Friday, December 3, 2010

Easy Theological Bigotry

“As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” – John 9:1-2

And so there it is. As natural as breathing in and out. Without a doubt in the world. “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” The question is not asked in a hateful way. It is not full of venom and invective. This is not Christian fundamentalists calling Islam an evil religion, or Muslim fundamentalists calling for death to Christian America. This is smooth and simple and as natural as can be: “Who sinned, Jesus, this man or his parents, because we know someone’s sin is responsible for his condition.”

Do you see how easy that theological bigotry flows out of the disciples’ mouths? Not because they are bad people. After all, these are devout followers of Jesus who have left all to follow him. They have proven their willingness to sacrifice on behalf of others. But since they were children they have been taught a truth they believe without even thinking about it: sin is the root cause of a condition like blindness. It might be the person’s sin, or the person’s ancestors, but someone, somewhere did something so bad that God punished the sin with blindness. They all know it. Without a doubt.

And we are shocked or disgusted that anyone, anywhere at anytime could equate blindness with sinfulness. It offends our sensibilities. To be disabled by a condition like a loss of vision produces sympathy in us, not a theological riddle about sinfulness. Who are these people in the Bible who think such backwards thoughts? Well, they are my spiritual ancestors. They are the founders of the church. They are the first followers of Jesus.

And from that time until now, theological bigotry has existed and flourished in the church. Consider all the different ways in church history this pattern has been manifested. Slavery, segregation, and insidious racism lasted so long in this country not because a bunch of kooks in bed sheets were in control. No, the church must bear much of the responsibility. The Bible was used in some churches to teach that blacks were inferior to whites; in more moderate churches the Bible was used to suggest that a separation of the races was God’s intended design; and then a lot of churches just stayed quiet about the continual destruction of a whole race of people.

Or what about the history of women in the church? For a long time the Bible was used to deny women basic human rights. They couldn’t vote or own property or speak in church. Even today, the two largest Christian bodies in this country, the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention, actively teach that women are not suitable for the priesthood and pastorate. Why? Because the Bible says so. This misogynistic theology just flows through the church like air through the vents. And few people even question it.

And all of this makes us cringe. How horrifying that people of faith have used the scriptures to denounce blind people, black people, and women as less than. As sinful. Because we know what the misappropriation of that sin label means. It means if someone is suffering because of their own sin we don’t have to care about them. They are flawed because of something they have done, or because of something inherently wrong with them, and that lets us off the hook. But we denounce that kind of thinking now, don’t we?

I wish I could say yes, but it seems the pattern remains just as persistent even if the targets of theological bigotry keep shifting. Today the main concern of some in the church is keeping the pure heterosexuals untainted from the evil homosexuals. The tremendous suffering of the LGBT community is completely ignored by the church because, after all, being attracted to someone of the same sex is a sin. How do we know that? Well, everyone knows that the Bible says so. Just like everyone used to know that black people were inferior and women were less than and even blind people were sinful because the scriptures said so somewhere. Do you see how insidious this is? If you can just get a group of people labeled as sinful then you can ignore them, exclude them, disenfranchise them, and turn your back on their suffering.

But here’s the thing. The day will come, not nearly soon enough, when our children and grandchildren will look back on this period in the church’s history and wonder how in the world Christians could have spent so much time and energy demonizing LGBT people. They will look at the twisted ways the Bible has been used to support homophobia with the same disgust we have when we view the way our ancestors used the Bible to undergird slavery and misogyny. And those future generations will wonder how this could have taken place so easily, with so little outcry.

To heal bigotry in all its awful manifestations you have to start by labeling things correctly. You can’t call that which is beautiful in the eyes of God sinful. And one thing I believe is that people with disabilities, people of color, women, and people of all sexual and gender identities are beautiful in the eyes of God. The sin in this case has been the church’s for calling those people who are sacred sinful. I pray God will forgive us.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Profile from the Raleigh News & Observer

A wonderful friend convinced the reporter to do this profile of me. I am grateful beyond words to my friend.

On a mission for equality

Jack McKinney says he's always had a heart for the "outcasts of society."

In February, McKinney, 45, former pastor at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church, opened McKinney Counseling and Consulting, where one of the specialties is gender identity disorders.

"I have been fortunate to know and counsel hundreds of individuals who would be considered 'outcasts' for one reason or another," McKinney said. "What I have learned from these people is an inspiration. Justice for all is not just a theory."

McKinney knew early in life that promoting the rights of the gay and lesbian community was to be part of his calling. When one of McKinney's closest high school friends publically came out, McKinney had a decision to make.

"I could continue to believe the party line about how awful gay people were, or I could believe my own experience revealed by my close friend," McKinney said. "I chose to believe my experience. The result has been the amazing privilege of befriending and counseling hundreds of LGBT people who are as wonderful as my childhood friend."

McKinney began his journey at Pullen in 1998 when a friend submitted his name to Pullen's search committee. After landing his dream job, McKinney set out to promote the rights of the LGBT community inside and outside the church.

After 18 months at Pullen, McKinney made his first big decision as pastor and asked the congregation to promote Nancy Petty, who is a lesbian, from associate pastor to co-pastor. "The decision to share power with me was really a testament to his character," Petty said. "It demonstrated his commitment to what's fair, what's right and what is equal."

Said McKinney, "The fact that Nancy is a lesbian and leading a major congregation in a Southern city says a lot about Pullen's inclusive nature."

McKinney continued to further his cause by joining with other religious leaders and activists in the Triangle to form the North Carolina Religious Coalition for Marriage Equality in 2004.

The organization, dedicated to achieving marriage equality for same-sex couples, met with religious leaders and asked them to sign statements promoting the cause and also held a rally at the General Assembly to publicize the movement.

Recently, the NCRC4ME gave its remaining funds to Equality North Carolina, the leading advocacy organization in the state for LGBT rights and an organization in which McKinney also is active.

McKinney has run into criticism from the church and community, in the form of derogatory letters and angry phone calls, but more often than not he and his colleagues receive gratitude for their work, McKinney said.

"I also befriended a couple of people who initially sent me critical letters; when I responded they seemed surprised I was willing to talk to them and we started a much more civil exchange after that," he said.

After making extensive progress for the LGBT community and becoming a beloved fixture at Pullen, McKinney made the decision to start the next chapter of his life.v"I told the church I didn't want to become a mediocre minister, and I feared I was headed in that direction," McKinney said. "Yet, the one part of my job I still had great passion for was counseling."

McKinney had previously partnered with Kimball Sargent, a nurse psychotherapist and owner of Diverse Solutions, a local business that specializes in transgender therapy.

"I was looking for someone to help my clients in a spiritual way. Jack did just this," Sargent said. "He was so helpful and empathetic to my clients, and I was not surprised when he started his own business."

More than half McKinney's clients are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, and he also provides couples counseling for both heterosexual and gay couples, as well as pastoral consulting services for clergy and congregations.

McKinney said he does not find it hard to balance spirituality and professionalism in his counseling services. "There is a misconception that pastoral counseling must involve some religious angle," McKinney said. "Actually, it is just talk therapy with a therapist who is also comfortable talking about faith or spiritual matters if the client wants to do so."

McKinney remembers one of his most powerful memories from his professional life as presiding over a same-sex covenant ceremony at Pullen.

"Both the fathers were well into their senior adult years and had some anxieties about being part of a gay wedding," McKinney said. After the ceremony, the fathers, who served at best men in the service, said they thought the service was beautiful.

"After that day," McKinney said, "I never assumed people could not change their minds about accepting gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender people."

