I am very grateful to get the chance to preach every Sunday as a pulpit supply preacher in my presbytery. It offers great experience and challenges me to develop sermons and engage Scripture with intention. This is not an opportunity that I take lightly. I feel that there is a deep responsibility taken on by any person who preaches in the church and that we ought to approach this task with the seriousness and thoughtfulness that it deserves. So, each week is an exercise in contemplation and exploration, a chance to wrestle with Scripture and listen to the Lord’s message. For me, this journey of supply ministry has also been a test of my core beliefs as a Christian and sometimes painful journey of spiritual formation.
Not long after I started preaching on Sundays, I was called in to my pastor’s office so he could share some news with me. Some churches had discovered that I am openly gay and had decided that they did not want me to preach in their pulpits. These churches had sent letters to the presbytery explaining that they would rather not have me at their churches. One church even cancelled Easter services rather than have me preach in their pulpit. As my pastor began talking, I felt a deep sense of sickness, fear, and profound sadness. My face became warm, my stomach churned, and I held back tears. He and I had already discussed that this was a possibility and I thought I was prepared for it; but, how do you really prepare for the full weight of rejection? The reality of this possibility was not theoretical anymore; this was happening.
In the weeks following this news, I basically waded through the five stages of grief. I had been hit with something that raised more trauma and more pain than I had expected. The truth was that I could not prepare for this and, as a result, grief became the response. I was shocked at first and almost unwilling to accept that this was even possible. Did Christians really do this in my own denomination? The answer was a resounding “yes” and I had little control over the humanness of church sessions and congregations. From a mild case of denial, I moved into a sense of isolation. My pastor offered amazing support and my liaisons did the same; however, they could not fully understand what this felt like. In many ways, I knew that this was a road I walk alone. My greatest comfort came in the form of a supportive and loving husband who wanted to protect me from it and an equally loving and supportive sister who also went in to protection mode. I knew, and still know, that there is no protecting me from this because it is part of the journey. My isolation also took the form of barriers that I put up anytime I went to a church that was new. My personal identity had been attacked, knowingly or unknowingly, and I had to defend it from further pain in each new pulpit.
I moved quickly from denial and isolation to anger. How dare these people questions the calling of God? How could they make these kinds of assumptions and judgments without even having a conversation with me? Who the hell cancels Easter? Anger comes easy for most and it seems to be the emotion we can always rely on when the going gets tough. The problem is that anger can be self-destructive and harmful to others if it is not channeled constructively. There is certainly a bit of righteous indignation called for when these things happen; but, I have learned that self-indulgent anger is contrary to the work of God in this world. Am I still angry? Yes. However, I am angry because I know that there are other individuals out there who see closed doors and separate themselves from God. I am angry because 67% of Americans surveyed actively blame the church for high suicide rates among LGBT youth. I am angry because rejection creates distance between God and His children. I am angry because we have not yet achieved a church that is free from these divisions. So, as I do when I am angry, I pray some intense Psalms and re-focus my anger on action. I preach on…the problem being that I am not sure I have fully developed the courage to preach the kind of message that motivates my ministry. I still have moments of shyness and fear and I am sure I will have many more. I pray for the wisdom and the courage and the strength to walk this path with God and for God.
In the world of grief, anger gives way to something called bargaining. I do that too. I sometimes think that if I were only more secure in my faith or more secure in myself I would not be so affected by all of this. If I were only less emotional or perhaps less vulnerable to attack or just stronger I would be a better Christian and a better leader. I wonder if maybe I don’t pray enough or if I don’t ask for forgiveness enough when I give in to anger or frustration. I wonder how different all of this would be if God would just clear the way or if I just accepted the church closet. Bargaining is an irrational hustle that leads to a place of blame and surrender. I wish I could tell you that I was done bargaining; alas, like all stages of grief, it seems to be a recurring struggle.
Then there is the stage of depression. I think that in many ways, I rushed through this one. Depression is a pretty consistent part of the human condition and the worldly struggles that clutter our lives. For me, depression is the least constructive stage of the grieving process because it is a dangerous process of self-inflicted pain. I know that there are biochemical conditions that create a biological sense of depression and I am not talking about that here. I am talking about the kinds of shame, self-pity, and surrender that we choose in response to pain and difficulty. Don’t get me wrong, there have been a few moments when I thought to myself, “I did not sign up for this.” The difference is that I have never once thought about stopping. When God calls you, you listen and you answer. Surrendering the commission of God to the noise of human beings seems like the greater sin to me. So, I kinda skipped through depression without giving it too much time.
In the end, there is acceptance and this is where the peace of God is vividly on display. Don’t get me wrong, he walks with us through all stages of this process; but, there is something intense that happens between God and His people when we reach acceptance. Acceptance is a holy place, a place where the soft voice of God speaks comfort and the gentle hand of God heals wounds and mends broken spirits. I have accepted that the call to ministry is not about clear paths or meticulously manicured lives. The call to ministry can be a hot mess that we are asked to jump in to faith first. There are no guarantees of favor, ease, smooth going, or peaceful preaching. Jesus calls us to carry the cross and to take on the burdens of responsibility with faith in our calling, our commissioning, and our God. Accepting this responsibility is certainly not easy but it is the most life-giving thing I have ever done. Besides, God never promised this would be easy; however, He certainly promised it would be worth it.
Anger and grief aren’t going to open any church doors that are closed at the moment and fear has never solved a problem or changed a mind. So, I am determined to choose hope and grace. I am going to place my faith in the God who called me and not in the frailty of human discomfort. I am sure that there are more challenges to come and tears to shed;;but, I am just as sure that there are affirmations waiting and blessings to discover. I will walk this path with God and for God and for all of God’s children who have faced the dark shadows of rejection. There is work to be done and it is time for all of us to remember our salvation and our calling.