Dear Pastors and church workers
I wrote an article a while back that was published in the Daystar Journal. I appreciate them publishing it, especially since my views are probably at odds with some views of many of their editors and readers. But I don't think many read it. If you wish to read it, it is at Daystar Journal. Mostly, however, I am contacting you directly, in order to ask one thing from you.
I am writing with a very simple request, that the Gospel be included in conversations, blogs, Bible classes, sermons and public statements about homosexuality. I especially want to see the Gospel more thoroughly offered on the LCMS website's section of “social issues/sexuality,” which contains a distressingly small amount of Gospel, barely enough to qualify as Gospel at all.
I had two interesting experiences this last week. Firstly, my pastor mentioned that I am the only LGBT person who has talked to him about what it is like being gay in the Church. All the others he had spoken to had left or were on their way out of the LCMS. Secondly, there was an article this morning on the blog “Cranach” by Gene Veith that a recent study was “surprising” because is showed the majority of LGBT people are active in religion. Both of these events illustrated for me something I have come to learn in the last few years, how unfamiliar most pastors are with LGBT people.
It's understandable that you don't know us. We are often afraid to come to you and so most of you will never get a chance to talk to us or counsel us directly. Although many of you will talk extensively about us in conversations, blogs and internet discussions, etc, you will seldom get a chance to talk with us. For our part, we often do not realize how unfamiliar you are with us and what our life is like or how we perceive what you say. I am 56 but it has only been within the last half dozen years as I have spoken more openly to pastors that I have come to realize how little most pastors know about people like me. This lack of information has created a rather nasty conundrum. Firstly, since you will not get a chance to speak to most of your LGBT members, your ministry to them will not take place in confession or personal counseling. The vast majority of your ministry to LGBT people will come through your public writing and conversations – including what you say on the internet. Meanwhile, on our part, frankly, we don't realize how little you know about us. So when you offer an opinion that we find hurtful or shaming to us, we make the mistake of believing you knew what you were doing and that you meant to hurt us. It's a pretty awful situation for all involved. Your people will be pushing you to offer advice and opinions about LGBT issues, even though you are probably the single person in the congregation with the least experience of LGBT people. And that's not fair to you. Meanwhile, fragile LGBT teens are listening very carefully to what you say and taking your opinions as the primary means of “ministry” to themselves. They are learning how God feels about them, not from your sermons which address sin in general, but from your conversations in which you address their situation in particular. Frankly, when you have two sides who assume the other knows what they do not discussing a sensitive and very personal subject like homosexuality, you've got a really dangerous situation. And that is where we are in the Church today. Hence my request, that conversations, blogs and any time you address LGBT people include Gospel and be considered as ministry.
Though the request is very simple, the implementation of it may be quite complex. In the article I wrote for Daystar, I only gave an outline or basic ideas on what might be needed to convey the Gospel to a same sex attracted individual. My hope was that pastors would discuss it and, in discussing the Gospel, would find ways to apply it to LGBT kids and adults. I don't think that is going to happen so I want to do what I did not do in that article as well as supply what is missing from the LCMS website – a fairly comprehensive application of real Gospel and a pathway by which a person's identity can truly be brought into Christ.
I first realized I was different than other boys at about age 8. By age 11 or 12, like most gay kids, I was confused by the fact that I seemed to be experiencing for other boys the feelings most boys were experiencing toward girls. By 16 or 17 I had realized these feelings were not likely to go away magically, that God was not going to perform a miracle and make me straight. Nevertheless, I was glad I was in a church where I was sure that I would one day receive a comforting application of Gospel. Homosexuality was a popular subject in the late 1970s. TV shows like SOAP had introduced it into the average house hold. And groups like Focus on the Family were making it a topic in Christian circles. It was discussed a lot in private conversations but it was seldom directly addressed in a formal manner by pastors and denominations. On the few occasions when it was addressed more formally, I did notice a difference between the way it was addressed by LCMS pastors compared to what we might label as evangelicals. The focus of evangelical groups like Focus on the family seemed to be on prevention and morality. The focus of the LCMS seemed much more Gospel based, more interested in leading the listener to and assuring the listener of forgiveness. As I look back, however, I realize that, to a large extent, I lived less in the hope of the Gospel than hope for the Gospel. That is, I did not hear the Gospel applied to homosexuality all that often. But based on the way other subjects, such as divorce, were treated by the LCMS and on the fact that the Gospel was present in the few times homosexuality was addressed, I was sure that if there were ever a need for my Church, my synod, to address homosexuality, it would be done with a great deal of Gospel.
