Tyler and Oak

When I read the story, I almost became physically sick.  On September 22 Tyler Clementi, an 18 year old freshman at RutgersUniversityand an accomplished violinist, committed suicide.  Evidently, Clementi was secretly videoed by his roommate, Dharum Ravi, having a sexual encounter with another male.  A second encounter was then streamed live on the Internet for others to see.  In Clementi’s last Facebook post he wrote, “Jumping off the gw (George Washington) bridge sorry.”

I can’t even begin to imagine the shame Tylermust have felt, having been “outed” and violated in such a humiliating way.  Was Ravia bully, someone who is habitually cruel and ridicules, harasses, and mocks others?  Or did he just think of this as a harmless prank, as his friends insisted?  From all accounts, Tylerwas a kind, sweet, loyal, sensitive, and artistic young man.  Someone posted on Facebook, “When you picked up the violin and began to play, it was as if everything just paused until you put it down again.  We will never forget you Tyler.  May you rest in peace.”  What torment Clementi must have felt, to believe there was no other choice than to take his own life.

Clementi’s suicide was just one in a rash of gay teen suicides in the last 6 weeks.  All had been bullied in school.  A recent study shows that lesbian and gay kids are four times more likely to commit suicide than straight kids and that nine out of ten lesbian and gay teenagers report incidents of harassment.  Fortunately, Rutgersresponded immediately to this tragedy by providing counseling for students and instituting a program on civility.

In her lectures this summer at the School for Pastoral Ministry, Phyllis Tickle, one of the most respected authors and speakers on religion today, talked about the fact that “every 500 years the church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale.”  During these pivotal times in church history, the traditional structures of Christianity are shaken to the core, with a vibrant new form of Christianity emerging at the same time as the old form is reinventing itself.

Tickle writes that we are in such a time today, calling it “the Great Emergence” (The Great Emergence; How Christianity is Changing and Why, Baker Books, 2008).  In the 100 years leading up to the Great Emergence, the faith establishment was rocked by slavery, followed by women’s suffrage, divorce, and abortion.  The literal application of scripture to these issues was found to be problematic, if not impossible.  For example, while slavery was an accepted social institution throughout the Bible, no one accepts slavery as a truth applicable to us today.  On other issues, scripture was found to be frustratingly ambiguous or mute.  As John Wesley espoused, scripture is not always perfectly clear.

According to Tickle, the last great area of contention for Christianity in this Great Emergence is sexual orientation.  Although gays and lesbians continue to experience discrimination, my sense is that we are making much progress in the acceptance of homosexuals as persons of sacred worth, as affirmed in The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church.  Many gay and lesbian youth and adults are serving as leaders in our United Methodist churches, even in congregations that have traditionally been more conservative.  It is gratifying to observe United Methodists struggling with the scriptures, listening to the stories of homosexual Christians, applying the Wesleyan quadrilateral, and deciding to embrace what they may not understand because it is the way of Christ’s love.

An even more challenging aspect of sexual orientation is the presence of bisexual and transgendered people in our congregations.  In the last church I served, my borders were enlarged by several transgendered people who challenged me to engage my own discomfort and prejudice.  Realizing the confusion of church members, we attempted to address necessary questions, “Could they work with children and youth?  Did we call them by their female or male names?  Which bathroom would they use?”

If you haven’t yet encountered these questions, you will, and so will your children and grandchildren, even here in West Michigan.  A few weeks ago, a transgendered student at Mona Shores High School inMuskegon ran for homecoming king.  Many of our United Methodist youth in the Muskegon attend this school.  17 year old Oakleigh Reed (“Oak”), who has engaged in a life-long gender struggle, is a popular student atMonaShores and has always been accepted by the students.  In fact, he had a real chance of being voted homecoming king until school officials decided to remove his name from the ballot because he is still physically and legally a female.

