Tag Archives: homosexuality

The Illusion of Inclusion

“All are welcome!” “Wherever you are on your journey, you are welcome here!” “Open and affirming!” “Come as you are, believing as you do!”

These are just a few of the phrases communities of faith use in their (mostly) sincere attempts to welcome diverse groups of people to their communities. I say “mostly” because I think it is fair to say some congregations use these phrases primarily as marketing tools. That is, facing declining numbers, some conservative and liberal religious groups are tweaking not only their orders of worship, music, “clerical drag” and programming; they are also tweaking their advertising techniques to boost attendance numbers and financial support. I understand this desire for survival. Still, the challenge is, after people arrive–if they haven’t given up on religion altogether already–they eventually learn there is often some “fine print” attached to those messages. In other words, there are some exclusions in the inclusive message.

For example, one friend of mine started attending a large non-denominational Christian church that proclaimed everyone without exception was welcome there. This group had amazing music and programming as well as positive and uplifting messages. There was a lot of Jesus–just without all that annoying discipleship business–well, with perhaps the exception of financial discipleship, that is. He attended a membership class and liked what he heard. Then my friend spoke with the facilitator after the class. He told the facilitator he is gay and asked if that would be a problem.

The facilitator of the class was obviously flustered and said, “Well, yes. I mean, you can come here and all, but you would have to commit to celibacy or repent and convert to heterosexuality before you could be a member.” Then, to add insult to injury, he placed his hand on my friend’s shoulder and said, “I don’t have a problem with homosexuals personally. See? If I did, I wouldn’t be touching you like this.” I’ve lost touch with this friend over the past few years; so I don’t know if he ever darkened the door of any church ever again. I can’t say I would blame him if he didn’t.

Now, not all churches that claim to be inclusive and welcoming are like the one I’ve described here. And sexual orientation is just one example of the “fine print” in some welcoming congregations. Another example is women (“Of course you can serve–just not in leadership that includes supervising or teaching men.”).  I’m sure you can think of other examples, too. At the same time, there are many, many communities of faith that strive to be as welcoming and inclusive as possible. I know because I am honored to be the pastor of one such group.

The challenge remains, however, that there is always fine print–either spoken or implied. You could call this fine print “boundaries,” too. Some are healthy; some are not.

I’ll use the congregation I serve as an example. In our Inquirer’s classes I now identify as a Unitarian Universalist Christian at this point in my life journey. I go on to explain that while this is how I identify, no one is required to share that identification in order to be a member of our church. People can be as creedal, conservative, born again, “washed in the blood of the Lamb” as they choose–or not. At the same time, they aren’t going to hear creedal, conservative, born again, “washed in the blood of the Lamb” music in our worship services or that theology in my reflections. So, if they absolutely need to hear affirmations of things like virgin birth, bodily resurrection, Jesus as God, blood atonement, hell, the bible as literal word of God and the like, they may not be comfortable at our church.

Again, I emphasize everyone is welcome at Holy Covenant and–like our Unitarian Universalist sisters and brothers–we affirm every person’s free and responsible search for truth. Yet I can see how a moderate to conservative Trinitarian Christian (straight or gay) could feel excluded at our church. And people who aren’t “Jesus-centric” probably wouldn’t be too comfortable with our focus on the teachings of Jesus and other biblical teachings, either. In other words, our church has “fine print,” too. And while I believe our fine print represents some healthy boundaries for what people can expect to see and hear at our church, others might see us as “exclusive.”

So the more I consider what I call “the illusion of inclusion,” the more I think some of us in “church world” stress out far too much over who we’re not, rather than celebrating–and not just affirming–the wonderful parts of who we are. Every religious community has a culture of its own; and while every community of faith has room for healthy growth, challenge and change, rarely does everything about those communities need an overhaul. Besides, when we try too hard to be something we’re not in any area of our lives, we can cause more hurt and pain to others and ourselves than any good we hoped to accomplish.

In the end, perhaps the best we can do is take the advice of St. Francis de Sales who was quoted as saying, “Be who you are and be that well.” That “who” may very well evolve and change over time, too. Besides, organisms (including churches and religions) that don’t evolve usually die anyway. Still, healthy change (boundary shifting)–either individual or communal–cannot be forced, even with the best of intentions and advertising campaigns. Healthy change takes time, “prodding” from the Divine within each of us, and our willingness to listen to and act upon that prodding.

