What God sets before us: being a welcoming and affirming Church

Pastoral Preface

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy (Hymn text: Frederick W. Faber, 1854)
Verse 1:
    There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea.
    There’s a kindness in God’s justice, which is more than liberty.

Grace, arising from God’s limitless love, is the central theme of the Bible…
Mercy is just grace in action.
Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation (1/30/16)

It is humbling and an honor to engage in Respectful Conversation with you. Our leading question for this season of the eCircle conversation invites us to share recommendations for how churches engage with LGBTQ members. I begin with some prefatory offerings that lead into my contribution to this conversation.

First, my encouragement is for Church members to truly engage with sisters and brothers who are LGBTQ. At least in the Mennonite Church, the struggle has often been “heterosexuals” talking and deciding about “homosexuals” rather than engaging sisters and brothers who are LGBTQ.  Great pain has been suffered by being othered rather than engaged. To engage the other begins with deep listening, particularly for those with privilege and power. Failure to listen to and engage those we label “homosexual” has also caused the Church great harm and loss of the gifts of members and the wholeness of the body of Christ.

Second, my offering is not so much “recommending” as giving witness. A form of spiritual memoir known as “biography as theology” recognizes that we “do theology” through lives lived in a worshiping community of faithful discernment and prophetic witness. In Biography as Theology: How Life Stories Can Remake Today’s Theology, theologian James Wm. McClendon, Jr., reveals “The truth of faith is made good in the living of it or not at all…. Theology is done not only from a perspective but to and for a community.” This is far more foundational and formative than relying on one’s own “experience” as the determiner of all things or the ultimate reality. One’s “experience” alone does not constitute the Church’s faithful profession or practice. Nevertheless, “experience” is essential for being Church.

Third, while I understand the question set before us, I don’t consider my pastoral approach to be a “position” called “welcoming and affirming.” It is a calling I have lived and grown into over four decades of ministry. I have found that being faithful to our calling is to live a trajectory of continuity and change, forged in its share of confrontation and conflict. Along The Way, God surprises and changes us in ways that lead us a step beyond where we are or want to go. Yet God’s surprises are consistent with the trajectory of our lives and life together. The Way of continuity and change leads us into the wonder of paradox (the impossible that God makes possible) and the beauty of mystery (endlessly knowable yet never fully knowable God). In the Church, all are welcome in paradox and mystery!

Fourth, I am aware that the three “positions” proclaimed by Chris, Tim, and me, do not embrace all “positions” in the Church. Some beloved sisters and brothers in the Church wouldn’t readily engage this Respectful Conversation much less engage with LGBTQ members.

With that in heart and mind, I offer my journey of faith and leadership in the Church to you worthy companions in Respectful Conversation. I trust this reveals The Way for churches to engage and embrace LGBTQ members.

Come and See Jesus

Verse 2:
There is welcome for the sinner, and more graces for the good.
There is mercy with the Savior, there is healing in his blood.

John…watched Jesus walk by [and] exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” Two disciples heard…and followed Jesus…[who asked them], “What are you looking for?” They [asked him], “Teacher, where are you staying?” Jesus said to them, “Come and see!” (John 1: 35-39, NRSV)

“Jesus’ resurrection is not a one-time anomaly, but the regular and universal structure of reality revealed in one person,” Richard Rohr, Daily Med. 1/18/16

Seeing Jesus as the Risen Christ in Emmaus is a gospel paradigm. Two disheartened disciples, haunted with despair over Jesus’ crucifixion, walk away from Jerusalem and encounter a stranger on the road. The stranger reveals the gospel to them but they fail to see Jesus. Yet they offer hospitality to the stranger, who offers hospitality to them in blessed and broken bread. “Then their eyes were opened” to see the Risen Christ (Luke 24:31). Jesus opens the eyes of our heart to see the other in himself and himself in the other, especially the ostracized other

