They were silent as Quakers, hunched over the words of Jeremiah 31 in the church youth room. “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” What does it mean to belong to God? What does it mean to belong to each other? How does the law help us accomplish this?
After ten minutes, one of the fourteen-year-olds reflected aloud. “If this is true, it means God has already given us what we need to be followers.”
And after a moment, “It looks like it all boils down to love, doesn’t it?”
And then softly, “This is the first time I have heard about the law without it being used as a weapon against me.”
If you were to tell me a year ago that a group of teens would willingly come to church after school to study the Bible, devouring the words like wolves in a chicken coop, I would have thought you were playing a cruel joke. Yet here they were, indoors on the first sunny and warm day of the year, making connections many adults can’t.
These teenagers are excited about Jesus. Not the Jesus whose white stoic visage adorns the basement fellowship rooms like the one in my childhood church. They picture Jesus differently. More like the Jesus depicted in “Naked Pastor” artist David Hayward’s “Neither.” This Jesus is dark-skinned, male on one side, female on the other, has a rainbow halo and holds a transgender symbol.
So who are these Jesus loving youth? This is Bible Pride, a bible study for queer identifying youth and their allies. Bible Pride was developed by our church seminary intern and me, not as a way to correct behavior and identity, not as a pastor lecturing them about what a passage means, but a communal Bible study with the understanding that God speaks through them to all of us. God’s spirit is alive and at work in their hearts and minds and they have gifts for each other and us. They hunger to integrate their earthly purpose within the reign of God. They are surprised and excited as they learn that scripture empowers and emboldens them to do just that.
For those of us lucky enough to work with the LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, queer, plus) community, we are on the receiving end of these gifts every day. Because of the experiences, gifts, and perspectives LGBTQ+ youth and young adults carry, they offer a unique lens to scripture and the church community. In fact, even now I have the privilege of mentoring two young adults as they discern calls to ministry. “Mac,” a gay non-binary seminary student feels called to youth ministry. The other, “Cynthia”, a transgender woman in her sophomore year of college, already leads a Bible study of her own for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and gender non-conforming students at her school.
The work of God’s Holy Spirit is awe-inspiring, humbling, confounding, and exciting. The gospel of John says, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). Those of us who benefit from these gifts cannot deny that these are people in whom God choses to work. We do not get to choose whom God calls. We can only choose to either receive God’s good gifts or we can pass, never knowing the gifts we’ve missed.
Some of you reading this may think I am heretical. This is one of many aspects of the church’s LGBTQ+ arguments that confounds and saddens me. In all of the handwringing and arguments about inclusion, we have been missing out on some of the best parts of what it means to be a Christian. We have denied ourselves the powerful, enlivening work of the Holy Spirit–the opportunity to see character evolve, latent gifts revealed, and lives filled with purpose to bring God’s shalom to the world. To say yes to God’s Spirit is to say yes to a 21st century version of Acts. If discipling those whom God brings isn’t the garden you want to sow, then what are you hoping to grow?
When you think about it, God pouring out the Holy Spirit into the fertile hearts and minds of queer youth is not surprising. History is filled with God using those whom others have written off. Throughout scripture, we see the Holy Spirit picking unexpected people, times, and events to do the Spirit’s good work. There is Peter bringing the gospel to Cornelius and the Gentiles (Acts 10). Or Philip ministering to the Ethiopian man (Acts 8). Or a young Jewish woman named Mary picked to mother Jesus (Luke 1, Matthew 1). Even Jesus as the chosen Messiah confounded people. In fact, the Scribes and Pharisees denial of Jesus’s lordship was so adamant, Jesus warned them they were flirting with blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Mark 3: 19-30). This is a pretty stern warning for those daring to stand in the way of God’s powerful and unexpected work!
