It was one of those calls that comes out of the blue. A local therapist introduced herself and explained, “One of your church members, Connie Smith* has been seeing me for some time now. She asked me to call you. Would you be willing to join us for one of her therapy sessions in the near future?” When I asked what it was about, she said, “Let’s just wait until you are here to talk about that.”
The call left me curious and anxious because Connie came to the church at the invitation of a couple who had recently left the church in a huff without being honest about why they were leaving. They managed to sow seeds of dissention as they went. What kind of ugly bomb was about to be dropped at my feet? How was I about to be blamed this time for something out of my control? (I was suffering from PTCSD- post-traumatic-church-syndrome from ugliness at my prior congregation).
I’ll come back to Connie’s story but for now, I’ll let you stew momentarily, as I did, wondering (and worrying) what in the world Connie needed her minister to visit about with her therapist.
The Godsquad, the church youth group I spent my favorite hours of every week of every year I was in Junior and Senior High with, used to belt out these words from scripture with far greater enthusiasm than musicality:
“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God and anyone who loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He who loveth not, (clap, clap, clap) knoweth not God for God is love. Beloved, let us love one another first John four seven and eight…” Repeat ad nauseum ad infinitum.
When I left the Godsquad for college, though I was raised in a mainline congregation, I was what anyone would describe as a religious conservative. Heavily influenced by my Grandma Zahller, who, due to Multiple Sclerosis lived in an apartment in our basement, my deep faith, nurtured and nourished at church, included a lot of Grandma’s legalism.
Over time, with serious study of the Bible, nurturing relationships with professors and classmates and eventually colleagues; with travel, the accumulation of life experiences, and ongoing reflection and introspection my mind was changed on many things. God kept working at prying my heart open wider and wider to see God’s love revealed in folks I previously would have considered outside of God’s grace.
In the midst of the conflict and ugliness in the congregation I served before serving Connie’s congregation, I was overtaken by the question, “What would happen if a church decided to make loving one another and all the ‘others’ beyond it, its highest aim? What would happen if I, as a pastor, made love my mantra?”
When I interviewed with the congregation where Connie became a member, I was exhausted and dispirited from the dysfunction and conflict in my current congregation coupled with my own heartbreak swirling around my recent divorce. Connie’s congregation too, had been through a heartbreaking season of divisiveness. The search committee interviewing me for the job asked, “What about gay people? What about gay marriage? Would you perform one?”
I told the story about my own journey to a broader and more inclusive faith. I told the story of my respected colleague and friend whose faith was palpable and whose pastoral skills and love for God were contagious. I shared how that colleague coming out to me was the beginning of my transformation. I told them about reading Mel White’s memoir, Stranger at the Gate (Penguin Publishing Group, 1995), and how it helped me sort through the Biblical and theological baggage I had carried with me over the years. I told them I had never officiated a gay marriage or commitment ceremony, but was ready and happily willing to do so. I also told them, “I understand this is still a controversial issue and this congregation has just been through hell. I understand you simply want and need some time to heal. I also understand that God’s love extends to all God’s children and it’s not our place to erect barriers to anyone who wants to share that love of God in full fellowship with us. So here’s what I’ll tell you, I will pray that God does not bring to this congregation anyone whom we are not yet ready to welcome with arms wide open in the inexhaustible love of God. I’ll pray that I will not be asked to officiate any marriage here until this congregation can fully share the couple’s joy.”
I was called to be the church’s pastor. Time passed, conversations among the elders and others, Bible studies etc. took place and when Peg and Nora came to worship on the recommendation of a minister in the town from which they recently moved, our congregation welcomed them with arms wide open. It wasn’t long before both held positions of leadership and service. They loved God and God’s people. That they were in love with each other was never an issue, in fact, their love increased our congregation’s love, because love is like that—it multiplies and expands. Love is love is love.
Later on, talking with a friend about how over time my mind had been changed and God had extended my understanding of the breadth and inclusivity of God’s love, I admitted I still struggled with the whole idea of people being transgender. “I just don’t get it.” I said. “I have a hard time seeing it as somehow, ‘normal.’” I told her I wasn’t where I wanted to be. I knew I needed more understanding so when the time came to be welcoming and loving like God is welcoming and loving I’d be completely ready. I told her a classmate’s handsome husband had transitioned a few years earlier and I had been “weirded-out” by it. My friend said she’d loan a book to me. Jennifer Boylan’s 2003 memoir, She’s Not There: a Life in Two Genders (Broadway/Doubleday/RandomHouse) did for me part of what Mel White’s story did when I was working on coming to a better understanding of homosexuality.
Boylan’s book was on the back seat of my car when I pulled into the parking lot at Connie’s therapist’s office. I’d been driving around with it on my back seat for three or four weeks because I kept forgetting to return it after I finished reading it.
“Connie has something she wants you to know about her but she’s afraid to tell you because when she has told other pastors in other churches she has been ostracized and not allowed to remain in the church.” I turned to Connie, thinking, pedophile? Murderer? Former felon? I said, “Connie, I don’t know what you’re about to tell me, but I promise you, whatever you tell me will not limit God’s love for you, nor will it limit your welcome in our congregation.” Connie, looking very nervous asked her therapist to tell me.
“Connie is transgender.”
So, maybe you saw this coming. I absolutely, sure as shootin’ at the time did not.
“I will pray that God does not bring to this congregation anyone whom we are not yet ready to welcome with arms wide open in the love of God.” Isn’t that just like God to take such good care of Connie that God prepared me just in time to be able to say, without hesitation, “Oh! Connie, God loves you so much. You are loved and you are welcome. You are part of our congregation. You are God’s beloved daughter and I am glad to be your pastor.”
What would happen if we were to expend our Christian energy loving others extravagantly like God loves? What would happen if we quit squandering our Christian energy and tarnishing Jesus’ good name by narrowly drawing lines and boxes around who’s in and who’s out of God’s grace? What would happen in this weary, broken and fragmented world if we just let go and let God’s love fill us and flow through us, like it flowed through Jesus who opened his heart, his life, his arms wide for all of us?
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is love is love is of God.
*I change names and some details to protect confidentiality.