Answering Question 7B and How I Hope the United Methodist Church Will Change Its Ways

Today I am going to take a break from my blogging sabbatical to tell a story. It is a story I have told few people because A) It is so painful and B) I was afraid of what people would say.

But now the courage of 111 people who recently spoke their truth is giving me the courage face my pain and fear to speak my own truth.

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I grew up in the United Methodist Church. It was overall a wonderful experience. I was taught about Jesus by Sunday School teachers who loved me. I had a great cohort of friends in my youth group who helped me learn how to walk through adolescence as a person of faith. As I grew older and began to feel tugs towards ministry, the church provided opportunities for me to get my feet wet as a ministry leader. When I became certain of my call, the church cheered me on as I went through the steps that would lead me to become a fully ordained United Methodist Elder, a minster of Word and Sacrament.

If you are not familiar with the process of becoming a United Methodist minister, let me start by saying it is a long one. First your church gives you the thumbs up to become a candidate for ministry. Then larger denominational leaders and committees vet you and approve you. You go to seminary. You serve for a few years as a minister in a church. And then you write many essays about your theology, understanding of the Bible, and dozens of other things.

It was in the writing of these ordination papers that I got my first red flag about the UMC. Right between asking me about my theology and my understanding of the Bible, they asked me a different question. They asked (paraphrased) if I would live my life in such a manner that I would be a good example of what it means to follow Christ. You know, not cheating on my husband and living an all around upright life and all. I expected this question. I was only 24 and could only promise to do my best, but I wanted to be a good example of a Christ follower for others. Easiest question to answer out of all. Yes!

And then there was a part B to to question number seven that went something like this, “Are you a self-avowed, practicing homosexual?”

Wait, what? The Board of Ordained Ministry is asking me outright if I am gay? And the answer to this question determines whether I am living my life as a good Christian or not? The answer to this decides whether I will be ordained or not?

Now, I am not in fact gay. But this question troubled me deeply. My husband and I had several gay friends in school with us at seminary. We watched how that affected their lives and ministry.

One friend, who is one of the most talented, spirit-filled women I know, came out to us in our second year of seminary. You could tell she was scared to tell us, even though we were close friends. We cried with her after she told us she was gay. Not because we thought she was bad, but because we knew how hard life would be for her in the church. It was so hard in fact that after a couple of years of trying to find a way to minster and come out of the closet at the same time, she left the church altogether. She took her talents and spirit- filled self to the secular world. To this day I grieve for what a loss this was for the church.

Another friend came out to my husband about mid way through school. Though he had been deeply closeted he began to take tiny steps to share his identity with his teachers and church leaders (he was actually Baptist). These leaders shot down and shamed our friend. About a month later he attempted suicide. He felt so rejected, so hopeless, so wrong, he decided it was better to die than to live as he was. Thank God the attempt was unsuccessful. This friend also left the church. I grieve to this day for the pain and brokenness he has suffered at the hands of the church.

There were other friends. Friends who changed to more open denominations. Friends who buried themselves in the closet to live out their call. Friends who led almost two separate lives, hiding the truest part of themselves from their life’s work.

All these stories affected me deeply. So deeply that when it came time for me to answer question #7 part b, it was so hard that I almost couldn’t do it. I went to a friend and colleague who served on the board and asked what would happen if I left question 7b blank because I disagreed with it on principle. He told me outright, “Then you will not be ordained. You will be run out for siding with gay people.” (He said this not to be mean, or because he agreed with question 7b, but because it was true).

I finally answered question 7b, though it still felt wrong.  Looking back now I almost wish I had had the courage to refuse to answer and let the chips fall where they may.

I served as a United Methodist Minister for six years. In some ways they were wonderful years, and yet they were so hard and painful. I served in a denomination and more specifically a conference that was anti-gay. Whenever resolutions would come up at Annual Conference or General Conference, I sat in scared silence as I heard people not just oppose non-heterosexuals in ministry, but spew hatred about gays. I was terrified to be an ally in this hostile environment. Things were hard enough as a theologically progressive young woman. How much harder would it be if I spoke up for my brothers and sisters who were LGBTQ?

