As Time Goes By…

As Time Goes By

Every Sunday night the local PBS affiliates plays a set of British sit-com classics. The third one is called “As Time Goes By”. According to IMDB, “Lionel (Geoffrey Palmer) and Jean (Judi Dench) were lovers many years ago at the time of the Korean War. They are separated by a misunderstanding but meet again [years later] by chance.” It isn’t the funniest of the four, but its plot is solid. We watch them fall in love again. They had both moved on, many missing years separated them. We watch as they struggle to reconnect in their later years, in a brave new world of the 1990s, and with grown children of their own. Its probably the least funny, going for subtle realism comedy over the slap-stick and puns of the others, but I still watch it week after week.

In this season of Lent, I find myself separated from my love, and in a struggle to reconnect to it.

I was like most of you, just a kid going up in a church with a funny name: Nazarene. The 30-minute drive down Interstate 35 from Overland Park to Olathe takes forever when you are 4 years old. But every Sunday morning and night, then once more on Wednesday, I could be found some where inside Olathe College Church. I did what everyone else my age did. With the exception of winning the pine wood derby contest and a few “big parts” in the children’s musical, I was perfectly ordinary. Homely if you will. I went to “Big Church” with my parents and passed notes the whole time. I was in the Victor just like everyone else at CCN. In junior high I raised money to go on mission trips. I did what I was supposed to do. Some might say, I was literally the poster boy for NYI.

It was at that giant church in Olathe that I fell in love with a Jesus who did counter-cultural things, who taught that forgiveness and peace were better ways to make sense of the world. I fell in love with the Church, and how it ebbed and flowed with the seasons. How it created ways for people to connect to others. I fell in love with being a part of something so much bigger than myself.

Then the winds changed; a dust storm. I was naive enough to think that I could escape the storm unharmed. My expectation did not meet my reality. I was confronted with the reality that the policy trumps people.  I was naive enough to think they would bend the rules for me. That this time it would be different. I wasn’t some outsider. I grew up here. I can show you where I was sitting when I left to go pray at the altar and ask Jesus into my life. Just a few feet away is where I stood when I was given Minister’s License. The chaos of the storm separated me from my Church. I could have converted the entire planet to Christianity, but it would have been meaningless to those in Lenexa because of one issue: my sexual orientation.

Because this issue has been blown out of proportion, I feel like that’s all anyone sees me as, a gay rebel-rouser who should stop complaining because “I knew the rules when I signed up.” In the solitude of Lent, and in the darkness of my personal Gethsemane I ask God questions I am too afraid to speak publicly:

“If Christians see me as terrible, maybe God sees me this way too…”

“Why did You make me gay?”

“Why did I even start this foolish blog?”

“Maybe I’m wrong, maybe it is sinful to be gay…”

“Am I doing any good for You or the Church? Or am I just like that “reformed” guy but barking on the other side of issues?”

Lent’s introspection has forced me to deal with the spiritual pains of this separation. Will I ever get back to the church of my childhood? Will I find my childlike wonder in a new denomination? Or will I be forever jaded because of this whole experience? It is hard to separate the good from the bad in my memories. Even more difficult is determining what was real and what was fake about my Christianity. Bittersweet memories of a time gone by. There are times when I want to walk away from it all. Those questions circle my thoughts like vultures in the desert. Without a community of support it is harder and harder to fight them off when they land. It’s been 4 years, seems like 40, have we done anything? I’ve spent the last 4 years trying to hold on to a shadow. The dust from the storm settles, and I realize just how far removed I am.

For many gays, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer Christians, it is easy to get stuck here; in the separation. In the emotional rawness of being rejected by people you thought were on your side, but weren’t, or not fully, or are now but not when you needed them. The deeper the cut the longer it takes to heal and so we linger in the separation. But even those of us who once called the Nazarenes their own, need to be reminded that Easter is coming. The pain and hurt won’t last forever.

Like Lionel and Jean were reunited. Things were different between them, years had passed, but their love was still there. When Easter arrives, it heals wounds, eases pain, and helps us forgive. It will look different for everyone. My hope is they will, at their own speed get there. Getting closure doesn’t mean rushing back to the Church of the Nazarene. In fact, it may mean staying very far away. I just worry that some of us won’t get that closure, and will stay in the bitterness. Healing and closure, in all their varied forms, are our destinations.

Where am I now? I’m not sure… I wish I did. Until then, I’ll pray that the Lord will protect me, and those with stories like mine, from bitterness and that I will act in ways that bring the Kingdom of God closer to earth, that’s about all I know to do. For me, when Easter does arrive, it’ll will be a much anticipated reunion.

Keeping Up Appearances

Hyacinth

Every Sunday night on OKC’s PBS affiliate OETA, a British block on the tele airs that includes: Keeping Up Appearances. It follows the antics of middle-class socialite Hyacinth Bucket (It’s pronounced Bouquet!). Nothing embarrasses Hyacinth more than her chav-esque brother-in-law Onslow. She can hear that he isn’t wearing a shirt even on her “white slim-line telephone with auto re-dialer.” She wants to be more like her wealthier sister Violet, who has “a Mercedes, sauna, and room for a pony.” Hyacinth’s biggest fear is that her neighbours will find out that her life isn’t as perfect as she projects it be. Hyacinth insists on formality and proper form as she tries to climb up the social ladder. Her rigid adherence to etiquette sends her falling embarrassingly back to the ground.

The Church shares some personality traits with Hyacinth Bucket; correcting people on trivial facts; insistence on tradition at the cost of relationships; the whitewashing of one’s past or current well being. The result is a Church that caters to the rich board member rather than the homeless non-church goer. The Church’s track record on women in ministry, science, LGBT issues, all have been swept under the public relations’ rug and ignored.

