Not Losing My Religion

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I just received my current issue of RFD Magazine, with my story, “Not Losing My Religion” in it:

Born in the South at the end of the Baby Boom, I have a long and complicated relationship with the church. ‘The church’ for me being Christian, and, more specifically, the conservative Missouri Synod branch of the Lutheran Church.

As a child, I loved my religion. I remember sitting in Christ Lutheran’s sanctuary of blond wood and stained glass windows, a larger-than-life statue of Christ resurrected hanging over the altar, feeling transported by the setting, the music, and the rhythms of the liturgy. Some of my earliest memories are of liturgy—the Te Deum laudamus and Create in Me a Clean Heart, O God.  As a gay child, I found great comfort in the teachings of love and meekness and the reverence of a savior who taught us to “turn the other cheek.” Fights at school and the bus stop were common occurrences growing up, and I was a ‘sensitive’ child in my mother’s words; a ‘mama’s boy’ in my older brothers’ eyes; a ‘sissy’ in the words of at least one teacher; and all that or much worse in the taunts of my classmates. Church was truly a refuge for the pre-adolescent me.

All that changed with my sexual awakening, which was so different than that of my straight brothers and peers. I came to hear more clearly the message of the church that I was wrong—an abomination. Like so many other gay and lesbian men and women, I slowly turned away from religion, dismissing my previous feelings of comfort and belief as being primitive and naïve. I stopped going to church when I left home for college, and it was a long time before I found my way back there again.

Two pivotal things worked to bring me back into the church’s orbit and, finally, into a pew. The first incident happened soon after I graduated from college. I found myself in the Southern gay mecca of Atlanta, and I found myself with a boyfriend. As Christmas approached, I realized that I was going to have to choose between spending the holiday with my family or with my new boyfriend—an untenable choice in my mind. Hoping to be able to spend Christmas with my family and my boyfriend, I came out to my mother. Not surprisingly, my mother, a good Missouri Synod Christian woman, struggled with my revelation. “Are you sure?” she asked, hoping that I had somehow made a mistake. My boyfriend did not come home for Christmas. I, however, continued coming home every weekend after coming out in hopes of showing my mother, recently widowed, that I was the same person she had always known.

One evening, as I was standing at the kitchen sink doing the dishes, my mother returned home from a Lutheran Women’s Missionary League meeting. She walked up behind me as I continued washing the dishes, wrapped her arms around me, and said, “I talked to Pastor about you after everyone else left the meeting. He said that God still loves and accepts you. I hope you know that I do, too.” My hands immersed in the hot soapy water, I stared forward, out the kitchen window, unable to wipe the tears that ran down my face. We had a good talk that night, and I called ‘Pastor’ the next morning to set up a meeting to talk with him. He admitted that he didn’t know anyone who was gay, but he was sure that God loved me. He and I became pen pals for several years after, corresponding regularly while I was away in the Peace Corps in Guatemala.

While his loving—his Christian—response was enough to keep me interested in God, it was not enough to overcome my fears of condemnation by God’s church, and I continued to keep my distance through my years in the Peace Corps and my return to the United States. I did, however, read and study on my own, finding much comfort, to my surprise, in the Bible. I also read historian John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality and Scanzoni and Mollenkott’s Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? and began to realize that ‘God’ and ‘church’ might not be synonymous. Nonetheless, I avoided the institution and the risks associated with it. Then, something happened in 1987 that brought me back through its doors and into a pew.

I had returned from the Peace Corps and was a nurse at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, DC, working with AIDS patients. One afternoon, as I was walking into a patient’s room to hang an IV, I heard a conversation taking place and, for some reason, I stopped and waited—and listened. A minister was visiting the patient, a gay man with AIDS, and they were having a beautiful talk, full of kindness and acceptance—no condemnation or guilt. I even heard the minister talk about the patient’s partner, who was also apparently a parishioner, in loving words. I was surprised—genuinely and pleasantly surprised. When the minister walked out, I asked him about his church. He was also a Lutheran, of the more liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and he invited me to come to a service. After thinking it over for a few weeks, I did, and I felt as if I’d returned home, easily falling into the rhythms of the liturgy. I ended up joining, and God seemed to bless my return by introducing me to the man who has been my partner for over 25 years at that church.

I still go to church, although I moved to the Episcopal Church in 2002 because I found them more theologically welcoming to LGBTQ persons. The Evangelical Lutheran Church has since opened its doors wide as well, but I’m a committed Episcopalian now, often serving on the altar with the priest. I remember the first time I gave communion to my partner—I had to choke back the tears as I offered the cup of wine, “The blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.” Another time, a parishioner called me after church to tell me that he had watched as the priest and I walked out into the congregation to commune an elderly member who couldn’t come forward. He said he had watched as I offered her the cup, and my face was changed. In truth, I do feel changed into a better version of me when participating in the service this way.