So I closeted myself as an ally and prayed for those who listened to that language and felt it drive them deeper into the closet. I knew it was wrong. I tried to make up for it by speaking about welcoming gays in my relatively progressive congregation (Open Hearts, Open Doors right?) But it wasn’t enough.

Year after year I felt the gap widen between my own heart’s conviction for justice and what I saw happening around me in my denomination. After six years I finally got the courage to step out of parish ministry and become a stay-at-home mom to my kids.

After leaving a job that dictated where I went to church, I found myself visiting an Episcopalian congregation that is known for its openness to people of all sexual orientations. It was like a weight was lifted off of me. I could finally live and worship in accord with my beliefs. I could actually be who I was in church.

After five years of family leave, I withdrew my membership from my conference of the United Methodist Church.

It was an incredibly painful decision. A decision I still grieve over today. But it is not a decision I regret. The UMC had become a place where I no longer felt comfortable living out my call.

This week I heard that 111 brave ministers, active UM ministers who identify themselves as something other than heterosexual, wrote a letter to the church asking it to change its policy towards the ordination of non-heterosexuals. This letter was submitted during General Conference, a quadrennial meeting of the entire denomination to rule on polity and other matters.

I knew that if 111 people could be brave enough to come out of the closet to their denomination and ask for acceptance rather than rejection of their gifts and call, the least I could do was add my voice as a “yes, please” along with theirs.

If you want to add your voice as well, click on the link here

https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1mihdWcQp5DKaRZH8hYvsDhcyniY4hKIipt88EPh_CpE/viewform

I don’t know if I will ever be a United Methodist minister again. But if the denomination of my childhood and early ministry were to choose justice over oppression and love over fear, I would be so grateful relieved. And maybe those years after answering 7B and which were lived in the midst of such hostility and oppression wouldn’t feel wasted after all.

 

 

 

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Celebrating the Small Steps

So I’ve mentioned before that I struggle with perfectionism and not feeling good enough. Recently I’ve had the chance to remember that I got these traits honestly (along with a whole host of good traits).

My dear mother had knee replacement surgery recently. She has just made it through her first two weeks of recovery, which I think is HUGE. But Mom, however, is not convinced. All along the way, in fact she has been a little hard on herself.

Take the moment her physical therapist taught her how to transition from using a walker to a cane. When mom took those first few steps with the cane, I was like a proud parent, clapping with joy at what the baby accomplished. Mom just looked at me like I was weird and kept trying to get her gait just right.

Yesterday Mom and Dad spent their first day without any outside help. I was a nervous wreck. Would they be okay? Could they make it on their own? After a day and half of wondering, I came to the end of myself and popped over at lunch to check on them.

“How did you do yesterday?” I not so casually asked. “Okay, I guess,” Mom replied. “I washed my hair. Did some laundry. Then your Dad and I went out and picked up Chinese to go.”

“Okay?” I’m thinking, “That’s AWESOME.” I guess I thought it so loudly it came out of my mouth. “Mom, that’s really awesome! I’m so proud of you.”

“You really think so?” she asks. “Everybody keeps saying I’m doing great, but I just don’t know.”

Now part of me totally gets where she is coming from. She is used to being a very active, on-the-go woman and now she is laid up at home. She is still limited in what she can do and she still doesn’t feel great most of the time. Knee surgery definitely takes its toll. She probably wishes the whole recovery was behind her and she could move on with life as normal.

But recovering from knee surgery doesn’t work that way. It’s a process. It a journey where you take two steps forward and one step back. You have good days and bad days. And this goes on for WEEKS if not months. No immediate results here.

Much the same is our spiritual journey. When we set out upon a time of healing or growth such as Lent, we have great expectations for ourselves. We want to get from our place of perceived lack to the place we think we should be and we want to get there FAST. Without any delays or missteps, please.

