Rev. Eva Sullivan-Knoff: Reflections of God’s Love and Grace

Eva Sullivan-Knoff and Family

When our son came out to us, his dad and I were moved by his pain. As parents, nothing hurts more than seeing your son or daughter in pain. It hurts in a way that nothing else does, no matter the substance of the pain. The same thing is true when there is cause for celebration in your son or daughter’s lives. Nothing fills a parent’s heart more than sharing in their joy. There is truly nothing else like that. Because of the love parents have for their son or daughter, they share their sorrow and they celebrate in their joy.

In the scriptures and in the church, we are given a similar message in our relationship to one another. In Romans 12:15 we are told to, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” As the Body of Christ, we are to share each other’s heartaches and to celebrate each other’s joys, just as parents hopefully do with their children. It is one of the greatest ways we show our love for each other.

We raised our sons to know, love, and follow God, and to love the church.  We felt it was one of the most essential gifts that we could give them. So when our younger son, Benj, came out to us, it broke us to see his anguish created by the church’s struggle with him because he is gay. He loves and reflects God. He is compassionate and generous. He has so much integrity and understanding toward others. So how could the church struggle with him because he is gay? We know this is not just his story, but so many people’s stories. We have read several stories on this blog, which represent so many others that have not yet been told. They are stories that need to be told and received with love and grace. I say this not just as a parent, but also as a minister.

We must model love and grace and acceptance just as we have received each of these things from God. Jesus said for us to love as He loves us. He reaches out to us, welcomes us, accepts us, extends his grace and Himself to us. He forgives us, renews us, transforms us, and calls us His own. When we meditate on this, how can we not be moved? We are asked to love in the same way, yet in our humanity, all kinds of things get in the way, like old wounds, narrow paradigms, and our sinfulness. Our challenge is to keep coming back to God, so God can heal our wounds, expand our understandings, and transform us into the persons God desires us to be, persons who reflect God.

In the meantime, what does it mean when there is dissonance between one’s church and one’s God? One family shared with me a while back that, because of their church’s rejection after a family member came out, they left not only the church, but also God for several years. I cannot believe that this is what God intends.  As a pastor, my heart wept, and I believe God’s did too. Church is meant to be a safe place, because God is a safe place. We can take anything to God and know God hears us and loves us and is present to us. Therefore, the church needs to be reflective of the love and grace extended to us by God. It is meant to be a place where we experience hope and belonging and new life together in God.

When we don’t model the love and grace we receive from God, not only do we let God down, but we do harm to others. This can create anguish, confusion, and despair in others.  It can lead people to question if God loves them and values them. It can alienate them from the church and from faith. In some cases, it has led people to take their own life. I believe this anguishes the heart of God.

I remember hearing John Weborg speak years ago about the difference between spiritual pain and religious pain, and it has always stuck with me. He said that spiritual pain is when God feels absent and we feel forgotten, failed, or abandoned by God. Religious pain is when one feels hurt by, forgotten, failed, or abandoned by the church. The danger is when a person associates these two different kinds of pain together, and assumes that the religious pain they are experiencing is also from God.

Let me share an example. Years ago, I worked with refugees who had been tortured. One refugee shared that her church insisted she was tortured because of her sin. They blamed her and made her repent in front of the whole congregation. Because of the way her church responded, she sadly linked spiritual pain with religious pain, believing God was saying the same thing to her as her church.  When the church excludes or judges, rejects or ridicules, it can be misconstrued as if God is doing that.

Again, I ask, what does it mean when there is dissonance between one’s church and one’s God? For those of us in the church, I believe we are called to something greater, something healing and restorative. It comes in seeking God above all else. It comes in listening to each other’s hearts and stories, recognizing and embracing each other as brother and sister, and welcoming each other to the table.

There is an old Hasidic story about a rabbi and his students:

“As they walked along the road one day, he asked, “How can we know the hour of dawn – the time at which the night ends and the day begins?”

No one ventured an immediate answer, so they continued to walk. Then one of the rabbi’s disciples asked: “Is it when you can look from some distance and distinguish between a wolf and a sheep?”

“No,” said the rabbi. And they continued to walk.

“Is it when there is light enough to distinguish between a grapevine and a thorn bush?” ventured another student.

“No,” said the rabbi. There was a long silence.

“Please tell us the answer to your question,” said one. “How is it possible to know the precise time at which the dawn has broken?”

“The dawn comes for each of us,” said the wise old teacher, “when we can look into the face of another human being and – by virtue of the light that comes from within us – recognize that even a stranger is our brother or sister. Until then, it is night. Until then, the night is still with us.” 

