I’ve been thinking a lot about fear recently. I suspect I haven’t been alone. In the last couple of years especially, we’ve had ample reasons not only to think about and observe its insidious and repressive power to subvert what is right and good, but for too many of us, to actually *experience* it as a part of daily life. Prominent elected officials at every level of government have become adept at weaponizing fear, conjuring imaginary threats to our health, safety, and privileged status from people—“others”—who simply wish to live *without* fear, and to be treated with the same respect and dignity that each of us cherish—and often take for granted. Their actions have divided us as a society perhaps more than ever—certainly more so than many of us can remember.
Fear of people who don’t look, speak, worship, or love as we do (“we”, as in white, English-speaking, Christian, heterosexuals more often than not) has led to policies—both real and proposed—that seek to intentionally dehumanize and exclude “others” as a societal norm. From the perspective of a people who have traditionally (and constitutionally) opened their arms to the oppressed, hurting, and marginalized of the world, to characterize this trend as a tragedy would surely be an understatement of incredible proportion.
The truly tragic thing, however, is that we have also seen the ravages of fear-mongering make their way into the institutional church. Fear of other faiths, fear that we are somehow being deprived of our right to pray and worship in our own faith as we feel led, and again, fear of siblings in the family of God who do not look, act, interpret scripture, or experience their sexuality in the same way we do seems to be driving us inexorably toward such decidedly un-Christian activities as wall-building and the establishment of sexuality-based litmus tests for leadership worthiness.
For a people who have been admonished time and again that we’ve no reason to fear, Christians in particular seem to have fallen prey to its debilitating spell. It is, after all, a formidable power to have to resist—and in the frailty that defines our existence as mortal beings, we’re often ill-prepared to resist its appeal.
And yet, as Cumberland Presbyterians, it is comforting to realize and acknowledge that we owe our very faith heritage to resisting fear—to the courage, conscience, and commitment to unconditional love that drove Samuel McAdow, Finis Ewing, and Samuel King into a frigid February night (before global warming had taken its toll) to seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance. Theirs was an humble act of faith—of openness of heart and mind that with the dawn of the following day led also to the dawn of a new understanding of their relationship with God.
Within the DNA—the essence, if you will—of Cumberland Presbyterianism is thus encoded a strong proclivity for such courage, and with it, an openness to being guided by the Holy Spirit in new and unexpected directions. The strength of that proclivity led us, for example, to ordain women at a time when most other denominations felt that to do so revealed a faulty interpretation of scripture. While some of our congregations seem still to be struggling with what Cumberland Presbyterianism now embraces as sound theology, we are today ordaining more women than Rev. Woosley could have imagined.
That Cumberland Presbyterian DNA has led us more recently to reconsider interpretations of scripture that led to an acceptance of separation of people based solely on race. Many of us are old enough to remember the names of more recent giants of our faith: Brown, Campbell, Condron, Davis, Garner, Knight, Malcom, Morrow, St. John, Warren, and many other women and men who, like McAdow, Ewing, and King risked their reputations, and in some cases their safety and well-being, to lead their siblings in the faith to a new understanding and acceptance of a more inclusive view of what the church should be. To remember their courage and commitment and to allow ourselves to be similarly guided by the Holy Spirit is to strengthen what it really means to say, “I am Cumberland Presbyterian”.
Today, the strength of that proclivity for courage, open hearts, and open minds is leading us, however slowly, to an understanding that individual members of the LGBTQ+ community come to us endowed with gifts that the body as a whole can ill afford to ignore. No less than the women and people of color who, once excluded through uninspired interpretations of scripture are now teaching in our Sunday schools, mentoring our children and youth, and filling our pulpits, members of the LGBTQ+ community are created by God with gifts of compassion, service, and yes, leadership. Beyond loving them unconditionally and affirming their status as beloved siblings created in God’s image, persons imbued with that Cumberland Presbyterian proclivity for courage are engaging them as co-equal partners in service to the kingdom of God.
Regardless of what we humans may think best, God will call whom God chooses, to persons and to roles that may sometimes challenge our own understanding of God and God’s purposes. We rejoice that it is in the DNA of Cumberland Presbyterianism, and hopefully in the institutional church that adopted its name and formalizes our status as family, to move with courage toward affirming the personhood of those in the LGBTQ+ community, and supporting those whom God calls to service in our community of faith. Why would we *not* want a member of the LGBTQ+ community whom God has called to preach or teach or demonstrate the good news to those needing to hear it to do so? There *is* no defensible reason for us to stand in the way of those whom God has so called.
Like many institutional churches, our denomination—as a human and thus imperfect institution—may grapple with issues around human sexuality. My prayer is that the strength of our DNA—our proclivity for courage and openness to new understandings of God’s desire for God’s church—will not become obscured by the human tendency to fear people who may not look, act, or love as we do.
Make no mistake. It is in the DNA—the *essence*—of Cumberland Presbyterianism to welcome members of the LGBTQ+ community into this community of faith, to love them without regard for the gender identity or sexuality with which God sent them into the world, and to affirm and encourage them fully whenever they seek to answer God’s call to service. To do less would be to succumb to fear, to miss out on the gifts they bring to our family, and indeed, to question the very God whom we worship and serve as Almighty. And that, we must not do.
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