An Open Letter to My Gay Friend - Thoughts On Grace and Trust from General Conference

This year, I'm trying to listen in a new way.  As I continue my studies and practices of Spiritual Direction, I am listening more than I am talking and yes, that is a challenge for us preacher folk.  I am used to doing the talking and the writing and the networking.  But as I grow older and my body starts to let me down more, that one skill alone isn't doing me much good.  God is speaking in little, more subtle ways.  Like the dial on my AM radio in that old '75 Mustang II, you gotta 'feel' the right station as much as hear it.  Hearing the holy is much the same.

I tried to listen to the holy throughout General Conference this year.  We sent delegates from all over the world to do the work of the United Methodist Church.  There was a great deal of talking and debating.  There was writing and tweeting.  There was listening to each other and view points shared.  I know what I heard and I read some other posts who, I think, heard what I did such as this one and this one.

Me? I have wondered what to say.

And then I got a message.  It was a message from one of my former students when I was a youth pastor.  He is on his own with a career.  He is a devoted follower of Jesus Christ and happens to be a United Methodist.  He is also homosexual and he wrote to me about his concerns, not so much about the issue of homosexuality, but the issue of grace and as such, could he trust the UMC.  He did have some concerns about how I might respond as he shared with me this part of his life (On an aside, if you are reading this and are not him or me, you haven't read any of our other conversations so please, don't assume you know all of what we have said).

While I have omitted his name, much of what follows is one of my responses to him...

"My friend [name withheld], I can't imagine you would have shared about being homosexual if you thought I would come down on you with religious platitudes. You've been one of my students and today are continuing the journey of faith which is messy, and disappointing as well as beautiful and full of promise. My only reason for not responding sooner is work and reflection. I thank you for willingness to share with me and be a help to me in understanding.

One of the things I am committed to is listening, both the practice of active listening and holy listening. As a spiritual director and UM clergy, I do believe God's grace is sufficient for us all. It is my intent over the next few years to enter into and hopefully facilitate listening sessions with clergy and laity on this issue among others.

What I could 'hear' from a distances is two things:

1. Fear 
Fear from those who do not want to see change for the sake of change or condoning LGBT based on their cultural influences and reading of the Bible. Fear tends to lead to distrust.

2. Pain 
Pain from those who want to see change and feel themselves denied full acceptance of their personhood (or friends) based on being LGBT. They do not want to leave the UMC and go elsewhere but they feel grace does not extend to all and their reading of the Bible is not heard. Pain tends to lead to distrust.

The vote on grace, I think, has to deal a great deal with the fear of the first group. They fear these words will be used to advocate change and so distrust the meaning and motive behind it.  On the other side, talk of leaving has so very much to do with the effects of pain, to get away from the source of pain.  It too, is part of our human condition and likely response.

My concern? The state of our trust in God.  But I don't say it as a condemnation on our denomination - I say it as a symptom of who we are demonstrating ourselves to be. We are children, still babies some of us. We remain in our early stages of moral and spiritual development, surrounded by symbols of our past successes and our present toys and we worry about whether we will get our way. We are only living out our faith as we have grown into it.  I hope we all realize we're not done growing up yet and that gives me hope.

Honestly, look at what makes up many of our churches.  Our behaviors demonstrate this across our coutnry and denominations.  I don't see much difference.  A good experience on a Sunday morning trumps the experience of the Holy Spirit in our lives daily. The small group curriculum excludes the messy conversations where reason come into play. We strip tradition away so that the mystery and wonder of God is lost. It is no wonder the western church is in the state it is in. 

But then I read Paul.  That Paul.  The Apostle Paul.

I look at his letters to the churches. I look at Acts and the disagreements in the early church. They were filled with the Spirit and they lived closest to the source material! And where is the church in Galatia let alone Galatia as a city today? Closed and gone.  So are the others (maybe only Rome can lay claim to surviving). So who are we kidding? It was a mess then and we live in the mess now and guess what? God is still in this mess and just like them, we struggle to trust in God much less one another.

I am no different and yet, I know I am. I have suffered at the hands of God and I have not grown bitter. I worry but I do not fear. I trust God, it seems, maybe a hair's breadth more than others most of the time, and then again maybe not. Here is what I do know, I know God and so I trust my calling. I am going to continue to listen, I will continue to love and I will continue to preach grace.  Because grace was offered to me, I will offer it to all.  I don't need legislation for it to be so and because it is so, I have hope for Christians who also happen to call themselves United Methodists.  I trust God will be with us in the mess."


Anonymous said...

Grace is accompanied by an expectation: Go, and sin no more. Grace is the wrath of God, stayed by Love - the purpose of which is profound and total transformation of the human being, not the bestowal of permission for the human being to persist in its corruption.

To a "gay friend" I would say: You can trust the church not to condemn you, and to expect you to go, and sin no more.

Ken L. Hagler said...

