This Is Our Time

Timothy Hart-Andersen
Pastor, Westminster Presbyterian Church, Minneapolis
Member, Executive Committee of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians

Address to the Covenant Network Lunch at the 215th General Assembly
Denver, Colorado
May 26, 2003

It’s good to be up here on the podium at this lunch. If every General Assembly were an episode of the Fellowship of the Ring, I’m afraid I’d be cast in the role of Gollum, the underground creature who is always hatching nefarious plots to take back the ring. Most of his work in done down in the dark bowels of convention centers, huddling with a group of polity wonks about some arcane plan. So, thank you, Elf Princess Arwen and Frodo Baggins, for inviting me up to the light of day!

A transforming moment.

I want to begin by taking us back to Albuquerque, in the summer of 1996. With apologies to Dickens, it was the best of times. It was the worst of times.

Most of us remember that Assembly as the GA that gave us Amendment B. But it was also the Assembly that declared the church’s unequivocal support for full civil and legal rights for gay and lesbian persons.

It was schizophrenic: the same GA came out (so to speak) in favor of discriminating against gays and lesbians in the church and opposed to discriminating against them in the public arena. It was a backdoor acknowledgment that although change is coming, the culture is moving faster than the church in including gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people.

It was also the Assembly of the protest after the vote. Those of us who were there will not forget that moment when the long line slowly began encircling the seated commissioners. The leaders of Presbyterians for Lesbian and Gay Concerns and the More Light Churches Network and others in the Movement, some who had been working for nearly 20 years for inclusivity, led that crowd all the way around the Assembly hall.

They sang the South African freedom song as they walked, Siyahamba kuke-ne-ne-kweko. “We are marching in the light of God.” Many of us who were commissioners rose from our seats and joined the singing, until the circle included over 1000 people.

For me that march was a transforming moment.

Learning in the First Person

I had only begun dealing honestly with my own homophobia a few years earlier when I was called to be the pastor of a church in downtown San Francisco. It was 1990. The AIDS pandemic among gay men was in full swing, and it hit Old First Church hard. It was my first parish; I had not even done a memorial service before.

The learning curve would be steep.

When the pastor search committee interviewed me, they asked my opinion of the denomination’s stance on gays and lesbians. I told them I supported the church’s position — at which point I expected they would put me on the next boat to Alcatraz for some serious rehab. Instead they called me as their pastor. Alcatraz would have been too easy!

God wanted me to grow, so I found myself as the minister of a church right in the heart of one of the largest gay communities in the world. The week after I arrived I was told to go visit Zach Long, an elder on our session, a true southern gentleman originally from North Carolina, a lifelong Presbyterian and alumnus of Davidson College. Zach was well known in the gay community. They chose him as Grand Marshall for the Pride parade that year. In our church he was involved in the worship committee and with runaway youth in a local ministry we had started.

Zach had AIDS and was moving toward death. My visits with him over the next nine months became a kind of Tuesdays with Morrie experience for me. In that book, Mitch Albom, the author, spends time with Morrie Schwartz, his former professor. He writes,

“The last class of my old professor’s life took place once a week, in his house. The subject was the Meaning of Life. It was taught from experience. No books were required, yet many topics were covered, including love, work, community, family, forgiveness, and, finally, death. The last lecture was brief, only a few words.  A funeral was held in lieu of graduation.”

Zach Long, this Presbyterian elder who loved his church even though his church could not fully accept him, became a mentor to me. From him I learned that being gay is first and foremost about being a human being made in the image of God, not about having sex. It may seem obvious to us now, but that was a revelation to me back then.

On one of my visits, Zach startled me when he asked, “Did you think that gay men had sex all the time, and that was basically all they did in life?”

“Of course not, Zach,” I said — saying to myself, “Come think of it, that’s pretty much what I used to assume.”

Why is it that the church is so focused on sexual activity as the central defining quality of the life of a person who happens to be gay or lesbian, while for the rest of us sexuality — if it is considered at all — is generally viewed simply as a piece of the whole, or as a healthy expression of love between two people? We’re still working on that question in the church.

One of Zach’s last wishes was to see his old friend Randy Taylor. I drove him up to the seminary and waited as they talked for two hours. Zach died a few weeks later.

