Reflections on the Queer* Christian Conference

*For those unused to the word ‘queer,’ let me start off by saying that it’s become the preferred umbrella term for those who are sexual or gender minorities, so that’s why I use that term here. And let me tell you, if you had told me five years ago I’d be in Chicago in January 2019 at the Queer Christian Conference worshipping Jesus with over a thousand queer Christians, I would have said you were crazy. Funny how God works, isn’t it?

conf1The conference hosted a REALLY diverse group of people – gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex, asexual, and all sorts of others, including both theological progressives and conservatives (HERE are stories of some leaders in the organization).  One of the first things that struck me was all the pain in the community. Everyone there (except the few straight folks like me) had pretty much been run over by the church, bullied by kids in school, outcast by society, and quite often rejected by family. You could say that the entire crowd were ‘the poor in spirit’ that Jesus blessed, telling them that ‘theirs is the kingdom.’ And, as you could imagine from a group of such people gathered around Jesus, there was a ton of kindness, empathy, and even joy. 

There were three highlights for me.

#1 Learning – it’s so humbling to sit at the feet of teachers who are wise, gracious and radically different than you. For example, I went to a workshop on “Sex and Shame” led by David and Tino Khalaf who are contributors to the prestigious Gottman Institute on marriage and authors of a new book about marriage. So here I am, a straight guy who’s been married 26 years crammed into a seminar room in a sea of maybe fifty gay and lesbian couples, who’ve had state-sanctioned marriage for only 15 years (if they are from Massachusetts) – otherwise, it’s been 3 1/2 years. And there was nothing but love for me there – not to mention the wisdom. I had so much to learn about how to talk about sex, how to disentangle sexual shame from God’s good creation, and how to think clearly about God’s design for healthy marriages. Sure, I learned lots about issues connected to being queer, but I also learned a lot about how to be married myself.

conf2#2 Timothy – I’ve been around the church enough to know what a rare gift it is for a father to get to attend a Christian conference with his son. Worshipping together, deep-dish Chicago pizza together, debriefing sessions together, and talking long into the night about everything from sexual ethics to summer internships to family secrets – it just doesn’t get any better than that. The mere fact that my 19-year-old son wanted me to go with him to the conference, wanted to sit with me, wanted to process with me, and wanted to pray with me is enough to make tears well up in my eyes, especially considering the myriad stories I heard of broken family relationships, kids getting yelled at and kicked out of their parents’ home, and pastors humiliating kids in their congregations and their own families. 

#3 Hope – Although the evangelical church is pulling itself apart at the seams over sexual ethics, as a thousand diverse voices lifted in praise to Jesus at the conference I couldn’t hold back the wave of hope. Adrienne Maree Brown writes about how “reclaiming the right to dream the future, strengthening the muscle to imagine together” is a revolutionary activity, and it felt like there was a revolution afoot. Queer Christians are refusing to be silent and refusing to condemn each other, even those with whom they disagreed theologically. Instead, they were connecting with Jesus and his mission to redeem the world – and that was enough. What a model for the church today.

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Dinah and #MeToo

One of the gifts that the LGBTQ community has given me over the past few years has been an invitation to see things in scripture that before I glossed over. It was so easy to dismiss the uncomfortable, the offensive, the confusing. And yet it’s all right there in our bible.

I was invited to write a blog for The Twelve, part of the Perspectives Blog. So I wrote it on one of the many passages that has struck me afresh these days. Here is that blog.

Hardship Isn’t Always Bad

A friend of mine from church took a job five hours from here and moved his family out of the city just before City Church of Long Beach started our LGBTQ Study Team. He was so glad to get out just in time. I can relate. It was a hard two years.

Out of the blue he wrote me a long email this week. It captures so much of the process for us as a church and how good our journey has been. Not easy, but good.

I thought I’d share it with you as well, so here it is.

trees

Bill,

I was just flipping through the church website for the first time in a while and scrolled across your “letter to the church” video about the wrap up of the LGBTQ discussions you have been having.  That focus began shortly after we moved out of town and stopped attending on a weekly basis so we have largely been spared from the divisiveness that I know this conversation created.

My first reaction when I heard what City Church of Long Beach was doing was a relief that I was not going there and that I didn’t have to address that type of conflict head on with a lot of people I love.  My heart has always been torn on that issue as I was always raised very traditionally and to take the Bible at face value in many ways; but my heart has always felt that the way the LGBTQ community is treated by the church is wrong.

