jennifer hanigan

a pinch of this and a dollop of that

A Little Sermon for Pride Sunday

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I was asked to share my story for the Pride Sunday service at my church. This is the text of what I said.

Good morning. A lot of you don’t know me, because I’ve only been attending here since February. For over a decade, I attended another church here in town. They said they loved me, and I think, in their own way, that they did. They became my second family, and I don’t say that lightly. I helped deliver three of the children running around their nursery this morning.

A few years ago I began to notice that the kids in the youth group who didn’t fit into the heteronormative, gender-binary box were disappearing. I never heard the youth pastor preach on the topic, never heard the other kids make disparaging comments, but clearly these kids didn’t feel like they belonged. And that concerned me, because these are the kids most at risk for abuse, exploitation, and suicide. These are the kids who most need family.  I wondered how we, as a church, might better help them.

At the time, I still bought into Side B theology.  Side B people agree that sexual orientation can’t be changed, but they believe that same-sex sexual relationships are wrong. At the time, if asked, I referred to myself as “mostly straight.” I even had a number: 95%. And that 5% of me that liked women was kind of interesting but didn’t really matter, because obviously I was never going to act on it, right?

Side B theology and my desire to better serve the queer people in the church became a rock and a hard place. Those are very difficult things to reconcile. God loves you and you are fearfully and wonderfully made, except this one part of you, which you need to spend your life hating, but that’s okay, because we’re going to come alongside you and support you in hating it. It was tightrope I couldn’t walk.

So I went to an old friend, someone I’d met in a Conservative Baptist church, who while serving as a missionary in Mexico had shifted from Side B to Side A, which affirms same-sex relationships. I asked her how she reconciled her new viewpoint with the Bible. Specifically the New Testament, I said. That mattered to me. I wasn’t entirely unreasonable, after all. I didn’t realize it at the time, but she and her husband had been vilified, had their church support removed, and were still going through all kinds of issues because they had become affirming. She was, understandably, on the defensive, and she asked me why I wanted to know.

I explained my concerns about the kids in youth group, and then added, “Also, I’m bisexual.” I think that was the first time I used the word “bisexual” in reference to myself. There are those who shun labels, and I get where they’re coming from–we don’t owe the world a definition of who we are, and labels can make us feel boxed in–but there is also power to be found there, power in staking a claim to who you are, and power in the community of those who share that label. I think I was able to tell her I was bisexual because I knew, I didn’t agree with her theology yet, but I knew she was safe. I knew I was safe with her.

Assured that my intentions were honorable, she gave me a list of resources, and I spent the next few months studying and thinking and praying. In the beginning, it was mostly studying and thinking. But as I was studying and thinking, as my eyes and heart were opened, I began to pray, “Lord, if I am wrong, if I’m heading down the wrong path here, show me!” I was being drawn to an affirming theology by the joy and freedom and life that it gives, and it was exhilarating but frightening. Two people I was closest to, my best friend at the time and my younger son, were also unnerved by the journey I was going through, as I talked my way through it with them. My friend, especially, tried hard to slow me down, but that was a losing battle. By the end of August, I was convinced.

The LGBTQ crowd seems to fall into two camps: Those who are quietly queer, saying something only when necessary, and those who are obnoxiously loud about their queerness. I’m the obnoxiously loud type. So, my next task was to tell the world. Facebook seemed the most efficient method of doing so, so on September 3rd of last year, I made a set-to-public post.  It began:

“After much study, prayer, and contemplation, I have concluded that homosexuality is compatible with biblical Christianity. And although I embarked upon this journey for other reasons, this conclusion also has personal significance: I am bisexual.”

It also included:

“I am the same person you knew and loved yesterday. I hope you will rejoice with me in the freedom I have found, and join me in hoping freedom, grace, and love abound.”

Some of the reason I was so public about this was that, to me, it was very good news! I was full of joy in who I was and who God was, and it was good news for me and also for others. But I wasn’t naive. The day before I posted this, I sat down with one of my dearest friends, the one I worked closely with in my capacity as head of the music ministry. I made sure he knew everything I knew, in case I disappeared. I still worry that the pianos haven’t been tuned.

Sure enough, I was removed from my ministry position before the following Sunday, and banned from any participation other than showing up to Sunday morning services. I wish I were making this up, but the pastor actually said, “When a police officer shoots someone, they’re put on administrative leave while an investigation is done.” I was left wondering who I’d shot.

The elders, all men of course, convened a meeting to interrogate me about everything from my sex life (they wanted to know if I was living up to the bisexual stereotype) to why I’d come out so publicly. They were very concerned about what I might do or say in church. It was hard not to laugh at that, because I have yet to find a set of queer worship songs.

So I told them about the studies that show that exposure to images of fat people being active reduces anti-fat bias by combating the internalized and false idea that we’re lazy.  And how statistically speaking, the people most likely to be racist are those with the least exposure to people of other ethnicities, because their bias isn’t challenged by reality. I explained that my task, as I saw it, was not to stand up in front of the church and say gay things or sing gay songs, it was just to be myself, and if knowing me, a queer person who was also a Christian, challenged their bias or changed their hearts, then that would be a beautiful thing.

I should maybe not have told them that. After several weeks of meetings both with and without me, they came back with three options:

My first option, the one they were really hoping I would accept, was to return to my former Side B theology.

If that was not possible, they also gave me the option of agreeing not to speak of my Side A theology in OR OUT of church.

And if I could do neither of those things, then I was no longer allowed to attend church there.

Well, option 1 was impossible. Option 2 would violate my conscience. And so I left.

I’m supposed to be telling you why I haven’t abandoned my faith and the church entirely, and Chuck will be happy to know I’m getting to that part.

I’m going to reread this morning’s text: “As God’s partners, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. For God says, “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.” See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see–we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything. We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians; our heart is wide open to you. There is no restriction in our affections, but only in yours. In return–I speak as to my children–open wide your hearts also.”

Polls show that the number one attribute assigned to Christians in the United States is being anti-gay. It’s what we-the global church-are known for. This church-versus-gay dichotomy was not invented by queer people, but by the loudest voices from inside the church. And my very existence as a queer Christian is a challenge to that false binary. I make people uncomfortable. I’m okay with that. What I could not do, what I cannot do, is let those loud voices define my identity and the community I’m a part of. For too long, I was not allowed to be queer because I was a Christian. I will not now give up being Christian because I am queer.

“There is no restriction in our affections, but only in yours.”

I have been greatly blessed to be here at this church. You have been balm for my wounds. I want to thank you, and also to challenge you. I am here because this church made it obvious that I would be welcome. In the last four months I have seen again and again that you have successfully built a bridge that joins queer and straight Christians such that we are walking and working side by side, and it has brought me joy. Don’t stop. Don’t stop building bridges. Don’t stop seeking the image of God in people who are not like you, not like us. Remember that we have more to learn than to teach. Bridges go both directions! Let us look around, and let us open wide our hearts.

Jesus loves you

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