The Community and The Bible

We were told it would be a big memorial service. It was to be my first ever. The police reserved parking for a block in both directions. About a half hour before the service I heard a huge roar outside. I looked out to see the Dykes on Bikes had just arrived. I knew then this was going to be another one of those learning experiences. About 30 large Harleys were now parked in front of the church. A wildly colorful assortment of people streamed into the building: hundreds from the gay community, quite a few tattered and pierced and strung-out street kids from the homeless ministry Zach had supported, and most of our congregation.

The sanctuary was packed. In that Service in Witness to the Resurrection we worshipped God and sang hymns and gave thanks to God for the life of that remarkable man. We recalled how Zach had served church and community faithfully all his life. I read Romans 8 and preached about the power of God’s love made evident in Zach’s life in so many ways.

The reception afterwards in the Fellowship Hall was a marvel to behold: our blue-haired little old ladies and Presbyterian business leaders and lawyers, all who loved Zach, mixing with the most “out” crowd I had ever observed inside a church. As I surveyed the scene it occurred to me that it looked an awful lot like the reign of God having cookies and tea in the church basement.

I knew that my education was only beginning.

Our experience with Zach and the other young men in our church that we buried led us back to the Bible. We studied those texts that many see as the scriptural warrants for discriminating against gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons. Our wrestling with those few passages finally led me to conclude that I had been wrong to support the exclusion of a particular class of church members from ordination. Let sessions and presbyteries decide as they do with everybody else: on a case-by-case basis.

I am convinced that the resolution to the question of fully including gay and lesbian people in the church will need to be not only biblical but biographical, not only political but pastoral. That’s why it is important for us to recover the historic role of our local governing bodies who know the Zach Longs of this world, and the hundreds of other gay and lesbian church members God is calling to serve.

This is our Time

Fast forward from San Francisco to Albuquerque in 1996, the year of B. After that assembly I slipped into a funk about the church, with only the occasional cause for hope. We founded the Covenant Network the next year to join those who had worked for inclusion in the church a lot longer than many of us. Following a couple legislative defeats I began to wonder how we would ever move through the difficulties in which our church was mired.

Then a year ago I went to Cuba with a group from our congregation to visit the Presbyterian Church there. I saw first hand the enormous difficulties facing our Cuban sisters and brothers.The Cuban church struggles, but somehow it’s growing. The Cuban church has no money, it has restrictions on its life, but somehow it’s growing. The Cuban church has few trained leaders, and it doesn’t agree on everything, but somehow it’s growing.If ever there were a Christian community that ought to be discouraged, the Cuban church is it. Yet they will not give in to despair. At the Presbyterian camp on the island, in among the crumbling buildings, we saw a hand-lettered sign tacked up on a tree that suggested why.

It said, Habrá tiempos mejores, pero este es nuestro tiempo. “There will be better times, but this is our time.”

For those of us who have been waiting and watching and working for change in the Presbyterian Church for some years now, that’s a good word: There will be better times, but this is our time.For too long we have allowed others to set the terms of how we will be the church.

For too long we have acted as if we could not be God’s joyful, inclusive community until others said so.
For too long we have only timidly proclaimed God’s wide-open welcome.
For too long we’ve acquiesced to an image of Jesus that is private and narrow.
For too long we’ve put our vision of the church on hold, waiting for the go-ahead from somebody else.The Apostle Paul admonishes the Galatians for losing their vision, “You were running well”, he says. “Who prevented you from obeying the truth? Such persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters. The only thing that counts is faith working through love. The whole law,” Paul writes, echoing Jesus, “is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'” (Galatians 5:6-8, 13-14)

I’m not ready to give up on the church. Nor am I ready to give up the church. I feel no need to apologize for my faith in a God whose power will not be stopped by limited imagination or diminished vision. I have witnessed the power of God transforming lives — including mine — too often to concede any theological arguments about the nature of the God I love and serve.

In the sweet words of the 19th century hymn,

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,
Like the wideness of the sea;
There’s a kindness in God’s justice,
Which is more than liberty.

That church saved my life!

