Monday, May 05, 2008

Is it too soon? Too late?

Is it too soon?

The Reconciling Committee of the Board of Church and Society of the New England Conference sponsors an annual essay contest for young people ages 16-21. The winning essay is awarded a modest scholarship and is invited to read the essay at a session of Annual Conference. I want to celebrate that this year, the committee received two very good entries, although we were not of one mind concerning the "winner". Our disagreement was due primarily to concerns that many expressed over how one of the essays would be received by the body. The arguments go something like this:
It's too soon for some of our supporters to hear something so forceful. This sounds angry, and anger is divisive. We will lose support...

It is never too soon!

It is never too soon to tell the truth, to open our hearts to the grief of members of the body of Christ, to demand that the whole body at least become aware that others are suffering because we have failed to be the church for all of God's children.

Sometimes the truth hurts...
and when voices are silenced, the truth tends to hurt some more than others.

What a privilege many of us have to be able to decide when we will hear the truth and experience the pain it represents! Queer people in churches everywhere will tell you that as soon as the church harms them publicly or they begin to voice their pain, people flock to them full of sorrow and guilt. When this happens, queer people – the ones who are MOST hurt by the exclusion of LGBTQ people in the United Methodist Church – end up providing pastoral care to their allies, their pseudo allies, the fence-sitters, and even the unrepentant persecutors of queer people.

Pain is pain, and I do not wish to minimize the pain of any person, but is it possible for non-queer people who experience grief over this almost ritual abuse of queer people in the church find another way to express their grief? Must queer people continue to serve the body as both scapegoat and pastor?

General Conference is over. The policies of the church are settled for another four years. It is easy to conclude that it's too late to do anything now...

Is it too late?

Steven Dry, a young man from the New England Conference who is finishing his Freshman year at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia as I type this post, wrote the "controversial" essay that I mentioned above. When you read it, you may be surprised to know that he wrote it at least a month before General Conference began. When I arrived at General Conference on April 23rd, I emailed Steven to thank him for his powerful offering to the New England Reconciling Committee (and as the incoming co-chair of the committee for the next quadrennium, to apologize for our collective fearfulness and continued willingness to play by the unspoken rules of hollow civility that mistake the absence of conflict for the well-being of the entire body).

I also asked Steven if I could post his essay on the General Conference blog. He graciously agreed to offer this powerful witness to a much larger audience than he had in mind when he wrote the essay.

I was so busy with the work of the Common Witness coalition at General Conference that I never posted Steven's essay. When I got home, I wondered if it was too late.

It is never too late!

It is never too late to enter into the work of reconciliation in the church and the world. The Spirit constantly calls us back to this work – calls us to begin again – to rebuild the church from the ashes of its own making. The essay that will be delivered at Annual Conference is an excellent essay on the assigned topic: "My vision of a fully inclusive United Methodist Church". The winning essay is also a blessing and a gift. It too will create some space for a new beginning following a General Conference in which some strides were made toward full inclusion, some positions were held, and some ground was lost.

And it is never too late for us to heed the call of one who has opened himself to us with an offering of grief and joy, regret and hope.

Now a note for those who are always calling us back to strategy – who worry that we will alienate somebody who isn't quite sure if queer people should be accepted:
Don't worry... I hear you. I have been hearing you for many years now. While I appreciate your commitment to follow the Spirit as you experience Her leading you, more often than I would like to admit, I have heeded your counsel. You are not invisible to me, and I do not disregard your convictions. You've argued that it's too soon to ask "ordinary people" to listen to an essay that unmasks the pain of so many and calls the church to live up to its promises and potential.

Today I say to you that it is never too soon to take people's pain seriously - yours, mine, and others'. Nor is it ever too late to acknowledge publicly those who have been rendered invisible, who have been hurt and excluded and ejected by the policies and practices of this church and its people, who embody such compassion and joy and grace that they have continued to minister to and love and serve the rest of us anyway.

While the New England Annual Conference will not hear him in 2008, maybe you could try to hear Steven Dry by reading his essay. I encourage you to read it as it was meant to be read: It is a verbal address, not a static piece of writing on a page. It is a sermon and an offering of great love, deep pain, and fervent hope.

Steven will be reading your comments. While we have no other honor to offer him for this gift, it is never too soon – or too late – to express our gratitude.

