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.”