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The Upper Room

Today is July 24, 2018. This past Sunday morning, during the discussion portion of our service, I extended an invitation for anyone who was looking for a space to talk through our recent conversations about same-sex attraction to join me in the Upper Room. We didn’t make a big deal about it, but put a simple note in the program acknowledging that our conversations around this theme have presented us with some challenging ideas and have led to a mixture of emotions. 

We decided to do this because a member of our Staff team had heard from a couple of people who were expressing confusion about where our church was headed and who were hoping to get more clarity. The last thing we wanted to do was continue to let this issue dominate the life of our community, but it was clear there were still pockets of people who had some outstanding questions. The suggestion in our Staff meeting was that if we didn’t provide an opportunity for ongoing dialogue, there was a risk that we would lose people who might otherwise be able to navigate their questions in a healthy way and find a way to continue their journey with us. 

(Note: This post is part of an ongoing series called The View From Here. Please follow this link and start reading at the oldest post, Fear and Trembling.)

My initial response was that my door was open and I would be happy to meet with anyone who wanted to share their concerns, but it was pointed out that a one-on-one setting might be too intimidating for some people. So I proposed the idea of creating an intentional but informal space for people to ask questions, hoping that I could sweep away some of the cobwebs of confusion and clear the path for continued participation in the life of the church.

When the sermon was finished, I made my way upstairs and seven people slowly trickled into the room and took their seats. I began with a few introductory words about how there was no real structure to our time together and that my hope was simply to create a safe space for people to ask questions, share feelings, and seek clarity together. 

One of the people around the circle clearly came for a fight. He’s been attending our church for the past three years and has a personality unlike anyone I’ve met. He is never at a loss for words, though I often find myself struggling to guess what his motivations are when we’re having a conversation. It’s like he’s always playing some sort of a game—testing me, pushing me to see my reaction, like our conversations are part of an elaborate experiment he’s conducting to see whether I pass the test. We’ve had lunch on a couple of occasions and have always found plenty of topics we agree on and plenty more that we disagree on, but despite the latter, somehow he has found a way to stick with us. I haven’t heard much from him at all in recent months, but he is gregarious enough to stand out in a crowd, so it hasn’t been lost on me that he has been gravitating more and more toward those with strong traditional views who I know have been struggling with our church’s approach to same-sex attraction.

When I finished my brief preamble, he immediately spoke up and let the group know that he came prepared with a series of questions, which he laid out on the table: Was our church now an affirming church? Was I going to start performing gay weddings? How would this work given our denominational connections? I was able to give what I thought were fair responses to each of his questions, ignoring the rough edges of his delivery. Others put their questions on the table, too: Why were we allowing people living in sin to be in positions of leadership? Were we concerned about the diversity of our church being watered down by the departure of people with strong conservative convictions? 

The conversation was fairly healthy for the first twenty minutes or so, but things took a bad turn when I shared my hope that people would choose to continue to walk forward with us instead of leaving based on what they feared would happen in the future. “I know people are afraid that we are going to abandon the Bible,” I said, “that we will stop talking about sin, and that we won’t be preaching the gospel, but none of those things have happened and they’re not going to happen. I just want people to know this and trust that we are still rooted in the things that matter most and are committed to the strong core of the Christian faith.”

This is when the man who came for a fight decided to up the ante: “But you already have done all of those things.” 

He started talking about how we don’t have altar calls and how this results in a failure to invite people to life change, about how my sermons are strong in the start but weak by the end because I don’t present the gospel, and about how I have failed to give any direction at all to our church when people need it the most and are longing desperately for someone to lead them. There was a lot more to what he said, and his brashness emboldened another man to speak up with equally grave concerns. 

This other man was there along with his wife; they were an older couple who at one point were the only people their age in our congregation, but they were committed to our vision and have been an encouraging presence to me over the years. She is one of a small handful of people I asked to pray for me regularly throughout this challenging season, occasionally sending requests by email when I was heading into a heavy meeting or reeling on the other side of yet another departure. I have also walked through deep family struggles with them, being at their side during some of the most difficult moments of their lives. But for the husband, all of our shared history faded away as he turned on me in front of the group that had gathered together in that Upper Room. 

At first he was angry about my ignorance of how evil the gay community really was—that if I only knew who those people really were and what they really did, I would never let one of them serve in the church. I pushed back strongly on this, stating as firmly as I could while still being respectful that he was making connections that were completely unreasonable. But he had held his tongue long enough and the accusations continued to fly. What he said next hit me hard and shook me in a place well below the surface. He turned the clock back twenty years to the start of our student church, which he remembered well because he was part of the congregation that helped us get off the ground and was actively involved in the lives of students at the time. He painted a picture of the success we had with all of the hundreds of students gathering for our services every Monday night. He talked about how God was doing incredible things through our church and through my leadership, how I was preaching the gospel, how students were coming to faith, and how the church was growing. “But now,” he said, “all of that is gone. You have taken a wrong turn somewhere. You have changed. You aren’t the same pastor you were when you started.”

(I just switched tabs on my browser and sent an email to a member of our community who is a counsellor. He had previously offered to “put on his therapist hat” and give me a safe space to talk about what I’ve been going through during this season, so I decided to take him up on it. I share this only to be as honest as possible about how much of a mess I am right now.)