Monday, November 8, 2010

Mother of the Year

I nominate this woman for mother of the year. If the world was filled with people like this, there would be less hate, more acceptance, and kids would grow up not caring what others think of them.

My favorite paragraph: "If you think that me allowing my son to be a female character for Halloween is somehow going to ‘make’ him gay then you are an idiot. Firstly, what a ridiculous concept. Secondly, if my son is gay, OK. I will love him no less. Thirdly, I am not worried that your son will grow up to be an actual ninja so back off."

Monday, November 1, 2010

More Than Appropriate

This is my column for the November edition of The Triangle. To see the entire publication go to

The recent Cameron Village “incident” has been all over the media. Caitlin Breedlove and her girlfriend were asked to leave the popular shopping center by two security officials for displaying physical affection for one another. By now most of you have heard about the subsequent apology by York Properties (owners of Cameron Village), the suspension and required sensitivity training for the security guards, and a rally held on October 17 by Breedlove and about 100 supporters across the street from Cameron Village.

Some of our neighbors in the community who are less than supportive of LGBT rights have cried foul saying Cameron Village is private property and can do what it wants. Apparently these people missed the civil rights era and the Supreme Court rulings that determined private businesses open to the public cannot discriminate against certain consumers because they don’t like “their kind.” My word, the lunch counter sit-ins that helped spark the civil rights movement took place in Greensboro and Raleigh. You would think if people anywhere in this country should understand the basic legal principles at play in this situation it would be those who live in North Carolina.

Beyond the legal and ethical debates this event sparked, however, there is something else about this story that deeply disturbs me. It is the assumption by the security guards, and those who have been quick to jump to their defense, that displays of affection like holding hands and kissing are inappropriate.

We live in a society where our connections with people are increasingly made through electronic devices. Technology has made it possible to do many of the things we once had to do face to face. We can work from home, shop from home, develop friendships with people from all over the world without ever seeing them, and a host of other activities that just a few years ago would have been impossible without physically interacting with other people. The convenience of these cyber activities and connections is amazing. But what is it costing our souls and psyches to work, play, and relate to others without touch?

Americans have long been more repressed than other cultures around the world when it comes to physical touch. This truth struck me a few years ago when I made a trip to the Republic of Georgia. Georgia was a part of the Soviet Union and only gained its independence in the early nineties. It is a country dominated by the Orthodox Church and old traditions.

So, imagine my surprise when walking around the capital, Tbilisi, to see men walking hand-in-hand with men, and women holding hands with women. I thought I had discovered a gay utopia in this tiny Eastern European country. When I asked one of my hosts about the possibility that Georgia was far more gay-friendly than other places, she said I was misinterpreting what I was seeing. She remarked that it is perfectly normal in their society for friends of any kind to hold hands or link arms in public. Then my host laughed and said she had no doubt that some of the people I saw holding hands were gay, but that even the most macho straight guy in Georgia would not think twice about holding hands with a dear friend.

Which brings me back to the original charge made against Caitlin Breedlove and her girlfriend. The idea that two women holding hands or exchanging a quick kiss is inappropriate is obviously rooted in a deep homophobia. Yet, those who have bristled at this accusation say they don’t want to see such public displays of affection from anyone, gay or straight. And that comment makes me wonder what kind of society we are becoming.

To be fully human we need to love, to laugh, to play, and to touch one another. If what is “appropriate” is to stay disconnected and separate from each other we become a culture increasingly isolated. Affection in its many different hues and colors is one of the rare things that makes us feel whole. To say we need less of that in our world makes me sad.

As a counselor I occasionally will have a client who is in such distress that he or she will ask if I will hold his or her hand for a moment. Many therapists would consider any physical touch with a client to be inappropriate. I do not. The simple act of holding another person’s hand can make anxiety dissipate, reduce the sense of being alone in the world, and create a connection that makes sharing painful stories easier. Are there limits to this kind of touch. Of course, just as there are limits to most things in life. But to suggest all physical touch is inappropriate is absurd.

So, thank you Caitlin and anonymous friend for not only standing up against an obvious civil rights injustice, but for reminding us that one of the best things in life is the exchange of touch and loving affection. We all need more of it.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

It's Time for Voters to Get Serious

Quick, name five things you know about Christine O'Donnell, the Republican nominee for the United States Senate from Delaware. If you are anything like me, this is what came to mind.

1. She is not a witch, though she is the first politician in memory who has felt it necessary to refute the charge.
2. She is not big on masturbation.
3. She is not big on paying her taxes, her bills, or her employees.
4. She is the darling of the Tea Party.
5. She is great television with her attractive appearance, kooky ideas, and countless appearances on shows where she talks openly about numbers one and two on this list.

Now, name five things you know about Elaine Marshall, the Democratic nominee for the United States Senate from North Carolina. This is what I knew without the help of Google.

1. She is the North Carolina Secretary of State.
2. She beat King Richard Petty when she won the office the first time.
3. She comes across as a regular person who is serious about her job.
4. She is not a witch.
5. ?

Okay, so I could not come up with five things I know about Elaine Marshall and had to play the "witch card" just to get to four. This is not good. And my concern is not what this says about Elaine Marshall the candidate, but what it says about the world in which we hold elections these days.

Let's face it; there is little reason for me to know anything about Christine O'Donnell. She is a candidate in a state most people can't find on a map who appears to have little chance of being elected. After the votes are counted, O'Donnell will likely fade from view. Yet, in an election year where the stakes are incredibly high, she is the person who has gained the most attention.

Why? Because we are no longer a serious nation when it comes to fixing our problems. We would rather watch politicians who do and say the bizarre, or stake out the most extreme positions imaginable, than listen to rational people talk about policy solutions. After all, who can focus on the economic crisis when there is witchcraft and masturbation to talk about?

Elaine Marshall has little chance of getting much press under these circumstances. She is an adult in a political culture that has turned childish before our eyes. How can we hear what she has done to enact lobbying reform in our state, or prosecute those who take advantage of the elderly (yes, I finally Googled her), when we can gawk at mental adolescents willing to do or say anything for attention?

It would be tempting to blame the mainstream media for turning politics into nothing more than reality television. Yet, those in charge of the 24-hour cable news business are only serving up what we demand: entertainment. Our addiction to watching the weird and titillating among us means we know far more about the politician who has been in a sex scandal than the politician trying to pass financial regulatory reform.

The tragedy is that we need people like Elaine Marshall to be running for office right now. And I don't mean that in a partisan sense. We need Republicans and Democrats to elect mature leaders who are willing to sit down with the opposition and hammer out solutions. In a country increasingly divided on everything from gay rights, to immigration policy, to how we should respond to religious extremists trying to attack us, we cannot afford to elect the most petulant personalities to do this critical work. It is time to put the adults back in charge of our country.

As a pastoral counselor it is not difficult to tell which individuals who seek my services are going to make progress. They are the ones who are serious about overcoming the obstacles in their lives. They are willing to own their mistakes, but more than that, are unwilling to let the drama created by others distract them from moving ahead. Their focus and determination are the key ingredients in their healing.

As a nation let us regain our focus and determination in addressing what ails us as a people. If we demand it of ourselves, and our leaders, the healing can begin.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Looking at Gay Harassment as Part of a Larger Problem

The New York Times
Published: October 8, 2010

Weeks before she had any reason to know the name Tyler Clementi, the Rev. Audrey M. Connor was planning a celebratory day of worship at her church in Lynchburg, Va. It would take place this Sunday, the eve of a gay-rights event called National Coming Out Day. There would be prayers, songs and testimonies by three congregants who had successfully emerged from the closet.

