Not Your Kids

by Abigail Conley

A story flashes across my screen. Philando Castile. Charleena Lyles.

“Not your kids,” a voice says from somewhere inside.

It’s the voice of relief, a promise really, “not your kids.”

June is Pride Month, so there’s an array of rainbow everything on that same screen.

Pictures of happy couples, of families with moms or dads, of chestfeeding and breastfeeding, of pronoun etiquette and label etiquette. Amid those happy pictures, happy shares of stories, there are stories of rejection intermingled.

“Not your kids,” says the same voice from deep inside. I rest assured that my LGBTQ+ kids know they’re safe at church, if nowhere else.

I know the hijabs the little girls wear set them apart from their friends and neighbors. I know the color of their skin does, too. Their families are from Pakistan. I cannot imagine what many of them have been through in their lives. These Muslim children joyfully welcome their Christian neighbors, snuggling up to the adults who are more familiar. I wonder how often they are not safe outside these walls.

“Not your kids,” comes the same voice.

This is the echo of privilege. The fears that accompany so many people do not accompany my kids—the ones from my church, the ones of my own I may have some day.

Children seem to be the great equalizer among people. Children are easier to play with and easier to talk to. They seem to more easily embrace any adult willing to play with them. They worry less about language barriers. My Spanish is even perfect for hanging out with preschool kids, where I can quiz them on colors and shapes.

I remember a plea made in my own denomination that stopped some of the fighting about LGBTQ+ welcome: our kids are dying.

Even the naysayers realized that’s the worst sort of pain.

The voice comes often, “Not your kids.”

If it’s not your kids, it’s easy to forget the sort of desperation that comes with it is your kids. It’s the kind of desperation that dragged Jairus from his home to find a man he’d only heard about. It’s the kind of desperation that made him pull Jesus along with him through the city streets, to a house where mourning had already begun. It’s the desperation that will do anything to save a child’s life.

“Not your kids,” will echo, again. Our privilege will remind us of the fears we don’t have for our children. I wonder, can we learn the answer, “But they’re somebody’s kids”?

Christ on the Cushion

by Joe Nutini

When I was a child, my parents sent me to Catholic schools. This was both a blessing and a curse. It was a blessing because I received a wonderful, college preparatory education that did indeed prepare me to go to college. I loved college.  I also loved Christ. Like seriously. I was in love with Christ. From the time, I was quite young, I felt the energy of Christ deep within my heart. It was instantaneous. It didn’t require any understanding of doctrine, bible etc. It was just there.

I became a social worker. My education and the love that was in my heart because of knowing the energy of Christ (and perhaps even angels and other “heavenly” beings) led me to that path. Buddhism increased my awareness of Christ. It brought me back to Christ’s energy and love. It also brought me back to myself, to my own heart and to forgiveness.

That’s where I am right now. To get there, though, was quite the journey. The curse of being in the Catholic school, was that as I got older, conservative and literalist doctrine began to enter my soul as a poison. I will add this caveat before I continue. I understand that for some people, conservative and literalist doctrine and biblical interpretation is what “Saves” them. That wasn’t my experience. Though I respect that it is for some.

When I was quite young, I also remembered feeling like I should have been born a boy. I literally thought that my body would look like my fathers and not my mothers. Somewhere in early childhood, I also learned not to say that I felt like a boy. I just knew it was a “Sin” per the powers that be. Just like I knew that two men kissing was supposed to be “sinful”. I kept it to myself. A secret. Mom and Dad told me I was a girl, so I decided to be one.

As time went on, I became a pro at religion class. I always had an A in that class. I was fascinated by it because I had intrinsically known spirit since the time I was young. I wanted people to explain things to me. I wanted to try to understand what was happening. Sometimes, I would argue or debate with the teacher. I didn’t believe all the stories. I didn’t believe that Adam and Eve were the only humans and they populated the earth. I didn’t necessarily believe that Jesus had to die on a cross. It just didn’t really fit for me. And so, I wanted to learn more. To see what I was missing.

I received confirmation when I “came of age” as a teenager. I believed in Christ and what I felt was a certain spirituality to the universe. I also didn’t want to go to hell, if I’m being honest. Back then I wasn’t sure if there was a hell or not but the adults kept saying there was. I wanted to do the right thing by this energy that was with me through all the troubles that I felt. I wanted to make Christ happy. I did what the church told me to do. It was a beautiful ceremony and we had a party.

At this time, I also became aware of my queer (at that time we said bisexual) feelings. I had been in puberty early and it felt like torture. I didn’t understand why my body was betraying my spirit and mind. I kept it to myself. I prayed for these feelings to go away. It was a sin. The more I did this, the further and further away Christ felt. That energy, that love, that guiding force in my life started to slip away. In hindsight, I realized I had been betraying myself. When I was 13-14, I didn’t know better.

When I was a senior in high school, my best friend and I wrote a feature edition of our school paper on LGBTQ youth. The religion teachers let us give a survey out on sexuality and gender identity. Right before we were going to print, I was called to the “brothers’” offices. They basically said that, “this issue doesn’t exist here.” They meant that there were no LGBTQ people. I told them that wasn’t true. That I was bisexual. IT just fell out of my mouth. It was the most freeing thing in the world. I felt my heart fill with that energy and love again, for a moment. I was told that I was confused, wrong and that if I engaged in “homosexual acts” I could be excommunicated from the church.

It felt like poison. Every fiber of my being rejected their words. I decided to no longer be Catholic.

