QCT 21: Empty Chairs at Empty Tables

This post is a part of the series entitled Queering the Christian Table. You can learn about the series and read earlier posts by clicking the tab at the top of the page.


I’ve begun to wonder about the topic of Christian unity. I wonder if there’s any hope for a common table. It’s a bizarre notion that seems to take up a large portion of the attention of the New Testament. I wonder about it when I hear about things like the World Vision Debacle-palooza that was last week.

I also wonder about it when I pass the large number of independent Pentecostal and Bible churches that crowd random corners in my neighborhood of West Seattle. I wonder about the people who worship there–places that feel so familiar when I pass them, that I can almost hear the syncopated drumbeat matched with the on-beat clapping of the white, Pentecostal churches of my childhood.

I wonder about people in the scandal-ensconced mega-church just down the road from me. I wonder about the Anglican Mission in America churches as I make my way to my progressive Anglo-Catholic Episcopal church.

I wonder, because each week when we circle the table, my congregation offers thanks and confesses, “You have made us one with all your people, in heaven and on earth.” And I want so desperately for that to be true.


“There’s a grief that can’t be spoken.

There’s a pain goes on and on.

Empty chairs at empty tables

Now my friends are dead and gone.”

Weeks like last week make me feel painfully stuck.

So, when, as I was looking for a good karaoke song, I came across this old favorite from Les Miserables, I listened to it about a dozen times trying to understand what it was articulating about how I feel in this particular moment.

“From the table in the corner

They could see the world reborn

And they rose with voices ringing

And I can hear them now!

The very words that they had sung

Became their last communion

On this lonely barricade at dawn.”

While the “culture wars” often feel like the invention of television, radio, and internet news outlets seeking content to fill space in order to drive traffic and generate marketing revenue, there are weeks like last week when there are real casualties of all this fighting.

When 10,000 plus people are willing to abandon not only financial support of children in poverty, but ostensibly some sort of relationship with those children and care for those particular children’s well-being over what is likely at most a potential few dozen LGBTQ folks’ ability to earn a paycheck supporting the system that is supposed to be helping those kids, I am indeed left with “a grief that can’t be spoken.”

I don’t want anyone, on the right or left to use my existence as an excuse to inflict more harm.

And that’s where it hits me hardest. It’s really easy to think that I am the source of this divide. As a Gay Christian, when I pull up a chair at the table and somebody else pushes their chair away (or 10,000 people simultaneously push their chairs away), it’s difficult to not believe that there is something wrong with me. And even when I can manage to hang on to the reality that they are making their own choices, in this moment, it’s hard to look at the 10,000 children who are impacted and not just play the numbers game and say, well, if my not being at this table will keep others from doing harm to these kids, then maybe I should just throw myself under the bus.

And yet, I believe in the power of the gospel to welcome everyone to the table–and that has to mean that there is room for me here too. That’s a really hard thing to hold on to when there are so many on all sides of this issue who are dismantling the table to turn it into a barricade.


I never quite understand when I see others abstain from taking communion.

I know that they have deep convictions and personal reasons and I respect those and I am very willing to hear their stories and give them all the space they need. But I cannot afford to pass up on a place at the table–it is far too precious a thing for me. You see, I was told all my life that I was unworthy to be at the table–not just in the way that we all need grace, but in the way that my very presence at the table was damnable; that the act of my eating and drinking at God’s table was illegitimate.

But something happened–something that I can only explain as good news. I realized that Jesus was present at my table. That I did not have to come to God’s table, but that God came to mine. The message of the gospel does not begin and end with Jesus dying for our sins. It begins with Jesus coming to live as a human and be involved in our lives and it ends with Jesus, after we violently rejected him, coming back to life and asking us to live with love and generous compassion, offering our voices in witness to God’s kingdom unfolding like the leaves of an ever expanding table into every corner of the world.

And as someone whose experience of the table has often been that God has prepared it for me in the presence of my enemies, I lay claim to that hospitality of God with all the wild abandonment I can muster. I go to the table because I, and people like me, have been barred from the table and I need to hear that I am welcome in the world. Yet, when I come to the table and my presence becomes the excuse for others to leave the offering of God’s unconditional hospitality, I find myself wrestling with a sort of survivor guilt.

“Oh my friends, my friends forgive me

That I live and you are gone.

There’s a grief that can’t be spoken

There’s a pain goes on and on.”

 


And in this space, as I sit down at the table and hear the deafening screech of thousands of chairs pulling away, because I love the church and seek for the unity of the church so that we can get on with loving the entire world as we were comissioned to do, I am tempted to walk away.

There are many others who have done this–and for such good reason. Some LGBTIQ folks have found ways to God’s table by going to churches that accept us fully and celebrate our place at the table and, in so doing, often break communion with others in the Christian faith, in their denominations, and sometimes in families and local communities.