And, indeed, things seemed to be headed in that direction. The Plan for Ministry to Homosexuals and their families was written under the auspices of Dr Barry's administration and adopted in convention after his death. The Gospel was pretty prominent in that plan. In keeping with that plan, over the next few years whenever the office of the president released a statement that had to do with homosexuality the Gospel was at least present, though not always as strong as I would like. It truly seemed like I was in a denomination in which, one day, my hopes for real Gospel would be met.
And then came 2009. Iowa became the first Midwestern state to legitimize same sex marriage. And that summer the ELCA accepted the statement “Human Sexuality, Gift and Trust” as its official approach to homosexuality, shortly afterward becoming an essentially gay marriage affirming denomination. Suddenly the LCMS felt a need to discuss homosexuality. And discuss it we did. The internet had hit the heyday of blogs, discussion boards, Facebook, Twitter and social media. And homosexuality was talked about – a lot – by LCMS pastors, laymen and leadership from the office of the president down to the local parish and youth groups.
To my distress, the Gospel was present little more than it had ever been in evangelical circles. Instead of leading the way theologically, the LCMS was trailing behind the pack of evangelicalism politically and sociologically. All kinds of natural law arguments and dire predictions were made about the direction of our nation and the culture. But little was said about the Gospel.
In the midst of this, the LCMS president announced the formation of a task force on homosexuality that would explore ministry to those struggling with same sex attractions.
President Harrison wrote in his introductory letter (Jesus Welcomes Sinners): “Some time ago we resolved to begin working more intentionally in the area of caring for those who struggle with same-sex attraction. We assembled a group of individuals (who, by the way, are the primary authors of this issue of The Lutheran Witness), each with significant experience in this area, and we asked them: 'Where do we go?' 'What do we do as the Church?'”
To understand the impact of this statement, you must understand, first of all, that the label “struggles with same-sex attraction” is NOT a politically neutral replacement for “gay” or “homosexual.” Though today most people use “gay” merely to refer to anyone attracted to their own sex, 15 or 20 years ago that was not the case. Up until recent times “gay” indicated someone who was not only attracted to their own sex but also affirmed that attraction and intended acting on it in some way. As a teen and well into my 30's, I thought of myself as “homosexual but not gay” to distinguish in my own mind the difference between my attractions and my commitment not to act on those attractions. Nor was I the only one. Groups like Exodus also sought a way of making that distinction. They did not want to use “gay.” But “homosexual” had far too negative of a connotation. So, “same sex attracted” was chosen as a replacement for “homosexual.” To further emphasize the fact that they did not affirm their own attractions but chose to live in opposition to them, the words “struggles with...” were often added. After all, a gay-affirming person does not “struggle” with his sexuality but embraces it and considers it a good thing. To struggle with same sex attraction means to reject, rather than affirm it. So the label “struggles with same sex attraction” is not neutral. It very specifically denotes a person who does not affirm their own attractions and who intends not to act on them. In other words, theologically, “struggles with same sex attraction” means “a repentant sinner.” President Harrison specifically said he wanted to explore ways to minister to repentant same sex attracted people within the Church.
I can not express the relief I felt knowing that our Synod, the one bastion of Gospel hope I had ever found, was finally going to apply her substantial theological and spiritual acumen to the one topic that caused me distress more than any other – homosexuality. And with an emphasis on Gospel as the work of the task force was to be addressed to ministry to repentant sinners in the Church's midst!!