In college, I began reading about every religion and spiritual belief that I could find. That included new age spirituality and Buddhism. I wanted to find out what was going on. I couldn’t believe that the God they taught me about in school was the same God who created me. Absolutely not. I figured that maybe I was wrong. That there was no Christ energy or holy spirit. So, I studied, I attended various religious and spiritual services and I began meditation.

During those years, I was a mess until I began transitioning. Even after coming out as queer, I still felt so distant from that love I had known as a child and young teen. It felt miles away. Something that was unattainable. When I came out, it felt slightly closer. When I transitioned, my life changed. I meditated and chanted in Buddhist and Hindu traditions. I attended healing arts school where this was solidified. I was invited into some native American spaces to learn their teachings.

Yet something was still missing. I could feel that I was in touch with the love of the universe again. And yet, that Christ energy was missing. It felt like an emptiness. So, I began exploring Christianity once more. I spoke with literalists who debated with me, stating that I didn’t understand the scripture or bible. So, I studied it with them, pointing out linguistic differences from my studies in college, debating meaning and syntax. I hung out with Unity and Unitarian Universalists who helped me understand and heal from some of my experiences. I met people from the United Church of Christ who explained their understanding of Christ. I met liberation theologians who, like the UUs and UCC folks, made the most sense to me intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.

And then I found Shambhala Buddhism. I read the book, Shambhala, the Sacred Path of the Warrior by Chogyam Trungpa, the person who brought this form of Buddhism to the US. He was literally saying everything that I had thought and felt for many years. I viewed a talk about “Jesus as Bodhisattva”, a concept that I had read about before but didn’t quite understand as well before.

So, I decided to take Shambhala classes. I distinctly remember sitting in the first class. We meditated for hours. I couldn’t shake this feeling that it was I who had been blocking myself from fully feeling the world. I had internalized these poisonous messages that I had heard for a good portion of my life.

I breathed in, when I breathed out, I found Christ again. It was a distinct feeling, so hard to describe. Like putting the last piece into a puzzle and being on fire at the same time. The intensity of it lasted for a moment then dissipated. A chunk of the poison left me and in its place, was this gentle love. A love that came from both within me and outside of me.

Today, I continue to work on undoing these teachings that kept me so far away from this Universal love, the love of Christ, and the love or Buddha nature within. I personally believe these are also complexly intertwined and simultaneously always available to me. I still learning, debating, meditating, praying and learning. I often wonder if these things happened for a reason…a journey to build empathy, love and relationship with others.

Why Religious Liberty Compels Me to Serve Everyone

by Ryan Gear

The Orlando tragedy raised the stakes between LGBTQ rights and religious liberty. The worst mass shooting in U.S. history targeted a gay club, and it did not take place in a vacuum. Far from being an isolated act, the massacre is an eruption of violence out of the heated rhetoric against the LGBTQ community that has come from politicians and pulpits alike, around the world and in the U.S.

Those who deny shared responsibility would have to prove that Dr. King’s assassination had nothing to do with racism and that date rape has nothing to do with a “bro culture” of misogyny. The Orlando mass shooting took place in a time of intense political and religious rhetoric against the LGBTQ community, one in which some business owners go so far as to seek legal grounds to deny service to same sex couples. As we have learned from every civil rights struggle, rejecting and demonizing others breeds violence, both physical and verbal, and now the families of the 50 shooting victims are grieving the loss of their loved ones.

In his June 8 Arizona Republic op-ed, Alliance Defending Freedom attorney Jonathan Scruggs suggested that religious liberty entitles business owners to deny service to same sex couples on religious grounds. Mr. Scruggs represents the owners of Brush & Nib Studio owned by two women who self-identify as Christians and sell customized art, including pieces used in weddings. The owners are suing the City of Phoenix, claiming that the city’s anti-discrimination law, requiring their business to serve same sex couples, is a violation of their religious liberty.

I used to see this issue similarly to Alliance Defending Freedom, but I changed my mind.

I grew up in a conservative evangelical Christian home in the 1980s and 90s, with my views of the Bible, politics, and the LGBTQ community formed by the likes of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. While a student in high school, however, my views were confronted with new evidence. I discovered that two of my close friends were gay. Confusing to me, they simply did not fit the description of a person who is gay that had been given to me by Religious Right televangelists. After knowing them for years, I found it hard to believe they chose to be gay. In fact, I knew one my friends didn’t quite fit the normal boy-girl mold when we were in the first grade. I was confident that he didn’t make a choice prior to being six years old, and I struggled to make sense of my religious views in light of my friendships.

Then, for an entire week during my sophomore year of high school, I witnessed a young male student endure a level of bullying on the school bus route that I will never forget. One Monday afternoon, the school bus stopped to drop off this young man at his house, and a few of the kids on the bus spontaneously began chanting “faggot” at him as he walked toward the front of the bus. Every day that week, the number of students joining in the chant grew, and by Friday, nearly every student on the bus was yelling “faggot” at this young man for a solid minute. It was a painfully long time. After dropping him off on Friday, the bus driver finally put a stop to it. Thankfully I can say that I never joined in the chant, but I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t defend him either. Perhaps that’s one reason I feel compelled to speak out now.

