Halena and Ellen, John and Michelle — Love Is Love

I had an interesting morning in church, as I often do. The kid in me loves to talk in church, and this morning I found myself talking to my usual “neighbor” in the pew, a woman named Halena who teaches Sunday School, among other things. I think she’s been a teacher in the outside world, as well, because she certainly has the temperament for it. Anyway, we usually share a laugh or two before church and today, she congratulated me on my 23rd wedding anniversary. I said “thanks” and she said, “Ellen and I have been together the same amount of time”. I smiled and congratulated her back. I asked, “Are you two married?” and she said, “Yes, we got married in 2006, by Katherine Fagerburg”. I said, “You had to wait a long time before you could do that, I guess”. She laughed and said, “Yeah, longest engagement ever”.  I responded with, “Nice of society to catch up with you”.

Later in the service, there was the dedication of a baby, featuring a couple and their newborn child, four or five other family members, and the woman who first greeted  the family when they came to church. Our pastor George explained the symbolism of the dedication and the diversity within the church. We’re a merged church with members of the United Church of Christ and American Baptist Churches, so they would dedicate this child in the Baptist tradition, rather than baptize like Congregationalists/UCC people traditionally do.

These instances might not seem connected except that they both happened in church, and both were controversial in some way that outsiders think is normal for the church. I want to take them a different way, though — in a way befitting South Church’s people, rather than whatever else you might hear out there.

When Halena spoke about her relationship, I thought “Did we know you then? Did you live in Rochester when we got married?. Because that would have been weird.” Then I thought of the time 23 years ago when they met and my wife Michelle and I got married. Gay marriage was ripping the church apart. Both sides were making Biblical claims and clergy friends of mine got sick of being asked where they stood when they visited people in the hospital. They were there to support the health of the person in the hospital and instead had to defend their beliefs and engage in political discussions that had nothing to do with the sick person.

By now, most churches have decided where they fall on the question. South Church in New Britain became Open and Affirming (UCC) and Welcoming and Affirming (American Baptist Churches) and I’m glad they did. That fact — and the fact that we knew both pastors — drew us to South Church.

Outside the walls of the church, though, there was the politics of gay marriage, in something called the Defense of Marriage Act, which I thought was the stupidest name for a bill ever. The “Defense” part made no sense to me. How was denying someone else’s rights defending mine? As far as I knew, the only thing that was a threat to my marriage was acts that either my wife or I might commit. What someone else did had absolutely no effect on my marriage. Minnesota governor and former wrestler Jesse Ventura summed it up this way: “What does this have to do with me?”.  Had I known Helena and Ellen, I would have said they were in love, and that was enough for me. I certainly never worried about my relationship because of theirs. Then again, my professional standing was never called into question because I wasn’t ever asked.

Further, I thought about how brave Katherine was at the time. She was making a positive statement about what she believed, potentially putting her career at risk by simply acknowledging what she saw for herself.

So here’s the thing: Baptism/Dedication is related to gay marriage (or any marriage) in this way — theologically, all ritual is about what already has happened by God’s hand. The church is just pronouncing it and celebrating it. We just to have eyes and hearts open enough to see it, and to acknowledge what we see. Is it bravery to say what we see? Yes, it is, if we see something that others don’t. Galileo was brave because he saw what wasn’t possible to the people of his day. Religious people do the same thing when they celebrate what others can’t or refuse to see. This is what makes the church potentially a radical place.  Because God is concerned — we can say we see all kinds of new mysterious things.  God does new things all the time.  It takes faith and bravery to believe strongly enough in what you see, what you know, what you feel — to go public with it, or pronounce it in church or to the powerful or people you care about — because you’re convinced that God has created this new thing.  For Helena and Ellen, it took bravery to acknowledge any of those all those years ago — just to themselves, I suspect, but I don’t know and I won’t presume.

But here’s the other thing: Not every marriage — gay or straight — is “of God”.  There are plenty of marriages that seem fine at first — or don’t even from the start — and God’s spirit is not there.  How do we know — people hurt each other, suck the life out of each other, tear each other down and are generally no fun to be around. We can believe all kinds of things are from God, but we test the Spirit, to see if we’re right. When we say that marriage is “of God”, it’s a best guess. It’s a belief. How do you know if it is? If something is of God, it gives love to the world, it makes others happy, it builds confidence in those within it, and — if it expands (into children or friends,, for instance) it creates happy, healthy, creative people who know they are loved. Both Ellen and Halena seem to have managed that. Their friends, the children they work with, members of the church enjoy being around them. I don’t know if they fight or ever have, but God’s presence continues to hold people up in difficult times and — since they’ve lasted this long — it seems their marriage is.

