Ralph Sturdy: “My Journey Through the Maze of Human Sexuality”

Rev. Ralph Sturdy

Earlier this year I wrote a letter to the Covenant Companion exhorting my beloved denomination to have open hearts and open arms to our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. I wept when I read the “first person” letters of response in the September, 2010 issue of the Companion. The pain reflected in them haunts me.  I keep thinking of words written about Jesus that applies to those families:  “He came to his own and his own did not receive him.”

I am not new to the question of welcoming lesbian and gays into the fellowship of the Church.  I am a retired Covenant Pastor. My father was a Covenant Pastor. His father was a Covenant layperson; his father came from Sweden and was a founding member of a Covenant Church. Because I am a “work in progress” I thought it might be helpful to the Covenant family if I shared my own journey through the maze of human sexuality.  I’m sure it is not the same for everyone. Each of our journeys is different, yet I suspect there are threads in the journey that bind us together.

Following my freshman year in high school (1953), I moved to Japan to be with my family. My father was a Covenant Pastor and an Air Force Chaplain. That summer turned out to be influential in shaping my life. For the first time I met a man I knew was homosexual.    He was  a Chaplain’s assistant, as well as the Chapel’s organist and choir director. One day I said to my dad, “I sure understand why a guy would want to lie with a woman, but I cannot understand why a man would want to lie with a man.” Dad’s response was simply, “Me either.”  To his credit, Dad treated Joe as he would any other assistant: fairly and equally. Dad was grateful for Joe’s exceptional gifts. Initially, I was put off by his sexual orientation.  I thought homosexuality was a choice and a sin.  Remember, the year was 1953 and I was 15.  The Bible had nothing to do with my repugnance; it was a lifestyle I neither understood nor embraced. However, what Joe told me lingered. Born in the south, Joe was raised in the most predominant denomination of his area. Joe told me that he heard “hell-fire and brimstone” preaching against “his kind of person”regularly. Seeking solace, this bright, gifted person sought and finally found acceptance in another Christian Church. I haven’t seen Joe since that summer but I am grateful for a small planting, about the size of the mustard seed, that was sown that summer. Sadly, it took a long time to mature.

In 1956 I followed the family tradition and headed to North Park College.  During my four years there I encountered several fellow students who were gay. I was always nice to them in face-to-face encounters but, like most of the boys of my generation, I didn’t make close friends with them. I told jokes about homosexuals when they were not in the room. “They’re different, you know!” was a common refrain.  Once again, the Bible didn’t play a part in my distaste for this expression of sexuality. Rather, it was a behavior as foreign to me as speaking a language I had never known. I didn’t like the idea or the practice.

I graduated from North Park Seminary in 1965 and moved to my first pastorate where I encountered no openly gay women or men. I was grateful for that – I had enough problems to deal with as a young pastor.  This continued for the next ten years. When I returned to Nebraska in 1975, I had to face the challenge before me!  On more than one occasion, deeply committed Christian men came to my office and repeated essentially the same story: “Pastor, I have known for as long as I can remember that I was different. I didn’t know what it was called. I came to know it as homosexuality. I prayed and prayed for God to make me a heterosexual like the other boys. I even went to places that promised me I could change if I followed their outlined course. I did as they instructed, but nothing changed.” Many of the women who came to my wife or me confided that they, like the men, had “been born that way”.

I have come to have compassion for the homosexual. If a man or woman is born with a gay or lesbian orientation, it is not a sin for them to want to express their sexuality within a committed relationship.  Within marriage I have been free and blessed to love, care for, live with and be sexual with my wife. This blessing I also have from my church. The same blessing is withheld by my church for my homosexual sisters and brothers. They are given one alternative.  “It is not sinful to be a homosexual. It is sinful only if you find someone you love and express that love, sexually,” is the response.  This closes the door to a blessing of that relationship.   This troubles me and I want the church to take a positive, redeeming stand and be the place where these matters are worked out. And, I want those whose orientation is homosexual to be welcomed into the church … yes, the Covenant Church!

Oh yes questions arise … and I am pondering:  “Do we not believe that every person is a child of God?”  “If one is born with a homosexual orientation, as part of their DNA, did God make a mistake?”  Or if a person is created with a particular orientation, does that make him/her a sinner simply because she/he has a different orientation?”  What are we to do with the children whom we baptize?  In the baptismal service the congregation pledges to do their part “by word and deed, with love and prayer, to guide and nurture this child, encouraging him/her to know and follow Christ and care for him/her as Christ’s own?” How do we, as The Body of Christ, respond to this individual and his/her parents, who said “yes” to God and Church, when that child “comes out”?”  “Sorry, there is an exception clause here.”  “I meant what I said except for ‘gays and lesbians.’” And what do we say to the gay Christian person who was baptized as a believer and welcomed into the church?  Are we going take the now outmoded military stance and say, “Don’t ask, don’t tell”?

