Shattered Fellowship

This is long, and it is controversial – it’s ABOUT controversy, for goodness’ sake. Again I ask for grace from my readers. -Peter

Two weeks ago, I wrote about brokenness in gaming. And now I have to write about it in the church. This is an ugly season we find ourselves in. You have no idea how much I wish I could just be writing more 5e stuff right now, but that’s not how things are going.

As I type this, the United Methodist Church – the denomination I belong to – is flirting with schism.

I know from interacting with our listenership over the years that we come from a broad swath of different denominations. The hosting staff, too, for that matter. If we go back through the entire run, we’ve had a Presbyterian (Grant), a Methodist (Me), a Seventh-Day Adventist (Branden), a Southern Baptist (Mike), and an Anglican (Jenny) as regular hosts. I know from talking to listeners that we have LDS, Catholic, and various other traditions represented. And that’s just among the couple dozen who interact with us through social media or Discord.

We also have some listeners and friends who aren’t Christians at all. Jack Berkenstock is a Buddhist. Kris Newton (of Gameable fame) is an atheist. And we’ve spoken to and gamed with many others in the last six years. Agnostics, at least one Hindu, various types of pagan, and probably some others I don’t even know about have sat at the table and we’ve been glad to have them there.

It’s an incredibly broad swath of humanity, and it encompasses a wide range of beliefs and life experiences. And yet, I’d love to have even more. I am very much of the belief that God as represented in Jesus loves everyone. More than I do, frankly, try as I might. But God loves even the people that annoy me, infuriate me, make me uncomfortable, and do things that bother me.

And I further believe God has the audacity to want me to love them too. I am to welcome them to the table, whether that’s the gaming table or the table set for the Lord’s Supper.

I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. – Ezekiel 36:26

I have come to believe this message of radical welcome in larger part than ever before because I am a United Methodist.

Joining this denomination has been instrumental in changing my faith from something fundamentally self-centered into something more fundamentally selfless. During my time in the UMC, I have been exposed to the works of theologians both ordained and lay like Adam Hamilton and Richard Beck, but also to the teachings and examples of kind, godly UMC pastors like our friend Derek White and my local pastors (due to UMC clergy rotations, there have been three – Keck, Bob, and Doc).

UMC laity have poured into me and given me opportunities to serve that I never had before, and I’ve had opportunities to actually be involved in my church rather than just showing up. My faith has become more of “the life that really is life” as Adam Hamilton would say. I feel like it asks more and expects more of me – kindness, mercy, generosity, and love. I pray and study both scripture and general Christian books more than I ever have in my life. And it has, of course, contributed to me being involved with Saving the Game from the outset.

I am a stronger Christian – I am just plain more of a Christian – than I ever have been before in my life.

I’m not holding myself up as some exemplar or standard, by the way. There is significant room for growth. But I feel like I am growing, for the first time in a long time. My heart of stone has been traded for a heart of flesh. I love this denomination, for so many reasons.

During my time in the UMC, I have re-examined and re-considered my beliefs about a lot of things. You’ve heard my grappling on the podcast and seen it on this blog, if you’ve been watching for it. I’ve come to different viewpoints on violence and power, just to name two big ones. I’ve learned to consume media that isn’t explicitly Christian with my “Christianity goggles” on in much the same way that I watch media with my “gamer goggles” on, which is why I call Losing my Humanity “prophetic” despite the fact that the members of Kobra and the Lotus aren’t members of any particular faith tradition(s) – at least not that they talk about. I have learned to see God in more places.

And in my time in this tradition, I have also shifted pretty radically on what I think the role of LGBTQ people in the church should be. Why and how that happened is a long story, but here are the salient points. First, I met some LGBTQ people. I have a bisexual person and a lesbian in my family. I worked with two gay men and two trans men at B&N. I have shared gaming tables with a gay man, a lesbian woman, and a trans woman. Two of those people were parts of long-running gaming groups.

