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June 19, 2005 (Sunday 12 · Time after Pentecost/Reconciling in Christ Sunday)
Webmaster's Note: Two members of the congregation spoke for Reconciling in Christ Sunday. April Smith, a relatively new member, plays the flute and is a member of the 8:00 Ensemble, which provides musical leadership for our early service. Carol Langner, a long-time member of the congregation, is active in Social Ministries, the LCH Choir, and many other groups.
I have to tell you that I am much more comfortable behind a music stand than I am standing here at the lectern.
Today I want to share my faith story with you. I want to tell you why it is important to me to be a member of a Reconciling in Christ congregation. My story is all about "fitting in."
I've never had much difficulty "fitting in" with any church congregation I've ever been a part of. You see, God has blessed me with the gift of making music. I've been playing the flute since I was ten years old. During my high school years, our choirmaster was also one of the band directors at our school so there was no getting out of participating in church music. We had enough musicians at St. Paul's in Liverpool, New York to form a small orchestra and we even recorded an album. I always had a place to "fit in."
I joined the Army right after high school and was a member of the 283rd Army Band at Ft. Benning, Georgia for nearly six years. I will admit that as a born and bred Yankee I did have a bit of a struggle "fitting in" with the Southern folk. But I quickly developed a slight southern drawl and a love of grits and embraced the southern lifestyle as best I could.
While in the Army I married a fellow soldier/musician and, after electing to end my own military career, followed Larry to Hawaii, Arizona and Texas until he retired from the Army at the end of 1998. On our first tour in Hawaii in 1982, we became active members of Trinity Lutheran Church in Wahiawa. Three years later we moved to Arizona and, although we weren't church goers, I still seemed to "fit in" as the First Sergeant's wife and even played a few concerts as a "guest artist" with the 36th Army Band. It was during our time in Arizona that I went back to school and earned an Associate Degree in Management. I enjoyed my classes and "fit in" well with the other adult students at Cochise College.
We came back to Hawaii at the end of 1991 and returned to our church home at Trinity, Wahiawa. We picked up right where we left off--adding flute and drums to the choir. It was a privilege and blessing to make music once again with the late Ruth Urben. We became more active in the life of the congregation serving on committees and I volunteered time at Trinity Lutheran School teaching computer classes and assisting Allen Bauchle with the band as well as serving on the Board of Education. We developed deeper friendships at Trinity that included Pastor Bob and Judy Meyer, Chuck and Pat Gregor, Bob Raasch and Francisco Barajas, and Bob and Carolyn Koehler. It was toward the end of our time in Hawaii that I discovered--or perhaps "re-discovered," my true sexual orientation and embarked on a whole new struggle--to "fit in."
When we moved to Texas in 1994 we participated with Army Chapel services. As a Sergeant Major's wife and as a flutist, I had no difficulty "fitting in."
The last year that we lived in Texas we were members of a small Episcopal parish near our home in El Paso. On the second Sunday we worshipped at Holy Spirit, we were welcomed into the choir which we happily augmented with flute and drums.
Larry and I chose to relocate to Phoenix after his retirement and I was deep into trying to come to terms with my sexual orientation and trying to figure out what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I started searching the Internet for anything related to gay Christians because I really felt the need to connect with a church. I came across a Metropolitan Community Church congregation and attended a few times. They were really nice there - they had small instrumental music group that I'm sure I would have "fit in" with, but I missed the structure of a more formal liturgy and my Lutheran roots.
In an effort to keep our family together, I kept searching for a church where Larry might also feel comfortable and where we both could "fit in." We tried several Episcopal congregations in our neighborhood and also a "mega" Lutheran church only 2 miles from our home. But it was way too large for our tastes and not really all that "welcoming" either.
Another Internet search led me to an organization called "Lutherans Concerned" and on their website listed congregations that were Reconciling in Christ churches. RIC churches adopt an affirmation of welcome. The model welcome as set forth by the RIC program reads as follows:
After reading this, I felt sure that this would be the kind of church where I could "fit in."
Some of the most wonderful people I've ever met I found at Faith Lutheran Church in Phoenix; my first experience with a Reconciling In Christ congregation. While Faith church was about 20 miles from where we lived, the church "fit in" with my personal criteria for what I thought was important in a congregation - small, but not too small, friendly, welcoming, and with a dynamic music ministry. After the first visit we were hooked and became members. Faith's music director, Gary Rutherford, welcomed us with open arms and even purchased a drumset so Larry wouldn't have to haul his own set to church every Sunday.
It was at Faith that I met people just like me! People who came to the acceptance of their true sexual identities later in life and who were no longer trying to be something they weren't meant to be. I met gay couples who had been together as long as or even longer than many heterosexual couples I knew. The pastor's wife was a professional counselor and we took advantage of her willingness to listen to us as Larry and I ended our marriage. I made lots of wonderful friends at Faith: Gary and Steve, Judi and Amy, Kelli, Paul, David, Linda and Dick--friends who encouraged me to be true to myself and who helped me to find the courage to start over. And friends, both gay and straight, who put Christ first in their own lives.