The implication here, it seems to me is:  “You were acceptable as long as we didn’t know you were gay.  But when we know ……then you are not”!   Or worse yet, do we say, as one Covenant pastor I know said:  “We want to assist gay and lesbian people to understand that they are not welcome in the Covenant!”  More recently I heard a more chilling response from one of our Covenant members.  Raised in the church and a N.P.U graduate he says, “I remained very active in the church until I was told by the pastor himself that it would be better if I was not a part of the congregation because by being there I was “letting Satan get his foot in the door of the church”. When I ponder all these questions my conclusion is that being gay or lesbian is not a sin!

I take the Bible very seriously.  However, we tend to “pick and choose” which parts of the Bible we are going to give special emphasis.  Let me illustrate.  People used to think that illness was God’s punishment for the sins of the person or the person’s parents; now, we understand germ theory. We used to blame mental illness on demons; now, we understand about neurotransmitters and other biological chemicals that cause mental illness.  There was a time when the Bible’s was used to support slavery. In South Africa, Apartheid, the practice of the virtual slavery of Africans, was given Biblical and theological support for many years by the Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa.  No longer do most Christians, anywhere in the world, believe that illness is God’s punishment; mental illness is God’s wrath or that slavery is Biblically justifiable.  We have moved beyond that.  We understand that there are greater principals suggested in the whole message of the Bible that preclude embracing an accepted practice within first century culture.  Perhaps now is a time for us to take a different path, in light of our understanding of homosexuality.

Nancy Carlson asks the seminal question in response to my letter in the Companion:  ”Did Jesus turn anyone away?”  I am sure of the answer.  It’s “no”.  And how sad that a Covenant Pastor, or any Covenanter (sic. To the Companion or this blog) should have to request anonymity for their family member or for themselves!  Any and all are sons and daughters of God and of God’s love!

I was born with a heterosexual orientation.  I am also quite judgmental.  God has had to work hard to bring me to compassionate places in my life. I have been given the freedom to be accepting of people with homosexual orientations.  I have come to believe that I do not have to understand all things or people in order to accept them.  At this time in my life, when I am closing in on meeting my Savior face to face, more and more I am convinced that I am to be no one’s judge.  Simply, in Jesus’ name, I am called to love all of God’s creation and welcome “anyone” and “everyone” home.

I wonder why the subject of human sexuality burns with such intensity in the culture of the church?  I wonder why such vitriolic sentences and stances come from the evangelical community?  I have a suspicion that it is born of fear. We fear the unknown. I know that I do. But my fear of gay and lesbian people ceased when I became acquainted with them on a personal basis. When I got to know them they became persons to me.  I discovered that we are much more alike than different.  And that while our sexual orientation may differ that we are in every other way “sinners, saved by grace”.  Fear is a terrible thing. Looking back I realize that I lived most of my life “scared.”  As a person and a pastor I was afraid to take a stand on controversial issues – but a wonderful thing has happened for me.  I am no longer afraid. God’s promise within is clear, “I will be with you.”

My dad used to quote a little poem.  This is my best recollection of it:  “Fear made a circle that shut you out.  Love made a circle that drew you in.”  My desire is to draw an all-encompassing circle of inclusion for everyone!

I believe God is calling us to a new day. The important question is, “How will I/you,  heterosexual Christians, relate to the gay person?” I say, “For the love of Jesus, let’s welcome everyone into the fellowship of Christ’s church.”

  • Deborah Gambs

    What a brilliant, thoughtful, from the heart perspective. Thank you.

  • Your dad’s poem may have been referencing Outwitted by Edwin Markham. It goes:

    He drew a circle that shut me out—
    Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
    But Love and I had the wit to win:
    We drew a circle that took him in!

    Lovely post, thanks for sharing.

  • Eva

    Thanks Ralph for your thoughtful words and compassionate heart. May love draw all in.

  • Susie Wistrom Nelson

    Amen..Amen..so well written, thank you for sharing. May your words fall on open hearts.