For example, the policy for women in ministry for the Church of the Nazarene has been inclusive since the church was founded, but the practice has been far from it. From 1920 to 1988 there were only two District Superintendents elected. 2005 was the first and only time a women has held the highest office as General Superintendent. Three of the General Superintendents currently elected only had a total of 3 women pastors on staff at two of the top ten largest Nazarene Churches in USA/Canada. When we retell the myth of inclusion for women, and still don’t have the numbers to back it up, that is keeping up appearances.

One doesn’t need to look any further then the story of Galileo. He was convicted of heresy for telling people the sun doesn’t revolve around the earth. The Church pointed to scripture to ‘prove’ Galileo wrong, that the sun in fact did rotate around the earth.  It would be another 500 years before Galileo would be exonerated by the Church that formerly banished him.

The Church’s power and influence is much like Hyancith’s. Those who wish to turn down Hyacinth simply because she won’t accept no for an answer. Similarly, those who wish to stand up to the well polished PR machine of the Church find themselves in an uphill climb. Wouldn’t the conversation about LGBT issues in the Church be different if the Church acknowledged that LGBT people go to Church and included them in the conversation?

Hyacinth has a desire to be around people of the best breeding in higher socio-economic classes like her sister Violet, and doesn’t her best to hide any connection she has with the lower ranks like that her two other sisters. Sadly the Church will cater to those who fit a certain mold instead of focusing on the people the Church is instructed to cater to, the outliers. The PR machine glosses over the homeless and those in poverty when putting pictures up on the Church website.

The Church’s effort to become a “glorious Church, without spot or wrinkle” has hurt many people. Because of it people have legitimate reasons never to step foot into a Church again, or associate themselves in any way with Christianity. The Church has got it backwards. We don’t become spotless and then show up on Sunday, we come as we are full of our sins, dirt, soils and stains. It is only when we acknowledge our faults to one another that the doors are open for the awesome power of redemption, forgiveness, and reconciliation to come through. We play this game of keeping up appearances so to look perfect. That game backfires and hurts the people the Church is supposed to protect.

It is embarrassing to admit mistakes. It is awkward. It is hard for the Church to admit it has gone about things in the wrong way because the Church is made up of people who hate to admit they are wrong. But God is stubborn just as much as we are. God will wait, and God won’t budge on loving us or loving on God’s Church. We don’t have to keep up the appearance of perfection when we are in the presence of God. Why should we when we are around God’s people? Let us all acknowledge our dirt together, for when we finally do, the sooner we shall be clean.

Much to Hyacinth’s chagrins her neighbours and friends know about her brother-in-law Onslow, and her sister Rose whose skirts are too tight and too short for public viewing, and they don’t care. They know, and they don’t care. Everyone seems to know that sinners go to Church except for the denominational Facebook page. How much more will God pour out God’s love on a Church that recognizes its faults and seeks forgiveness from the people it’s wronged?

Advent: The Hope of the Already, but Not Yet

Advent

Ty

When people ask me where I’m from, I say without hesitation, “Kansas City.” But that isn’t entirely true… I’ve never actually lived in Kansas City. I grew up 2.411 miles from Kansas City’s border, but that still isn’t in Kansas City. I grew up surrounded by all the great amenities Kansas City has to offer, the fountains, the Country Club Plaza, Swope Park, and KC Royals games, but I still wasn’t from Kansas City. A short 2.411 miles separated me from officially being from Kansas City. I was living almost in Kansas City, but not quite Kansas City.

Life is full of “almost, but not quite” moments too. For example, when people are engaged, they have committed themselves to one another symbolically, but haven’t legally yet. They are almost, but not quite, married. We uses phrases like “for all intents and purposes” or “close but no cigar” to cover the gray area of life’s in-between moments. Between what it technically is, and what we assume it to be.

We are in one of those gray areas right now. The season of Advent is the start of the Christian Calendar, and is celebrated on the four Sundays prior to Christmas, this year starting on Sunday, December 1st. Ordinary Time has come to an end, something different is about to happen, but it hasn’t happened yet. Celebrating Advent means we prepare our heart, mind, body, and soul, for the coming of Christ at Christmas. Advent elevates the way we go about life to a level that isn’t quite actualized yet.

It is easy to miss in the hyper-commercialized, hyper-consumerist culture that tells us that the reason for Christmas is to have a strong 4th Quarter. But behind the shopping, decorations, lights, holiday parties, and music is a call to live beyond those things and to refocus ourselves on something that is waiting up head: The Kingdom of God. It isn’t here yet, but isn’t completely separated from us. The Kingdom is here now, but not quite here fully.

The world we live in is hurting and broken. It is easy to say it is the “not here at all” Kingdom of God. But every now and then, we catch glimpses of this “now, but not yet Kingdom” through everyday people acting as the person of Christ. When people act as Jesus told us to act we steal a glance into that better reality. Jesus told us to look after those less fortunate then ourselves. He told us to love our enemies and forgive those who don’t deserve our forgiveness. He told us to love one another. He told us that some day the Kingdom of God will be here, but until that day comes we should actively engage the World, in ways that widen the view of the now but not yet Kingdom.

When we engage in the systems of the World in the counter-intuitive manner Jesus instructed, those systems of power and control begin to look different. The powers and principalities are themselves reformed and renewed in order to fit into this “now but not yet” Kingdom. As a gay Christian, it is the hope that Advent brings that gives me the ability to look beyond the current status of the church, to one that is free of institutionalized discrimination and prejudice towards LGBT people. It sounds foolish, and maybe it is, but that is my hope.

