"The lines we draw are invitations to cross over and that crossing over, as any nomadic subject knows, constitutes who we are." (Judith Butler)

#CalledOut

[This is a letter I wrote to the bishop of the Iowa Conference of The United Methodist Church after a speech in which I talked of my faith as someone who is gay. It received no response. I share it for those interested in truthful conversation beyond the UMC’s continued practices of either outright rejection of LGBTQ persons or of glossing over our presence.]

June 10, 2015

Dear Bishop Trimble and Members of the Appointive Cabinet,

Greetings to you in the name of Christ who has set us free.

In just a two minute speech at Annual Conference, the text of which is included below for your reference, I offered a witness with consequences that I know extend beyond the parameters of a debate and vote on Action Item 106. While I am not typically so presumptuous as to imagine myself as the subject of high-level conversations, I also know that you take your responsibilities seriously enough that my words cannot simply be ignored. And so I write to you in order that I might elaborate my motivations for sharing with the Annual Conference my story of faith as someone who is gay.

It is important for me to make clear that I did not offer my testimony simply to be provocative. And though the timing did come just a year after my ordination, it is not the case that I was simply waiting for the protections of full connection before coming out. In fact, I have been out from the very beginning of my candidacy process. I suspect that just as many people overseeing and supporting my candidacy, provisional membership, and ordination knew as much of my personal life as would be the case for any straight person. Indeed, my intention was not to inflame further the tensions over the issue of LGBTQ inclusion. Rather, my motivations for making a statement in such a public way were twofold.

First, I earnestly believe that God’s beloved children who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer have something to teach the church. In the longer version of the speech I had written before debate was limited to two minutes, I reflected on the promise of scripture that “for freedom Christ has set us free” (Gal 5:1). Though some would argue that homosexuality represents enslavement to sin, I have experienced within my own body and soul the crippling fear of the proverbial closet. Until I could accept myself as wonderfully made—in the fullness of my sexuality, not in spite of it—I could not accept my calling and was entrapped in a life of prayer marked by self-loathing rather than a love for God that manifests itself in love for all God’s creation, including myself. With deep and intentional study of scripture and the traditions of faith in Christ, along with the support and care of mentors, friends, and family, I came to experience the liberating love of Christ. When I was able to accept God’s blessing upon my life, even as someone who is gay, perhaps especially so, I came to turn from my inwardly focused, obsessive fear of my sexuality, to the world outside myself, to a deeper sense of calling to care for others. The enslavement to sin that I experienced was not to homosexuality but to a life spent resisting and denying the particular gifts God has bestowed upon me. Likewise, we in the corporate body of The United Methodist Church are resisting and denying the ways God is already blessing and calling persons who are LGBTQ. I understand the fear because I have lived it in my own body. This is precisely why I, and those who are LGBTQ, have an essential witness to the church. “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” We will not and cannot be closeted because God has called us out to preach the Good News of Christ.

Second, it is imperative that the voices of persons who are LGBTQ are heard. We are not just “the elephant in the room.” We are in the room. At last year’s Annual Conference, I was the first speaker in the debate over the petition encouraging alternatives to church trials. I offered reflections based in my studies of the Bible and earliest Christianity in order to try and reframe the conversation, which too often insufficiently addresses the central issue of biblical interpretation. But as the debate wore on, I realized a painful absence: the voices and experiences of those who actually are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer. Since then, I have prayerfully considered how I might use my voice differently in the Conference. Again, I am not interested in testing the limits of my ordination. Rather, I am growing into God’s calling upon my life, and I am recognizing the need and value of a more public witness to my faith as someone who is gay. Especially on my heart were the diakonoi [high school students serving as pages for the conference]. I considered what it might have meant for me at that age to have heard a message of healing, of the reconciling of one’s faith and sexuality, in the midst of the painful debates of Annual Conference. I am not so pretentious as to think I uniquely can bring resolution to this issue, but I do take seriously the privileges I have to speak and to be heard. And so I feel compelled to tell my story in order to encourage cultivating space for others who are LGTBQ to know that their experiences matter.

The first person to thank me for my words at this recent Annual Conference was a diakonos. I do not know his story, but I am humbled that he was grateful to receive mine. Then, after we adjourned, a student and voting member of the Conference found me to express that he was personally touched by my message. This was a young person who had attempted suicide in December because he was afraid of how people would treat him should he come out. Now, as then, I have no response other than to pause and cry.

And to pray. And to keep witnessing to the liberating love of Christ.

I understand that you hold in your care a wider church. You must be concerned over the potential repercussions of members and even whole churches leaving the denomination. But please hold in your hearts those who are longing to hear a literally saving word. I cannot help but think of how Jesus’s disciples rebuked him for becoming distracted, or so they thought, by the children reaching out for a healing touch. But Jesus set different priorities: “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs” (Matt 19:14). I pray especially for the young people of The United Methodist Church, that they might never have to wonder whether God loves them in the fullness of their being.

Perhaps ironically, I know the Bible and the rules of the church so well precisely because I am gay and have had to wrestle with them for so long. I do not brazenly spurn them but cherish how years of struggle have given way to a ministry of teaching and proclaiming the gospel. I offer myself to you, not with fear of retribution but in hope that we might envision together a better way forward.

My intention in making a public witness was not to intensify division. Yet, I am painfully aware that just my presence can be divisive. This is a burden for which persons who are LGBTQ are often made to feel a responsibility to bear alone, but it is a responsibility that we share. We have all covenanted through baptism to nurture one another, and so I enter into this conversation with you in that spirit of love and nurture, for each other and for this church.

I pray as earnestly for The United Methodist Church now as I once did for myself: that we might be delivered from fear and come to know the liberating love of Christ, by whom we are reconciled with God—lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and straight alike.

Prayerfully,
Tyler Schwaller

P.S. I would be remiss if I did not also mention that, as a scholar of the New Testament and Early Christianity, I offer myself as a resource for Bible study and other conversations around the earliest Christian traditions, including but not only with regard to issues of sexuality. This is my calling and ministry and part of my intentional commitment to full connection with the Iowa Annual Conference.



Speech delivered to the Iowa Annual Conference, June 9, 2015

I know the Bible well. And I take the Bible seriously. I also know what it is to pray every day and every night to be made clean, to be made whole. What I thought that meant—for many years characterized by fear and spiritual unrest—was that God would somehow deliver me from being gay. Sisters and brothers, I did not believe God could love me as a gay person.

But in my ceaseless praying, I heard a word of grace: I love you as you are, God said. It took still years to trust that word, but when I was able to come out to myself and to God, I experienced the liberation to begin living into and living out God’s calling upon my life.

We now are experiencing in our corporate body the fear I knew within my own body, and it is suffocating. But I risk telling my story today so to testify for you that there is healing and a peace that surpasses all understanding when we come to recognize and celebrate the ways God is already blessing and calling God’s beloved children who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer.

The first time I remember hearing someone speak against homosexuality, it was in a United Methodist Church. It was on a mission trip with my youth group, and the speaker was my father. But last year, my dad stood with me at my ordination. The reconciling love of my father reflects something of the healing, liberative love of God our Parent. May this church know and reflect likewise.

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