After several years of dissonance between my fundamentalist upbringing and my daily experience of life, while already serving as a pastor in my mid-twenties, I had a crisis of faith. For the first time, I began seeking answers to the questions I had sidestepped earlier. Among other theological issues, some of my questions centered on how we interpret the Bible on issues like science, women’s rights, and LGBTQ rights. I also realized that certain Bible passages seem to be used more than others for political purposes. Regarding LGBTQ rights, I could only make sense of my experience of the world and my questions about the Bible by recognizing the dignity and worth of each person in the LGBTQ community, and I affirm loving, committed same sex relationships.

The questions I asked in my twenties apply directly to the current debate surrounding religious liberty in America, and there are several points I believe Christians must consider.

First, in contrast to the view of the Bible I had been taught as a child, that the Bible was essentially written by God and that apparent contradictions could be harmonized to make the Bible read like a logically airtight divine term paper, I began to see the human influence on the Bible. In fact, the Bible is a collection of books written by various authors, more like a library than a term paper, and no one would expect all of the works in a library to agree with one another on every topic.

Second, regardless of what each Christian believes about same sex relationships, almost no American Christian obeys all New Testament commands. For example, in 1 Corinthians 11, Paul cites six reasons women should wear head coverings during worship gatherings. Of course, very few American Christians retain this practice. Also in this passage, it seems that women are permitted to pray and prophesy during worship, while in 1 Corinthians 14:34, women are commanded to remain silent. Again, this raises questions about biblical authority and how to thoughtfully interpret the Bible consistently. The role of women in worship is still a difficult subject for many Christians.

Third, regarding same sex relationships, compared to the controversy surrounding the issue in our culture, the Bible says shockingly little about them, and the context of these verses is extremely important. There are over 31,000 verses in the Bible — only six or seven of those appear to condemn same-sex relationships. Sometimes referred to as the “clobber passages” because of their unfortunate misuse, these passages were influenced by ancient culture, as was the whole of the Bible.

In contrast, over 2,000 verses in the Bible address the injustice of poverty. If one were determined to pass laws based on the Bible, legislation giving greater opportunity to the poor would likely be first on the list. Unfortunately, it seems that instead of addressing poverty, some leaders and groups have used these six or seven clobber passages out of 31,000 verses for political purposes.

The American understanding of religious liberty means that we are each free to hold our own religious views regarding LGBTQ rights. In fact, the pilgrims who settled the earliest American colonies immigrated to the New World to escape theocracy. The earliest settlers in the colonies were religious separatists who did not want to be forced to worship in the state sponsored Church of England. To them, religious liberty meant that they could practice their own religion instead of being forced to practice the religion of the state.

This is at least partially why, in American courts, religious liberty has generally not been used as grounds for a business owner to deny service to her or his customers.

A 2016 report from The Leadership Conference finds:

“Courts have generally declined to recognize a religious right to discriminate that would trump a government’s interest in combating discrimination. In a 2013 case involving a wedding photographer, the New Mexico Supreme Court unanimously upheld a finding that the business had violated the state’s human rights ordinance by refusing to photograph a same-sex couple’s commit­ment ceremony.

In a concurring opinion, Judge Richard Bosson wrote that the business owners ‘are free to think, to say, to believe, as they wish, they may pray to the God of their choice and follow those commandments in their personal lives wherever they lead.’ But, he said, in operating a business, the owners have to channel their conduct, calling it a compromise that “is part of the glue that holds us together as a nation, the tolerance that lubricates the varied moving parts of us as a people.” It is, he wrote, “the price of citizenship.”

In the United States, business owners cannot legally deny service to persons based on their religious differences or sexual orientation, and the Phoenix anti-discrimination law will likely be upheld. Religious liberty does not entitle a business owner to deny service to any population.

Religious liberty does mean, however, that Christian business owners have the freedom to wrestle with issues of biblical interpretation according to their own consciences, as long as they do not infringe upon the rights of others. In fact, it is the American concept of religious liberty that gave me the freedom to change my mind and affirm the dignity, worth, and rights of same sex couples.

Review – Nomad: A spirituality for travelling light

by Ryan Gear

Brandan Robertson has written a book, just released in the UK, that any spiritually searching, thoughtful person can appreciate. This includes evangelicals, the expression of Christianity with which Brandan identifies. Contrary to some who have questioned their faith, Nomad is an honest story of a spiritual journey that has not left the author cynical. Brandon can’t be smugly written off with a label. There is no hint of academic elitism in his writing. He has not forsaken the Bible or become “just another one of those liberals.”

It’s clear from reading Nomad that Brandan loves God and the Scriptures and that he simply brave enough to say (or write) what many evangelicals are too afraid to admit… they have questions.

I first heard Brandan’s story when he shared it on a Sunday morning with the church I founded, One Church in Chandler, Arizona (onechurch.com). I can personally attest to his humble spirit and the grace that he writes about so beautifully in chapter 13. Brandon is not angry or vindictive. He is a loving, open-minded, young man who is an inspiration to anyone who wants to work out her or his salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12).

In the early chapters, Brandan tells his story of coming to faith in Christ in a high-octane fundamentalist KJV-only church when he was a teenager. He was so hungry to grow in his new relationship with Christ that he watched Charles Stanley before going to school in the morning. The church was a new family for him that modeled some level of love and healing in contrast to his hurting and dysfunctional family. Searching for belonging, he took on the same Bible-thumping ethos as his newly adopted church family. He began a teen evangelism, winning souls for Jesus and preaching against the Religious Right’s common enemies, abortion and homosexuality.

But then…

Questions.

