (which I think is a more inclusive and accurate way to speak of the Kingdom) in the flashes of hospitality and justice we’ve been able to offer at our best.  I see my own life shaped by the eschatological promise that draws us into the future.

I see babies born today who will grow up with no disconnect between their church’s words and actions when it comes to God’s unconditional love. I imagine what the world will become when more children see what it’s like to love and be loved without judgment for who they love.

Hope rises in me every time I conduct a same-sex wedding and pray that this home will be a haven of hospitality, blessing, and peace. The future invites inclusivity. The church isn’t about building fences but inviting people in through gates of pearl that never close to a table where there’s always enough and always a place. May that day come now!

Love. I don’t know if this is the case for all O&A church pastors, but being part of this church in such a polarized and hostile world has opened up new and endless reservoirs of love within me—not only for those who love and support me but for those who think poorly of me. It may sound ridiculous or even naïve to say this, but I’ve found it difficult to stay angry at those who treat me badly or say unkind things about me, because being pastor of this church has plugged me into a love deeper than any individual’s or group’s ability to wound or hurt.

The warmth and compassion of this church reflect a love I have only ever experienced so deeply in the love I have for my wife and son. It’s a love that gives me strength and courage, and holds me up when every other foundation begins to fall. This is a love that shimmers with the reflected light of the love of God.

I’m grateful to First Christian Church of Lynchburg not only for becoming Open & Affirming while I’ve been pastor here but for the spiritual growth I’ve experienced. I hope if you’re reading this far you will want these same spiritual blessings in your own life and in your congregation, and that you will commit to making it happen.

I wish you blessings and peace,