Then, late last month, Ms. Connor watched the first news alert about Mr. Clementi’s suicide scroll across her computer screen. An 18-year-old freshman at Rutgers, Mr. Clementi jumped to his death off the George Washington Bridge after, the police say, his dorm-room intimacies with another man were stealthily filmed and posted online by two classmates.

Those initial reports sprung loose shards of Ms. Connor’s own memories and experiences, she recalled in a telephone interview this week. She thought back to being teased as her sixth-grade boyfriend’s “boyfriend,” fully 15 years before she broke cover as a lesbian. She thought back to a gay college classmate who once told her that if his family had kept a gun at home, he would have shot himself in high school to escape the hatred and ridicule.

So this Sunday’s interfaith service at First Christian Church, Ms. Connor said, will inevitably take on a more somber tone, with a minister from the local Unitarian church speaking about Mr. Clementi in the Christian context of martyrdom.

“It may sound extreme,” Ms. Connor said, “but Tyler Clementi is someone who died in a battle that many clergy and religious people are fighting. For inclusion. For our understanding of what God wants the world to be.”

Well beyond Lynchburg and First Christian, the suicides of Mr. Clementi and three other gay teenagers over the course of three weeks have mobilized and galvanized liberal Christian and Jewish clergy members. While many already offered pastoral support to gay congregants and endorsed gay rights, the drumbeat of young deaths, all of them following on the harassment and humiliation of the victims, has driven up clergy activism.

As a result, it has also intensified the intrareligious strife over homosexuality. While there is no indication that Mr. Clementi or the other teenagers — Seth Walsh, 13, Billy Lucas, 15, and Asher Brown, 13 — had been personally assailed by religious leaders, liberal clergy members firmly believe that the traditional condemnation of homosexuals and homosexuality in organized religion enables, indeed ratifies, the bigotry inflicted by peers.

“The first thing that went through my mind was, ‘Oh, no, not again,’ ” said the Rev. Jack McKinney, a Baptist minister who does private pastoral counseling in Raleigh, N.C.

“And because there’s an epidemic of suicide among LGBT young people, my next reaction is anger,” he said using a common acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. “I’m convinced that the root of a lot of this is religion-based discrimination and defamation. Frankly, I think there’s a lot of spiritual malpractice going on.”

The conventional Judeo-Christian view of homosexuality as a sin, an abomination, largely derives from six sections of Biblical text, some in the Old Testament and some in the New, known colloquially as the “clobber passages.” Centuries ago, some religious leaders were able to similarly quote the Bible in defense of slavery. Yet somehow, while such passages as the curse of Ham proved mutable over time, the denouncing of homosexuality has remained a staple of conservative theology.

Ms. Connor’s church, for instance, is in the town made famous, or infamous, by a different minister, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who once described AIDS as “God’s punishment for homosexuals” and “the society that tolerates homosexuals.”

This week, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a free-speech case involving Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., whose members used antigay rhetoric while picketing the 2006 funeral of an American soldier slain in Iraq.

And while Westboro is a small and extremist congregation, better at garnering headlines than filling pews, a major dispute about homosexuality has broken out in the country’s religious and geographical center, in Minnesota. There, the Roman Catholic archbishop, John Nienstedt, last month sent out 400,000 copies of a DVD opposing same-sex marriage as a “dangerous risk to society.” The archbishop subsequently refused to give communion to several dozen students at a Catholic college who attended a Mass wearing buttons with the rainbow insignia of the gay-rights movement.

None of these events, of course, played any direct role in the recent suicides. Official Catholic teaching on homosexuality, much like the rabbinic norm in Orthodox Judaism, tries to separate opposition to sexual behavior from acceptance of individual homosexuals. In various denominations, religious conservatives offer counseling to transform homosexuals to heterosexuals.

And yet, for liberal clergy members, the coincidental confluence of events has given them cause to mobilize. The Rev. Cody J. Sanders, a Baptist minister in Fort Worth, framed antigay bullying as a theological issue. “With dualistic conceptions of good and evil and hierarchical notions of values and worth,” Mr. Sanders wrote in an essay for the Web site Religion Dispatches, “it becomes easy to know who it is O.K. to hate or bully, or, seemingly more benignly, to ignore. And no institutions have done more to create and perpetuate the public disapproval of gay and lesbian people than churches.”

The Rev. Debra W. Haffner, a Unitarian Universalist minister who is executive director of the Religious Institute, an interfaith organization active in issues of sexual health, last week sent 2,200 clergy members in a dozen denominations an open letter asking them to devote this weekend’s sermons to Tyler Clementi’s suicide. Her appeal reached an even wider audience when it was published on The Washington Post’s “On Faith” blog.

“Clergy have a key role,” said the Rev. Pat Bumgardner, pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church in Manhattan. “We have a chance to shape public opinion, people’s willingness to wrestle with the diversity of God’s creation. Pastors need to step up to the plate and speak about the wrongness of bullying, the wrongness of cruelty.

“There’s no religion on the face of the earth that countenances the taunting to death of children.”


Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Getting History Right

Here is my column in the September edition of The Triangle. Check out the rest of the paper at

In June of 1981 the Center for Disease Control’s Weekly Morbidity and Mortality Report cited five cases of a rare pneumonia in five gay men in Los Angeles. From that point on, in the mind of the general public, AIDS was a gay disease. It was somehow caused by gay men having sex. Then it became God’s punishment on “homosexuals” according to some particularly cruel and ignorant men of the cloth. And because the lgbt community was viewed with disdain or disinterest by most people, we went through the 1980s with little compassion, and a lot of hysteria, and our leaders missed the opportunity to slow the disease before it became the beast it is now. President Reagan wouldn’t even say the word AIDS in public until 1987. Our own Senator Helms fought tooth and nail to keep funding away from HIV/AIDS programs until he decided in his last years that fighting AIDS in Africa was acceptable.

Then we stumbled into the 1990s, and while progress was being made in the development of drugs to combat the virus, the response from political leaders was still incredibly timid in the face of such a deadly plague. President Clinton refused to advocate for needle exchanges fearing the political fallout of seeming to be soft on drug users. South Africa elected President Mbeki who didn’t even believe HIV was the virus that caused AIDS and he resisted efforts to combat the spread of the disease. Today, South Africa has the largest percentage of AIDS cases per capita in the world.

Closer to home, a few years ago North Carolina ranked dead last in funding for poor people living with HIV/AIDS. A leading member of the General Assembly, when asked about this terrible record of helping our most vulnerable neighbors living with the disease, was quoted as saying he had no interest in spending money on “those people.”

But here’s a strange little fact that has been ignored for too long. We now know that HIV isn’t a gay disease. It didn’t just pop up on the West Coast back in 1981 among gay men. There is evidence of the virus as early as 1959. And the source of the virus has been tracked to a group of chimpanzees who live in the southern part of Cameroon. Most scientists believe the virus made its way from the chimps into the human population because of the practice of slaughtering chimps for meat. The blood from the chimps likely got into the open cuts and sores of those doing the slaughtering, and there is your point of human contamination. And for all these years while society pointed the finger at gay men, the real culprits were people slaughtering chimpanzees in Cameroon in the mid-twentieth century. And if it wasn’t so sad and tragic it would almost be funny. It was the damn chimp killers, not the gay men, who brought this plague to us.

