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Our Present, Our Community
We started a new pulpit series last week called ‘Our Heart for the House’. Gary kicked it off by sharing with us God’s heart and mission for the Church (big C) and how we as a church (small C) is part of that Church. Through various Scripture passages, he weaved the story of our past and how our story finds its parallels in the New Testament church. Today, I want to dig deeper and explore what some of our core values are and why they are important. I also hope to share with you how some of these values are being lived out in and through our community at present. At the same time, it’s important for us to ground our exploration in Scripture and I hope you’ll be able to see the parallels as we look together into the book of Galatians.
First, I wanted to ask you if you know what FCC’s mission is? Do you know what we are about? What are some of our core values and distinctives? Well, if you want a comprehensive look at our mission statement, you can find it on our church website. Today, I just wanted to focus on a few distinctives that I think make our church unique and vital in the history and growth of the Church (big C). I believe God has called us to be who we are because our unique presence and ministry is absolutely vital for such a time like this. For such a time like this. Our mission statement contains quite a number of points but if I had to summarize it…in a nutshell if you asked me what FCC stands for, I would say this:
FCC is an inclusive and progressive Christian community
who puts our faith in God through Christ
as we strive to live by the greatest commandment of love
Do you agree? It doesn’t cover everything but in a nutshell, I think it fairly describes who we are at present. I just wanted you to keep this statement in mind as we look together at the book of Galatians. Do see if you can spot any parallels in the values of inclusivity, and progressiveness in theology even in the times of Paul and the early church as we go along.
The book of Galatians was actually a letter that Paul was writing to the early Christian communities in Galatia. At that time, there was this whole controvesy surrounding Gentile Christians and circumcision. Can Gentile Christians be regarded as true believers if they were not circumcised according to the Law of Moses? Basically, Peter and Paul had their disagreements around this issue and Paul was trying to clarify what make a true Christian. Sounds like a rather petty argument in our day and age, right? But it was potentially church splitting issue at that time. Can you think of a modern day controvesy that is causing believers to debate over whether one is a true Christian or not? ☺ The LGBT issue is probably the most contentious issue within the Church right now and we are right in the thick of it. What we are debating about today may be different from the Galatians but as I was reading Scripture, I could see many parallels between what Paul was saying and what we are experiencing today. Let’s start with Galatians 1. Paul talks about his own experience — how his change of heart and mind came about.
Galatians 1: 13-16
13 You know what I was like when I followed the Jewish religion—how I violently persecuted God’s church. I did my best to destroy it. 14 I was far aheads of my fellow Jews in my zeal for the traditions of my ancestors.
15 But even before I was born, God chose me and called me by his marvelous grace. Then it pleased him 16 to reveal his Son to me[e] so that I would proclaim the Good News about Jesus to the Gentiles.
Before we go on, just a caveat. I’m primarily going to use my own story and experience to draw out the parallels between what Paul was going through and our experience as a community. I am doing so not because my story is more important than any of yours. Our collective stories make up this community. I am using my story because I have permission to use my own story ☺ and at many levels, I think many of our stories share deep similarities in the way we have journeyed with God. So I hope you will resonate with some parts of my story.
Recently, I shared a long reflection post on Facebook and maybe some of you read it. One of my old friends had passed away suddenly and in the midst of grieving together, I got back into contact with some of my friends – people whom I loved and respected as we served together in ministry many years ago. Some of them reached out and wanted to hear more about my journey…how did I end up as a pastor in FCC and what were the repercussions of the pink dot video, etc.? I shared with them how I have progressed in understanding my gayness in God’s eyes. I used to think it was a sin and God couldn’t possibly accept me. Then I thought maybe my gayness is like a disability. Maybe it wasn’t God’s ideal but in God’s grace, I am accepted and loved as I am. Where I am now is that I think it’s a gift. Because of my gayness, I had to dig deep into understanding God’s love and grace, and that has enriched my experience of love and deepened in me an empathy and compassion for those who are deemed different or disenfranchised. What about you? What has your experience been? How has God transformed you? Like Paul, how have you experienced a change in your heart and mind?