It may take some time for that hope to be realized, but there are places where the powers are already being reshaped right now. Whole denominations and groups of believers that have committed themselves to be more like Christ simply by including LGBT people amongst them. Sometimes this means actively defying church rules so that Christ’s love can shine through. This is already happening in Pennsylvania; Rev. Frank Schaefer, a United Methodist pastor, faced a Church trial for officiating at his gay son’s wedding. His act of love exposed the ugliness of the Church, but it also gave us a glimpse of what the Church should look like. Advent reminds us all good is being done in the Church right now, as well as showing us the long way we have to go before full reconciliation between the Church and LGBT Christians is completed.

I hope to return to Kansas City, and actually be living in Kansas City, but until that day comes, I will still consider myself as being from Kansas City. When I hear the Christmas story this year, I will continue to imagine ways I can engage the world that will usher in the already, but not yet Kingdom of God. As we celebrate Advent, let us all remember the Kingdom is already here, and that should give us great hope.

This piece first appeared in the December 2013 issue of The Gayly, the largest gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender monthly newspaper in the South Central USA.

Statement of Support for United Methodist Rev. Frank Schaefer

Schaefer Statement Pic

Norman, Okla. – Earlier this week, our sister Wesleyan denomination, The United Methodist Church (UMC), held a church trial to decide the future of Rev. Frank Schaefer for officiating at his gay son’s wedding. He was suspended for 30 days after which he will be defrocked if he does not fully intend to obey all of the Book of Discipline for the UMC.

During these times of growing polarization between believers, we need to acknowledge that the Church, is hurting, broken and in need of the redeeming work of Christ. We find healing and reconciliation when we share the broken body and shed blood of Jesus. Christ has set the table and invited all to partake. How do should we respond when a person or group of people feel as if they are lesser at the same table? We should respond in love. Love for his son caused Rev. Schaefer to act and love calls us, the Body of Christ, to act by erasing the superficial lines that divide us (e.g. social economic status, cultural bias, gender or sexual orientation). Love does not discriminate. Love does not play favorites. Love will not only win, it will prevail.

Nazarene Ally applauds the efforts of allies, such as Rev. Schaefer, who not only preaches love, but also puts it into practice. His words and deeds are the embodiment of Christ bringing about the Kingdom. We thanks those in our sister organization, Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN), for their efforts to expose this trial and verdict for what it is, but also provide a model for how a denomination can move forward as more RMN communities are being added daily. Nazarene Ally again calls upon the Church of the Nazarene to look into ways that bring about reconciliation between LGBTQ Nazarenes, and the Nazarene Church.

Our prayers are with Rev. Schaefer, and his family during this period of reflection that they will not lose hope during this difficult time. We also pray for our counterparts in the RMN and the UMC, that through the broken body and shed blood, we can all come to the Table and find reconciliation.

Haven’t We Been Here Before?

Dinosaurs

Ty

I grew up in Kansas’ public school system when evolution was removed from the curriculum. As a student I was getting mixed messages about what to believe regarding evolution; my Church said one thing, my school said another. It took time for me to reconcile both voices. 90 years after the Scopes Monkey Trials, those who oppose evolution have lost their steam, even amongst evangelical circles. My church has taken great strides to tone down its rhetoric and open up the conversation to allow for more voices to be heard on this topic.

As the tide for opposing evolution was waning, opposition toward the LGBT community was waxing in the evangelical church, and used the same arguments taken along. Again I was receiving mixed messages. I heard that we are subject to the “wrath of God” and being gay is “not compatible” to being a Christian. It took time me even longer to reconcile the dueling voices.

As this process was happening for me I noticed something very odd. The more I talked to people who opposed LGBT individuals being involved in the rythms of the Church; I couldn’t help but think that we’ve already used these flimsy premises and weak logic before. History is repeating itself. The labels have changed and the Bible verses have been swapped, but the underlying logic of the debate is the same: How do we use and interpret the Bible? It goes one level deeper. Deconstruct these debates and the motivation behind the opposition is clear: fear.

It is a fear of falling down the “slippery slope” which changes long-held positions “supported” by scripture, which erodes everything else in the Bible. If Genesis 1 is not literally true, then how can the rest of it be true? There is an underlying fear that if change occurs then everything else would innately be wrong as well. Why should we, The Church, fear new perspectives? But learning a new perspective on any topic doesn’t eliminate the rest of one’s belief. For example, learning Algebra doesn’t negate basic math elements like addition and subtraction. These conversations shouldn’t scare the Church; they should excite it.

The debate seems to be guided by a gripping fear of losing power and authority. The Church is especially bad at seeking forgiveness as an institution. The irony is that a central teaching of the Church is seeking out forgiveness from God and others. It took nearly 500 years for the Church to apologize to Galileo. Hopefully, it will not take the Church another 500 years to get on board with ordaining gay and lesbian pastors or officiating over gay and lesbian couple’s weddings.

Using the Bible as a science textbook doesn’t get us anywhere theologically, nor does using the Bible like Match.com, well in this case, ChristianMingle.com. There is dating advice in the Bible; it is love one another and be faithful and loyal to your spouse. Use the Bible to love. That’s it! Radical love. Loving your enemy as yourself. Replace fear with love and it changes everything.

It took nearly 90 years for the evangelical Church to tone down its rhetoric concerning its stance against evolution. Likewise it will take time before the Church starts to tone down its rhetoric against those of us in the LGBT community. This won’t happen through scientific studies and peer-reviewed essays like it did with evolution, but through radical love that casts out all fear. It will cause the Church to graciously reevaluate its ignorant rhetoric against LGBT people and the role we play in our communities of faith as pastors, laypersons, and mentors. It challenges the status quo and allows the decision makers to focus on people instead of a policy. Radical love starts one person at a time, one story at a time, one church at a time, and spreads like wildfire on the plains. Suddenly it’s not so radical after all.

Nazarene Ally Founder, Ty McCarthy, wrote this piece for the April 2013 edition of The Gayly, the largest gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender monthly newspaper in the South Central USA.

