Saturday, May 17, 2014

From Fear to Joy - to Love - and to Covenant

(Originally posted by Judge Wendell Griffen, pastor of New Millennium Baptist Church, Little Rock, AR, to his Facebook timeline on May 14, 2014; published here with his permission. The T. B. Maston Foundation encourages candid and thoughtful dialogue on ethical issues.)

I want to express special appreciation to Jack P. Rogers for his fine book, Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality. I am indebted to Jack P. Rogers, who did the research on the eight passages addressed in my post. - WENDELL GRIFFEN 

Thanks to family, friends, and everyone else who has posted concerning Judge Chris Piazza's historic decision last Friday which declared Arkansas laws unconstitutional that prohibit marriage licenses from being issued to same sex couples. Pulaski County Clerk Larry Crane and the dedicated public servants who work to receive and process applications for marriage licenses also deserve tremendous praise for their professionalism, hard work, and friendliness to the many people who've sought and received marriage licenses since Monday morning. And anyone who has observed the courteous way the security personnel have treated people has to be very impressed. As someone who works in the Pulaski County Courthouse every day, I can affirm that this is the way all these people approach their work each day.

Some of my friends strongly disagree with my decision to officiate marriage ceremonies involving same sex couples. While I cannot and will not disrespect anyone for disagreeing, I hope everyone will take a few minutes to ponder comments I delivered two years ago at a Baptist Conversation on Sexuality and Covenant my wife and I attended in Decatur, Georgia that was co-sponsored by Mercer University, McAfee School of Theology, and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

©Wendell Griffen, 2012
Like many other pastors I know and countless more I don't know, I've learned to be available, responsive, and alert to calls for help in unexpected times and circumstances. But nothing in my ministry formation prepared me on how to respond to the reality of human sexuality, congregational unity, pastoral care, and the various challenges and opportunities to experience and enlarge what we mean by "covenant" when it comes to human sexuality. Human sexuality is as real as anything else one encounters in pastoral ministry. But I wasn't educated about it in church, college, or as part of my seminary studies.

My parents talked with me about sex. But I don't recall any conversations with my parents or youth leaders about human sexuality during my youth. I don't recall any church conferences about human sexuality. I don't think my experience is very different from other congregational leaders.

If my experience is typical, then it's probably safe to say that many—if not a majority—of the people who lead congregations reached adulthood like I did: with a very limited understanding about human sexuality. Perhaps we had conversations with our parents or other elders about sex and sensuality. Youth leaders occasionally and delicately talked about the topic of sex and dating. But I have yet to meet any Baptist pastor who grew up in a family or congregation where human sexuality was mentioned.

It's not unfair or inaccurate to say that when it comes to the issue of human sexuality, religious people in the United States have avoided serious thinking, honest conversation, and open-minded dialogue. I trace our aversion to engage the issue of sexuality by serious thought, honest discourse, and open-minded conversation to one thing. We have a phobia about human sexuality. We're afraid to admit that we're afraid about sexuality. We're uncomfortable thinking about it. We're uneasy. As individuals, families, congregations, communities, clergypersons, and members of a society where free expression of opinions is supposedly valued, we've been afraid to think, speak, and work to lovingly understand sexuality, one of the basic aspects of our humanity.

Sexuality has historically been left off the list of subjects we recruit educators to teach in high school. Sexuality has traditionally not been included among the issues seminary faculty and students analyze. In the minority of seminaries that include courses on human sexuality in the curricula the courses aren't required.

So no one should be surprised that our congregations aren't comfortable dealing with sexuality. This Conference has been needed for a very long time. I hope it will mark the start of a new era of candor for Baptists and other faithful people.

I haven't been immune or exempt from the fearful aversion to addressing sexuality. But I'm convinced that the aversion has done great harm to individuals, families, faith communities, and our desire to be agents of God's love and truth in the world. I've seen firsthand the pain and fear of families faced with the prospect that some aspect of a loved one's sexuality will become known. I've witnessed the anxiety of parents, grandparents, siblings, and other relatives.