While I, too, have wandered down alternative paths on my spiritual journey, they have always brought me back home to ‘church’ through the blessings of clergy and others who have truly shown me the loving image of Christ that is at the heart of all true Christianity. At the same time, I understand that is not the case for so many of my LGBTQ brothers and sisters, and I pray that all of us find that love and acceptance somewhere, whether it be a church, a synagogue, a mosque, or in community or nature. We are all children of a loving God.

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Fear . . . and the Death of Innocents

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On Wednesday of this week, the Church remembered The Epiphany of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the conclusion of Christmas and the beginning of the season of Epiphany. In this season, we remember those events in Jesus’ life were his Lordship was revealed to various peoples.

As my priest Matthew noted on Sunday, during the joyous season of Christmas, we celebrated some pretty “gritty” events of Christian history—the Feast of Saint Stephen, the Church’s first martyr, celebrated the day after Christmas, followed two days later by the Feast of the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem. In the Feast of the Holy Innocents we remember the many children and infants slaughtered by King Herod in an attempt to kill Jesus. The story of those Holy Innocents of Bethlehem is anticipated in the Gospel reading for Epiphany, which begins:

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.

“And all Jerusalem with him” were frightened. Like peoples everywhere, the citizens of Jerusalem had grown comfortable with the current system. Fear is a strong argument when it comes to politics—fear of the ‘other,’ especially. Bishop Dietsche addressed this very issue in the politics of our day in “The Bishop’s Message” in the current edition of The Episcopal New Yorker:

We are watching as an alarming number of Americans, and many who would be our leader, are insisting in what could pass for apocalyptic times that the desired peace can only be found by filling more prisons; by demonizing Moslems and every immigrant; by building higher walls behind which to hide; by fearing and shunning the stranger at the gate, even the naked hungry refuge; and by making more and more war. My God. Not as these false prophets give peace does Jesus give peace.

“And all Jerusalem with him” were frightened. Fear is a strong argument that our politicians—and apparently Herod, too—wield to get in power, but we, as Christians, are called to “fear not” and put our trust in God. As Bishop Dietsche goes on to say:

 . . . turn away from the false idol of Safety-Safety-Safety to take the risk of connection and communion and going deeper and trying out what it might mean to all-be-one-as-Christ-and-the-Father-are-one.

Don’t let the Herods of our day lead us to believe that our safety requires the killing of our innocents—our Holy Innocents.

Letter to Kim Davis, Rowan County, Kentucky, Clerk

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Dear Ms. Davis,

I’m writing to you because, when I listened to this past Sunday’s Gospel reading, I couldn’t help but think of you. And, not for the reasons that you might think. I hope that you will hear me out.

Sunday’s Gospel reading was from Mark:

Some Pharisees came, and to test Jesus they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” (Mark 10:2-12)

Now, I know where you must think I’m going to go with this, but you would be wrong. As I thought about this passage, I began to realize how alike you and I and our spiritual journeys must be. This may come as a surprise to you when you learn that I am a gay man—a gay man and a Christian.

As a gay man, I have had to come to terms with certain passages in the Bible that seem to be pointing their fingers directly at me, just as you, as a divorced woman, have had to come to terms with what Jesus says regarding divorce in that passage. At first, I took those passages pointing directly at me as meaning that I was not welcomed in Jesus’ church, and I left the church for some time. Luckily, I have had many people who have shown me, in their words and actions, what it truly means to be a Christian, starting with my mother and her pastor.

When I came out to my mother, she struggled, as any good Christian would—as I did, too, when I realized that I am gay. Her struggle led her to talk with her pastor at the time, back in 1984. Like your church, her church—the church I grew up in—teaches that homosexuality is sinful. Nonetheless, my mother’s pastor understood Jesus’ message clearly:

“’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

He saw me as a child of God and as his neighbor, and he loved me and told my mother that God loves me, too.

I have been fortunate to have had other such loving—Christian—responses, which led me to wonder, “How can I reconcile what I know to be my created truth with what the Bible seems to teach?” As I studied, I found that Christians throughout the centuries have struggled with this question on a variety of issues—the Bible and slavery; the Bible and divorce; the Bible and women’s authority over men. How do we reconcile those teachings with life as we know and live it today?

In the end, I go back to those two commandments—“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” I believe that the second one, about loving your neighbor as yourself, is the path we must follow to love God. It’s all about love. “In my Father’s house are many mansions.” (John 14:2) Even a mansion for me. And for you. It would be a step toward ushering in God’s kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven” if we were to live as neighbors here and now and love one another as Christ loved us—unconditionally.