So here’s the thing: Baptism/Dedication is related to gay marriage (or any marriage) in this way — theologically, all ritual is about what already has happened by God’s hand. The church is just pronouncing it and celebrating it. We just to have eyes and hearts open enough to see it, and to acknowledge what we see. Is it bravery to say what we see? Yes, it is, if we see something that others don’t. Galileo was brave because he saw what wasn’t possible to the people of his day. Religious people do the same thing when they celebrate what others can’t or refuse to see. This is what makes the church potentially a radical place.  Because God is concerned — we can say we see all kinds of new mysterious things.  God does new things all the time.  It takes faith and bravery to believe strongly enough in what you see, what you know, what you feel — to go public with it, or pronounce it in church or to the powerful or people you care about — because you’re convinced that God has created this new thing.  For Halena and Ellen, it took bravery to acknowledge any of those all those years ago — just to themselves, I suspect, but I don’t know and I won’t presume.

But here’s the other thing: Not every marriage — gay or straight — is “of God”.  There are plenty of marriages that seem fine at first — or don’t even from the start — and God’s spirit is not there.  How do we know — people hurt each other, suck the life out of each other, tear each other down and are generally no fun to be around. We can believe all kinds of things are from God, but we test the Spirit, to see if we’re right. When we say that marriage is “of God”, it’s a best guess. It’s a belief. How do you know if it is? If something is of God, it gives love to the world, it makes others happy, it builds confidence in those within it, and — if it expands (into children or friends,, for instance) it creates happy, healthy, creative people who know they are loved. Both Ellen and Halena seem to have managed that. Their friends, the children they work with, members of the church enjoy being around them. I don’t know if they fight or ever have, but God’s presence continues to hold people up in difficult times and — since they’ve lasted this long — it seems their marriage is.

My own marriage does all of those things — some more than others at different times — but I think that’s normal. We give love to the world through our professional and personal lives. Given how challenging that can be at times, we must be putting a lot of love and patience in. We make others happy to be around us, (I think but what do I know?). We feel confident, left to ourselves, when in each other’s company. Our children are healthy, creative people. They’re teenagers, so I don’t expect happy all the time, but I don’t really have any doubts about our kids when they are in the world. They help others and are compassionate, they cheer others up, others are happy to see them, and they do good things for the world. If they are any indication of the Godliness of our marriage, I’d say we did great — or, more to the point, God did great things through us.

But love is love, and Halena and Ellen — far from being a threat to our marriage, offer a challenge to us — to be a better couple. If we or our kids give off as nice and mellow and caring vibes as those two, do, I’d feel like we were a success.

If we are as brave and faithful as they and Katherine are, to see things that others don’t believe exist — or can’t exist in scary times, great things can happen. Others think that peace isn’t possible, for instance. We can believe it is. Others think that people can’t live forever or be resurrected. We can believe it is true. Others think that the races are so different, they can never get along or that people can’t make helpful economic decisions. I don’t have the luxury of believing those things. As a person of faith, it’s my job to work toward making them a reality. I can’t give in to skepticism. I have to be hopeful that God knows there more than we see.

For the scientists and skeptics out there, I’m well aware that this means we can believe in unicorns, as well, but frankly, if one were to appear, I’d be skeptical but open to the possibility. That’s my job as a person of faith — not to be stupid, or ignorant, or to believe without cause — but to believe what I see, feel, and hear and to stand up for others when I think it’s right to do so. Women pastors? Sure. Why not? All women? No, of course not. All men? Not that either. Gay pastors? Again, why not? Are all gay people wonderful and loving? No. Are all heterosexuals? No. Are some relationships based in God’s Spirit? Yep. Even if we don’t understand how they work? Yep, even more. Can they beat the odds and last forever? Where would I be if I didn’t believe that? I’d be nowhere.

So, Halena and Ellen, John and Michelle, continue to be blest. Is it real? I have no doubt.

Peace,

 

John

 

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