Some months ago I arrived in Chicago on my way to a meeting of the Covenant Network. I got in a taxi and announced, “Fourth Presbyterian Church, please. Do you know where that is?” The cabbie shot back, “Know where it is? That church saved my life!”

She then proceeded to tell me, in greater detail than I needed to know, how her life had been a shambles, with broken relationships and drugs and alcohol, and mental illness — it was a sad and sorry tale, until she got to the church part. Then she lit up with new life as she described the saving work of Jesus Christ in that Presbyterian community. That’s my hope for every congregation in this great denomination of ours, that they can be places where lives are saved. Wouldn’t it be grand if more gay and lesbian persons could say that of our church?

We forget we work for Jesus in the church, not the Book of Order, not the Book of Confessions, not the General Assembly, not the PJC, certainly not for Paul Rolf Jensen, he-who-will-not-take-no-for-an-answer. What he has unleashed in the church courts is simply the logical extension of the vexatious language thrust into our life with Amendment B. The church is reaping what it sowed, but that will not stop the work of the Spirit among us.

Jesus is in the business of transforming lives and communities so that all people can live fully as God intends.

Yes, there is a wideness in God’s mercy
For the love of God is broader
Than the measures of the mind;
And the heart of the Eternal
Is most wonderfully kind.
There will be better times, but this is our time.

…you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.

Thursday of this week is Ascension Day. The text from Acts sounds uncannily appropriate for a General Assembly:

So when they had come together, they asked Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times that God has set. . . . But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” When Jesus had said this, he was lifted up out of their sight. (Acts 1:6-9)

I find the Ascension of Jesus a compelling and hopeful image, suggesting that God is not finished with us yet. Karl Barth called the Ascension”the beginning of this time of ours” (A Dictionary of Christian Theology [Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1969], p. 16).
The disciples asked, “Is this the time?” Jesus replied, in effect, “The hour for the church has come. Wait and watch for the Holy Spirit, for now is the beginning of this time of yours.”

There will be better times, but this is our time.

The Covenant Network has no crystal ball, no special window through which to look to predict the future. We only know what everyone else knows: that more than once a small majority of the church has not proven itself eager to delete Amendment B. Our best judgment is that more work needs to be done before the church is asked to consider it again. We might be wrong about that. We’ve still got a lot to learn.

I was amused by someone’s recent opinion that the Covenant Network has “thrown in the towel.” That’s an old boxing expression, referring to that moment when the guys in the corner of the ring think their man has had enough. To stop the fight they throw in a towel and the referee blows the whistle. Let the word go out to those who must use such images that we’re only in the early rounds. We may have a few tactical differences with our partners, but don’t let that fool you for a moment. We fundamentally agree about what needs to happen in the church.

God is calling gay and lesbian Presbyterians to serve our churches as ministers, elders, and deacons. If their lives are “a demonstration of the Christian gospel in the church and in the world,” and if they have “the approval of God’s people” (G-6.0106a), than sooner or later — and I hope it is sooner — the church will need to get out of the way of the Holy Spirit and allow those calls to be openly fulfilled. We’re not asking that everyone agree with us. We simply ask that the majority agree to let us discern God’s Spirit in our own churches, as they do in theirs. Those who favor discriminating against gays and lesbians in the church can make that choice; the rest of us will choose differently.

I confess that I’m competitive and don’t like to lose. But I suspect that it’s been a good thing for me — and for many of us in the Covenant Network — to be on the losing end for a while, to experience what it is like to be in the minority. We are learning as we go. I remember the service of lament we had at Old First Church after the first Amendment A lost. In it I said how hard it is for those of us accustomed to being in the majority now to find ourselves marginalized in the church.
Afterwards, we held a reception in that same Fellowship Hall where we had celebrated Zach Long’s life several years earlier. Janie Spahr came up to me. She hugged me and said, “Welcome to the margins, Tim.” But then she went on. “The first thing to learn here,” she said, ” is that this is not actually the margin. It’s the horizon.”

Friends, that long line of Presbyterians that encircled the Albuquerque GA is still winding its way through the church. It’s a strong and faithful fellowship, still marching in the light of God.

There will be better times, but this is our time.

Thanks be to God.

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