There is another part of the history of HIV/AIDS that has also been swept under the rug. While most of America has lived with the lie that AIDS is a disease brought to us by gay people and drug users, the truth of the matter is that the one group that has consistently stood up and fought this damndable disease has been the lgbt community. When nothing was being done in the 1980s by the powers that be, it was lgbt folks who caused such an uproar that public health officials couldn’t ignore them any longer. Go to any city in this country and find an agency that is providing care for people with HIV/AIDS, or is advocating for people with HIV/AIDS, and odds are the lgbt community started and funded and staffed those organizations.

So, thank you my lgbt sisters and brothers. Thank you for refusing to shut up even when preachers said AIDS was God’s punishment, and politicians turned their backs on you. Thank you for pushing the scientific and medical communities to be more aggressive in their treatment methods. Thank you for reminding the rest of us that it is not a sin to be sick and for caring so tenderly for all people living with this plague, even we straight folk who called you queer and faggot. Your passion and compassion have been models for the rest of us and we owe you a tremendous debt of gratitude.

There is an African proverb that says, “Until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” The last 30 years have been tragic beyond words as AIDS has ravaged our world, but we have added to the tragedy by our one-sided and mistaken way of telling the history of the disease. The people we blamed turned out to be the true heroes in our midst. And only when we get the history right, and tell the story of the courageous lgbt community, will we be able to see that in the middle of all the suffering something remarkable and sacred has been happening all along.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Ignoring Conventional Wisdom

This is my column for the August edition of The Triangle. To see the rest of the publication, check it out at

When I think about Nancy Petty, my good friend and pastor, one question comes to mind. How did she get to this place in her life? How does a lesbian become the senior minister of one of the most prominent Baptist churches in a southern state? To appreciate the answer you need to know the whole story.

Nancy grew up in Shelby, west of Charlotte, not exactly the progressive center of North Carolina. Her family was active in a small Baptist church outside of town. Tagging along with her father, who was an active lay leader in the congregation, Nancy was in church every chance she got. To this day if she hears an old hymn Nancy will break into song as though she has been transported back to her childhood church.

Nancy went to college at Gardner Webb University, a Baptist school in Shelby, and then to seminary at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest. She was preparing for ministry in a tradition that had little room for women ministers. To make things even more challenging, Nancy’s understanding of her sexuality clarified in her college and graduate school days. So, she was a good Baptist girl from a traditional Baptist family who happened to be gay and wanted to be a pastor. Raise your hand if you sense a problem on the horizon.

This is the point in the story when most people would have followed the path of conventional wisdom and made a choice. Nancy could have hidden her sexuality so that her career as a minister might still have some chance of taking off in the Baptist world; she could have left her beloved Baptist roots to seek ordination in one of the few religious traditions accepting of gay ministers; or she could have abandoned her calling and pursued a life outside of the church. From an outsider’s perspective these were the only realistic options open to her and each one meant giving up something critical to her soul.

Nancy refused to abide by the choices presented to her by conventional wisdom. For almost twenty years she has served as an openly gay minister at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh. She has had different titles during that time: Minister of Education, Associate Pastor, Co-Pastor (a title I was proud to share with her for eight years), and now Pastor. She suffered the slings and arrows of denunciation from inside the Baptist world, and she overcame many doubters in her own church family. In the end, as the kids say, she outlasted the haters.

Of course none of us make it in life without much support along the way. Nancy would be the first to name all of the mentors, colleagues, and friends who helped her get to this point in her career. Even so, the key ingredient in Nancy’s story is her determination to live as authentically as possible. Her refusal to play by the rules handed to her by society, the church, and other traditional powers has resulted in one of the most interesting biographies of any minister I know.

Conventional wisdom is a subtle force that lulls us into faulty assumptions. It leads us to believe that the way things are must be the way they will always be. Conventional wisdom suggests that how most people see the world reflects the only acceptable truth about the world. More insidiously, conventional wisdom provides cover for those in power to deny the powerless access to basic rights and opportunities.

Liberation means throwing off the shackles of conventional wisdom and refusing to accept the paltry choices it sets before us. Of course it takes courage to live a truth others find uncomfortable or upsetting. It also takes patience and determination to continue on the narrow path that doesn’t immediately lead to success. However, we have a word for those people in any movement or culture who go against the grain and live honestly in the face of conventional wisdom’s rebuke. We call them heroes.

The heroes and heroines who have changed their world, either in big or small ways, all started from the same point: they were dissatisfied with the way things were and took a risk to make a change. For many of those people, that risk was simply being themselves in an open and proud fashion. And the amazing thing is that over time conventional wisdom succumbs to the power of the truth lived by such courageous souls.

Nancy Petty is a short woman with a huge heart whose determination to be herself is changing the church and our community for the better. Let us give thanks for such heroes in our midst.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Signs of Discrimination's Demise

When U.S. District Judge Joseph Tauro ruled last week in Massachusetts that the federal law banning same-sex marriage is unconstitutional it reminded me of something. There comes a moment in every struggle for equality when the arguments for maintaining discriminatory laws and practices suddenly seem absurd to reasonable people.

How do we know when such a moment is upon us? First, the extreme elements in support of inequality resort to violence over rational conversation. Second, fair-minded people who once tolerated the discrimination are aroused from their slumber and start to advocate for a just solution. Finally, the last gasp is when people will abandon their principles in order to hang on to the privileges they have enjoyed and are loathe to allow others to share in them.

We have seen this pattern before in our history. When the forces of intolerance turned fire hoses on civil rights’ marchers, including children, the images shocked many Americans. Suddenly the lengths that the extremists were willing to go to defend segregation were no longer tolerable for many people. Those who had sat idly by while the bigotry went unchecked generation after generation finally found their voice and their conscience. And the only philosophical argument left to the segregationists was the old bromide--states’ rights.

Now the pattern returns in the push for equal rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Americans. The violence and threat of violence the GLBT community lives with daily is one of the most underreported stories of our time. As a pastoral counselor whose practice is largely made up of GLBT individuals, I hear regularly the toll this violence takes. The necessity of hiding their sexuality in order to be safe, or to hold on to a job, or to keep their family or church from rejecting them is a regular thread in my clients’ stories. Millions of GLBT Americans live in a state of constant alert out of fear for what they will suffer or lose if their sexuality is discovered.

Slowly, though, some straight people are realizing the pain being caused by the legal discrimination against their GLBT friends and family members. The most dramatic example of this awakening is Ted Olson.

Olson was solicitor general under President George W. Bush who successfully argued before the Supreme Court that the recount in Florida should stop after the 2000 presidential election debacle. Who was the lawyer for the losing side in the infamous Bush v. Gore case? David Boies. Now Olson has teamed up with Boies to try and overturn California’s Proposition 8 and establish a constitutional right for same-sex marriage.

Many conservatives are surprised that this darling of the Republican party would align himself with advocates for same-sex marriage, but Olson argues he is just being consistent in his principles. In an Op-ed piece published in Newsweek Olson makes this case in response to the criticisms he is receiving from those in his own party.

“Many of my fellow conservatives have an almost knee-jerk hostility toward gay marriage. This does not make sense, because same-sex unions promote the values conservatives prize. Marriage is one of the basic building blocks of our neighborhoods and our nation. At its best, it is a stable bond between two individuals who work to create a loving household and a social and economic partnership. We encourage couples to marry because the commitments they make to one another provide benefits not only to themselves but also to their families and communities. Marriage requires thinking beyond one's own needs. It transforms two individuals into a union based on shared aspirations, and in doing so establishes a formal investment in the well-being of society. The fact that individuals who happen to be gay want to share in this vital social institution is evidence that conservative ideals enjoy widespread acceptance. Conservatives should celebrate this, rather than lament it.” (January 9, 2010)

Olson’s conscience and his commitment to his basic political principles caused him to take this stance. Yet, for those determined to prevent marriage equality from becoming the law of the land, they are willing to abandon their principles if need be. In response to Judge Tauro’s ruling last week that the federal law known as the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional because it interferes with the right of a state to define the institution of marriage, and therefore denies married gay couples some federal benefits, conservative commentators have argued that the states have no right to determine who can legally marry. Yes, you know you have stepped through the looking glass when ultra-conservatives are demanding that the federal government flex its power and overrule a state’s attempt at self-determination.

