I remember a small quilted wall hanging a friend made for me “Fear Not Tomorrow God Is Already There.” I grew up believing God was everywhere. Then I began to question that tenet. Then I found out it is true. This is the first in a series of my encounters with God. Some encounters are conspicuous, others are more obscure. This one was conspicuous.
Albuquerque, New Mexico 1996
In late June 1996, I found myself at the 208th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Although, I wasn’t a delegate, I was slated for a short address to the Committee on Sexuality. By short, I mean 2 minutes, maybe 3, I forget. I was to address why the PCUSA should allow the full inclusion of LGBT (that was the extent of the acronym in 1996) persons. In preparation for my appearance I spent the night before writing out my short statement.
Since prejudice is a matter of the heart and not the mind, I knew I needed something to touch their hearts and inclination toward guilt. In November of 1992, my lover died of complications from AIDS. Both of us had been diagnosed HIV positive in 1987 after the discovery of Azidothymidine, otherwise known as AZT. (It had become available for use in just that March.) That night all the pain, concerns, losses, and confusion associated with being a social and religious outcast regurgitated in my mind. I knew I had to honor my lover’s struggles, for my own peace of mind, particularly those struggles associated with the Church. [Before he died, one night between night sweats, Donald, that was my lover’s name, asked me, “If there is a Heaven, do you think I’ll go there?” I had only one reply as a gay man who worked for the telephone company and didn’t go to any Church, at the time, “Heaven was made for you. They’re holding your place for you.”]
For years I dwelt upon the shame on the Church, that condemned, ostracized, and expelled, and even encouraged, in its own way, physical harm be done to us. Shame on the church that it had to be me who had to answer that question for him, and not some Clergy in the Church. Tomorrow, I would make them feel that! It was around three in the morning, while I was struggling for succinct wording, that God showed up in the form of what I understand to be the Holy Spirit. Of course, it may have been indigestion or exhaustion, and some resultant hallucination. It wasn’t, and I know that! It was unique, it was startling, and it was an overwhelming experience, that is still vivid in my memory today.
Let’s see if I can describe it: It was as if a waterfall opened up my mind. And, I was within it. All the water coming through was information related to the Bible, probably because it was on my mind, how that was the instrument, so harsh and brutal, used against us. In those moments, the realization came upon me that the Bible wasn’t a 2-dimensional work but 3-dimensional! What was written down was a retelling of what was first meant for those in the presence of the speaker there that day, and second for those who would hear it recited as stories by those who would retell it second hand. Then third, it would be meant for those who would hear or read the stories in the future, through the centuries. It was meant for me (for us). And it would let me (let us) know that I am (that we are) cared for by God.
When it would be studied, each of these dimensions were to be borne in mind. What was the experience of those in the story? What was the purpose for those who heard it in communities of the different disciples? What is the lasting message for us to parse today?
It was then that I went to sleep. I woke the next day, gave my statement, but was left in awe of what I had experienced the night before. My statement was exactly what I needed to say. A woman whose parents had been in a Nazi Concentration Camp told her story after me. Combined, our stories were transformative. Still, that wouldn’t be enough to win the day.
I returned to my then home church and attended Bible studies. My new, unorthodox understanding of Scriptures was recognized. I was encouraged to go to Seminary, went, graduated, and became a pastor.
In his article published in October 1996, Terry Schlossberg wrote, of that General Assembly, in his article Presbyterians Hold the Line:
“The final vote, however, provides a hopeful sign the old-line denomination may be inching toward new life, as the commissioners voted to exclude practicing homosexuals from ordination. In a victory for local churches over their national leadership, the General Assembly required of its ordained leaders “fidelity within the covenant of marriage of a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness,” and excluded the unrepentant from ordained office. If a majority of the denomination’s presbyteries approve the amendment within the next year, the explicit requirement will be added to the church constitution.”
Even though we had lost the 1996 battle at the General Assembly, we left Albuquerque that year knowing that we had won the “war”. One day the Presbyterian Church would become more the church it should have been all along. Though today the Church welcomes and accepts LGBTQIA persons, its membership is still over 95% white.
It still has lots of problems to overcome in its theology and its practice of Christianity. Its saving grace is that its moving in the right direction.
My life changed that early morning in late June 1996. I was commissioned in the United Methodist Church, as an Openly Gay Elder in 2001 and ordained in 2004. The United Methodist Church is still a mess. It is a highly political world-wide institution cloaked as a religious denomination. LGBTQIA persons are still banned from ordination by the world body and can be excluded from full inclusion within the church. And, various Jurisdictions in the US and Europe of the UMC are refusing to adhere to the policy. There have been General Conferences where the delegates were so hard-hearted that the Holy Spirit couldn’t have made an appearance if the Creator showed up looking like DaVinci’s mural on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel!
Then there have been times when I witnessed God’s saving grace as seniors, adults, young adults, youth, and children were transformed by what we did as a little local United Methodist church. There are more stories of places and times where I came across God, in quite different places. I’ll tell you next time, another place, where that was. May God continue to bless you. Stay safe.