God’s Spirit doesn’t just occasionally work in unexpected people. I would offer that unexpected people are the primary way God chooses to work. 1 Corinthians 1: 27 specifies it well: “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.” I came to fully understand this truth pretty earnestly in my own life. In 2011, I suffered an emotional trauma when my first marriage painfully ended in divorce. In the evangelical church tradition of which I had been a part throughout my marriage, this was seen as a significant moral failure. Until the point of my divorce, I had a working theology that if you just lived a pure and right life, you received God’s good gifts–including a healthy marriage. Though this transactional philosophy is far from Reformed, let alone biblical, it is still the way many Christians live. In that brand of Christianity, I was taught that if my marriage was unhealthy, as a good wife my call was to double down my efforts in praying for my husband and family. I did all that and the marriage ended anyway. I had led a life that was pious, rule-abiding, and “right.” I played the game right, yet I was denied the gold cup for winning. I felt cheated. Coupled with this cognitive dissonance was the increasingly peculiar feeling that God was calling me into pastoral leadership–also verboten in my past tradition. This made no sense to me–why would God call not only a woman, but a divorced woman? My disbelief was enough to rival Sarah’s laughing at God.
This sense of call increasingly developed not long after my divorce was finalized, when I began attending a local RCA congregation, thanks to an invitation from my next-door neighbor, Catherine. Catherine knew I was looking for a fresh start and anticipated I would feel at home at her church, especially since I had grown up in the RCA. That first Sunday upended everything I thought I knew about Christian identity. I didn’t know before visiting that first Sunday how empowering this church was both to women and people needing emotional healing. While we sat in the pews that first Sunday waiting for the service to begin, Catherine leaned over and explained that two of their pastors were women and one of the women was even divorced and remarried. I was stunned. I thought the act of divorce was a spiritual scarlet letter. It had never occurred to me that there were faith communities that had a more nuanced and grace-filled understanding of human brokenness and pain. As I sat there, I felt as if God lifted my downcast chin and said, “Stop looking at the ground and look up at me.” I didn’t understand why my life was unfolding the way it was, but I was filled with a hope and purpose that had eluded me for most of my adult life. Not long after this, God brought some key individuals into my life, including Dan, the pastor of this new church, who helped me grapple with my call. I am grateful for the mentors God brought to help me contextualize my experiences in the scope of God’s grace, challenges, and calling. Part of that calling, I discovered in the subsequent months and years, is to offer the same life-changing hope to others, which excites me and enlivens me to no end. This calling includes a lifegiving ministry with the LGBTQ+ community, especially those who are youth and young adults.
This isn’t just my calling though. If you care about the church, you must care about LGBTQ+ people. They cannot be statistically ignored. A recent Gallup poll found that about 5.6% of Americans identify as lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender and other gender identities between those binaries. A majority of these people are categorized as Generation Z. In fact, roughly one in six adults aged 18 to 23 identifies as LGBTQ+. As LGBTQ+ identities continue to be normalized, that number will likely increase. This means that as a conservative estimate, in a church youth group of 24 teens, about 4 of them are gay, bisexual, or do not identify with the gender assigned to them at birth.
Hold this in tension with some other statistics. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people ages 10 to 24, with 8.9% of the general population of teens attempting suicide. However, lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth seriously contemplate suicide at almost three times the rate of heterosexual youth and are almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide compared to heterosexual youth. The numbers for trans youth are particularly sobering. The American Academy of Pediatrics states that more than half of transgender male teens surveyed have attempted suicide, as have 30% of trans females. Among non-binary youth, 41.8 percent of respondents stated that they had attempted suicide at some point in their lives.
But here is a statistic that is a game changer. LGBTQ+ youth who report having at least one accepting adult were 40% less likely to report a suicide attempt in the past year.
One. Accepting. Adult.
This means that even if an LGBTQ+ young person is bullied at school, rejected by a parent, or told they are going to hell by their youth pastor, one accepting adult can fill them with enough hope to grab life by the reins and hang in there. It is staggering how many times I am the one accepting adult in the lives of young adults. When people ask about my work, I often tell them that my favorite part of my job is also the saddest part. I tell young people “God created you and declared you in the fullness of your being as good.” You have no idea how many times young adults respond with “You are the first person to ever tell me this.” I believe if there is any heresy, it is that Christians have arbitrarily decided which neighbors get love and which do not. It is akin to spiritual gerrymandering.
