Monday, August 11, 2014

A Reflection on Intermountain Yearly Meeting's 2014 Annual Gathering

ESR student Tracy Davis of Durango Friends Meeting shares her thoughts about Intermountain Yearly Meeting's 2014 Annual Gathering in Haiku form:


Dear Friends, read this now
about the yearly meeting
Sixth Month of ‘14

from New Mexico,
Colorado and Utah,                                   
Arizona, too

Idaho, Texas
don’t forget South Dakota
Unprogramm’d Quakers

Intermountain  Friends
gather’d  at The Ghost Ranch
sandstone and sunshine

early-days  retreat
on courage and renewal
discerning clearness 

Young Friends held in Light
in a YAF and OAF fishbowl
moving all our hearts

worship sharing morn
noon laughter-sharing lunchtime
evening dance and song

promote ESR
in wider Quaker  fam’ly
“Come and join your school!”

dinosaur display
a weaving exhibition
Georgia O’Keefe art

woman for justice
in the prisons of Britain
Elizabeth Fry

shocking Dirty Wars
our country causing damage
secret violence

with A.F.S.C.
F.C.N.L. Quaker Vision:

full-moon friendly chat
an intimate connection
peace philosophy

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Obedience to the Living Christ: Revelation Continues, or Church is Dead

ESR student Angela Nevitt recently launched a new blog, Positive Theology. We're cross-posting her first entry here to help celebrate the occasion. 

I read a disturbing article on today that presents an argument against the ordination of women in the Catholic Church based on the author’s discernment that we are called to obedience over intellect, logic, historical evidence, and evolving theologies.
To support her view, author Joanne K. McPortland quotes Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry’s argument against women’s ordination at length in order to frame her theological stance: we are called to be obedient to our religion as it has been originally revealed by God. We are then reminded of the standard company line: God revealed through Christ that men, not women, were his chosen apostles. Even if new theological, historical, archeological, or theological evidence were to present itself to us today, we should dismiss new discoveries, abandon our quests for equality, and remain obedient to the original teachings of the Church to whom God’s one truth was revealed. The argument hinges on the understanding that the revelation happened in the past: it is done.
Is God done with revelation?
I don’t think so. By evidence of this bustling Earth, God has created an incredibly intellectual, artistic, sexual, spiritual, and scientifically-minded species and blessed us with gifts of observation, inquisitiveness, exploration, and discovery. God has blessed us with a bio-diverse and ever evolving planet to explore, and beyond that — an expansive universe that our imaginations cannot begin to comprehend.
To say that God decided some 2000 years ago that women were never to be priestly disciples is to say that (1) God had a singular plan (once and done?), (2) God had definite intentions and spoke with finality on the subject of women in Church before the Church was even born by having Christ name 12 male apostles, and (3) God is direct and doesn’t ask that we discern or interpret spiritual meanings in our lives and for our own times. This makes sense, because God spoke through Jesus in the direct and unmistakeable form of parables.
How does this interpretation jive with what we know about the way Christ taught when he walked among us? How does it jive with the way God designed human beings? Science, technology, and our own consciousnesses are ever leading us to new places. Is it too much to believe that God, too, might be calling us to new understandings of Church in a rapidly changing world? Might our obedience to the Living Christ be the more challenging to embrace?
“I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” — Psalm 27: 13
Websites of interest:
Roman Catholic Women Priests
Women’s Ordination Conference

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Pondering Prayer

ESR student Susan Flynn delivered the following message during ESR Worship on May 1, 2014:

My first exposure to prayer was when I was a little girl.  At night my Dad would tell me stories he would make up.  Sometimes I would tell him my own, (it was easier than searching for a book to read).  After our stories were told, we would always recite the Lord’s prayer together before I fell asleep.  I considered our prayer time sacred and special.
When I first got to Seminary and heard beautiful prayers spoken at meals, in our circles, and the spontaneous in-the-moment blessings, I decided I was way behind my colleagues in the prayer department.  I determined the best course of action was to conduct an informal investigation of prayer and figure out where it fit in my life.
My 2003 bright red outdated Webster’s dictionary explains that to pray is “to implore, or ask for earnestly”.  Unfortunately, there was no five-steps-to-prayer or an instructions manual tucked in the dictionary.  My narrow definition of prayer was that I must be: kneeling with a bowed head, eyes closed, mind cleared, facial expression as close to angelic as possible, and hands gracefully clasping my official license-to-pray card, just in case I got questioned by the prayer patrol.