  • Nancy Carlson

    Thank you, Rev. Sturdy, for your story. I say”Amen” to everything you have said! I was prompted to respond to your article in the Covenant Companion and to tell my story, which may not have happened without you first writing in to begin the conversation. Your story speaks to everyone of God’s unconditional love, grace and understanding. Nancy Carlson

  • Jennifer Sturdy Andersson

    I am so grateful that you continue to pursue and find places to share this part of your story, dad, and share your heart and passion around it. I am also grateful to have parents who have always encouraged wrestling with God on issues like this and have modeled that process so well. Thank you for your heart, passion, and voice.

  • Jill Kuhel

    You go Ralph~well said! I have never not known gay and lesbians and it never occured to me to look at them any differantly so it is hard for me to understand the negative view of the church. I have seen how the church has hurt my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters and that in my mind the real sin. I’ve left the Covenant and now belong to the United Church of Christ who openly welcome everyone as Jesus did. Sing with me~ They will know we are christians by our love! Keep up the good fight Ralph!

  • Thank you. I am blessed to have had Jennifer as a HUGE part of my North Park years, and her continued friendship on Facebook (which is how I received the link for this wisdom). Thank you for your honesty and clarity. As one who grew up in the Covenant church and went to North Park, I spent many years hating myself, and believing that I would go to hell because of who I am. Then one day, about 14 years ago, a passage became very clear to me. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and your neighbour as yourself.” It was the last part that struck me. How could I ever really love another person (my neighbour) if I hated myself? I realized that I needed to love the person God had created me to be. I felt at peace for the first time in my life, and God has allowed me to share my story with others, in the hopes that I can help to foster a more tolerant and loving world. You are a blessing to us all. Thank you.

  • Hello, Rev. Sturdy. I remember meeting you in NJ on one of our choir tours, circa 1987. Thank you for your post here and for the thoughtfulness and courage that you put in to it. You state eloquently what lies behind much of the “religiously” based prejudices: we tend to use the Bible to sanctify our own fears and prejudices, rather than letting the Spirit shape us in love. It is amazing to have the support (for lack of a better word – it is really much more than support) of people like yourself in the Covenant Church.

  • Ralph, thank you so much for this post and for your perspective. I love the process that you went through to reach where you are. God bless you for being a welcoming voice in the Covenant.

  • John Marshall

    What more is a spiritual journey than an honest acceptance of Truth as it is revealed. I love your story, Ralph and I hope it finds the hearts it was intended to find. It certainly found mine. Big love from Maine!

  • n/a

    “Within marriage I have been free and blessed to love, care for, live with and be sexual with my wife. This blessing I also have from my church. The same blessing is withheld by my church for my homosexual sisters and brothers. They are given one alternative. “It is not sinful to be a homosexual. It is sinful only if you find someone you love and express that love, sexually,” is the response. This closes the door to a blessing of that relationship.”

    The only issue I have with this post is that this post seems to say that sex outside of the marriage relationship is ok if it is a long-term, committed relationship based on love. So, does this mean that a sexual relationship between two heterosexuals in a long-term committed relationship acceptable as well, if they truly are in love? It doesn’t seem like the church would say so, so why is it ok for a homosexual couple.

    I am completely open to homosexual equality in the church and in society, and I often am a very passionate advocate for my homosexual friends, but I find tension in my heart saying that it is ok for a same-sex relationship is ok to be sexual so long as they are committed. I have no hesitations at all for acceptance in the church, but throughout all of these blog posts and all of the discussions at north park this is the issue that seems to either keep being avoided, or it is said of it, “thats not the issue at hand, acceptance is”.

    Thoughts?

    • Heidi

      My thoughts on your question are this… I have many gay and lesbian friends and couples. They would love to be able to be married. In most places in our society their marriages cannot be recognized, therefore being sexual within their committed relationships yet outside ‘marriage’ as hetrosexuals like us experience it, is a decision of the majority, not necessarily a decision of the committed gay or lesbian couple. What ‘choice’ is there, when marriages are not accepted or recognized for gay and lesbian couples.

    • n/a, I think it is important to remember that what constitutes “married” in our society is not by any means what has constituted “married” throughout history. In fact, in many times and places, up until the past couple of hundred years or so, it was most common that a couple who made a public commitment of faithfulness to each other were married in the eyes of the law and the church. The church didn’t really even engage in the issue of “performing marriages” or authorizing them other than for the landed aristocracy and royalty until the Council of Trent.

