Evolution : Melissa Petersen

Melissa Petersen is a Christian, a speech therapist, a non-conformist, a dog lover, a kid lover, a feminist, a dancer, a quiet one, and a brave one. She lives in Seattle with her husband, her dog, her immediate family and friends. This was first published on her blog.  She says, “I write to keep myself from hiding.”

Our president has been mute about gay marriage for the past 3 years, and recently announced that he has finished his evolution and come out in favor. Finally. It’s not like we couldn’t see that one coming.

It has made me re-think my own position. Not my actual belief – that has been stable for a while (albeit, a relatively short while compared with the rest of my life). But my public position has been unstated, unclear, for some time. Hearing my commander in chief take the plunge has made my own silence more noticeable. Probably no one else has noticed, but maybe they have. And maybe even if they have not noticed, they should.

I grew up in a moderately conservative household, attending an Evangelical Free Church, with many surrounding influences much more conservative than my immediate family. In high school I was decidedly “anti-”, from both a civil/moral (“it’s bad for society, and/or unnatural”), and also a religious (“God says it’s wrong”) standpoint. It wasn’t until college that I started realizing what the real world looked like, and reevaluating my standpoint on many issues.

The first big issue I remember struggling with was women’s equality. The EFCM is “complementarian,” meaning that I’m a fully valuable person, but for reasons related to my uterus I’m unfit to do various churchy things, and am supposed to submit to all the men in my life. I vividly remember hearing a sermon in my childhood church where the pastor put three chairs on the stage–a big chair, a medium chair, and a small chair–and explained that [male] God sat in the big chair, men sat in the medium chair, and women sat in the small chair. It was an explanation of the “natural” hierarchy of authority in the world. In the sermon I was supposed to be comforted in my little chair by the fact that at least I got to sit in a chair (as opposed to sitting on the floor), and that men didn’t get the biggest chair. The pastor was apologetic as he explained that he didn’t make it up; it was what God said, and he was just letting us know. I got a small chair with a wobbly leg. The men got a nice cushy chair that was bigger than mine, and [male] God got the throne. I was not comforted at the time, and in college I had some knock-down-drag-out screaming matches with [male] God about that one.

A turning point was when I prayed to the Holy Spirit to either a) help me accept what I had been taught, if it were true, or b) show me how to rectify the truth I felt in my heart that women were NOT created as lesser creatures with the truth of the Bible. The Holy Spirit was alarmingly responsive; She immediately began to open my eyes and heart to better teaching, more historically accurate interpretations of disputed Bible passages, and theologians who based their belief in equality on the Bible which I loved. I was thrilled. I also left the church of the chairs for a Covenant church who saw me as a full person. That was nine years ago.

In between then and now I’ve had small awakenings around a variety of issues: global warming, evolution, education, organic food, capitalism, other issues of sexuality… I’ve definitely rejected many of the thinly-veiled political ideologies I was taught in Sunday school and youth group (“the truth” they called it), though none of those smaller rejections got me labeled as a heretic… yet. The Covenant church has been mainly supportive of these enlightenments, which has been wonderful.

Fast forward several years and repeat, only this time the topic is homosexuality. After watching the response of Bible-thumping Christians to the issue (appalling), and successfully separating civil rights from religious belief (a separation that enabled me to see the grave injustice in denying civil rights to LGBT individuals, and support civil unions, etc), I was still troubled. I *wanted* to accept homosexuality, but hadn’t figured out how to do it and value the Bible also without the sort of mental gymnastics that require you to accept that 2+2=5. One of the events which pushed on me was learning that a close Christian friend of mine was gay, and meeting her girlfriend. It took me a while, but I finally had the courage to ask the same question I asked back in college. “Please show me how to accept this hard teaching which I feel is wrong, or show me how it is wrong.” Once again, She gave me an answer with unsettling swiftness. I’ve now left the Covenant church for an “open and accepting” church, mostly for other reasons, but I wish the Covenant had been able to grow with me through that process. I’m happy where I am, but I miss my church.

For at least two years I have been saying “I don’t know” when people asked me what I thought about the morality of homosexuality. I explained that I used to think it was wrong, but didn’t know what to think anymore. It was a true answer at the time, but holding on to that answer now would be cowardly.

So I related to President Obama when he made his announcement earlier this month. He’s been thinking about it for a long time, and come hell or high water, the right thing to say is still the right thing to say. I applaud his courage, and am working on mustering my own.

