The ‘happy’ church

During his sermon yesterday morning, our new pastor told of how he recently encountered another local pastor who expressed his dismay over our church’s acceptance of homosexuals. After asking if he was pastoring the “happy” church, this other minister expressed his disapproval, and even said he had a couple of women in his congregation that he’d like to send our way. Our pastor assured him that we would be delighted to have them.

It’s ironic that our church is thought of as the Gay Church when there are only four gay people who regularly attend – Honey, myself, and a couple of lesbians. The fact that our denomination has an open door policy towards everyone shouldn’t result in the entire congregation being labeled as gay/queer/happy/etc.

As I sat listening to the rest of the sermon, I pondered how other members of the congregation have to suffer simply because I’m there. Not only are they willing to accept me into their midst, they do so knowing that they will be subjected to discrimination and homophobia from others in the religious community. I can’t even express how much that saddens me.

I’m not sure why I haven’t completely give up on Christianity by now. I guess I just keep hoping that a combination of time and education will bring a change of heart to a group of people who can sometimes seem so heartless.

Expecting the worst

Remember when I went to the baby mega-church with a friend a few weeks back? She was so excited to have found a church that fed her spiritually, and she wanted to share it with everyone around her. Although I wasn’t very impressed with the style of worship, I was happy that she had potentially found a spiritual home. There was an entire row of lesbians seated in front of us the morning that we visited, so I just assumed that this church had a non-discriminatory stance on homosexuality.

My friend was shocked Sunday morning to hear the pastor mention homosexuality in his sermon along with a list of other sins, including divorce and drinking. He specifically pointed out that there were gay people in the congregation and that the other members needed to “pray for them to change.” My friend’s joy quickly turned to sorrow and she is questioning whether she ever wants to visit the church again.

What I find interesting is the way homosexuals will often try to rationalize such despicable behavior. She talked to two other lesbians who were at church during the unfortunate sermon, and both explained that they expect to hear such things from time to time. They also felt like the inclusion of other sins in the sermon meant that they weren’t being singled out.

As she talked it over with me today, I pointed out that neither of us believe that homosexuality is a sin or that homosexuals can change. I asked if she really wanted to continue attending a church that had such a lowly view of her, and was surprised that she seems to be wavering on the issue.

It’s almost like discrimination is such an expected part of the equation that she’s willing to overlook it in order to feel spiritually fulfilled. Having been there myself, it’s easy to empathize with her predicament. Is it any wonder that we homosexuals are often so emotionally and spiritually damaged?

All of this has made me so thankful to be a part of the United Church of Christ (UCC). Visitors to our church don’t have to worry about being condemned from the pulpit for being different. Our church’s website clearly states that all are welcome – regardless of color, income, or sexuality. How could a church that labels themselves as “Christian” do any differently?

Other churches, including the one my friend has been attending, might claim the same open door policy, only to wait a few weeks or months before publicly humiliating the most fragile among them. That “love the sinner, hate the sin” mentality is psychologically damaging men and women across this country every Sunday morning.

It is sad enough that people who claim to follow Christ treat us with such contempt, but the real tragedy is that we often expect and even enable ourselves to become victims of discrimination.

Still haven’t found what I’m looking for

The Pentecostal church I grew up in had drums, guitars, and tambourines. Hymns were old fashioned and easy to sing, and music literally filled the sanctuary and spilled out the windows for the benefit of the neighboring houses. People stood, clapped in time, tapped their feet, raised their hands toward heaven, and sometimes even danced in the aisles and around the wooden altar that stood in front of the stage. Songs like “I’ll Fly Away” and “Just A Closer Walk With Thee” are as ingrained into my personal makeup as my Kentucky accent.

I left the Pentecostal denomination as a young adult because I was sick and tired of the constant onslaught of sermons dealing with homosexuality. Regardless of my disagreements with some of the denomination’s beliefs, I never stopped adoring the sights and sounds of spirit-filled worship.

It will soon be four years since I started attending a local UCC (United Church of Christ), and while I couldn’t ask for a more open and accepting congregation, I have never been satisfied with the style of music or worship. Most song selections are unfamiliar and chosen solely for their relation to the sermon’s topic, which leaves many of us struggling to sing or not singing at all.