Our Manifesto
an essay by Steven Dry, New England Conference

Christians, we are the children of whispered centuries, of fearful times and worried minds. Our minds have been molded in the womb of Christian authority. We were born into a rigid architecture, baptized by unquestioned lies and confirmed by poisonous precedents, all teaching us the consequences of being different. Restrictive doctrines have shattered our love with shame and have taken our pride with pleasure. The worst part is, the church has done so with no mercy and not a touch of regret within its airy buildings, buildings that are no longer places to worship, but places to worry. Light saturates the pews with fearful luminescence and stabbing shadows, while parishioners quiver behind a silent tradition, afraid that they might be the next to go. And so those mute mouths, once able to speak, have become a second Tower of Babel, collapsing to build borders, not made of language, but of fear.

White steeples loom high with condemnation as they seeks out difference and paint over it with white, using an amalgam of scriptural texts and a particular religious understanding of those texts in order to create an artificial unity, or, more appropriately, uniformity. These scriptures became a means of maintaining purity and absoluteness, a purity that heretics threaten to undermine. This tradition began with early Christian leaders who fought against the Marcions and Gnostics as a means of maintaining order in the church. Even today, despite all the supposed tolerance and liberalism in the United Methodist Church, influential leaders continue to read the Bible strictly. Rather than using it as a narrative of Christ enacting Christian compassion, leaders handle the Bible as if it were a book of answers and a means of condemning those who fall outside of the status quo. Ironically, it is within the very texts that Christian leaders use to condemn the marginalized that Jesus sought out the social outcasts, the lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors, and foreigners, and showed them compassion.

In order to return to Jesus’ calling, we must transform Christianity from a condemning, absolute orthodoxy into a welcoming, compassionate orthopraxi. Only then can the marginalized find room in its rigid infrastructure. The Bible must become a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. It must be valued as a repository of wisdom and an aid to living a Christian life, rather than simply a moral answer book. Instead of venerating the texts of Christ and using them to degrade others, we must use those texts as guides for showing Christian compassion to the entire World. By doing this, the concrete walls of the Church loosen, opening a space for all Christians, not just those who fit into the mold. Only then, can the sun can break through the foggy windows and shine a new, accepting light into the shadows where the marginalized hide. This reconciling glow will travel mystically throughout the sanctuary, seeking out the least and the lost, finally arriving at the altar. There, as the bread and the cup collide, sweet, reassuring drops of future will touch mouths once burdened with the bitter taste of tradition.

Unfortunately, this is but a distant vision. Nevertheless, in a world where hate has fettered hope and love has gone into hiding, we must arise from the shadows of this oppressive church and shine our own colorful reflections, staining the silence of this sterile, oppressive church and showing it our beautiful palette of diversity. This is the first step, and we must not be afraid. We can bear this crown of silence and cross of injustice no longer. We must have our own Easter Sunday.


Michele Naughton said...

Thank you for posting this, Marla. Steven is an incredible individual, as we all are, and we must remember to not get caught up in our own 'agenda', whatever it may be. Once we get caught up in 'our' stuff, we are unable to hear those around us.

Leigh said...

Marla, thank you for posting Steve's essay. I find Steve's writing poetic and honest, but then again, I'm his mother. Thank you for acknowledging his work, as well as his pain, not only for himself but for those who join him in knowing themselves to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered. I pray for the day when we, as an annual conference and as a denomination, can hear the heartache in this message and respond, not in anger or fear, but in true compassion.

Grace and Peace,
Rev. Leigh Dry

Mimi said...

I was on-line searching for more information on the recent “ruling” of the General Conference and the NE Conference’s response and I thankfully came across this blog. It touched me deeply.

Recently, I had been considering (the purpose of) human suffering. In my journal I noted:

Suffering is one of God’s confusing “tools”, or experiences, encouraging us to see beyond ourselves. While in a state of suffering we are challenged to meet God perhaps at his best and perhaps at our best too. As he put forth his only son, we received God’s unconditional promise and a profound example of his love for his people. And because of this we know that even God’s unconditional love can be demonstrated in an extreme, chaotic and amazing way.

In your pain Steven, I extend my hand and heart to you as I know you as brother and I love you. My prayer for you is that you may remain faithful in God’s promise and continue “opening a space for all Christians” so we may all fully experience God’s love- in unity.