And I've witnessed firsthand the way fear and misunderstanding can work cruel results. I have known and hurt for people who were afraid to come to worship because they expected to be shunned or blamed on account of their sexuality. I've tried to protect and comfort family members who were afraid to ask their congregation to pray for a loved one who was diagnosed with AIDS. I've known the special anxiety young people feel when they are afraid to talk with parents, other relatives, and church leaders about sexuality. I've seen and heard pastors and other clergy demonize vulnerable children, teenagers, and adults simply because those people are different because of sexuality. And I've seen preachers and other church people mount and support political efforts that portray people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender as threats to family cohesion and societal order based on solely on their sexuality.

So when New Millennium Church was organized in 2009 I prayed that we would be different. I prayed that we would be people who are not bound by a fear of difference but who are inspired by God's love to be "inclusive, welcoming, and progressive followers of Jesus Christ." But how would we live out that challenge surrounding the issue of sexuality? I will share what we've done and how it has affected us.

We affirm oneness and welcome all persons in God's love during every Sunday worship service. Our congregation recites the following "Affirmation of Oneness and Purpose" each Sunday morning.

"We praise and worship God together. We petition God, together. We proclaim God, together. We welcome all persons in God's love together. We live for God, in every breath and heartbeat, by the power of the Holy Spirit, as followers of Jesus Christ, together."
This affirmation is made immediately following what we call the "Greet and Fellowship Moment" following the invocation when everyone is invited to greet and be welcomed by everyone else as we "welcome all persons in God's love together."

Why is this important? Almost every person in our congregation has lived through times of legalized segregation and religiously inspired discrimination against people who are different because of race, gender, and sexuality. But we have come to know God's love as expressed and demonstrated in Jesus Christ. In Christ, we have come to understand God's love for and acceptance of all persons. In Christ, we have come to realize that humanity involves a wonderful and God-ordained diversity. In Christ, we have experienced the meaning of being one with God and others by the unifying work of grace and the Holy Spirit. Somehow, our congregation was inspired to affirm our commitment to oneness and to "welcome all persons in God's love" because we sincerely trust that this is what it means to be one with God in Christ.

Pastors have a prophetic duty to proclaim God's love in ways that welcome all people. Congregational life isn't defined by the personality of a pastor, but a Baptist pastor has a profound potential on that life by the way we proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. I'm struck, however, by how often pastors seem unwilling or unable to grasp and present God's love for all persons.

I'm no model preacher by any means. But I was led to preach about the encounter Jesus had with a Samaritan woman at Jacob's Well for the inaugural worship service of New Millennium Church (May 31, 2009). I tried to present what that encounter meant to her and means for us in a sermon titled "Give Me This Water!" Please forgive me for quoting myself.

"By his deliberate encounter with the Samaritan woman, Jesus revealed to her and to us that we can never be truly refreshed and rejuvenated by a well and bucket approach to life and faith. We need 'living water' that is invigorating, soothing, and cooling as we experience the challenges, conflicts, defeats, insults, and tragedies of our journeys. We need a source of strength and vitality that is bigger and deeper than domestic status, work, culture, and religious ritual. Until we are connected with 'living water,' we will keep coming up dry and empty, no matter what is in our family, cultural, or religious water pots and buckets.

"God's love is the 'living water' that Jesus spoke about to the Samaritan woman. We are designed to be nourished, invigorated, soothed, and cooled by the constantly flowing stream of God's love. We need the push of God's unstoppable love in the face of our setbacks. We need the comfort of God's healing love for our hurts and injuries. We need the assurance of God's always flowing love as we deal with obstacles, disappointments, sorrows, and anxieties. You and I, like the Samaritan woman, need to be invigorated, soothed, and cooled by the flowing stream of God's love.

