Twenty-two years ago on a sunny day in Indiana at First United Methodist Church, my daughter was baptized. It was a beautiful liturgy, where a candle was lit at the moment of baptism, as the pastor said, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, Mother of us all.” And then he held up my newly baptized daughter, who delighted the congregation with a huge smile. As the choir sang, “Child of Blessing, Child of Promise” he walked her around the sanctuary introducing her to members of the church, who touched her hand and smiled and whispered prayers over her, already fulfilling the promise they made in the liturgy to “surround these persons with a community of love and forgiveness.”

Fast-forward twenty-two years, to March 2019, when the United Methodist Church gathered in St. Louis and voted to affirm the “Traditional Plan,” which clearly stands against same-sex marriage and LGBTQ+ clergy. I watched this from a distance, but with close attention because my daughter, Em, who was baptized in the United Methodist Church twenty-two years ago, is a lesbian. I asked how she felt about the final decision, and she said “being rejected by the church simply doesn’t surprise me any more . . . it’s better than getting my hopes up that people like me will be accepted, only to be let down time and time again.” 

Though we have not attended a United Methodist Church since leaving Indiana, the Christian Reformed Church, where we have spent most of our time, still holds to a 1973 decision saying what they call LGBTQ+ “practice” is “incompatible with obedience to the will of God as revealed in scripture.” This does not appear likely to change any time soon, though I expect a debate would end in much the same way the United Methodist one did.

I have pondered these questions about identity and faith deeply this past week, and my call to the church at large is simple: Remember my daughter’s baptism. Remember the promise to be a community of love and forgiveness to her. Remember the way you smiled at her, touched her hand, and promised to walk with her no matter where life took her. Remember. 

The United Methodist Church states on its website that baptism is the “door through which one enters the church.” So how do I understand that statement, given that the door through which Em entered the church has now been closed to her? This is the problem with decisions that draw lines: people become defined by which side they are on. There are only two sides to a door: in or out; its purpose is either to enclose or to exclude.

This unforgiving rigidity is all the more surprising given that the denomination website also explains that the word sacrament is rooted in the Greek word mysterion: “That means that words can only circumscribe what happens, but not define it. We cannot rationally explain why God could love us . . .” How does taking a stand of certainty make sense in a sacrament marked by mystery? Can we ever understand the depths of God’s love? Do we dare put boundaries on it, claiming we know precisely where its limits are?

The divisions in the church over what some call the LGBTQ+ “issue” changes tone immediately in the context of baptism and mystery. It is not about holding on to “scriptural authority” with the certainty that your theological view is the only right one. It is no longer about some people “giving in to culture” and failing to be “in the world but not of it.” It is no longer an “issue” at all when children of the church, babies and adults sprinkled with the waters of baptism, are involved.

There is no “We love you, but . . .”

There is only “We love you. We stand with you, and we will keep loving you, because we promised we would.” 

 The mystery of God’s love is how wide it is, and how often human beings get it wrong. But there are examples of it today in our world—that radical love that holds on in spite of rejection, and continues to broaden the circle and get rid of doors that enclose and exclude.

I am amazed that more LGBTQ+ people haven’t given up on the church, but continue to stay and speak prophetic words of change. The day of my daughter’s baptism I had no idea how brightly the light of her hope would shine in the world from that small candle, but her dream for the future inspires me: “My vision of love for the Church is that it takes a lesson from the LGBTQ+ people who have been abandoned by their families and still try to forgive and build bridges. That’s the purest reflection of Christ-like love I can think of.”

Another light of hope came at the general conference through the impassioned speech by Jeffrey Warren (no relation, though I would be proud if he were): “As someone who is gay and goes to the least religious college in the U.S., my evangelism on campus has grown. We have brought people to Jesus because they said they have not heard this message before. They didn’t know God could love them because their churches said God didn’t.”

Love is speaking today, United Methodist Church, Christian Reformed Church, and people of God in every denomination. Love speaks through children baptized in your sanctuaries. That is the mystery that cannot draw simple divisions and know with certainty that they are right. That is the mystery that calls generations to the God whose love knows no bounds, love that is wider and broader and far more generous than that of God’s people. That is the mystery that my daughter and Jeffrey Warren and so many others who are deeply committed to the gospel story call us to. And the question for the church is this: will we listen?

 My prayer for the church remains the one written by Alan Paton from South Africa that was used at the close of my daughter’s baptism service, a prayer that the light of her life, the divine spark of her soul, will indeed be a blessing and a promise, guiding the church to a more excellent way:

“O Lord open my eyes that I may see the needs of others; open my ears that I may hear their cries; open my heart so that they need not be without succor; let me not be afraid to defend the weak because of the anger of the strong, nor afraid to defend the poor because of the anger of the rich. Show me where love and hope and faith are needed, and use me to bring them to those places. And so open my eyes and my ears that I may this coming day be able to do some work of peace for thee. Amen.”

Photo by Jordan McDonald on Unsplash

Rebecca Warren

Rebecca Warren is a member of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, and lives in Edmonton, Alberta.

18 Comments

  • Dale Buettner says:

    I love it, Rebecca. Thank you so much for this.

  • Jane Vroon says:

    Beautifully said and so true. Thank you.

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    Since my h.s. English teaching days, I have kept a copy of Paton’s prayer in various places, for daily reference on my desk or bulletin board, but also in places for surpriseful encounters, such as inside literature texts, desk drawers and course files, in a suit jacket pocket, and one in my bible. Your writing for today, with Paton’s prayer, was such an encounter—thank you.

  • Susan says:

    Thank you for a well written and courageous article. Inclusion wilth unconditional love and acceptance is what all should experience in the church. Each person brings unique gifts and helps us all on our faith journey. The Bible is for all
    That is the message churches should communicate.