They wanted to enslave us and force us to follow their Jewish regulations. 5 But we refused to give in to them for a single moment. We wanted to preserve the truth of the gospel message for you.
6 And the leaders of the church had nothing to add to what I was preaching. (By the way, their reputation as great leaders made no difference to me, for God has no favorites.) 7 Instead, they saw that God had given me the responsibility of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles, just as he had given Peter the responsibility of preaching to the Jews. 8 For the same God who worked through Peter as the apostle to the Jews also worked through me as the apostle to the Gentiles.
The Gentiles were outsiders and perhaps many of us can identify with that. As a church, we are progressive. Progressive is not a theological position. And this is something Miak said that I am borrowing. Progressive is not something that lies in between the conservative point of view and the liberal point of view. Progressive is an approach. What it means is that no matter what your spiritual background, no matter what Christian denomination you came from, no matter what theological convictions you hold, a progressive approach is one that is open-minded, willing to question and be questioned, and most importantly, we are committed to learning and growing together. We believe there is a movement, a progression in our spiritual lives and learning. This is not a new fangled concept. We are not trying to be trendy. In fact, it is the biblical approach. If you look at Galatians 3, you will see this movement and progression in their understanding of the gospel as it was unveiled to them over time.
6 In the same way, “Abraham believed God, and God counted him as righteous because of his faith.”[b] 7 The real children of Abraham, then, are those who put their faith in God.
8 What’s more, the Scriptures looked forward to this time when God would make the Gentiles right in his sight because of their faith. God proclaimed this good news to Abraham long ago when he said, “All nations will be blessed through you.”[c] 9 So all who put their faith in Christ share the same blessing Abraham received because of his faith.
24 Let me put it another way. The law was our guardian until Christ came; it protected us until we could be made right with God through faith. 25 And now that the way of faith has come, we no longer need the law as our guardian.
26 For you are all children[m] of God through faith in Christ Jesus. 27 And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes.[n] 28 There is no longer Jew or Gentile,[o] slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And now that you belong to Christ, you are the true children
Can you see the progressive nature of the Gospel and theology? In verse 8, Paul says “the Scriptures looked forward to this time”. The words “look forward” give us that sense of movement. They don’t just stand still. Our understanding of Scripture and the gospel is meant to progress as we grow. It wasn’t meant to stay stagnant or stubborn. Once there was the law to be our guardian but once Christ came, we no longer needed the law as a protective force. Now we understand that we can be made right with God through faith in Christ. Now we know there is no segregation in matters of grace and faith. We are all the same – no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. And if I may add, straight or queer. We are all one in Christ Jesus. We all belong to the same God of love and grace.
Just like how Paul, Peter and the early Christians debated and struggled to make things clear as they tried to live out the inclusivity of the Gospel, the Church is debating and struggling to define what the inclusivity of the gospel means today. For us at FCC, we struggle sometimes as we try to live out our calling to be inclusive as a church. Sometimes in trying to create space for certain minority groups of people, the majority might feel a little neglected. So please allow me to say that you are all equally precious and valuable, both in God’s eyes as well as mine. And I’m sure Miak’s too. The pastoral and leadership team has blind spots so please journey with us, give us your help and input as we try to figure out the best way forward together.
How are we trying to be inclusive as a church presently?
As you know, for a long time in FCC, we only had a handful of women. That was understandable because of how FCC began. But God has been good and the number of women have been growing in recent years. We had 50 women attending our gathering two Saturdays ago. For some, it was their very first time. For others, they had attended FCC many years ago but stopped coming for various reasons. So we were very glad to welcome them back. And of course, the regular and faithful women who have been loving and serving God and this community…I thank God for you. One lesson we learnt in the women’s ministry last year is that we needed to create space for other minorities in this church — people who identify as gender neutral or gender queer. That’s why we changed our name to “wo-men” because that means “we” in Chinese. So we are learning what it means to be inclusive as we go along.
