Connectional Pain and Suffering: A Coming Out Story

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One of the most underappreciated, yet beautiful things about United Methodism is its connectionalism, how a global church connects local churches and individual members to others to combine our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness into a world-wide Body of Christ.  Methodism makes the world a small place, as the saying goes.  It is not uncommon for people to hear I am United Methodist clergy and ask if I know someone in another state, and then find I do!  I have been in airports all over the country and run into fellow clergy I personally know.  Many of my church members have been members of United Methodist churches while residing in other parts of Virginia, and we discover that we know the same people, have been in the same churches, and funded the same missions.  The United Methodist Church has created a family of faith in a tangible way.

Yet like all families, we have our issues, our dysfunction, and our struggles.  We are not perfect, and yet we profess to strive actively to be made perfect in God’s love in our concept of Christian Perfection.  Living in community, even holy community, brings with it a certain amount of expected tension, drama, and conflict, but things have gotten to be so painful.  I know that from pain something beautiful can emerge, that God can bring forth blessing from burden.  I have given birth, and I know that it is not all sunshine, roses, and smiles.  It was a struggle, a test of my endurance, and filled with gnashing of teeth, literally.  In the end, I have my son, and as the days go by, I can see that he is not only a blessing to me, but he will continue to grow in God’s love and bless many others.  I find this a fitting metaphor for my beloved denomination.

The Friday after Called General Conference I had a vision, a divine encounter with God.  In it, God simply told me that “it was time” for full inclusion of non-heterosexual persons and the extension of holy matrimony to same-sex couples.  This was not my previous position.  I was raised and educated as a Traditionalist.  I am so grounded and immersed in Scripture that I could never justify overturning the nine prohibitive texts around non-heterosexual sexual expression.  Even as my family and friends came out as gay or bisexual, and my heart longed to see them fully embraced as I am in all my heterosexuality and human sinfulness, I could not find the Scripture to justify it.  So like what I suspect are countless other United Methodists, I defaulted to Traditionalism around the issue of human sexuality and inclusion.  Yet here was God Almighty telling me that I had to now totally reverse myself, and, oh yes, tell my church in my sermons in  the next forty-eight hours.  I cried for hours until I was dehydrated.  I tried to get God to tell me what I knew I would need: the Scripture citations.  God simply told me to remember Peter and his attempt to walk on the water.

This was not my first vision.  I have had three others, two around my call to ordained ministry.  They are always very biblical, in that they are disturbing, confusing, unwanted, and terrifying.  This was no exception to my past experience.  I was terrified at the ramifications of publicly coming out in favor of full inclusion when I had not even come out publicly in favor of the Traditionalist position!  I knew what was at stake: I could lose the confidence and acceptance of my church members, I could lose my appointment, and thus lose custody of my child to his father.   I knew I would make people angry, and that I would cause hurt to those I love, including members of my own family.  Despite all of this, I never tried to argue with God.  I have done that in previous visions.  It never works, makes God angry, and leaves me in a state of spiritual brokenness.  I knew that this was God, God’s will, and God’s word to me, and set about trying to figure out how to do what God wanted two days later in Sunday Worship.

I started reading Matthew 14, the passage that records Peter’s attempt to walk across the water to Jesus, over and over again.  God directed me here for a reason, and I had less than two days to figure it out, incorporate it into my ministry of the Word, and present the riskiest, scariest, and most prophetic sermons of my life.  What I read was not helpful in easing my fears.  In the story, the Apostles, without Jesus, are in a boat overnight on the waters assailed by a storm’s winds and waves.  As morning breaks, they see Jesus walking on the water, coming towards them.  They become terrified (running theme), mistake him for a ghost, and cry out in fear (Matthew 14:26).  Jesus speaks to them to try to ease their fears, and then Peter issues both his challenge and his faith: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water” (Matthew 14:28).  Jesus gives a one word reply: “Come.”  Peter does, getting out of the boat, onto the water, and making his way over to Jesus.  This is where our visual depictions cause us to stumble, because almost every image or moving recreation I have ever witnessed had Peter seemingly between the boat and Jesus when the rising strong wind scares Peter and he starts to sink.  But for the first time in all the countless times I have read this passage what jumped out and slapped me in the face was that “Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him” (Matthew 14:31), which means that Jesus was right there.  He did not have to run over, or even quickly shift his body to be in closer proximity.  He was already there, so he could immediately reach out and save Peter.  Peter was on top of Jesus, and yet doubt and fear caused him to fail.  This was not the kind of inspiring revelation I wanted, much less the difficult truth I wanted to share with my people on Sunday.