Chapter 6 is the turning point of Nomad and of Brandan’s life. I love Brandan’s description of his first encounter with doubt while watching a History Channel Easter special at 13 years old (58). He was terrified that Jesus may not have been raised from the dead, but at 13, sobbed with relief at the fact that the Gospel of Matthew reported otherwise. Still in early teens, Brandan absorbed his church’s commitment to biblical inerrancy, but the doctrine would not go unquestioned forever.

Brandan addresses the common conservative evangelical conundrums of biblical contradictions, Bible class questions, and the favorite apologetics buzz phrase “absolute truth.” I was reminded of how tortured I felt as a teenager trying to make the Bible a cohesive document, like a term paper dropped out of heaven.

He identifies with so many serious-minded young evangelicals who learn to become intellectual circus acrobats as they try to harmonize Bible verses that clearly contradict one another. In fact, the term contradiction carries negative connotations, while the Bible is actually a collection of books, a library, and no one expects every book in a library to agree on every topic. The biblical books are more like a conversation, sometimes even an argument, than a term paper.

Later in his teens, Brandan bravely and honestly acknowledged his questions. He writes, “The beliefs that we once held to be absolute and certain suddenly become subjective and unclear. The answers that we once held to so tightly dissolve and new, terrifying questions emerge” (56-57).

In my own experience, once a crack of intellectual honesty appears in the dam, it won’t be long before a flood of questions rush through, breaking apart what was once thought to be an immoveable concrete wall. Honestly acknowledging the first question begins the journey of the spiritual nomad.

Brandon then relays his story of discovery, becoming acquainted with church history and the ancient rhythms of a spiritual life that were ignored in his conservative evangelical church. He studied Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Anglicanism. He became aware of a new world of Christian history, belief, and practice.

He points out what many evangelicals are becoming aware of, that Christianity is much larger than one particular Baptist-y megachurch, and in fact, evangelical megachurches are still a minority in global Christianity:

“In the churches I grew up in, there was absolutely no sense of tradition or a broader narrative we participated in. Instead, we focused on our communities’ autonomy and God’s unique work in our midst. We were rarely connected to other churches in the area because all of us were focused on creating our own unique style and brand of Christianity” (83).

In chapter 11, the second major movement of Nomad is Brandan’s discovery of his fluid sexuality in his late teens. Of course, this is the current hot button issue in the U.S., and within American Christianity, one’s full acceptance or non-acceptance of LGBTQ persons is the litmus test of one’s orthodoxy.

Sadly, there will be evangelicals who write off Brandan’s spiritual journey due to their judgment of his sexuality. This is tragic, and one that will ultimately count as their loss. Brandon is a sweet-spirited, grace-filled evangelist who will likely lead a megachurch in the future. His humble and loving presence will win over many detractors, but unfortunately, some will not even give Brandan or Nomad the chance.

Those who do will discover an inspiring leader and communicator who does his best to live out his understanding of the Eucharist in chapter 12. It is one of the simplest and best descriptions of the Gospel you will read:

“The first was that at the Table of the Lord where the Eucharist was served, all people are equal… For one moment of time, all of us stood on level ground. All our prejudices and biases were forced to fade into the background. We came together as one broken but connected body in need of grace” (113).

“The Eucharist also reminded early believers of a second truth – the pattern of life that they were to live. When Christ commanded us to do this ritual ‘to remember and proclaim his death until he comes again’, he was asking us to remember the way of life that he lived and to follow him in it” (114).

The remaining chapters of Nomad, “Grace,” “Journey,” and “Wonder” offer practical examples of how Brandan attempts to live this eucharistic lifestyle. He tells a stirring story of reconciling with his abusive father after his father’s arrest and release. Brandan finishes his story with an invitation to journey through the questions, citing that the narrative arc of Scripture is one of a journey, and the only way to travel is with an attitude of wonder.

At its heart, Brandan’s honest sharing of his journey is an invitation to all readers, not to necessarily begin a new spiritual journey, but to be honest about the journey they are already on.

Mother’s Day Musings

by Karen Richter

I kinda hate Mother’s Day.  There are reasons:

  • My family – and many many other families – feels pressure to spend money for things I don’t need to show their appreciation.
  • Progressive churches feel pulled in multiple ways: to recognize and appreciate mothers, to honor people who are nurturing others in various ways, to affirm persons who are not parents, to make some nod in the direction of gender equality and the feminist movement, to give at least passing attention to the neglected feminine images of the divine in our scripture and tradition. We end up doing none of these well.
  • I imagine that in a less patriarchal culture, Mother’s Day wouldn’t need to exist at all. In fact, I suspect that the more we wax nostalgic about motherhood, the less the actual, real life work of women is valued. More concretely, when we have an emotional attachment to the sacrifices parents (particularly women) make for their children’s benefit, we don’t push for public policies that makes families’ lives easier.
  • I’m encouraged to leave the dishes in the sink… “After all, it’s Mother’s Day!” which in some years just means that they are waiting for me on Monday morning.

Like many of us who think purposefully (and perhaps too often) about theology and gender, I’m conflicted about the whole idea.

Yet this year, almost by accident, I agreed to plan worship for Mother’s Day. There are several of us at Shadow Rock, a mix of clergy, staff, lay members, and members in discernment, that tackle certain liturgical seasons and apply our creativity and inspiration to the lectionary to plan our time together on Sunday mornings.