The ensuing controversy resulted in a Facebook page, “Oak is My King,” which soon gained 11,500 members from around the world.  In an effort to calm the waters, Oak wrote a letter last week to his school, praising the administration for its sensitivity and care and for the special accommodations made for him throughout his high school years.  He also expressed the hope that his story would facilitate understanding and promote basic human rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered students.

Oak Reed has the good fortune to attend a high school where, for the most part, he is able to be himself without fear of ridicule, reprisal, or invasion of his privacy.  Tyler Clementi was not so lucky.  I wonder how our churches would respond if we encountered a situation like the one at Mona Shores.  In the Great Emergence, how we treat those who are different, particularly GLBT folks, may signal a new expression of faithfulness to the teachings of Jesus and an opening of the door to the fresh wind of the Holy Spirit in our world.

I suspect that every week our pastors and church leaders encounter people like Tyler Clementi and Oak Reed.  Our interactions with them may not result in life or death decisions, but how we handle these encounters may determine whether children, youth, and adults see the church as a place of grace or condemnation, acceptance or rejection, hope or despair.  In recent weeks, I talked to several pastors who lamented the fact that teenagers in their youth group had been treated as outcasts by their peers.  In one case the teen was from the “wrong” part of town.  In another case, the teen had a slight disability.  In both instances, the families considered leaving their United Methodist Church in search of a true “sanctuary” for their children.

The church is called to take the lead in shaping a world where all people are accepted as children of God and are encouraged and empowered to discover their gifts and fulfill their God-given potential.  The good news is that we know how to make that happen.

  • Jesus said it well, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you.”  (Matthew 7:12)
  • John Wesley said it well (in the words of Reuben Job in Three Simple Rules), “Do no harm.  Do good.  Stay in love with God.” 
  • Rosa Parks said it well, “To this day I believe we are here on earth to live, grow, and do what we can to make this world a better place for all people to enjoy freedom.”

I am not a professional teacher, but my theory is that if we began using outcome-based teaching in our churches, we might produce more faithful, loving, tolerant disciples of Jesus Christ.  Intentional discipleship means asking the question, “What do we want our children and youth to have learned by the time they graduate from high school?”

  • Do we want them to focus on memorizing Bible verses, or do we want to give them the tools to apply essential scriptural principles to the movement of God in their own life?
  • Do we want them to spew back the “party line” of belief, or do we want them to understand the nature of sin and grace and struggle with how to be agents of God’s mercy in all of their relationships?
  • Do we want them to feel entitled to take from God and others, or do we want them to be disciples who give themselves away in servanthood?
  • Do we want them to ensure their own welfare or work for a world where no one will ever again be shamed into jumping off the George Washington Bridge? 

What kind of people do we want our churches to produce: compassionate, justice-seeking, tolerant followers of Jesus, or ridiculing, abusing, mean-spirited bullies?  Our children and youth imitate what they see and hear, and if they don’t see the adults in their church model healthy, life-giving behavior in all of their relationships, one of two things will happen.  Either they will join us over on the dark side, or they will leave and find a church where love is the only language that is spoken.

Regardless of our beliefs about homosexuality, I pray for a Great Emergence where each one of us will take a firm stand for anti-bullying laws and against laws that discriminate against the rights of others.  I also hope that our local churches will wrestle with how they can create a cultural climate that truly “opens the doors” to all people rather than silently affirms the stigmatization of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people and anyone else who is labeled as “different.”  “Certain basic human rights and civil liberties are due all persons.  We are committed to supporting those rights and liberties for all persons, regardless of sexual orientation.”  (United Methodist Social Principles ¶162.J, The Book of Discipline 2008)

When all is said and done, we are not truly the body of Christ until all people are welcome in our churches and youth groups.  If the kingdom of God has not come for all, it has not come for anyone. 

Tyler, may you rest in the everlasting arms of the God who created you and loved you just as you were.  Oak, may you continue to live courageously and hopefully, knowing that the God who created you and loves you has great plans for your life.  You have already made a positive difference in our world.



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