"Here is the good news. God's love comes to us! Despite whatever situations, setbacks, disappointments, insults, conflicts, or frustrations life may present, God's love comes to us! The meaning of Jesus showing up in Samaria at Jacob's Well is that God's love shows up! Her marital history could not keep God's love from showing up in Jesus. The bigotry imposed on her people could not keep God's love from showing up in Jesus. The religious turf fight between preachers in her region and other preachers elsewhere about where people should worship could not prevent God's love from showing up in Jesus. God's love flows to wherever we are to call us, claim us, soothe us, invigorate us, renew us, and redirect us. We do not need to go to Jerusalem or elsewhere to experience God's love. Jesus at Jacob's Well talking with a Samaritan woman tells us that God's love comes to us, wherever we are, however we are, to fill our dry emptiness.

"By the love that God has given us through Jesus, we are able to confront injustice. By that love, we draw strength to overcome adversity. By that love, we are called as instruments of peace in the face of conflict. Through that love, you and I are agents of hope to people in despair. As God has given us the living water of divine love in Jesus, God has made us part of that love with Jesus. Like a stream flows to fill dry places, God's love flows in Jesus to fill us and flows in those who are filled by that love to renew, reinvigorate, redirect, and soothe others. This is what happened to the woman of Samaria. God's love came to her. Eventually, she became part of that love to others in her community."
If pastors believe that God loves people in whatever aspect of life they present themselves, then we must proclaim that love from our pulpits. And our sermonic efforts should call and challenge people to trust God's love in their relationships with others without regard to ancestral, cultural, ritual, or other bases for treating people differently because of their sexuality.

New Millennium intentionally confronted our phobia and prejudice about sexuality by prayerful study. Rather than use Sunday School quarterly materials and lessons, New Millennium follows a book study approach. I try to prayerfully select books that will stretch us. We studied writings by Howard Thurman (Jesus and the Disinherited), Dan Southerland (Transitioning: Leading Your Church through Change), Rob Bell (Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith), Daniel Vestal (It's Time… a Journey Toward Missional Faithfulness), and Samuel Proctor (My Moral Odyssey) between our formation in May 2009 and the fall of 2010. And during the fall of 2010 and the winter months of 2011 we studied a book that challenged us to prayerfully ponder the ethical implications of being Jesus-followers concerning the issue of human sexuality when we studied a book written by Jack P. Rogers (Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality).

Like it or not, people act out their beliefs and our fears. The phobia about human sexuality has driven how many people think and act about sexuality—both for themselves and for other persons. But the Bible declares that "God has not given us a spirit of fearfulness." One of the most frequent commands found in our Scripture is "Don't fear."

So our congregation prayerfully engaged in months of serious study and honest conversation about sexuality by following a study guide included with Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality. We watched videos that addressed how persons who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender are perceived and treated by religious people and the efforts of people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender to find acceptance and affirmation as they try to live out their faith in God's grace and truth (For the Bible Tells Me So and A Fish Out of Water). Instead of adopting the usual fearful approach to human sexuality we deliberately, prayerfully, and congregationally chose to study, listen, share, and trust the Holy Spirit.

I didn't introduce the sexuality study to make a political statement for the congregation or myself. As pastor, I introduced that study for the same reasons that guided whatever we study. Human sexuality is a reality religious people, including followers of Jesus, cannot deny or avoid. Humans are sexual beings by design. But sexuality isn't a subject religious thinkers have been comfortable engaging. Augustine, considered by some to have been the father-figure of Christian theology, never seemed to be comfortable with the human body. More than a few people have expressed concern, if not regret, "that for many centuries the teaching of the Church on human sexuality has suffered from its adherence to Augustine's distorted emphasis."

I led New Millennium to intentionally study and confront the religious phobia about human sexuality knowing the study would challenge us. It did. One of our charter leaders eventually left the congregation because she didn't want to participate in it. She left with a clear conscience and remains in contact with us. Although others openly expressed anxieties, they committed themselves to the study because it marked the first time they were part of a congregation where human sexuality was being openly pondered, discussed, and embraced.