I visited a friend’s church on Sunday – one that is the polar opposite of my church. Where we are quiet and reserved, they were loud and charismatic. Seeing a different style of worship was very interesting, but it was still a far cry from the church of my youth. This mega-church-in-the-making had a band and the music had a decidedly rock and roll sound. Songs were once again unfamiliar, so the words were projected onto large screens on each side of the stage.

After all these years, I still haven’t found a church that fulfills my expectations in the musical arena, and I’m beginning to wonder if a church even exists that combines both my preferred style of music and a non-discriminatory stance on homosexuality. It just doesn’t seem right that I have to compromise one or the other in order to attend church.

The politics of Jesus

“To follow Jesus is to be political.”

I quoted that line from a book titled If God Is Love: Rediscovering Grace in an Ungracious World in an article I posted over two years ago. I remembered it during a meeting at church earlier this week. Here’s the full paragraph:

The question is not whether we should mix Christianity and politics. To follow Jesus it to be political. The issue is whether our understanding of Christianity makes the world more gracious or less gracious. Do we work against injustice, oppression, greed, and self-absorption, or do we defend the status quo? Do we take seriously Jesus’s call to “bring good news to the poor,… proclaim release to the captives and… let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18), or do we treat Jesus as our team mascot? Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives all face these temptations.

Our church is in the unenviable position of trying to find a new pastor. We formed a search committee recently and had our first meeting after our prayer service on Wednesday night. This experience is rather unique for me, since I’ve never served on a pastoral search committee or even remember a time when I was part of a congregation that was looking to hire a new minister.

During our meeting, we discussed what qualities we might be looking for in a potential candidate. Certain things seem very important (like education), while others (such as gender) seem quite irrelevant. As we began to discuss the theological viewpoints of an applicant, the issue of homosexuality came up.

I immediately made it clear that a pastor with an inclusive viewpoint would be of the utmost importance to me. After all, I explained, my partner and I would not feel comfortable continuing to attend our church if we didn’t feel welcomed by an incoming minister.

Although everyone seemed to be in agreement about this topic, concern was expressed by some about political views coming from the pulpit. I asked, “Is it possible to be a Christian without being political?”

Even though I wholeheartedly agree that a pastor should never condone a political party or persuade the votes of his/her parishioners, I do believe a true Christian has a responsibility to stand up for those who are maligned and mistreated by society – or as Jesus would have put it, “the least of these.” It’s incredibly sad that the rights of women and homosexuals – human rights – are viewed as nothing more than political talking points.

As I pondered the conversation later, I began to question my involvement in the pastoral search process. I recognize that I have an agenda, or at the very least a list of prerequisites that a candidate must possess. Even so, I also recognize that our denomination, the United Church of Christ, insists upon social justice and equality for all. I think to disregard that would be not only a disservice to our church and denomination, but also to the very message of the Messiah – the One whom we profess to follow.

Hypocrite

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. – Ephesians 2:8-9

“Brian is a hypocrite. He believes his works will get him into heaven.”

Those words were spoken right in front of me the other day. What hurt more than anything was that it came from someone I care about deeply – a close relative from the same religious background.

I immediately pointed out the irony of such a statement from a person who clearly doesn’t rely solely on grace as a means of eternal life – something evident in both dress and action. Nevertheless, the words stung.

From the time that I started attending the United Churches of Christ, I have known that most of my family would not be supportive. Anything outside the religious beliefs of my childhood would be considered false teachings and deception. It is interesting that the denomination they expect me to be a part of is one that is the least accepting of who I am.

It is one thing to realize that your family doesn’t agree with your choice in denominations or have any confidence in you spiritually, but it’s something else entirely to hear those feelings voiced.

I’m also a little confused about the meaning behind the words that were spoken. What makes me a hypocrite? It is because this person doesn’t recognize my denomination as legitimate or because I’m openly homosexual and attending a Christian church?

I even looked up the definition of the word “hypocrite.”

hypocrite: a person who professes beliefs and opinions that he or she does not hold in order to conceal his or her real feelings or motives; professing feelings or virtues one does not have; deceptive, just pretending to be good.

