Affirming the Unexpected

Today we are delighted to host a reflection from our friend Nate Craddock. Nate is the priest of Mercy Way, a fledgling inclusive church community. Dignity and worth are two core values of the Mercy Way community where the relevant section of its values statement reads: “Every human being is made in the image of God, so we affirm dignity and worth of every human being and welcome them to worship and service in God’s family. (Yes, this means we are unapologetically inclusive and affirming of LGBTQ* folks, ethnic minorities, immigrants, and members of every economic stratum.)” Because our own experiences of interacting with inclusive communities have not been very positive, we were curious to hear Nate’s thoughts about what it means to him to offer pastoral care to an LGBT person discerning a celibate vocation. Please consider checking out more reflections on Nate’s blog or following Nate on Twitter. And as with all guest posts, the views expressed here are those of the author and may differ from our own personal beliefs.

A reflection by Nate Craddock

Two Saturdays a month I break apart spongy, honey-scented hunks of Jesus’ body. With each communicant’s name I place them in the expectant palms of those who have gathered to eat at God’s table with all the other people the Spirit has caught in her net and dumped out, flopping and glistening, onto the dock. Ah, the Church!

The church I serve is a beautiful accident—people have slipped and fallen into the shining slick of grace that oozes from the table like so much chrism. I find myself falling in it over and over again, and as I listen to the needs of the people who have come there to eat and pray, I realize to my chagrin that listening to the needs of the people I serve is vastly more important than living out any social project of inclusion and affirmation that I may have—which is precisely what I wanted it to be when I started dreaming about it. But even then, Mercy Way has spiraled into a wildly inclusive community precisely because we’re centered around the wildly inclusive Eucharistic meal.

One of the great tropes I’ve observed in the LGBTQ-inclusion movement in Christianity is that, more often than not, we’ve done a fantastic job of creating another “silo” for those people in our churches so they can feel like they have their own space. We’ve figured out how to square people’s sexual ethics with our tradition. We sign off on their relationships. We hold them up like a gleaming participation trophy from our 1st grade tee-ball league saying, “Look! I can inclusive!” as if God will pat us on the head like a benign grandparent.

Many inclusive churches do a phenomenal job at being inclusive of monogamous couples who have lived a life that’s nothing really more than a gay version of the American dream trope: an educated two-partner family in a committed relationship with 2.5 kids and a well-maintained house in the suburbs. We love this kind of arrangement—it looks great in bulletins and on parish websites and in our denominational reports. And it looks great sewn onto our sash of merit badges.

But because of our desire to be inclusive, we progressive pastors and leaders sometimes run into difficulty when a person comes into our care whose narrative doesn’t square with our ideas of “inclusivity.” The real challenge to inclusivity comes when someone who identifies as LGBT comes to us and says, in not so many words, “I feel like God is calling me to a different way of life than what you expect.”

If a person is coming to our church, we think, shouldn’t they want to be just like everyone else here? And so we chase after them screaming, “Let me affirm you! Let me help you get your hormone replacement therapy! Let me find you a partner! Let me baptize your adopted babies!”—notice a theme? Really, all that’s saying is, “Let me co-opt your narrative so I can feel good about being inclusive! I need you!”

It’s good to need each other. The danger comes when we need a relationship with a person’s label and identity over against a relationship with the person. While we’re often quick to congratulate people for living their truth, we come to an impasse when a person’s truth has led them to a place that we don’t necessarily want them to be. We need that person’s story, not to use as raw material for building our ivory tower of inclusivity, but rather as flint and fire to burn away our expectations of what another human being should be in the sight of God.

And so an LGBT person who comes to our church and says they’re discerning a call to celibacy—or worse, that they’re wrestling with the idea of a progressive sexual ethic—and we flip out. “I swear to Judith Butler,” we say, “I’ll make you believe in my narrative of the Respectable Well-Affirmed Christian Queer! Now let’s find you a partner—I’ve always loved June weddings, haven’t you?”

For me to affirm people means affirming them where they are, not where I think they should be. And so when someone I am serving comes to me and says, “I’m discerning a calling to celibacy”—in my beautiful, glittery, inclusive church, of all places!—the only appropriate response from me is, “Wonderful, tell me more. Let’s walk and discern this together. Let’s connect you with other people who are living out this vocation so that you can see if this is indeed something that God has gifted you for. Let’s pray together. And let’s eat.”

