Today, I need to name and celebrate the twelve faith communities who taught me all kinds of beautiful ways to love people and practice the way of Jesus.
Hume UMC in Lima, Ohio Trinity UMC in Lima, Ohio Soldotna UMC in Soldotna, Alaska St. John UMC in Anchorage, Alaska Florida Southern College in Lakeland, Florida Georgianna UMC in Merritt Island, Florida First UMC Cocoa, Cocoa, Florida United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio Stillwater Church in Dayton, Ohio East Anchorage UMC, Anchorage, Alaska Anchor Park UMC, Anchorage, Alaska St. John UMC (this time as associate pastor) Marysville UMC, Marysville, Washington
The United Methodist movement has shaped me deeply. I said yes to a call to ordained ministry when I was 17 at Exploration. Twelve years later, I was ordained an elder in the United Methodist Church.
When I graduated from United Theological Seminary and became a pastor, I never would have thought I’d serve a reconciling congregation. I thought the people who led those churches were incredibly brave and strong. We were part of a church that didn’t agree on human sexuality and they took risks to lead these faith communities.
And then I got to know Ryan, Debbie, Lisa, Susan, Barb, Sabrina, Heather, Monica, Donnie, Anthony, Kevin, Lynn, Gail, Wendy, Mandi, Marisa, Stephanie, Joy, Brian, Michael, Teri, Richard, Karen & many other friends who at some point decided that to be whole in the eyes of the One who made them, they could no longer ignore their true selves. Then I realized, it’s not really the pastor of the reconciling church that’s that brave. It’s the members of a reconciling church who are freaking rock stars.
They continue to say yes to God even while so many people tell them no.
They walk in the doors terrified and uncomfortable, but they still show up.
Love draws them out of their fear and into communities who know how incredible they are.
Couples stand in the back and nervously hold hands in worship waiting to see if someone will give them an awkward stare. And when none comes, they sink more deeply into their skin and feel at home.
It’s beautiful to watch straight friends who sometimes get it and those who still aren’t quite there throw out the red carpet, invite friends to groups and over for dinner.
And pastors of reconciling churches never tire of hearing the exact same comment from just about every new member: “I didn’t know a place like this existed.”
Yes, dear friend, they exist. And may I let you in on a little secret? They don’t simply exist. They are thriving. Bursting with life. Overflowing with the movement of God. This one in the None Zone experiences baptisms, new members, 30% increase in worship attendance, adding a third service, pledged gifts increasing by 49% in four years. They are thriving under every definition our sacred stories give us.
And literally, just yesterday, as the United Methodist Church voted to prioritize pension benefits and a traditional understanding of human sexuality above plans for inclusion, a new guy in our town whose been watching worship online for a month Facebook messaged me and asked if he could find out more about baptism. He said, “I grew up going to church when I was younger, but as I struggled a lot with my sexuality it kind of scared me away from God and the church. I have found that with the acceptance of your church I am feeling comfortable rediscovering those roots.”
It’s one reason why it’s so painful to watch so many disregard us. I cannot reconcile the absolute fruit and growth of the faith community I serve while others believe it is evil and sinful.
The least I can do is keep telling the story of what I’m seeing in this local church. Because God is up to something incredible in the world and I’m delighted to have a front row seat to it, even if that means our denominational labels change or fall away.
May we all continue to have a front row seat to the movement of God, wherever life takes us. Today, I am thankful for each church who shaped me. They all believed different things about human sexuality, and that’s okay. Grace and love. It’s a journey. But please do not close the Church to communities like mine simply because we have a different interpretation of our holy stories.
P.S. The rainbow heart I’m holding? It was given to our church by a friend my age who was raised to understand human sexuality differently. When the church decided to become reconciling, he stayed away for awhile. But then he got to know Mandi and Marisa and his heart shifted. He saw this beautiful piece of artwork at a local place, bought it and asked me to hang it in our church lobby. Every day I see this piece and I’m reminded of the apostle Paul who tells us that when we’re in step with God, labels fall to the ground. And it happens when we’re in relationship with someone we don’t understand.
Here’s to the power of what love can do.