jennifer hanigan

a pinch of this and a dollop of that


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Sodom and Gomorrah: A Cautionary Tale

I’m sure you’ve heard the story of Sodom and Gomorrah as told by the Evangelical cautionchurch: Homosexuality was so rampant there that God burned it to the ground! I’m sure you’ve also heard the parallels the Evangelical church draws between that story and modern day: Homosexuality is so rampant in the US that God sends catastrophic weather events and also the general demise of culture to punish us and if we don’t hold the line, God will burn us to the ground, too!

This is, of course, hogwash. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah was never about homosexuality, or sex at all for that matter. The men of Sodom didn’t want to have sex with the travelers, they wanted to rape them. And rape is not about sex, it is about power. Sodom’s sin, according to the Bible, was that they had no love for their neighbors.

“Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.” (Ezekiel 16:49 (NIV))

I was reminded the other day of these passages, and the Evangelical penchant for drawing parallels between them and modern-day life, and I thought I would try my hand at it. Ready?

Imagine, if you will, a small church in a medium sized town. The leaders, all white men of course, are mostly good people with mostly good intentions. There have been some changes recently, and change is frightening, but they think they can guide their community through the rough waters, if everyone stays in the boat and nobody rocks it. They really do see themselves as servant leaders, and might not notice that they treat the church as their kingdom.

One day one of the members of this kingdom, a woman, says, “Hey, I noticed that queer young people don’t seem to feel comfortable in our church, and I worry about them. I spent a lot of time studying and thinking and praying about this and I think we might have been wrong all this time. Also, I’m queer, too.” She doesn’t ask for a platform, doesn’t ask for policy changes, she just talks about her own journey, and she does this in her own spaces.

The leaders are concerned. They use words like ‘divisive’ and talk about how things might change one day but they cannot change now, not on their watch. The woman is clearly viewed as a threat to their kingdom (although she cannot figure out why), and they decide she must go. She asks how making someone leave isn’t divisive, but it is clear that to them, ‘divisive’ means ‘different.’ If they make the woman leave, nothing and no one will be different.

It does not seem to occur to them that to have harmony, music must have more than one note.

The woman leaves, broken, suffering. But she’s an outsider now, no longer their responsibility.

We know that Lot was not an evil person (although try telling that to his daughters). Have you ever wondered why he stayed in Sodom? He clearly knew how the town treated visitors, for he tried to rescue them before the danger was even apparent. But Sodom was wealthy, and if they stayed wealthy by mistreating their neighbors, well, that was the trade-off for a life of comfort. Lot tried to mitigate this when he could, but wasn’t willing to make himself uncomfortable to do so.

The woman rebuilds her life. She finds a new community. She is loved and she thrives. And a year later, she receives a report from the little church kingdom that exiled her: It is dying. The people have trickled away, taking their pocketbooks with them. “If people keep leaving, we’ll have no money to pay a pastor!” the leaders say. And then, “You must think carefully and pray hard before you decide to leave, too.” The woman ponders this announcement. She remembers how carefully she thought and how much she prayed. She remembers how little that meant to the leaders. She remembers how no outcome of thought and prayer mattered to them if it wasn’t the outcome they’d pre-determined to be acceptable.

She remembers how protecting their little kingdom was more important than loving their neighbors. More important than loving her.

I don’t know why so many people have left my former church. I have intentionally not kept in touch with the vast majority of the people there, and I haven’t asked questions of those people I do still talk to. But I am not surprised at this news. They are not heeding their calling to love their neighbors, and thus have become chaff. But I am also not gleeful about the situation. In fact, I would be overjoyed to see true repentance and a revival of love sweep through there. But if they cling as stubbornly to their dogma and the status quo as they did before, then metaphorical fire and brimstone and pillars of salt seem quite fitting.

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A Little Sermon for Pride Sunday

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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Love and Sin

What is sin? Some would say sin is a violation of God’s law. They would point to the Bible, citing various lists of Do Thises and Don’t Do Thats. Some preach that it’s “missing the mark” or “falling short” of God’s desires for us. Some would say it’s mere imperfection.

