(Photo, "Coming out of the Closet" by the Kurt Löwenstein Educational Center International Team, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
The Gifts of God for the People of God.
--p. 364, Book of Common Prayer
I have been honored to be the "test drive" for many, many coming out experiences over the years, when people were working up their courage to publicly come out. (Now, in all fairness, sometimes I think some of them came out to me by accident...as "The butchest straight woman you ever did see," I think sometimes I got mistaken as "one of the tribe." Well, I'm only kinda one of the tribe. I pass for one of the tribe. But what I used to see as a "problem with myself" I now see as a blessing, because it has taught me many things about what the tribe feels, in a smaller way, and I can have empathy and compassion for that in a way I might not have otherwise.)
On this National Coming Out Day, 2011, I want to spend a little time encouraging folks for what I often see as the "hardest hurdle" in the coming out process, based on what people in the coming out process have shared with me. Sometimes, it's not parents or siblings that are the hardest--it's the business of being okay with "Coming out to God." In fact, I believe it's why a lot of GLBT folk become atheists--they have received so many misguided, (and I belive, un-Biblical) messages from people that God hates their "sin" of homosexuality, it's just easier to not believe in God rather than come out to God.
Now, I can't even begin to presume to be God's Mouthpiece. But I can share with you something in my own life that I have discovered is very universal with every single person of faith. I can also share my experience as a parishioner in an openly GLBT-affirming community of Christian faith.
Well, let's start with what I see as a major universal truth.
Guess what? Every single person of faith who desires a closer relationship with God comes out of the closet to God with something. Being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender is just one thing on a list that stretches into infinity. Every one of us has something about us that we think the world thinks is awful, or we're somehow broken or un-fixable, or so terribly unworthy for some reason, or are carrying some big secret that we think the world will blow to bits if we reveal it. What we discover is these secrets usually weren't all that secret, and we discover when we really attune the ear of our hearts to God, that God loves us--like the old hymn says, just as we are.
Our sexualities are part of God's good creation. Sexual sin is when we harm other people with our sexual desires, like being unfaithful to our spouses, or engage in sexual relations with others for the sole sexual gratification of ourselves, and no thought to the intimacy of our relationships, or when our sexual desires directly or indirectly harm children, or when we are addicted to pornography that we treat people like objects and our addiction keeps us from being our full, authentic selves. Two loving people in a committed same-sex relationship harms no one. Homosexuals do not have a "lock" on sexual sin. Far more churches have been harmed by the minister running off with the church secretary, the fried chicken, and the money than they have by the minister coming out of the closet.
So, surprise, surprise, God already knows more about our sexual desires and proclivities than we want to admit. This is more about us being authentic with ourselves in a variety of ways, our sexual orientation just being one of them. The things that burn inside our souls are not usually our "sins" per se, but our inauthenticity as human beings, knowing we are loved by God, and something doesn't feel honest about that.
When people have talked to me about this in their coming out process, what I've learned is that sometimes, when they say they "don't know how God feels about this," what they are really saying is, "I know how people in the faith of my family or friends, or my worship community are going to feel about this, and they are not going to like it."
I am reminded of the movie Yentl, when Yentl's father is closing the curtains as he prepares for her Torah lesson and she asks, "If we don't have to hide my studying from God, then why from the neighbors?" Her father replies, "Why? Because I trust that God will understand. I'm not so sure about the neighbors."
