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Building Blocks of Community: Forgiveness

This past week, I had the privilege to speak at SDA Kinship’s Kampmeeting in Reston, Virginia. My message was titled, “Building Blocks of Community: Forgiveness” and touched on my personal experience with community and forgiveness as a homosexual male within the Adventist Church. The text of the message is reproduced here, without alteration, for the benefit of the online Adventist community.

Please, if you would, join me in bowing your heads as I offer a prayer:

Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you and worthily glorify your name, through loving one another as you have first loved us.

Merciful and loving God, grant that your holy and life-giving Spirit may move every human heart, that the barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease, and that, with our divisions healed, we might live in justice and peace, firmly establishing our communities; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

“Building our community.”

This is the theme of our gathering here this week. As we define what community is, together at this Kinship Kampmeeting, we are also grateful and aware of the blessings of being able to join in fellowship. After all, it is not often that this large a group, of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Adventists gather; especially when one considers the realities that confront all of us as members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, whether we find ourselves to be homosexual, bisexual, transgender, or are those that support and love us.

As an active member of the Spectrum online blogging community I have been involved with helping to “build our online community” and part of that process involved expanding the reach of Adventist Forums. While I was a student at Southern Adventist University I helped with organizing a chapter of Adventist Forums which helped to foster many conversations among college students about what “our community” (as young Adventists) entailed. I remember one individual who, after reading my blog post titled “Gay Theology Without Apology” and in the middle of another conversation turned to me and poignantly asked me, (with some frustration,) why those who share my feelings that homosexuals should be in included in the life of the Adventist Church, would not simply create our own church, and leave him and those who feel the way he does alone. This was a question that brought mixed feelings. On one hand I thought to myself, “Why not join another church that accepts me fully as the person God had created me to be?” But on the other hand I wondered “Why should I leave the church I first experienced God, and into which I was brought into the experience of the saving grace of a life devoted to the gospel message of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ?”

When I was asked that question I had not idea how to respond. As I recall that moment, I remember that I ignored the question, (reasoning that it was better not to dignify the premise with a response,) but to be honest it hurt, and I didn’t really have a definitive answer. The message I am sharing today is, in part, my answer to that question. It is part of the narrative of my personal growth within the Seventh-day Adventist Church, as an individual called by God to serve in ministry, yet unable to be ordained, (in good conscience,) as a minister in this, the church of my childhood, teenage years, and now young adult life.

How we approach anything from relationships, (cuisine, travel, and even theology,) is affected by our life experience. Professor Alden Thompson once told me, “All theology is autobiography.” It is through our experiences that we can begin to relate to one another on a common level. Once we can realize that all of us have more in common than that which separates us, then we can begin to experience genuine “community.” For me, experiencing community within our denomination has been a difficult, (at times even painful process,) however, it has been—through the trying and joyful times—both worthwhile and a blessing. God has taught me, through my struggles, to learn patience and tolerance, even of those whose views with which I might vehemently disagree. It has been, above all else, a process of forgiveness. Of reconciliation between me and my chosen community of faith; I write “chosen” because I choose to be a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, like many of you here today. And it is precisely out of that choice that we gather here to harness the power of growth that can come from the pain of our experience—to experience the power of forgiveness.

What, then, does it mean to build our community? To begin addressing that question we must first define what community means. It is only after coming to an appreciation of what community IS that we can understand what the building blocks of community are, and how forgiveness can aide us. Think about it for a moment. Imagine what your ideal community would entail. Now, juxtapose that to the experience of community which most of us experience. For some, “community” is thought to be a glorified utopia, free from disagreements, diversity, and divergence. Others project their own world-view and prejudices as the guiding force by which community is understood. These are common misconceptions of what genuine “community” entails. An individual who has provided me with some direction in understanding community is Quaker author and teacher Parker Palmer. In his book “The Promise of Paradox” he shares these thoughts, “In a true community, we will not choose our companions, for our choices are always limited by self-serving motives. Instead, our companions will be given to us by grace, and often they will be persons who will upset our view of self and world. In fact, we might define true community as that place where the person you least want to live with always lives! In true community, there will be enough diversity to shake loose our need to make the world in our own image. Community will teach us the true meaning of the prayer “Thy will, not mine, be done.”

