“Xena, Warrior Princess”
Rev. Gary Dalton
Scripture: Judges 4: 4-10, 12-16
We’ve just completed Sunday #2 in UBC’s five-week Congregational Conversation on whether to receive openly gay persons into formal church membership. What weighs on me in all this is that we could lose church members either during the course of this discernment process or as a result of its outcome. That’s my topic for this week: will we — must we —inevitably trade out current friends in our fellowship whom we know and love for some possible future friends we might take in?
How should I counsel you who feel strongly that if your fellow UBCer’s say “yes” or say “no” to openly gay members, then you must leave to find another place of worship? What grief that possibility must be bringing into your hearts during these weeks, as with all of us who would dread such a loss of some of our church family.
Please note that “no” or “yes” are not your only options. As the Deacon letter of June 29 detailed, you will have two other options as well: “postpone this conversation until we call the next permanent Senior Minister,” or “drop this topic entirely.” The Deacons’ Openness Task Force will begin publicizing the specific wording of these four motions on Sunday, October 9. That will be two weeks before the Called Church Conference to be held after morning worship on Sunday, October 23.
To those who feel you soon must leave because the congregation will be out of step with your own convictions, I offer this guidance: you must weight your convictions. Which ones carry the most weight? Which conviction or set of convictions tips the balance in your decision to stay or to go?
As we do on questions of whether to ordain women and divorced persons, whether we insist on believer’s baptism alone or also accept those who later affirmed their infant baptisms, whether we insist on the inerrancy of the Bible or allow a different reckoning of Scripture, whether we drink alcoholic beverages or fastidiously abstain, so must we weight our convictions on this membership matter now before us.
In the New Testament era, the questions of conviction were whether to worship on Sunday or on the Jewish Sabbath, whether to eat meat which might have been sacrificed in pagan worship before being sold in the market or to refuse any meat with a whiff of suspicion, whether Christian Jews should fellowship with Christian non-Jews, whether to abstain from marriage so to more fully serve the Lord or to seek marriage, whether women might speak in worship or must remain silent. Please don’t dismiss or minimize these First-century Christian convictions! Differences over these matters disrupted congregations and at times provoked physical violence.
The Apostle Paul wrote extensively on these questions of conscience and practice affecting the early churches. He himself weighted his own convictions so he might find fellowship with the greatest number of believers, as he describes in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 and Romans, chapters 14-15. Acts 21:17-26 shows Paul accommodating himself to the Christian Jews in Jerusalem so he might avoid offending their sensibilities. Again, don’t take those convictions lightly; despite Paul’s genuine efforts in Jerusalem, rumors of his violating Jewish practice led to his near-murder in the street (Acts 21:30-31).
If I may offer particular counsel with you at this time, please don’t hesitate to contact me. For all of you in our fellowship, I value you, I respect and honor your conscience, and I encourage your patience and forbearance.
Your Senior Minister in the Interim,
Documents Regarding the Deacons’ Openness Task Force On LGBTQ Christians and UBC Membership:
To facilitate the conversation, the Deacons are inviting the Sunday Bible Study classes to participate in a church-wide book study and series of individual class and congregational conversations. The Deacons and Openness Task Force have chosen Changing Our Mind by David Gushee and feel that this book is an accessible resource for discussing Biblical interpretations to many questions asked of the modern church.
Copies of Changing Our Mind by David Gushee are now available. Audio CD’s are also available at no cost. Each book will contain an envelope for your convenience should you want to reimburse part or all of the book price of $13.00. However, no reimbursement is necessary. You may also purchase a Kindle version at Amazon.com. Please contact a minister or your Sunday Bible Study teacher with any questions.
