Dear Wesleyan Covenant Association and other like-minded United Methodists,
I made a fool out of myself this past weekend by comparing some of your leaders to Paige Patterson on Twitter, so I thought I would try writing an open letter instead (like I did once before). I often think I understand you because I grew up Southern Baptist and was an on-fire evangelical in college who proselytized fellow University of Virginia students with homemade salvation tracts on the sidewalk. Some of you say things publicly that remind me of things I once said or heard in my more unabashedly evangelical days so I feel confident presuming that I know where you’re coming from. But whenever I’ve had direct conversations with you, you claim that Methodist evangelicals are nothing like the Southern Baptist I was.
What struck me when I said some of you were like Paige Patterson was the visceral hurt I saw in the responses I received. At first, it didn’t seem like an unreasonable comparison in the sense that Patterson’s movement within the Southern Baptist Convention in the early 1980’s defined itself very similarly to the way that the WCA seems to understand its identity today: as a spiritual revitalization movement that seeks to purge lukewarm secular liberalism from the church and restore biblical authority. But the reason your responses convicted me enough to delete my tweet and apologize was because they reminded me of the hurt I feel when any of you have slapped dismissive labels on who I am, as though the complexity of all the people, life events, and scriptures God has used to shape me over four decades of life can be reduced to a phrase like “liberal.”
I still call myself an evangelical because I still want for everyone I know to discover the kingdom of God and realize that it’s a pearl of great price which actually merits selling everything else you own. I get really anxious when I go to conferences or churches where the Christian gospel has been replaced by banal liberal niceness or even secular radical militance. I have a hard time trusting Christian leaders if it doesn’t seem like they’re actually reading the Bible regularly as a primary source of their spiritual discernment. The concept of ordering my steps in God’s word is very important to me. I don’t believe that the deliverance I have found in Jesus’ cross and resurrection can be replaced by the mindfulness practices or the Enneagram that have been fetishized in progressive Christian circles.
All of this is true and it’s also true that my primary salvation experience occurred in a small group at Central Avenue United Methodist Church in Toledo, Ohio in 2002 where I read Henri Nouwen’s Life of the Beloved with about half a dozen sixty year old lesbians. It wasn’t simply that they loved and accepted me. I saw that they lived holy lives in which they were very concerned with studying the Bible and deepening their relationship with God. They seemed completely evangelical in their love of the gospel and passion for sharing it with others. It seemed absolutely like what Peter experienced when he saw Cornelius’ household speaking in tongues before they had even been baptized, though I didn’t have the language for it then.
Subsequent to this experience, God has consistently put queer Christians in my life not just as colleagues or friends but as critically important mentors who have shaped me, including both my CPE supervisor and my favorite seminary professor. Now as a campus minister, the most thriving small group I have is our group for queer students. Seven members of that group over the past three years have either made first-time professions of faith or come back to Christ after thinking that their sexuality disqualified them from being Christian. So my objective ministry experience of the last four years is an absolute contradiction of the narrative that tries to make spiritual vitality inversely related to LGBTQ affirmation.
Right now, the one student I have who is more eager to study scripture than any other is going to be the leader of our queer small group next fall. She emails me on a regular basis to ask me tough questions about Bible passages that she’s wrestling with. I have had several students who grew up in conservative evangelical United Methodist churches in northern Louisiana, but none of them have shown the same level of interest in scripture. This young woman had left the church in college because of her sexuality, but after going through a tough season, she found the book Rediscovering Jesus on a park bench and sent me an email to find out how to get involved since our ministry is well-known to the queer community at Tulane.Oh how I wish it were possible for you to have an Acts 15 conversation with me, because I believe God has given me fruit I’m supposed to show you. I wish you could meet my students and see for yourselves what God is doing in their lives. It’s hard for me not to feel that you are completely blocked from hearing the Holy Spirit because you have staked your entire identity as faithful, bible-believing Christians on your stance on this issue. Mark 3:5 says that Jesus “looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart.” That’s how I feel much of the time when I grieve our denomination’s impasse. I understand that making you the Pharisees in the story isn’t completely fair. I’m sure that Jesus is mad at my hardness of heart against you.
Perhaps you don’t think that God is actually at work in the lives of the seven queer students who have given their lives to him in our ministry. Perhaps you’ve decided that any queer-affirming Christian ministry necessarily offers a counterfeit gospel which cannot possibly bring a person authentically to Christ. If that’s the case, then we probably shouldn’t be in the same denomination. What I will say is that I haven’t decided the same thing about whether God is actually working through you. God has consistently refused to let me blaspheme the Holy Spirit’s work in you as much as I’ve tried.
There are times when I want to say that Donald Trump’s election is the presenting symptom of the bankruptcy of discipleship in your churches. But whenever I try to write you off, God sends along a humble, kind evangelical to confuse and convict me. It only works to call you toxic when you’re a faceless mass of people who seem to hate the sheep God has given me to protect. I’ve never personally known an evangelical who fit the stereotypes I have about evangelicals as a group. Too often, I’ve let the angry trolls in the United Methodist Clergy group represent you (as I imagine I have misrepresented my side when I’m an angry troll).
So here’s what I’d like to ask of you: two things. First of all, please forgive me for thinking I can explain you away dismissively when I don’t know anything about your personal stories as utterly unique, beautiful children of God. Secondly, I don’t want you to be a faceless other to me. I want to know you and learn from you as people with incredible gifts and wisdom about God. So I would love to find a way to pray with you online or over the phone between now and February, 2019 as a spiritual discipline and as a means of my accountability.
This Eastertide I have been praying three evenings a week with other Christians in other cities using the Zoom videoconferencing app. I believe God is now calling me to use this practice as a means to pray with people I need to stop viewing as enemies and accept as brothers and sisters regardless of whether we belong to different denominations a few years from now. While I don’t think we need to limit our prayers to the future of United Methodism, I will say that my prayer for the 2019 General Conference is that Satan would be utterly stomped out of the equation in his attempts to sabotage us with scorn, cynicism, and a lust for power, and that our delegates’ thought process would be defined by pure missional wisdom and love of God and neighbor.
I want for us each to be able to minister faithfully according to the path God has shown us, whether we are one church or multiple branches. I think you would agree that our never-ending fight for control is destroying our witness and killing our church. So whatever allows us to most effectively share the joy of the kingdom of God in our different contexts is what I would like to see happen. I also hope that if children and youth in your churches come out to you as queer, then you will send them to communities and resources who can help them reconcile their queer identity with their faith instead of telling them they have to pick one or the other, which will usually make them leave the church, perhaps forever as so many have.
In any case, I promise that if you pray with me, I won’t try to argue you into agreeing with me. I would simply love to pray for your ministry and to share my struggles with you so that you can pray for mine. The evening prayer liturgy that I’ve been using takes about 15-20 minutes. But we don’t have to do it in the evening and we don’t have to use a liturgy. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re open to considering this prayer practice, and we can figure out a schedule that works. Thank you for your grace and your willingness to help me move onward toward the holiness that is perfect love of God and neighbor. God bless you!