These remarks on the importance of becoming an Open & Affirming congregation were offered by Rev. Mark Johnston, Ph.D., at the GLAD Open & Affirming Aftersession at the Columbus General Assembly.
Do we really believe that scripture?
I believe this verse would serve us well to consider in its literal simplicity: God is love.
I love how this verse opens up my ability to see God in the flesh, in the here and now.
See the love around you and there it is: there is God, in the flesh.
A father buying his daughter an ice cream cone – there! An elderly couple holding hands – there it is again! A woman playing with her dog in a field – Again! God being love. A day care worker leading a crowd of children to the playground – there too! A group of friends enjoying an evening around a table of food and drink. There! There God is again! God being love, in the flesh.
And even better, whenever I myself experience a loving act, I know that God is there loving me.
When my partner comes home after a day at work and I get a hug and a kiss hello, God is there, loving me in the flesh. When my best friend and I hang out together and we get to talk about what’s been going on in our lives, there God is, loving me, loving us, in the flesh.
As a gay man I especially treasure these moments. For many years I was taught that my love is sick, sinful, disgusting, and abomination. I’m guessing the same is true for many of you. I treasure loving moments all the more because it took a lot of work to shake off those teachings, well, for the most part, I have shaken those teachings out of my head, and I have come to believe that my loving acts, yes – my loving acts – fully participate in the love that is God.
What a marvel that is! First John doesn’t add any restrictions or caveats: God is love. Not: God is mixed gender love; Not: God is white people love; Not: God is cis-gendered love; Not: God is highly educated love. Simply and fully: God is love.
We are all invited to shake of those teachings we learned from society: God loves dark skin less? No! God loves accented English less? No! God loves women less? No! God loves trans and bi and lesbian and gay less? No!
It can be difficult to remember that God loves me without qualification. As a gay man, even after more than 30 years of being out, even after finding many safe and affirming places in my life, there is always – always! – the awareness that not everyone around me knows that I’m gay, the awareness that I am balancing participating in my own oppression in the closet balanced with trying to remain safe and secure balanced with simply being. This is a balancing act I’m too well practiced at.
The need to struggle with that balance is deep in the bones, buried deep in the flesh of any queer person who grew up taught that same gender loving flesh and transgender flesh is an abomination. Perhaps you can relate as a woman or person of color or person with an accent.
For me, I’m guessing for many of you, that struggle has been so deeply embedded for so long that I rarely notice it anymore. Though we’d rather not think about it, it remains a costly struggle. And, if we ignore that cost the price can be dear in terms of self oppression, internalized homophobia and their companions depression, addiction, dysfunctional relationship, and other unhealthy destructive behaviors.
For many of us, we have reduced the struggle with oppression by finding safe places. We have reduced that struggle by finding healthy loving committed relationships. Many LGBT people have reduced the impact of our oppression with 20 or 30 years of being out, by claiming God’s love, by living openly and courageously. We have reduced our oppression and struggle, but we still struggle. As much as we want to forget, as much as we want to ignore it, we still live with our oppression.
And it serves me well to remember how precious is this knowledge: that God is love, that my love participates in God’s love, that God loves me in the flesh, that my flesh participates in the love that is God.
Too often, I have seen what happens to people who don’t know that God is love.
When I worked as a psychologist, I worked with too many young adults who spent their adolescence bullied daily. I worked with too many young people who were kicked out of their Christian homes because their parents’ church taught that this was the loving thing to do to LGBT teenagers.
I have read too many statistics about the number of homeless lgbt youth on the streets of our major cities, not because they want to be there, but because the emotional and physical abuse of their home life was worse than living on the streets of cities like New York.
Can you imagine? Worse than living on the streets of New York City – in the winter? homeless? hungry?
These young people didn’t start out as homeless youth on our streets. They were, they are, typical everyday kids, usually from the suburbs, usually with no idea of what life is like on the streets of a big city – would you survive a day living homeless on the streets of New York City in the winter?
They are kids who ended up on the streets because of what the church, our churches, have taught about sexuality and gender identity.
Most parental rejection of LGBT youth is based on religious belief, and that must stop.
But, you might be tempted to say, we’re making progress. Look – Will and Grace! Look – marriage equality! Look – Glee!
You think it’s getting better?
Here is a quote from that article, from the founder of the nation’s largest organization dedicated to homeless LGBT youth: “The summer that marriage equality passed in New York, we saw the number of homeless kids looking for shelter go up 40 percent.” Wow. Up by forty percent? What happened? The article goes on to explain that these kids, hoping that it’s getting better, seeing marriage equality come to our states, watching TV and YouTube videos, these youth are finding the courage to come out younger – and when youth come out younger, they get kicked out of their religious homes younger.
This is why, my friends, it is so important that we love in the flesh, that we embody God in the flesh to our neighbors and their children. This is why it’s so important that our Open & Affirming churches name that affirmation and love out loud and visibly, in the flesh, so that everyone grows up believing that God does love them, so that every parent knows that every child is loved by God.
This is why, for me, the open in Open & Affirming is so important. We don’t proclaim our churches Open & Affirming for ourselves – we do it for our neighbors. We do it so that our neighbors know that there are churches that affirm LGBTQ people. We do it so that our neighbor’s children know there is a love that may not be present in their parents’ church, that there is a loving church different from the ones they see in the news on TV.
This is why it is so important that we continue the work to bring all our Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) congregations to a welcoming place, to proclaiming openly their affirming welcome of all people regardless of gender expression and sexual orientation as well as race, ethnicity, gender, class and, well, all people.
Let us build a church where no person grows up lacking the knowledge that God loves them, her him and trans, queer bi gay and straight, that God loves all, in the flesh.
Let us build a church where no person grows up encouraged to hide in a closet and participate in their own oppression.
Let us build a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and let us build Christian Churches across the US and Canada where all know that all are welcome.
It’s time to be God in the flesh for all our neighbors, openly, clearly, out loud. Amen.