Richard Rohr tells me “God and truth never just fall into your lap, but are given as gifts only to those who want them” (Yes and….., 14).  I have been set back by my perceptions of how prayer should go.  In the Bible when God communicates, obviously with Her adoring humans, there is often a big show,- an awesome weather system, clouds, rainbows, creatures, doves and ravens, bringing good news or good food.  After having read these clear instances of God communicating with people, complete with surround sound and weather systems, I confess I wished for ridiculously obvious communications from God, too.
“Hey Susan, you are on the right path.”  “Are you sure you want to take your brother’s cookie?”  “This too shall pass.”
Or when I say, “God I have no idea what to do here”, a booming genderless voice hollers “Take this exit!  It’s the best choice.”  As a brilliant light comes out of nowhere illuminating the most appropriate path for my journey.  (Note obvious weather system.)
There have been many times when I have asked for answers.  For hope.  For clarity.  For wisdom, and felt like I must have had a bad connection.  Maybe I was out of range.  Or fantastic weather shows were only reserved for the holiest of holy,- and certainly not my unsure self with a heart full of questions.  Did I have the wrong number for God, or did I miss the memo on how to correctly communicate with the Divine?  Does She screen her calls or text later if she is busy?
Before I gave into a terrible case of poor-me’s, feeling forgotten, I thought perhaps my investigation was too small and perhaps, I wasn’t asking the right questions.  After meditating on the story of Pentecost and how people were speaking many different languages, (but could understand each other perfectly), I decided I had been too narrow-minded, to assume God would only communicate in one way.

So I thought - what is my first language?  I tell friends that since I am neither proficient or sufficient in English, that it is my second language.  They get all excited about the concept of my being bi-lingual and I get all embarrassed about not having mastered the only language I know.  I stumble with words like a klutz in a china shop, and find I get frustrated when people use their words to speak over, exclude or diminish others.  My first language, the one that comes most naturally, is one that is more non-verbal.  It is the language of metaphor, intuition and mystery.
Pondering this thought I realized with great relief that God had been communicating with me the whole time.  Only, in my first language.  I had been under the false impression, She was leaving my calls unanswered.
When I pray, I often get answers in dreams, nature or from the people around me.  Very often my answers are found like gifts in subtle places, throughout the day.  Seeing a blue heron fly overhead, right at the moment when my hope was teetering, or hearing a song that carries a phrase I needed so very much to hear.  Or observing the freedom of my 5-year-old niece flying around the living room singing “Let it go”, reminding me I need to stop being so serious.  God has always been communicating.  I was the one who was out of range, making it more complicated than it ever needed to be. 

I’m grateful for my outdated dictionary because it asked me to think about what my definition of prayer was,- its limited definition a prelude to my own clarity.  It is not just earnestly asking for, it is also deep acknowledgement of, the awesomeness that is around us.  Gratitude is my favorite form of prayer.
Like noticing how the trees just sprouted blossoms and shade, around the circle that unites our school buildings.  Or how the Irises stand tall with their lean green legs and purple crests buttressing the outside of Quigg Sanctuary in joyful solidarity.
Take a moment from our self- important places to look around, remember the wonder, take notice of the beauty and take part in the world.

As we move into a moment of silence I ask you to think about what prayer means to you.  What language do you use to communicate with the Divine?  Do you express your gratitude through prayer?  Where are the places that you consider most sacred?

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

On Being Vessels of Light in this World

Earlham School of Religion Geraldine Leatherock Professor of Quaker Studies Stephen W. Angell delivered this address as part of ESR's Baccalaureate Service on May 9, 2014.

1.        Jeremiah 18:1-6
The Potter and the Clay
The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: ‘Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.’ So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.
 Then the word of the Lord came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.

2.        2 Corinthians 4:6-7
For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
 But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.

3.        Samuel Fisher
Ye Rulers and Judges of the Earth, serve the Lord with Fear and Trembling, … sweeping every one of you your own Houses first, even your own Hearts, that they may be fit Temples to receive the King of Glory, that he may come into them, and ye be made Holy Habitations for God through the Spirit … Be ye therefore personally reformed … [Turning away from] those that have misguided you into … blind and bloody wayes of suppressing Saints as Hereticks by your Civil Sword, you shall at last … look to yourselves … They shall be even smitten with Shame and madness, to see all their wayes turn'd (as they have turned the wayes of God) upside down, and esteemed as the Potters Clay: Therefore kiss the Son, turn to him, seek his Face, see him, submit to him in his own Light, walk with him in his own Light, and walk with him in his own Way. – Samuel Fisher, ScornedQuaker’s Second Account of his Second Attempt to Give Testimony to the Truth of Jesus.