And, almost with a little wink at my inner conflict, several things began stirring…

First, May 8 roughly coincides with the end of our exhibition of the Shower of Stoles project. Planning around Annual Meeting, we arranged to receive about 80 stoles of LGBTQ pastors, deacons, church staffers, and other faith leaders. Each stole tells a story. For some it’s a story of terrible pain and a loss to the church of a potential leader as someone was denied their ministry because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. For others, it’s a journey of questioning and struggle ending in wonderful affirmation.

As I read the stories attached to the stoles, my heart was enlarged, swollen with tenderness for the lives the stoles represent.

What if this story were my child’s story?

Then I looked at the gospel reading for this Sunday, May 8. It’s John 17.20-26. I’ve heard John Dorhauer preach movingly on this same passage. “The prayer of our dying Savior,” he says. But this time I heard something different… a parent preparing to leave her children.

“I ask…  that they may all be one.”

It’s good that I must leave you, Jesus says. You will go on to learn so much more, he promises. Are they really ready to live their faith independently, without the guidance of Jesus? Four times in this section of John’s Gospel, Jesus prays for unity. Do you feel his conflict? Anguish: at having to leave behind these dear friends, these precious beloved students and Confidence: with faith in their continued growth and guidance into all truth (16.13).

He sounds like Mom.

The final movement for me was a parenting meme I ran across online:

child's inner voice

Next week, we celebrate Pentecost, the arrival of the Holy Spirit. This anticipation, too, tied in to the growing idea of Jesus the Mother. As a parent, I hope that my children have absorbed the best of my instruction and attitude as their inner voice. I pray that as adults, they hear my voice from the times when I was accepting and encouraging, peaceful and faith-filled… rather than the times when I failed to express my best intentions. And I wonder if, in the Garden in the midst of this prayer, Jesus wondered about the voice his friends and subsequent generations of Jesus People would hear as their inner voice, the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit.

Now I don’t know if Sunday’s service will reflect in any way this series of ideas and stirrings that have happened for me as I wrote liturgy, prayed, and planned. Who knows what will happen in the hearts and minds of those gathered in the pews? I trust the Spirit will do what it will.

Happy Mother’s Day.

Joyous Pentecost.

May they be for us One Celebration… not of chocolates and Pajamagrams and brunch but love and fire and unity. Amen.

It’s About Love

by Jeffrey Dirrim

Ruth 1:16-17 Message (MSG)
But Ruth said, “Do not pressure me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die— There will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!”

On the morning of October 17, 2014, U.S. District Judge John W. Sedwick’s ruled on two federal cases, declaring Arizona’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. Arizona’s Attorney General Tom Horne advised the state would not appeal the ruling and instructed the county clerks to immediately begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

That evening, there were tears of joy flowing like a fountain at our UCC Southwest Conference office in central Phoenix. Everyone in the packed room and those listening from speakers outside cheered as our then Conference Minister, Rev. Dr. John Dorhauer, announced to a standing-room only crowd that he had performed Arizona’s first legal gay marriage ceremony. As is John’s nature, he quickly turned the attention away from himself and focused on the true meaning of that historic day. “It’s about love,” he said.

The Spirit was thick in the room and I feel it now as I recall hearing that simple sermon over and over again. I first heard it on the radio that morning through Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton’s voice as he witnessed a judge marrying a gay couple in his office. I saw nervous brides and grooms at the Maricopa County Courthouse receiving this message when offered free flower bouquets and celebratory bubbles by Dena Covey and other laity. I first heard it in person while taking pictures for fellow clergy members Barbara and Rich Doerrer-Peacock as they co-officiated a lesbian couple’s service on the front steps of that same courthouse. And I read them in a beautifully colored sign waved gleefully by a young daughter as I married her two moms late in the afternoon.

The book of Ruth shares the story of hope through the unlikely pairing of two destitute foreign women. During a bleak famine in Naomi’s homeland of Judah, her family decides to move to the pagan land of Moab. Instead of answered prayers, she finds more misery over the course of the next decade. Her husband dies, her two sons marry Moabite wives, and neither marriage brings her grandchildren. Naomi feels God has judged her too as both of her sons die. It is in the deep grief of these tragedies Naomi decides to return home to Bethlehem.

Ruth is the young poor Moabite widow of Naomi’s son Mahlon. She understands the hopelessness shared by the much older and wiser Naomi who tries to persuade her to stay in Moab. But determined to support her, no matter the outcome, Ruth accompanies Naomi home responding “where you go, I’ll go.” There Ruth is working in the fields during the next harvest when a wealthy landowner by the name of Boaz first sees her. Based on the customs at the time Boaz is able to act as a brother to Naomi and eventually he marries Ruth. Like any good soap opera, Naomi’s shenanigans play a part leading to Ruth’s wedding. It isn’t until the conclusion of their misery-filled story we learn they have played a part in bringing God’s plan together for the future of the Israelites. Through Ruth’s and Boaz’s son Obed, father of Jesse, Naomi becomes the great-grandmother of King David and is a direct ancestor of Jesus. It’s a surprise to find that hope can be found in hopelessness.

What is hope? It’s expressed through the imperfect lives of Ruth and Naomi as being faithful, patient, trusting, kind, selfless, and even strong in conviction. It’s believing God will provide in the midst of great tragedy. It’s knowing in those seemingly Godless moments that we have a purpose and we keep moving forward. Hope is God’s love for each of us.