At the same time, I can’t say I really know or am friends or acquaintances with anyone in that community either.  I really don’t feel comfortable around openly LGBTQ people and I wish that weren’t the case.  I still don’t really know which side of the fence I find myself on with LGBTQ morality issues, but I do know I fully agree with what City Church came to –  that all ought to be welcomed and included.

“I realize that while we were spared the divisiveness, we also missed out on a great opportunity to learn and grow.”

After watching your video, I realize that while we were spared the divisiveness, we also missed out on a great opportunity to learn and grow.  When we keep ourselves protected from difficult things, we may not hurt, but we certainly don’t allow ourselves to grow.  We don’t grow by relying to on the habits or the traditions or the things that we feel we have figured out in our lives… we grow by realizing that all we have learned needs to be broken apart as God calls us to new uncomfortable places.  As God calls us alongside him in his mission, then that completely destroys the lives we want to live… even the lives that we think we are living as “good Christians.”

Bill, you are a fantastic example of what that looks like to me and to everyone around you.  While I know you are flawed and have your struggles like the rest of us, you clearly allow yourself to be molded by what God is calling you to do, even when that means embarrassment, judgement, frustration, and probably even some hate from those around you… from those who you considered friends.  I obviously don’t know all that pain that has happened in City Church over the recent years, but I can imagine there were plenty of moments where everyone in leadership questioned whether or not they were on the right path.  I am incredible thankful that the team continued on and saw these tough conversations to some form of completion (not that any potentially divisive issue is ever brought to completion.)

I just wanted to say that I truly miss you and although we have found a wonderful church home here, I still miss and long to be a part of CCLB.  Thank you for your daily devotions.  Thank you for being different than other pastors.  Thank you for your leadership.

I wish we were still close enough for an impromptu game of Dominion!

God bless you,

A.

LGBTQ Study Team Conclusion

sacredheartI began blogging over a year ago to share why City Church of Long Beach started our Study Team regarding LGBTQ people in the church. The blog really took off as I shared some personal stories, including about when my son came out.

Our Study Team has now concluded. It’s been a long run – almost two years looking at things like how the early church handled conflict over questions of inclusion, how scholars view key passages like Romans 1, and thinking through how to understand what Paul calls ‘disputable matters’ in Romans 14 (listen to this amazing sermon about it).

On January 21, 2018 we shared our conclusions with our whole church in the context of our vision to be a radically welcoming community, on a journey towards Jesus, joining him in the renewal of all things. I want to share with you what was shared then.

First, I read the this letter to the church summarizing the key insights, tensions, and sorrows of our journey.

 

Then the Study Team shared our theology behind our vision, which is on the ‘About’ page of our website (just scroll to the bottom).

I am so grateful for the journey we’ve been on. Along the way, God’s clarified my call to focus my energies on pastoring City Church Long Beach so I will be posting only infrequently in the future on this blog.

Grace and peace to you in Christ,

Bill

How To Disagree and Still Be Friends

At the recent Q Commons event in Long Beach (Oct 26, 2017), my friend Eric Carpenter and I gave a 14 minute talk about how to disagree about important issues and still be friends.

The particular issues we disagree about center around the place of LGBTQ people in the church. Here’s the video in case you’d like to watch it.

friends
Good friends, strong disagreements. Eric and me at the Q Commons event in Long Beach, CA

 

Sabbatical Blog Interruption

I’m taking a sabbatical this summer from June 5 to September 3, graciously granted by the Pastoral Team and Financial Oversight Team of our church.  I’m very grateful for time for rest and renewal.

In an effort to surrender my pastoral work this summer, I’m logging off Facebook, not checking email even once, and even changing my phone number during my sabbatical! And in keeping with that effort, I’ll be holding off on blogging as well. The City Church of Long Beach LGBTQ Study Team will also be on hiatus this summer, to resume in September.

I’m looking forward to extended times of silence and solitude this summer, including kicking it off my sabbatical this coming Monday with a 7 night, 8 day retreat of silence at a monastery. My hope is to ‘come to the end of myself’ as my spiritual director says – to let all of my anxious energy, all of my drive to achieve, all of my concern about what people think of me to be sloughed off like an old snakeskin. Who even knows what will be found underneath. Ultimately, I’m just hoping to meet Jesus there and to journey a little closer with him.