I am especially thankful for the Cross-Cultural part of the ESR curriculum that has taken wing while you have been students at ESR. I have been privileged to teach Quakerism courses at the Cuban Quaker Institute for Peace, and I am glad that one of your class of graduates, Michael Sherman, will be accompanying Phil Baisley to Cuba to teach in the Cuban Quaker Institute next month.

I would like to begin with my translation of one of the poems of my Cuban students, Julio Cuesta, a distinguished poet and author, and a recently convinced Friend, a member of the Pueblo Nuevo meeting in Gibara:

First Psalm
Most loving heavenly father
Don’t forget to call me one day
Call me
Call me

Thou, I know my will
The will that kindles
The hungers of sacrifice

Let my pain remain
The pain of the brother
The pain of the neighbor

Explore my depths
There where the love is returning
Permanent essence of the Spirit

Cause my soul to remain water
Water in the desert areas
Of the soul of neighbor
That is also mine
Cause your Light to shine
Within me, always
And these verses to be yours.

One of the texts just read by Tandy Scheffler is from a Quaker, Samuel Fisher, who I have been studying and writing on recently, but who may be unfamiliar to many of you. He was a graduate of Oxford University, who later became a radical on the basis of his study of Scripture and also his spiritual experience, and became first a Baptist and then later a Quaker.  The text read today was written when he was 52 years old and on the occasion of his attempt to address in 1656 the Parliament  of Oliver Cromwell. He was violently prevented from speaking but later he wrote out what he would have said to Parliament.  He accused Parliament and Cromwell of “suppressing Saints” and judging them to be heretics, that is, of persecuting radical Christians such as Baptists and Quakers.

Persecution was also part of the spiritual experiences of the Apostle Paul and the Prophet Jeremiah. Passages from both of their writings were also read today. Clay jugs (or “earthen vessels”) were an important part of Jeremiah’s ministry.  Not only did he witness to the vessel imperfectly formed on the potter’s wheel being reduced swiftly to a wet lump of clay, as we read in chapter 18, but in the next chapter 19, Jeremiah smashed a jug that had been fired.

These were intended as signs of what he prophesied would happen to the kingdom of Judah in which he lived; Yahweh would humble Judah at the hands of the Babylonians. “My people have forgotten me,” Jeremiah prophesied on behalf of Yahweh, as the Babylonian armies menaced Jerusalem. “They have departed from the ancient ways.”  To have blamed the plight of Judah on the inhabitants of Judah was not a popular message to say the least. Jeremiah testifies eloquently to the persecution that he experienced. The priests plotted against his life, he complained. The priests put him in the stocks to expose him to public ridicule. Jeremiah vigorously opposed the priests’ high-handed ways; the New Interpreters’ Dictionary of the Bible entitles Jeremiah’s message in this unit (Chapters 18 to 20) as “dismantling insider privilege.” (Is that still a relevant theme in our society today?) All of the opposition cannot quiet Jeremiah, because, he says, “there is a burning fire shut up in my bones.” He could not hold his message in.

So persecution is a common theme among all of the authorities I have drawn upon for this address. Speaking serious truths almost always arouses opposition from entrenched interests.  And the metaphor of the earthen vessel comes up often.  In the last four years of his life, before his death from the bubonic plague in 1665, Fisher was imprisoned almost all of the time. Still, he kept writing and protesting. One of his writings of this period bore the authorial designation as coming from the “earthen vessel who is Samuel Fisher imprisoned in Newgate prison.”

There are both fragility and incredible strength and durability in clay pots that have been through the fire. Let us recall that the Dead Sea Scrolls were preserved in clay pots for two thousand years prior to their discovery.

Paul tells us that there is treasure held in these earthen vessels. What is that treasure? What do our vessels hold, and how do they hold it?

Quakers have always interpreted verse 7 of 2 Corinthians 4 by the verse immediately preceding it, verse 6. That is, the treasure is the light of the glory of God, the knowledge of Christ. We are vessels of Light.