What do these signs suggest about the future of marriage equality in the United States? Now that it is clear there are no sound constitutional arguments to deny millions of GLBT Americans the right to marry someone of the same gender, the only question is how much more violence and tortured reasoning must we endure as the forces of intolerance defend the discriminatory status quo. If Judge Tauro and Ted Olson are any indication, perhaps not much longer.

Monday, July 5, 2010

That Abominable Word

Here is my column in the July edition of "the Triangle," a new publication serving the LGBTQ community in the Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill area. The publication and other resources can be found at

If 25 years of preaching taught me anything it is this: words matter. Every minister who saw Four Weddings and a Funeral laughed nervously when the inexperienced priest declared “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spigot.” Been there, done that. Maybe not calling the Spirit a plumbing device, but all clergy have made equally dumb mistakes. I once did a funeral for a man named Ed and called him Earnest throughout the service. You can just imagine how pleased his family was.

Years later I can laugh at that gaffe and realize it wasn’t intentional or fatal. We all make mistakes with words and names. It’s just that those who do public speaking for a living get many more opportunities to screw up.

However, there is a more sinister misuse of language in the church that is neither funny nor unintentional. There is a word that gets used a lot from pulpits, that comes spewing out of mouths filled with loathing and invective. It is a word I hate because it shames, and denigrates, and breaks the spirit of good people. The word is abomination.

Everyone in the LGBTQ community has heard the word. Preachers and other religious folks are quick to quote from the book of Leviticus in the Bible these lines: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” Those who use the “a” word do so with the intent of declaring there is nothing more detestable than two men having sex. The problem is, those who use the word in this ugly fashion don’t realize how badly they are misunderstanding it.

The book of Leviticus declares a lot of things abominations: eating shrimp, cutting your hair, wearing a cotton/polyester blend, having a ham sandwich, and much more. Funny how we never hear what an abomination the ham sandwich eaters are. But this weird list of “abominations” should at least make us wonder what the word actually meant.

The Israelites were a people living amongst other tribes who had their own religious practices. In order to distinguish their religion from their neighbors, the Israelites adopted codes of conduct. In Leviticus the list of rituals is called the Holiness Code. The main purpose of the code was to keep a person ritually pure so that she or he could worship and participate in the life of the community. All manner of things could make one unclean, or, an abomination. Yes, the word doesn’t mean “the worst thing in the world.” It means ritually unclean.

Now here is where it gets weird and personal for me. I have a gorgeous teenage daughter who is as beautiful on the inside as she is on the outside. She also happens to have been born with a rare condition that discolors her skin on certain parts of her body. Many people do not even notice this condition, and it does not take away from her stunning good looks. Yet, if we read the book of Leviticus literally, and apply this ancient code like some narrow-minded people do, then my daughter is also an abomination.

You see, shortly before one arrives at the two short verses in Leviticus declaring man-on-man sex an abomination, there are two long chapters describing the “ritual impurity” of people with certain skin conditions. That’s right. Leviticus spends much more time dealing with the religious problem of permanent skin discoloration than it does same-gender sexual activity.

If all of this seems absurd it is only because it is. Selectively misusing an ancient religious code to condemn any group of people is cruel and tragic. But when that selective misuse becomes so normal that the condemned group internalizes it and accepts it, well, that makes me furious.

Calling something that is beautiful an abomination is one of the worst uses of language imaginable. My beautiful daughter is anything but an abomination. My beautiful LGBTQ friends are anything but abominations. And don’t let anyone tell you different.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Secret Life of a Pastor - Chapter Four

Leaving my life as a pastor at the age of 44 was a sudden move, a scary move, and a financially absurd move. It was not, however, an original move. I had done it once before, way back at the beginning.

My last year of college was a whirlwind. I accepted the pastorate of a small rural church late in my junior year. That summer I got married and started working six days a week at a furniture store. When classes resumed in the fall, I was a full-time student, a nearly full-time employee of the Texas Furniture Company, and the pastor of the Naruna Baptist Church. It was a full life.

My agreement with the church was that I would stay through my graduation in May at which time I would be moving away to attend seminary. By February I knew I couldn’t make it. I suddenly felt incapable of preaching one more sermon, much less a dozen more. In shame, I informed the church that I would be resigning several months earlier than they had expected. They were confused. “Why couldn’t I just stay through May like we had talked about?” they wanted to know. I didn’t have an answer. I just knew I was done.

This experience was the great existential crisis of my early adulthood. Since I was 15 I knew I was going to be a preacher. I went to college to study and prepare for that future, and knew that seminary would be the next step. While in college I had met the love of my life and knew that getting married was right for me. It was a life filled with certitude.

Suddenly nothing was certain. I was paralyzed by doubt and fear. Here I was, about to finish college and head to seminary, and the thought of being a pastor terrified me. I had tried it, albeit in a limited fashion, and been overwhelmed by it. If I couldn’t handle being the weekend pastor to a church of 40 good souls, how was I going to manage ministering in a larger setting?

The clearest memory I have of those days was the walk I took across the campus with KaKi. We had been married about eight months and our plans for the future were in place: graduation for both of us, seminary for me, and a teaching job for her. Now, as we walked in front of the library on a brisk winter morning, I was trying to explain what was happening to me. Only I didn’t know. I didn’t know why I couldn’t finish my time at the country church. I didn’t know why the thought of a future as a minister filled me with anxiety. What I do know is that in my moment of terrified confusion KaKi didn’t blame or judge me. Her support on that chilly morning is a gift I still treasure.

Twenty-five years later I have much more compassion and understanding for that confused, scared preacher boy who was me. I know now that I was exhausted from a pace that was unrelenting. I also realize that my first experience of trying on the role of pastor had exposed me in ways I was not prepared to handle. I didn’t feel good enough, holy enough, or strong enough to be a spiritual guide for others. I hadn’t yet learned the truth that ministering to people is mostly about showing up and listening. It would be years before I grasped the fact that it was okay for me not to have all the answers. It would be even longer before I understood that my parishioners didn’t want answers anyway. They wanted what we all want, what we all need, what I got from KaKi on that cold morning in front of the school library: a minister who loved them for who they were; a minister who cared for them when they were hurting; a minister who tried to tell and live the truth.

The first time I “left the ministry” I was young, confused, and the departure would be temporary. The next leaving came in the middle of my life in a moment of absolute clarity. Same result, but it feels completely different.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

A Love Story

Here is my column in the current edition of "the Triangle," a new publication serving the LGBTQ community in the Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill area.

Great love stories share similar plot lines. A scene of early attraction when the lovers-to-be take note of one another. Declarations of mutual commitment once the relationship has moved into a serious stage. An obstacle to overcome, like the disapproval of a parent. Finally, the tragic ending when one or both lovers meet a premature death and we, the readers, are left heartbroken. From the dawn of time, or at least the dawn of writing, some version of this epic love story has appeared in many cultures.