For those who haven’t been on my blog much, if you’re interested, these have been some of the most read posts:

When My Son Came Out
How the LGBTQ Community is Saving the Church
What If I’m Wrong?

Until September…

What If I’m Wrong?

false beliefDo you ever have an awkward moment in a heated conversation when the unwanted thought creeps in, “What if I’m wrong?” For me it often happens later, while showering or taking a walk. Out of nowhere, it dawns on me that there might be another way to look at what I so passionately said could only be my way.

I hate those moments.

Perhaps you are like me and you like to be right. Or perhaps you find that thinking in new ways is disorienting. Or perhaps it feels threatening to consider the ideas of someone you have disagreed with for so long. And yet, you and I both know that actually considering the perspectives of others is how we grow – whether we adopt those perspectives or not.

After all, there’s no learning apart from engaging deeply with ideas that you do not currently hold!

What’s at Stake

Having LGBTQ conversations in the church is like picking your way through a minefield. Doing it as a pastor is like picking your way through a minefield with a flock of sheep. There’s really no safe way to do it.

A pastor said to me in a shaky voice, “But if I change my stance what would I say to my church?” I’ve talked to parents whose marriage has been threatened because they see their daughter’s sexuality so differently. I have gay friends whose choice to be celibate cost them their gay community. I have many gay friends whose choice just to come out of the closet cost them their Christian community. Ouch. I deeply grieve those losses; I have had a few of my own.

In addition to the relational landmines, for us evangelicals there’s also a particular spiritual conundrum that we find ourselves in. More and more of us are asking the question, “What if I’m wrong?” For the first time, we are considering the possibility that what we’ve always thought about sexual morality is not what God thinks about it. That’s when the double whammy hits us – that we could be wrong either way.

Justin Lee, in his excellent book, Torn, goes back and forth all book long about his own personal struggle of coming out as gay and trying to reconcile that to his faith in Jesus. Towards the end, shares a profound thought:

I realized there was no “safe side” on this issue. If I supported gay relationships and was wrong, I would be sinning by encouraging people to do something wrong, but if I opposed gay relationships and was wrong, I would be sinning by putting myself and others back under the law and making Christ “of no value” (Gal 5:2).

Justin realized that there was a cost if he was wrong. And he knew that regardless of where he came out on the question of whether same-sex sexual activity could be moral or not, there was still a cost.

Is There a Cost of Being Too Moral?

As a parent I’ve experienced the temptation to be overly moral any number of times. I don’t want my kids to get hurt or get in trouble, so I holler “No dating till you’re 30!” or whatever the equivalent is in the situation at hand. The problem, of course, is that instead of doing the hard relational work and the give and take of ideas, I just use my authority to shut down the conversation. Later, in my right mind, I can see that “No dating till you’re 30” is probably going to have some pretty negative effects and doesn’t really solve the problem at all.

I’ve heard a number of people propose that, since there’s some question about the morality of same-sex sexual activity, we should just be more conservative to stay on the safe side. You know, just rule out anything that might be a sin.

Author and pastor David Schmelzer addresses that directly in a way that I thought was helpful (and unnerving):

Is it worth mentioning that the possibility of being wrong cuts both ways? Yes, you can be wrong by being too permissive. But you can also be wrong by being too restrictive. It seems entirely possible to me that, on Judgment Day, God will wonder why we kept so many people away from the Kingdom of Heaven. What gave us that right? Jesus even weighs in directly on this side of the discussion. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces.”

Both Schmelzer and Lee force me to face an uncomfortable reality – that it really matters if I’m wrong – and that I can be wrong not just by being overly permissive; I could be wrong by being overly restrictive. There are consequences to both errors. And then I struggle with the pastor thing. For me personally, as a pastor, I have to wrestle with the consequences of potentially leading people into sexual sin on one side or into religious slavery on the other.

My Personal Misgivings

Two months after my son came out to me and Katy at Starbucks (that story here), I was spending a Saturday morning holed up journalling. It had been a hard week for me personally, so I was praying through it all in writing. Timothy had finished coming out to our family and his friends and he let me know it was time for me to start telling people. That week I broke Timothy’s news to our church leadership team, my discipleship group, my best friend from high school, and three friends who are pastors. Most, but not all, of those conversations went well.