Sunday, September 18 –
8:45 am: Church-wide Breakfast
9:15 am: Congregational Conversation
Sundays: September 25, October 2, October 9, 9:45 am – Individual Sunday Bible Study Class Discussions
NEW ADDITION: Wednesday, October 5, 6:15 pm – “Psychology Behind Sexual Orientation” — Professor Charlotte Patterson
Sunday, October 16, 9:15 am – Church-wide Congregational Conversation
Wednesday, October 19, 6:15 pm – Church-wide Conversation, for members who could not attend the October 16 session
Sunday, October 23 – Called Church Conference to vote on next steps
For further reading
Bibliography of additional resources — http://universitybaptist.org/bibliography (In the Conference Room [Rm. 114] there are copies of some of the books as well as a binder of all of the articles.)
New and relevant articles will continue to be added, so check often.
Thank you, University Baptist Church, for your generous support of this past Sunday’s breakfast and conversation with our guests from Grace Baptist Church! You showed up in far greater numbers than we anticipated. Your questions and comments were thoughtful and on-point. You helped our Grace Baptist attendees feel welcome and heard as they shared their experiences as Christian believers who are gay or lesbian.
This is a difficult conversation for you, isn’t it? Me, too. How could it not be? Sexuality in general is difficult for us to discuss. So, I’d like to remind us of a less-than-obvious truth: we share lots of the same reasons for possible upset in this conversation about membership of openly gay persons, even if we disagree on the conclusion to which this five-week conversation should lead us.
We’re in a boat crossing a pond, we passengers, holding forth in a rational discourse, dialogue, and parley of particulars, often unaware we’re relying on the same waters to float our boat. (Whew! Almost lost myself in that extended metaphor — you doing okay?)
When all goes well, sexuality is love embodied and a wonderment of God’s grace: love, romance, intimacy, fidelity, life-long, and enduring. What could be finer? Except when it doesn’t go well. If we’re fortunate, the hard lessons of love and sexuality are the emotional equivalents of scraped knees and elbows, the stubbed toe, the goose-egg on the noggin. I am still chagrined over absolutely mortifying memories of dating fails and blunders.
When we go beyond the mere unfortunate and enter the territory of terrible consequences, when sexuality is turned into emotional and physical abuse, we may spend a lifetime unraveling the knots and hiding the scars. Sexuality’s abuses haunt far more men and women than we’ll ever recognize. Our popular culture does not help. It sensationalizes on the one hand and desensitizes on the other.
We need and seek a healthy spiritual grounding other than the shifting sands our culture offers us. We, and I include myself, build a wall of “no’s” in efforts to protect ourselves and our children for the one “yes.” (This insightful contrast of “many no’s/one yes” is one I’ve recently come across in other sources. So to be clear, it’s not mine.) Better grounded in “no,” we are justifiably reserved in broadening the field of “yes.”
This is why I say, even if we disagree on the conclusion to which this conversation should lead University Baptist Church, most of us bring to church nearly identical sets of “no’s” and “yeses” on matters of sexuality.
Our comparable experiences of love and sexuality recommend that we listen for common themes in our discussion, that we not tell another person his/her feelings are wrong or bad though we disagree in reason, and that we be compassionate with one another. Heaven knows we bear enough wounds from life that we don’t need to add wounds to our Christian sisters and brothers as we talk this topic through to whatever conclusion may come.
More showing up than staying away, more listening than telling, more testifying than arguing, more love always; these are our gifts for each other in this present moment in UBC’s life.
Your Senior Minister in the Interim,
If put on the spot, could you recite University Baptist Church’s formal mission statement? I could not. With effort we could learn it, I’m sure. What has taken no effort whatsoever for me to learn is UBC’s functional mission statement. You know it, too: “We are a big-tent church.”
“We are a big-tent church.” My guess is that no committee crafted that statement and then reported it out as a motion for the congregation to adopt. That’s the process for formal mission statements.
Instead, functional mission statements are creatures of working habit, shaped in trial-and-error tests of congregational temperament, and tried out in informal conversation. Functional mission statements are a church’s actual ethos of doing and not doing. Leaders, bearing the responsibility of occasionally boiling it all down, are more likely than committees to get it right. They also are usually sparser in their wording.