It’s an interesting debate because, for Christians at least, we have the answer:

“Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”” ~ Matthew 22:37-40

Humans are a complicated bunch. In the face of a simple answer, we contrive hundreds of rules covering everything from whether we can watch television on Sunday (or Saturday) to how long our skirts must be to whether it’s okay to kiss on a first date (or second, or third, or…).

But really, it all boils down to:Love is Love
Love God
Love others
Love yourself

Take a look at the phrase there that connects the first and second commandments: “And the second is like it.” Isn’t that interesting? When I read that, I hear that loving others is tantamount to loving God. This makes sense, since each human is made in God’s image! If we love God, we love God’s image-bearers. And don’t forget that loving yourself bit. You’re an image-bearer, too.

The story of Sodom is such a horrific one that it’s a favorite target of the anti-LGBTQ+ crowd. But what made Sodom so evil?

“‘Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me.” ~ Ezekiel 16:49-50

Sodom, the people of Sodom, failed to love their neighbors, and sought to do very unloving things to the visitors we read about in the story of its destruction. The sin in that story was not the sexual desires of men for other men, it was the intent to gang rape them, and the failure to be hospitable.

If you aren’t familiar with the Side A/Side B debate within the world of queer Christians, it can be summed up thusly: Side A folks believe that same-sex romantic relationships are just as fine as different-sex romantic relationships. Side B folks believe that if a Christian is gay, they need to be celibate, that a romantic or sexual relationship would be sin. (Neither side believes a person’s sexual orientation can be changed…anyone who still believes that is lost in the wilderness of seriously bad science and theology!)

So, if we are to call same-sex relationships sin, we must be able to point to the unlovingness inherent in them. I have never met a person who could do this. Each one who has tried has resorted to circular logic: It’s failing to love God because God said no, or it’s failing to love the other person because you’re causing them to sin. No, no, if Jesus himself says the law hinges on loving God and one another, we don’t get to add requirements to that. Especially not while pointing fingers at the Pharisees.

But here’s where I do find unlovingness: Side B theology. Because there is simply no loving way to tell someone that they will never be deserving of romantic love. There is no loving way to sentence someone to a life without the kind of intimate companionship we’re made to desire*. And trust me, there is no way to do so without stabbing at the very heart of the queer person.

I know, I know, we’re supposed to debate this peaceably. The thing is, a Side A person is not going to force a Side B person into a same-sex relationship against their conscience. But Side B churches (and people) insist on forcing Side A Christians to conform or leave.

And that is not love.

 

*I don’t mean to exclude Ace folks, many of whom desire a close relationship on their own terms, and who ought to have it!


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Fences

I homeschooled my kiddos. One day during the grade school years we took a midday bike ride down the path near our apartment. That path winds past a grade school, skirting the property just outside the playground fence. It was recess, and we caused bit of a panic. Kids rushed to the fence and shouted, “Get back inside! Get back inside! You’ll be in trouble!”

My boys found it amusing, of course–little rebels on two wheels. I found it sad. Those poor children, with no idea of the freedom that lay just beyond the fence. (My own school years felt very much like prison; I know it’s not like that for everyone.) But really, how could they conceive of a world so different from the one they lived in? School, when you’re a child, is the clock by which you tell time. It anchors your days and months. It directs the seasons.

fence

Somewhere in the heap of parenting and homeschooling books I consumed as my kids were growing, I read of a study done on schoolchildren. The fence around the school playground was removed. Suddenly the children stopped exploring the outer edges of the playground, and instead huddled in the middle. The lack of boundaries frightened them. The moral of the story, of course, was that children need boundaries in order to feel secure and explore their world.

And I agree. But there comes a time when those boundaries are unhealthy, when they confine instead of guide, when they stifle exploration rather than support it. Wise parents move the boundaries outward and open gates as their children grow. In this way, the children gain confidence in their ability to handle the outside world. They learn how to handle tough situations while they still have the safety net of parents to fall back on.

