Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Follow-up from 9/27/05 -- Rev. Jeff Falter

I got an email last week from Rev. Jeff Falter, whose 6th-grade son had happened to Google his name and discover that I had written a blog about him in September of last year after learning that his congregation voted to fire him for embracing the GLBT community.

After reading my blog and the other Google results, Jeff emailed me to say hello and how happy he was that his words were having a positive impact beyond their orignial audience. He added, "I feel God has called me to work for the full equality of LGBT's in church and society; I feel more strongly about that call than about any other single thing I have tackled in ministry." That's a powerful statement.

Knowing there are people like Rev. Falter out there, who experience this degree of conviction about our validity as Christians, sure makes it easier to endure the tantrums of Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and others who just don't get it. God is moving in our community and alerting others like Rev. Falter who can help spread the word, and it's great to see them respond to the nudgings. If God is calling others to work for our equality, we can rest assured that our place in God's realm is unequivocally secure.

Here's a portion of an interview that Rev. Falter did with the Human Rights Campaign last fall. It provides more background and gives us a better idea about just how committed he is to truth and understanding. His words give all of us a voice.

Rev. Falter, I first learned about you through news reports that you were fired from your pastoral position because you supported LGBT rights. What happened?

On February 26, 2005, I published a sermon in the local newspaper in which I said, "Gay and lesbian Christians are no different than the rest of us. They deserve full equality in the church and in society, for they are my brothers and sisters, people for whom Christ died." That article, like much of my ministry, demonstrated the importance of inclusion to me—not only of LGBT’s, but also of Hispanics, women, AfricanAmericans, and any other group which may be treated as second class in church or society.

The newspaper sermon was, to say the least, controversial in the small Appalachian town of Elkins, West Virginia, and in the Presbyterian congregation I served there. Though many people in the church and community were grateful for the word I had spoken, others were not. In the end, the publication of that article, and the turmoil that resulted from it, resulted in the congregation voting on May 22 to dissolve its relationship with me, by a vote of 100 to 72.

How has that experience affected you and your family?

Jesus said that each one of us must pick up our cross and follow him. While my cross has not led me to a physical death like Christ’s, I have in many ways faced metaphorical death: loss of position, loss of home. I have to take my children away from their friends, and my wife and I have to leave the life we have been building here long before we intended.

I am now in the process of seeking a new call as a pastor or campus minister/chaplain. I do not yet know where God is leading me in that process. But despite the personal and professional cost, I remain absolutely committed to working for the full equality of LGBT’s in the church, trusting that the God who called me to do this will not abandon me now.

What role did your faith play in motivating you to speak out?

When I first published my article, I was not looking to make a bold political statement nor enter into a political fray. I wanted to address the real spiritual needs of the gay and lesbian community in my own town and in the congregation I was serving. People were hurting and suffering because of the stand that "good Christian people" had made about LGBT’s over the years, and especially in recent months in this nation.

Forty years ago, a very wise president from Texas said, "In Selma, as elsewhere, we seek and pray for peace. We seek order. We seek unity. But we will not accept the peace of stifled rights, or the order imposed by fear, or the unity that stifles protest. For peace cannot be purchased at the cost of liberty" (Lyndon Johnson speech "We Shall Overcome" urging Congress to pass the Voting Rights Acts of 1965). Unfortunately, over the last year or two we have seen this wisdom escaping us as a nation, finding instead that state after state is adopting a "Defense of Marriage" amendment to its constitution, encoding our prejudices into law, simply because the majority of people find the pursuit of happiness of a minority objectionable. Such actions have served to bring further pain to the LGBT community, working to destroy life rather than build it.
Martin Luther King once said, "The greatest sin of our time is not the few who have destroyed but the vast majority who sat idly by." When I recognized the destruction of life caused by the church's stand against LGBT's, I could no longer sit idly by. Christ calls me to build life, not destroy it. In publishing my sermon in the local paper in February, I wanted to help build life for people in my congregation and in this community, in response to Christ’s call.

We often hear religious leaders say that the Bible says being lesbian or gay is wrong – usually disregarding bisexual and transgender people altogether. How do you respond?