I have been blessed to see Jesus in many surprising people and places:
* In a Muslim doctor in Iraq on March 29, 2003, who saved our lives and refused payment when I and other Christian Peacemaker Team members were injured even though our nation was invading theirs with “shock and awe” bombing. [The Gospel of Rutba: War, Peace, and the Good Samaritan Story in Iraq by Greg Barrett (Orbis Books, 2012) and my story, “Neighbors in Iraq” in The Mennonite (May 2010, pages 20-22. https://themennonite.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/05-01-2010-Cookies-for-Nicholas.pdf)]
* In a homeless friend, who waited to eat at our community meals until all our homeless friends had food, saying, “I am fed by seeing others eat.”
* In young church members who attend Christian colleges and choose a path of service, peace, and ministry rather than attend more prestigious schools in order to get the best jobs and make the most money.
* In sisters and brothers who are LGBTQ being passionate and compassionate disciples of Jesus, committed to a Church that ostracizes them, serving faithfully in congregational leadership roles within a denomination that rejects them for their sexual identity.

Pastoral Call and Commitment in Congregational Context

Verse 3:
But we make God’s love too narrow by false limits of our own,
and we magnify its strictness with a zeal God will not own.

“Tradition is the living faith of the dead. Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” Richard Rohr, OFM (and Jaroslav Pelikan). 

When I was called to be pastor of Seattle Mennonite Church over two decades ago, I shared with the congregation my pastoral commitment to refrain from making “homosexuality” be the defining, consuming, or dividing issue of the Church. I also shared my sense that this congregation would not exist without being in some way inclusive of LGBTQ members. We will listen to what God sets before us and trust God to lead us faithfully as a church. Along the way we will search the scriptures and explore how to be faithful spiritual-sexual beings by being spiritually discerning and communally compassionate. We will remain committed to our beloved Mennonite Church, knowing that the majority of Mennonites will continue to reject The Way we are being led.  

Along The Way I faced one of my deepest pastoral discernments. Two women in a committed relationship in the congregation, came to me as their pastor expressing their desire to be married. I told them that what they are seeking is both possible and impossible. It is possible just like all other couples entering a covenant of marriage. It is impossible in light of an official, albeit highly controversial and conflicted, opposition to “gay marriage” in the Mennonite Church and prohibition against pastors officiating same-sex marriages. I assured them that we would walk this impossible journey together knowing that “nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37).

This became the most intense and extensive discernment of my pastoral life. My discerning community included many congregational, conference, and denominational leaders as well as my spiritual director and other spiritual companions. With each one, I welcomed their honest response, reminding them that I was not asking for their agreement or approval. I held full responsibility and accountability for my pastoral action.     

I continued pre-marriage preparation with the two women by prayerfully listening to each other and to the Spirit, knowing there were complicated and conflicted implications far beyond their marriage at stake. It was both similar to and different from any “heterosexual” couple’s preparation for marriage. The wedding of the two women was celebrated in a friend’s backyard and was not a Church sanctioned wedding. Nor did we have a congregational process to decide if they could be married. Congregational discernment and blessing for marriage may have merit — if it applies to all marriages in the Church.

As expected, I entered into a disciplinary process with Mennonite Conference leaders responsible for ministerial credentials and pastoral practice. My ministerial credentials were “suspended” for a time before being restored with the plea to “not do it again.” I reiterated my commitment to mutual accountability within the Mennonite Church and reaffirmed that if I could promise to “not do it again” I wouldn’t have performed this pastoral act. I also reminded leaders that if we couldn’t in good faith and conscience diverge from Church rules and tradition we wouldn’t exist. Our Anabaptist Mennonite stream of the Reformation was a heretical violation of Church rules and tradition yet was birthed in the sacrificial struggle for personal, pastoral, and communal faithfulness.

My commitment is to Christ and the Body of Christ in the context of the congregation and the Mennonite Church. It is a commitment I am not willing to violate even when it is deemed to violate a Church tradition.  