Last Lecture

Neal's Last Lecture

A chaplain I had in college every so often would bring in guest speakers to speak on the most peculiar of subject. They were to address the student body as if it were their last speaking engagement ever. What wisdom would they depart to the crowd? What advice did they have to share from their story? What pressing information finally needed to be told? I write this as an ode to my chaplain-emeritus, and in that style of last speeches. This will be Neal’s last post.

It dawn on me the other day that I never really explained why I started this. Granted I’m gay, and Nazarene, but beyond that why did I invest time and energy into a venture that has zero guarantee of return on my investment? Like any story worth telling it doesn’t fit easily into a nicely formed essays. Its full of back story and subplot, I will do my best to conform it. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, I write so much now, I forget what I post and what I don’t. Feel free to ask questions, and as always pretend I am telling you this over dinner.

Neal’s Story

Neal was created because I was paranoid, scared, and so deep in the closet I as almost in Narnia. (No one ever seemed to laugh at his name. Neal A. Zachary…NAZ…get it?) Almost as soon as I started I felt like I was going to get caught. I was still working for the Church and the thought of losing my job scared me. As I transitioned each post from the old site to the new site, I hardly recognize the person who spent sleepless nights writing just to channel and calm his thoughts. Whom, on more than one occasion was on the verge of an anxiety attack. Xanga seemed to help take the edge of my teenaged angst, so I turned to its modern cousin the blog. But that is making it too simplistic.

There was a time in my life when I wouldn’t have even dreamt to admitting publicly I was gay. I never needed to really. The problem was I fit in. I dated girls and I pass as straight. The truth is, even the most visibly gay person will pass as straight in Christian circles because people want to hold on to the lie they are straight instead of accepting the person for who they are. But stereotypes don’t fit me, so I’m not going to apply them to others. People will believe what they want. I never was bullied for being gay. In fact I don’t remember ever being bullied in my life. I got made fun of here and there, but nothing that you would consider bullying. I could have easily kept the charade up to my friends, and lived out a straight life with a wife, 3 kids, and shed in the back yard. And I almost did just that. How I started Nazarene Ally is the story of how that world collapsed.

My life was on a completely different track. I was headed towards marriage. “If you repeat a lie enough it becomes true.” I told myself at the very worst I was bisexual, and was choosing to be straight. After all, that’s what the Church was saying, gay is a choice, and so I blindly obeyed. A sweet girl came into my life and I believed the hype the people said about us. That we were the perfect match. We were the ‘it’ couple. I liked showing her off to my friends. I liked not being alone on the weekends. I liked putting both our names on wedding presents. I liked the attention.

Then out of the blue I was blindsided by a breakup in a Starbucks. The world that I had built, convincing myself I was straight, and that I could live a good, happy, little Nazarene life, and be a good, happy, little youth pastor came tumbling down. She said she “saw no future with me…” but I had my whole future wrapped up with her. A week that was supposed to be celebrating our anniversary sent me spiraling down into my darkest depression.

No one understood why I was taking this break up so hard. I told people she broke my heart, and that was partly true. I did have real feelings for her. Sexuality’s complex. I just couldn’t tell them the truth without revealing my darkest secret. I was so scared that I would lose my friends that I didn’t say anything. I bottled everything inside for four months.

Four dark months, I’ll never get back.

Moving to a new town, making new friends, and three rounds of antidepressants refills later, I was beginning to crawl my way out of the emotional hole I dug for myself. I began letting people back into my life. I knew writing would help. I didn’t want to journal without a purpose. Some one else would suffer through the same fate I did, if I didn’t speak up. In fact, people were suffering the same fate at that very moment. Except these kids didn’t see an end to their suffering. They took their own lives because they had lost hope. They had been bullied and picked on for being gay or different, and couldn’t stand it any more. Each news story that summer cut my heart; I helpless to stop it. Then one-day news broke of a teen that took his own life in my town. I didn’t know him, but suddenly it wasn’t this abstract problem; it was real, and affected my community. I went home that day sat at my computer and typed.

24 blogs later here we are. I have read every comment. I have read every email. There were many times when I wanted to give up; just let Neal fade into obscurity. Starting out I had no friends to turn to when some people said particularly painful things. Last year around this time I went home for Thanksgiving, and then Christmas and wondered if this would be the last time I was welcomed there? Which friends would stand by me? What family members would I never talk to again once they learn my secret? Was this blog something I wanted to risk loosing friends, and family and a career in the Church over?

…Yes…

After three months of painful mental gymnastics I said yes. Maybe it was a selfish prayer, but it was the only thing I knew I could pray… “God if this isn’t where I should be going, I’ll stop right away.” My relationship with God was still mending. Gone was the Christianity I knew growing up. Gone was the God that would make everything better with a quick prayer at the altar. This was a new God was more interesting and more complex and yet more intimate and real then I had ever known before. This was a new Christianity looked nothing like what I was taught growing up. Prayer, going to Church, praise & worship songs, and the Bible all had to be re-learned. I had been Christian since I was 9, but only now I was a Christian.

I wanted to give the whole thing up, but something told me not to. If I were to continue this, I would need to come out and confront the issue face to face. I needed to be my own advocate for change. I needed to come out. I set for myself a date, by 11:59:59 on December 31st, 2012; I would have to tell someone I was gay. I made it my new year’s resolution, one I am proud to say I actual kept. Maybe in the future, I’ll share with you how it came about, but I wasn’t expecting it to happen in February. That week was the best week of my life! I gained confidence immediately, and my roommate noticed a change in me so dynamic he called me out on it, which led me to tell him. Coming out made me a new person.

