Scott lived next door in my college dorm. He was friendly and outgoing, well-known and loved on campus, a gifted musician. Many expected he would pursue a musical career and make it big as a popstar. But he transferred from our school, I went to seminary and we lost touch. Two years later I heard rumors that Scott was gay, something I had never supposed. The rumors were surprising.
Scott lived north of Seattle and my first church was in Yakima. He traveled over the mountains to welcome me to Washington. At that time, he told me he was gay. He explained it would have been easier to not be gay, especially for his parents, but he had come to terms with it and his life was good.
A few months later, he called to ask for help. He had been summoned by the elders of his church to answer questions. We spent a couple of days examining the standards of the church, theological papers, and scripture. While he was eager for the challenge and thought he would enjoy the conversation, he was obviously stressed. He wanted to articulate his faith to the people who had shaped him, but he also knew they were not pleased.
After our study, we concluded he needed to be willing to admit that he was a sinner. With a sly smile, he said he was ready to confess to being a wretched sinner, like everyone else around the table. We also concluded he needed to be honest about his assurance of the grace of God in Jesus Christ. He said that would be easy.
Scott gave me a report of his meeting with the elders. He said the more he talked, the angrier they became. They didn’t appreciate that he confessed their sin. And they were much more hesitant about his salvation. They accused him of making a mockery of the Bible and said he was no longer welcome in their church.
They officially excommunicated him. On the next Sunday morning, his parents sat down in church and opened the bulletin, only to learn that their church had condemned their son.
Several months later he called to say he had AIDS. Within a few months he would be a guest on a local television show, representing the thousands at that time who were dying. I was one of the hosts who interviewed him. He admitted that he had been careless, which made him vulnerable to the disease. He was suffering and knew there was no cure. He also said, in the midst of suffering, he felt the presence and glory of Christ walking each step of the journey with him.
Scott died, and as we grieved, the fear, the misinformation, the moralism, and the judgmentalism continued. People wondered if it was possible to catch the disease at the visitation. There were logistical issues concerning where the funeral would be held. The only church in town large enough was the church that had excommunicated him. Out of respect for his parents, they agreed to host Scott’s funeral. But who would preside? Although he had been excommunicated by his home church, Scott had found a new church. His new pastor and I conducted the funeral. His former pastor, my colleague, who presided at his excommunication, sat in the back row.
I quoted from Romans 8, “It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ who died, or rather, who was raised, who is also at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ?”
Much time has passed and I find myself reflecting on how Scott has changed our lives. I will never forget listening to Scott’s father tell Scott’s partner at the funeral that he considered him his son. I watched Scott’s mother develop a ministry for others who were dying of AIDS. I went to a mountain retreat where men left their deathbeds to listen to this woman with a heart bigger than Mt. Rainier tell them that Jesus loves them. They sang “The Old Rugged Cross” with tears streaming down their faces.
I watched as my pastoral colleague wrestled with his decision. When he retired early for health reasons, he told me it was because of the mistake he made about Scott. Condemning a parishioner does damage to the soul of the pastor. About five years later I saw him again. His painful journey had found healing and peace with God. He looked twenty years younger.
Scott’s parents are still members of that church. I think of them when I hear stories of people leaving churches over music they don’t like. They stayed in a church that did them wrong, and in doing so have modeled more grace than they were given.
My church, the Reformed Church in America, is splintering. The Christian Reformed Church seems like it is about to. As we struggle to find a path forward, Scott’s parents have already shown us the way.