Have you ever met someone and within minutes discovered that you have all sorts of connections and people in common?
This happened to me recently with Ben Thiel who led an Adult Forum with his wife, Mary Vermillion, back in February.
From emails beforehand and conversations that day and after, I learned that we both grew up with parents who were VERY active in the Presbyterian Church. Both of Ben’s parents became Presbyterian ministers while my parents served the church in other ways. Our mothers served on several committees together and even traveled as part of a study delegation to Central America in the 80s. It also turns out that when Ben was a student at Iowa Wesleyan in Mount Pleasant he was active in the local Presbyterian church where a close friend of my parents was the pastor. Truly, the world is small and connected and wonderful!
I’ve really enjoyed getting to know Ben and feel like we have so much in common. We have both have loved the church since childhood, love talking about how Jesus calls us to live and witness in our lives today, and are concerned about the ways in which our beloved church is a faithful witness to the kingdom of God in the world today—and when it is not.
Part of the challenge, of course, is Christians do not agree on what that faithful witness looks like. One of the most visible and vocal disagreements among Christians right now in around the place of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning) persons in the church, society, and public bathrooms.
Ben and I share a similar understanding of what the church’s response to LGBTQ people should be. We were both raised by parents who taught that God loves everyone (no exceptions) and that all have a place in the household of God, particularly the outcast and those called “sinners.”*
However, we recognize that not everyone else shares that perspective. Christians do not have a universal understanding of how to read and interpret the Bible, where to put the emphasis in interpretation, and what it means to love someone else.
Ben has a unique perspective on this “issue” because while he was born a girl, from a very young age he identified as a boy. At the February adult forum, Ben and his wife, Mary, read from the memoir they wrote together. For much of his early life, Ben lived in the uncomfortable tension of his outsides (birth sex = female) not matching his insides (gender identity = male). When puberty came, Ben (then Beth) buried those feelings…until several years into Beth’s and Mary’s relationship, when that cognitive dissonance came back with a vengeance and Beth made the transition to Ben.
What was most impressive to me when listening to Ben that Sunday was no matter how he questioned his own identity, what was never in question was God’s love for him, exactly as he was. (A close second was Mary’s story of how she came to understand that she loved a person and not a particular gender.)
Because I think that message is so important for all of us to hear in our own struggles as well as part of the debate surrounding the rights and “rightness” of transgender people, I asked the Session if we might have Ben share more about his story and the role his faith has played in that in worship one Sunday. They agreed and Ben will be preaching on Sunday, June 19.
While we may not all agree, view or understand human sexuality (in its ever more varied expression) the same way, I hope we can agree that God’s love is bigger than us. Please join us—and invite others, too—to hear Ben’s witness to God’s love for him, no matter what.
Grace and peace to you!
PS If you find yourself feeling in any way troubled about this, I hope you will talk to me. I would be very glad to have a conversation with anyone!
*Here’s a slightly fuller explanation of my own interpretation of scripture:
All of scripture is best read in light of the whole story. What I see in the biblical story arc is a trajectory towards acceptance for all:
- Early on, God chooses Abraham and Sarah to be his particular people, but blesses them for the purpose of blessing others. In doing so, God attempts to move people from the tribal, circle the wagons mentality toward an understanding of how we belong to each other.
- Strangers and foreigners play an important role in critical moments of Israel’s history—for example, Rahab the prostitute in Jericho (Joshua 2), Ruth the Moabite shows what loving-kindness looks like (Ruth), Cyrus the king of Persia allows the Jews in exile to rebuild Jerusalem (Ezra 1).
- In Matthew 1:1-17, Jesus’ own genealogy includes the names of four women who were either foreigners or women of questionable character. In his ministry, Jesus was always pushing the boundaries of inclusion—for example, the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), the encounter with the Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7:24-30).
- The boundary pushing continues in the Acts of the Apostles—for example, Philip meets an Ethiopian eunuch (condemned by the law as unclean and an abomination) whose faithfulness astounds him (Acts 8:26-40) and Peter receives a vision and an encounter in which God challenges his understanding of what and who is “clean” and “unclean” (Acts 10).
Because of this trajectory, I see God’s invitation to us to constantly question who is “insider” and who is “outsider” and to do everything in our power to break down those barriers.