The Bible, however, is a little short on tales of romantic love. The Song of Solomon is an extended erotic poem capturing the intense feelings of a man and woman. Needless to say, you don’t hear many sermons from this book. Many of the other romances in the Bible are clouded by a lack of detail, or to be blunt, a lack of love. Often the heroes of the Bible were not so heroic when it came to wooing someone. They took whom they wanted, when they wanted, and that just doesn’t make for a very good love story.

There is one exception. In the books of 1 and 2 Samuel we see a tale of love that follows the traditional plot line. In this story a prince falls for a commoner when the former witnesses the heroic actions of the latter. Once the relationship forms and deepens, the two profess their love in a covenant that they swear to uphold regardless of what may come. The obstacle appears when the king, the father of the prince, disapproves of his son’s love interest and tries several times to bring the relationship to an end. Finally, the prince is killed, but only after saving the life of his beloved. The grief of the surviving lover is captured in these words: “Greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.” (2 Samuel 1:26)

What? You mean the commoner who was loved by the prince was a man? Yes, and not just any man. The surviving lover is David, the boy who saved his people when he slew Goliath and eventually would become the greatest king in Israel’s history. David is the most important figure in the Old Testament for many Christians because he is the ancestor of Jesus. But what is rarely talked about when David’s legend is chronicled is the great love of his life. No, not his multiple arranged marriages. No, not his tawdry affair with Bathsheba that led to all manner of ugliness. His great love affair was with Jonathan, the son of King Saul.

Most people of faith erupt in protest at any suggestion that David and Jonathan were gay lovers, but my interpretation of their relationship as such is not a new thing. For more than fifty years biblical scholars without a homophobic bias have noted the possibility. What would lead them to such a conclusion? They simply do what conservatives often insist that readers of the Bible do. They take the text seriously and pay attention to what it actually says.

One can understand why the church refuses to entertain the possibility that David and Jonathan were more than fishing buddies. To concede that one of the most important biblical figures, one often portrayed as a “man’s man,” was actually gay, well, that might cause a tear in the space-time continuum. Or at least change a few Sunday school lessons.

Why should we care about intramural squabbles over biblical interpretation? Because the rationale used by politicians to deny full civil rights to the LGBTQ community is often a biblical one. Push a homophobic legislator to explain his or her stance on marriage equality and other issues and you will usually hear some version of “the Bible condemns it.” We can scream that it is the Constitution, not the Bible, that is supposed to be the document legislators are interpreting when they make law, but it matters not. The flawed assumption that the Bible presents a clear denunciation of homosexuality is thick in our culture, and politicians usually mirror the culture.

David and Jonathan’s tale is the great love story in the Bible. Acknowledging this truth has important religious and political implications for our generation, but that is hardly the most important point. Their relationship is more than a footnote to the twenty-first century culture wars. The love and devotion they demonstrated to one another, openly expressed in the pages of the Bible, is filled with vulnerability and passion. Such a rare example of love inspires and moves us. Just like any other great love story.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Secret Life of a Pastor - Chapter Three

A regular refrain heard among ministers is: “I wish they had taught us this in seminary.” This phrase is applied to many different situations. “I wish they had taught us how to lead a committee meeting without it looking like we are leading the meeting.” “I wish they had taught us that the most psychologically unhealthy people are often the most powerful individuals in a congregation.” “I wish they had taught us how to baptize a 6’9’’ inch man in three feet of water.” And so on.

If I had to pick just one thing I wish I had been told before I became a pastor it would be this: “I wish they had told me how lonely it would be.”

Parish ministry is deceiving. Clergy spend much of their time with people and have a never-ending stream of meetings, counseling sessions, and social engagements. They cultivate the ability to be friendly and caring even on their worst days. All of which leaves the impression that ministry is anything but lonely. But it is. It can be brutally lonely.

The source of this loneliness is simple. Ministers have few true friends. We spend night and day with people in our congregations with whom we have close relationships, but these clergy-parishioner friendships have defined limits. I often despised these limits, but in my heart I knew they were unassailable.

For deep and abiding friendships to flourish several things must be present. There must be a sense of equality between the two people. If one person has power over the other, the seeds of sabotage are already planted in the friendship. Pastor-parishioner relationships are anything but equal. Even in the Protestant tradition where the priesthood of all believers is emphasized, such sound theology does not change this dynamic. Ministers have a spiritual and moral authority over their parishioners. And, in the Free Church tradition, the congregation has the power to hire and fire the minister. Both sides have a form of power, but it does not create anything resembling equality. Depending on the situation, one is always in a superior position.

Another feature of deep friendships is that neither person is expecting a specific benefit from the relationship. Close friendships are born out of the joy of being understood and appreciated by another. In a climate of openness and trust we share our hopes, fears, successes, and sorrows. No tangible benefit is desired or necessary in order for the friendship to thrive. We simply enjoy being completely ourselves with our friend.

Pastor-parishioner friendships are filled with intimate sharing and wonderful moments. Yet, they are also full of expectation. Ministers are expected to do and be certain things for the parishioner, and the parishioner is expected to sustain the minister in tangible ways. This is not a relationship born of the simple desire to be open and transparent with another person. There are obvious and assumed covenants that exist between a pastor and her flock that demand specific actions and results.

I used to fight about this issue with Brad regularly. Brad was a member of one of my churches and a good friend. I enjoyed his company and could talk to him about all manner of things. But there were some experiences I couldn’t mention to Brad. There was rarely a conversation I had with him where I did not censure myself. Why? Because while it would have felt good to unburden myself about my doubts regarding something at church, or some confidential piece of information that was gnawing at me, such sharing would have undermined my primary relationship with Brad. I was his pastor first and his friend second.

Brad hated this reasoning and thought I was intentionally limiting our friendship. And he was right. I abided by those limits as a fulfillment of my calling to serve as his pastor. But doing so left me sad and lonely at times, longing for friends with whom I could pour out all my best and worst parts.

I think it is this loneliness that weighs on clergy more than anything. The job is overwhelming and lay people struggle to understand it. As ministers we can talk around the edges of our experience, but there are always omissions. I could be open and vulnerable in the pulpit, but only to a point. My congregations benefitted from hearing that my marriage was not perfect and I struggled with the same issues they did in maintaining a healthy relationship with my wife. However, they didn’t need to know if we were in marriage counseling because of a serious conflict that had the potential to end our relationship.

Some pastors would disagree with me at this point. They would argue that complete openness and transparency about everything is the key to authentic ministry. The problem is that once you share every secret and private heartache with your congregation the church starts taking care of you. Or worse, they start avoiding you. If people know their minister is having troubles at home they may hesitate to call in an emergency out of fear that their problem will only exacerbate the minister’s troubles at home. You can see where this leads. Before long the pastor’s ability to minister and guide is undermined because he wanted to be completely open with his members.

The only antidote for loneliness is connection and understanding. For clergy that means finding one another in settings where we can be completely transparent without fear of reprisal. Clergy groups formed for such sharing are a lifeline for the lonely minister. It took me years to realize my need for such a group, but once I discovered it my longing for uncensured friendships was satisfied.

Yes, I wish they had told me how lonely the life of a minister could be. More so, I wish they had told me that the friends who could fill that hole were not in the pews but in other pulpits. After all, who could understand better than other lonely ministers longing for a friend?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Secret Life of a Pastor - Chapter Two

Of the six churches I served as pastor, three were small and rural. They were all white, both the buildings and the people. One was made up of the descendants of German immigrant farmers. Another was dominated by two brothers and their families. And there was one, I kid you not, that was featured in a Meatloaf rock video. The people of that congregation are still trying to figure out how decent parents could name their kid Meatloaf.