Allow me to share one special gift the LGBTQ+ community has given me. Over the past decade, as I have moved away from abusive and traumatic forms of Christianity, the classic traditions and rhythms of the church have become deeply meaningful to me. However, the meaning of communion, perhaps the church’s central practice, had always seemed to elude me.
The Lord’s Supper is supposed to be a symbol, even an experience, of the presence of God in human flesh; taking something ordinary, like bread and wine, and making it extraordinary. Not only is communion supposed to symbolize the presence of God in even the most basic parts of what it is to be human, we Reformed believers understand the eucharist to be the very mechanism that nourishes us to live in the same ways Jesus did. The Jesus who said his work on earth was to bring good news to the poor, unloose the captive, bring sight to the blind, and let the oppressed go free, empowers us to do the same through the work of his sacraments. How exciting and mysterious is this?! This sacrament should feel like the exclamation point at the end of “Hallelujah!” Instead, my experience of it felt like a period at the end of a “meh.”
I hoped every time I took communion that this time would be different. I would walk up to the front of the church for the sacrament, praying to God, “Please be present to me this time.” But whenever I would take the bread and dip it into the cup, my eyes squinted in concentration, I would feel . . . nothing. Something was missing.
That all changed on October 23, 2015, which, ironically and symbolically, was my birthday. I was in seminary at the time, training to be a pastor. Room for All, a group of RCA members who support churches who fully celebrate the gifts of LGBTQ+ people, was having their bi-annual conference in Grand Rapids. It was three days of both hearing stories of those who are gay, bi, trans, and non-binary, and more importantly learning how I could work at becoming a better ally and advocate. It was such a joy to be among such a full reflection of the image of God in that space, in the participation and leadership of LGBTQ+ community members.
On the last day of the conference, we closed with a worship service, led by LGBTQ+ ministry leaders. Communion was served at the end of the service. I was prepared to go through the unexciting and even disappointing routine once more. It was my row’s turn to stand up and file in the center aisle to walk towards the table. When I stepped into the aisle, I looked up to the front of the sanctuary and locked eyes with one of the pastors presiding over the communion table. It was my friend “Smith,” who identifies as genderqueer and gay.
At that moment something overwhelmed me. As I slowly made my way in the line towards the front, I was filled with a warmth and fullness. As I looked into Smith’s eyes, the realization of what had been missing all these years flooded me.
Communion had been missing Smith. The communion moments of my childhood and most of my adulthood were missing LGBTQ+ friends like Smith, Mac, and Cynthia. It was missing people like my gay brother, friends, neighbors, and co-workers. It was missing the 44 trans people murdered in 2020, like Alexandria Winchester, Barbie Pugh, and Courtney Key. Communion was missing part of the very body Jesus told us to set free, to feed, and to be good news to. Communion was missing the very people who offer this same ministry to us who are straight and cis-gender. Communion was missing these family members not because they refused to be there, but because we had willingly locked them out, denied their existence, and in some cases even allowed their deaths. The reason communion had felt incomplete to me all these years was because it was incomplete. More than that, it was wrong. We had been wrong. We have been denying the work of the Holy spirit.
As I continued towards Smith and the communion table, I started crying, which in turn made Smith start to cry. When I reached the table they served me the bread and the cup and then they embraced me in a big hug. It was like being hugged by Jesus themself. Communion was now complete and communion has never been the same for me since.
One of my favorite biblical passages is found in Isaiah 2. The prophet describes the future House of God, the shalom we are working towards, thusly:
“In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore.”
Swords and spears have been interpreted as being symbols of different kinds of violence. But working with Bible Pride on that sunny spring day, it hit me that scripture itself had been one of those weapons. For thousands, nay millions, of Christian LGBTQ+ people over the years, the very words that are intended to train, encourage, and enliven have been used to shame, abuse, and ultimately even kill. Friends, we have blood on our hands and we are called to confess our sins. But don’t just stop at confession. Enter into abundance. Receive the good gifts God has lavished upon us through our LGBTQ+ family. Heed the good word from my fourteen-year-old Bible Pride friend: “It looks like it all boils down to love, doesn’t it?”
Yes. It does.