As we celebrate the first anniversary of legal same-gender marriages in Arizona, we’ll be celebrating it with newlyweds Nelda Majors and Karen Bailey. Nelda and Karen were the lead plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit that eventually overturned Arizona’s ban on gay marriage. In fact, Nelda and Karen were the first couple to receive a marriage license in Arizona. Karen told me the nuptials that followed a short time later “were a celebration.” They have publicly shared how they lived their lives in hope, but never really thought they would be allowed to legally wed. Nelda and Karen, like most of Arizona’s lesbian and gay couples who’ve married over the last year, have been together a long time. The State’s recognition of their relationship is simply an affirmation of what God has witnessed for decades.

Their journey began during the late 1950s with a new college friendship. Within the first year they became a couple and have now been together longer than they’ve been apart. Nelda and Karen share a love story of light even in the darker times they spent living in the closet. What I’ve witness in them is a faithful pairing. Two people that stuck together, determined to move beyond the odds. Two people that created a beautiful family. Two people whose heartfelt confidence in each other led to creating a better world for the rest of us. It’s true there are similarities between their journey and Ruth and Naomi’s story. While sweet, that is not what I’m left discerning on this historic anniversary.

I’m wondering why so many couples identify with the Ruth and Naomi story? Is it the early tragedies they feel and/or the hope they seek? Or are they merely wanting confirmation of a happy ending before they promise to stick around through thick and thin? While life is beautiful, the Bible reminds us it isn’t fair. And where do we fit in the story? Is it possible that Nelda’s and Karen’s journey offers us Naomi’s sage wisdom? What a wonderful representation of Naomi that would be today! And If so, does that mean we are Ruth in relationship to them? If our postmodern Christian faith rests in a call to action, what are we supposed to be doing after all the cameras have gone and we start moving toward Karen and Nelda’s second anniversary?

One of the most powerful pieces of the marriage liturgy we celebrate through Rebel & Divine UCC is a moment after the vows when the spouses are asked to turn and face all of those present. They recognize their chosen family of witnesses and realize, sometimes for the first time, who is there to support them. AND THEN the community creates a covenant with them. Through love they promise the newlyweds to be there in both good times and bad. The covenant is supportive, patient, forgiving, trusting, steadfast, and loyal. It recognizes the divinity within love. Acknowledges it is bigger than all of us. Knowing wherever we find love, we find God, and it is holy. Whether straight, gay, or somewhere in between.

Maybe the story of Ruth is calling us to do the hard back-breaking work in the fields as she once did? Can our first anniversary gift to Arizona’s same-gender loving newlyweds be a promise? Can we join with our churches to keep pushing our southwestern states toward full LGBTQ equality? First, by fighting for justice in healthcare, taxes, housing, adoption, and employment? Second, by practicing kindness through intentionally finding ways to recognize the milestones in the lives of LGBTQ families with simple rituals? Third, by remaining hopeful in the midst of great social change? This weekend we celebrate how our diversity makes us stronger. Ruth remained steadfast and loyal while living into a difficult decision and new way of living. Her patience rewarded everyone. Will we follow her lead?

PRAYER
Where You Go, I’ll Go! Ever faithful God of many names, languages, and voices. Help us to move beyond current laws and perspectives as we live into a hope-filled new world. A heaven on earth where we recognize you in our love for each other. This weekend we celebrate the first anniversaries of legally wed same-gender couples in Arizona. In doing so we ask you to bless them and all of the couples (straight, gay, and somewhere in between) whose life journeys are lovingly leading them toward the ever-evolving institution of marriage. Amen and let it be so.

 

Why We Need to Say It

by Tyler Connoley

Shortly after Pope Francis visited the United States, the news-o-sphere exploded when lawyers for Kim Davis, the county clerk who gained national attention for her opposition to same-gender marriage, announced the Pope had met secretly with Davis and commended her for her courage. Initially, the Vatican refused to comment on the meeting, and in subsequent days they made statements saying Davis was part of a larger group and did not receive a private audience.

We may never know what really happened that day, because there appear to have been no cameras, sound recordings, or videos, and its now a matter of “he said, she said.” However, for millions of LGBT people in the world, the meeting confirmed they already believed — all Christians, be they conservative protestants or environmentalist Catholics, are anti-gay. Christians, so the common wisdom goes, can disagree on many things, but they will always come together on their hatred of LGBT people.

Now, I can hear you spluttering already: I’m not anti-gay! My church is welcoming of everyone! I belong to the UCC, because I love how affirming they are of LGBT people!

I’m sure that’s true. What I’m highlighting is how Pope Francis and Kim Davis helped fuel the common misperception that all Christians are anti-gay — even you.

And that’s why we have to say it. It’s not enough to say, “We welcome everyone,” because LGBT people will assume that doesn’t mean them. We’ve been burned too many times by people who appeared liberal on issues like homelessness and the environment, but remain firmly opposed to same-gender relationships. We’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop, and when we hear that the Pope met with Kim Davis, we think, “Of course. That makes sense to me.”

So, does your church celebrate everyone? And when you say that, do you mean people in gay relationships and people whose gender is queer? If so, then you better say it directly, because their are a lot of LGBT people who assume you don’t mean them when you say, “all are welcome.”

They Don’t Need Glitter

by Jeffrey Dirrim

Matthew 5:47-48 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

“And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

The smell of wet glue and drying paint lingered near the kitchen table filled with new arts and craft projects.  My sister asked if I could tell which of the creative pieces had been made especially for me? I nodded no and then she slowly began to point out all the ones with glitter. We hadn’t yet talked to the kids about my sexuality, but as an out gender-queer gay person I chuckled with her at what my young nieces and nephew had seemingly picked up on.

