Story Weaving, Take Two

One of the reasons people are reluctant to talk about LGBTQ inclusion is that it is difficult and often uncomfortable to wrestle through this in conversation with other people. I am thankful that Mary Anne Isaak has been willing to speak with me a couple of times over the last few months, first to catch up and share some of her experience since her chapter was altered in On Holy Ground, and more recently, to tell me I hadn’t written about her work accurately. I asked questions and invited her to help me understand.

This “take two” aims to more accurately describe and engage Mary Anne’s reflections on her journey toward LGBTQ inclusion during her almost three decades of pastoral ministry. To do this, I connect the dots between the source material I engaged (what she said), my interpretation of that material (what I heard), and my takeaways from the correction she offered (what I am hearing and where I’d like to take this conversation). The original post will remain available for reference. I hope that listening and seeking to understand one another cultivates openness and new learning so that we can talk about LGBTQ inclusion in ways that produce greater justice, healing and flourishing.

What she said

In the pages that were deleted from On Holy Ground by the US and Canadian Mennonite Brethren Executive Boards, Mary Anne reflected on her experience of pastoral ministry in three congregations that “faced decisions regarding homosexuality and church membership.” Along her journey, “just as [her] response to women in church leadership evolved from a received tradition to [her] own understanding rooted in research, experience, and community discernment, so too [her] response to the LGBTQ+ community is developing.”

I have been particularly interested in the catalyst for this development and how others might use it as a model for a way forward, especially with the attention these pages have drawn since being censored. More personally, Mary Anne was my pastor at College Community MB Church during a time I was struggling to respond to my sexuality in light of my faith. At that time, she was one of many non-affirming voices that influenced my journey in ways that I later understood contributed to spiritual trauma. Neither one of us are where we started; we have both experienced changes. I have been curious about her journey since she first shared a draft of her chapter with me in 2021.

Two things stood out to me in her chapter. First, she reflects on the experience of LGBTQ people and their loved ones within her congregations and expresses genuine care.

The love we preached wasn’t something they could access for their particular family systems… Again I realized I was helping to create a church environment that did not feel safe for families among us.”

“My respect for Michelle grew as I witnessed her wrestle to live out her faith in so many ways… When she married another woman, I was genuinely joyful that she found the community of deep connection, accountability, and intimacy that she had been diligently seeking for so long. Although it was a much slower shift than for my understanding of women in leadership, I found my perspective on gay marriage beginning to turn.”

Second, she references the response she presented at the 2015 MB study conference on human sexuality in which she engaged 1 Samuel.

“In the last minutes of my response, I used 1 Samuel 8 and following to show how Scripture holds space open to validate two opposing visions of God’s dream for the world. When the people ask Samuel to anoint a king, his response makes it clear that a king is not part of God’s original plan for them. In fact, Samuel equates choosing a king with rejecting God as their king. Samuel warns the people of the consequences; they persist and God listens to the people saying, ‘For I have seen the suffering of my people because their outcry has come to me’ (1 Samuel 9:15-16). Then, God goes a step further and actually leads Samuel to the person they shall crown king. Is it possible the church’s response to homosexuality can be compared to Israel’s adoption of monarchy?

The next day, I was called to the convention floor to respond to questions. No, I wasn’t trying to change the confession of faith. I was trying to open space for authentic conversation among people who hold Jesus at the center of life and faith and yet differ in their understandings of the Bible… Across Canada, throughout the globe, our Mennonite Brethren family of faith is wrestling with the deep questions of the culture by taking them to the Scriptures. We are coming to different understandings. Can that be okay?

Mary Anne has also spoken publicly since her chapter was altered, including in an interview with CBC News in Winnipeg. The parts that most caught my attention seemed related to the two interests I mentioned–catalyst and model: What is the theological rationale for “making room” for LGBTQ inclusion? What potential impact might that have on the reality of LGBTQ inclusion in churches?

“I’ve been a pastor for 26 years now… and in every congregation, the question [has come up]–How do we respond to… LGBTQ inclusion in the church, and especially would we marry a gay couple? That’s outside our confession of faith… I tell the story of the questions I have, the encounters I’ve had, the learning along the way. And I draw a parallel, because as a young person, I was really against women in leadership as well. I thought the Bible said, ‘No, there’s no space for that.’ And then I’ve had a gradual coming to understand what the voice of scripture is with women in leadership. And so did a comparison, as I study the scriptures I think there is room for a gay couple to get married.”

“This is a conversation that we’re having in the Mennonite Brethren, and I think that there’s a lot of fear… I remember how afraid I was of having that conversation in an open and honest way… Not quite knowing how to have the conversation in a way that’s going to respect everybody’s voice at the table… And part of what the Mennonite tradition is is what we call a community hermeneutic – talking together, wrestling together.”

“When I was pastor in a previous congregation and we were working with the inclusion of a gay couple who were married, I was afraid that we would be following just what society said and kind of putting aside the example and teaching of Jesus. And I was afraid that that would erode what our center is.”

“Part of being a pastor as a female in a traditionally male role has been working carefully for years – how do I use my voice? And all the chapters in this book of life writing are wrestling with that same question. How does our voice get heard? Where is the influence? Do we come to the table in the same way our male counterparts do? And so I think this is part of a bigger story. I think the other experience I have is compassion. I just feel like I’m talking with my former self. When I held the position of ‘I don’t think this is honoring Jesus,’ then when people got angry, and they pushed harder, I just dug my heels in more. And when there was gracious listening and exchange of story, then I think that’s when I sensed God’s spirit moving and speaking.”