Presbyterians have, historically, clung tightly to the "right of private judgment" — that is, to the universal and unalienable right of each individual to follow the dictates of his or her own conscience regarding the interpretation of Scripture. I do not wish to violate anyone’s right to interpret Scripture, even as I continue to pray that others will discover more light from the witness of Scripture, as I did.

I would like to ask folks a question, however. My own experience has been that on questions fundamental to the Christian faith—questions about baptism, salvation, justification, sanctification, communion, resurrection, eschatology—Christians can have a wide diversity of opinion and yet remain respectful of one another as coworkers for Christ. Why can Christians not have that same fundamental respect for one another when it comes to differing understandings of human sexuality—an issue which is most definitely NOT central to the Christian faith. Why is diversity of belief in the field of human sexuality so threatening?

What I discovered in my exploration of Scripture is that our world is not the same as the ancient world. In the Ancient Near East, marriages were usually arranged by parents long before children could fall in love and make their own choices. The Bible sought to regulate sexual behavior based on that historical, cultural context. So, for example, when Leviticus 18 speaks about "Holiness in Sexual Behavior", it tells the male members of the society, "You cannot have sex with your inlaws, your relatives, your animals, your slaves, your children, sacred prostitutes, or anyone else. You have a spouse with whom alone you may practice your sexuality." In this context, if a man had same-sex sexual activity (lesbianism is not addressed in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament), it meant that he was breaking fidelity with his spouse.
In our 21st century, North American context, the issue of fidelity/faithfulness remains essential: no one should break faith with one’s partner. However, unlike the Ancient Near East, 21st century marriages in modern Western societies are not arranged by parents for their children. Instead, marriage is the result of two individuals falling in love and deciding to commit their lives to one another. The Bible makes no claim about whom one may or may not fall in love with; the Bible has a lot to say about remaining faithful to those with whom we are in relationship.

I find four other Biblical passages significant for me in addressing LGBT issues. Three are quotes from Jesus (who, by the way, never directly addresses same-sex relationships): Jesus said, "Whoever comes to me I will never drive away" (John 6.37); "You will know them by their fruits" (Matthew 7.16); and "Whoever does the will of God is my brother or sister or mother" (Mark 3.35). These three passages remind me that not only those who think and act as I do are worthy to be called children of God. Instead, everyone who does the will of God is part of God’s family, someone for whom Christ died. The other passage is the admonition of Gamaliel (Acts 5.3839): "If this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail [on its own]; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow [it]—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!" If God intends LGBT’s to become an integral part of the church’s life, then Christians sure don’t want to be found fighting against it. If, on the other hand, such activity is not God’s desire, then it will fail all by itself.

Lastly, I recall the words of one of my professors from seminary: "It is better to err on the side of grace." When I stand before my God, I would rather have God accuse me of showing too much grace than too much judgment.

You have been courageous in a way we wish more clergy would be. But they might see your experience as another reason not to take a stand. What would you say to them? Would you do it all again?

First, I would want to say to my fellow clergy that I wouldn’t presume to claim to know what God’s call for them is at this point in their lives. God’s call to each of us is unique. God has called me at this point in time to work for the full equality of LGBT’s in church and society.
At the same time, I would like to remind my fellow clergy of the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die" (The Cost of Discipleship [New York: Touchstone, 1995], 89). Christ does not call the Christian to a life of comfort and ease and selfsatisfaction, nor can we allow our own fears, our own desires for security, determine Christ’s calling for us. Christ calls us instead to pick up our cross and follow him. If we, as the public leaders and examples of Christian faith, are unwilling to put our lives on the line for the call of Christ, do we really have the right to expect our parishioners to lead transformed lives as Christ’s disciples?

Would I do it all again? Absolutely. At the end of the day, I take comfort in Christ’s words, "Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets" (Luke 6.2223). I know that at the end of the day, I can look myself in the mirror: I have answered Christ’s call to me despite the cost.


Anonymous Anna said...

Jen, thanks so, so much for posting this. I love it. It made my day :-) Thank You!!

3:36 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home