by Rev. Dr. James C. Howell
“When the Lord restores Zion’s fortunes, we should be like dreamers” (Psalm 126:1, in Robert Alter’s translation). I’ve been dreaming a lot lately: anxiety-rooted dreams during the night (while asleep or lying awake), and more hopeful daydreams when I probably should be working. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., inspired us to dream. And so I have this dream, conceived in a good bit of grief and fretting, and yet consummated in faith, hope and love – a dream of what my church, and I mean both my United Methodist denomination and the parish where I serve right now, might be, or dare I say it, will be. The Church really is of God, as we say and trust.
I dream of a church where homosexuality isn’t the thing, which it isn’t anyhow. Of course, one day it won’t be the big thing – and the deep truth that it’s a temporary obsession lightens today’s burden, and reminds us all that we have so many other tasks and so much beauty apart from it. After all, it’s not as if we could come to a total embrace of the LGBTQIA+ community, or if we could manage somehow to put a stop to it, that the kingdom will have dawned. That kingdom is about what we share, the redemptive love of Christ from creation and forever, and being Christ’s Body, not what divides us.
I dream of a church where everyone would be blessed as I have by befriending and loving people all across the theological and political spectrum. I wish everyone knew the conservative, straight people I’ve known and know, who are humble, holy and generous. I wish everyone knew the same gender couples I’ve known and know, who seek God’s will and strive for missional holiness. I wish everyone knew the very fruitful gay clergy I’ve known and know. I wish everyone knew the very fruitful straight, conservative clergy I’ve known and know. There’s no enlightened elitism in this. Knowing people deeply doesn’t settle moral questions. But it makes me, for one, humbler, gentler and wiser, and it leaves me knowing we absolutely can and must be in church together. Once in a while someone declares that they have detected which “side” I am on. In Christ’s Body, there aren’t sides, and there aren’t winners and losers.
I dream of a church where robust disagreement is celebrated, and where theological debate is understood for the great gift from God that it really is. I envy my Jewish friends, who chuckle at the notion that there might be just one right answer to hard theological questions. It’s God and God’s mysterious ways, after all – and we learn so much when we differ, when our half-baked conclusions and jaded biases are exposed. Church, of all places, should be a safe haven for intense debate among the faithful who can vocalize their reading of God’s way in Scripture almost as well as they can listen attentively and empathetically to other viewpoints. Such friends would never belittle others, oversimplify the other’s beliefs, or sneak in false assumptions.
I dream therefore of a church where we don’t stigmatize, mis-categorize or slander anybody in God’s church. Many conservatives I know are humble, thoughtful interpreters of Scripture and holiness, and should not be labeled and libeled as “haters” or “narrow-minded,” even though a few probably are. Many progressives I know are humble, thoughtful interpreters of Scripture and holiness, and should not be labeled and libeled as “cultural sellouts” or “morally lax,” although a few probably are.
I dream of a church where we ponder and honor the commitments to God and church made by others. We should all be jaw-dropping awed by the marvelous truth that LGBTQIA+ United Methodists, despite years of not being condoned or having access to the blessings of the church, have stayed. That’s a grace I can’t quite comprehend. And the profound commitment of conservatives who have stayed and struggled valiantly for good is grace too – although my dream is also of a church where those who stay love, and never harm one another, where no one’s full humanity is up for debate.
I dream of a church where no child of the church would ever even contemplate suicide or running away or hiding the truth from loved ones or the pastor because of an emerging sexual orientation. God wants a church where an adolescent, discovering same gender attraction, would not cower in terror, but be able to share openly and be embraced by the church instead of floundering in denial and then rejecting the church itself.
I dream of a church where all are welcome, not as a slogan, sign or mat at the front door, but in living habit and embodied demeanor, when we fully grasp that if everybody isn’t welcome, nobody’s welcome, and if the blessings of God’s church aren’t for everyone, they are nothing but a charade for the few. None of us have sufficient merit, knowledge or faith to qualify for the church’s blessings. Thankfully, they are all free.
I dream of a church that relishes the fact that God can and does call anybody into ministry. It’s God, after all, who calls. We have had, have and will have gay clergy among us – thankfully. I realize there are many who are uncomfortable with the idea of gay clergy. I’d encourage them to meet, listen to and ask questions of gay clergy, and at least open their hearts to the possibility of what God can do. As we celebrate the stellar ministries gays and straights have had among us for decades, we dream of a church where clergy are valued for their call and fruitfulness, and that we never have to say No to any person sensing a nudge from the Holy Spirit into ordained ministry simply because of their sexual orientation.
I dream of a church where the question of who can marry isn’t settled as long as it’s male and female. Christian marriage is a mystery, a symbol of Christ and the church, two people prayerfully determined to do God’s will, and a hospitality that is eager to share love with those to whom love is a stranger. I understand that many Christians are uncomfortable with same gender marriage. I’d encourage them to meet, listen to and ask questions of same gender Christian, United Methodist couples, and at least open their hearts to the possibility of what God can do. It may just be that our debate over marriage might awaken everyone to the glorious marvel Christian marriage is intended to be and can still be.
I dream of a church where those of us who sense it is of God for us to marry same gender couples who are committed to Christ and are responding to God’s call to marital fidelity may do so without recrimination. Clearly, saying “All are welcome” is no longer enough. The United Methodist LGBTQIA+ community and those who love them are weary and appalled by living as second class members. They seek, and we seek for them, the full blessings of God’s church. All clergy I know are offering nothing but their holy best to God, including those who don’t conduct same gender marriages due to conscience. Punishment serves no one well – except the devil, who delights in Jesus’ followers afflicting one another.
I dream of a denomination organized around doing good and not judging others, so we are about shared mission rather than taking little-heeded stances on the political issues of the day. I dream of the day when our energies are rightly directed – toward reconciliation, poverty, injustice, race, and so many other issues and people, rather than who thinks right on just one issue or even many.
I dream of a denomination in which, if we have to have a book like the Book of Discipline, it’s a book that is never thought of as a divinely inspired instrument of blame or exclusion, and instead opens doors and hearts, inviting its people and congregations to life and being reshaped after the mind and heart of Christ.
Dreams are elusive, and forces conspire to tamp down and squelch holy dreams. We get cynical, or we get realistic and strategic, or we get mad. Understandably. But God promised that “in the last days,” when God’s Spirit is finally poured out on us, “your young will see visions, and your old shall dream dreams” (Acts 2:17). Dream with me. God is even now pouring out God’s Spirit on us.
This post was originally published on Rev. James C. Howell’s blog. Read the original post here.