I am pro-LGBT. I believe all loving couples should be able to marry. I am anti-LGBT discrimination. I do not believe this is an issue of immorality, or inconsistent with my Christian faith.

I’ve come out.

Putting a Stake In The Ground

Tim Johnson is a Covenant “preacher’s kid” and rare books librarian at the University of Minnesota. He has an undergraduate degree in history from North Park College and graduate degrees in Library Science and Theological Studies. For eleven years Tim was the archivist for the Covenant Church and  North Park University. He is married, has three children, and a twenty-month-old granddaughter. 

“Regardless of what moral or theological positions churches hold regarding gay and lesbian sexual behavior, all Christians can and should unite around a commitment to defend people’s basic rights. But the church cannot in good conscience take a passive approach to this question. It is, after all, other Christians who often have taken the lead in this thinly disguised but mean-spirited assault on human dignity. Biblically based Christians who operate out of a more loving and compassionate framework must meet the challenge head-on and forcefully oppose homophobia.” — Jim Rice, Sojourners

What is amazing to me is that the above lines were penned eighteen years ago—and we’re still debating the issues. With this in mind, two seemingly unrelated events from last weekend continued nagging my spirit. The first occurred Friday evening, a retirement party for a colleague with whom I’ve worked closely. It was a delightful occasion held in the air-conditioned pavilion of a downtown park, complete with excellently catered food and drink, sweet cake, and a short program of recognition, including gifts from his friends and a letter from the President of the United States. The second event transpired during the Sunday morning worship service at my church. We were asked to think a bit about why we are a church, why we gather on Sunday. As part of that reflection the congregation was invited to read together the church’s “purpose statement” from its constitution: “We covenant to cultivate a community of worship committed to prayer, preaching and study of the word of God, the celebration of the sacraments, and fellowship across gender, race, age, culture, and class. In so doing we covenant to equip loving, giving, growing Christians to reach out with the good news of Jesus Christ, evangelizing the lost, ministering to those in need, and seeking justice for the oppressed.”

It was the clause “…fellowship across gender, race, age, culture, and class” that grabbed my attention and troubled my soul. It troubled me because Friday night’s party was for a gay friend, on the eve of the Twin Cities Pride festival, I was one of the few “straight” people in the room, and at a guess most of the rest of the guests would have little or nothing good to say about the Church. And it troubled me because I really wonder whether we as a church believe what we say, that we can truly fellowship across gender, race, age, culture, and class. I have a hard time imagining many of my fellow parishioners at Friday night’s party. Impediments in the relationship exist on both sides. If my friend is any indication of the LGBT community’s general view of organized religion then we have a long way to go. There is a suspicion in the community, born of experience, that seems very difficult to overcome.

So I can’t really fathom the “big picture” here. I need to think in terms of small steps, of individual and discrete actions, that put me in “a more loving and compassionate framework.” That, in part, was why I was at the party last Friday night. I was there as a friend, to celebrate a generous and committed colleague. He and I do not agree on many things; we’ve had far-ranging discussions on any number of topics. But when things really mattered, when we got down to brass tacks, it was easy to stand shoulder to shoulder with him. It was easy to stand with him when we were targeted at work through hateful letters, posters, and email by a Christian(?) pastor and his congregation from the Midwest. And it was easy to visit him in the hospital when diabetes and a faulty heart threatened to take him from us. That’s what friends do for friends. I don’t know that he’ll ever darken the church door. It’s not an immediate concern of mine. But his friendship is my concern, something that I can tend to. The rest I offer in prayer, to the tender mercies and grace of God.

It is because of that friendship—along with the relationships I have with many other LGBT colleagues (one of them a fellow“PK”)—and what I trust is a prayerful, careful, biblically contemplative approach to life that I need to now put a stake in the ground; I need to publicly state my opposition to the marriage amendment that will appear on the 2012 ballot in Minnesota. It is, for me, no longer a religious question. It is a question of civil rights, of political process, of friendship, of blessing.

The Preamble to the state constitution reads: “We, the people of the state of Minnesota, grateful to God for our civil and religious liberty, and desiring to perpetuate its blessings and secure the same to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution.” Our political ancestors understood the distinction between civil and religious liberties; they were interested in protecting both. They saw this in terms of blessings, not curses. We should continue to be about the business of blessing, of securing rights, not taking them away.