A few weeks ago, Saint Andrew Christian Church hosted a “Welcoming Church” event, in partnership with a sister congregation and the GLAD Alliance. The goal was to generate conversation around what it means to be an open and affirming congregation, and what difference it makes to identity and mission when you ‘say out loud’ that you welcome everyone. Because, if we’re being honest, most of our congregations still chant the mantra. You know the one: “We welcome everybody. Why do we have to talk about it? Why do we have to say it out loud?”
So we asked some members of O&A congregations to answer that very question: What difference does it make? How has the church’s unconditional welcome impacted your faith? Your family? Here is one of our members’ responses. I’m grateful to this brave family for sharing their story, and for their powerful witness to the love and mercy of Christ.
When I was a little kid I would often spend afternoons at my Grandparents’ house while my Mom ran errands or helped out with my sister’s Girl Scout troop. My Grandparents were devout Christians and we would often spend the afternoon reading Bible stories or (even better!) playing with Bible story flannel-graphs. David and Goliath was my personal favorite. One day we got to talking about prayer, and my Grandpa asked me to say a prayer out loud. I don’t remember exactly what I prayed for, but I am sure it was something pretty silly like “please let me score 5 goals in my next soccer game” or something a little less silly like, “Please let the Royals win the World Series.” (Note…I must confess that this is something I still pray for every year, and the ongoing futility of those prayers may enhance the point of this story). After I finished, I remember my Grandpa looking at me and saying in his gentle voice, “Bill, I think you are praying for the wrong things.”
He wasn’t trying to shame me, but to instruct me in the point that God isn’t some sort of cosmic genie in a bottle that we say our wishes to and hope that we get them all to come true. Confused by this perspective on prayer, I pressed Gramps for some more information…so then, what’s the point? And he said something along the lines that the point is to express gratitude for all God has given us, and to seek the vision of God’s will and the courage to follow it. Well I am sure I didn’t have a clue what he meant at 7 or 8 years old, because frankly there are times now when I am not sure what that REALLY means. So I filed it away and went about praying for Royals dominance and the like.
Fast forward about 20 years. I found myself at a crossroads in my life. I had married very young, to a girl from my high school, and by 30 I had been married 10 years and had two children. I also had a marriage that was falling apart at the seams. Like most young couples we faced our share of hardships: money troubles and struggling to balance the work-school-parenting-life circus. And yet, those weren’t the things that had brought us to this precipice. Ultimately, it was the fact that my then-wife could no longer hide or deny that she was gay.
The thing is, by this point we had been dealing with the fact that she was gay for a few years. We tried very hard to make it work. The church we were going to at the time taught us that being gay was a choice, a sin, and thus could be remediated with prayer and God’s help. So we prayed and we tried. And tried and tried some more. But after years of struggle and back and forth it wasn’t getting any easier. One night I was looking for her and I found her in a pantry with the door closed and I could hear inside crying. She didn’t know I was standing just outside the door and I heard her praying to God to make her not be gay anymore. And in that brief moment I heard the voice of my Grandpa saying “You are praying for the wrong things.” And briefly I had clarity that it was time to quit trying to make God change things around and to have the vision and courage to accept the path ahead.
Now, to clarify, it wasn’t that the divorce itself became less painful after that. There would still be the sadness, jealousy, and grief that accompany the end of any relationship. But that voice of assurance put the flicker of acceptance in my heart that it was time to embrace the reality of our lives. And what did it mean to let go and accept? It meant I no longer had to blame myself for somehow not being man enough or good enough to make her happy. It meant that she could let go of feeling like she was sick, broken, defective simply for who she wanted to love. And it meant that she and I, together, could move on into complete and whole loving relationships (We are both remarried today).