The high of that week in February would be played against the emotional foil of a week in August. I hate goodbyes. I never knew the pain of losing my best friend like when on Monday the 6th, my boyfriend of two years moved away to start graduate school, by that Friday I was driving to Kansas City to tell my mom I am gay. Two highly charged emotional events surely would be setting me up for another round of depression. But this time I was ready. Unlike the previous break-up I had the support of my friends, (this one wasn’t a blind side, we knew the day he would leave… it didn’t stop the emotions. I cried so hard I gave myself a nose bleed.) I could now share and vent my emotions with my friends. I had people around me that knew exactly what I meant when I compared my life to a Doctor Who episode. You know the sad ones when The Doctor says goodbye to a companion. I knew the pain of being Donna Noble, a story I will share with you at a later, but now I was feeling like Rose Tyler, torn away from The Doctor after only two seasons. (I’m also proud to say that is my very first Doctor Who reference, I’ve resisted the urge to use Doctor Who metaphors every blog. If you need a show to watch, watch it!)

Suddenly I realized how wrong I had been. Instead of turning away from me, coming out has actually improved my relationships with my friends! A complete 180 from what I had expected! I cannot thank my friends enough for supporting me, for letting me talk their leg off about everything I had kept hidden for so long, and being patience with me as I slowly told more and more people. Thanks! Being on the other side of the roller coaster is amazing!

I look back and see a blur of memories. Sometimes it feels like ages ago, other times it is like yesterday. As I shared bits and pieces of my story with you, you gave me your stories. Stories that let me know that I wasn’t alone. Stories that brightened my day. Stories that told me I’m making a small impact. Stories that made me cry and unsure of how to reply. Stories that really made me realize how important this is after all. I’m really no one special, so I hope there isn’t much built up to my coming out. I’m just a guy who decided to type.

This is Neal’s last opportunity to address you. Two years after this adventure began, a new chapter begins. I started with lofty goals and high ambitions because I believe in our Church. I believe we can do Church better. I believe we can treat people better. I believe that the greatest days for our Church are ahead of us. And I want to be a part of that making that future happen today! I know I sound painfully naïve and optimistic, but I am just raising the standard of excellence for the next generation.

I want there to be space in the Church of the Nazarene for people like me. At the end of the day I invite you listen to my story, because that’s who I am, and I know without a doubt I can bring that to the table. I know there are others like me out there that just want to belong to this unique group of people called Nazarenes.

If anything, be kind to one another. You never know the struggles that people are silently going through because they think they might be ridiculed. Like I said, I fit into straight life. But I was well aware of the jokes, put-downs, teasing and anti-gay statements my church friends used. Would they still have said those things if they knew I am gay? Or would they have waited until I left and said it behind my back. I’m not sure which one hurts worst. But at the same time, you never know when you’ll be a light to someone in need. People who think they are strangers to Neal, but in reality know me, have given me hope without even realizing what they were doing.

I do this so that no one else has to go through what I went through. I do this so that the next generation of Nazarenes will be better equipped and ready to handle this issue. I hope you know that I love the Church, and specifically the Church of the Nazarene. I hope that somewhere in my ramblings you caught a glimpse of what is growing off my vine (John 15). And most importantly, I hope you know that I am His because of the way I’ve loved (John 13). I’m not perfect, I’m probably not a role model either, but I know someone who is, I mess up a bunch, and please forgive me when I do. I try to live my life by this phrase: “Loving the edges is the way forward. Keep moving forward.”

Soon I stop being Neal, and I start being real.

An Open Letter to the Church of the Nazarene

An Open Letter to the Church of the Nazarene

October 11th may just be another day in October for you, but for many people around the country it is the day they “come out of the closet” and tell their family and friends they are gay. This is a day that starts the process of being fully honest with themselves, and with the people they care about. It is marked by great personal anxiety because being gay is still subject to ridicule, bullying, and discrimination even in 2011.

In 2010, we saw tragic reports of teens being bullied because of their sexuality and then committing suicide. It was October 11, 2010, that I started a blog because I could no longer stand in the shadows as a closeted Nazarene pastor; I needed to act. I needed to know that our Church was doing something it. If family, friends and school reject them, then they could find refuge in the Church. It is a platform for reform. It is a wake up call to the Church that we are leaving people out.

Let me begin by saying that I love this Church! Nazarenes are awesome! I hear stories all the time from my local church and from around the world that makes me, dare I say, proud to be a Nazarene. But I don’t need to tell you how awesome this Church is and can be. This letter isn’t an ultimatum or threat. It was written with love with the intent to make this Church as great as God wants it to be and aware of the growing problem of homophobia that is entering many evangelical churches.

It is because I love the Church of the Nazarene, it pains me greatly to see how the Church is handling the issue of homosexuality. I would like to someday preach from the pulpit without hiding anything from my congregation. I don’t think we, Nazarenes, are ready for that just yet. But we can take baby steps to get there; we need to begin with welcoming those who have nowhere else to go.

Homosexuality is not a sin. The notion that one cannot be homosexual and Christian needs to end. Sexuality is not the root of sin, it is neither Original nor Personal as our Manual describes. Homosexuals, and heterosexuals alike, are only sinners because we are human. That notion creates policy that picks and chooses who gets to know Christ. It is dangerously close to legalism. Statements that single homosexuality out (e.g. only thing in the manual that is subject to the “wrath of God”) highlight that there is still some homophobic tendencies in the Church of the Nazarene. Fixing this problem is greater than just a policy fix at General Assembly (although removing the final paragraph of 37 and places in Nazarene Colleges and University’s student handbook where there is discrimination would be nice.)