      Even today, marriage is not considered a sacrament which is “performed” by a priest or minister, but rather, one in which the couple perform the sacrament for and with each other and the minister or priest merely watches over them to give counsel and ask God’s blessing upon their union. The actual “marriage” is accomplished when the couple, themselves, make their vows to one another.

      Therefore, it can well be said that a gay couple who commit to share their lives in fidelity and monogamy within the bounds of a covenantal relationship are every bit as married in the eyes of God as any heterosexual couple who have recited their vows before a priest, minister or judge. I know that my wife and I just celebrated our 20th anniversary. We were only married in the eyes of the state about 3 years ago, but considered ourselves no less married during the preceding 17 years since we first committed to one another.

  • Thank you for this. You said so many things that I’ve always thought myself. I could never reconcile some of the things I was taught in church with what seemed right in my head and my heart. It’s heartbreaking to see some of my dear friends excluded from the church because of their sexual orientation.

  • Stacia

    Ralph, I took an interest in your article and of course wanted to read it. I still have a difficult time seeing where the Bible says it is okay to engage in homosexual acts. I really believe the Bible when it defines sexual sins and believe that Jesus desires us to follow Biblical teachings about sexual acts. Love all people, welcome all people, of course, just as Jesus did. I am young, open minded, and have absolutely no fear of people who are “different” than I am. I welcome them to worship next to me. I am also not their judge. I just think our church should stay with the teachings of the Bible and not be open to omiting parts of it.

    • Stacia, what your post misses is the fact that the Bible does not actually condemn committed, monogamous relationships between two people of the same gender. There are only a handful of verses in the Bible which say anything at all about same-sex acts, and all of them relate to issues such as adulterous behavior between a married man and another man, or to sexual orgies in a pagan temple right, to relations with a homosexual prostitute, or to other related forms of idolatrous or unfaithful behavior. The Bible actually doesn’t say a single word about committed, faithful, monogamous same-sex relationships.

      And Jesus doesn’t mention same-sex relationships at all in any of the four Gospels. If this was such a huge issue to God, don’t you think Jesus would have at least mentioned it? And made sure it got written down in the Gospels?

      So those who would admit gay and lesbian believers as full and equal members of the church and recognize our covenantal relationships as equal to those of heterosexual couples are not “omiting parts” of Biblical teaching. They are, instead, acknowledging that errors have been made in the treatment of same-sex couples due to misunderstandings of what actually constitutes “correct Biblical teaching.”

      • Jeff

        Jesus never addressed MANY sins specifically, but the principles are what need to guide us, not looking in the Bible for a specific thumbs up or thumbs down for behavior.

        • Jeff, since the Bible, itself, never calls committed monogamous relationships between same-sex couples a “sin,” there is no grounds for assuming them to be sinful. The only forms of same-sex behavior defined as “sinful” in the Bible are adultery, sexual orgies in service of pagan gods, prostitution, and exploitation. And I think we can all agree that those behaviors are defined as equally sinful for heterosexuals.

        • Mela

          Jeff, I agree entirely. And since Jesus was quite clear in Mark 12:28-34 and Matthew 22:34-40 about the greatest of the commandments, I would encourage us all to ask ourselves, “How would it look, right now in this situation, if w loved God with our entire heart, soul, mind, and strength AND loved these neighbors as we love ourselves?”

          I would say that, in order to love my neighbor as myself, I would not “tolerate” them. I would completely accept and love who they are and who they desire to be, and celebrate with them for being faithful to God and kind and loving to others. And I would welcome their committed and faithful relationship with each other, whether opposite sex or same sex.

          And you see, that is where we start to disagree. For some of us hold to the principles of love, and accepting everything that is grounded in love and faithfulness. And some of us believe that judgment is more important, and that holding a mirror up to someone else to show them where we personally believe that they have strayed is more important.

          Judgment is not the same as discernment. All emotionally laden ideas or judgments in the present come from preconceived ideas in the past. Through judgment, a person reveals what he is still ignorant of, what he is afraid of. The practice of discernment is part of higher consciousness. Discernment is the opposite of judgment. Discernment is the discrimination of difference according to the integrity felt within a whole. Whereas judgments tend to separate, discernments tend to unify. They do so because they respond to and ultimately support the reality, purposefulness, development and interrelationship of all things and/or expressions of all things found within Creation.

          I prefer to take myself out of the seat of judgment, and leave that up to the Father to exercise.

  • Charlotte Johnson

    Your letter in the Companion gave me the same feeling as seeing a crocus pushing up from the ground after a particularly frigid and snowy winter.