Let us consider a passage from a Quaker contemporary of Fisher’s, Alexander Parker. Parker was imprisoned in Chester when he wrote the following:

“My life is bound up with you, in the holy love and blessed covenant which cannot be broken; and though this earthen vessel be shut up and kept under locks and chains, from the fellowship and communion of my Father’s children and family, yet the treasure, the heavenly riches of love, life and power, which my heavenly Father has put into this earthen vessel, cannot be locked up by the powers of this world, neither can it be stopped, but it flows forth, according to the promise of the Lord of life, who has said, ‘Whoever shall drink of the water that I shall give, it shall be in him a well of water, springing up unto everlasting life.’ From this well, do streams of love flow forth, even to my very enemies and persecutors, desiring also that their souls might live.” (Alexander Parker to Friends, Oct. 13, 1660)

So the jars that Paul and Parker are talking about are different from the jars in your kitchen, that are meant to hold stuff. What is held in our vessels cannot properly be held, because the contents of the vessel effervesce. The contents flow forth, as Alexander Parker said. Light cannot be held by a vessel; it shines forth. The heavenly riches of love, life, and power flow forth. Graduates, may it be so also with your ministry. May the Light, Love, Life and Power that God has granted you flow forth to your communities , wherever you find yourselves. May it flow forth to Cuban Friends, Michael, in the ministry that you and Phil perform there. May the Light, Love, Life and Power flow forth to both friends and enemies. May that divine Power flow forth from you to the ends of the earth.

I now wish to switch gears a bit and talk, not so much to the graduates, but to those of you who are witnessing this ceremony. The philosophy of ministry that is taught at the Earlham School of Religion is an “equipping” and “encouraging” ministry, something that was highlighted especially by D. Elton Trueblood, one of the founders of ESR. An “equipping ministry” means that we have not trained these graduates to do everything in their chosen field of ministry, but rather to equip and to empower others, everyone, to act. That means that, when they are doing their ministry, they will be calling upon you also to do acts of ministry. Ministries are not undertaken by individuals but by individuals in communities. I charge you to support these ministers. When they equip you and encourage you to let your own gifts of ministry emerge and flourish, do not resist. Quench not the Spirit.

In closing I would like to share another poem by Cuban Friend Julio Cuesta:
I want to live in the wind
Which is not constrained
Like the river in its bitterness
I ought to say what I feel
I know that in my strength there is courage
To be Christ in my living
But I should not sleep
If weakness dwells in me
Because for the truths to slumber in me
Is to see me die little by little.

Graduates, as you go forward in your life and ministries, I charge you in the words of Samuel Fisher:  Submit to Christ in his own Light! Walk with him in his own Light! Walk with him in his own Way!

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Can religion be a part of business life?

ESR student Karen Tibbals is organizing the first US meeting of Quakers and Business and presenting a workshop at Friends’ General Conference Gathering in July:

Over the past 25 years, I have been searching for ways to apply my faith to my business life.  But what I found was unsatisfying. 

I wanted help in making the difficult decisions when there was a conflict, such as dealing with outsourcing, automation, layoffs, environmental issues and many more.  But much pastoral counseling and theological work is done by people who don’t understand the business world and their suggestions and potential solutions weren't helpful to me.  I found more help in the business world than in my faith community, which saddened me.

In studying early Quakers, I have found an example of how religion may be helpful in work life.  Since George Fox (and other Friends) had many things to say about the hypocrisy of merchants and traders, Friends who were traders had to find a way to carry on their business life in such a way that was consistent with their profession of faith.  In those days, there were three main ways in which Friends expressed their faith:  one price, honest weights and measures and keeping one’s word in contracts and debts.   

These principles found their way into various writings by Friends, such as merchants who wrote their memoirs or sermons given, in the minutes of the local meetings and eventually in the Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice.  The Biblical basis for these practices were drawn from both the Old and New Testament, such as from Proverbs  22:7: “the borrower is servant to the lender,” Matthew 5:37: ‘let your yea be yea and your nay be nay,” and Matthew 7: 12: the Golden Rule.   These were the foundation of what we Quakers today call the Testimony of Integrity.

Another important Quaker principle of the day was simplicity, which has also become one of today’s Quaker Testimonies.   This was not an abstract principle.  Quakers behaved this way for two reasons.  One was to be in solidarity with everyone in the world, including the poor, and the second was that everything had to be used for a good purpose.  Any money that wasn't spent on gaudy cloth or jewelry was to be invested in their business or donated to the poor.  