My pastoral act unexpectedly inspired Mennonite publisher-writer-pastor Michael King to edit a DreamSeeker Magazine issue (Winter 2006) with differing voices on “homosexuality.” He enlarged the conversation to include 32 Mennonite voices into a book: Stumbling Toward a Genuine Conversation on Homosexuality (Cascadia Publishing, 2007; http://www.cascadiapublishinghouse.com/stg/stgcont.htm). My “Stumbling” story is: “To Guide Our Feet: Pastoral Action in Impossible Times.” http://www.cascadiapublishinghouse.com/dsm/winter06/nislwe.htm.  

Pastoral Presence in the Mennonite Church

Verse 4:
For the love of God is broader than the measures of the mind,
and the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind.

God “punishes” us by loving us more! Only a personal experience of [God’s] unconditional, unearned, and infinite love and forgiveness can move you from the normal worldview of scarcity to the divine world of infinite abundance. Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation (1/30/16)

Early in ministry one of my closest pastoral friends “came out” to me as gay. Over the years we spent long hours in conversation about being married, being a pastor, and being gay in the Mennonite Church when it wasn’t safe to “come out” in the Church. Through our friendship and with others in the Church, I learned much about sexuality, including “homosexuality.” I listened to and walked with many people in pain – pain often inflicted by sisters and brothers in the Church. I made a covenant with God that I will seek to be present with people in pain without adding to their pain, especially from a place of privilege and power.

In the 1970s sexuality emerged in the consciousness and conversation of Mennonites in North America. This emergence erupted as a conflict over “homosexuality” as it became evident that some members of the church are “gay.” Consultations were held on human sexuality but the conversation was mostly about “homosexuality” being against God’s created order and sin.

In the 1980s a Mennonite task force prepared an excellent resource for the Church on Human Sexuality in the Christian Life (Faith and Life Press, 1985;  https://mennoharmony.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/human-sexuality-in-the-christian-life-1985.pdf). It addressed “homosexuality” within the context of sexuality and the Church with intent to foster more healthy and honest exploration of sexuality and compassionate conversation in the Church.

In 2007, some Mennonite pastors met on a prayer retreat to discern a pastoral way forward in the Church. We listened to what God set before us — which became an “Open Letter to Mennonite Church USA” proclaiming:
Our vocation as ministers is to proclaim and embody the Good News of Jesus Christ, which is the Gospel of radical hospitality and extravagant love (Luke 15, John 4). We are all sinners in need of God’s grace. We believe that we cannot deny that grace to anyone seeking to be part of the Body of Christ. We are each called to faithfulness to Christ, accountability in the Church, and integrity in human relationships. We believe that all people are invited to faithful fellowship in this Body, blessing for our deepest relationships of love and care, a spiritual home for ourselves and our children, and the opportunity to fully express the gifts for ministry that God has given us. (http://openlettertomcusa.blogspot.com/2009/04/open-letter-to-mennonite-church-usa.html). This letter claimed pastoral space in the Mennonite Church that inspired many and continues to grow beyond our imagination or doing.

Congregational Discernment for “Welcoming and Affirming”

Verse 5:
If our love were but more simple we should rest upon God’s word,
and our lives would be illumined by the presence of the Lord.

“We are not human beings trying to become spiritual; we are already spiritual beings trying to become human.” Richard Rohr (and Teilhard de Chardin) 

The call to be a “Welcoming and Affirming” Church came from congregational members. We entered a season of discernment and listening to our own hearts and to our communal heart. Members were invited to write what was on their heart and what they hear God setting before us. Our heart-stories were compiled into a booklet for all members to read prayerfully and listen deeply. Our long intense, sometimes conflicted and painful discernment led us to being a “Welcoming and Affirming” Church, with a “Welcome Statement” including: (http://www.seattlemennonite.org/about/welcome-statement/):
As disciples of Jesus….In our journey together as a community of believers, we have named several areas of giftedness and calling…charisms are gifts that God has given us for the ministries that God has set before us:
      Welcome and Hospitality: We desire that all who enter here may be received as Christ. We celebrate and affirm the image of God in persons of every age, gender, race, ability, ethnicity, and sexual
      orientation….We publicly affirm that LGBT persons are welcome to participate in the full life and ministry of our church, including membership, baptism, marriage, leadership, and pastoral ministry.