After all, we cannot be all things to all people. So, “be who you are and be that well.”

And be at peace.

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“Can We Talk?” Not Always…

“Can we talk?”

Depending on such factors as who is asking this question, their tone of voice, body language, etc., “Can we talk?” can produce in us emotions like joy, apprehension, fear, annoyance, and so on. If you are married, “unionized,” or otherwise in a committed relationship with another person(s), you probably know exactly what I mean. If you are a pastor, I am almost certain you know what I mean.

This question assumes someone desires to enter into dialogue with us about a certain issue, hopefully to obtain closure, understanding, consensus or some other goal. If there is one thing I have learned in my 10 years of pastoring, however, this assumption is not always the case.

In the past month I have had two such experiences. The first involved an e-mail from someone who wanted to know if, as a pastor, I “believed in homosexuality.” Apparently a friend of her’s from our church was attempting to dialogue with her about the subject, and had given her some of our information on homosexuality and the bible.

I have to admit I thought it was a little strange someone would ask an openly gay pastor if he “believed” in homosexuality. As with most e-mails on this subject, however, I sensed there were some underlying issues at work. So I replied to her it was best we talked on the phone–or met at her convenience–to discuss these questions, and gave her my contact information. She replied via e-mail  that “it really doesn’t matter what you say, anyway, because I’m a Christian and don’t believe in homosexuality. Not that I don’t care, it just doesn’t matter. I’ll think about calling you.”

Still waiting for the call…

The second experience involved a representative from a local senior center. The center was promoting a health club program at their facility focusing on the 50+ crowd. I liked the concept: older folks usually feel intimidated at most health clubs that focus on the young, buff, and beautiful. So why not provide a place where that intimidation is removed, and people receive the individual attention they deserve? The representative asked to come speak with our congregants about the program. I gave him our service times, and suggested he speak to people at social hour between services, as that time would be the best for getting the most exposure to our congregation as a whole.

I then asked if his facility’s non-discrimination clause included sexual orientation and gender identity. Very long pause and then, “Well, it is the 21st century, after all,” came the reply.

“I understand that,’ I replied, ‘still, about 75% of my congregation identifies as lgbt. So, just as you want seniors to feel comfortable at your facility, I want to make sure all our seniors feel comfortable at your facility. I’m sure you can understand my desire to recommend safe and welcoming facilities and programs for my congregants.”

“Well, I’ll talk to my supervisor and get back to you.”

That was almost a month ago.

In both cases, people contacted me with the desire to talk about an issue. When I didn’t immediately give them the answer they sought, but rather attempted to deepen the conversation a bit by asking for more information, the conversations ended. Can we talk? Apparently, not always.

These and other experiences have caused me to consider the question of why we have such a hard time talking to one another sometimes. Whether we are liberal or conservative, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Atheist, or people of other faiths or who claim no particular faith, sometimes we just can’t talk. And to be honest, I don’t think the subject matter makes much difference, either. Soemtimes I even wonder if we really want to talk at all.

Or perhaps that’s the real issue; that is, we talk too much without really listening. Perhaps we hear, but don’t really listen. All of us have our strongly-held beliefs about any number of subjects, and it isn’t too difficult to feel threatened when people strongly disagree with our equally strongly-held beliefs. And since we’re so sure we’re right–especially when it comes to politics and religion–why bother?

Perhaps new and different thoughts are just too frightening for some people to consider–especially when it comes to faith and religion. To me it’s sad to think there are some folks who are so afraid God might strike them dead for using the minds and free will they believe God gave them. What does it say about the character of a God who would do such a thing? That is not any god I am interested in at all.

When it comes to the issue of dialogue, maybe we can take a lesson from Aristotle, who is quoted as saying, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” I have also heard this quote adapted to read, “It is the mark of an open mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” In other words, it never hurts to listen to different viewpoints, to reflect on those viewpoints, and to offer our own in response–all without either a pathological need to “convert” others to our way of thinking, or an irrational fear of offending God and losing our sweet seats in the afterlife.

Who knows? We might even learn something in the process…