We all need to work together to eliminate homophobia in our denomination. We all need to work to be a ‘salt and light’ Church that seeks out those who are struggling with their personal sexuality and point them towards Jesus. Our policies set the tone for local leaders. Instead of exclusion, we need to practice inclusion. Let us move forward, together, so that our children don’t have to worry about how we will react when they come out, for they will already know that they are loved. If they are bullied because of their sexuality, or for any reason for that matter, they will know that they are safe inside the doors and inside the arms of the people who make up the Church of the Nazarene. Let’s do this together so that no more have to feel hopeless. Every Nazarene worldwide should be an Ally!

Let’s start with actions and work our way up to a policy of inclusion, actions which fall 100% in line with John Wesley’s social holiness. After all we are holiness church. Holiness is greater than keeping Christians in, and sinners out. Jesus flipped the notion of ‘insiders and outsiders’ on its head when he proclaimed the ‘favorable year of the Lord.’

“But what about scripture?” I will not make any pretense that I am the greatest expert on this subject, but I do know a few things.

1) Scripture is complex. Paul makes statements that aren’t really ‘politically correct’ about slaves, women and homosexuals, but we make caveats for slaves and women, so why not homosexuals too? Does it make sense to focus on the seven times it is referred to and pay less attention to the other more frequently referenced prohibitions? Jesus is silent on the subject.

2) Keep scripture in context. Homosexuality in the Bible was different from it is in 2011. Just like Jesus’ agricultural rooted parables need some extra digging to figure out the context was (especially to those who live in cities, far removed from the ancient Jewish rural lifestyles.) Let’s do the same for the passages on homosexuality to figure out what is really going on, instead of taking TV preacher’s word for it. Much more can be said, but I will leave that up to the theologians like Walter Wink and Tony Campolo.

This letter will by no means solve things over night. And I realize that it will fall on mostly deaf ears. But there are hurting homosexual teens in my youth group that I am not able to share my testimony with at risk of losing my job. This young generation needs good Gay-Christian role models that they can look to as they navigate life, just like the heterosexual students have. We need to make that unpopular move and say, “It is okay to be gay, and Jesus loves you just as you are”. It will be highly unpopular, but it is the right thing to do. So how can you help?

1)    Local churches can get involved in Nazarene Ally. A program based off the Gay-Straight Ally system. (http://community.pflag.org/document.doc?id=139)

2)    Draft a resolution for General Assembly 2013 that puts the Church of the Nazarene on record as a denomination where it’s okay to be Christian and Gay.

3)    Simply talk about it. Have an open and honest discussion about it.

4)    Put your foot down. “If you see something, say something.” Being silent when someone is belittle homosexuals doesn’t help anyone. You maybe a minority in our traditionally conservative church, but speaking out against injustice is always the right thing to do.

5)    Act redemptively. There is a growing gap between the Church and the homosexual community; we need to find ways to bridge that in a loving, redemptive way.

Again, this was written out of love, and a call for a small correction on an otherwise amazing course God has planned for this great Church. Thank you for reading this letter.

I’m a Nazarene and I am gay. I’m not the only one. 

The Gay Nazarene

Identity Crisis

Identity Crisis

Have you ever spent much time talking with a three-year old? They tend to ask this same question over and over, no matter how great your answer was. You’re always pushed to find another answer to satisfy their question of “Why?” This banter goes back and forth until you run out of answers and in frustration, you simply say… “Because.”

Human beings are born with this internal curiosity. We are people born into a specific place and time and are products of the places, times and events that occur prior to our existence. We constantly wonder what happened before we were around and what will things look like after we are gone. Without our history, we have no stories. We have no way to shape our actions or shape what we stand for. We are left living in the “Because.” And that life is a desolate purgatory of a life.

As an institution, the Church must also ask those very same questions to “Why?” The answers we get are found in our sacred texts, they are forged through our experiences and aged with tradition and refined by reason. Through that process is how we, as the citizens of the Kingdom of God, find and re-find our identity. (We also must ask, “Who are we?” and “Where we are going?”) Simply put, the Church’s identity must be Christ. We are to look like Him. Each denomination in the Christian faith expresses this a somewhat differently, but peel back the layers of mission statements and creeds and one common element is clear: The Church’s identity is in Christ.

In our darker moments as the Church, we violently protested against other expressions of the faith that weren’t our own. We used violence, manipulation and power as if to prove that our expression of that identity was not only correct, but in fact the only way. All this did was prove how much we weren’t identifying with Christ, but instead with the world. History is filled with many examples of the Church not living up to the ideal. Too often we fall short, but our true identity as the citizens of the Kingdom, is still Christ.

Two Forms of ID Please

We, Nazarenes, similarly find our identity in Christ. As an expression of that identity, aligning ourselves with Christ, we have attached another identifying marker from Christ’s character and nature, holiness. This helps us to more specifically express the Christlikeness to which we as a Church are called. Holiness is often used as an identifying marker that differentiates us from other denominations. It is our defining expression of the Christian faith, yet we are not the only people who are called unto holiness, and we are not the only caretakers of what it means to live a holy life. Because we express our identity in Christ through the lens of holiness, every Current Moral & Social Issue and every Article of Faith every Pastoral Perspectives, needs to stem from that call of being a holiness people.

The Church of the Nazarene is a product of events that took root long before our first General Assembly at Pilot Point in 1908. The story is a long, complicated and detailed story to tell, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth telling; that makes the story better. That story needs to be told. In the process of telling and re-telling that story we find answers to who we are and why we even call ourselves Nazarenes to begin with. Given that our identity is in Christ and we express that through living a holy life, how do we express that to the multiple cultures and traditions around the world? This is an age-old question that churches have been trying to wrap their doctrines around for centuries.

Who To (Or Is It Whom To?)

