Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering…be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside…saying, “…This must never happen to you.” …Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 16:21-28).
“No son of mine is going to be a faggot…get out of my house.”
“When I visited with Felix at his church, there was a lot of this ‘faggots are going to hell stuff.’”
These searing proclamations were uttered by Felix’s mother and his church. Felix was the childhood best friend of MLP board member Eric Thomas. In a recent interview produced by the LGBT Story Archive project, “I’m from Driftwood,” Eric compares his experience coming out as gay and having an accepting mother and church with his friend Felix who came out as gay to an unsupportive mother and church. Nurtured in a welcoming and affirming environment, Eric was able to build a strong faith that led him to Seminary and now to Ph.D. work at Drew University. Things turned out very differently for Felix. When he died, recalled Eric, “the report came back that it was complications with both AIDS and with drug interactions that exacerbated his situation.”
The Christian church, including the Presbyterian Church (USA), is very much in the now and the not yet around welcome and affirmation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people, in the experience of the bitterness of the approach to the cross and the hopeful joy of the resurrection. As the story of Eric and Felix illustrates, this tension deeply lacerates our lives as LGBTQ people and allies. It cost Felix his life and Eric his beloved friend. This is one story that echoes in so many different ways in the LGBTQ community.
The difficult and painful question for Peter in this Gospel text, as well as for us, is: where do we as LGBTQ people and allies find the courage to live in this tension and follow Jesus into the difficult places? I believe it is by turning on the light of our holy imagination. Yes, we have to asses the facts of our context, but a holy imagination has the added dimension and possibility of God at work. Yes, Jesus suffered and died, but on the third day he was raised!
Many LGBTQ people and allies feel the bitterness of the approach to the cross and feel locked in the hurt caused by our families and our churches: unable to see that there are Christians who know God affirms and celebrates with all of who LGBTQ people are. Many LGBTQ people are scared to come to church, scared to come out, scared to believe that they are worthy in the eyes of God. However this approach fails to acknowledge the imagination possible in seeing the bigger picture of a 3rd option: perhaps God might be at work in the tension, in the now and the not yet. Can we trust that the Holy Spirit is present in this tension, and whether nor not we see the ‘immediate results’ of transformation, that nonetheless it is happening?
We can’t live into a holy imagination until we acknowledge the fear which keeps us in the dark. Our fear of the unknown limits our imagination. What would the world be like if we were all free to access our holy imaginations — to dream beyond what is currently possible?
I don’t have to tell you just how many people are still like Peter seeking to prevent Jesus from going to the cross. They are unable to see that LGBTQ people are part of God’s good creation. They are scared to fully open their churches, scared to vote for marriage equality in our denomination, afraid of what might happen to their congregations if LGBTQ people were fully included. Afraid, to move with the Holy Spirit’s work all around them, they risk losing their lives.
Thirty-five years ago churches and individuals within the PC(USA) imagined a world where congregations and our denomination welcomed LGBTQ people within the life of the church. I marvel at how clear and convicted this vision was (and remains to this day) despite official policies of exclusion of LGBTQ people from leadership and marriage, despite the trials of beloved ministers like Rev. Janie Spahr and Rev. Janet Edwards who operated as if this world was already here, despite stigma and silence and hatred. The churches that formed the More Light Network operated out of a holy imagination to create a world unbound by prejudice or discrimination and rooted in love for the whole person.
We who have holy imagination beyond the trappings of the already have a sacred opportunity to be More Light to others whom we see are struggling to find what is possible, who simply need us to walk with them as together we follow Jesus into the difficult places with imaginations unbound.
Only then will we be able to live into the vision Eric so eloquently articulated: “We’ll live in a world where no parent would say “no son of mine is gonna be a faggot, get out,” instead the message would be: “you are mine and I love you and we are all in this together.” As we move from the darkness into the light of Easter, will you have the courage to imagine?
Yours on the journey,
Alex Patchin McNeill