May I suggest an alternative to “We are a big-tent church.”? I understand what is meant by “big-tent”, and I know it has worked well for UBC, and I myself like not feeling crowded or hemmed-in in any way, shape, or form. (Well, not entirely. I wish I felt more crowded in the Sanctuary on Sunday mornings … so many people that we’d have to seat folks in folding chairs up and down the aisles and spread out across the front and sitting on the piano bench!)
Try this on: “We are a big-net church!” See how that changes up things — a whole different metaphor and a biblical metaphor, at that. It still easily rolls off the tongue. “We are a big-net church!”
This alternative functional mission statement came to mind while I was preparing this past Sunday’s sermon. Read John 21:1-14, which comes just before Sunday’s reading. When Jesus arrives at the shore, the disciples are out in their fishing boats and having no luck in catching anything in their nets. Jesus suggests they might find some if they drop their nets on the other side of the boat.
This time, their nets fill with fish, so many fish these muscled men cannot haul the catch back into the boat. They have to row to shore dragging the glut of fish behind them still in the nets in the water. They needed bigger nets, and a bigger boat, and more hands for the work! Jesus was at it again, giving his followers an experience that would become iconic for their identity as the church, a community of love soon to gather in an overwhelming ‘catch’ of people.
Whatever good we may mean by saying that University Baptist Church is “a big-tent church,” I propose we try out a different ethos and a different icon of self-understanding. What is UBC’s mission statement? Let’s answer,
“UBC is a big-net church!”
Your Senior Minister in the Interim,
Someone once quipped to me, “Throwing more water in the pond don’t help the fish know much about life up on the bank.” Pithy, and a bit rough grammatically — but the essential thought applies to this Congregational Conversation we’re near to beginning. Without pressing the metaphor too far, consider the fish-in-water observation.
Just to remind us, on September 18 we begin a five-week congregational discernment process of how University Baptist Church’s membership statement might apply to openly gay persons, and what steps, if any, to take now or later or not at all, in clearing up that question. Details are elsewhere in The Word.)
Back to us fish in the pond, we who are mystified or perplexed or appalled about what we hear of life up on the bank. Until only three years ago in my 61 years of Baptist and Christian life, I have swum in the same pond the vast majority of you also have swum and in which you and I continue to swim. Any other way of being we cannot and do not care to imagine.
To state it plainly: overwhelmingly, we Baptist Christians are heterosexual in our sexual identity and affections. That’s always been our understanding of ourselves and our assumption about each other, not that we cared really to talk much about our own or anybody else’s sexuality in church. Those few among us who found themselves not of these waters kept it to themselves, and quite wisely, too, considering the consequential penalties which could have been brought against them.
The punitive consequences are now mostly gone, and we fish-in-the-pond are grappling with a kind of life seemingly far removed from our own experience and assumptions. Perhaps what is most unguessed at for us is that the lives of gay men and women may actually be not all that far removed from our own. Of those similarities we may know little to nothing.
So, I offered to the Openness Task Force to invite some openly gay Baptist Christians to visit UBC and share their testimonies with us. These are men and women, all married, some with children, young adult, middle aged, and retired, all of whom I met in 2013. I got to know them over the next twenty-two months as Interim Pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Richmond. A retired woman of the very same waters in which we’ve always swum, a life-long member of GBC, will describe Grace Baptist Church’s experience of choosing to include openly gay persons in their membership and leadership.
These Baptist lay persons are not scholars of the Bible nor of medicine nor of sociology. We’re turning to other sources for that expertise. But, these folks do have expertise about their own lives as gays and lesbians, growing up in church and coming to terms with their same-sex attraction even as they were coming to faith in Jesus.
Whatever your views about gay believers, I invite you to attend the September 18 breakfast and to hear their testimonies. Meeting them and listening to their stories does not imply your consent nor endorsement of them. It means simply that you’ll have their testimonies to add to what will follow in the weeks of Bible study and further conversation for UBC.
Your Senior Minister in the Interim,