The words have made me question myself. I want to check and double-check that I am not allowing myself to be deceived or manipulated by others. I want to make sure that the works I perform are for God’s glory and not my own. And I don’t want to simply appear righteous and good, I want to actually be those things – as much as humanly possible.

Regardless, I believe the verses in Ephesians are somewhat misunderstood. They do say we are saved by the grace of God and not our own works, but they don’t provide an excuse from doing good works. The rest of scripture is rife with commandments on how to live one’s life in order to achieve eternal life. I think a person who is truly a Christian will want to do the things that Christ taught, not just for a reward in the hereafter, but because they help us reap treasure while we’re here on earth.

I pray that God will help me to always be a true Christian – one that loves and forgives.

After the glitter fades

“Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending.” – Maria Robinson

Soon after we started attending our church a few years ago, I remember talking to a couple of my coworkers about how wonderful the people were and how much we were enjoying our time with them on Sunday mornings. As I heaped praise on what seemed to me at the time to be as close to perfect as a church could possibly get, one of the coworkers (who had himself previously been a pastor) smiled knowingly and told me I was in the “honeymoon phase.” His words have rang true so many times over the past three years.

It is very easy to only see the surface, the cover of the book. It’s just as easy to become disillusioned when the new wears off and the gritty, unrefined reality of a situation is exposed, but it’s bound to happen sooner or later. It didn’t take long for me to realize that much like any other church, mine was far from perfect.

Human relationships are always complicated – whether in the workplace or the church pew, and there were many Sundays when the tension seemed heavier than air. And, I regrettably admit, there were many times when I considered quitting altogether. Thankfully, I persevered.

Now, many months later, I’m starting to believe that these are the times that are truly the most rewarding – when we stop looking at the world and ourselves through rose-tinted glasses, get our hands dirty, and do what needs to be done in order to survive. I’m witnessing a spirit of renewal – both in the congregation and within myself.

It isn’t always easy to make the right decisions or choose the right paths, but with God’s help and guidance, I know our church isn’t only going to survive… we’re gonna shine!

Something beautiful from something ugly

Part of me wishes I could wake up and realize that last week was just a really, really bad dream. The other part thinks that even though life is harsh, cruel, and unpredictable, maybe we need to experience the negative aspects in order to more fully appreciate the times when life is good.

Last Sunday started off just fine, but something happened that made me question whether or not I should join the church I’ve been attending for over three years. I won’t get into the details of what happened here, but suffice it to say that every congregation has its share of troublemakers and ours is no exception. Someone commented that the current situation in our church is “not conducive to spiritual growth,” and although I disagreed with pretty much everything else they had to say, that statement gave me pause.

There does seem to be quite a bit of division in our church, but I believe that scenario is often repeated in every congregation or gathering of people. Whether it is human nature or something far more sinister, wherever people seek harmony and God’s spirit, it never fails that someone or something will try to divide and conquer.

So, I spent the next couple of days with a heavy heart, considering whether I should join at this time or wait until things were a little more settled. I asked myself if anything beautiful could come out of something so ugly. I prayed about it and discussed my feelings with my partner.

Finally, I decided to email my pastor and share my feelings. She very eloquently explained that God likes to bring beauty out of undesirable situations, much like our Savior arose from a tomb. I liked that comparison and decided that I was definitely joining the following Sunday.

Thursday also started off just fine. I went to work and was having a good day until someone walked in and said they had just heard on the radio that Michael Jackson passed away. I had heard that type of rumor before, but something in the pit of my stomach told me it was true this time. My bottom lip began to quiver as I rushed to the nearest computer to get confirmation.

CNN had a headline that said he had been taken to the hospital. “Not so bad,” I thought. Then I clicked on TMZ and saw that they were reporting he was dead. It felt like my heart went into my shoes. Tears sprang into my eyes and spilled down my face, but I had to maintain some level of composure in order to finish my work. Thankfully, it was near the end of the day and I was able to leave about 20 minutes later.

Emotion hit me like a wave the moment I got in my vehicle to drive home. It was unbearably hot outside, which only added to my misery. I rode with the windows down, my screams and sobs disappearing into the rushing air. As bad as this hurt, I wondered if I could possibly bear the pain of losing a close family member.