Then comes this entry:

May 30, 2015
At this point in the game, I still feel so conflicted over the issue. And I feel frustrated with you, Father. The scriptures just don’t seem all that clear anymore, and this is a big issue with huge stakes. So what are we to do in this case of a big issue with no clarity? I hear [gays on the conservative] side saying, “As best as we can tell, we’re right, and we feel invigorated by our sacrificial commitment to the Lord – but we’re really lonely, sad, and somewhat repressed and wonder whether we’re missing out on a huge part of the life that Jesus would have for us… not to mention the fact that we seem to be closing the door of the gospel on both LGBT people and the younger generation.” I hear [gays on the progressive] side saying, “As best as we can tell, we’re right, and we feel finally free from all the guilt, loneliness and repression we suffered under – but we still wonder sometimes if we’re being [sexually] immoral.” Neither side seems completely satisfied or convinced. And neither is completely convincing. And the stakes are so high.

I look back now and have a lot of empathy for myself as a dad in that situation. My son had come out to me, and I was undone by it. I started studying the scriptures at a depth that made my masters and doctorate at seminary look like kindergarten. I was reading voraciously and talking to every expert I could get my hands on. I prayed like a revivalist on steroids. And more often than not, God did not seem to be giving me the answers that I was seeking. Not an easy season.

One of the things that bothered me the most was that I couldn’t get the question out of my mind: What if I’m wrong? I mean, this is my son we’re talking about. What if my position leads him into sexual sin? What if I deface God’s image in him? What if I guide him wrong? God, what are you saying?

God the Father

In the next few weeks I’ll share more about where my journey has taken me. But for the time being, let me say this: I’ve encountered God as Father in new ways, and that’s a game changer.

Standing on the sandy cliffs above Blacks Beach in San Diego, screaming at God because I was so upset at him for making my son gay, I experienced something very profound. Overlooking those cliffs was not one crying father, but two. I’ll unpack it in a later blog, but in that moment of despair, I realized I had a Father who not only cared for my son more than I did, but who cared for me on my journey, too. 

That day I was looking for answers, but I got something more. One of my favorite authors speaks to that experience in a way that I’ve reread a hundred times:

So what if God exists?…What difference does that  make?…We all want to be certain, we all want proof, but the kind of proof that we tend to want–scientifically or philosophically demonstrable proof that would silence all doubts once and for all–would not in the long run, I think, answer the fearful depths of our need at all.  For what we need to know, of course, is not just that God exists, not just that beyond the steely brightness of the stars there is a cosmic intelligence of some kind that keeps the whole show going, but that there is a God right here in the thick of our day-by-day lives who may not be writing messages about himself in the stars, but who in one way or another is trying to get messages through our blindness as we move around here, knee-deep in the fragrant muck and misery and marvel of the world.  It is not objective proof of God’s existence that we want but, whether we use religious language for it or not, the experience of God’s presence.  That is the miracle that we are really after.  And that is also, I think, the miracle that we really get.
– Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat

That day, and so many days afterwards, I experienced the miracle of God’s presence on this very tricky journey. And that’s been enough, even when over and over I confront the question, “What if I’m wrong?”

Is God Big Enough to Handle Us Being Wrong?

Often in this process I’ve had to ask myself a different question, also: Is God big enough to handle us being wrong? There’s so much at stake, and yet God is still God. I am not. And my trust will have to rest on Christ alone.

A month or two ago our Study Team had a remarkable conversation around these questions. One of my friends on the team, Larry Dove (who said he’d be glad to have this in the blog) emailed us all later that night. Larry is a pastor up in Central Los Angeles and had done some thinking as he drove back up into the heart of the city. His response captures the kind of humility and dependence on God that I think we all need:

Driving home last night I pondered on the question – “what if we are wrong?” In summary, there is a possibility that we could/will encounter some erroneous thoughts, ideas, and premature conclusions over this issue. But our dependence on the Holy Spirit to continue to guide and drive this process in love (towards each other and the LGBTQ community) will keep us on the road of truth and reconciliation. I am not afraid of getting it wrong. I am more afraid of being convinced I have it absolutely right!

That’s what I’m counting on. As Jesus teaches us in John 16:13, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will lead you into all truth.”