What I loved about this example was that Quakers struggled with how to make this work. It wasn't the first messages that eventually became the basis of the Advices, it evolved as those who had to apply it worked on it.  This is what religion is not doing today.

This struggle was the topic of my thesis (The Theological Basis Behind Quaker Businesses: A Comparison of the First 150 years to the beginning of the 20th Century) and will be the subject of a workshop I am facilitating at Friends’ General Conference Gathering in July.  

But I want to do more than just study history, I want to think about how to apply these principles to our business life today.  I don’t want philosophy or business to take the lead in how to ethically conduct business, I want religion to have a voice. To kick that off, I am participating in the first US meeting of Quakers and Business, which will meet in California, PA on the weekend of July 27-9. 

If this topic interests you, I would love to connect with you as part of my ministry, or come join me at either event. 

You can follow Karen's posts on her blog:

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

When Way Opens: Having the Faith to Say “Yes” to the Movement of the Spirit

ESR student Katie Heape delivered the following message during ESR Worship on April 24, 2014:

            Good morning F(f)riends. It is such a joy to be speaking today in Worship.  As I have been thinking about what I would speak on today, I have been reflecting a great deal on these past two years at ESR.  What a blessing this experience has been and continues to be for me.   I am quite humbled and moved when I look around the room at all these faces, all of you who have been such a blessing in my life.  I cannot thank you enough for being such an important part of my spiritual journey.  As I look back on my life, I can see how Spirit has been moving, how I have been led from place to place, person to person, experience to experience to get me to this place.  I would like to share with you some of the road upon which I have traveled.
            I played alone for hours in the late evening under the illuminated carport, lost in the freedom of play, exploration and pure joy.  Within this place, I could go anywhere I pleased with no worries, no fears and no limits to where my imagination could take me.  As I leaned my scrawny six-year-old body against one of the posts holding up the roof of the carport, I looked out at the vastly beautiful deep black star-filled sky above the cornfield next door.  As I got lost in the breathtaking swirls of vivid dancing stars, I felt as though only the sky and I existed and the notion of time had completely vanished.  And then a sweet stillness came over my entire being.  I began to sing improvisational hymns into the mystery of the great beyond as the peace of the Spirit warmly embraced my soul.  I met my Creator face to face and in that moment, I fell in love with the limitless mystery of God.  That bliss, that stillness and that peace I would seek and not find for another twenty years.

            Over the next several years, the institutionalized church became something which I wanted no part of.  I had seen the ugly undersides of Christianity and I began to question God.  When my sister told me she had become an atheist, the little bit of faith I had left dissipated.  I had lost hope in ever finding the God that I had seen in the stars.  Maybe, that hadn't even been real at all, I thought.
            In 2010, I graduated college with a Bachelors of Fine Arts degree in Interior Design.  After graduation, my goal was to move to Chicago and work as an Interior Designer in the big city.  All my thought was bent on achieving this dream but I had to stay in Cincinnati one more year and work to save some money before I could make the move.  No one was hiring interior designers in Cincinnati at the time so I took a good paying administrative position.  “Only one year”, I told myself, “and then my life really begins.”  In my pursuit towards becoming a big city interior designer as soon as possible, I looked for an additional part time job for extra income.  My friend Allison told me of an open administrative position at her Quaker Meeting, Cincinnati Friends.  My skin crawled at the idea of working for the institutionalized church which by this time I had come to severely distrust, but I decided to interview so that I could get to Chicago that much faster. 
            During the interview, I was very uncomfortable.  I felt as though I had nothing in common with these church goers.  My walls were sky high as I tried to be on my best behavior around people who I felt were probably much better people than I was.  These were good people.  I did not belong here, I thought.  At the end of the interview, they posed a concern that in the past their office assistants had also been attenders of the meeting and due to confidentiality reasons they were happy to find someone outside of their Meeting's circle.  I laughed at this as I told them that they would never have to worry about me attending the Meeting.  I was done with church!  I was done with God!
            I began working at Cincinnati Friends Meeting in June 2011.  During the first week of that job, I could not help but notice how well suited the minister, Donne Hayden, was for her position there.  She reached out to the people of her congregation and would talk with them and visit with them as though she had all the time in the world.  She LOVED them and they LOVED her.  This struck me hard because this completely contradicted the hypocrisy of the church that I had witnessed for so long.  My heart slowly began to open to the possibility that maybe there is a loving God.  As time went on, Donne and I became very close.
            My second encounter with God occurred when I was 26.  In my full-time position, I had been working for a man who treated his employees very poorly and after a year of working with him, I had lost all desire to stay.  As the environment in the office became more and more hostile, I prayed and prayed that I might be able to leave.  Finally the day came that I quit my job.  As my boss was yelling at me for the last time, I felt as though I was being lifted out of my office chair and out of the front door.  I walked out elated.  I drove home to an empty house and I sat down reflecting on the almost out of body experience I had just had.  I took a seat on the couch and began to pray.  “Why God?  Why?  Why have you helped me?  Why?  What is this all for?  Why have you done this for me?  Why?  Why?”  With hands in the air, I tried to understand why a God would choose to help me.   “Why me?  Why am I important?  Why are you God?  What is the point of all this?”  As I sat there in prayer asking my very honest questions, I began to see a figure clothed in a white robe.  As I looked closer I could see that it was Jesus.  I had never been a believer in Jesus so even in this vision I looked for God who was there but in the background somehow.  Then Jesus in his sweetness and light reached out his hands and radiant beams of light started to pour out from them.  They were beams of love pouring out to me and then, they spread out into the whole world.  It was so beautiful and overwhelming this great love for every single being.  As I sat there sobbing and overtaken by what I had just seen, I immediately realized why God cared about me.  The answer was simple, LOVE.  I had finally come home to love.
            From that moment, all of my plans, my goals, my desires were seemingly unimportant.  I felt that my life was no longer my own, that I had released all of my fears to my loving Creator who I trusted would guide me to where I needed to go.  I no longer cared about going to Chicago and becoming a big city interior designer.  I knew in an instant that God had bigger plans for me than I could ever imagine for myself.  I began to regularly attend the Meeting at Cincinnati Friends.  