In 1908, we established not only what we want to look like, but also whom we want to hang around. Our Founding Father Phineas F. Breese has a strong call to the impoverished people of Los Angeles. He sought to create a church that was focused on the poor and underserved members of society. Today we call that social justice. Breese would call that doing the obvious. (The Breese Institute in downtown Los Angeles bears his name and gives witness to the fact of his commitment to the disenfranchised of LA.) Breese was simply mimicking the actions and patterns of Christ. He saw that Christ was holy and did social justice actions. Maybe parts of what it means to be a holiness people is engaging in a broken world and a broken system, and in faith seek to be a part of God’s redemptive mission in our world.

We, Nazarenes, find our identity in Christ expressed through the lens of holiness and use social justice as a way of acting on that expression.

To summarize,
Q: “Why holiness?” A: “Because Christ embodied holiness.”
Q: “Why social justice?” A: “Because Christ embodied social justice.”

Taking all the above into consideration, shouldn’t that be our standard for how we frame our Current Moral and Social Issues stances?

Newton’s Third Law

As a denomination we haven’t always expressed our identity in Christ as holiness. (And we haven’t always focused on social justice either.) Don’t get me wrong, we aren’t burning people at the stake or invading the Holy Land, but there was a time when we “missed the mark” so to speak, on expressing our identity. As discussed in previous articles, we replaced our holiness with legalism. Or rather we changed the process of how we expressed our identity in Christ. We did this by formulating that which has no formula. (i.e. Not square dancing in physical education class does not make one holy.) We developed a reactionary approach to the pressing moral and social issues of the day. When faced with a new moral or ethical idea, technology, problem, solution or situation, people look to the Church for a solution. So our Manual slowly began to acquire more and more Special Rules now known as Current Moral and Social Issues.

By 1972 the Church of the Nazarene was already defining itself by what it was against. Although done with the best of intentions, the strict adherence to the rules made us begin to judge others who didn’t express their faith exactly like we did. Whatever the trend of the day was, the Nazarenes were likely to write a resolution for the Manual against said trend. We made our identity that which we were not, instead of that which we are. Our reaction against a trend is based out of fear and ignorance rather than out of love and wisdom. For where there is fear there cannot be love. “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears in not made perfect in love.” 1 John 4:18…

1972

The Church of the Nazarene first addresses the issue of homosexuality in 1972. It was a reactionary response to the changing American cultural view of sexuality that surrounded the church. Instead of writing a policy about what we are, it was a definitive statement about what we are against.

As time went on and the cultural issues waxed and waned the idea of keeping up with all of them, the era of personal and spiritual discretion arrived. Many of the line-item prohibitions were removed, replaced by new versions. The more things change, the more things stay the same. Such is the case with our homosexuality clause, now the final paragraph of P37 Human Sexuality; it has quietly remained unchanged from its original wording in 1972. We don’t live in the same kind of world the Nazarenes of the 1972 Manual were in. Our understanding of sexual orientation has changed. We have made attempts to adjust it with Pastoral Perspectives I (c. 2005), but church politics won out and Pastoral Perspectives II (2011) was written to clarify that we still don’t want openly gays and lesbians in our community of believers. I suppose at any rate history and time will be the judges on how important these issues truly are.

Simply put, our policy on gays and lesbians does not align itself with what we really want to be identified. When pressed, our policy is very vague and has not a single iota of practicality (or orthopraxy). Two Pastoral Perspectives have been written about the subject but they do not have the authority to replace P37 Human Sexuality, nor do they clarify the vagueness of our stance. And Pastoral Perspectives II seems to contradict the progressive spirit and intent and positive direction the first one was taking us in. In both cases (PP I & PP II), no gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender members were asked for their input on a policy that deeply affects not only them but their friends and families too. (For more on my suggestions to tweak this, see my blog on The Manual).

What We Are

We cannot be a people defined by what we are against. We have to be a people of holiness. And this holiness is for everyone. The light on the hill was on the hill so that all could see it; we do not hide our light under a bushel. We are called unto holiness. Nothing more, nothing less, simply holiness. That is our watchword and song. When we are holiness people who is a very attractive thing. It attracts the ugly and the pretty. It attracts people you never thought you’d sit next to on a Sunday morning.

Because when we are holiness people, totally focused on being holiness people and not being against the American-cultural flavor of the week, we are doing what Jesus the Nazarene did. Jesus expanded that table, He let the obvious and the obscure people come and dine. He made room at the table for those who shouldn’t be there by the religious standards of his day. He made room for them, and invited everyone to take his body and his blood and pick up his cross daily. We find our identity in our name… We are the Church of the Nazarene. We should do as Jesus taught us to do and expand the table. Yes it’s messy, yes it doesn’t make sense, yes it might go against everything you’ve been taught to believe about gays and lesbians, yes it makes you feel uncomfortable; yes it is indefinable and not formulaic. But it is who we decided to be back in 1908, and the Church of the Nazarene will not leave its calling.

Sin

Sin

If you asked a random sampling of Nazarenes “being gay a sin?” there would be a resounding reply of “Yes!” But is their answer based on personal opinion or the Bible or the Church’s understanding of sin? To answer the question correctly, we need to know several things.

  1. What is sin and who sins (is a sinner)?
  2. What is a homosexuality and who is gay?
  3. What is salvation and who is eligible for it (to be saved)?

If we can correctly define each term, then piecing together a proper answer becomes easy. Too often our definitions are imported to us from other sources and therefore pollutes our concept of what the word means. Later blogs will discuss how and why evangelical protestant churches have crusades against homosexuality.

What is ‘sin’?