Some have navigated the tension by staying in the closet and remaining in churches that would reject them if they were honest.

Some have come out in such church communities, but have chosen to remain celibate or try to do something to change their orientation in order to become acceptable to their community and that church’s definition of God’s design.

Some have internalized the message that they are not welcome and have left the church entirely.

Some believe they are welcomed by God, but see that their faith community has too small a conception of God’s grace, and in order to allow that community to grow at its own pace, have left that community out of broken-hearted compassion.

Some have come out to their churches and families and been disowned.

Some have so internalized the lie told to them by the sound of the screeching chairs of rejection, that they have seen no other route than to take their own lives.

I believe that God weeps with all of us, on every side of these tables, wondering when we will remember the first message of the gospel–that God loves us enough to want to come and live with us; that God comes to our tables, wherever they are, turning them into God’s own table and it is our gift to offer seats to everyone we come in contact with.

“Oh my friends, my friends, don’t ask me

What your sacrifice was for.

Empty chairs at empty tables

Where my friends will sing no more.”

There is no need for further sacrifices. The violence we do to one another in the name of protecting God, the Bible, Christianity, marriage, whatever–it’s rooted in the same violence that drove us to kill Jesus. But the scandal of the Christian faith is rooted in the implausibility of the resurrection. God accepted our violence and the death we offered and replied first with silence, and solidarity with human suffering, and then with resurrection, offering forgiving hospitality that promises to transform the world.

Other Christians don’t need to crucify LGBTIQ people in order to come to God’s table. We already crucified Jesus and we don’t need to go down that road anymore. And LGBTIQ people don’t need to sacrifice ourselves by accepting the violence of a church that can’t accept the love of God for every person in the world–Jesus already did that.

So what are we to do?

We return to the table. We accept the grace we need. And we offer prayers of lament for those who push away. Right now, that’s the best that I can manage. I cannot make others realize that there is grace here. I cannot make anyone feel the love of God that is opening up the world as a place of welcome.

The words of this song ring so true for me in this moment, because these folks in the church who are pushing away LGBTIQ folks are not my enemies. They are beloved children of God. And I hate to see any of us throw our lives away on barricades, trying to protect a God who needs no protection–a God who moves with hospitality through death in order to welcome us into ever expanding life.

 

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14 thoughts on “QCT 21: Empty Chairs at Empty Tables

  1. 1 Corinthians 5:9 I wrote you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people. 10 In no way did I mean the immoral people of this world, or the greedy and swindlers and idolaters, since you would then have to go out of the world. 11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who calls himself a Christian who is sexually immoral, or greedy, or an idolater, or verbally abusive, or a drunkard, or a swindler. Do not even eat with such a person. 12 For what do I have to do with judging those outside? Are you not to judge those inside? 13 But God will judge those outside. Remove the evil person from among you.

    How do you think that your re-definition of homosexuality by a Christian, as “acceptable” to God, can be viewed in any other light when scripture tells us to carefully watch the walk of those who call themselves Chris-followers?

    • Well, that might be a better question for the other Christians who regularly fellowship with me. I am curious about how you navigate the tension between this passage and the one you just quoted in another comment about NOT judging. Which takes precedence for you? Jesus or Paul? Do you think Paul thought he was writing scripture? How are you wrestling with how to handle both of these scriptures when you have a gay son?

      • My question was pointed towards the context of your post regarding those who push away, in your words “as I sit down at the table and hear the deafening screech of thousands of chairs pulling away, because I love the church and seek for the unity of the church” not to those who hold the same definition as you. Most Christian believers consider the Bible as inspired of God, even letters to the early church. Otherwise, just because one of the Gospel writers wrote down “Jesus’ words”, do you consider them to not be scripture because Jesus himself didn’t pen them? As far as the tension between these two, I seen no conflict. Jesus’ audience, those who were not yet Christians, Paul’ audience – the church in relation to sin within the church and not judging those who have not accepted Christ. Again, I ask, how much is the effect in your redefinition of sin causing this push away by other Christians?

      • I’m not going to go into the scripture conversation right here, because that doesn’t seem productive, I’ve dealt with my approach to scriptures extensively in other posts and I’ve personally given you a lot on that topic.

        I’m trying to understand your last question–I think you are saying that I am to blame for other Christians walking away from me because of how I read the Bible/because I show up to the table confessing Jesus and saying that I am gay. Honestly, there’s nothing I can really say to that. Would you like me to lie by denying that I follow Christ and stop showing up at the table so other people can be comfortable since I am not there? Or would you rather I lie and say I am not gay and live in the closet? I just can’t stomach either of those, and honestly, if other Christians think I am wrong, they can “treat me as they would a pagan or a tax collector,” which Jesus seems to indicate means sharing table fellowship. Another scriptural approach would be “allowing the wheat and weeds to grow up together,” and letting God sort us all out. Still another would be to judge me by the fruit of my life–“and the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control.” And for that judgement I will again appeal to those with whom I share community, and no, they do not all agree with me.