As Donne and I talked over those next months, I could feel a leading towards ministry rising in me.  I applied at ESR and was accepted.  Although I was incredibly excited about the opportunity to come to seminary, I was so scared to leave my home, my family, my Meeting that I had come so quickly to love.  I prayed and prayed that my fears would not overcome me.  One day, when I was leaving for work at the Meetinghouse, I had picked up a CD by Sara Groves called “Conversations.”  I had several CD's by her but this one I had not heard yet so I picked it up to listen to in the car on my drive to work.  As I was driving and searching through the tracks, I landed on a song called “Painting Pictures of Egypt.”  Interesting title, I thought.  As I began to listen to the words, my heart stopped.  It was as though she wrote the song for me for this very moment when I needed them the most.

I don't want to leave here, I don't want to stay. It feels like pinching to me either way. And the places I long for the most are the places where I've been. They are calling out to me like a long lost friend.  And the place I was wasn't perfect but I had found a way to live.  And it wasn't milk or honey
but then neither is this.  I've been painting pictures of Egypt, leaving out what it lacks.  The future feels so hard and I want to go back.  But the places that used to fit me cannot hold the things I've learned.  Those roads were closed off to me while my back was turned.  The past is so tangible, I know it by heart.  Familiar things are never easy go discard.  I was dying for some freedom, but now I hesitate to go.  I am caught between the Promise and the things I know.

I felt God smiling at me and loving me with all my fear and all my doubts.  I would be OK, I have God's love and support.
            The decision to come to seminary is the best decision I have ever made.  I am learning so much here and I am so thankful that I said “Yes” to God.  As I continue to say “Yes” to God, I continue to see my world expand beyond my understanding.  Each time Way Opens and I step through the door, I come back to the child under the carport admiring the boundless mysteries of God.  I cannot possibly count all the many blessings that have come from the moments when I have stepped out in faith and surrendered to the One who Loves each and every one of us.  God has a plan bigger and better than the plan we have for ourselves.

            As each of us continues on our journey in faith, as we wrap up this year of seminary, as some of us may be leaving for new spirit-filled adventures, may we always remember how much God loves us.  May we always hold on to the faith that God will support us in our ministry and may we always remember to trust that God's plan is perfect, boundless, mysterious and so worth taking the leap for.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Reconciling My Faith With Being Gay

ESR student Justimore Musombi - originally from Kenya - delivered the following message in ESR Worship on March 27, 2014. 

            I grew up in a King James Bible believing Episcopal church. My step-mother was a mama Dorcas in my home church and a district chair lady of women. I used to go with her to church--not often, but once in a while. Sermons on hell and salvation raised a lot of questions in my young mind. At age 14, my second year in high school, in response to my spiritual questions, our school chaplain led me to trust in Jesus as my savior and I also become a convinced Quaker.