Your neighbor,

Alan Yount

Do as I say, not as I do . . .

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We have all heard those words, used to call out the hypocrisy of someone—they’re saying one thing and doing quite the opposite. Well . . . let’s look at Jesus’ words—what he said—from last week’s Gospel:

“Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

Now, let’s look at what Jesus says and does in this week’s Gospel:

[A] woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

The parallel passage in Matthew is even clearer:

[A] Canaanite woman from that region came out and began to cry out, saying, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is cruelly demon-possessed.” But He did not answer her a word. And His disciples came and implored Him, saying, “Send her away, because she keeps shouting at us.” But He answered and said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and began to bow down before Him, saying, “Lord, help me!” And He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. . . . It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs”! Did Jesus just call this woman, this Gentile, Syrophoenician, Canaanite woman a dog?! Did he just tell her that she’s not worthy of the bread—that ‘Bread of Life’ we heard so much about in previous Sundays—meant for the chosen ones of Israel. Is this the same Jesus who just last week warned us that it is “the things that come out [of us] that defile”?

Now, this is a Jesus I can relate to! I’m very good at giving advice but not so good at following it. I find it very easy to get angry and ignore those who are different than me, even put them down with slurs and a clever remark to justify my anger. But, that is the point, isn’t it, of having a God who cares enough to find out what it’s like to be human, to live in our skin and grow up in our world of prejudices and biting words? A God who says the right thing one day and does quite the opposite another?

Of course, we all know how the story ends. Jesus relents, telling her, “O woman, your faith is great; it shall be done for you as you wish,” and heals her daughter. He doesn’t try to convert her. He doesn’t beat himself up about not getting it right the first time. He goes on and does the right thing. This is a Jesus that I have a harder time relating to, but . . . that other Jesus lets me know that this Jesus understands me. He gets me. And, he shows me how to move on from “do as I say, not as I do” to an integrity of words and actions.

The Episcopal Church Welcomes You*

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The Episcopal Church is a welcoming church. It says so right on our signs! There is an asterisk that might be placed at the end of that sign, though . . . According to the Episcopal Church’s website:

It goes by several names: Holy Communion, the Eucharist (which literally means “thanksgiving”), mass. But whatever it’s called, this is the family meal for Christians and a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. As such, all persons who have been baptized, and are therefore part of the extended family that is the Church, are welcome to receive the bread and wine, and be in communion with God and each other. (italics added)

Such a policy, known as open communion subject to baptism, is the official policy of the Episcopal Church. In some other denominations, such as the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod and the Catholic Church, the official policy is a closed communion–not only must you be baptized, but you must also be a member of that denomination to participate in communion. I was jarred into that realization when I attended a friend’s mother’s Catholic funeral, and the bulletin made it clear that only baptized Catholics were welcomed at the altar rail for communion. I sat in my seat during the Eucharist, feeling very much excluded. That would not occur in an Episcopal Church. So, the Episcopal Church welcomes you, but . . . please be baptized to participate in the Eucharist.

In action, however, many Episcopal Churches do not follow this policy. I have been in many Episcopal Churches where the celebrant announces that “This is God’s table and all are welcomed.” No asterisk or signed statement affirming baptism. In fact, when I attended the Diocesan Convention a couple of years ago, Bishop Dietsche made such an announcement. To be fair, he could be pretty sure that all in attendance were baptized members of the Episcopal Church, but I liked hearing him say that “all are welcomed” at God’s table.

Not all Episcopal Churches are so open however. St. Luke in the Fields, the church I attended in New York City, made it clear that, if you weren’t baptized, you were welcome to come forward and receive a blessing, but you should not receive communion. I was in formation there with another adult preparing for baptism who could not participate in Eucharist on Sundays, which felt odd to me.

In her memoir, Take This Bread, Sara Miles, who had been an atheist with little interest in Christianity, describes walking into a church for the first time: “One early, cloudy morning when I was 46, I walked into a church, ate a piece of bread, took a sip of wine. . . . This was my first communion. It changed everything. Eating Jesus, as I did that day to my great astonishment, led me against all my expectations to a faith I’d scorned and work I’d never imagined. The mysterious sacrament turned out to be not a symbolic wafer at all but actual food–indeed, the bread of life.” I have to wonder what she would have done if the church she had wandered into had made it clear that only baptized Christians were welcome to receive communion. Would she have missed that opportunity for change–radical change?