“I’m advocating for a conversation… How do we stay unified and make space for divergent opinions? What’s the core of what we believe?”

What I heard

As I said, I’ve been listening with my ear tuned in for an answer to the questions: What changed for Mary Anne? How might that shift contribute to the larger conversation of LGBTQ inclusion in MB churches?

I heard a pastor’s heart being moved with compassion in response to the exclusion and hurt she witnessed LGBTQ folks and their families experiencing. I heard that movement leading her to scripture to better understand God’s activity in the life of Israel with the hope that it might help her discern God’s prompting for the life of the church today. She pointed to the story of the birth of the monarchy in which Israel requested a king, and God instructed Samuel to anoint one. This is where I was stumped. How I made sense of this “story weaving” did not follow Mary Anne’s intentions or belief.

She asks, “Is it possible the church’s response to homosexuality can be compared to Israel’s adoption of monarchy?” Because that story includes Samuel and God expressing that Israel’s request indicated a lack of faith, rejection of God as king, and a warning of future injustice and suffering, I see Israel’s adoption of monarchy as negative, a path not to be emulated. Mary Anne’s question thoroughly confused me. How could a parallel expression of such a story–the church adoption LGBTQ inclusion–ever be a good thing? The comment I highlighted made by Bryan Born echoed my confusion: “And yet, someone would argue that this passage is an appropriate passage to bolster their position? I find that rather bewildering.”

The interpretive move that made most sense to me was using a lens of compromise. Maybe, if this passage is read as God creating room for a Plan B–not what he originally designed or willed, but a concession he was willing to make in the face of Israel’s perceived need–it could offer a parallel message. In that case, one could argue that because God accommodated a previously determined unfaithful action then, he could accommodate one now. Motivated by compassion for LGBTQ experiences of pain (“crying out”), maybe we could justify LGBTQ inclusion by “making room” for gay marriage.

As I said in my original post, this rationale is deeply problematic and further harms LGBTQ people. However much that is true, this rationale is not Mary Anne’s. Though others do argue for inclusion using this rationale, she is not reading through a lens of compromise, and her journey has not developed from such story-weaving.

What I’m hearing

After our last conversation, I still do not understand Mary Anne’s theological journey. That picture is not clear in my mind. What is clearer to me, however, is that when asking the question–How do we respond to LGBTQ inclusion?–her concern is focused on the shape of the conversation. Whereas I was looking for clues about the theological shift that allowed her to move toward LGBTQ inclusion, I was missing that her main message has not been, as she said her interview, advocating for change, but “advocating for a conversation.” She asks, “How do we stay unified and make space for divergent opinions?” and seeks to “have the conversation in a way that’s going to respect everybody’s voice at the table.”

When she reflected on 1 Samuel at the 2015 MB Study Conference and highlighted it again in her original chapter in On Holy Ground, Mary Anne was drawing attention to a concrete example of “divergent” guidance. Scripture contains sometimes very confusing and seemingly contradictory answers to our questions. Mary Anne sees a diversity of voices throughout the Bible. “In scripture,” she said in our conversation, “we hear God’s ‘yes’ and God’s ‘no’ on the same issue. We see the writers of scripture wrestling with their understanding of God’s will, and there are times when that understanding shifts or changes. In 1 Samuel, God, though clearly saying ‘no’ previously, now says ‘yes.’”

Weaving this story with that of her own journey of shifting in her understanding of God’s will regarding women in ministry–once hearing “no” and now hearing “yes”–Mary Anne is asking if we might understand God responding to homosexuality similarly. She says that there are places in scripture that clearly say “no” to homosexuality, and there are others that could be saying “yes.” Can we make room for more than once voice and discern that the Spirit may be guiding us to make room for LGBTQ people and same-sex marriage in our context?

River East Church, where Mary Anne pastors, has attempted to hold together a diversity of voices within their own congregation. They are not fully affirming. Rather, the third way they seek to walk is one that includes and holds together those who hear God’s “yes” and God’s “no” to same-sex marriage. This approach centers maintaining unity.

Where I’d like to take this conversation

I still have questions. I’m still curious about Mary Anne’s theological journey. What does she mean when she says that scripture contains both “no” and “yes” regarding homosexuality? If both are present, how has she and/or her congregation opened themselves to the “yes”? What does it mean to hold these “divergent opinions” and “stay unified”? How might relationships between those who hear “no” and those who hear “yes” be impacted over time? How do LGBTQ people experience this dynamic?

There is more to say. There is always more to say. To ask. To wrestle with. To unpack and process and consider.

Since June, when word got out that the first printing of On Holy Ground was destroyed and Mary Anne’s chapter edited, my posts have focused on this event, its aftermath, and what we can learn from it. However, though I plan to keep addressing LGBTQ inclusion within the MB world in future posts, I’d like to shift my energy to other projects as well. Stay tuned!

In the time since my last post, I packed up my household in Nashville, TN and moved back to California. I’m discerning my next vocational steps, and would love to invest more in LGBTQ inclusion work. If you know of an individual, group, leadership team or church that needs resources for navigating this conversation, please contact me. I am available to speak, teach, preach, lead a small group, consult with your leadership team or church, and more.

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