            Knowing that God loved me and had made me his child through faith in his blood was a life-changing experience, even at such a young stage. Being gay is not something to be embraced in my culture, it is something to be ashamed of. For a gay Quaker teenager, there was literally no one to talk to who would understand. And I had no computer or internet to Google for answers.  Not even a simple book that was positive about being gay would ever find its way into our school library or into our home. I knew that the Bible’s moral framework was not even positive about gay relationships. I was taught that the Bible condemns homosexuality.

            Back then, it never occurred to me that books positive towards gay people even existed or that many Christians have discovered that the Bible is affirming and positive towards gay people. It also never occurred to me that there were other gay people in the world or even that a church can be welcoming and affirming and that a gay person can be nominated to any church position or even be a priest. Even though I was saved and had the assurance of eternal salvation, I believed I was all alone and I felt that God hated me for being gay and that I would go to hell.

            Based on my own context, many people in my culture are still living in the days of ignorance. All people are victims of blind, unreasoned fear and hatred of homosexuality that has been passed down generation after generation without much thought and almost no careful historical, cultural, or linguistic study of the ancient biblical records. Up to date, people still don't know the difference between sexual preference and sexual orientation. Personally, I used to think that homosexuals were perverted heterosexuals resulting as a mental illness, people who, for some reason, chose to have sex with people of the same sex. I didn't know that homosexuality is mysteriously imprinted with the need for same-sex intimacy and affiliation in our mother's wombs, and that however much we try to avoid it, our sexuality, like heterosexuality, is a permanent condition.

            In my culture, people don't understand the real nature of homosexuality; they fear the rumors that they could be recruited into homosexuals. People have often said that homosexuals are abused children, and that homosexuality is a mental illness. That homosexuals shouldn't be hired to work in public offices, and that they are more promiscuous than heterosexuals. And that if homosexuals could commit their lives to Christ and have a heterosexual marriage and family, they could escape this terrible sin.

            The isolation, guilt, and loneliness I experienced before my coming out were devastating. Standing it brought years of tears and tons of turmoil as I struggled to integrate Christian faith and sexuality. In high school and college, I was in the closet and in a nightmare. To survive, I pushed the gay stuff to the back of my mind and focused on learning. I wanted to be a priest. Maybe then God would allow me to go to heaven. Strangely enough, alone with my secrets, no one knew my suffering, not even my close relatives and friends. Coming to ESR and hearing people's public confessions about their sexual orientations was like leap of faith to me, but still I wasn't ready to open up and confess my sexual orientation. One day my friend Brent Walsh asked me whether I was gay or not. Quickly I denied it, but he kept pushing and told me that it is okay to be gay and no one is going to judge me and that God still loves me just as I am.

            Meeting gay students at ESR and going to LifeJourney Church re-started my quest to discover for myself what the Bible really says about homosexuality. I think my coming out journey actually began here. Years ago, I was angry at God. Why, I wondered, hadn't anyone ever told me that being gay was okay and that I could partner with  a wonderful gay Christian man for life? Witnessing gay relationships at LifeJourney Church was the backbone of accepting myself and gaining that confidence to say “Yes, I am gay and I believe God loves me just as I am.”  This assurance gave me the excitement to share my coming out story with my close friends back home. However, some of them and family had already heard my story through LifeJourney Church’s website that contained the news bulletin about my coming out story. The church had my story on a weekly bulletin to help me find a car that would enable me to go to Indianapolis every Sunday to join other members for church worship. The link of this article was forwarded to my home church and my family members with a friend over here in the States who knew me and with whom I had shared my story, trusting that he would keep it private and confidential.

            Someone forwarded the article to my family, friends, and church, and they became angry at me. They called me abusing me and wrote me terrifying and threatening e-mails that scared me to death. Depression lapped my soul like waves assaulting an endless beach. I experienced intense feelings of loss, rejection, loneliness, feeling unworthy and unwanted. These feelings relentlessly filled my heart to the point where I thought of taking my own life; maybe it would help to reduce the pain.