God of Mercy Church of Mercy 

Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not loose heart….We commend ourselves to the consciences of everyone in the sight of God….For we do not proclaim ourselves, we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake… 2 Cor. 4:1-5. 

Mercy is the heart of God. It must also be the heart of [God’s] children. Pope Francis

I leave you with seven calls for mercy that have grounded my life and guided my ministry and will help churches embody mercy to engage with LGBTQ members and become places of healing and hope. 

Scripture – The Way of Jesus is not found in seven texts that presumably speak to and settle the “homosexuality” division in the Church. Biblical people search the scriptures to ground and guide us in all that we are and do. Jesus didn’t answer every question or make it easy for disciples but gave us all we need for a living faith and faithful living. The work is ours to do in our time and place. Peter’s vision was transformed to see that God’s impartiality and Christ’s peace welcomes all into God’s reign. “What God has called clean you must not call profane.” No story in the Acts of the Apostles is told and retold in such detail (10 & 11) emphasizing its import for Peter’s community and ours.  

Sexuality and spirituality — The Church’s obsession with “homosexuality” has subverted faithful exploration of the fullness and beauty of what it means to be wholly/holy spiritual-sexual beings created in God’s image. Sexuality is not the antithesis of but deeply interwoven with spirituality. Sexual identity is complex and diverse with nuanced identities across a spectrum. We are created by God and are children of God – which takes us into the deep intersection and integration of our spiritual-sexual being.

Marriage is more complex and problematic in the Bible and the Church than we acknowledge. Polygamy, patriarchy, and property have a troubling marriage history. Passionate mutual love is a more recent phenomenon of marriage. 

Divorce and remarriage also has a conflicted history in the Church. The Mennonite Church has found a way to hold members who are divorced with compassion while upholding our confessional commitment to life-long marriage. I have accompanied many couples who have made a marriage covenant with God and each other. About half of these marriage partners had been previously married. Yet we have found a faithful way to uphold life-long marriage while caring for divorced members and blessing remarriages in the Church. This path of exceptional healing and healing exception, is manifested in remarriages that are healthy and happy. They also become faithful members and leaders in the Church.

Pastoral Way Forward – The conflict over “homosexuality” has been led by Church leaders (institution) and LGBTQ activists and allies (marginalized). A pastoral way forward faithfully leads the local Church, while being committed to the larger Church.

Models and Mentors for Ministry – When I was in seminary a Mennonite anthropologist theologian from an evangelical seminary presented a “bounded set” and “centered set” model. A “bounded set” entity emphasizes boundaries and rules (violations bring discipline or dismissal). A “centered set” entity emphasizes direction (centering) and discernment (context) in a dynamic way. I and most members grew up in a “bounded set” Church they couldn’t live with and have found new life and faith in a “centered set” Church. Mentors have been formative spiritual guides for me who help me be grounded in obedience not rebellion.  

Resistance and the Gospel – Years ago, a guest preacher challenged me in his sermon, “Are they throwing rocks at your house yet? If they aren’t throwing rocks at your house you aren’t proclaiming the gospel!” Resistance to The Way and Word of Jesus is not just reaction of Jesus’ first hearers but of hearers today. Nevertheless, living the gospel embodies faithful resistance to injustice and sin.

Personal Afterword

I close with a biblical word and a word of wisdom I strive to live by:
      True Christians are absurdly happy, wholly committed,
            and almost always in trouble.

When I retired from pastoral ministry, my beloved Church gave me a beautiful quilted wall hanging with a Word from the prophet Micah:
    What does God require of you but to do justice,
          and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.



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