Bill Silver with his cat in his New York City
rooftop garden, which he cultivated.
I believe I took this picture in the late 70's or early 80's.
In honor of Pride month, this is the final of four posts adapted from a Meekhof Lecture I gave at Newport Presbyterian Church in Bellevue (WA), January 11, 2014, regarding the meaning of the LGBT movement for the broader church. Next week, a postscript to this series: “Sexually Active and Spiritually Active.”
When Union Theological seminarian Bill Silver came out as gay, sending celebrative birth announcements to all of his friends, and New York City Presbytery asked the 1976 Baltimore General Assembly for “definitive guidance” as to how to handle his candidacy for ordination to the Presbyterian ministry, they opened this Pandora’s jar of challenges: xenophobia, inertia, erotophobia, pleasure, progressive interpretations of scripture, gender dysphoria, ordination, and marriage.
Yet I believe that all of these challenges have proved blessings for the church. They have given a sometimes dysfunctional church an opportunity to talk about needful things: our fear of being inclusive, our resistance to change, our discomfort with embodiment and sexuality, our mixed feelings about pleasure, our differing interpretations of scripture, our gender dysphoria, and what ordination and marriage mean to us.
One challenge that was not in that initial Pandora’s Box that the church feared was HIV and AIDS, which highlighted our fears of disease and death. In its fear of homosexuality with its attendant challenges, too many in the church thought of AIDS either as God’s punishment or as a natural, even deserving curbing of what they considered unnatural.
What AIDS did—and I would quickly add my belief, not by divine plan—what AIDS did was reveal the heartlessness of too many but not all Christians, as well as the compassion of many, many lesbians and gay men, who came to the aid of the sick and dying of all kinds, and the failure of both government and society to care for marginalized or undervalued citizens.
AIDS also opened church doors for many to come out as LGBT or as families, friends, and allies of the LGBT community. Only as the church realized it too had AIDS did it recognize, in Mother Teresa’s phrase, “Christ in a distressing disguise.”
So what is the Hope left in Pandora’s jar? I have no idea what Pandora’s Hope might be, but I have many ideas about “the Hope to which God has called us,” in the words of the apostle Paul, and the Hope to which Jesus called us in the Gospel of John, “that we may be one,” even as he is one with God and with us, as well as his promise of Holy Spirit as Paraclete: an advocate for victims, for the marginalized, for the undervalued.
A couple of verses in the first chapter of Paul’s epistle to the Romans got overused over the past four decades as a weapon to resist and reject same-gender loving people. If only we had concentrated on the rest of Paul’s letter, which celebrates God’s grace revealed by Jesus.
Jesus said that what comes out of a person’s heart is what is spiritually significant, spending his time with religious outcasts, challenging the religious authorities who excluded them, sending his spirit upon the Church at Pentecost, a Spirit that spoke in the languages of strangers, a Spirit that would baptize unjudaized Gentiles into a community that grew spiritually and numerically by incorporating more and more diversity throughout the past two millennia.
“Nothing shall separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus,” the apostle Paul thus affirmed in Romans. “All things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose.”
In his book, Care of the Soul, Thomas Moore says that everything we experience, good and bad, shapes our souls. I believe this is another way of saying “All things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose.” We have a context in which to make sense of all that we experience. One context is our relationship with God. Another context is God’s purpose, as we know it through the teachings of Jesus.
One of The New Yorker magazine’s quips once quoted a title of a hymn in The Presbyterian Hymnal followed by a reference to its meter: “God Is Working His Purpose Out” on one line, and on the next, Purpose Irregular. The magazine’s wry comment was, “How true.”
So how do we understand God’s purpose opening Pandora’s jar, unleashing the challenges of the church dealing with homosexuality? What might God’s purpose be in revealing our xenophobia, inertia, erotophobia, suspicion of pleasure, resistance to progressive biblical views, gender dysphoria, and defensive and exclusive attitudes about ordination and marriage?
In the days when most film processing meant transforming negatives to photographs, Henri Nouwen used the metaphor for the spiritual life as transforming negatives to positives. Thus our fear of the stranger may be transformed by another Pentecost embracing diversity and “the least of these.” A vision of God’s Spirit in LGBT people may overcome our resistance to change, causing us to welcome the progress of the inbreaking kingdom or commonwealth of God.
Sexuality and pleasure may be opportunities to refresh our belief in creation, incarnation, and resurrection. Progressive interpretations of scripture will lead us to the truth beneath the truths, the Word (with a capital “W”) within the words. Overcoming our gender dysphoria will liberate us from restrictive gender expectations. And lastly, we may finally let go of our defensive and exclusive postures regarding ordination and marriage, enabling more people to enter either or both of these blessed estates.
I believe that everything can connect us to the love of God in Jesus, including diversity, progress, sexuality, pleasure, progressive biblical interpretations and theology, freedom from gender expectations, and the membership, ministries, and marriages of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. That is the hope to which God has called us.
And we may take comfort that the past 40 year sojourn in the wilderness of homophobia has led us to a better place, if not a Promised Land. We should not regret what has been, but rejoice at what will be.
I urge you to make a donation to and/or attend these once-in-a-lifetime ingatherings of LGBT saints and allies:
Oct 31-Nov 2, 2017
St. Louis Airport Marriott
Sept 8-10, 2017
Kirkridge Retreat & Conference Center
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Copyright © 2017 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.