It was January of 2017. I was on a Spiritual Formation retreat with my seminary class and we were learning all about the Enneagram. During one of the sessions, something was shared (I don’t even remember what) but it opened the floodgates for me. I began to cry and cry hard. One of the TAs on our retreat, Jeremy, came over to me. He sat down on the floor by me and said “What do you need right now? A hug? A snack? Someone to just sit with you?” I said, “Yes, all of that.” He gave me a hug and had someone bring over a Rice Krispie Treat and then sat next to me for what felt like such a long time. Throughout the rest of that day and the retreat, Jeremy continued to check in on me and ask what I needed. I felt deeply cared for and remember thinking “Wow, Jeremy is an incredible pastor. He has for sure found his calling.”
Here’s the thing. Jeremy is gay. Back then, this created complexity for me. I had grown up and spent lots of time in Christian circles that believed being gay was a sin and people who were gay could not serve the Church becuase they were living in sin. I remember thinking that I did not want to exclude or be unaffirming, but I didn’t think I was allowed to include or affirm. I had never heard, or perhaps a more honest way to say it would be that I had never taken the time to explore and learn a different and better way. But Jeremy – although not at all his job – pushed me to do my own work. I came home from that retreat very unsettled. How could I look Jeremy in the eyes – the eyes that saw me in my time of need and pain – and say that he had no business being a pastor when the reality was, he was (and remains) one of the most deeply pastoral human beings I know.
Later on in my seminary career I took a class on human sexuality. It was primarily focused on homosexuality and looking at various scholars and their interpretation of scripture. We heard from folks with a non-affirming viewpoint as well as those who are affirming. I read books and articles and engaged in classroom conversation. I was working so hard to try and find the right answer that could be properly backed up and supported by scripture and could be pleasing and acceptable to all people. Side note: this is not an easy task. In fact, at this point I don’t think it’s possible. I have discovered that wherever you land, people will be disappointed.
In that class we had a Zoom conversation with a theologian named Megan DeFranza. DeFranza does a lot of work in this field and was one of the affirming theologians we learned from in class. To be perfectly honest, I don’t remember a lot of what she said, but I do remember she told our class “I refuse to have a theology that hurts others.” As she continued she shared that a theology of exclusion and being non-affirming has led to the horrible abuse and mistreatment of people in the LGBTQ+ community. Suicide rates are incredibly high among LGBTQ+ people, especially youth. This is because of poor treatment of people which has stemmed from the Church’s theology around homosexuality. DeFranza’s statement “I refuse to have a theology that hurts others” has stayed with me and was a significant pivot point for me on my road to becoming affirming.
“But what about scripture?” you might say. Yes. What about scripture? This brings me to the third major step on my journey to becoming affirming. The canon within the Canon. This is a concept I became familiar with in seminary. Nadia Bolz-Weber talks about it this way in her book, Shameless, “The Gospels are the canon within the canon. The Bible, as Martin Luther said, is the cradle that holds Christ. The point of gravity is the story of Jesus, the Gospel. The closer a text of the Bible is to that story or to the heart of that story’s message, the more authority it has. The father away it is, the less its authority.” In other words, how would Jesus respond to and love his LGBTQ+ neighbors? How does Jesus consistently respond to those who have been marginalized by ones with power?
Some scripture that help me think about how to best love my neighbor and get closer to the heart of Jesus’ desire for all of creation are the following:
Deuteronomy 6:4-9. Matthew 22:34-40. Romans 12:9-21. Romans 5:1.
These are certainly not the only passages that matter to me, or the only ones that are important, or anything like that. But when I am wrestling through things, or trying to think theologically about something, these are some the scriptures that ground me. These passages shape the questions I ask:
Is this loving God with all that I am and all that I have? Will it bring me closer to that end?
Does this choice / idea / practice help me love my neighbor?
Does this honor another person?
Do these thoughts or actions show hospitality?
Is this a show of pride or humility?
Will this move us closer or farther from peace?
Am I acting out of spite and seeking revenge?
Does this love my enemy?
Am I showing solidarity with my neighbors? Weeping and rejoicing when they are?
Is this good?
And Romans 5:1 reminds me I need not be afraid of curiosity, ideas that seem different to me at first, or being wrong because I have peace with God.
As I sat with the conversation of inclusion in light of these scriptures and these questions, it suddenly became apparent that to open my arms wide and welcome help create space for belonging for my LGBTQ+ siblings and neighbors was the absolute right next step. Becoming affirming is honoring. It is a practice of hospitality. It was a step toward peace. It is an act of humility – I am not the keeper of all right answers and interpretation. It helped me learn deeper solidarity – when these neighbors of mine weep over their exclusion and oppression, I weep too. And to embrace them fully is rejoicing with them. And if it turns out I am wrong about this, I need not fear because I have peace with God.
I would much rather be held accountable for opening my arms wide than for keeping people out.
I don’t always get the conversation right. I am not a perfect ally. I sometimes speak when I should be listening. I am often silent when I should speak up. I have a long way to go. But I am committed to the work of learning and growing and doing my part to make the world – and in particular the church – a safer and more hospitable space for my LGBTQ+ neighbors. I only wish I would have gotten to this place sooner.
To my LGBTQ+ neighbors and friends: I am so thankful to know now what God has known and what you have known for so long. You bear the image of God. You matter. You belong. You are the beloved. Thank you for teaching me even though it is not your job to do so. Thank you for sticking with me and being more than patient as I fumble around and make mistakes. I am sorry for not affirming your belovedness sooner. I am committed to your flourishing and am so grateful to know you. You are a gift to me and the world is better because you are in it. I love you.