Nor can I fully express the profound depression and hopelessness when the documents from the task force were released in the Lutheran Witness. You can find these documents on LCMS.org in the section on social issues. The Gospel, far from being prominent, was barely there at all and, when expressed, it was in the most curtailed and generalized form imaginable. What resulted was little more than the “loving” damnation that had been the staple of evangelical churches on this topic since I was 13. for the first time since puberty, I felt I was truly truly outside the Body of Christ because I could not make myself want to screw females. (I use the word "screw" here intentionally, by the way, because the assumption that turning women into objects of sexual desire is somehow a more holy kind of sexual temptation another is so offensive on multiple levels that is call for an offensive word to describe it.)
In fact, I myself was surprised at the strength of my own reaction to what the task force produced. Not only was there the profound disappointment in the lack of Gospel but for the first time, my identity as a gay man began to overwhelm my identity as a child of God. I had never hidden from myself the fact that I was attracted to other guys. At various times I had used the labels “homosexual,” Same Sex Attracted” and “gay” in thinking of my sexual orientation. But the hope for the Gospel had always been bigger and stronger than any identity I had as a same sex attracted person. But the documents from the task force as well as other comments and actions from pastors and the synod made me feel for the first time that I was, at least in the eyes of others, gay first and Christian second, if at all.
So what went wrong?
Perhaps there was a desire in our church body to play to a larger stage. It has always been a failing of American Christianity that religious groups see addressing and affecting the politics, nation and culture as a significant part of their calling. Many religious groups in the age of colonialism saw the newly discovered continents of the Americas as a place where they could go to start over and to build a “shining city on a hill,” a community built on the religious principles of its founders. Idealists of many stripes attempted to build utopias here in the new world. The LCMS was not immune, following Martin Stephen to New Orleans and then to Perry County Missouri. As America grew these religious communities came into contact with one another and with those who had immigrated for reasons other than their faith. Nevertheless, I believe, these denominations never lost their ideal of influencing and guiding the culture and political discourse of their new country. It is not that public discourse is bad. But it easy to slip into the mistaken way of thinking that influencing the culture is the primary way of “ministering” to large groups of individuals at a time. Thus Americans have been quick to form; “the Moral Majority,” “Focus on the Family,” “Save our Children,” “the Family Research Counsel,” and “Promise Keepers.” So also, as one evangelical pastor told me, “I see myself as the pastor to more than my congregation. I see myself called to minister to the community at large.” seeing the primary purpose of the Church as service to the community or an agent of change for the culture is an easy and alluring trap to fall into as it generally produces faster visible results than ministry to the Body of Christ. Is it possible that, since 2009, the LCMS has fallen victim to this same disordering of priorities in regard to sexuality, attempting to influence the culture and the nation more than ministering to and feeding the sheep God whose care has entrusted us? And sometimes, instead of ministering to the flock?
Or, maybe it was that we just don't really know how to apply the Gospel in general anymore. For all that we say we are a Gospel centered church, I have noticed that pastors really struggle to figure out how to apply the Gospel beyond a very narrow paradigm. We know how to say “God forgives sin.” But do we really know what that means or how to express it? It is true that the doctrine of justification is central and foundational to theology and our life in the Church. But sometimes it seems as if pastors struggle to fit all situations into that model instead of, as Paul does, reflecting on how that forgiveness molds ourselves and our relationships to others and to God. A while back, Issues Etc interviewed Ryan Andersen about his book “When Harry Became Sally.” I wrote Issues Etc and pointed out that the problem with Anderson's book is the same problem with what is being advocated by those who take the other side as well, who promote physical transitioning for children with gender Dysphoria. Both sides are trying to fix a problem which, in many cases, can't be fixed. I asked what can be done for those for whom the offered solutions do not work. In responding to my email, Issues Etc completely missed the point. The host said something about "people just have to get by," which was pretty much just what I had already said and added nothing to the conversation. My point was that the Church has something the world does not have that might help those who "just have to get by" – the Gospel. Properly applied, the Gospel uniquely helps people live and find identity and hope in the myriad of situations where the world has no answer. The Gospel provides hope for eternity but it also provides strength for living with problems that can not be cured. It rather appalled me that a pastor, offered an opening for the Gospel that one could drive a train through, did not even include it in his answer to my question. So perhaps churches no longer think in Gospel oriented terms. Maybe churches are at a loss how to apply the Gospel. It may be that, having said “God forgives homosexuality” the authors of the resources from the task force are no different than the majority of pastors and simply did not know what else to say. Perhaps the lack of Gospel is a symptom of a larger problem in which the Gospel is losing centrality in the LCMS at large.