As I returned to Hawaii to live with Carolyn, I knew I would once again need to find a church where I could "fit in." We were unable to return to Trinity, Wahiawa because of some changes in attitude and leadership. Some of our friends where already members here at LCH and so this is where we too, ended up. And now we've made many wonderful friends here and enjoy being involved in the life of this congregation. Once again I've found what I was looking for in a church home. I've found that being a member of a Reconciling in Christ congregation assures me that I will always have a place where I "fit in."
Mahalo nui loa!
Reconciling in Christ is a program identifying specific Lutheran ministries that have publicly affirmed their full welcome of all people. Initiated in 1984, RIC is a program sponsored by Lutherans Concerned/North America, an independent member-supported organization founded in 1974 to work for full inclusion of sexual minorities within Lutheran settings.
For several years at LCH, we have set aside four Sundays a year to lift up special themes. These are: Welfare of Children (October), Celebration of the Arts (February), Care for the Earth (April), and Reconciling in Christ (June). Today we focus on our status as an RIC congregation with a review of the history of our spiritual growth as a congregation, and the evolving understanding of our role within the larger ELCA context as these pertain to RIC.
So....to look at our history a little. In the late 1980's, Walter, respected council member, long-time choir member--and closeted gay man, came out to the congregation. He wrote a devotional that was included in the church's annual Lenten Booklet written and compiled by members. I suppose he was forced "out" because he had AIDS. The symptoms of the opportunistic illnesses, which would shortly take his life, were becoming obvious. He could no longer hide. Healing is a mysterious thing, and I think this confession helped to heal Walter's divided spirit. He could become whole again, the full person he was. In that wholeness he was able to receive the love and care that the congregation could and did offer him. Aside from a somewhat distant brother, he had no family either here or on the mainland.
Walter died in Queens Hospital in early April, 1990--just before Easter. As much as our care for Walter helped to heal his spirit and prepare him for his death, so did he help the congregation heal from a malaise we didn't even know we had. He did this by raising to our consciousness the historical tension within the Christian tradition regarding the place and role of gay and lesbian persons.
Concurrent with Walter's physical decline and death, this historical tension was graphically illustrated by events in San Francisco. Three controversial ordinations took place in the spring of 1990. St. Francis and First United Lutheran Churches called and ordained a lesbian couple and a gay man, recent graduates from Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary (PLTS). These congregations were subjected to ecclesiastical trial and suspended for 5 years; they were expelled from the ELCA in 1995, because they did not change their position on these ordinations or rescind their calls to these pastors.
The lessons we learned from Walter served us well in the spring of 1991 during congregational discussions about the pending internship of Bob. As an "outed" gay seminarian, Bob lost the support of his sponsoring candidacy committee, and was no longer eligible to continue his studies at PLTS. Instead, his internship was offered through the Pacific School of Religion (PSR). Council President Mary and the rest of the Council did a wonderful job facilitating a respectful exchange of opinions between congregational members. The Council then came to an affirmative vote that led to a watershed year for LCH.
1991-1992 was not only the year of our gay intern, but also the year of our initial Sexuality Study 'Ohana, small groups to study and reflect on the ELCA's first draft on the subject. Through these groups we shared our faith, broadened our ideas and knowledge, deepened our friendships--and shared some humor. One 'ohana met at a member's apartment; a participant announced over the enter-phone, "Hi, I'm here for group sex!" Each group wrote a final report to submit to the national ELCA office and I suspect those reports were among the most supportive of the Draft that the national office received.
After Bob's departure in the fall of 1992, the congregation engaged in an Envisioning Process. Topping the list of concerns was the quality of childcare programs on the church's premises and gay/lesbian issues. The creation of a LCH Gay/Lesbian Task Force grew out of the Envisioning Process. Twenty to twenty-five highly energized people met for over a year and lead the way on getting council approval for a congregational RIC vote in January 1993 (86-6 in favor) and sponsoring a Synod RIC resolution for May 1993, which passed 158-54. You've heard Mary, one of our delegates, describe the discussions that took place at that convention. With the Spirit-filled vote that followed, the Pacifica Synod joined seven other ELCA synods in adopting the Statement of Welcome of RIC. The Task Force also sponsored educational opportunities for the congregation; tried unsuccessfully to share our remarkable year with Bob by publishing an article in The Lutheran; and met twice with our Bishop Miller to discuss ELCA policy on ordination and to consider the options for Bob.
Members of the Task Force came from the mainstream of the congregation. Four were current council members, two were former presidents; many were life-long Lutherans.
After meeting for well over a year, the Task Force agreed it was time to disband and ask the Council to consider further action on congregational involvement in Bob's quest for ordination. We felt that a task force is just that--not an ongoing committee but a group convened temporarily to look at very specific goals. We had done as much as we could, and rather than continue to talk to each other, we needed to have our concerns taken up by the congregation as a whole.
