When I was a pastor my “walk off” prior to the benediction often included a challenge to the congregation to “expect always the unexpected and anticipate miracles, knowing that with God all things are possible.” Earlier this year I had one of those unexpected but certainly divine appointments. One of the other people who stood at the particular intersection of Presbyterian angst was John Stanger.
John is an Austin Seminary-educated Texan living in Manhattan, an organizer for mission and advocacy for Presbyterian Welcome which is an organization that supports LGBT people in their quest for ordination in the PCUSA. John identifies as queer, a term he is seeking to re-purpose, and he recently preached at the More Light Presbyterian national event in Tucson, Ariz.
Our lunch in New York earlier this year made its way into the sermon:
At the beginning of the summer, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, a setting 14-year-old ranchers’ son John Russell could have never dreamt he’d reference in a sermon, I had lunch with Mieke Vandersall, my boss and warrior queen for all us queer future pastors, and Carmen Fowler LaBerge, executive editor of the Layman, a publication that serves the interests of far-right Presbyterians. (You may have heard of it.)
Y’all, this lunch felt about as bizarre as it sounds. And, then … Not.
I sat at the table with Carmen and Mieke, and listened to two women leaders—something that wouldn’t have happened just decades ago—connect over their shared experiences as heads of organizations in their respective movements.
Over that shared meal we each clarified what was really important to our ministries, what excited us, frustrated us, saddened us. It was one of those moments where genuine conversation and dialogue rise above abstract politics and theologies. It was the kind of experience that reminds me the Spirit is alive and well … And very mysterious.
In all our sharing, one thing pierced through my cynical generalizing about the far right in the church. Carmen told us that many conservative Presbyterians now relate more to other conservative Christians, than they do to most Presbyterians. They have of feeling of being deeply out of place, strangers, in their own denomination.
This makes me incredibly sad.
I’ve known what it feels like to exist as a stranger in the midst of the people that are supposed to be my people. And I know I’m not alone in this. We have each lived through the experiences of feeling like a stranger to ourselves, our families, our churches, and even the love of God.
We have also felt what it means to belong to the Presbyterian family. That almost indescribable sense of community when you meet with Presbyterians from anywhere in the world. That sense of Eucharist as we gather together.
As someone who loves that connection, that feeling of home that many of us have in the church, to know that so many have lost that, brings me no joy.
Now let me be clear, I am not here to gloss over conservatives’ contribution to the world’s sin of oppressing and abusing queer people because they see us as less human, less sacred, less worthy.
My story and many of yours are of the survival of this very oppression. My calling and your callings are to create a world that reflects Christ’s love of the stranger.
Sometimes separation is necessary, even best, especially when there has been too much pain. I’ve said myself, “Just let them go.” But the pain of divorce, estrangement cuts deep. And we must still grieve, because the pain of others does nothing to heal our own.
So what Carmen shared with me grants me no joy nor reconciliation.”
I appreciate John’s candor, and I share his angst over the reality that the only way forward for many people in the PCUSA in a post-Amendment 10-A world is to separate from a denomination that has become foreign and strange. But it is clear that the discomfort and dislocation of conservative Presbyterians is insufficient cause for John and other LGBT advocates to let up on the pressure being applied to the denomination. That is made clear in their plans for the 2014 General Assembly meeting in Detroit where a full-scale campaign for marriage redefinition is planned.
Classical tolerance: meeting at the intersection where all people are equal but all ideas are not
The reason I was in New York was in answer to a request by the producers of a pro-LGBT documentary called “Out of Order” that chronicles the journey to Presbyterian ordination of three LGBT individuals. I agreed to be interviewed in an attempt to provide balance to the documentary, which to that point offered only the perspective of those who are pro-LGBT ordination.
The most curious moment of the interview came when the producer realized that in fact I was the one now “out” of the ordered ministry, having set aside ordination when the PCUSA began actively ordaining LGBT individuals. The pain is deep on all sides of this divide.
I recall the days when the denomination’s commitment to have “all voices present at the table” included those who could not be ordained because of the PCUSA’s “fidelity and chastity standard.” When that standard was removed others of us could no longer, in good conscience, remain ordained. Where then is the concern that the conservative voice not be lost in the conversation?
John Sanger and I agree on many things. But on many things we do not agree. We are mutually committed to seeing the Presbyterian Church (USA) be faithful to her calling in Christ. We do not agree on the vision for that calling. We are mutually committed to seeing people’s lives transformed by the power of the Gospel. We do not agree on what “transformation” looks like nor necessarily on the content of the “gospel.” We are strangely similar in our dislocation from positions of recognized authority in the life of the denomination, and yet we each have national platforms from which to seek change. And still, the change we seek is diametrically opposed.
I appreciate John’s candor and look forward to the next divine intersection of our lives. I am confident that he prays for me and I for him. Which yes, may seem queer to some, but therein lies the point his sermon sought to make. We are not trying to set up straw men that are easily knocked over. We are seeking to discern and be conformed to the Truth of God’s holy calling. One of us is wrong. One of us is deluded. One of us is bearing false witness. One of us is leading people down a path of destruction. But both of us will stand one day before the Lord and give an account. Between here and there we will speak the truth in love to one another – recognizing that the battle is not against flesh and blood – but a battle rages none the less.
Today, let us expect the unexpected and anticipate miracles. The impasse at which we now stand is impossible for us to bridge, but nothing is impossible for God.