But of course that is not going to happen. Like any recovery or growth, it will be slow and sometimes painful. We will have good days and bad days. There will be two steps forward and one step back.

We may get discouraged or begin to beat up on ourselves.

But there is another way.

I had a chance to meet the beloved, brilliant Phyllis Tickle a few years ago at a conference. As she signed my copy of her prayer book for summertime, I was telling her how we used her daily prayer books at breakfast with our kids. A proud mother herself, Phyllis was intrigued. “Do the books work well with the children?” She asked. I got kind of sheepish and admitted that we didn’t say ALL the prayers or read ALL the scriptures for each day since the children’s attention spans didn’t allow for it. She said something in response I’ll never forget:

It is not the prayers you don’t say that are important. It is the prayers that you do say that matter. 

Oh, Phyllis. Thank you. Thank you for knowing how I beat myself up for all I don’t do and fail to celebrate what good there is in my life.

As you journey through Lent, I pray that you know this in your bones. It is not the things you neglect to do or mess up on that really matter. It is the small steps you are taking each day to grow into whom God made you to be.

And please know that God is not sitting around checking a watch wondering when you will get it together already.

On the contrary, God is cheering and clapping like crazy for every little new step you take like a proud, giddy parent. 

So during this season of self-examination, let’s all be a little easier on ourselves, why don’t we? None of us is perfect, but we are all doing good work. Even when we can’t see it.

But God can see it. And loves us relentlessly no matter what we do or don’t do.

And at the end of the day, that is what matters.

 

Sundays in Lent

I did not grow up in a highly liturgical church, so when I first began observing Lent, I thought of it as a 40 day block from start to finish. Whatever I gave up or took on or otherwise practiced, I did it straight on from Ash Wednesday till Easter.

Then I began attending an Episcopalian church where folks are old pros at practicing Lent. They shared some interesting info with me..

Lent doesn’t really include Sundays. I am not even sure if the Sundays are counted in the 40 days.

I mean Sundays are affected by Lent as we put up all the golden worship accouterments during Lent, say the confession every week, and don’t sing the Alleluia, but still. Sundays are different than other days during Lent.

If you have given up something for Lent, you may enjoy it on Sunday. Sundays are a day to take it a little easier, to be more joyful. To celebrate a little.

Why?

Because as one of my priests told us, every Sunday is a little Easter.

And Easters are for celebrating.

Feasting, not fasting.

I remember the year we gave up eating out for Lent and gave the money we saved to a hunger initiative. We still went out to eat after church every Sunday, because, well, little Easter.

I enjoyed those casual meals out as much or more than I have any fine dining experience. Because they were special. The exception.

Maybe that is part of why we fast from things. So that the feast has meaning.

When all of life is feast, we take the celebration for granted. It becomes more selfish gluttony than an intentional, joy-filled moment.

When all of life is fast we may get grim or self-righteous. Or just plain worn down by the effort of it all.

I hope you take a note from my Episcopalian friends and don’t forget to enjoy the little Easters each Sunday during Lent. In fact, they may become some of the more meaningful moments of your Lenten journey.

Happy Sunday Everyone!

 

The Day I Learned What It Is Like To Be a Minority

I had the privilege today of taking my daughter to her State Honors Chorus event. As the group from our school gathered to wait for the event to begin, I noticed that I was the only white person at the table. I would say that we were the only white family, but my daughter is Asian. As a Chinese person, she is almost always the only Asian around whatever table she is sitting at, so she is used to being a minority.

She comments sometimes about how it makes her feel weird or different. She definitely is aware of her skin color and cultural heritage and how it does and does not fit in with others around her. When she makes these comments we never tell her, “Oh, don’t worry, it doesn’t matter.” or “We love you and love makes us all the same.” Because frankly, it is just not true.

In the end she is different and it does matter. It does make a difference.

Me and my girl enjoying shakes and our boy free time.

Me and my girl enjoying shakes and our boy free time.

I know this because of the day that I was a minority for the first time.