In Those Episkopols, sometimes called the “unofficial handbook of the Episcopal Church, author Dennis Maynard says that he teaches children preparing for their First Communion this devotional:

As we raise our hands to receive the Holy Bread pray the following words, “Out with self. Out with envy. Out with anger. Out with greed.” Then take the blessed bread in your hands and offer this prayer, “In with compassion. In with forgiveness. In with understanding. In with love. In with Jesus.”

In with Jesus. The bread of life. Should anyone who feels called to come to the altar rail be denied that opportunity?

God Bless America

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Lord God Almighty, in whose Name the founders of this country won liberty for themselves and for us, and lit the torch of freedom for nations then unborn: Grant that we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (The Collect for Independence Day)

Last Saturday we celebrated America’s birthday, Independence Day, and rightly so. The founding of our new nation was, and is, something to be celebrated. Never before in the history of the world had a nation come into being built on the principles of the equality of all men and the “unalienable Rights [of] Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” As we all know, those words have had to be expanded over the 200+ years since they were first written-slavery had to be done away with so that all men, regardless of the color of their skin, might be included; and “men” had to be expanded to include women as endowed with those same inalienable rights; and these ideals are still works in progress. Indeed, Thomas Jefferson, sometimes called the “most democratic of the [Founding] Fathers,” wrote in a letter to James Madison, “no society can make a perpetual constitution or even a perpetual law. The earth belongs always to the living generation.”
The earth belongs always to the living generation. It is our responsibility, then, as citizens to always review and reimagine what those principles of equality and the unalienable Rights of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness mean and to whom they must be extended. Even more so is it our responsibility as Christians. In the Gospel reading for Independence Day, Jesus reminds us to, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you . . . for [God] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” I would go a step further and say that God makes the principles of equality and the unalienable Rights of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness also to “rise on the evil and the good, and . . . on the righteous and the unrighteous.” It is not for us to judge; we are called only to pray.
This brings me to those words of one of our nation’s most cherished anthems, “God Bless America.” For a long time I didn’t like hearing this song at all-I feel that it is so often sung not as a plea but as a demand,  or as a fait accompli, a done deal-but that’s because it is so often sung without its first verse:
While the storm clouds gather far across the sea,

Let us swear allegiance to a land that’s free,
Let us all be grateful for a land so fair,
As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer.

As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer. That prayer being that God would bless America, not that God has already blessed America. As citizens and as Christians, it is our responsibility to pray for God’s blessing on America and to work toward that blessing through ever expanding the ideals of equality and the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, even to those we call our enemies.

Hear What the Spirit Is Saying to the Church

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This Sunday the Church celebrates Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles and other followers of Christ, as described in Acts. Originally a Jewish holiday celebrating the giving of the Law to Moses, the disciples were all gathered together, “And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind. . . . All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the Holy Spirit lately, that third ‘person’ of the Holy Trinity. The Holy Spirit makes at least 90 appearances in the New Testament, including Jesus’ conception and at his baptism. At the Last Supper, Jesus promises to send the Holy Spirit to the disciples after his departure; and in his final post-Resurrection instruction in Matthew, Jesus commands that the disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Despite the ‘unity’ of the Trinity referred to in this Sunday’s Collect, the nature of the Holy Spirit has caused great division in the Church, separating the Eastern and Western Churches when “and from the Son” (“We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son”) was added to the Nicene Creed by the Western Church in 410 C.E. without benefit of a Church-wide, or ecumenical, Council. According to the Episcopal Church website, “The Eastern Orthodox churches condemn the addition as contrary to the admonition of the Council of Chalcedon (451) that no change be made in the faith expressed in the Nicene Creed,” and this led to the split of the Eastern and Western Churches in 1054 C.E.

This is all changing, however. The Episcopal Church website goes on to explain:

The Lambeth Conference of 1988 recommended that the phrase [known by the Latin filioque] be dropped from the Nicene Creed in Anglican churches. The 1994 General Convention of the Episcopal Church resolved to delete the filioque from the Nicene Creed in the next edition of the Prayer Book.

Already, Enriching Our Worship, which is authorized for use by the Episcopal Church, has dropped the filioque from the Nicene Creed, so that the section on the Holy Spirit reads:

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets.

Even the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has recommended that the filioque be removed from the Creed, and when Pope Francis said the Creed in Greek with the Patriarch of Constantinople in attendance, the filioque was omitted.

I have been in other Episcopal Churches that are using the Creed without the filioque. Of course, I along with others stumble over “and from the Son” when we get to the Holy Spirit. But, I think that stumbling over the Creed, rather than reciting it from memory, without thinking about the words and their meaning, is a good thing; it is that same Spirit working to get me to listen and “hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church.”

May the Spirit be with you,

~ Alan ~