The Council tabled the matter. An important part of that action was the Council's recognition of the changes in the mood and composition of the congregation that took place in the year following Bob's departure. Other concerns had come to the fore. Very recent members and friends had not experienced either of our two pivotal people, Walter and Bob, nor shared in the study and growth the congregation had undergone. It was important for the life of the congregation to shift our focus and energy.
In reflecting on these years, I begin to understand how the congregation and Bob meshed so well. He carried our projections and was a gifted individual on whom we could pin our longings for justice, in this and other societal ills. For him, LCH represented a life-raft on the path to the Lutheran ordination on which his heart was set, and which became less and less likely as time went on in spite of his obvious calling to ministry. Bob transferred to PSR and graduated on time with the rest of his class. He then worked outside the church for a few years and later converted to a different denomination, attended another four years of seminary, and was eventually ordained.
Since 1993, I believe the congregation has been engaged in learning to live out the RIC covenant for which we voted. As a newly minted RIC congregation, we felt the need for an informative brochure that Pastor Don Johnson could give to prospective members. Perhaps we were also imbued with a notion of our own importance.
Now, I think we just go about our faith and business and don't give it a second thought, that we no longer are compelled to "tell our story" for either justification or apologia. We let the life of the congregation speak for itself. We are quietly living our vote in the total integration of all aspects of the congregation's life. Many of us also keep a wary eye on national developments. In spite of the progress of the past 15 years, this remains a fashionable wedge issue and it is notable for the poisonous division it creates, in society and within church bodies.
The experience of this congregation is unique. We may still be of diverse opinion on many things, but on this issue, I think we are healed. And we can help heal the larger church and our society, by living our congregational life with integrity and witnessing to the truth we have experienced--that in Christ, there is no division, that we are all members of the Body of Christ, and that we honor and love God most when our congregational culture enables all our brothers and sisters--gay and straight--to live full and undivided lives.
Because of the convergence of energies around Walter and Bob, the sexuality study ohana, the trial and suspensions of the San Francisco congregations, and the Baehr vs. Lewin case filed in 1993 which sought to legalize same gender marriages here in Hawaii, many people at LCH were caught up in the grip of an ideal which moved us beyond ourselves. I think all transforming activism is like that, being captivated by something larger than oneself. This is the state of seeing visions and dreaming dreams, of imagining and working to move beyond the status quo.
How do we move beyond the status quo? One avenue to change is through personal experience. I was very touched by Pastor Katy's story in her sermon a couple of weeks ago of Bishop Robert A. Rimbo of the Southeast Michigan Synod. You recall Bishop Rimbo was selected to be on the first Sexuality Study Task Force in 1990, as a "biblical, social and confessional conservative"--his words to describe himself. As he spoke to others, reflected and studied his Bible, he underwent a metanoia, a conversion as monumental as the conversions of the early Christians. He came to this conversion through experience--his own encounters and interactions with real people and situations. He came to realize that, in answering to God in the hereafter, he'd rather have to answer for letting people into the church than having to defend a position of keeping people out of the church (Personal conversation between Bishop Rimbo and seminarian Katy Grindberg).
When Jim asked me to speak this morning, my initial reaction was--yes, it's important to talk about the history, but it's equally important to turn our faces toward the future. If we only look back, we risk turning into pillars of salt. Where do we go from here? Perhaps now is the time to get our story into The Lutheran. How can we influence the outcome of the national ELCA convention? The statistics on RIC are not impressive: there are 65 ELCA synods; only 23 are RIC. There are 11,000 ELCA congregations; only about 275 are RIC.
Our transformative experiences, based on prayer, study, reflection and personal relationships, really did change the congregation. There are stories of metanoia among our own members, people initially very opposed to Bob's coming, or to the RIC vote and who changed their minds. The existence of LCH as a Reconciling in Christ congregation offers a place in Honolulu where others may also come to new insights. Transformation energizes people, individually and collectively, and captures our imaginations. Transformation gives hope, it is an answer to prayer.
Today we focus on our status as a RIC congregation. For those of us who sought this designation for LCH, it was certainly a matter of justice. More fundamental, however, was our belief that Christ was calling us to be healers and agents of reconciliation in a broken world, starting with the church itself.
But it's important not to get stuck, either in the past or in a single focus. Pastor David Barber has recently identified both hunger and homelessness as two pervasive scandals of our society, at home and abroad. David said, "Jesus summons us anew to be involved in the work of transformation where we live and work. Together we can and we will make a difference."
For the future of LCH, I pray for fiery Pentecostal energy to guide us into new avenues of service, so that we may continue to foster justice, reconciliation, healing and transformation for the divisions within church and society.
Let us now hear again the words of the last stanza of our opening hymn (Lutheran Book of Worship, Hymn 189, "We Know that Christ is Raised." 4th verse. Text by John B. Geyer.):
A new creation comes to life and grows
Copyright © 2005 April Smith and Carol Langner
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