I’m not personally a fan of glitter, but it’s been around a long time. It can be traced all the way back to cave paintings in 40,000 B.C.  Ancient civilizations (including the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans) used it. It’s quite possible glitter could have been a part of any number of our Bible stories. Maybe the dramatic Bathsheba wore it in shimmering make up long before the androgynous Ziggy Stardust in the early 1970’s? Maybe the prodigal son had celebrated with it like the New York City club kids did in the 1990’s?

The at-risk and homeless LGBTQ youth I minister with LOVE glitter for all the reasons I don’t. Glitter reflects light, it covers up imperfections, and it has a dark side. Yes a dark side, because it gives a false impression. For these beloved youth, glitter brings sanctuary. Through their experiences they’ve been taught they’re unattractive, unworthy, and disposable. The glitter hides deep scars and makes the ugliness of their world appear more beautiful. God knows they deserve some beauty.

Skylar Lee became a statistic this week. He was a 16-year old high school student and transgender advocate with a bright future. He was an accomplished writer and had just published a story about his difficult journey to self-discovery. Identifying as a queer transgender person of color, he found it difficult to survive while sharing messages of hope to other young struggling trans teens. Last Monday Skylar posted a suicide note on Tumblr and then took his own life. Social media was abuzz.

We act surprised. We grieve. But let’s keep it real. A 2014 analysis of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey by the Williams Institute found that more than 50% of the students who were bullied in school due to anti-transgender bias had attempted suicide. If that wasn’t bad enough, the number of reported suicide attempts jump to 78% for students who’ve experienced physical or sexual violence at school. And surveys of shelters in 2011 & 2012 found that 40% of homeless teens identified as LGBT. That number is staggering when you consider what a small percentage of homeless teens actually identify as LGBT. These are our children. Why are we so apathetic to their plight? Why do we reinforce the negative lessons they’ve learned, through our silence? Why aren’t we diligently working to create positive systemic changes for them? Why don’t we realize they’re dying?

The Hebrew word for “perfect” is “tamiym.” It’s translated as without blemish, whole, and complete.  I believe our LGBTQ youth/young adults are perfect. They’re almost all survivors of the worst neglect and/or abuses. I thank God every day for the miracle that they are still alive, and fighting to remain so. A few have served time in prison, a few have issues with alcohol and/or drugs, a few sell their bodies for food and shelter; and I’d like to believe in God’s eye’s they all remain unblemished. We need to be the adults. We need to take responsibility for relegating so many of our own children to the gutter. We’re the imperfect ones, we should be carrying their scars.

In faith we are asked if we are greeting anyone besides our own brothers and sisters.  We are asked to move into perfection ourselves by caring for the unlovable stranger. I’ve heard it preached that perfection in the Bible is often referred to as blameless.  Skylar Lee was blameless. We failed to teach Skylar of his worth and now he’s gone. No doubt there will soon be another announcement of an LGBTQ youth/young adult committing suicide.

Isn’t Skylar’s life enough?  What are we going to do? What are our churches going to do? When will we attempt to move toward perfection by making a difference in the lives of today’s LGBTQ youth and young adults? They don’t need glitter. They need us.

PRAYER

While dreaming of a world where glitter is no longer needed, we pray to our unlimited and unconditionally loving God. You have called us toward perfection. May we be moved toward you by loving the unlovable. May we be moved toward you by giving voice to those told they are disposable. Move us through our complacency to action as we bring health, wholeness, and justice to our LGBTQ children. Amen, let it be so.

DID YOU KNOW?

The first American transgender suicide helpline, entirely staffed by transgender people, has just opened. God’s transgender children can call the Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860.  Please share some light and spread the word.

How My Gay Brothers and Sisters Bolster My Faith

by Ken McIntosh

My gay sisters and brothers have given me a tremendous gift—they are the witnesses that enable my own faith to withstand its most severe challenges.”

I begin this article with a confession. I should probably have used the #IWASKIMDAVIS hashtag for my Twitter and Facebook posts last month, because I’m one of those older ministers whose views have changed, and I’m chagrined to think of some of my past sermons and comments. My Christian life began in the Evangelical camp and I remained there for more than a decade. “You can only know what you know” and for years the only theological writings that I came across were of the typical and unfortunate category labeling “homosexuality” as a choice and a sin. Given that background, when I came across GLBT Christ followers, I could only see them as a challenge—challenging the presuppositions that I held.

My sister proved to be my salvation in this regard; without her I might still cling to a very limited view of God’s mercy, along with a hyper-literalist approach to the Bible. She has always been a model Christ-follower in our family (although I’m the one with the formal degree in theology). Simply by being herself, Joyce witnessed to me that my spiritual siblings who loved their partners of the same sex are as faithful to Christ and as transformed by the Spirit as I (nay, they are more so). And I’ve come to realize that my gay sisters and brothers have given me a tremendous gift—they are the witnesses that enable my own faith to withstand its most severe challenges.