Not all of these people are my closest and most dear friends, but some of them are. My lesbian aunt and her partner are two of the nicest people you’d ever have the privilege of meeting. The lesbian woman I know through gaming is a kind, warm, decent person who went full “mother hen” on me when I was sick and works in mental health as her day job. I consider her a good friend. One of the gay guys I worked with at B&N was another “supergeek” and I spent a lot of breaks and lunches talking about Magic: the Gathering and comic books with him.

These people are welcome presences in my life. I am glad to know them.

This caused a lot of tension with what I learned growing up. I come from a very conservative tradition, and was exposed to a lot of very conservative church media growing up as well. I listened to Moody radio and Focus on the Family as a kid and a young adult. (I still have a soft spot for certain pieces of music from that era of my life; in particular, to this day I still listen to old Petra albums.) The message from all of these sources was very clear – LGBTQ identities, or by some reckonings even feelings in that general direction were not simply sinful, they were so bad that there was no place in the church for “those people.” LGBTQ folks were painted as hopelessly lost and misguided at best and subhuman degenerates worthy of wrath at worst.

Quite the contrast to the kind, funny, ordinary people I know personally.

It’s worth noting here that I am as cishet as the day is long, which makes understanding the LGBTQ perspective unintuitive for me. I’ve never felt like I was anything other than male, and despite not being into certain traditionally male things like alcohol and sports, feeling unmasculine has never been a significant struggle for me. I’ve never felt even a twinge of sexual attraction to another man. So it was very easy to uncritically let what I’d been taught sit there and not think about it very much. It was like Lithuanian politics – very important to some people, but not to me, and not to anyone I knew personally.

At least, not until family members started coming out.

(To be totally blunt, I still don’t like thinking or talking about it very much. I have inherited some of the puritanical sensibilities of my forefathers and I can say with complete seriousness that I really hope that once I hit “publish” on this post, it’ll be months or maybe, if I’m really lucky, even years before I feel like I have to weigh in on something sexual in nature. The Adultery episode, the Zak S thing from a couple weeks ago, and now this are really testing the limits of my fortitude in talking about sexual topics. I don’t have an enormous amount of personal skin in this game. I’ve been married to my wife for almost 15 years at this point. I could easily put my head down, shut my trap, and nobody in the church would bother me about my orientation because it’s the “default.” And for years, I basically did that, because of the aforementioned puritanical sensibilities. But I feel like this has reached a point where I can’t any more, much as I’d like to.)

To get back on topic, however, I’ve come to agree with some of the theological arguments I’ve seen – some from other United Methodists – that a loving, mutual LGBTQ relationship is certainly no worse than any of my sins and may not even be sinful at all. To summarize badly: there are 5-8 verses in the Bible that can be (and are) interpreted as anti-LGBTQ. By contrast, there are several hundred verses that refer to slavery. Of those, a single-digit number can be interpreted as being anti-slavery. Yet we as Christians almost unanimously agree that slavery is evil. And there are old-testament verses that refer to eating crab in the same terms as one of the anti-LGBTQ verses. Yet most of us eat shellfish, too. (Crab is delicious, after all.) There is room to conclude that certain things that were normal at the time when scripture was being written are not the timeless word of God.

There’s also reason to believe that the specific behaviors the old testament writers and Paul were referring to had more to do with brutality, power dynamics, and pagan worship than mere sexuality. I have listened to sermon series and read entire books on scriptural interpretation that have pointed me to some of these conclusions. If this has piqued your interest (or made you wonder what the heck I’m even thinking), check out The Bible Tells Me So by Peter Enns and Making Sense of the Bible by Adam Hamilton. Those books spell out the “lens” I’m seeing through better than I can as a small part of a post about a larger issue. (It’s also worth noting I’m not way over on the end of the spectrum where I think casual sex and porn are fine, but I’m not exactly sinless myself, so I’m not going to be chucking any rocks anyone’s way.)