When we close our hearts or ears to the richness of who people are and to the pain they experience, we can unnecessarily cause others religious pain and the night is still with us. Instead, let us come alongside and listen to one another and to God with open hearts.

Our words and actions communicate more than we realize.  We need to become more aware of that. They can be healing and transforming, or destructive and damaging.  Let us look honestly at ourselves before God. Let us repent where we have turned away from love towards rejection.  Let us be prayerful, seeking God’s love and presence in who we are, what we say, and what we do. May we seek to be genuine reflections of our Lord who loves, welcomes, and redeems all at the cross and the empty tomb. In doing so we become a healing presence in the life of the church, one that is safe, loving, and welcoming.

For those who are LGBT, I pray you hear the difference between religious pain and spiritual pain. Know that there are others like myself, who are flawed and broken who yet desire to share the journey with you. They are represented on this blog and beyond, so please know that you are not alone. Know too, that spiritual directors can provide a safe place for healing with religious or spiritual pain. They are available around the country. Spiritual direction is a safe place to ask questions, explore grief, and to be yourself, and what you share there is confidential. If you would like to know more, please email this website, and we can offer resources. In the meantime, I pray for God’s welcome and healing in your lives, and for God’s compassion and presence to be deeply felt.

And for the rest of us, we are all on this journey together. May we listen with open hearts, reflecting God’s love and grace, as we “rejoice with those who rejoice; and mourn with those who mourn.”

John and I express our gratitude for all who have done so with us.

Humbly,
Rev. Eva Sullivan-Knoff

  • Casey Pick

    Rev. Sullivan-Knoff, thank you. The distinction you draw, between religious abuse and spiritual judgement, is critical and so easily blurred. My friend Amy mentioned a few posts prior that I sometimes find myself defending God to my lgbt friends who have been wounded by the church. To do so, I find myself saying, yes, the church and Christians have hurt you – but what do you have against Jesus? When has he hurt you, rejected you, harmed you? What changed in your relationship to him that you can’t call yourself Christian anymore? Of course, the answer, if they are honest, is nothing. Jesus is always faithful. They are just tired of fighting the church… and too often unspoken is that they have come to believe, despite their own experience and relationship with our lord, that the church which speaks in God’s name knows something they don’t. After all, Christians know Christ, and if so many of them don’t want us, He must not either. To the weary mind, it makes a sort of sense.

    That’s the danger of religious abuse – it masquerades so well as spiritual conviction. People say, it’s not me that condemns you, it’s scripture condemning your sin. He wrote it, I believe it, that ends it – and when people walk away, we cast them as the rich, young ruler rather than the children Christ so vehemently demanded we allow passage to him. As a church, all of us have to be so careful when we wield the word of God. The sword is sharp, and we wound without even knowing it. Again, thank you for this, and all that you do.

  • Casey Pick

    Rev. Sullivan-Knoff, thank you. The distinction you draw, between religious abuse and spiritual judgement, is critical and so easily blurred. My friend Amy mentioned a few posts prior that I sometimes find myself defending God to my lgbt friends who have been wounded by the church. To do so, I find myself saying, yes, the church and Christians have hurt you – but what do you have against Jesus? When has he hurt you, rejected you, harmed you? What changed in your relationship to him that you can’t call yourself Christian anymore? Of course, the answer, if they are honest, is nothing. Jesus is always faithful. They are just tired of fighting the church… and too often unspoken is that they have come to believe, despite their own experience and relationship with our lord, that the church which speaks in God’s name knows something they don’t. After all, Christians know Christ, and if so many of them don’t want us, He must not either. To the weary mind, it makes a sort of sense.

    That’s the danger of religious abuse – it masquerades so well as spiritual conviction. People say, it’s not me that condemns you, it’s scripture condemning your sin. He wrote it, I believe it, that ends it – and when people walk away, we cast them as the rich, young ruler rather than the children Christ so vehemently demanded we allow passage to him. As a church, all of us have to be so careful when we wield the word of God. The sword is sharp, and we wound without even knowing it. Again, thank you for this, and all that you do.

  • Carol

    beautiful, eva. thanks for sharing. 

  • Eva, thanks for this, and for directing folks to useful resources.  So many GLBT people are suffering, feeling separated from God and abandoned by their churches.  It’s one of the most common stories I hear from GLBT people who were raised in religious environments.  They feel betrayed by God because they were betrayed by their churches.  Finally, as a few denominations, like the UCC, begin to freely open their doors to us, there is healing for many.