        I’m just getting home from church, where, for the day of Pentecost we read 1 Corinthians 12 and John 20:19-23. I can hardly think of better passages for you and me to spend time reading, listening to, and praying for God’s guidance to understand how to love each other well. I am grateful for your giftings, your confession of Jesus, and your place in the body of Christ. And I forgive you and others who feel you cannot be in fellowship with me. I do not hold that against you. I want something different for all of us, but I will not deny your confession of how you understand the gospel to be playing out in your own life.

  2. I read the scripture you suggested and the previous 2 chapters in 1 Corinthians.

    1 Cor. 10:6 Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. 7 Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.” 8 We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. 9 We should not test Christ, as some of them did—and were killed by snakes. 10 And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel.

    11 These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come. 12 So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! 13 No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.
    ————
    I do not blame you or anyone else for any number of people seemingly pushing back from the table. But, as the above passage mentions, we should not commit sexual immorality and when we do, there will be consequences. If I were to redefine sexual morality for ME such that it would me to have another wife and you came home and I said, “Daniel, God has said its proper for me to have multiple wive; meet your second mother.”, you’d probably be appalled. and rightfully so. How do you think that my redefinition should make it acceptable in the eyes of the church?

    I don’t deny that you or anyone else is drawn to those of the opposite sex, just as I may think another woman is beautiful. I don’t believe that either is sin. However, my pursuit and becoming sexually involved with another would be and I would be “not heeding” Paul’s words to the Corinthians about things I should not do. Don’t you think that we have to get these things right, in Chapter 10, before we can really get the things in Chapter 12 right about the body of Christ?

    • Dad,

      In a word, no. I don’t think we have to get these things right–neither in chapter 10 or in chapter 12. If so, we are all royally screwed. And actually, that’s kind of the point of the entire book of Romans, that none of us are righteous, but that we are credited with righteousness because of the faithfulness of Jesus.

      I know your polygamy example seems helpful for you argument, but it’s not, for two reasons. The first is that polygamy in many forms was practiced in the Bible by people who are rigorously upheld as righteous–pointing to righteousness being a function of God’s faithfulness to us and not our intimate sexual conduct. The second reason is closely connected–by the time the New Testament writers came along, polygamy had largely fallen out of practice culturally among Jews and so it was seen as something Gentiles did. So, in trying to understand what sexual morality was, they do interpretive theological work, both of their scriptures and of their cultures in order to discern what leads to death (sin) and what leads to life (flourishing/righteousness).

      So would I be shocked if you were practicing polygamy? Sure. Would I be shocked by the practicing Christians in other parts of the world who currently practice polygamy (and first cousin marriage)? No. Because they live in other cultural contexts. Would I have concerns about the rights of the women in many of those cultural contexts? You bet, but I wouldn’t be claiming that I had a clear, straightforward reading of scripture that they had to follow or else they aren’t real Christians like me.

      Instead, I’d ask them to consider the same thing that I ask myself and that I have asked you on multiple occasions: Tell me your understanding of what God wants for humans. In relationship to this, what is sin and what is holiness? Now, with those definitions, how do we discern how to live in our own cultural contexts?

      This is the very interpretive movement that Jesus employs in dialogue about the oppressive use of the law against people. This is the heart of the book of Romans. It is the question about gentile inclusion that the whole book of Acts turns on from the day of Pentecost to the council in Jerusalem and beyond.

      I would love to have this conversation with you, because I think it would open up scripture to both of us in beautiful ways. I get the feeling that that that conversation feels dangerous to you, because you have resisted going there every time I bring it up. I don’t know what that dangerous feeling is, but I do know that God is faithful and is not waiting to punish anyone for putting their faith in God while they seriously question and rethink their way of reading scripture. God is so much bigger and better than that. By building our understanding of how holiness leads to life and sin leads to death, we can navigate the complex realities of our contemporary world–building out a Christian ethic to navigate so many things the Bible never comes close to addressing.

      And if you cannot do that for yourself right now, that’s okay. I am going ahead and doing it and–great irony of my name–God is my judge, so you don’t have to worry about whether I get it right or not. I love you and want to see you flourish and grow in love and without fear or condemnation. I want the same thing for me.

      Peace.