Well, that's possibly true. I have friends that I love very much, and think are really earnestly trying to live a Christ-centered life, but have this big disconnect when it comes to homosexuality. They can quote Leviticus and Paul's Epistles chapter and verse and tell me why, in their heart, they think homosexuality is sin--and I simply recite my reasons why I believe those reasons are subject to interpretation. First, there are many prohibitions in Leviticus we choose to ignore--things like getting tattoos and haircuts and eating pork chops and shellfish and wearing "cloth woven of two fibers." (There goes all the cotton-poly blend!) Those are all things of the Old Covenant, and I am a person living in the New Covenant. As for Paul's writings, as best as I understand the times and the translation of the words in the vernacular of those times, Paul was referring to the Roman practice of pederasty--taking young boys for sexual slaves--and various forms of sexual activity where the implication was it was happening outside of marriage. Even if by some chance Paul meant exactly what it sounds like, what he got, he didn't get from the words or life of Jesus, because Jesus, when it comes to the topic of homosexuality, said absolutely nothing. Zero. Zip. Zilch. Nada. Maybe folks ought to listen to what he did say about divorce, and loving one's neighbors, and the sick, and the poor, rather than go to all this fuss about same-sex relations.
But the short version is I simply lovingly disagree with them, and continue to try to live my life in a Christ-centered way, best I can--I look to myself and what God tells me in the small still voice, and what I hear is "don't worry about that one."
The good news is there are religious communities of faith who are openly GLBT-affirming and welcoming to both you and your partner. In fact, in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri, my parish--Trinity-Kirksville--is an OASIS congregation, a congregation who specifically pledges to be intentionally welcoming.
Now that I have belonged to an intentionally welcoming community for several years, I can say I could never go back to any other way to live in a faith community. I think of a conversation I had with a dear childhood friend of mine who asked me one time what an OASIS church was. When I told him, he said, "Well...I don't know how I feel about THAT." I thought that was particularly funny because I know at least three openly gay people who go to HIS church, but I looked at him point blank and said, "Well...I don't really care how YOU feel about it, it's how I feel about it. All I can tell you is the gay and lesbian people in my church are every bit the light of my life as the straight ones, and the same sex couples we've had in it over the years...well, they're just couples." End of discussion.
I will be up front--being openly GLBT (or even openly supportive of GLBT equality) in a community of faith is not always easy. I urge anyone in the coming out process to download the helpful brochure about this from the Human Rights Campaign website. I think one of the things a person in this situation has to discern is where one's spiritual home in the community ultimately lies. But I want to reiterate the four talking points on page five of the brochure--"Why be open in a faith community?"--with my own experience as a parishioner in an openly affirming church community.
1. To affirm the whole of you. This is why any of us should be coming to church--to learn to be our most authentic selves in the eyes of God within a community of people seeking the same thing, and to spread the light of Christ in the world as a result of that transformation. It has been my experience that the more I become that authentic person, the more blessings I discover in life, and the more open I become to the blessings other people give us.
2. To help your congregation grow in love and compassion. My life as a parishioner in Trinity Church has been enriched by the dialogue that has taken place as the result of being an openly affirming parish. Open secrets in the church are not pretty. They are messy, and they hurt people. Over the years, I've learned a lot of this the hard way. I like this better.
3. To change the conversation about GLBT people of faith. I think the strongest counter-measure to the accusations that homosexuality is a sin, are the faith stories of individuals--whether that person is a GLBT person, a relative of a GLBT person, or a friend of one. The loving stories of enriched lives are an unmistakable and un-challenge-able testament to God's work in the world.
4. To build religious institutions that are true to their missions and values. The institutional church moves slowly. I don't always like it, but that's just a fact. But I have come to understand in recent times why that is. Things that have the potential to touch our deepest selves must be handled with care. All in all, "too slow" is probably better than "too fast," when we are talking about people's relationship with God, and the fragility that has sometimes. Change only occurs when both the minority finds a voice, and enough of the majority signs on. It takes all of us. But when it happens, it makes the church stronger, and it brings us closer and closer to having the Realm of God in our very midst.
The quote I used at the top of my post today is the invitation in the Eucharistic Prayer just before we come forward and receive the Sacraments. You know, when my priest says that, and displays the bread and wine, she doesn't say for "the white people of God," or "the straight people of God," or "the men of God." It's for all the People of God. If you are a person on this National Coming Out Day considering the possibility of such a thing, I just have one thing to say--you, too, are a Gift of God. Don't ever let anyone tell you otherwise or ever have reason to think otherwise!