You may not agree with this reasoning. If my general sense of our listenership is accurate, a significant number of you don’t. You know what I have to say to that?

“I still consider you my brother/sister in Christ.”

And that sentence above is the essence of the One Church Plan. The idea there is that deeply-committed, sincere people of faith can disagree about this and other issues, but we can agree on much more and share a church together as long as we all agree to love one another. Agree to disagree by way of Galatians 3:28, if you will. That’s the plan I’ve most been hoping for.

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. -Galatians 3:28

In essence, it’s asking those who think the 5-8 anti-LGBTQ verses in scripture represent God’s timeless directives to consider LGBTQ conduct the same type of sinful as things like violent media, gossip, tattoos, wearing skimpy swimwear, cheating on taxes, pirating copyrighted works, unkind words, lying, and all of the other “normal” sins – part of the human condition and not cause for exclusion from the church.

Is there something on that list that you don’t think is sinful? That’s kind of my point. I have changed my mind on at least a couple of those. I’m unsure on a couple more.

One reason I’ve been hoping for the One Church Plan is that one of the things I like about the UMC is that it’s not an echo chamber. Even in my local congregation, I am regularly in discussions – and fellowship – with people I don’t agree with. Men’s breakfast, Bible Study, and so on. And I think that’s good for all of us. Because regardless of what the zealots of any given position will tell you, there’s not universal consensus on much in Christianity, and we have the zillions of denominations and two millennia of recorded thought to prove it. Saints and brilliant theologians stand in direct opposition to one another in non-heretical positions. Passing the One Church Plan would preserve that and give the broad spectrum of Christianity that exists in the UMC continued access to one another. Considering we follow a guy who had both Simon the Zealot and Matthew the Roman tax collector among his inner circle, that seems very appropriate to me

The traditionalist plan that looks like it’s going to pass takes a much harder line, though. It essentially ejects anyone LGBTQ from the church and tells them they are not welcome back, requires public denouncement of LGBTQ people as a condition for retired clergy to continue collecting their retirement benefits and lays out a host of other punitive measures designed to enforce what is seen by those in support of it as proper orthodoxy. Reading a summary of it left me feeling like I’d been punched in the face. It shoves whole congregations out of the denomination. It allows no debate, no disagreement, no wrestling with scripture … and no mercy for those who identify as LGBTQ and yet still love God enough to have done the considerable work to become a UMC pastor with all of its student debt, being shuffled from church-to-church, and intense congregational demands.

Frankly, me just writing this blog post is possibly grounds for being sent away. That plan is severely worded indeed.

This, rather predictably, has a lot of moderate UMC laity (like me) and clergy pretty upset, and the more progressive elements even more so.

To give one particularly immediate example: the pastor of my little church and a couple of the laity do a weekly show called “Holy Happy Hour” every week where they discuss various things. It’s usually lighthearted and fun. This week’s episode was not.

So in the light of all of this, I have two humble requests:

  1. Pray for us. Pray for us hard. This affects the livelihoods of a lot of sincere, godly pastors and their families and the church homes of a lot of deeply-committed Christians. The outcome of this general conference could literally destroy the UMC in the United States.
  2. Continue to show the kindness and welcome toward outsiders and new folks and those who disagree within our community that I know you all have shown in the past. StG listeners are a beacon of hope and a tiny picture of The Kingdom of God for me. Even if my denomination cannot survive this debate, I sincerely hope the StG community continues to be the ecumenical big (gaming) table we’ve always been.

Finally, those who may read this in the coming days who are LGBTQ of one stripe or another: I don’t want you to feel “less than.” You are a child of God and worthy of love. You are welcome in fellowship and at the gaming table with me.

Hopefully in two more weeks, I can actually put out another setting design post. That would really make me happy.

-Peter

Photo by Jilbert Ebrahimi on Unsplash

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