At the beginning of the New Millennium study of human sexuality, we agreed that our effort would be guided by some fundamental thoughts.

• Every person's opinion counts.
• Respect each other.
• Be open-minded and non-judgmental.
• Have compassion.
• Maintain and protect confidentiality.
• Listen to each other respectfully.
• Disagree agreeably.
• Don't be afraid to grow.

New Millennium Church is a new church start. Most of our members are middle- aged and senior citizens. Most of us have been Baptists for decades. But regardless of our ages, varying levels of education, vocational diversity, racial diversity, and other factors, none of us had ever engaged in a serious study of human sexuality and Christian theology. Our study marked the first time we were able to openly discuss sexuality and faith. The study allowed us to follow the Holy Spirit as we listened to each other, as we read and pondered the assigned reading material, and as we intentionally met a same-sex Christian couple whose relationship has endured for more than forty years. We were able to confront the truth that the Bible has often been misused to justify slavery, segregation, and subjugation of women. We studied principles of Biblical interpretation. We prayed for each other.

Our study didn't weaken us. It gave us a new courage. We came to understand the importance of testing how Scripture is read and understood according to the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. Thanks to prayerful study, we were able to have honest conversations about sexuality and faith. We learned to celebrate the gift of sexuality with each other. We moved from fear to joy.

Our experience also allowed us to rethink and re-envision what covenant means. Covenant involves much more than a ceremony. Covenant is about commitment and relationship. Our study showed that heterosexuals enjoy economic, social, and legal benefits that are denied other people. In our conversation with the same-sex couple who has been together for over forty years—longer than my wife and I have been married—we learned that one member of the couple was denied the opportunity to be in the other's hospital room overnight following a surgical procedure. Arkansas does not recognize their relationship, despite all its evidence of commitment, as legitimate. They cannot marry. They cannot file a joint tax return. They cannot claim each other as dependents for health care benefits. For a brief time they were legally banned from being adoptive or foster parents. No matter how committed they are to each other, their relationship is not considered legitimate. Meanwhile, people who are heterosexual are permitted to marry—and receive all the social, economic, and legal privileges associated with marital status—whether they are committed to each other or not.

As we became better informed about these and other aspects of heterosexual privilege we remembered our personal and collective experiences with injustice. We recalled that during slavery marriage ceremonies did not protect slaves from being sold away from each other and that Baptists misused the Bible to justify human trafficking, chattel slavery, and Jim Crow segregation. We recalled that black people and women were denied citizenship and social equality. We remembered the hurtful impact of those injustices.

Above all, we remembered the love of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. In Christ, those who were once considered spiritual outsiders—and outlaws—have been brought into a covenant relationship with God and each other. The relationship and commitment associated with it creates and defines the covenant. And at the heart of what that relationship with God in Christ means are the great commandments. We are called to love God with all our being (including our sexuality) and love other persons as we hope to be loved. The essence of covenant is love and justice, not legality.

Months of prayerful study about faith and sexuality made us more aware about heterosexual privilege. We heard about and witnessed its consequences on people who have been branded moral and social misfits on account of their sexuality. We remembered Jesus, the embodiment of God's wonderful love, who embraced people who were considered moral and social misfits.

Through prayerful study, prophetic preaching, and worship that intentionally welcomes all persons in God's love, New Millennium Church no longer lives in fearful silence about sexuality. We rejoice in the diversity God has created, including the diversity of human sexuality. We rejoice that covenant is about relationship and commitment, not ceremony. And we affirm that the love of God we've come to know in Jesus calls us to be agents of love, truth, and justice. We aren't afraid of sexuality. We rejoice in it. We're inspired to be agents of God's love, truth, and justice concerning it in the true sense of covenant.

"We praise and worship God together. We petition God, together. We proclaim God, together. We welcome all persons in God's love together. We live for God, in every breath and heartbeat, by the power of the Holy Spirit, as followers of Jesus Christ, together." Amen.