      • Daniel, ” dangerous feeling”?… Sounds like a bit of projection there to me son. Maybe the dangerous feelings are coming from your justification of your position by how you “rethink their way of reading scripture” in order to “building out a Christian ethic to navigate so many things the Bible never comes close to addressing”. The problem with your approach, in fact, sexual sin IS addressed clearly in the bible. But apparently the new revelation that you have had makes you vastly superior to those of us who simply read what was there for the past 2000 years. Unfortunately, your reading of scripture as a “gay Christian” shades everything you read and through these lenses, you have allowed yourself to justify your position. But you can’t allow that view, can you? Because if you did, you’re whole house of cards would crumble because even though Jesus forgives through His wonderful mercy, he ALSO tells us to continue in a life free of sin.

        John 8:10-12 10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 “No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

        Or as other translations put it, sin no more. There’s the rub isn’t it? In order to not have to be affected by this small yet powerful phrase that Jesus uses, you have to redefined “sin” so that you may participate without a heavy conscience.

      • Chris,

        I’ll be as honest as I know how–I struggle to know how to love you.

        I have spent the majority of my life wrestling with you and the biblical texts, with as much compassion, integrity, and humanity as I have to give.

        What I know is this, I have experienced the love of God, the faithfulness of Jesus, and waking of the Holy Spirit inside me. Part of that story has including being able to receive and honor the life I have been given in ways that have been witnessed by those around me as beautiful.

        I don’t expect you to be able to understand this, it’s just that I wish there were some way that you could see how the gospel has played out in my life. I don’t know, but I imagine it would break open some space inside of you to receive more love and grace.

        I find myself wondering, when was the last time the gospel was scandalous enough to offend you? I know that I am beloved by God and so are you. I know that God delights in you and your dogged determination and readiness to defend. I also know that I have a hard time being on the receiving end of those parts of you.

        Yet I trust that there is so much more to you as well–parts that are delightful and parts that are aching–and I hope that you experience goodness and redemption in those places. Peace with you.

      • Son, I’m not sure why one who has trusted in the saving grace of Jesus Christ and the redemption he has given freely to us and who has opened their hearts fully to His word, would find the gospel scandalous enough to offend me? As Jeremiah puts it:

        Jeremiah 6:10 To whom can I speak and give warning?
        Who will listen to me?
        Their ears are closed
        so they cannot hear.
        The word of the Lord is offensive to them;
        they find no pleasure in it.

        If I had not trusted this grace, I would truly find such a gospel offensive; rather, I find it comforting. Even Jesus said that we are blessed when not offended by him:

        Luke 7:22-24 ESV
        22 And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. 23 And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”

        So, no, not since 1979, has the gospel been scandalous to me.

      • Wow. I don’t know what to say to that. I find myself scandalized by the gospel all the time. I walk through life, thinking I have God figured out and then, BAM!–God shows up in an unexpected place, inviting me to see and love and be with deep compassion and grace. There are hardly words for it.

        I find that I don’t know the places where my heart is hard, where I have grown judgmental or cut off from others, and then I see–oh, there’s God over there being more loving than me and faithfully bringing goodness into the world in a person or place that I would not have chosen.

        I find myself broken open by love and imagination and the invitation to play and grieve and listen in ways that I can’t do on my own. And this drives me back into scripture and prayer and Eucharist and baptism–where I go with open heart and mind seeking to be formed so that I am more like Jesus. I am recklessly driven by being scandalized by God, because I have spent too long believing in death, and yet I have found myself brought back to life. And the only response I can do is to follow God “where I do not wish to go.”

        And why don’t I want to go there? Because I’ve barely gotten used to the last bit of grace I was given and it feels good and comfortable where I am. I don’t have sight for the parts of myself that I haven’t yet allowed myself to face–to see my need for being met by a God more loving than I have the capacity to be to myself. If I believe that God is more loving than who I have made God out to be, then I have to open myself to places within me that hurt, that need to waken to grief and desire so that I can more fully know and be known.

        I hope that I am always growing in my understanding and experience of the gospel–I hope that for everyone. And if God isn’t better than we imagine God to be–if the gospel can be contained, understood, and no longer surprise us, then are we even talking about God anymore?

  3. This post. THIS. POST.

    These are the kinds of thoughts I want to tuck into my heart and remember when giving up on others feels like the easier option.

    I hardly want to post a comment because all I can think to myself is “hush and listen. This is important.”

    • Chris,

      Well, I initially pulled it down because you named someone else without their permission and I didn’t want that put out there. Beyond that, I didn’t appreciate the presumptuous statements about my personal relationships and I assumed that the comment was written directly to me, and, since I read it, I didn’t feel obligated to edit and repost it for public consumption.

      If you feel like the general public needs to hear your position about homosexuality, I’d encourage you find your own platform for that. I don’t think that you and me having a public debate is very honoring to either one of us or the state of our relationship.

      Daniel

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