And they learn that their parents are not always right. This is a very uncomfortable thing for parents!

Today’s sermon, at the little church I attend with the rainbow flag posted out front, was on doubt. The pastor stressed that doubt is not a bad thing; in fact, it is a necessary thing. To doubt, to struggle with something, is to learn what you really believe.

Too often, though, doubt is seen as failure. It is seen as disobedience. Too often, evangelicals are the kids inside the playground fence, terrified for the kids on the outside, sure that they’re risking their very lives. Too often, evangelicals are locking the gates on a playground that is far too small for growing believers. Too often, evangelicals are the parents who won’t let their children grow up for fear they’ll turn out ‘wrong’ somehow.

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. ~ 1 Corinthians 13:11

A faith that is only faithful inside the fence is no faith at all. A God that can’t withstand doubt is no God worth following. And, I am beginning to think, a grace that can be confined is a weak grace, indeed.


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Character Counts

Let’s say you’re friends with Sally. You’ve known Sally for ten or twenty years. You’ve been to her house, sometimes even dropped by unexpectedly. You’ve looked after her kids, and she’s looked after yours. You’ve called each other late at night, when you needed a friendly ear, and you’ve prayed for each other as hard times have come and gone.

One day, your Aunt Matilda asks you over for tea. As you sip from a cozy cup of jasmine tea, she says, “It’s a shame that Sally beats her dog.”

Stunned, you sit speechless while Aunt Matilda munches on a scone. Finally, you say, perhaps a bit too forcefully, “You don’t mean my Sally?”

“Oh yes, one and the same,” she says between bites. “I’ve always known she does. Ask around, and I’m sure you’ll find everyone knows Sally abuses that poor animal.”

You barely keep up with the rest of Aunt Matilda’s gossip, distracted as you are by this revelation. On the way home you ponder the news. You think over every interaction you’ve had with Sally through the years. You consider how gentle she is with her children and yours, how loving and compassionate she is. You can’t remember ever having seen her lose her temper beyond a muttered, “Oh for Pete’s sake,” here and there. You’ve played Frisbee in the yard with Sally and her dog, and once, when you were running errands together, she dragged you into the specialty pet store so she could buy the expensive canned dog food. “Rover will eat the grocery store stuff, but he’d rather have this,” she told you.

You’ve known Aunt Matilda all your life, and you trust her, but it just doesn’t seem possible that Sally abuses the family dog. You know Sally, you know her character, and that is out of character for her. You know it cannot be true. There must be a misunderstanding, and you’ll talk to her and get it figured out.

Right?

“Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good.”
1 Thessalonians 5:20-21

Do you know the character of God? Just like our fictional Sally, we understand who God is by knowing Him. And by knowing Him, knowing His character, we can determine what is and is not true about Him (and unlike Sally, there’s no chance whatsoever that He’s hiding who He really is).

The God I know, the God I see in Scripture, from Jesus’ ministry here on Earth, and even from my own experience, is full of grace and mercy and love. He is holy and just and good. He loves us like a mother hen, sheltering us under his wings. He encourages and builds up and gives us hope. Relationships are of utmost importance to Him–so important that they merited Christ’s sacrifice to maintain them.

So I ask you, is this the God you know? And if so, does the church’s treatment of LGBTQ+ people fall within his character? Knowing who God is, does it make sense that He would want people turned away from their churches, friends, and families? Is it reasonable that He would wish entire segments of humanity to spend their lives without love, without a partner? Would He teach us to hate parts of ourselves that we cannot change? Does his Word build despair, the kind of despair that drives people to suicide in ever-increasing numbers?

Or could it be that the prophecy that is on everyone’s lips–what “everyone knows” about homosexuality–is hogwash? Could it all just be an awful misunderstanding?