Thanks for missing my point farther in the post. I didn't think I'd need to highlight it as well so I'll pull it out:

"My concern? The state of our trust in God. But I don't say it as a condemnation on our denomination - I say it as a symptom of who we are demonstrating ourselves to be. We are children, still babies some of us. We remain in our early stages of moral and spiritual development, surrounded by symbols of our past successes and our present toys and we worry about whether we will get our way. We are only living out our faith as we have grown into it. I hope we all realize we're not done growing up yet and that gives me hope."

I'm also at a loss to respond to "gay friend." Can we not have gay friends? Do gay friends not exist?

Anonymous said...

Oh, I didn't miss that. It was the reason I replied

Ken L. Hagler said...

So you have a different understanding of grace than is held by Wesleyan theology and our United Methodist Church as expressed at General Conference?

stephanisat said...

I had to copy this statement from another pastor friend of mine, "People who put restrictions & limits on grace are people who just haven't been broken yet." Grace is not anything other than God's love and mercy given to us as a gift - free and clear with no conditions. It's not an if...then proposition. If it is, then we're in serious trouble, because no one is worthy, and we all "persist in corruption." (Unless, that is, you are a perfect being.) I have to trust in God - God's grace, love, and mercy - that God wants me to love everyone no matter what, just as God loves me. I had hoped that the global UMC leadership could have agreed on that as well. Ken is correct that fear and pain are keeping them from trusting God. Love conquers both.

Ken L. Hagler said...

Thanks for the additional thoughts on grace Stephani.

Ken L. Hagler said...

(This is a response pulled from FB to clarify).
As I listen to my friend, and I think my point is made in my blog, the issue we share is our understanding of grace. Further for me, an ultimate concern is the demonstration of our distrust for each other and ultimately, a great lack of trust in God.

I believe the issue of grace is critical and central. I'm not agreeing or disagreeing on sin issues here and I am being vague (I discovered the word vague today, and I like it, a lot...sorry ;) ) I surely have no problem about the calling in Methodist terms to go on to perfection. BUT where does God's grace meet us? Only after we deal with the sin in our lives or before? Are we really going to throw out Prevenient grace from our vocabulary because if we do, we better close our table because it isn't open anymore - not truthfully anyway. Wesley argued from Philippians 2:12-13 that, "we can work because God is working in us. (On Working Out Our Own Salvation)"

Thomas Oden put it well, "The deficiencies of human willing do not negate the sufficiency of grace offered." This is what I hear my friend expressing. He didn't ask me or the church to condone his life but do we really believe in grace? Because if we don't, then why would he trust anything else you or I say as true?

Social Pariah said...

To say "grace is accompanied by an expectation" is to say grace is contingent upon obedience to the Law. And yet in Scripture we read that grace is freely given, that there is zero condemnation for those in Christ Jesus.

Sure, we can expect ourselves to constantly improve, turning away from evils and daily choosing to lead better lives but is there a soul in human form that is capable of sinning no more?

To Oden's point: "The deficiencies of human willing do not negate the sufficiency of grace offered." There seems to be a double standard in society. The homosexual is accused of not trying hard enough to flee his sin while less taboo sins are more easily overlooked.

Either Christ died for all sins, or Christ died in vain. From where I sit, not a single human being can protest the lifestyle of another without himself being in breach of the law.

Ken L. Hagler said...

Thanks for commenting Social Pariah. Really good thoughts.

On societal double standards, I think, based on how we develop and cultures evolve, society will always have double standards. Maybe even in the Church we will always struggle with it as well. It seems to have been the case for the past 2,000 years. I grow concerned when people speak so vehemently in defense of their position in such a way that God seems to have double standards. This is why I think Oden's point is so profound (and very much to the point at hand for the UMC and what my friend was bringing up).

I'm not sure about the use of "protest" to describe how we talk about sin. And I would say, to not call sin out, would also be inconsistent. A faithful reading of the Biblical text and tradition indicate it is appropriate and right to do so.

My friend Brad called me out in high school for using foul language. The truth of correction is not contingent on the condition of the bearer of the news.

Maybe this is your point regarding "protest." For one to "protest" another person or groups sinfulness is certainly not compassionate or helpful. If no sin is greater than any other then we must as God's people, be more consistent and compassionate.

If we fail to stop and listen, we may not realize that while we may condemn the sexual acts of a LGBT person, the Holy Spirit is actually working on the area of say, greed. And what if through an LGBT, the Holy Spirit spoke a word of loving correction to a straight person on their sin of avarice? This is one of the reasons there is no trust. We still don't care enough about another person to listen.

Again, thanks for the great thoughts! Would love to hear more.

BATman said...

To the unnamed person... Who among us went and sinned no more? Sin in unavoidable. Sure we can strive to not commit sins that we are aware of... What about those we are not aware of? What did you eat for breakfast? You probably sinned no matter the answer... The point is this... Grace and mercy saves us... Not being without sin. For startes, who is to say that homosexuality is sinful? Certainly the opinion of people who wrote thousands of years ago cannot be your only authority... This is an issue between the individual and God. As the church, we accept, welcome, and extend grace to all... Love does actually win...

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