  • Anonymous

    Dear Ralph,

    Thank you for your post. I know that this is a story that you have been trying to get published for literally years with no success.

    Ralph, I want you to know that “Coming Out Covenant’s” very existence is in large measure due to your influence on me! Over the years you have challenged me and stretched my heart and mind. When I disagreed with you – you didn’t take it personally but kept speaking up. Our friend Denny and others did the same. Then when Andrew “came out” – God spoke to me and said that unless fellow clergy who are straight, stand up, and speak out there will never be any progress on this issue. Without you, Denny and Andrew and others I would never have had the motivation or courage to push the button to launch this site.

    However, you and I are not the brave ones in this matter. We are just the “old guys” with not so much to loose. A friend wrote recently, “I am troubled that it seems only retired clergy are speaking out on this issue.” It is easy to understand why and I have no criticism of Covenant Clergy who are shy or fearful to put their name out there in support, for I too know what it is like to live in fear and to be concerned about one’s family and livelihood.

    Therefore the people whom I am in awe of are the Andrews and the others who have and who will tell their stories on this site. God bless them for risking it! I can see how good it is for them and it makes me happy!

    And the folks that I admire most are the clergy who are in the middle of their careers who risk the consequences of speaking up and speaking out on this issue when they themselves are heterosexual and have nothing to gain personally but everything to lose career wise. Sisters and Brothers you are the true prophets. Remember Jesus said, ” Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, For yours is the kingdom of heaven.” That is a blessing that few want and all of us shy away from. However, Jesus did not shy away from that blessing, instead he went to the cross, an innocent on behalf of others.

    Therefore, thank you Ralph but “KUDOS” to the Eva’s and the Darlenes and to other clergy who have had the courage to comment or post and to in some way put their name out there as a friend of “Coming out Covenant.” God Bless you all on this Good Friday 2011. Keep watching, keep reading, keep sharing “Coming Out Covenant.”

    With much love, Brother,
    Philip K. Brockett

  • Mela

    [Stacia:] I just think our church should stay with the teachings of the Bible and not be open to omiting parts of it.[/end quote]

    Stacia, I mean this in a gentle, reflective way. Read that sentence that you wrote out loud to yourself a few times. Then read 1 Corinthians 11: 5-6.

    What do you think about that? Have you prayed without your head covered before? If so, did you shave off all of your hair afterwards?

    No, of course not.

    I do not mean to imply that covering your head in prayer is of the same gravitas as sexual fidelity. However, I do want to (gently) point out that your comment about omitting parts of the Bible is not as true as you would like to believe.

    The ECC allows women to speak out in church. We do not stone those in our congregation who have gotten divorced. Like it or not, we already omit parts of the Bible or determine that they are no longer relevant or determine that interpret them for action as best as we know how based on our understanding of the Gospels or the original languages in which is was written and so on. The reality is very different from the black and white choice represented by your sentence.

    Yet, that is neither here nor there when it comes to considering the place of two committed, faithful people of the same sex who are true to one another and to God. The Bible admonishes us from committing adultery, from prostitution, from disrespecting others and ourselves through engagement in sexual behavior outside of pledged commitments of faithfulness. Upon studying the passages that have become to be interpreted as condemning same-sex relationships, I would recommend going back to the text–WAY back–because you will find that it is far from clear.

    http://www.webcitation.org/query?url=http://www.geocities.com/pharsea/Leviticus.html&date=2009-10-26+00:31:43

  • Ralph and Phillip,

    Thank you for your honesty and compassion. Although I am no longer a Covenant pastor (now a Lutheran, but working in an Episcopal congregation, since Lutherans and Episcopalians are in fellowship), I remember the stresses on pastors who took stands for the sake of the Kingdom of God that the denomination and other pastors rejected. Now, when I look with sad fondness at the Covenant Church, which I still love, I am grateful that you guys are there and how you exemplify the very best things that I always loved about the Covenant.

    I am currently a part of a congregation in which the rector, Jeff, is a gay, married man. Since he has come (a year and a half ago), the worshipping congregation has increased by over 30 %. We have become more ethnically diverse, culturally-diverse, and of mixed class. Jeff’s sermons are simple, powerful, and moving. His example as a man, father, and spiritual leader is attracting more and more people, most of whom are seekers, or who had walked out of church years ago because of the church’s hypocrisy. His Biblical theology, sermons, and practice inspire us all.

    May God continue to bless you, Ralph and Phil, with the joy of Christ’s Presence.

    ps. the post is from Gordon Schultz, even though it says Jack (my middle name), below.