I say, “Let’s eat” because those hunks of Jesus’ flesh and sips of his tawny porto blood are the very meats that have sustained me on my journey to allowing myself to be included in the Christian community and to find my own calling as a priest, a gay man, a Christian. Such should be our response to anyone who comes to us priests and pastors with questions about their vocation.

For someone to open up to me about this, whether “I’m discerning celibacy” or “I’m discerning the priesthood” or “I think I want to marry my significant other” or “I don’t think marriage is right for us” or “I think I might be trans” or any such deep place of questioning is an invitation into a sacred trust. To be invited into someone’s journey of vocation is to be invited into a place carved out by God for God in that person’s life—it is where that person will meet God and work out their salvation, where they will find their deeper vocation to become Christs in the world. Would it be right to tread on that sacred ground by imposing our will for that person’s vocation on them? The answer should be clear.

All told, it’s not for me to choose and live a person’s vocation for them; my job as a priest is to give them food for the journey and encourage them along the way.

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9 thoughts on “Affirming the Unexpected

  1. I particularly liked this part: “For me to affirm people means affirming them where they are, not where I think they should be.” This is a good practice not just for the situation he found himself in but for ministry to people in general. Meet people where they are … walk with them as Christ guides them.

    God bless,

    Dave

    • We liked that part too. So much good can come from meeting people where they are, and we like Nate’s attitude regarding that.

  2. I apologise, but I am new to this conversation. Can someone explain to me what a “progressive sexual ethic” is, and why it’s “worse” than someone discerning a call to celibacy?

    • Sorry Jenn, is that a question for me or for Sarah and Lindsey? I’ll try to give you an answer.

      A progressive sexual ethic is one that, essentially, sees non-“traditional” sexual relationships as being able to be loci of blessing by God. The way this is usually phrased by pro-progressive voices in the church is along the lines of “God loves you no matter who you love” or “God blesses same-sex marriages just the same as opposite-sex marriages.”

      Notice how I phrased those two statements. Both of them can be read as having subtexts. The first statement might be amended, “God loves you no matter who you love [so long as it’s only one person in the bonds of a covenanted monogamous relationship that we approve of],” while the second one might be, “God blesses same-sex marriages just the same as opposite-sex marriages [so stop embarrassing the founders of the gay liberation movement and find yourself a nice husband/wife already].” There are voices within the LGBTQ inclusion movement–not many, but a few, and loud ones–that insist on this kind of thing, and it just doesn’t square with the spirit of the Eucharist.

      Holding a “progressive sexual ethic” isn’t worse than celibacy, and on the other hand, celibacy isn’t worse than a “progressive sexual ethic.” I’d like to think that God doesn’t deal in qualifiers like that–I dunno, maybe God does, but I’ve yet to figure that out. And honestly I think the two sides of this dichotomy (which is a false one, but that’s another blog post) are morally and ethically neutral, in final estimation.

      What I’m saying is that, if we’re going to be true to the wild inclusivity of the Eucharistic table, then we have to let everyone come to their rightful place at that table without making them jump through the hoops of our expectations for them.

      And as a bit of context, I indeed hold a progressive sexual ethic and identify as a gay cisgender male.

      I hope that gives you a little more insight into my line of thought! All best.

      • Hey–thanks. (The question was for anyone who felt like answering. 🙂 And I replied to your reply, but my phone isn’t letting me comment on this blog these days…)

        I guess I could have figured out what you meant, and I knew you were drawing a dichotomy, but I’m learning not to assume I know what’s meant, especially about a topic where I’m already not so knowledgeable…! Thanks for the help.

    • Hi Jenn. Nate explained his position fairly well, so we won’t rehash what he has already said. But we will add that on our blog, we don’t write for the purpose of arguing about certain sexual ethics being better or worse. There are already enough places on the internet where that kind of argumentation happens, and that’s not where our interests are. But we *are* very open about our frustrations when we notice that many churches that teach progressive sexual ethics do not seem to want to welcome people who are exploring celibacy.

      • Thanks for clarifying that. I think you did explain that quite well initially. I appreciate that about your blog–I’m not into arguing, either. I’m just here for understanding, so it seemed worth asking…

  3. What a great post! Side A people get suspicious of celibate people and don’t think anything good about them unless they say that celibacy is just their preference and they aren’t against gay marriage. At the same time they get offended if somebody asks them to show compassion to celibate people, but they want celibate people to be compassionate to them. I was happy to read this post. This guest poster is great and he is not like other Side A people, thank God.

    • We agree with this. It’s disheartening to see so much skepticism about celibacy, especially from people who are familiar with what it feels like to face a similar kind of skepticism.

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