Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Not my bruhaha, but I can feel this

While walking San Francisco, I encountered this church sign today. By choosing to center the message "Pray for Bishop Karen Oliveto" on a billboard on a busy boulevard, this church is proclaiming its stance within a fraught process in its denomination of coming to terms with the varieties of human sexuality. I have lots of empathy. I am lucky enough to have wandered into a Christian community that has prayed and blundered its way to relative peace with the full humanity of LBGT people. These United Methodists are currently stuck in the harrowing stage.

The controversy about Bishop Karen Oliveto is one of those things which are largely invisible to people outside a particular community, but which can feel agonizing for those inside. Since Temple United Methodist has put its concern literally out on the street, I feel okay about writing something about what is going on here.

When gay people began to make ourselves more visible in the 1970s, most U.S. Protestant churches reflexively recoiled. We're not talking about prayerful, thoughtful discernment here; we're talking about panicky reassertion of poorly considered sexual pieties. But gay Christians didn't shut up and go away. The very bravest among us insisted they had as much right to, and as much need of, the promises of their traditions as any other believers. And because these impossible people didn't disappear, many religious communities have found themselves rethinking much.

Bishop Oliveto is a married lesbian and an experienced pastor whose denomination raised her up to lead 400 congregations in a region centered in Denver. There is nothing secret about her life. Here's how she explained "coming out" to NPR:

... when I got to seminary, I realized that I was seeing the lives of faithful LGBTQ people really for the first time. And their stories sounded a lot like my story. ...

By the end of my first year of seminary, I couldn't take it any longer. I ran away. I hopped on a bus in Oakland, Calif., and ran as far away as I could, all the way to Nova Scotia, Canada, where my grandparents lived. And I cried for mile after mile after mile. The Bible that was sitting on my lap just became tear stained. And for the first time in my life, God felt distant. And that I didn't understand because the rest of my life, God had always been a very present figure in my life.

But when my tears were finally spent and I took a deep breath and I was able to say, I'm a lesbian, I had the peace which passes all understanding descend upon me. And I realized God was back. But God had never left me. We leave God when we don't live into who God created us to be. So I returned to seminary and so was able to live - you know, live into my identity fully and without shame, without fear. And that was a great gift.

U.S. United Methodism's Western Region chose Oliveto to serve as a Bishop. But more conservative regions effectively said "hey -- don't we have rules about this?" And the church does have rules -- rules which create internal church disciplinary processes that will work themselves out and may, or may not, lead to censure of Oliveto and/or splits in the community.

This stuff hurts. It's not my business to opine how Methodists will emerge from this round, though I would not bet against this faithful woman and the loving Spirit she evokes.

Kudos to Temple United Methodists for putting what some might call "dirty linen" on the street. Sure, they are in San Francisco and not likely to encounter fierce local push-back. It would be easy to think something like "aren't you a little behind the times?" But when you are inside a convulsion, stepping out takes some bravery and some faith. Prayers for Bishop Karen and community seem right on time.

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