Or perhaps the results of the task force reflected the confusion and chaos pastors in general feel when the topic of homosexuality arises. For the most part your ministry to LGBT people is invisible, even to you. Especially to you. The pastor is often the last person a gay teen will confide in and it is likely that most pastors will not even realize they were ministering to a LGBT adolescent until a parent shows up in his office in distress saying, “My college age kid came out to me when he was home from school and now he wants to marry his boyfriend. What do I do?”
To the pastor in such a situation, it must seem that a faithful and active member of his flock has left home, been influenced by the cultural teaching on sexuality, and abandoned his faith. Pastor Rueger, in his book “Sexual Morality in a Christless World” writing about an encounter he had with a same sex attracted man who was committed to the biblical teaching of sex between a man and a woman in marriage said about that eye-opening discussion, “I had assumed that a majority of those who identify as homosexual were content with their sexuality. My experience with advocates of homosexuality had shown me examples of people who gave no sign or shame or unhappiness with their same sex attractions.” What Pastor Rueger had not seen and what most pastors do not get an opportunity to see are the many years of confusion and struggle before the moment a college-aged kid “comes out.” Those who are neutral, affirming or blasé about their attractions to their own sex when they first experience them at age 11 or 12 are rare in the world at large and almost non-existent within the Church. Yet, the pastor has little or no chance to observe the confusion and fear the preteen boy or girl feels when they begin to realize they are experiencing the same sexual desires as their peers, but for the wrong sex. The pastor does not have an opportunity to know the prayers and disappointed hopes, the herculean efforts put into trying to change one's sexuality in the mid to late teen years. The pastor can not read the mind of the 14 year old who hears his parents, talking about an aunt or uncle whose kid has “come out” say, “It would be so hard to have a gay kid. It would almost be easier to deal with the death of a child than to find out one your kids is gay.” (something my parents, thankfully, did NOT say but that I heard described often enough by LGBT people and their families to know it is a common experience) Nor is the pastor likely to be able to read the face of the gay kid who hears his pastor say in confirmation class, “homosexuality is no different than any other sin like child molestation, adultery or murder,” and thus is assured that because he experiences and fights against a specific temptation, his pastor sees him as no different than someone who rapes little kids, cheats on his wife or brutally slits someone's throat.
Whatever we may think of the influence of peers on teens, the fact is that teens still regard their parents and their Church as more important than any other relationships in their lives. More than anything, these kids do not want to lose their parents' love or disappoint their God. And many will go to almost any length to change their sexuality rather than fail their family and their Savior. That moment when the college-aged kid tells his mother or father “I'm gay” may come after a decade or more of trying, praying and failing to change sexual attractions.
So it may be that the pastor simply does not realize he had been ministering to a LGBT kid all along. It may be that pastors and the task force, not having a chance to have the insights into what it is like to be a same sex attracted 13-year-old, mistakenly believe, at some level, that the primary culprit is the culture or society. And so, perhaps the problem is that pastors, and the task force, address the culture out of ignorance instead of examining how to truly minister in a Law and Gospel manner.