In establishing our community as gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Christians along with those that love and support us, we must be careful to build upon a firm a foundation—a foundation centered on love; love that, as our collective experience as homosexual Christians within the Seventh-day Adventist Church, has often been missing from our church pulpits, university classrooms, and local as well as general conferences, unions, and division leadership. For community can only be established where love abounds and “love” is the only foundation upon which we are instructed by God to engage in our human relationships. As Adventist Christians our own relationships, in our faith community, have often been tainted by the homophobia present within our denomination.

All too often, we have had to bear the walls of separation that the elected leadership of our beloved church has constructed, between us and our church, our fellow members, and our God. We have had to bear these divisions and know intimately the suspicions and hatred that have threatened our families, partners, and our own self-image. We seek justice and peace for all those who have been wronged, those who have come before us, those present before us today, and all those who are unable to be here. We pray that these barriers which divide us will crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease, and that with our divisions within the Adventist Family of Faith, healed, we might strive to live in genuine Christian community.

We can begin to see these barriers crumbling with the publication of Homosexuality: Some Seventh-day Adventist Perspectives and the many conversations it has begun in our homes, churches, university classrooms, and within the pages of our denomination’s periodicals. Even with all of the progress that has been made within our Adventist Faith Community there is still much work yet to be done. For GLBT Adventists, our community must be a “community WITHIN a community.” Such a community much like the concept of “community,” in general does not come about as something we simply choose; instead it comes as a by-product of commitment and struggle. It comes when we decidedly step forward to right some wrong, to heal some hurt, or to give some service.

It is precisely because of our past and present experiences that our building blocks of community must center on “love.” And yet that love may be difficult to experience and claim. For some of us it may be easier, yet still an emotional affair, to forgive the shortcomings of members of our families, our friends, our church, and society in failing to fully honor our human rights and dignity. This process of healing will take time, but the promise of community is that this will no longer be a solitary task. As we come together in community with one another we also celebrate our individual identities in the fullness of our humanity as individuals redeemed and made loveable by a God who has first chosen us and made us worthy, reconciling us unto him through Jesus Christ. Paul puts it succinctly in Romans 3:23, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Knowing this, the fact that God has chosen to redeem us is something worth celebrating. It is with this knowledge and experience of “saving grace” that we are called into community with one another and, in so doing, we magnify the name of the One who sent a Savior, who by loving “selflessly, has set an example of loving one another as we have first been loved. It is in response to God’s love for us, individually, that we seek to love one another communally.

Within this construct for our love-response relationship to one another we can begin to understand how our individual and collective pain (from family, institutional, and theological rejection) can lead us to a better appreciation for what the prophet Micah writes in response to how God calls us to action in a world of suffering, “to do justice, to love mercy.” Allowing God to demonstrate his divine love for us, through the message of the prophets, and ultimately, by humbling himself to become the God incarnate, “Emmanuel.” It is here, where we encounter God, prostrate on the Cross before all creation in Jesus Christ, claiming the promise of that love, that we can allow Christ to free us from the bonds of theological homophobia, painfully pervasive throughout much of so-called “Christian” theologies and church policies. No longer will our sexuality prevent our inclusion in the Body of Christ.

Approaching our theological understanding of God and ourselves in this manner enables us to experience the joy of belonging to the corporate Body of Christ. It allows us to integrate those feelings into a theological concept of genuine community. The Rev. John Shelby Spong, of the Episcopal Church, articulates this well when he explains that we must come to an appreciation for, “the God who is not simply knowledge but experience. A God who is experienced as the source of life who calls each of us to live fully. A God who is the source of love, who calls each of us to love wastefully. A God who’s experienced as the ground of all being and calls each of us to have the courage to be all that we can be. It’s a life-centered, a humanity-centered God that calls us out of our prejudices. God calls us to be fully human, to live, to love, to be. To build a world where everyone has a better opportunity to live fully in response to the God of life. To love wastefully as a response to the God of love. And to be what each of us is in the infinite variety of our humanity, whether we are white or black or green, whether we are gay or straight or bisexual or transgender, whether we are left-handed or right-handed, to be all that we can be in the fullness of our humanity. That’s what it means to follow the Christ who said, “I have come that you might have life and have it more abundantly.”