I started yelling out loud to God, and in retrospect have never been so grateful for an empty house on Fridays.  “Are you kidding me?!  Peter fails!  How can I share a Scripture text where he fails in order to convince people to be open to this message you have burdened me with today?  They are going to lynch me!”  God’s voice rang out in my home once more,”Peter failed because he doubted.  You do not doubt.”  I hate to admit it, but God had me there.  For all my flaws and sins, I do not doubt.  I been talking with God since I was six, and those are just the conversations I can clearly remember and recall.  I know that voice.  I know that power and presence without image.  I knew who was talking to me the moment I heard it with all that I am in body, mind, and spirit, and I never questioned.  It also helps that I have two professional psychological evaluations from my ordination process declaring that I am certifiably sane.

It was then that I declared my seemingly insurmountable obstacle out loud to God: “I know the Traditionalist position.  I was born into it, raised with it, and educated in it.  I not only honor and respect it, but I held it myself.  I know what Traditionalists want to hear, because I have spent over two decades searching for it!  Now you want me to give them not just Peter failing, but your declaration that I do not doubt?!”  I could feel my blood pressure rising, my blood pulsing in my head, and nausea erupting.  I was going to be martyred.  “No,” replied God, “I want you to remind my people that Scripture is testimony, and it gets you very close to me and my truth, but in the end you must step out in faith and not doubt that my grace is sufficient.”  The world stopped.  I had never heard that in all my years of yearning, searching, and seeking.  There is nothing more biblical than this, and Jesus declared it himself: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29).

The United Methodist Church has used its own method for theological reflection to create and perfect our Book of Discipline.  It is the culmination of our searching the Scriptures, engaging the tradition of not only Methodism, but the Church Universal and the whole of Christian tradition, as well as utilizing our rational minds through reason, while being attuned to our experience as individual disciples and communities.  I gave my vow to the Clergy Session of my Annual Conference who voted to ordain me, as well as all those gathered to witness the presiding bishop lay hands and speak the ordination blessing upon me, and conclude with the command to “take authority as an elder to preach the Word of God, and to administer the Holy Sacraments and to order the life of the Church, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  In my ordination is the covenantal duty to uphold The Book of Discipline, and my vision does not change that.  Within the Discipline, either as an expression of human ingenuity or divine wisdom, perhaps the ironic union of both, is the means by which to make change to the same book at General Conference.  That is the path by which those of us who feel convicted to see the United Methodist Church shift its position to full inclusion of non-heterosexual clergy and same-sex holy matrimony must walk.

After I preached that Sunday after Called General Conference, and came out to my church about my vision and new position on human sexuality and inclusion, I sent out over four hundred letters to the households in my church explaining my divine encounter, my sermons, and my new position.  In the letter I also promised that I would not “break Discipline,” commit any willful acts of disobedience, because I recognize that to do so and incur punishment would hurt them, and cause them unjust pain and suffering for my actions.  Many took the time to reach out to me to let me know how much they appreciated my explicit statement about not “breaking Discipline.”  To me, it is about keeping my covenant with the Church, honoring my vows and role as the elder at my appointment, and modeling patience and faithfulness while working for justice and transformation.

On March 26th, a digitally signed “Statement in Response to General Conference 2019 from the Undersigned People of the Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church” was sent to the bishop, and posted on the official Facebook page of the Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.  I saw the statement prior to publishing as several people forwarded it to me both to sign and get my thoughts.  I read the statement which includes language about refusing to uphold The Book of Discipline, and outlines certain actions of willful disobedience regarding clergy and marriage, as well as voting in matters of clergy ethics and the appointment of retired clergy.  Hundreds of clergy signed, proclaiming that they would “break Discipline” in these areas.  Even more laity signed in their support of these declarations.  After having just promised my church that I would not do this, I felt this concern for how the statement would be received.  It was not well received, even by those who share the belief of full inclusion.  I was immediately inundated with upset and concerned church members.