I felt silly as I realized that I had never even met Michael. I had only seen him one time in real life, but I had been following his career closely since 1991. It felt like I knew him. I could relate to his sadness, his loneliness, even his constant need for adoration.

He had captured part of my heart all those years ago and I truly loved him. I loved his music, his voice, his style, even his appearance in the earlier years. I admired his generosity, his global view, his poetry. His dancing was a spiritual experience. He channeled something much larger than himself, and regardless of his shortcomings, he never stopped believing that one person could make a difference.

So, my heart was completely broken by the time I arrived home and turned on the television. I prayed and hoped against hope, but within minutes CNN had confirmed the terrible news. My brain couldn’t really comprehend what had just transpired, so I just sobbed uncontrollably. I was thankful that Honey was at work, because I felt so foolish. I recalled how I was also home alone a few years ago when the verdict was read in Michael’s molestation trial. As each charge was pronounced “not guilty,” I had jumped up and down like a crazy person, screaming at the top of my lungs.

Although emotions were once again running high, this was much different. I wondered if I could ever listen to my favorite songs or watch my favorite videos again. Wouldn’t it be strange to see Michael grabbing his crotch while knowing that he was deceased? Wouldn’t I always wonder somewhere in the back of my mind if he was paying the ultimate price for a life filled with excess, greed, and ego-mania? Even though I had always doubted the charges of misconduct with children, would we ever really know the truth? So many questions, each making me cry even harder.

Going to work the next morning was more like sleep-walking, because the nightmare hadn’t ended when I got out of bed. It didn’t help that the local radio station was playing back-to-back songs by MJ, or that everyone kept asking me how I was doing. Tears kept welling in my eyes every few minutes as reality began to sink in… The King of Pop was dead.

Almost exactly twenty-four hours after hearing such terrible news, I was once again shaken to the core. My father walked over to where I was working with an anguished look on his face and told me that my niece and nephew had been in a four-wheeler accident. He said my nephew was okay, but my niece was on the way to the hospital. Apparently she had called her mother from her cell phone, screaming for help as blood poured from a large puncture wound under her arm. Her wrist was also broken, her head was swelling, and both kids were covered in scrapes and bruises. All of this was too much for my already fragile psyche, so I immediately started bawling.

Honey drove us to the emergency room, where we were greeted by my brother-in-law. His shirt was covered in blood from where he had carried his daughter into the hospital. As we sat waiting to find out her condition, the television in the waiting room was playing non-stop coverage of Michael’s death. I seriously began to wonder if I was going to lose my mind.

Somehow, through all of the chaos going on in my head and around me, I began to put things into proper perspective. Maybe my earthly idol was dead, but at least my niece was going to be okay. Maybe I needed to start paying more attention to my life and those around me instead of following every move of a pop star. Maybe I should stop worrying so much about his final destination and start worrying more about my own.

Which brings me back to church.

I was still feeling rather emotional when we gathered for worship Sunday morning. My father and step-mother had come to see us join, and one of our good friends had agreed to sing one of our favorite songs during the service.

We stood in front of the congregation and said our vows. Yes, we believe in God. Yes, we believe in Jesus. Yes, we believe in the Holy Spirit. We professed that Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior. We promised to resist evil, to show love and justice, to be faithful members.

Then Linda stood and sang. No music, just her lovely voice.

Leave it there, leave it there. Take your burden to the Lord and leave it there. If you trust and never doubt, He will surely bring you out. Take your burden to the Lord and leave it there.

And, once again, like so many other times during the preceding days, I wept. I wept for my niece and nephew. I wept for Michael Jackson. I wept because my beautiful partner took my hand to comfort me. I wept from the pure joy that comes from realizing that God loves us, each and every one. No matter how popular or influential, how small or insignificant, He cares.

So, even though part of me wishes that last week had never happened, the other part realizes that life is full of surprises – some good, some bad, some a little bit of both. My niece’s injury and Michael’s death were a reminder of the frailty of life. Our church problems are a sign that progress never comes without a struggle. And our service yesterday proved that our church is conducive to spiritual growth and, yes, something beautiful can come from something ugly!