To Bear the Beams of Love
“What was it in all those churches you tried that told you it was unsafe for you there?” Church people (for lack of a better name) ask some variation on this question at lots of my readings from To Drink from the Silver Cup
. Two weeks ago, I sat in a cozy Grand Rapids living room with a small gathering of folks who were mostly affiliated with the same Christian Reformed (CRC) church, the denomination of my youth. The pastor of that congregation posed the question. Today I’m surprised to realize that I have been out of that church almost twice as long as I was in it. But that is not the point because that question and its variants are not about me. They are about the questioners and their desire to create a safe place in their churches for people like me. They are asking what they can do to make their churches trustworthy for LGBTQ people.
No one had ever asked in quite that way before—what clued me that it wasn’t safe. I gave an answer, but I focused more on the ingredients that made a church feel safe, less on what had made all those other churches feel unsafe. So I wasn’t completely satisfied with what I said, and I kept thinking about it—one of the great pluses of engaging with people through the text of my book—being offered stimulating, challenging questions and ideas.
The first thing I said was true and important. “I wasn’t ready,” I said. And that is probably the bottom line. Some of those churches probably were more or less safe, but I was still laying the necessary inner groundwork, much of it done through reading, through learning from other traditions, through meditation and living, through conversation.
When it came to the churches themselves, often the theology was too rigid. Or I wasn’t willing to live with my translations of what I was hearing. There was an Episcopal church that I lasted in for ten minutes because the liturgy that morning was full of references to Jesus’s blood. Way too much blood. That blood probably meant something different to those Episcopalians, but I was hearing the hymn, “What can make me whole again?/Nothing but the blood of Jesus.” I couldn’t swallow it, and I couldn’t reinterpret it. Not then. There was something more—the aura of high church. This girl from the reservation and the small town and the mission felt way out of place. And when I got up to walk out, heads turned. They were probably just curious, but I felt as if they were looking down their high church noses at me.
When I lived in Kalamazoo, my walks sometimes took me to the downtown square, where a large, formal looking church graced each of the four streets that faced the park—Presbyterian, Baptist, Congregational, and Methodist. I was least familiar with the Methodists, so one weekday, I slipped into First Methodist Church’s narthex. I took a pamphlet that introduced the denomination, flipped through it, and found the heading “Homosexuality.” I read it and knew I would never darken the door of a service in any Methodist church. Explicitly, theologically unsafe.
I still find it easier to turn to what makes a church feel safe. At the end of my experiment (detailed in Part III of To Drink from the Silver Cup
), I joined St. Andrew Presbyterian Church. There were three ingredients that made me want to join this group of Jesus Followers. The first was the warmth I felt there. It was palpable. It was real. It permeated the entire congregation and celebrated each individual. It wasn’t just directed toward me with the goal of having me join. The fact that I experience love extended to everyone doesn’t mean that everyone agrees with everyone else—far from it. But love overrides differences. Keep in mind that before coming to St. Andrew I had been highly skeptical of church for forty years, so I’m not just painting a rosy picture here.
I’m not sure how this warmth, this love, was fostered among this group of people, though I think it may be attributable in part to the second and third ingredients that made St. Andrew feel safe. The first of those is that we embrace doubt and doubters. I wrote in the book that without doubt, we have no need of faith. I see doubt as integral to faith, an essential part of faith. In the CRC, as in other Reformed traditions, the mind is valued, and critical thinking is encouraged in the faith arena, but in the CRC it must remain within a certain framework, and there is always an attempt to bring divergent thinking back into alignment with creeds and catechisms. Embracing doubt as a facet of faith and doubters as precious members, prophets even, makes for flexibility that fosters growth and nurtures unconditional love. There’s a passage in my book where the pastor reads from Matthew 28 about the disciples seeing Jesus after his resurrection, “They worshipped him, but some doubted.” Then he said, “Some of us stand on the mountain believing, but we don’t throw the doubters under the bus.” In order to be a safe and welcoming place, everyone needs to be embraced wherever they are in their faith journey. Not all this checking to see if someone matches up to some human-created standard (as doctrines so often are). Not all this business of “Who’s in?” and “Who’s out?” Acceptance of doubt as a gift to the individual and to the Body.
The third thing that made St. Andrew safe was the strong, grassroots emphasis on social justice. Many in the congregation actively pursue social justice, which includes a vital ministry to homeless people. Those who are not actively involved lend their quiet support, including financial. In 2014, when the Presbyterian denomination was considering whether or not to permit same-sex marriage within the church, St. Andrew was one of the churches that submitted the overture to the General Assembly. When it passed, the social justice committee held a party to celebrate, and even the only committee member who had abstained from supporting the overture came to the party. I felt personally supported and celebrated in those actions. The church has had a float in the Pride Parade for three years, and I did not instigate it or even participate in any way the first two years. It was allies who spearheaded the effort. Even if they had done nothing specifically for LGBTQ people, the practice of justice and the love of mercy, would have helped make me feel safe.
At another reading a few nights ago, a young woman spoke up about feeling marginalized in her CRC church for racial reasons. She is a trans-racial adoptee, and experiences people trying to place her, figure out where she belongs, (implication, whether she belongs) since she doesn’t look like most of the rest of the congregation. The “Who’s in?” and “Who’s out?” questions again. She talked about how churches are always trying to figure out how to be accepting or even welcoming, as if it’s something they can magnanimously bestow (those weren’t her words, but that is what she was driving at).
I said, “The churches are losing out when they keep out people who would bring diversity to the table.”
“Exactly,” she said animatedly.
And maybe that’s the most important takeaway for church people who are asking how to welcome LGBTQ people or anyone who will diversify your congregation: Stop thinking that you are the ones who have so much to offer. Start thinking about what you will receive if you open your arms. After all, what good does it do the Body of Christ if it is made up only of a bunch of feet? As one person said, “It would be pretty stinky.” Nor would the Body be able to take in nourishment, to speak. It would be paralyzed.
All of that said, the most important thing to me is intention. Sometimes those of us that represent the minority, whether in faith communities or society at large, require our would-be allies to be perfectly correct and knowledgeable before we will accept their efforts. And this keeps them from reaching out, from advocating, out of fear of doing it wrong. What’s most important is what lies in the heart of a person who is reaching out. Nevertheless, when we are in a position of privilege, we still must have the courage to be willing to make a mistake in standing for justice, even when we're afraid we might do it wrong. Maybe this
is the most important takeaway for church people: cultivate genuine warmth for one another and for the stranger in your midst. Because, in the end, As William Blake wrote, we are here to learn to bear the beams of love.
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