As the culture wars heat up I’ve become intensely aware of how Christians get painted with a broad brush stroke. That came to a head a few weeks ago when a long-time friend told me “You’re not a Christian. If you choose that word to self-identify that’s your right, but I know Christians and you’re not that.” Now, she meant that as a compliment—her way of acknowledging that I’ve become a more inclusive and broad-minded person. But it also stung, because that accusation divides me within myself. Bombarded by the statements of right-wing politicians, preachers and ordinary believers, I struggle with doubts. Have I hit upon a truer faith now, or am I deluding myself to remain in a religion that has so long been characterized by oppression? Why couldn’t I have chosen a religion like Buddhism or Jainism that isn’t regarded as evil? Yes, I’m part of a big UCC family, with many inclusive fellow believers, but our numbers (around a million) are pretty small compared to more conservative groups like the Southern Baptists (15 times as many). And then I keep hearing old friends tell how they’ve left the faith and are so much more congruent embracing atheism (they do a good job evangelizing for their non-faith).

So am I crazy to keep believing? Thank God for the example of gay believers—they give me hope to keep on. If any group has reason to feel the sting of Christian guilt-by-association, it’s them. They’ve been told for centuries that their faith is illegitimate, that they are shameful and unloved by God. Yet their experience belies those lies and they continue to proclaim love for Jesus.

I read John Fortunato’s book Embracing the Exile: Healing Journeys of Gay Christians. He recounts the long and difficult struggle of growing up being both Catholic (sincerely devout) and gay. At one point he complains to God about his fellow believers saying “They call my light darkness! They call my love perverted! They call my gifts corruptions. What the hell are you asking me to do?” And then John Fortunato hears God’s voice, clear and unmistakable. “Love them anyway,” God said. “Love them anyway.”

I think of a trusted colleague in ministry, a gay man who reminds me that our calling is to assist all UCC churches to prosper—not just the Open and Affirming churches, not just the Progressive Churches—but all the churches in our conference.

I think of the young woman with a spikey hairdo in my church who wears a “Gay Christian” t-shirt and engages people in dialogue when they comment on that, taking on the role of an educator for the misinformed.

And if my gay companions can wear the label “Christian” despite the toxicity that’s been pinned onto that, then surely I can. Jesus is indeed fortunate to have such faithful followers—and I am blessed to be surrounded on earth by such witnesses.

If You Build It, They May Not Come

by Davin “Dax” Franklin-Hicks

Field of Dreams came out when I was 11 years old. I saw it on video when I was 13 and immediately used the line “If you build it, they will come” for comedy effect with my friends. It was a catchphrase and said at the right moment, it always got a good laugh. Because of the incessant use, it became hard wired in my brain. Sometimes I hear folks talking about a project or an effort they are involved in and that line runs through the back of my mind.

My access to places of worship and faith development post coming out as LGBT was very limited. I had been to a few congregations that expressed a welcome to LGBTQ folks. These churches, though, were largely made up of members who identify as LGBT and very few allies. This was disheartening to me. I wanted to be able to pick a faith community that I could grow spiritually in and not just choose one because they embrace my community. This is further proof to me that the most segregated hour in America is still on Sundays. And I had no desire to participate in that. Then I heard about the UCC and everything changed.

I became introduced to the UCC through the Pastor who served at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Tucson, AZ. She was an out, partnered lesbian, yet her ministry consisted of people from all walks of life; likely people that would never have sought each other out in the world outside the church. Members affirmed and celebrated each other. They advocated openly and unabashedly to ensure those who did not have access to rights would gain access to rights. They just were all so kind and open. It appeared to be church in action. So, I was suspicious. What’s the catch? Why are you guys being so nice to us? And the answer that came consistently was that we were part of them and they were a part of us.

The reason all these things happened is they made an intentional decision to become Open and Affirming, welcoming LGBTQ into the full life and ministry of the church. And I dug it. I shook off the suspicion and embraced the openness. It was delightful and rich. And still, many LGBTQ people would never come through those doors, simply because it’s far too painful. A friend of mine told me the story about her congregation’s decision to become Open and Affirming. They thought it was simply the right thing to do. And it created an expectation for some that the LGBTQ community would pour in. One person said, “I don’t get it. We say we are Open and Affirming. Why aren’t they coming?”

There are a whole host of reasons LGBT folks do not participate in organized religion. Some have experienced churches to express a welcome, only to be condemned when they do attend. The trauma of losing their faith community due to being LGBT is often triggered by churches. In short, many don’t trust us. And that makes perfect sense.

Addressing the trauma that results from faith based rejection is the role of the church. Healing, ministering, listening, affirming. It takes intention and it takes openness to achieve. The church is inviting those who have been wounded from ministers and church members to come to our churches. It is our responsibility to prepare a place for them that will truly heal.

If you build it, they may not come, but we, as the church, must build it still.

Davin “Dax” Franklin-Hicks is a proud member of the United Church of Christ. He was introduced to the UCC in 2003. His primary focus is in supporting those that have experienced trauma within spiritually based communities and/or rejection from family members due to being determined as unacceptable to God for various reasons. Dax had his own church-related trauma experiences after coming out as Queer, and later, as Transgender that included a disfellowship process from a rejecting congregation. What a breath of fresh air the UCC was after that experience.

In 2008, Dax transitioned from female to male, experiencing an incredible affirmation from his UCC congregation at the time, the former First Congregational United Church of Christ in Tucson. The grace and love he received during this coming out and transition process was a very healing experience.

Dax works in the field of recovery in Tucson, is a member of Rincon Congregational United Church of Christ, and currently serves on the Executive Board of the Southwest Conference. He has an amazing wife, Nancy, who is a member of Rincon and a Social Worker in hospice. They have a rockin’ awesome son, named Angelo, who is in his twenties and works in the helping field. He has a cat who shares his point of view nearly constantly, and a pit bull he kisses daily.