On August 1, 2015 I will be involuntarily removed from the work of my calling. I will have gone to sleep the night before as an ordained United Methodist minister of the gospel, only to awaken in the morning as a suspended pastor in The United Methodist Church.
And then, for ninety days—more than twice as long as Noah rode out the Great Flood and Jesus survived in the wilderness—I will find my way through an imposed season of ministerial drought.
I expect to face temptations of a hardened heart and dark nights of my soul. I anticipate discouragement and doubt from time to time while suspended from the work that I love. Yet I believe that God, family, and the beloved community of Belmont United Methodist Church will be with me throughout this wilderness time.
And I believe that what brought me to this time was pure gift—it was the marriage of Frank and Doug, my brothers in Christ and longtime, faithful members of the congregation I have the privilege to serve.
On a winter day in February, Doug called me at home and asked if I had a minute to talk. I’ve known him for over eight years, having served with him first at The Upper Room when I was managing editor for Weavings: A Journal for the Christian Spiritual Life. Doug was part of the editorial staff for all things electronic related to the journal: our Facebook, Twitter, and website presence. We spent long hours working together, often in details that completely baffled and frustrated me. What I remember is how Doug would buoy me through the “rough waters” of that ministry with his humor, gentleness, and pastoral approach.
I’ve often told Doug that he is one of my best colleagues in ministry.
Ironically, Doug is, in fact, called to ordained ministry, called as an Elder just as I am, but he voluntarily surrendered his United Methodist credentials years ago when he could no longer live in silence or secret as a gay man.
Doug surrendered his credentials as a pastor in good standing. In other words, he was an effective, experienced minister of the gospel within The United Methodist Church. As a father of three, Doug was faced with seeking an alternative way of living out his call, and he has ever since served in ministry through United Methodist publishing ministries.
Along the way, Doug met Frank, and fifteen years later they remain a remarkable, faithful, loving couple serving the church, the community, and their family. Frank and I have only known each other for four years, since I was appointed to their home church, Belmont United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tennessee. But to know Frank even a little bit is to know what embodied grace is all about. Frank, along with Doug, has been a youth volunteer, a social activist, a Bible study leader, a man of prayer and music, a mission-oriented disciple, and one of the most forgiving people I have ever known.
So when Doug called me that cold day and asked if I would be willing to officiate their upcoming marriage, I was immediately clear about my response.
Yes, of course I would, because I was their pastor and they are God’s beloved children.
I said yes because I am called to be a minister of the gospel and they are faithful disciples of the living Christ. I said yes because I am a baptized member of the body of Christ seeking to reject “evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves and I want to do all that I can to resist the evil, injustice and oppression presented through harmful, wounding official rules of The United Methodist Church that continues to stand behind discriminatory words including “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” and “self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.”
But the core reason that I said yes to Doug and Frank is because they love each other, and they asked me.
They considered asking a stranger in a strange state to officiate, someone with no pastoral intimacy with their lives, someone with no commitment to them as men of faith. They could have given into the coercion implied by The United Methodist stance that you need to find someone other than your pastor to marry you, or else you will get your pastor in deep trouble. They could have been too worried that if I said yes, I would be brought up on charges, possibly even lose my credentials. And they could have hesitated because of fear that I might reject their invitation.
But they trusted God, their strongly supportive local congregation, and me, and so they asked.
After a couple of icy winter delays, Doug, Frank, their two daughters, their grandson, Phil Cramer (the chair of Belmont’s Administrative Board and a brother in Christ, representing a fully supportive and loving Belmont UMC community), and I drove to Asheville, North Carolina, where marriage was already legal for Frank and Doug.
And there, on a rainy Friday morning beside a river in a local park, we celebrated their marriage using a full (but slightly revised) Service of Christian Marriage from The United Methodist Book of Worship.
Holy, sacred, rich in family, uplifted by friends, supported by a courageous home church, and fully centered on Christ, the marriage of these two men, these beloved sons of God, these faithful disciples, was completed, documented, and celebrated.
I still cannot find the right words to describe the depth of peace and joy I received through the invitation and inclusion offered to me.
But I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that God prepared the way for me, as an ordained United Methodist minister, to be present in ministry with them, and that with the help of God I was able to stay focused on the gospel—the good news of Jesus Christ—and not be distracted by a few gospel-less rules of The United Methodist Church that call us, the ordained, to choose harm and discrimination above love.
Since that God-given day, I have faced a formal complaint, charges, a time of “supervisory response,” two periods of mediation, long hours and many tears over words said and accusations made.
I have spent time with good people who are struggling with how to find their way through the United Methodist mire regarding human sexuality, and I have witnessed—painfully so—the results and consequences of laws and rules that are given extraordinary authority outside of and beyond the teachings of Christ. The “consequences,” for me, begin on August 1, when I will enter a ninety-day suspension without pay from all ministerial duties at Belmont United Methodist Church, one of the most honest, loving, inclusive, and gospel-centered people I have ever known.
And because the people at Belmont, including Frank and Doug, are honest, loving, inclusive and gospel-centered, I already know how they will live out this imposed wilderness time.
They will continue to grow in love of God and neighbor, and they will hold a place for me so that when I return, I can fall into step behind them.
I will be forever grateful to the people of Belmont, to Frank and Doug and their amazing children, and to One who knows us all by name, and who longs to stay in relationship with us for the transformation of the world.