            Even though I had graduated from a bible college, had been in the ministry for 5 years, and had led many souls to Christ, still I was scared to death and afraid of my life and destiny because of these horrifying e-mails and phone calls I received on daily basis from my home country. One day while I was praying, the spirit of the Lord led me to read Matthew 15:21-28.
            My heart breaks and I am left without the ability to understand hatred and violence by or between human beings. My heart breaks when someone is denied a spiritual home. We are all born into this world worthy of all the love and opportunity our miraculous universe has to offer. Love is not love without a basic respect for human dignity and acceptance of who we are.
            In the Christian scriptures, Jesus repeatedly taught those around him to love their neighbors and even to love their enemies. This is a tough thing to do. Jesus knew this, and even He was not always good at it. He held prejudices like the rest of us, and learned along the way to be more affirming of people. In the fifteenth chapter of Matthew, Jesus travels northwest of the sea of Galilee. One day while walking, a local woman approached him and his disciples. The woman was a Canaanite; historically, Canaanites were the pagan enemies of the Israelites. She came to them actually shouting and asking Jesus to show mercy and to heal her daughter who was possessed by a demon.

            At first, Jesus didn't answer. He didn't even acknowledge her. He just kept walking. Then his disciples advised him to just send her away, that she was too bothersome with her shouting. So Jesus said to her, “I was sent only to help the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (v.24).
Whoa! Jesus basically said, “Hey lady, I am only here to help God's chosen people, and you aren't one of them. You are from the wrong side of the track.”
She wouldn't give up. She knelt in front of him and said very simple words, “ Lord, help me.” Still Jesus said, “It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.”(v.25-26).
            Whoa! Again Jesus compared her to a dog and refused to give her what was reserved for others. Jesus both metaphorically and literally dehumanized this woman to her face because of who she was. This is just the way my family and friends had linked me to a mentally ill person who is not supposed to eat dinner with healthy people. She still would not give up. At this point, she had nothing to lose and talked back to Jesus: “Yes Lord, yet even dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table” (v.27).
Not only had Jesus dehumanized her, he had denied her very existence by not even affording her the basic consideration one allows a dog. This finally got to Jesus. It was an in-your-face wake-up call, and he realized what he had done. He said, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish” (v 28). With that, her daughter was healed. Jesus finally afforded her the worth and dignity he knew, and had even taught before, that every person deserved. This dignity and worth allowed her to be herself through her faith.
            Coming across such passages in the Bible gave me clarity of my struggles to reconcile my faith and my sexuality. I began to read tougher passages in the Bible that people slapped me with on my face. I couldn't read passages like Lev.18: 22, 20: 13; 1 Cor. 6:9; 1 Timothy 1:20; and many others that talk about homosexuality. I now clearly understand that the Bible does not say what I'd been told it says. The scriptures which are alleged to talk about homosexuality came alive to me as I read them in the context God intended. The peace of my coming out journey has rapidly accelerated. The Bible is my friend, not my enemy. I have now changed my position about what the Bible says concerning homosexuality.

            I now hold the truth that heterosexuals, young or old, can't be recruited into homosexuality. I remember, while I was young, that I was abused sexually by my close friend. This didn't contribute to my sexual orientation. And homosexuals are neither promiscuous;  they are as capable of controlling their sexual needs just as are their heterosexual colleagues. I am also convinced that homosexuality cannot be healed by God or by counseling therapy. And homosexuals who enter into heterosexual marriage to cure their homosexuality are more likely to cause terrible suffering and inevitable grief for their partners and for themselves as well.
            I believe further that sexuality, call it homosexual or heterosexual, is a permanent part of the mystery of creation; that each of us, gay and non-gay alike, is called by our creator to accept our sexual orientation as a gift and that we are called to exercise that gift with integrity, creativity, and responsibility. I know all this now, but I didn't know it then. I used to think that homosexuality was evil and that practicing homosexuals were condemned by their lust to misery, disease, and death. I was convinced that if I gave in to the evil spirit, my life would be ruined, my family would be destroyed, my vocation would be lost, my spiritual journey would be derailed forever, and my soul would be condemned to an eternity in hell. I just piled up more guilt, prayed daily that God would heal me, and tried to live a productive life in spite of the growing fear and frustration that I carried for many years in my life.
            Homosexuality is not something you change or heal or overcome. After fasting and praying for many years for God to change me to be the best pastor, husband, father, and praise and worship leader in my church, it was becoming obvious that there was nothing I could accomplish that would replace or end my constant longing to be in a long-term, loving relationship with another man. What I can only say is this: May God bless my life, my ministry, and my future life. Amen!