What this means is, unfortunately, those who do remain in the Church, who are often invisible to the pastor, receive the main force of the Law as it is delivered toward a culture and society which are not listening. Faithful same sex attracted Christians, therefore, receive the Law when they need the Gospel. The result is devastating.
Eve Tushnet, a celibate same sex attracted Catholic convert, wrote about LGBT people in an article for the Washington Post, “I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard people say things like, 'I get that Jesus loves me — all the songs say so! — but it’s hard to believe he likes me very much.' Or, 'I wish I could believe that it’s good that I exist.'” And in the Deseret News she says about her conversion to Catholicism, “...yet when I finally started meeting more gay Christians, I found out how many of them had been trained by their Christian upbringing to hate themselves and fear their deep longings for love and intimacy. I was lucky: It was easier for me to know God as a loving, cherishing Father because I didn't grow up Christian. That should be an indictment of our churches.”
So also Alan Chamber relates the account of himself at 18, when he had little or no sexual experience and was committed to avoiding same sex intercourse, at a moment in his life when he opened up to a youth evangelist: “Steeling myself for the condemnation sure to come, I listened to him say something without understanding a word. Like Charlie Brown's squawking teacher. His words didn't match my expectations. I had to ask him to say them again. This time, laying down my expectations, I heard. 'God loves you.'....When I didn't reply, he said them again, 'God loves you'.....Finally, I asked, 'Did you misunderstand what I told you? I am gay.' He chuckled. 'I know. And God loves you.'” He had learned to hate himself so much that he simply could not comprehend what the man was telling him. He could not, and did not, expect anyone, especially a Christian leader, to say “God loves you.”
And Greg Coles says in “Single Gay Christian, “People knew me, but that didn't mean they really knew me.. And it's hard to feel loved when you're convinced that people have only ever loved your effigy, when you're afraid they might love the real thing less, or not at all.”
Henry Nouwen, who authored more than 35 books and was beloved by many in both the Catholic Church and among protestants, once wrote in his personal journal, “Just when all those around me were assuring me they loved me, appreciated me, yes, even admired me, I experienced myself as a useless, unloved, and despicable person. Just when people were putting their arms around me, I saw the endless depth of my human misery and felt that there was nothing worth living for. Just when I had found a home, I felt absolutely homeless…It was as if the house I had finally found had no floors.” Though he was not referring specifically to homosexuality at that point, he was a closeted same sex attracted man, a fact he had shared with only a few friends. His feelings of not belonging describe the feelings of many closeted gay Christians and, I believe, stemmed at least partly from his sense of alienation from other Christians and from God because of his sexuality.
I myself have heard such accounts again and again. And from those who have remained in the churches of their youth especially. We believed the Law. We learned to hate ourselves. This is important. We did not hate God. We did not hate the Church. We did not hate our pastor. We learned to hate ourselves, sometimes beyond what we believed even the love of God could reach. And, in the midst of this, we received so little Gospel applied to our situation that we not only questioned whether grace could apply to us, often we were convinced that it did not, that it could not.
Whatever the reason, whether it was a desire to play to the national stage, clumsiness with the Gospel or simple blindness toward those who grow up same sex attracted in the Church, what it comes down to in the end is that the task force, by losing focus, wound up serving no one. It did not say anything that would have much of an impact on our “culture.” It offered no comfort or hope to those within the LCMS fold. And it did not address the situations of families of LGBT people in more than a cursory manner.” And most of all, they offered little that could be called Gospel. The resulting documents really offered little or nothing that could be called ministry.
So what I want to do here is to finish what I started in the letter in Daystar, I want to really apply the Gospel to homosexuality. I want to do what was missing in the task force documents, I want to focus on the grace of Christ. And most specifically, I want to lead pastors through the process and use of the Gospel that I believe is necessary for a same sex attracted individual to find their identity in Christ.
Continue to Part 2: The Gospel must be included with the Law as the foundation for ministry and a review of some necessary forms of ministry to LGBT people.