Here are three definitions of how sin is interpreted. Webster’s Dictionary defines sin as “an immoral act considered to be a transgression against divine law.” The Roman Catholic Church defines sin like this “A ‘word, deed or desire in opposition to the eternal law’ (St. Augustine). Sin is a deliberate transgression of a law of God, which identifies the four essentials of every sin… And the transgression is deliberate, which means that a sin is committed whenever a person knows that something is contrary to the law of God and then freely does the action anyway.” The Church of the Nazarene defines Sin in Article V of the Manual 2009-2013 as a “voluntary violation of a known law of God by a morally responsible person. It is therefore not to be confused with involuntary and inescapable shortcomings, infirmities, faults, mistakes, failures, or other deviations from a standard of perfect conduct that are the residual effects of the Fall.” Based off those definitions of let’s ask the question again. “Are gays sinners?” (Record your answers in your workbooks).

Who is a ‘Sinner’?

The Bible states, “All have sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God. (Romans 3:23)” Therefore, everyone regardless of sexuality are sinners. All humans. Every single person on earth is a sinner. Why? Because of the Fall. We in the Church of the Nazarene affirm that there are two types of sin, Original and Personal. In other words you are born a sinner because of the Fall (Original), and then at the age of accountability you make choices that separate you from the center of God’s Will (Personal). Romans 3:23 is a great verse that points out that we are all guilty of original and personal sin.

How does sexuality relate to sin?

We have established that everyone, is guilty of sin just because of Adam & Eve’s Fall in Genesis. But is homosexuality a willful act against God? In other words, is homosexuality a personal sin? To answer this question we need to know where sexual orientation comes from. A person’s sexual orientation is based on an innate sense of attraction. Ask yourself the following questions: “What is my favorite color?” then “Why is that my favorite color?” The first question should be easy to answer, but the second is more difficult. The mind has a programmed set of likes and dislikes. During in utero development, chemical signals are conditioning the programming of the brain. Whether it is boys or girls, colors, food, music or art, without getting into too much technical jargon, we simply just like it or we don’t. The debate of the 1990s was if the cause of sexuality was a personal choice or result of biology. The most recent scientific studies all point to biology as cause of sexuality. Regardless of your personal feelings on choice or nature, does sexuality, or sexual orientation qualify as sin? The answer is no. The fact of the matter is that sexuality and sexual orientation is not an action that qualifies for a sin. The Church of the Nazarene and Nazarene Ally agree on this. We both affirm that we are not sinners based on our sexuality.

What about the “practicing” gay?

To be honest, I always read this phrase using the more common use of practice. (e.g. practice makes perfect) I always think of practicing being homosexual as if there is a performance or test coming up. It makes me smile, anyone else find that phrase a little bit humorous? No? Okay…I digress.

There is a big split, even within Gay-Christian circles, on whether or not sin falls into the actions related to homosexual-ness (i.e. the participation in a homosexual act). Some believe gays and lesbians in the Church are called, like Paul, to be celibate. While others believe in marriage. We in the Church of the Nazarene believe that sexual interactions should be reserved for marriage. So where is the sin? Therefore, gays, lesbian or bisexual can only be sinning (in regards to sexuality) when he or she engages in sexual actions before marriage. There should not be a double standard in the Church. But the Church does not support marriage between two men or two women who love each other.

One problem, which will be discussed in later blogs, is the issue of scriptural justification for the inequality of LGBT people. Suffice to say that any scriptural justification, or proof texting, does not comply with the standards of the Church of the Nazarene.

What is “salvation”?

Salvation is the act of opening your heart up to Jesus, asking forgiveness, and starting down a new path with Jesus, which leads to the center of God’s Will. The Manual puts it like this “We believe that Jesus Christ, by His sufferings, by the shedding of His own blood, and by His death on the Cross, made a full atonement for all human sin, and that this Atonement is the only ground of salvation, and that it is sufficient for every individual of Adam’s race. The Atonement is graciously efficacious for the salvation of [the irresponsible] those incapable of moral responsibility and for the children in innocency but is efficacious for the salvation of those who reach the age of responsibility only when they repent and believe. (Atonement, Manual Article IV)”

In light of that understanding, who is eligible for salvation? Everyone. Therefore whether you think homosexuals are sinners because of their natural sexual orientation, or if you think that sin is found only in homosexual acts, you must realize that once homosexuals ask Jesus into their hearts they become Christians. Just like the murderer, just like the thief, just like the liar, just like the heterosexual. (Just like you did.) We are Christian based on whether we have asked Jesus into our heart, nothing more, nothing else. There cannot be a separate rule sheet for a people group.

The other side

People often have very strong views on this topic, views that probably won’t be changed after reading this one blog post. (I’m fully aware of that.). So I’m prepared to look at it from your perspective the best I can. For the sake of argument, what if it was a sin to be gay? Since when has the Church been in the business of turning away sinners? Are we not the Church of the Nazarene, where we were founded on paying special attention to the disenfranchised? So why is the Church turning away customers? Who gave the Church of the Nazarene the right to pick and choose who gets to hear and receive the Gospel? How can the Church fix a broken World if it refuses to deal with broken people? If the Church wants to see redemption in the lives of homosexuals then it should open its doors up to the possibility that “sinners” need to be let into the church and not blocked from it. (It is a fact. The Church of the Nazarene has policies in place that bar participation by an openly gay members. Even more appalling is the amount of church members that hate, or strongly dislike, any and all mentions of any LGBT person participating in church. Our policies are not in line with the reality. Our local churches are not in-line with the most generous reading of the Manual.

Advice to the Church of the Nazarene

Let’s get offer an alternative, instead of condemning. There are secular gays who live a life that does not line up with the Gospel; the contra-positive has to be true as well, there are secular straights who live a life that doesn’t line up with the Gospel. (Key word, secular.) Our sexual ethic should be the focus and not sexual orientation. Let’s engage in redeeming people rather than a culture. Culture has a way of turning its back on the Church. Let us work together to stop the vicious cycle of hate, and offer up something the secular world doesn’t offer, freedom, which is, freedom in Christ. It all boils down to this. They, the sinners, won’t know that we are Christian by our sexuality but by the way we love.