June 2019: The Practice of Coming Out

We’ve reached the end of Pride Month – a month observed all over the world as a celebration of the survival and joy of LGBTQ people in the face of things that are hard: erasure, violence, and marginalization – both today and throughout history.

In that way, the history of LGBTQ people is like the history of lots of peoples: filled with moments of uncertainty and then grace, danger and then deliverance.

Pride Month is therefore not just a time for banks to hand out rainbow knick-knacks or for 80s pop stars to steal the limelight again. It’s a moment to look back, breathe, draw strength, remember… and for LGBTQ Christians, it’s a time to celebrate deliverance. 

For me, Pride Month every year usually comes to a head with the observation of the Pride Parade and Festival in Portland. This year, our own Margaret Menger faithfully led the HopeGateWay contingent and joined with other churches in the area to march in the parade.

I wasn’t there this year. I was celebrating Pride in a different way, with my wife Hayli, and with Allen and Pastor Sara, at the New England gathering of The United Methodist Church. We were in New Hampshire, bearing witness to and voting in LGBTQ delegates – or representatives – to the global forum where our denomination makes some of its farthest-reaching decisions.

There’s a lot that being queer has taught me about God, the same way that all of us learn about God through our identities and experiences. That’s what we mean by “theology”; it’s how we experience and talk about God.

The great thing is that none of us fully know God in God’s entirety, but in relationship with each other, we can exchange whispers of the God we’ve spied along the way, kind of like kids carrying notes to each other about something great to come, or like travelers on a long journey, stopping along the way to talk about the foods they’ve eaten or the spices they’ve smelled or the wind they’ve felt at their backs.

We can’t help but experience God differently through our experiences and identities. That’s not a problem. That’s by design. Our theologies should not be sung in unison but as a symphony.

A Queer Spiritual Practice

One thing I’ve learned about God and neighbor from my identity and life experiences as a queer person is that God is relational and Church is relational. As a church, we are about doing community authentically, and doing community authentically means we have to be willing to be vulnerable.

That means we have to be willing to be vulnerable here at HopeGateWay and in other arenas of our lives, too. Similarly, we must be willing to be vulnerable with God our Creator and Loving Parent if we want to be authentic before God.

I’ve learned this specifically from the queer practice of “coming out.” Coming out just means telling the truth to someone about who you are. Sometimes, it takes courage to be vulnerable, and often times, when we’ve been holding onto a truth that we haven’t let out into the world, or even told ourselves, circumstances compel us to be open and to make a brave change.

This week, we’re finishing up our series on Brave Change, and I want to talk today about how sometimes we are compelled to be authentic by the desire to be in community. 

Sometimes, parts of who we are are easily noticeable to people when you meet them. You might notice someone’s accent as they speak your language. You might notice their race or their height. You might ask them for their pronouns – he, she, they, or something else.

Some of these are more easily noticeable than other things that are just as important: like the people we love, the people we fall in love with, and that we’re born being. Unlike the things that we may assume about each other upon first hearing each others’ voices or seeing each others’ faces, being LGBTQ is not often something people hear or see on someone they’ve just met.

Sometimes, I don’t want people to know that I’m queer because harassment and violence are possibilities, or because I just want to relax. Sometimes, I do want people to know – usually because we’ve gotten to a point in our friendship or conversation where I want them to authentically know me, and I don’t want there to be any misunderstandings or barriers in our relationship. I want them to know more of me.

So – without making a big deal of anything – I make a choice about when to “come out” to every person with whom I want to have a meaningful relationship. The same goes for other LGBTQ people you may know: movies and TV make it seem like “coming out” is just a one-time thing. But that’s not true; “coming out” happens all your life – at least it will be until we stop assuming that everyone is straight.

This happened with a person I was volunteering with at the Expo Center last week. After volunteering together for a few days serving breakfasts to asylum-seeking families, a new friend asked me about my life. I wanted to know more about him, too, so when he asked me what my husband did for work, I gently corrected him and told him about my wife. Like I said: more often than not, and especially here in Portland, not a big deal.

“Because we believe in each other.”

“Coming out,” for LGBTQ people, is an act of vulnerability and authenticity. Here at HopeGateWay, coming out as LGBTQ is not a big deal. Sometimes, coming out is a bigger deal. Especially when you aren’t sure how you’ll be received, if you’re worried that the people who love you only love you conditionally, and especially if you’re worried that your relationships will change.

For some people, coming out as a queer person in church means exile: being asked to change something about yourself that shouldn’t be changed or being asked to leave. When I came out to the Christian campus ministry that I co-led for three years while I was in college, I lost most of my Christian friends. Some of them tried to talk me out of who I am, and most of them just stopped talking to me. I’d thought our friendships were deep enough and meaningful enough that they’d last. 

I know I’m not the only person at HopeGateWay who’s had a bad coming out experience at another church. To a lot of us, HopeGateWay is a refuge, and we hope it will continue to be a refuge in the years to come.

So, if coming out can have bad results sometimes, then why do we do it? Why not just keep quiet? Sometimes, it’s the desire for community that compels us to be authentic – to make a Brave Change. In our setting, in the church we call HopeGateWay, we must take a page from the theology of our queer siblings and learn to be authentic, to make a Brave Change and “come out” about our own lives, about ourselves, so that we can be better at being together.

