Special Messenger: I want you to call him Ishmael because the Eternal One has heard your anguished cries.
As a result of this encounter, Hagar decided to give the Eternal One who had spoken to her a special name because He had seen her in her misery.
Hagar: I’m going to call You the God of Seeing because in this place I have seen the One who watches over me. –Genesis 16:11b, 13 (The Voice translation)
‘Kingdom Partners.’ That’s what my church calls it. ‘It’ may have various names; but the meaning is the same everywhere. Membership.
Today, one of the pastors at my church good-naturedly approached me. He knows my story. He knows my beliefs. He treats me graciously. But, he’s assigned to the membership classes, so he has to ask when new classes start if I’m ready to become a member. He told me during the awkward ‘meet-and-greet’ time that church services seem to believe obligatory that I am on his ‘to-call’ list for the classes, and should he bother. I told him with a smile that I welcomed his call, but no, I wouldn’t attend the classes.
The rest of the service I thought about the weight of that question. While I have several reasons for not becoming a member, I don’t fault anyone who enjoys that status in good conscience. My reservations with membership stem from my upbringing with parents who lived in segregated communities and some of their experiences. Even though I’ve attended this church for years and actively support several groups in leadership roles, embracing membership eludes me. I love this church and the people who attend. But, I can’t reconcile membership and the implications of excluding certain groups with the teachings of Jesus. We proclaim confidently in church that ‘everyone gets to play’ when it comes to the life found in Christ. Unless … that life includes an LGBT-spectrum relationship. We proclaim loudly, joyfully that we are all saved by grace through faith! Except for the rules that you must live by to prove to us that you deserve Jesus’ sacrifice.
None of the unspoken rules used to bother me. They didn’t condemn me, and in my immaturity, I couldn’t imagine others who wouldn’t agree to them. Being white, straight and moral by church standards, I had no reason not to propagate the biblical standard interpreted by my kind. Then I met others not like me. Others who came from divorced homes. Others who grew up churched, but harbored personal truth they couldn’t reconcile with church doctrines. Others who carried shame because they didn’t conform to church standards. Others who embodied Christ’s life to me, but didn’t embrace traditional interpretations of Scripture that the church taught me as infallible. Others who created doubt in my church tradition, but enlivened my faith in God. Others who showed me love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control without the weight of shame and protective masks of the soul.
Until a few years ago, I never thought of the people to whom the church denied membership. I didn’t understand what it’s like to worship God, but be treated like an illegitimate sibling. I never identified with Hagar and Ishmael. Until my own power and privilege in a system I’d always supported crashed down upon me, killing my ego-centered religion; and God resurrected my humbled self. I remember reading the woman at the well story of Jesus and becoming overwhelmed with empathy for her. I felt Jesus speaking to me as He treated her with respect and honor. For the first time, I understood that I had been treated as the proverbial ‘church whore’ by an abusive pastor. While I had never compromised my standards or my church’s beliefs, the pastor had the church community shun me because he couldn’t control me. Much like the Samaritan woman Jesus met. Her community shunned her because she didn’t measure up to their standards. While we can make the argument that she made poor moral choices, I believe I related to her because her choices led to ungodly shaming. Her encounter with Jesus reconciled her within her community. He removed the shame that the community placed on her and freed her to live as a true child of God, instead of as a bastard child of religion.
We all need to see ourselves as the excluded ones at some point in our lives. We need that experience to humble us and help us understand that none of us deserve the life found in Christ. We must identify with the Hagars and Ishmaels in order for others to believe the good news of God that He hears our anguished cries and is the One who sees us and welcomes us all, as we are and without condition, into His kingdom. All God requires of us is to humbly believe we cannot earn His love and to treat all others–as equal siblings–with the same grace He gives us. When we learn those lessons, people will beg us to tell them more about Jesus and our God!
And membership will become obsolete. Because everyone will get to play.
I welcome comments. Please keep them respectful and constructive.