How do you respond when you’re in a group setting and someone undermines your entire life’s work with a comment like that? Everything I had done, all of the good in my story was just swept away because I am willing to lead a community where people agree to disagree about what God’s heart is for people experiencing same-sex attraction. I was furious. He had crossed a line that he had no business crossing and I stopped him in his tracks. I spoke from a deep place, an authoritative and bold place that I rarely pull from, making it clear that while I was happy to have someone disagree with me about the issue of same-sex attraction, I was not about to stand by and let him say what he was saying about who I am as a pastor. I told him he was wrong, that I had not changed, that I had not taken a wrong turn, and that I was the very same pastor I have always been. I told him that what he may have failed to understand about me was that an openness to the leading of the Spirit was always a part of who I was, which had given birth to some of the most beautiful parts of our church’s story, including its foundation in the first place. Being open to change did not mean that I had changed—not the core of me, not the part of me that he was willing to respect as long as I held a traditional view on marriage, but was willing to cast aside as soon as he started hearing something even the slightest bit off course. 

The conversation in the Upper Room continued to spiral out of control, with more aggressive words tossed in my direction about my poor leadership. What added to the pain for me was the near-complete silence of the other people in the room who somehow found themselves mesmerized by it all and were either unable or unwilling to stand up to the barrage of criticism being thrown in my direction. It was just me, sitting there alone, taking one blow after another. A couple of them would follow up with me later to say they felt terrible for what happened, but in that moment I didn’t need people to feel bad for me; what I needed was someone—anyone—to stand up for me, to stop what was happening. Eventually, one of the aggressors reached his intended climax by concluding, “Our pastor is faltering in his leadership. Maybe now would be a good time for him to take a Sabbatical leave—not that I’m trying to get rid of him or anything.”

It was clear to everyone that the conversation needed to end, so we all got up and awkwardly left the room. The older couple stopped me outside of the room to thank me for walking through a recent crisis with them. The husband shook my hand, his words about my failed leadership still echoing in my head. They also let me know that they had given a card to my wife earlier that morning, and when I got home and read the note inside, it was flowing with expressions of thanks and an acknowledgement of the ways God has used me at significant junctures in their journey. The irony of the situation wasn’t lost on me. 

Later that day, my wife would tell me that the one who came to pick a fight bounded down the stairs, proclaiming to the few people still lingering in the lobby: “Brandon got pretty beat up in there, but he asked for it; he made himself available and that’s what happens.” But is that what happens? Is that really the price I have to pay for making myself available? I guess so.

When I came downstairs, I told Melissa that I was leaving and that she needed to take the kids home with her. She was in what looked like an intense conversation of her own, but my tank was empty and I didn’t have enough energy left to be cordial with people, so I snuck out the back door and started to drive home. The tears started to flow, and before long it was full-on waterworks. The words about how I had lost whatever it was I had when I started our church had hit me especially hard. I was already worn down by months of tension and rejection, leaving my defences vulnerable to attack. Instead of driving home, I drove through a blur of tears to a parking lot on the university campus where we would unload our sound gear every Monday night during those amazing years of student ministry. I can still remember pulling into that same loading dock area, getting out of my little white, two-door Ford Escort and laying hands on the side of the building, praying that God would make a way for us to be able to meet in this place and that He would somehow use me to build a church for students in our city. That building will always hold a significant place in my life’s story, but this time, I just sat there beside it in my parked car weeping like a baby before the same God who had called me to this task of pastoring more than twenty years ago, crying out for Him to hold me up under the weight of all of this, to help me find a way forward.

Comments

  1. Brandon, this sounds like it was so hard. I wish I could have been in that room with you; I wish I would have spoken up to counter the things these people said. Our community has benefited so much by your loving leadership.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you for these words, Christian. I've heard a similar response from a couple of others as well, and it does make me wonder how the conversation might have turned out differently if someone other than myself had spoken up. But that's all in the past—my hope in sharing this is that whenever someone finds themselves in an 'Upper Room' kind of situation, they will be intentional about speaking up on behalf of people who need their support and will refuse to let the loudest and angriest voice win the day.

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  2. Thanks for sharing that, Brandon. I can recall a time in my first worship/youth position having a meeting with a guy who read a two page letter about everything that was wrong with me, ending by his questioning my call to ministry. My lead pastor and one of the elders was also in the meeting. They said nothing other than to thank him for being so open and honest. I suspect it felt somewhat similar.

    I'll be reading back along this journey and following as you post. I've said that navigating this issue is so hard when it's about an issue and not people, but I'm guessing it may be even harder when it's not about people but a person.

    Thank you for your vulnerability and authenticity in sharing this. I imagine a lot of pastors will both resonate with the experience and have a lot to learn from someone going first.

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    Replies
    1. @swcblues, I think you're right that this kind of experience resonates with a lot of pastors and I appreciate you sharing a bit of your own story. Churches do this beautiful thing when they bring together people from all walks of life (Scot McKnight's "fellowship of differents") but every once in a while we come face to face with just how challenging this project Jesus launched really is!

      I'm glad to have you reading along and really do hope that my story of "going first" proves helpful and in some way encouraging as you walk your own journey.

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