Now fast forward a few more years. As I stated, I was blessed with two beautiful children from my first marriage. A few years ago, one of my children came to me and said something that would change my life forever. “Dad…I am in the wrong body.” Born biologically as one gender but identifying on the inside as another, my child had spent a lifetime struggling with depression, fits of anger, and bouts of self-loathing. When I heard this, of course I grieved, fought, denied, and blamed: myself, others, society, anything I could think of. But I also saw that once my child had identified and accepted this, a peace began to settle in.
But outside forces are powerful, and despite the peace my child felt, there were also feelings of negativity. There were taunts; family members becoming cold or distant; struggles and looks and more things than I know or can enumerate today. And so one night the forces of negativity became so strong that this child crumpled into the arms of my now-wife Lisa, as we sat on our bed and sobbed inconsolably for a long time. And this child, in an anguish I will never forget, pleaded to “not be this way anymore.” And truth be told, for a moment I thought “now is my chance”. I could have taken this moment of weakness and pushed my child to take the easier path (well… what seemed like the easier path) and just go back to the way I WANT things to be. But in that moment I had a vision of God holding a child and comforting the child and in that moment I knew…we were praying for the wrong things. So my wife and I doubled down on comforting our child, with the assurance that it would not be easy but that the time had come for us all to stop fighting things and ask God to give us strength for the journey ahead.
And what did that acceptance mean? It meant for my child to not feel like a freak all the time. And it meant I could love–without qualification– my child exactly as God designed them. And exactly as God calls us all to do.
As I said before, when I was going through what I went through with my ex-wife we belonged to a church, but to be perfectly honest the church had absolutely nothing to offer us beyond a kind of well-intentioned, but completely naïve, “pray it away” strategy. They were telling us to pray for the wrong things. And because of that experience, when I first began to go through the transition with my child, I didn’t have a church to lean on at all. Because I had left it behind. I know these issues surrounding sexuality and gender and the like are divisive for some, but I firmly believe that they should never lead a church to become exclusionary.
I am not a theologian, but I read the Bible as a piece of music. There are movements building towards a resolution or climax, and that resolution is found in Christ. Sure, you can read a bit here or a bit there and make all kinds of declarations…and people have been doing that for centuries. It is why some people eat this and not that, wear this or not that, worship on this day or that day, or more significantly justify or argue against slavery, mixed race marriages, women’s suffrage, and more. The Bible has been used to argue both sides of these and many more issues for centuries. How can one book be so divisive? For many that is reason enough to just ignore the book altogether; or, to double down and read it as literally as possible: logic, science, and experience be damned. But for me, I go back to music. All these tensions are resolved in Jesus and his life and teachings.
So what are the movements and patterns moving towards the crescendo of Jesus? I see Jesus talking with the Samaritan woman at the well, despite the categories of ‘Jew’ and ‘Samaritan’ being so divisive and hateful towards another. I see Jesus reaching out across social groups, befriending and dining with Levi the tax collector and other “outcasts”. Or how about the example of Philip befriending and embracing the Ethiopian Eunuch– especially significant because a eunuch was someone who did not fit into the established sexual and gender categories of the day. These, and so many other examples point to a PATTERN, again and again, of people being called to love and participate fully together in the love of Jesus– despite the categories and differences we place upon one another.
In the end, it is as Galatians 3:28 states: That there are no Jews or Greeks, Black or White, or even Male or Female, but all are ONE in Christ Jesus. So when I come to Saint Andrew Christian Church and we take communion together; sing together; affirm everybody for who God has made them to be; where we preach and practice that all means ALL; then I feel connected to God again. I feel like we are trying, at least, to pray for the RIGHT things.
Bill Martinie is a Quality Assurance Analyst for a big insurance corporation, but daydreams about going back to grad school, becoming a professor, activist, and writer, and then someday becoming the next Bill Moyers. He has a wonderful wife Lisa, and five kids ranging in age from 16 to 9. In his spare time he loves to read, particularly history, root passionately for the KU Jayhawks and the KC Royals, and fiddle around on his banjo. Well…maybe not fiddle around, since it is a banjo and not a fiddle, but you get the idea.