Warren Perry is a teacher and coach, Southerner and Yankee, sinner and saint living in the tension in New York City. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Throughout my life, I experienced a number of changes at school, with friends, and in jobs. But one mainstay that provided a deep sense of grounding and stability was having a church community to call home. No church is perfect; it is just a local, human embodiment of the universal Church and Body of Christ. Still, it is important for Christians to invest in a community of faith where the believer can freely grow, wrestle, stumble, and heal in the company of others who also walk in the ways of Jesus.
During my college days at the University of North Carolina, I worshiped at the Chapel Hill Bible Church. From my first few weeks of my freshman year, I began to consistently invest myself in their youth ministry, submit myself to discipleship and study, as well as attend weekend services. When I began my coaching career at East Carolina University, Christ Presbyterian Church became that centering stalwart. And then when the confusion and frustration over my identity as a Christian gay man began to boil over in the Raleigh-Durham area, All Saints Church was there to love and support me. I am blessed to have called these communities home.
However, as I came to terms with my sexuality, I sensed a deep tension in my life. At the time I came out of the closet, the church I was attending began to gently “discipline” me away from being gay by removing me from the worship team and barring me from the Eucharist table. At first, I accepted these terms, respecting their convictions on sexuality. But eventually, what was originally meant to turn me back towards their doctrine actually pushed me further away. For a number of months, I wrestled with whether I wanted to continue pursuing a relationship with Jesus on any terms. After all, calling myself a Christian is what kept me in the closet for so many years.
Thankfully, the Spirit of the Lord, which had taken root from an early age, did not quickly abandon me. I found an organization called the Gay Christian Network that served as an outlet to discuss and research issues I was facing. Andrew Marin’s book Love is an Orientation provided me with a sense of fellowship, that I was not alone as I journeyed on the path towards a holy life as an openly gay man. And many family members and friends stayed by my side, despite some of their uneasiness with how I was living my life.
The doors soon opened for me to leave the state I called home for nearly 30 years and relocate to the New York City area. It was truly a divine appointment, an opportunity that came to fruition only by the hand of God. It was an important time to step out on my own in faith, exploring how to live as gay and Christian without the expectations and entanglements that came from living in small towns, with a big family, and the gaze of concerned eyes.
After visiting some area congregations and engaging in the typical “church shopping” escapades, I soon settled in to Stanwich Church in Greenwich (CT) for my place of worship. From the moment I walked in the doors of this beautiful country church, it felt like home. But there was hesitation; the physical architecture resembled Gerrard Hall on the campus of North Carolina, where bitter memories of self-hatred, hiding, and shame held ground. Despite these mixed emotions, I sensed God wanted me there.
Over a stretch of 10-12 months, I met with some of the pastors, found a Bible study to meet with, and got to know many of the parishioners at this non-denominational church with Congregational roots. Having grown up in a Southern Baptists style faith, the high church had been quite foreign to me. But over the course of my 20s, when I learned to rely more on obedience and faith to enter worship rather than emotion, I fell in love with the liturgy, ritual, and discipline of high church worship.
Being my first real church home since coming out, I desperately wanted to be fully open and accepted in this community. I got to share the story of my journey with the pastors, staff, and many in my Bible study. To my encouragement, they warmly welcomed me in to their family of faith. But the way they did it was different than I had expected and more than I had hoped. And this is what made all the difference. In fact, they reminded me how Jesus himself lived in the tension of both law and grace.
In Mark 2, Jesus is at his home in Capernaum telling the parable about wine-skins. Capernaum was a conservative place that held many neatly-divided people groups. There were Sadducees, Pharisees, women, slaves, prostitutes, tax collectors, Jews, and Gentiles. The various groups did not intermingle. But amazingly, during this story, people from all of these categories were in the house with Jesus. Even more amazingly, he shared a meal with them! This symbolic gesture spoke a great deal about His acceptance and compassion for them all. And at the end of their time together, Jesus does not tell them to “go and sin no more”- an often used rebuke to the downcast of the day. Instead, he declared that he was their groom and they were his bride, in essence changing their names from “sinner” to “friend of God.”
Also in this passage is the destruction of three things. The roof of the house is torn open as neighbors lower a paralytic friend to Jesus. New patches are ripped from old garments, and old wine-skins burst with new wine. Jesus is conveying the truth that his Gospel- his new covenant- breaks down barriers and transcends earthly obstacles to include more people groups than we ever imagined.
The early church movement is our best example of what church should look like. They were a model of progressivism and diversity, and this is what baffled the church leaders of Jesus’ day. Samaritans, Babylonians, Romans and more worshiped the same God together. Christ was committed to the Law and fulfilled every part of it. But he also associated himself with people outside the Law. Throughout history, God’s kingdom has expanded to include many different types of people. Now what has happened to that Christ-like tension of truth and inclusion? The conservative church gets the law part, while the liberal church gets the grace part. In searching for a gay-friendly, Christ-centered church today, it’s important to live in a holy tension of the two, bringing together both worlds of law and grace.
My friends at Stanwich Church live in this tension well. I sat with them for many hours at coffee shops, in living rooms, and around campfires discussing the ways God loves each of us more than we could ever imagine. And if church is really the house of Jesus, we should invite the types of people that he invited. At a place like Stanwich, there are many different types of people; we might even say there are Sadducees, Pharisees, tax collectors and Gentiles. But primarily it is a diverse community of believers who passionately follow the teachings of Jesus, who show the world what it means to live in the tension of conservative theology and liberal acceptance of all people.
I recently moved to New York City, leaving Stanwich to invest in an urban church community closer to my apartment. As I search for this community, I take with me the knowledge that God has always been faithful to me in providing a church home in which to worship Him. The lessons I have learned through the years, from the Chapel Hill Bible Church all the way through Stanwich, guide me on this path. I seek a place where law and grace are in balance, truth and love live together, and experience and context are always considered. I seek a place like Jesus’ home.
And in the end, if I never find this place on earth, I know I will live for all of eternity in Jesus’ eternal home. He is the great Shalom, the giver of Peace in the midst of affliction, isolation, and segregation.