Another way we are practising our inclusivity is the creation of the Chinese ministry last year. With the help of the leaders in that ministry, we are so glad we are able to create space for people who feel more comfortable in a different language. Do you know what another minority group in our church is? It is the straight people. This is a unique characteristic of FCC. Most churches tend to have slightly more women than men, and usually straight people make up the majority. But at our church, we have had to consciously create space so we can welcome more women, as well as straight people and their families. And we are so thrilled to have more and more straight people in our midst. Some of you know Hanes and Melissa. Yesterday, Hanes posted something on Facebook and this is what he said, “Pauline, just wanna share with you because the writer might as well be me if i had better writing skills. Thank you for your encouragement and the difference you have made in my life. ☺” What he shared with me was the following article that I wanted to read to you because it has so many parallels with FCC and it made me think more deeply about our community.
When A Straight Guy Got Saved By A Queer Church (by Morgan Guyton)
“Growing up in a Texas Baptist universe, I knew only two kinds of Christians: the fundamentalists who were excited about the fact that God was going to torture most of humanity forever in hell and the moderates who were embarrassed and conflicted about it. I didn’t realize there was a completely different way to understand the message of the gospel.
It took a queer United Methodist church to save me from the toxic theology of my evangelical upbringing.
In 2002, I found myself in a high-pressure job and a toxic living situation in Toledo, Ohio. My girlfriend at the time was a suicidal alcoholic. I was self-medicating my severe depression by partying late every night. When I saw my life spiraling out of control, I decided to go back to church. The closest one I could find was Central Avenue United Methodist Church. When I walked through the door for the first time, it became clear that I was one of maybe three or four straight people in the room. I’d never known that gay Christians existed before, but I figured they couldn’t be fundamentalist so I was safe.
In evangelical culture, I was accustomed to what I call shiny happy Jesus people. They pounce on you as soon as you walk into a room with overwhelmingly bright smiles and instantaneous friendship. It’s all done with the best of intentions, but it doesn’t make you feel accepted so much as obligated. Before you know it, you’ve been roped in and it’s too socially awkward to leave. The welcome I received in this queer United Methodist church was entirely different. Everyone moved and spoke with a meek tenderness that only the wounded can authentically embody. There wasn’t an hallelujah competition during the worship service. I didn’t feel any pressure to use the right catchphrases in my small talk.
I started going to a Bible study led by the unofficial, unordained lesbian co-pastor who had the spiritual vigor and passion for Christ I’d always associated with evangelicals. I started meeting weekly with a lesbian social worker who wouldn’t charge me for our visits but asked instead that I give a weekly offering to the church. Mothered by these and other gentle lesbians in that church, I began to heal from my depression and the sinful, chaotic lifestyle that was exacerbating it.
We read a book in our Bible study that changed my life forever: Henri Nouwen’s Life of the Beloved. Nouwen writes that the lifelong quest of a Christian is to become God’s beloved. He said the reason we sin and do self-destructive things is because we don’t really believe God loves us. So what we are saved from is not God’s punishment but our lack of trust in God’s love. Here’s what I wrote in my journal at the time:
Being blessed, as Nouwen writes, involves looking for beauty around you. You are training your eye to see the language of God’s goodness on a canvas that might provoke a number of reactions. The important thing I’m learning is that receiving God involves a discipline. Hearing the voice above the noise requires practice and patience… I’m trying to learn how to rise up into God’s love for me. It is not a surrender in the sense of throwing yourself down but rather opening your soul to let the light come in. Every “I can” is a leap into God’s love for me. The “I can’ts” are not humble but rather disavowals. So that is the challenge of this quest — to enter enough into the light of God’s presence that I can fill my lungs with his air rather than slouch in the corner with my cigarette.
What healed me from my sinful, self-destructive lifestyle was not a rigorous, shame-based, evangelical accountability group, but a queer space of unconditional acceptance.