Test everything. Hold fast what is good.

rainbow


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In Which I Am Annoyed

This morning in the shower (where I do all my best thinking) I realized something, and it annoyed me. The realization, that is, not the act of realizing, which I could doubtless use more of.

I have some abandonment issues, which I will not go into here and you should count yourself lucky about that, but which were triggered by the whole getting-kicked-out-of-church thing. Consequently, one of the (many) things that upset me about that conversation in which a bunch of men kicked me out of my church family was that they affirmed my salvation–my place in God’s family–but they didn’t want me in their family.

That was really awful and excruciatingly painful. And by ‘was’ I mean ‘continues to be’. But it was not annoying.

No, annoying is my realization this morning that they were completely out of line affirming my salvation. How dare they? Of the six ‘clobber verses,’ at least two say otherwise!

1 Corinthians 6:9-10 states not once, but twice, that homosexuals (and the rest of the list of people) ‘will not inherit the kingdom of God’. And Romans 1 talks all about how homosexuality came about as a result of turning one’s back on God. At least that’s how anti-gay Christians interpret it, right?

Get your act together, guys! If you’re going with the “plain reading” method here, you’d darn well better apply it to the whole passage, not just one or two words. Tell me my faith is a lie. Tell me I’m damned to Hell. Go on, do it.

And if you can’t, if you’re unable to reconcile what you’ve seen of my faith and the faith of other queer Christians with the idea that we simply cannot be saved just as we are, could it possibly be that you’ve misunderstood? That translation and interpretation might have been skewed by cultural influences? That an inability to understand something might lead to an inability to accept it? Just maybe?


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South of the Border

One person you know tells you something unhappy about their relationship with another person you know. What do you do?

The answer could depend on your geographical location, as I found out when I shared fiestathis dilemma with a friend who spent the last decade in Mexico. If I were Mexican, she told me, I would know when the first person told me about the problem, that it was now my duty to go to the second person and tell them about the problem. It’s part of the social contract that you do this for one another, acting as a kind of buffer to protect the relationship. I am not Mexican, and so this idea horrifies me. My struggle is more along the lines of “it might help things to tell, but it’s probably a violation of the trust of the first person to do so, and everyone could end up hating me because I meddled in things.”

I don’t know how dishes are washed in Brazil these days, but twenty years ago they were washed in cold, running water. If you’re from the US, you might find that idea disgusting. How can dishes get clean with cold water? But if you’re Brazilian, you’d be disgusted at the idea of dishes sitting in a sinkful of water with other dirty dishes, no matter how hot, and speaking of hot water, you only get that a few hours a day, so why are you wasting it?

We can see how understanding a culture is necessary for correctly understanding what people in that culture say and do. And that’s what I mean when I talk about interpreting Scripture within the context of the time and place in which it was written.

This is why, when people talk about the Bible ‘plainly’ saying homosexuality is wrong, I urge them to look deeper, beyond the lens their own culture has taught them to use. And it’s funny, because I’ve seen pastors encourage the same thing…until the topic of homosexuality comes up. Then the principles of sound exegesis get tossed out the window and condemnation rains down from the pulpit!

I like to compare queer people to tax collectors. Tax collectors were villains in the New Testament! Folks were appalled that Jesus would even speak to them. One Pharisee prayed “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.” What does this say about IRS agents today, or the person who does payroll at your office? Should we preach against them and call their occupation evil? Of course not. You and I understand that it isn’t the act of collecting taxes that the Bible was talking about. It was the practice of the tax collectors to collect more than was required, and profit from impoverishing others!

Likewise, I don’t think it was gay sex that was being condemned, the few times it comes up in the Bible. When we look into the times and places those passages were written we find that there were specific cultural practices–things like keeping boys as sexual slaves, practicing sexual rites during idol worship, temple prostitution, etc.–and that within that context, the Scriptures are more logically understood as speaking against those specific instances.

Letting go of your own understanding is a hard thing to do, I know. It took me a very long time, but I’m oh so glad I did. I dare you to give it a try 🙂