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.”