It was in this queer space that I learned how to say “I can” and how to rise up into God’s love for me. I’m not sure that anyone could have taught me these lessons better than people who had found the still, small voice of God’s unconditional acceptance amidst a furious torrent of condemnation.
I learned from my queer United Methodist church that self-acceptance is actually a good and holy thing. God does not need to see me self-flagellate in order to accept me. God accepts me unconditionally. As I rise up into God’s love for me, I am emptied of all my anxieties, addictions, and agendas. Instead of hiding my wounds with shame, I make them into my cross, which I carry with dignity. Instead of worrying whether I have said the right prayer with enough sincerity to make the cut into heaven, I experience the heaven of authentic belonging right here on Earth.
In other words, self-acceptance is paradoxically the foundation for Christlike self-emptying, just as self-hatred is paradoxically the foundation for Luciferian self-justification. Whereas before I had thought that hating myself was the way to “repent” for my sin, I learned that hating myself was actually rejecting God’s love. The more I felt safe and let my defenses down, the more the Holy Spirit was able to heal my heart. Accepting myself does not mean being satisfied with myself, but rather having enough trust to embark on a journey of self-improvement.
I’ve recently had the opportunity to read Liz Edman’s Queer Virtue fourteen years after my first encounter with queer Christianity. She describes the “coming out” process as a form of evangelism. I would definitely say that I was evangelized by the queer people in that church who had learned how to be loved by God.”
I really like that phrase “rising up into God’s love for us”. Are we rising up into God’s love for us? Are we helping others rise up into God’s love for them? We have a unique mission. As an inclusive and progressive church that has its roots in the lgbtq community, we can reach out in a way that can bring healing not only to other lgbtq people, we can also bring healing in a deep and authentic way to straight people who are looking for something more.
We might all be very different from each other but being progressive in approach is our unifying factor. We are ready to learn from one another. We keep an open mind and heart, and we are curious to learn from people different from us.
How We Are Reaching Out Presently
Even as we reach out, we are going beyond our comfort zones, like our Dirty Hands volunteers being present with patients at IMH who seem very different from us. But what we discover as we spend time with them is the common humanity in all of us…the need for connection, the ability to laugh and enjoy music together. We are also reaching out by participating in a panel dialogue with conservatives on 16 July hosted by The Independent. And at the end of July, we are doing another run of Wholeheartedly for friends outside of FCC as we seek to build bridges with various groups of people.
As we reach out, we also recognize that we have to build deep. Without deep roots within our community, without vulnerable and trusting relationships where we know we have each others’ backs, our outreach efforts will be shallow and short-lived. So we have been trying our best to build deep but it is not possible for just the pastors or leaders to build deep. We need each and every person in this community to want to build deep. Each of us needs to want to build deep in this community. That’s the only way we can grow as individuals and grow as a church.
Being progressive means keeping an open mind and being willing to learn from people who are different from us. For me personally, I took up a mindfulness course in the beginning of this year and went for a one-day silent retreat in March. Tonight I will be leaving for Sydney to attend the Hillsong Conference. I know some people may have their reservations about Hillsong so I want to share with you why I’m going. I’m going because firstly, worship has always been a very important part of my spiritual life and journey. Also, I’ve been walking very closely with the worship ministry leaders in our church and I’m happy to be spending time with them as we learn together. We also have a few of our overseas members joining us there and I’m looking forward to spending some time with them too. On a personal level, I signed up for the Leadership stream and I believe I will have much to learn, even though we as a church are very different from Hillsong.
I share all this with you not because I think we should follow in their footsteps or that you should follow in my footsteps. We are all made unique and different. I share this with you to encourage you to think about how you can challenge your comfort zones and boundaries. How are you being inclusive in your life? How are you being progressive? How are you expanding your heart and mind with regards to God, yourself and other people? That’s what progressive means. Are you rising up into God’s love for you?
On the same note, I also want to challenge us to think how we as a church can be more inclusive? How can we be more progressive? How are we exhibiting our faith in God through Christ as we live and make every decision based on love? Are we as a community rising up into God’s love for us?
Let us pray.