Naruna Baptist was the smallest and most isolated of these churches. It was also the most picturesque. Surrounded by ancient oak trees, you couldn’t help but smile when you drove up to it. The old cemetery beside it only added to its charm. This was what you imagined when you thought of a country church. I loved it the first time I saw it.

Inside was a different matter. There was a resistance to modernization that defined the place. The old-timers spoke fondly of the days when the outhouse, still standing out back, was in full use. Indoor plumbing was viewed as an unnecessary luxury by some veterans, though their children and grandchildren were quick to disagree. The church had no air conditioning, but it did have gas heaters on the sides of the sanctuary. Opening and closing the windows was the answer to any temperature issues that might arise.

Preaching at Naruna was weird. The pulpit was set on a platform a couple of feet off the main wooden floor of the tiny sanctuary. What made this strange was not how far off the ground you felt, but how close to the ceiling you were. There wasn’t a high ceiling like you find in most sanctuaries, and I often had the illusion that I might bump my head if I wasn’t careful.

Two members always caught my attention when preaching at Naruna. Duard was a deacon who sat on the back row to my right. On my first Sunday he had assured me that I should not be alarmed if I saw him with his eyes closed during my sermon. He insisted it helped him to pay attention if he listened without looking at anything. I never got the guts to ask him if the snoring we all heard from him also helped him listen better.

The other dominant personality was the matriarch of the church, Mrs. Vann. Nearing 90, she sat on the front left side next to one of the gas heaters. She had circulation problems and kept the heater on throughout the year. Even in the Texas summer, when the temperatures outside routinely topped 100 degrees, Mrs. Vann had her heater fired up.

It was on one of these summer Sundays that I had the only mystical experience of my religious life. I was at the pulpit offering a prayer after the sermon. And then something bizarre happened. As I spoke words of gratitude to God, I could feel myself leave my body. My soul or spirit or mind, whatever you want to call it, slipped up to the ceiling and watched from there. Now remember, it was only a few feet to travel from my body to the ceiling, but even so this was a stunning experience.

I have never felt so bifurcated in my life. As I continued to pray from the pulpit, I had the sensation that I was viewing me and everyone else from my perched position. Thoughts were flooding through my disembodied self. “Is this what the Apostle Paul meant when he said he had been to the seventh heaven?” “Am I reaching a new level of spiritual depth because I can now exit my body and look around even while I am praying below?” “Will these Southern Baptists fire me for having a Pentecostal experience?” As I contemplated all of this and more, I slowly felt myself descend back into my body. After saying a quick “amen” I stumbled off the platform and slunk into a chair, exhausted. Mystical encounters apparently are depleting to those privileged enough to experience them.

On the ride home that evening with KaKi, who was my fiancĂ©e at the time, I wrestled with what to say about my dramatic episode. Would she think I was mentally unhinged? Would she feel inferior because she couldn’t hover around the ceiling? I wasn’t sure, but my conscience compelled me to tell her about it. She had a right to know about the unusual spiritual abilities of her future husband.

She listened without interruption to my curious tale, but when I reached the conclusion of the story she blurted out, “Oh God, Jack, you weren’t having a mystical experience. Mrs. Vann had her heater on so high this morning that we were all light-headed. I almost passed out myself!”

Though her facts were incontrovertible, and I never again was able to float around during my public prayers, I still wonder if KaKi was just jealous.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Secret Life of a Pastor - Chapter One

Riding down the narrow two-lane road my mind is racing and my body won’t stop shaking. Don, the driver, is talking about livestock mating habits, deer hunting, and other inanities. Nothing he says is sticking with me. My anxiety is so high that my five senses feel on fire and shut down all at the same time.

I am the new minister at the tiny Naruna Baptist Church. At 20, I have become the latest in a long line of student pastors who have served this congregation. One of my best friends, Kip, was the pastor before me. When he graduated from our college, he recommended me to the church. It all seemed so simple. I would drive down on Sunday morning to preach, spend the day with one of the families, and then preach again that night. Preaching doesn’t scare me as much as it once did. I have been doing it for five years on an irregular basis. Sure, doing two sermons a week is going to be a stretch, but when your church is made up of a few dozen country folks, I assume the expectations won’t be exceedingly high.

But I hadn’t planned on this possibility. When I arrived at the church this morning, only my third Sunday as pastor, Don met me at the door and pulled me to the side. He is the music director who leads the hymns as his wife plays the piano. Don is about forty, a large man with a thick beard, and his gregarious nature is always on display. Only in this moment, he is strangely subdued.

Don explains that there has been a death in the church. The Barfields’ adult daughter, Susan, was found on the floor of her trailer the night before. Susan’s twin boys were in their cribs unharmed when her body was discovered. Don explains that we will need to visit the Barfields after lunch and plan the funeral.

I’m having a terrible time absorbing this rush of information. Someone with connections to the church has died, but it is not one of the elderly members who dominate the congregation’s demographics. It is a young woman in her early twenties, apparently the unwed mother of twin boys, and no one knows how it happened. Or no one will say it out loud. This will be my first, but hardly the last experience with the awkward silences around an apparent suicide.

As Don and I turn down the dirt road that leads to the Barfields’ home, he asks if I know what I am going to say. The question only serves to increase my stress because it crystalizes the fact that I have no idea what to say. I turn the question back to Don and ask if he has any suggestions. For the first time I realize this situation also feels overwhelming to him. No wonder he was chattering incessantly as we drove along. He hesitates before finally saying, “Reading some scripture is always a good thing to do. Psalm 23 is probably the best.”

The shades are drawn in the Barfields’ den and there is only a single lamp on. The darkness in the room matches the mood of the house, but these are nice people who seem to understand better than I the absurdity of this encounter. What does a twenty-year-old preacher boy know about the death of a child? They carry the conversation and Don sits oddly silent in the corner of the room. I clutch my Bible with sweaty palms wondering when the right moment will come to read. It never does. The longer I sit with the Barfields the more I understand there are no words, scriptural or otherwise, that can make a difference. Their daughter is dead and now, in their late forties, they are going to raise two baby boys.

After deciding on a day and time for the funeral, I offer a prayer that feels utterly useless. When I look up, though, there are tears in Mrs. Barfield’s eyes and she whispers “thank you.” Something I have said or done in these moments has touched her, though in my anxious state I can’t imagine what it could be. It will take years before I understand the simple truth that just showing up in times of tragedy is all we can do and all anyone has a right to expect.

The next day my anxiety returns as it dawns on me I now have to plan and conduct a funeral. I can remember only one funeral that I have attended, a Catholic service for our next-door neighbor when I was 13. Nothing about that experience seems relevant to what I am faced with now. Feeling completely inadequate for the task, I go see my New Testament professor, Dr. Rainey. He is a kind man, sweet in temperament, and he senses my panic immediately. He tells me about his first funeral and how overwhelmed he felt. Then he walks me through each element of a funeral, me taking notes furiously as he talks. This moment still ranks in my top five of nicest things anyone has ever done for me.

I skip class the following day to drive down for the service. I do exactly as Dr. Rainey told me to do. I hear myself saying lines, verbatim, that came out of Dr. Rainey’s mouth. It is almost as though he is leading the funeral and borrowing my body to do it. I don’t care. At this point plagiarism is the least of my concerns.

What I do notice is an odd deference being paid to me by my congregants. Up until this point I have been the new, young preacher who is getting on-the-job training before he heads to seminary in a year. Now, in a tragic circumstance for which none of us has an explanation, they are looking to me for comfort and direction. For the first time I actually feel like their pastor. It feels good. It also feels like an overwhelming burden.