From my pastoral perspective, I want to offer this reflection on the statement, in light of my union with the sentiment and my own work to bring about changes to The Book of Discipline at the 2020 General Conference.  As a notoriously impatient person, I cannot stand the idea of waiting, but we have just over a year before the next General Conference convenes.  The Judicial Council will meet after Easter to rule on the constitutionality of the Traditional Plan passed at Called General Conference, and then Annual and Central Conferences will have their annual sessions.  After that, there will be less than a year before General Conference.  We need to model and practice patience.  I cannot imagine how hard it was for Joshua and Caleb to hear that they would have to endure forty years of wandering before they could enter into the Promised Land, simply because God and the people of Israel had things to work out in that time!  Yet we are not talking about years in this instance, we are having to live out non-anxious presence for about a year.  We have work to do in that time, and acts of disobedience are too readily received as rebellion and anarchy, which only further hurts the efforts to engage in meaningful and transformational conversation.  It thwarts the work of those who feel convicted to work for change and full inclusion.

I would not be Methodist if I was not willing to grant grace.  Perhaps the language was nebulous enough in the statement to convey a sense of outrage and not intentional disobedience.  Maybe those that signed their names and publicly stated their position wanted to show that they were not giving up or going quietly into the night, but still very present and willing to struggle for those who have been prevented from experiencing the fullness of ordination and holy matrimony.  No matter what, I hope and pray that my fellow clergy, whether licensed, commissioned, ordained, or retired would not forsake our promise to the Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church to uphold The Book of Discipline.  After all, it is the very same book that allows females like myself to be clergy when some of the largest Christian denominations in the world still do not.  It is not all bad, and neither is it perfect.  I do have hope that through our continued commitment to one another we can have authentic conversation, experience true holy conferencing, and discern the next iterations of The Discipline.  It will require us to be patient, prayerful, active listeners, and wiling participants in the ongoing work of the Church.  Breaking Discipline is received as impatience, reactionary, closed off, and unwilling to be engaged.  I recognize that most of those who signed the statement were convinced of the necessity of full inclusion long before I was, and that I am new to this side of the conversation, but again Scripture speaks out to me that “the fullness of time” (Galatians 4:4) is not something determined by humankind, but something we experience.  It was not until the fullness of time for me, that God spoke to me, gave me this vision, and laid this mantle across my spiritual shoulders.  Now that God has done this, I am at work.  Who knows how many others have joined this cause since the close of Called General Conference, and perhaps add to our numbers daily?

There would be no more redemptive moment for our non-heterosexual siblings in Christ than to have the book that once excluded them proclaim in written word that they are truly us in every way.  I and others like me are committed to seeing our Book of Discipline be transformed like Saul to Paul, and God will not let us stop until we do.  But the process of transformation must be righteous and without reproach.  Sarai and Abram took divine matters into their own hands to conceive and bear a son (Genesis 16), and the result was incredible pain, suffering, and brokenness for Hagar and Ishmael.  If we are willing to set our will, even with the good intention of bringing about justice and holiness, before the covenants we made before God with the Church, then we are creating greater obstacles, which will ultimately cause the most hurt to our non-heterosexual members of the family of faith.  What greater hypocrisy than “breaking Discipline” now and decrying those who would do so later?  We must run this race with perseverance and integrity.   We must demonstrate our respect for God’s Word and our own, especially those who have given their word in vows of ordination.

I believe that change is coming.  Not because I am right or in favor of it, but because I have read the Bible too many times to believe that God’s will can ultimately be thwarted by human beings, even well intentioned and faithful ones.  As I struggle to remain patient, I hope others will struggle with me.  I hope we will all endeavor to hold fast to our faith, our word, and one another.  None of us are in this alone, and we need to find affirming and inspiring ways to reveal that truth.  We serve an unbroken Savior (John 19:36), but not with broken vows.

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