By expanding upon what Christ taught as “having life more abundantly,” we can come to a more complete notion of what genuine “community” means. As followers of Jesus Christ, we are confronted with the biblical record that recounts how Christ actively widened the circle of inclusion to embrace those who were outcasts of the community. Jesus, essentially, established a “community within a community.” In this example, Christ teaches us that it is in embracing one another, in our humanity, and celebrating our individuality, that community is established. It is in turning to each other that we turn to God. This construct presents community as a context for conversation; conversation that reminds us that we are called to love, … love for community is a product of love in action and not simple self-interest. Palmer writes, “Community can break our egos open to the experience of a God who cannot be contained by our conceptions. Community can teach us that our grip on truth is fragile and incomplete, that we need many ears to hear the fullness of God’s word for our lives.”

And so it shall be within our communities that we shall have those “many ears to hear the fullness of God’s word.” Celebrating our individual identities and the God-given diversity present in humanity we have laid a framework by which to approach one another. If we have been made loveable and deemed lovable by God, then it is as a response to God that we love one another and establish community. By appreciating God as the “God of life and love” we can more closely portray the divine model that Christ taught and which has been consistently portrayed through the biblical tradition.

Having discussed the theological connotations of community and addressing some of our assumptions about what community is and what it is not, we can now progress into expounding upon the building blocks of community and how forgiveness contributes to our formation, or “building,” of that community.

These building blocks are “fellowship,” “tolerance,” “compassion,” “support,” and “mutual benefit.” In fellowship we experience one another in our individual humanity, allowing for the other to compliment, enhance, challenge, frustrate, teach, and learn with us. Fellowship provides each of us with a bonding relationship that teaches us the importance of companionship. Tolerance permits us to be ourselves within our various relationships. It allows all those who practice it to be genuine to the person whom God has created them, individually, to be and it fosters respect toward others. Compassion establishes that our fellowship with one another is genuine. Living compassionately toward one another enables us to love more completely within our community, knowing that no matter what trials we might face individually, the community will provide us with the strength and assurance of knowing that we are not alone. Support for one another helps to disseminate “compassion” as genuine and not merely contrived. Mutual benefit is simply the sum total of being in a community-based relationship. Each individual contributes to their relationships in the community and the community is better off, corporately and individually, and members of the community receive immeasurable blessings. Each of these blocks of community, much like the bricks of a building, is dependant upon the structural integrity of their foundation as well as the strength of the mortar. That mortar can be understood as the essence of forgiveness.

An understanding of forgiveness must begin with an appreciation for the forgiveness we all have through Jesus Christ. An appreciation and understanding of our own forgiveness by God will allow us to better understand forgiveness. For the forgiveness of sins through the grace of God and the finished work of Jesus lies at the heart of the gospel. It is precisely this marvelous wonder—that of our forgiveness by God—that should clasp the heart of every Christ-follower. We have been forgiven at an enormous cost, – the death of the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross. As Christians, we are forgiven people, who have been brought into the family of God through the grace and mercy of a loving and forgiving God. It is therefore proper that the place to begin any understanding of “forgiveness” is with a careful consideration of God’s glorious forgiveness, while standing, looking upward, at the foot of Christ’s cross.

With forgiveness there are always two constants. One is that we all will need to forgive or to be forgiven, because we all both sin and are sinned against. The second is that we also both struggle with “forgiveness,” because it always begins with pain. For my own spiritual journey, coming to terms with the reality of not being able to answer the call into ordained ministry in the Seventh-day Adventist Church has been a painful experience. Many of us here have faced similar realities. It might be having to resign as a church board member, being barred from giving communion, being asked to not serve as the children’s Sabbath school teacher, being alone at potluck, or experiencing the pain of being the person God created you to be. Nevertheless, in the end, it is always about living each day in the assurance that we are God’s “forgiven” people, … freed to fully be the people we were intentionally created by our Creator, to be!

Let us pray in confidence the words our Lord has taught us:

Our Father, who art in heaven,

hallowed be thy name,

thy kingdom come,

thy will be done,

on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread;

and forgive us our trespasses,

as we forgive those who trespass against us;

and lead us not into temptation,

but deliver us from evil.

For thine is the kingdom,

and the power, and the glory,

forever and ever. Amen.

Gracious Heavenly Father, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son. Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred with infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and through our struggle and confusion, work to accomplish your purposes on earth; that in your good time, all may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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