As I mentioned in my last post, I had the opportunity to take a three week trip to Ghana, Africa while I was in seminary decades ago. While on the trip, I would stay with host families for a few days at the time learning about their church and life. While with my host family, I was the only white person in the house. Most of the time, I was the only white person in the city. Sometimes I was the only white person for miles and miles.

Let me just tell you something, when you are the only person of your race and culture for as far as the eye can see, you know it. You stand out. Big time. Most of the time I felt like I was so very white I was glowing.

Even though my host family was kind and everyone was very welcoming to me, I still felt odd and left out most of the time. In the whole “which one of these things is not like the other, which one of these things don’t belong” realm of things, I knew the answer was ME.

Sometimes this difference made me feel afraid. But mostly it just made me feel strange and lonely. 

Even when I could understand the language everyone around me was speaking, I didn’t always understand what they were saying. There was so much about our cultures that did not necessarily translate.

Like during church when we were supposed to be dancing our offerings up to the altar and the ladies behind me kept encouraging me to “Moooove your hips, love. MOVE them. Like thees!” No matter how they shook their hips from side to side in example or tried to help me shake mine, my hips just didn’t seem to be made for shaking in the same way. I felt embarrassed by my lame white girl dance skills. In that moment, I didn’t fit in, didn’t belong.

Now it would be wrong to suggest that there were no common bonds between me and my African friends or ways in which we spoke exactly the same. During that same service when they prayed the Lord’s prayer in their native language and I prayed it in mine, I felt total communion with these folks born across the world and in a different culture from me. No matter how white my skin was or how odd my accent, our prayer, our God, our faith was the same.

As was our love of family and fun and community and a hundred other things.

But at the end of it all, I will never forget how odd it felt to be the one was was different. Who looked different, spoke different, didn’t get the jokes.

Because I know that even though differences aren’t always bad, they are always REAL.

I have so much respect for those who bravely live their lives as a minority. For those  who live in a culture that is not native to them. (And let me just tell you friends, as a whole the USA is a white dominated culture and all our non-white friends to some degree have to translate each day).

I think of the church where I grew up and the one African American woman who sang in the choir and wonder if she ever felt lonely singing all those old English hymns.

I think of the first black families that moved into my all white childhood neighborhood and wonder how much courage and extra energy it took to make neighborly small talk with the white families that surrounded them.

And I think of my daughter and how she bravely faces each day in a family where the rest of the faces look the same in a way that hers does not. And how she constantly adapts to a culture that was not originally her own.

So when you are in a situation where someone is in the minority, please make every effort to be kind to them. And even when you are kind, understand that a part of them might still feel a little different, a little left out.

And take some time to ask and listen for what things are like for them in their native culture. You might learn some pretty cool things. Like how to shake your hips in joy and thanksgiving on a Sunday morning.

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This is the first in a two part post on what it is like to be a minority. The second will focus on how that status can help build bridges and work for all our good. These post are all in a larger series on race.

If you would like to join the conversation, PLEASE chime in with your (respectful) comments below. I feel a little ridiculous writing about race relations as a white woman, but feel our country needs to learn how to talk about race somehow so we can get past our barriers and learn to live in harmony and justice. These posts are my effort to help break the ice.

My favorite Advent resource

If you are a book nerd like me and love advent, have I got a resource for you!

The Advent Sourcebook  by Thomas J. O’Gorman.

My favorite Advent resource, the Advent sourcebook

It is filled with quotes from across the centuries, hymns, Scripture, and poems. It is roughly broken up by weeks and includes resources for all the major (and minor) saint days.

It was a big influence and resource for me when I wrote my own advent devotional, Lighten the Darkness.

We read out of it every year and there is so much to choose from that it never gets old.

Best of all,  there is a sourcebook for Christmastide as well so the fun keeps going. (And Lent for that matter if you love the church year as a whole as we do).

So, if you want to buy a nice gift for yourself (it is not cheap) that will keep on giving to your soul year after year this is the book for you!