  • mstair says:

    “… the door through which Em entered the church has now been closed to her? “

    As a United Methodist dealing with these issues at the District Level, I have to answer, not really. The two sacraments of the church, baptism and communion, are available to all of us – as always.
    The Holy Spirit has seem to have decided that LGBTQ members cannot be married by our ordained ministers nor can they be ordained by our Board. (Biblically, we divorced folks should not have those privileges either, but we do – and that is not equitable nor “traditionally obedient.”)

    Most of us, however, join with your daughter’s “Christ-like love” and grace and still try to forgive and build bridges because we really meant it – when we vowed to her (like all the precious babies we baptize) “to surround them with a community of love, forgiveness, and prayer.”

    • Neal says:

      While you may be right that, technically speaking, the sacraments are not closed to LGBTQ members, your very next sentence seems, in practice, to shut that door again: if you claim that God (and not just the United Methodists) has decided that LGBTQ members are not full members of the church–that certain possibilities of church participation are closed to them because of their orientation–then I don’t see how you can honestly expect any LGBTQ members to come to your church seeking participation, membership, and the sacraments. If you were even to claim that the United Methodists had decided this, the door might still be open, as there could be hope of changing people’s minds. But by saying that you think God has decided this, you are communicating to people that, according to the UM, God does not think they are truly, fully Christians and that God does not think they belong (fully) in the church. Would you attend a church that told you that God did not accept you there?

      Whatever else you or I might mean by these decisions, LGTBQ people hear them as rejection (as one of the quotes from Em in the piece makes clear). And the very least we can do, it seems to me, is make clear that the rejection comes from the human members who make up the church, and NOT from God. We might turn people away from the church, but Jesus says “whoever comes to me I will never drive away” (John 6:37). Let’s not put our words (and our decisions) in God’s mouth.

      • mstair says:

        The Special Conference was scheduled as a 4-day event. On the first day, before any proposals were presented , all the delegates spent the entire day in prayer asking “for the Holy Spirit to be present and, that in this matter, God’s Will would be done.” There were many more than two or three to be there and agree in Christ’s name. My theology (and I hope yours also) does not permit me to believe that neither was The Holy Spirit present nor was some of God’s Will not done.

        In The Gospel, when Jesus described “building” His ekklesia he did not make verbal provision in His church description for marriage regulations nor ordination of Apostolic successors. He did however, make very clear His commands to, “make disciples, baptizing them, and to “do this in remembrance of me.”
        If The UMC or any American denomination removed church licensed marriage, vocational pastoring, and membership (for that matter), those folks gathered, covenanting together, straight and LGBTQ, would still be Christ’s church.

  • Helen P says:

    Beautiful. Thank you.

  • Aaaaaah. Breathe this in, RCA.

  • Danielle Steenwyk-Rowaan says:

    Thanks Rebecca

  • Dana VanderLugt says:

    Yes. And Amen. Thank you for writing this.

  • Fred Mueller says:

    Brilliant, Rebecca, calling the church to remember our baptism vows. I have always believed that the “musterion” of the sacraments is God’s unfathomable agape love. How dare we draw a boundary around that love, cutting off children of the covenant from it, children we have promised to love, nurture and embrace in the pilgrimage of faith. No matter what. Just as God loves us no matter what.

    Your question about fidelity to the baptism vows of the congregation is one the church must answer. Will we keep that promise regardless of sexual orientation? We had better.

  • Jason says:

    “Remembering her baptism” would mean discipleship and discipline. At least this is the understanding of the sacrament in the CRCNA. The church is not a club. We cannot always understand God’s will or God’s word, but we are called to obey.

  • Eric Van Dyken says:

    It simply won’t don’t do to equate love with uncritical acceptance of whatever a person insists we must accept, lest we accuse God himself of hatred. Those who seek to disciple covenant children in the ways of the Lord are not acting from hatred, but from love.

    Proverbs 3:12 – “My son, do not despise the LORD’s discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the LORD reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.”

    Hebrew 12:6-14 – “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? “My son, do not regard For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”

    Deuteronomy 8:5 – “Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines his son, the LORD your God disciplines you.”

    Discipline and love are not antithetical. It is entirely in keeping with congregational baptismal vows to seek to disciple all covenant children in the ways of the Lord. Parents also make vows at baptism, such as answering yes to questions such as this: “Do you promise to instruct these children by word and example, with the help of the Christian community, in the truth of God’s Word, and in the way of salvation through Jesus Christ?” The various forms for baptism used in the CRC also remind us of baptism as marking our covenant children as set apart, such that “By baptism we have a new identity in Jesus Christ”. One form also speaks as follows: “To be washed by Christ’s Spirit means that the Holy Spirit has renewed me and set me apart to be a member of Christ so that more and more I become dead to sin and increasingly live a holy and blameless life.”

    We also believe wholeheartedly the words of I Corinthians 10:13 to be true for us as well as our covenant children: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” We also believe the words of I Peter 2:24 – “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.” These words are not burdensome, but freeing, though this is a constant battle here below, as Paul makes clear in Romans 7. If the battle was difficult, yet necessary, for the Apostle Paul who was called, commissioned, and equipped by the spoken word of our Lord, how much more should we expect that we and our covenant children will also face such a struggle. But Paul concludes with the words of victory: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

  • Jim Brink says:

    Thank you Rebecca for your message. Truth is generally plain and simple, everlasting. And such is, I believe, the message of our Gospel on this count.

  • Henry Baron says:

    I really appreciate this, Rebecca. In my church we’ve been studying and sharing points of view on this issue for more than a year now. It’s a journey of sharing each other’s burdens and concerns in Godly love.

Leave a Reply