The queer Presbyterian minister Rev. Mihee Kim-Kort talks in her book Outside the Lines about how coming to terms with and embracing her queer identity strengthened her faith. In one chapter, she talks about how “coming out” has helped her to understand the point of church a little better:

“Not only do I need church, the church needs me. The church needs all of me. It needs all of my failures and flaws, all of my baggage, and even all of my struggles with ego and privilege, because that’s where the transformation happens – in the midst of skin and bones, brutal vulnerability and weakness. It happens in the woods and in the delivery room, yes, but most certainly, it was meant to happen in community, in the sanctuary, in the light of the candles, around the font and the table. The church was given to us as a way to care for each other, a way to be a glimmering of heaven on earth and God’s kingdom come. The church is meant to be food, meant to be breath, meant to be song, whether it’s a meal made up of creamy soup and noodles or mashed-up food and crackers or gathering around a podcast sermon.

“When asked, ‘Why church?’ a queer spirituality says, ‘Because we believe in each other.’ That answer applies whatever the season or struggle, whatever the questions or conflict, whatever tables need to be overturned, and whatever rules need to be broken for the sake of salvation, whatever the level of belief or understanding, whatever the desire or doctrine. A queer spirituality sees the urgency of the time – that lives are on the brink, and what matters is our bodies. So a queer spirituality is capacious and abundant in its confessional creedal expressions of love, of faith, of hope. When it comes to church, this means there’s more than enough room around the table, in this pew, in the font, within the hallowed walls, and even in the pulpit for you, for me, for all of us.”

We can be a better church for each other, a better community of striving believers following in the way of Jesus, when we “come out” about the things that would be easier to keep hidden, the things that make us feel ashamed, the things that make us human.

Sometimes, even when it would be easier, safer, to remain quiet and hidden, we have to “come out” about those things that would be easier to keep hidden away. While LGBTQ people uniquely have the experience of “coming out,” we all have something to learn from that experience.

God is writing through the lives of queer people that the things for which the world wants you to feel shame do not deserve shame: your humility, your gentleness, your desire for friendship, your dependence, your loneliness, your silliness, your softness, your questions, your doubts, your dreams.

Change Thrust Upon Us

We all have something that we’re holding on to, that we’re keeping hidden but that we wish someone else knew about us, because keeping that thing hidden is keeping ourselves hidden from community.

Sometimes we have to be authentic – all of us – in order to authentically show up in our own lives, including at church. Without authenticity, without outing the parts of ourselves that we censor – the rough parts of our being that snag each other – we have no choice but to swim and live at the surface of a very shallow pool.

To be a community following the radical way of Jesus, living the way he taught us, striving after his example – we need to go deep. And especially when we are on the cusp of great changes as a community, with a new leadership model, with Allen transitioning off staff as a pastor after twelve years, with Sara at our helm and a six-person crew of additional staff, and with this church still growing each year, we’ve gotta be ready now to go deep with each other. 

We have change thrust upon us, and HopeGateWay is stepping forward to meet it. It’s going to require us all rolling up our sleeves, pitching in, bending our ears to listen for when it’s time to step up. If we’re going to make a Brave Change, we’re going to have to go deep with each other.

But what we’re asking each other to do now, to welcome each other out from the shadows of hiding, we are not doing unsupervised. When God calls us out, God does not abandon us to go alone. God walks with us. We worship a God whom Jesus made a little more comprehensible to us – a God who wants to know us and wants us to be known.

The prophet Jeremiah records the thoughts of God as such: “Don’t let the wise brag of their wisdom. Don’t let heroes brag of their exploits. Don’t let the rich brag of their riches. If you brag, brag of this and this only: That you understand and know me.” (Jeremiah 9:23-24)

We have a God who drew so close to humanity that God became human, and God’s spirit came to dwell in us forever. Likewise, we are asked to draw close to each other – to know each other, to be vulnerable, to come out and call in.

In our upcoming sermon series, we are going to learn about and practice prayer: specifically, how we pray for each other. 

Now, please don’t leave and not come back! I know that can sound scary and maybe a little weird, but we’re going to do this together, as a community, because the moment has been thrust upon us where we must come out to each other and meet one another out on the open field of authenticity.

Sometimes, it feels easier to hide. It’s hard to admit the very things about which we really want someone to be praying for us – maybe not just our circumstances – a difficult coworker or the wait for a new apartment – but the gymnastics that our souls do while we go through those circumstances: the anger and bitterness over that coworker, the fear and isolation in that wait for that new apartment.

It’s hard to admit that we have doubts, or that we can feel numb to the suffering we hear about every day. It’s hard to admit that sometimes we’re going through the motions of our faith, or experiencing depression, or we really want to be friends.

It’s hard to admit it, and yet we aren’t the only ones who feel the way we do. We aren’t the only ones who’ve ever felt this way. We aren’t the only ones who’ve ever gone through this.

So, think about it. This week, the next week, the whole next sermon series through. We’re called to make a Brave Change here at HopeGateWay, and I’ve seen it and heard about it a thousand times before: we are a brave people. 

This quote is sometimes attributed to the French author Anaïs Nin, sometimes the American writer Elizabeth Appell. It says, “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

That’s why we come out. Hiding may feel easy for now, but if we hide, we miss out on each other, and that is even more painful. And the best part is, the more we tell, the more we learn about each others’ experiences of God, and each others’ understandings, the more we can expand our own understanding of God. 

In the tradition of the LGBTQ contemporaries in our midst, of those beloved saints who sometimes walk unbeknownst to us, whom God sometimes calls out of the closet. We’re going to get really close here at HopeGateWay. And we’re going to need to lean on each other.

Coming out says to that person you’re coming out to: “I think I trust you with this precious truth. I think you can be trusted. And at the end of my telling you, I’m going to need you to love me.”

Do we think we can do that, HopeGateWay? Can we be the ones entrusted with one another’s truths? With one another’s telling? 

I believe we can be – with all my heart, I really do. I have a queer spirituality that says, We need each other. We are for each other. “We can believe in each other.” 

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