Lunch is served in the fellowship hall after the funeral and Mrs. Vann’s individually-wrapped fried pies are the talk around the table. This is a disorienting transition for me. Moments earlier I was burying a young woman who may have taken her own life, and now I am discussing fried apple pie with my parishioners. Is this wrong? Is it disrespectful of the magnitude of the moment? In time I will learn that in the face of death, conversations about pie, football, and other trivial matters make as much sense as anything else.

My first funeral was for Susan, a young woman I never knew. Her tragic death was my initial experience of trying to be a pastor. I thought it would get easier after that. It never did.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Longing for the Light

Karen Waters has just started a newspaper called "the Triangle" that will be an LGBT resource for the Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill area. Karen has invited me to be a contributor to the paper. Here is my article from the May edition.

A recent Facebook encounter with an old college friend left me angry and depressed. This friend, let’s call him Doug, saw on my profile that I support same-sex marriage and have a pastoral counseling practice that is focused on LGBT clients. Doug was not happy to discover this about me.

He wondered if I had thought about the extreme judgment from God I was sure to encounter for supporting sinful behavior. In response, I sent him a Bible study I have led many times that takes issue with the Religious Right’s assumptions about what the scriptures say concerning homosexuality. It was on after that. Lots of judgment from Doug. Lots of barely contained snide remarks from me. Needless to say, we won’t be swapping pictures at the next reunion.

Having been a teenage evangelist and come out of the extreme fundamentalism that Doug still claims as his spiritual home, I shouldn’t have been surprised by this maddening conversation. I have many former friends and colleagues who pray for my lost soul. More power to them. Maybe if they are spending their time praying for me it gives them less opportunity to spread their bigotry.

What got me with Doug, though, is that he is a medical doctor who practices family medicine. He claimed to have treated “hundreds of homosexual people” in his years and was more convinced than ever that homosexuality has its “origins in sin.” Sheesh. I wonder what they are teaching in medical school these days?

All of this left me in a stew about the state of the Church when it comes to issues of human sexuality. If educated doctors still view their gay patients through the lens of “chosen sin,” and the Catholic Church still keeps confusing the abuse of children with sexual orientation, it makes you wonder if people of faith anywhere are open to the humanity and beauty of their LGBT neighbors.

When I came out of my funk I remembered that we live in just such a place. Right here in the Triangle there are many religious individuals and institutions openly supportive of their LGBT sisters and brothers.

Several years ago, when I was still pastor of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church, I got together with some other clergy to see if we could put a public face on a more progressive vision of Christianity. The result was a Web site called where almost twenty churches went on record as being welcoming and affirming of people regardless of “sexual identity.”

I also recalled that in 2004, when I and five others formed the North Carolina Religious Coalition for Marriage Equality, we went around the state to see how many clergy would sign on to a statement in support of same-sex marriage. To our delight, more than 200 religious leaders penned their name to the document.

What does this mean? At the very least it means that even in the South, where conservative religious viewpoints continue to suppress the civil rights of LGBT people, the hegemony of hate is showing cracks. More and more progressive people of faith are finding their voice and advocating for change in the Church. The tide is starting to turn.

My friend Doug will continue to pray for me to see the light and turn from my wicked ways. The thing is, I saw the light years ago when I recognized that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender folk are blessed and beautiful just as they are. May that light of love and acceptance spread to every dark corner of the Church.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Secret Life of a Pastor - Introduction

I can see him standing there. He is 15, awkwardly encased in a blue sports coat and paisley tie, and the wooden pulpit hits him at chest level. The congregation is quiet, waiting with anticipation, wondering what to expect from this first-time preacher. Then he begins.

For the next thirteen minutes he explains with false enthusiasm that at least 80 percent of them are headed to hell. Though he thought they would be shocked by this jarring message, they seem to be taking the bad news well. His sophomore English teacher is smiling at him, though she winces when he pronounces the word chasm with a “ch” instead of a “k”. The school nurse, the one who tended to his asthma attacks in grade school, also has an encouraging look on her face. She apparently is satisfied that she is in the minority that will escape the fires of perdition. He quotes Billy Graham, Billy Sunday, and maybe even Billie Holiday, though it’s hard to remember all these years later. When he finishes he is spent and feels as though he has just undressed in front of his family and friends. He is me.

I admire the courage of that young man who stood up on Youth Sunday at the First Baptist Church of Pecos, Texas to give his first sermon. I cannot condone his spiritual hubris, but his audacity in telling his Sunday school teachers, family members, and closest friends that they were in danger of hell fires was a sign of things to come. I was never good at sticking to safe topics when I preached.

Now, thirty years later, having traveled the road from right-wing fundamentalist to flaming liberal, it is over. Eighteen years as a pastor, over a thousand sermons preached, and I have quit. My soul wore out after years of tending to other people’s souls, so I walked away. There was no scandal. I wasn’t fired or run off. I just quit at the age of 44 with no job waiting for me.

And though it is a relief to walk away from the burdens that come with being a pastor, I cannot walk away from the stories that have been stored up over the years. I feel a strange compulsion to share the secret thoughts and experiences from my years in ministry. Maybe I need to undress one more time before the world so that I can finally be done with it.

The pastor’s job is to make faint the invisible. I wish I could say we make visible the invisible, but that claims more than we can deliver. At best, we are taking the hidden and giving it the hint of form. Pastors take submerged truths and lift them to a place where they can be seen, at an angle, through the fog, for just a moment. We interpret a text that for a fleeting second seems real to someone. We sit with a parishioner burdened by past trauma, convinced that she is worthless, and show her from her own testimony a life that is meaningful. The invisible world the pastor tries to reveal is full of glory, and horror, but it is all true.

The stories in this periodic series are the strange, bitter, humorous, and meaningful tales that made up my life in the church. I have changed enough details to protect the confidentiality of people who entrusted their secrets to me, but the stories are real. Six churches were kind enough to invite me to serve as their pastor. I offer these reflections in gratitude for the trust they placed in me and in hope that my experiences will resonate with others who stand with shaking knees behind wooden pulpits.

Monday, April 26, 2010

A Different Life

I'm 45 and starting over. After 30 years of preaching, almost 20 years as a pastor, I have walked away from the only career I have known into a wilderness of the unknown. Is it scary? Hell yes. Do I lie awake at night wondering how this will all unfold? Absolutely. Do I have doubts about my decision? No.

Why did I do it? Why did I leave a church I love, and a group of people I admire, to launch out in this new direction? Because in a moment of complete clarity I knew that my life as a minister was over. No voice from heaven shouted it; no sudden sign accompanied it; just a deep knowing that I could not deny. So, now what?

I have started a pastoral counseling practice (therapy with an openness to faith questions) in Raleigh, North Carolina. When I decided to take off the clerical garb and become a normal person, I realized the one part of my life as a minister that I could not give up was counseling. It was the part of the job that never got old for me. So, I'm still doing it, just under a different title.

I'm also doing consulting work with churches and individual clergy. After two decades in ministry I have enormous respect for the women and men who serve congregations, and I care deeply about the health of local parishes. So, it's a natural fit. I may not be able to give myself to the church 24/7 any longer, but I want to support those who are still doing that vital work.

My blog will chronicle this transition in my life and hopefully provide interesting "takes" on issues where religion and the culture intersect. I look at things differently than many people with my background and I hope that difference will make for good reading. Vista Lateral is not only the name of this place, it is a way for me to be in the world.


About Me

former pastor who is now a pastoral counselor and consultant (; married with two teenagers; progressive in my politics and theology