We balance our coffee and pastries on a table at the edge of an odd little park across the street from Back Bay Station. His turf, I will reflect later, as I try to unravel whether the meeting was doomed from the start.
(But of course it was. I’m not sure we ever really met one another at all.)
I am a seminary student at Boston University, and I’ve come to ask my priest why he excommunicated my classmate and friend from our Anglican church where she so recently prayed, baked, wrote poetry, and loved. I’m trying feebly to raise a ruckus in the hole church leadership has stuffed with silence, this tear in the fabric of us. On the surface, I know why: she is dating a woman. Deep, layers below thatwhy, lies my real question: will I ever find a place to belong?
Every Sunday I have watched her walk forward and open her hands, watched her sent away empty. Every Sunday I have sat heavy in my chair, bent over with longing for bread and wine, and I have stayed away empty—because I know this church would say I’m no more pure and perfect than she. Straight people simply have the luxury of hiding.
Perhaps I should confess to my priest, try for a good and proper excommunication myself. Instead I argue with him about the Bible. Eventually he sighs, “it’s clear that you and I just read the Bible differently.”
Finally, the conversation begins. After all, Jesus never said, “by this will everyone know you are my disciples, that you agree on interpretations of Leviticus.” After all, my classmate and this priest and I all read the Bible with care, prayer, and more biblical studies education than is good for us. But for him, this is the beginning of the end of the conversation. We disagree, and he holds the power to feed us or not.
This priest married his wife at twenty-two; I tell him he doesn’t know what he’s demanding of others. Suddenly he looks incredibly weary. He tells me I don’t know what he’s given up for the gospel. He says he went to the mountains to ask God about this issue.
So what about everyone who has sat heavy in a chair, stayed here and wrestled in their own body, crying out to God for their lives?
I tell my small group I’m upset by all this; they blink at me and make sounds about the priest being right. My attempts to bridge the divide between their conservative views and my liberal ones don’t impress them. There is no one here who wants to walk with me through this confusion and pain; there are sides, and I am on the wrong one.
I am not excommunicated because I do not confess; and I do not repent. Instead I wander away from the church, where there is no bread or wine but there is enough air to breathe.
It is the end of a world. It might be easier if I could go back to believing the abundant life Jesus promised was wrapped up in narrow definitions of sexuality and family. But I’ve never found those definitions in the Bible, only a bizarre litany of unmoralized stories—imagine: “five polygamous patriarchs, four faithful prostitutes, three too many eunuchs, two Singers of Songs, and a single dude who disowned his mom.”
I’ve decided, in the end, to put the mystery of relationship before the black-and-white of that dubious rulebook.
I’ve discovered the deepest longings that grip our hearts point us toward our truest selves and our holiest vocations.
I no longer believe God hides the greatest commandments anywhere outside Jesus’ gospels. I’ve decided to pursue greater courage instead of starker categories.
It’s beautiful, and it feels like falling, like prayer, and it feels so often that only Spirit accompanies my soul; and all the time it hurts.
That was four years ago. For three years my friends were my church, until the miracle of Two Rivers United Methodist Church became my friends.
Those three years in between churches felt long at the time. They felt uncomfortable, like I’d accidentally become a rebel of some kind when all I wanted was acceptance for myself and others. They felt lonely—immensely lonely. They were full of doubt, because old theologies (old false gods) die hard.
I could never quite give up wondering what a future with the church could possibly look like, could never quite settle in at the place I eventually found some bread and wine, could never quite figure out why I’d thought I could belong anywhere in South Carolina—right up until the first day I sat in a living room with the people who would become Two Rivers and heard them say the words “radically inclusive for all.”
And now, looking back on those three years, I cannot imagine myself or my relationship with God without them. It was one of many wildernesses in my life, but the only one I’d felt cast into by others. I, the goody-two-shoes, prim and privileged, for the first time on the outs with the authorities and unsure where to turn. The wilderness is where you are stripped of your illusions and your excess. It was the theological education after my theological education.
It was the time when I learned how little the church building matters and how deeply we need one another. It was the place where God called me to writing and broke open my perfectionism and taught me how to be a person with chronic illness. It was the place where I survived a terrible thing, and now I can no longer be afraid.
In the wilderness I could not know what a future with the church could possibly look like, because I could not possibly know we would make something that looked like nothing I’d seen before.
These days Two Rivers calls me the Director of Discipleship, but this ragtag collection of wilderness wanderers knows more about following the Holy Spirit than they think. I just build the campfires where we gather.
After the wilderness—after the fear and pain and doubt finally dissolve under the Spirit’s wide sky—there is clarity, and there is renewal, and there is immense joy. God and time and letting go do, eventually, heal wounds.
When you have lost the things you thought were your identity, you get the chance to rebuild the very best of those things in a way that is truer to the heart of you. When you have committed to learning resilience from so many different people on the margins, you slowly stop clinging to anything less essential than the love of God and neighbor. When you’ve given up on doing “the right thing” as defined by others, you are finally making space to find out what right thing God has ready for you.
I’d never expected to feel at home in a church again. So maybe it’s odd that I’d be eager to attend General Conference—
to sit in a chair
as a silent, mostly helpless ally
and wait to see if we are kicked out
It feels strange to register as an “observer”—such blase language for the choice to travel here to be a witness.
I go with less skin in the game than most. I’m straight; I’m not clergy; I have little emotional attachment to United Methodist traditions or institutions. So I come to hold space for others.
There was a time when I felt called to bridge divides between conservatives and liberals. Now that call has taken a new shape: to stand in the gap where my queer and ally, clergy and Methodist friends don’t feel safe to be. I am a with-ness, a presence, a here we are.
I will wait and watch; but a witness also tells the truth. If only by my presence I will carry with me the stories of all of those who—with fear and trembling before God—have answered the call to live fully in the light, in the truth of who they are, in the grand adventure of love.
I will tell the truth that, as beautiful as the United Methodist tradition is, there is no institution that can contain God’s love and none that can litigate human worth.
I will tell the truth that queer people have never been “voiceless,” only gagged, and I will listen and lift up their stories and songs wherever I can.
As a witness, I cannot vote or speak on the floor; I don’t matter to the decision-makers or the powers-that-be. But I’m not going for them. I’m going for my people, to speak comfort and hope to my fellow witnesses and to friends around the country.
Because here is the truth for us, dear ones:
It would be nice—it would be just—if the power and resources of this institution turned toward openness, life and love for all, toward making the world a better place instead of a more homogenous one.
But lacking that, let us remember there are more tragic things than to be cast outside an institution. Sometimes it is better to be powerless and resourceless in the eyes of those who scorn you; sometimes there is freedom in joining Jesus at the margins.
I can’t say this weekend—or the years to follow—will not be painful, on many levels. I can’t say I am never angry or sad about the situation, or that I don’t have many worries for myself, my church, my friends, our world.
But I can speak the truth to you of your sacred worth which is far beyond debate.
I can speak the truth that Jesus chooses love over power, and that is very good news.
I can speak the truth that we belong to one another whether we want to or not.
I can speak the truth that we belong to ourselves just as soon as we begin to accept who God made us to be.
I can speak the truth that in the story of the cosmos, the United Methodist Church is a small thing and the people of God are a big thing, an uncontainable thing. Perhaps this is the moment when we release in love our grip on people who don’t want to be convinced—and instead seize the wholehearted, brave, generous and abundant life God is calling us into.
I can speak the truth that we are people of resurrection, and I have been born again, and as I sit in this pain and grief and turmoil I will also hold the promise that we are on the brink of something new and unimaginably beautiful—because all we truly need cannot be taken away.