Before I tell you about the transformation of serving an Open & Affirming congregation, I must tell you about the hostility I encountered in my own life. I am now a pastor in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), ordained three years ago following almost three years serving a congregation within the same tradition. Although that’s my story now, it’s not most of my story.
Most of my life was spent on the fundamentalist side of the Stone-Campbell tradition. That tradition wrote the Word of God on my heart. That tradition taught me to serve the poor and to love justice. That tradition showed me how transformative living in the body of Christ can be.
That tradition also placed strict parameters on what it meant to be part of the body of Christ. When I could ignore God’s voice no longer, and answered God’s call to ministry, I found myself squarely outside those parameters.
So I left. The only problem is that, even now, I’ve spent two-thirds of my life on the fundamentalist side. I still love and am in relationship with people who believe answering and living my call to ministry is sinful.
Oh. I forgot to mention: it’s sinful because I’m a woman.
I was a bridesmaid in a wedding, staying at the home of the bride’s parents as we prepared for the wedding. One night, she confessed she had told her parents I was attending seminary. She was happy they weren’t going to kick me out of their home, but it explained their iciness.
My home pastor refused to write a letter of recommendation for me to attend seminary, even when I was planning to enter a doctoral program afterward. Just attending, he said, was too divisive for the body of Christ.
When I was ordained, my immediate family insisted I not offer invitations to the folks from my childhood—the church ladies and Sunday school teachers, elders, aunts, uncles and cousins; we couldn’t invite people to participate in sin.
I rarely mention my profession when I travel to the places where I grew up. My Facebook profile is carefully regulated so that only a handful of people from those places see my job—“pastor.” On one hand, what could they do if they found out? On the other hand, it’s not worth the fallout of messages and emails and small town gossip.
There are many more stories. Yet, in the midst of the tradition that formed me crying, “Sinner!,” there were people who were bearers of unimaginable grace. My college Bible professor who said yes to a letter of recommendation when I had no pastor. The academic dean who sought me out to offer me whatever I needed to enter graduate school. The Disciples congregation who offered me their children to teach and worship with and love.
In those bearers of unimaginable grace, I learned God’s yes.
After weathering all the people who insisted God was saying no, I entered ministry with the conviction that I would never say no in the name of God, again. Of course, that meant saying yes to the LGBTQ community, for they had every bit as much say in who they are as I had in being a woman.
Now I serve a congregation with the same convictions. I serve a congregation longing to offer God’s abundant hospitality to everyone.
With the privilege of serving this Open & Affirming congregation, I get to offer God’s yes on their behalf. I get to see the wave of surprise and relief overtake the faces of people who have been shut out of the church.
This conversation comes up time after time:
Visitor: I’d like to know more about the church.
Me: What would you like to know exactly? That’s a big question.
Visitor: Well, I’m gay.
Me: We’re fine with that. What else do you want to know?
The other questions take a few minutes to formulate. The other questions aren’t ready on these folks’ tongues. The other questions aren’t ones they’re used to asking. The other questions lead us down paths of doctrine and church history and stories of faith and disbelief. Those other questions paint a picture of the whole person, not someone reduced to their gender or sexuality.
It’s a beautiful, holy thing, saying yes on behalf of God, welcoming people so used to being marginalized. It’s the yes that Jesus offered to the woman at the well. It’s the yes that Jesus commanded when he said welcoming a stranger is the same as welcoming him. It’s the yes that causes such holy surprise that it must be the work of the Spirit. It’s the yes that brings with it the abundant life that Jesus promised.
Thanks be to God for this unbelievable abundance!