Our Father, Who Art In?

Justin Barksdale

There has never been a time when our LGBTQIA+ brothers and sisters have not been part of the family of God.

It was one of the worst sermons I’ve ever heard. There was no central text anchoring the message. No clear narrative emerged to carry the listener forward. Lacking in both content and style, the sermon fell flat. All of it just felt wrong coming out of his mouth.

That was the worst part: it was coming out of his mouth.

A few years ago, a stranger reached out to me on social media. She’d been adopted as a child and had reason to believe that my deceased father might also be hers. Initially I hesitated to answer her request to help confirm her hunch. My dad passed away over two decades prior, leaving a sterling legacy as a husband, father, and pastor. Suddenly all of that could be at risk if I opened myself to the possibility of my father having another child.

After prayer and heartfelt conversations with my mother, siblings, and wife, I consented to help this mysterious stranger find resolution. I couldn’t deny someone an opportunity to discover their true identity. Weeks later, a DNA test confirmed what had been sleuthed out from family stories and deep dives on the internet. I suddenly had a new sister.

After the initial shock of learning that my dad had unknowingly fathered a child while serving in the military prior to meeting my mother, I had to decide how to respond to my new sister, Marie. We debriefed as a family and it became clear that our best response would be unconditional love. We chose to affirm that Marie was part of our family and to open our hearts to her.

We collected old family pictures into a shared digital file so that Marie could get acquainted with dad. The photos, artwork, and stories began to allow my sister to meet our dad decades after he passed away. My aunt found one of dad’s early pieces of art and mailed it to Kansas so that Marie and her husband and kids could enjoy a tangible piece of Dad’s creativity.

It was therapeutic to recall so many good things about my dad’s life, and it was emotional to share those sacred moments with my newfound sister. I was deeply moved by my second-hand experience of her finding connection, a deeper sense of meaning, and a broader group of people to whom she belonged.

It was all so beautiful, but there was one thing still missing. The mementos only revealed so much. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but all of those words lack one thing. The sound of our dad’s voice remained a mystery to Marie.

We never owned a video camera and Dad passed away in 1995, well before technology made it easy to capture life’s moments, so there were no videos to be found. Our only hope was to find an old audio cassette tape from when dad preached in the church where he had served. Sure enough, mom sifted through enough dusty boxes to find a recording of Dad’s last sermon, delivered shortly before his passing.

A hodgepodge of old and new technology was gathered from Goodwill and Amazon to digitize the last audio recording of our father. As I was assembling all of the equipment I reflected on how I grew up hearing my dad preach and had been inspired to become a preacher as well. His style, mannerisms, and delivery had been a model for me. I thought back to my college classes on biblical interpretation, hermeneutics, and theology and how they further shaped my preaching after my dad passed away. It dawned on me that I had now been preaching for nearly twenty years and I was eager to be transported back to where my own journey had begun. I was ready to hear my dad preach again and to share not just his voice, but his words with Marie.

This is why it was such a major disappointment to hear such a lousy sermon. Our father finally spoke from beyond the grave and meandered aimlessly for thirty minutes. Not exactly the introduction I had hoped to offer Marie.

For a brief moment I considered not sharing the sermon at all. It would be so much easier to just not acknowledge the outdated, clumsy message. But I knew that Marie deserved to hear his voice and that she couldn’t experience his voice apart from hearing these words.

The file was uploaded. Marie loved it. She listened to it over and over. Marie shared how it helped put some missing pieces of her puzzle into place. I had opened my heart and shared with Marie everything that could be shared. She was affirmed as unconditionally part of the family.

In time, Marie asked questions about Dad’s sermon. What kind of Bible did he use? What’s a good way to begin reading the Bible? These questions opened up an opportunity to do a joint Bible-reading program with the help of an app. Each day we would read a selected passage and had the opportunity to share insights with each other.

Eventually life caught up to us and the Bible-reading program lapsed. Initially, I felt some guilt. How could I let my dad down like this? It had been a meaningful way to connect with Marie, and I let it fade.

My guilt lifted when I realized that our early Bible study conversations had established a foundation that was now much more personal. The texts and phone calls continue and are more organic. We have created a real relationship.

Our authentic relationship allows me to be honest about how I cringed at hearing our dad’s words, but melted at the sound of his voice. Our relationship leaves room for us to receive our father’s words differently and yet remain equally enamored with his voice. It’s not his words, but rather his voice that connects us.

The timbre of his voice comes through when we share moments together. It becomes embodied every time Marie shares a corny joke that he would’ve loved. When we first connected on an internet video call, our dad’s voice was rejoicing through happy tears right along with us. We embody his voice best by loving each other as family.

Our dad has said everything he’s going to say. There are no more words, only his voice. I can appreciate even his clunky sermon when I tune into his voice. When I hear it, I remember being loved by him. It is the love that I received that calls me to love in the same way. I don’t recall much of the exact words our father said, but I do remember how he lived and how he loved. His voice echoes every time I connect with Marie. His voice calls me to embrace and wholeheartedly affirm her as my sister.

On a cold February Sunday, our father’s voice resounded loudly. It started with a gasp of surprise. I stepped into my office to prepare for a worship service and was startled to see Marie! She had covertly flown in from Kansas and was now before me. No longer a mysterious stranger, I suddenly knew her as a tangible expression of the life and heart of our father. My gasp quickly gave way to sobs of joy as Marie and I embraced as sister and brother. Two pieces of our father’s heart were united. Our hearts were full, the pieces of the puzzle were in place, and our father’s voice had led us to this holy moment. His legacy was being enriched and expanded by Marie joining the family.

I can’t minimize the weeks that we shared our Bible-reading regimen. It was special. But the full depth of our relationship doesn’t rest on us reading the Bible the same way or agreeing in its application. Thankfully, we are called together as family not simply because the words of scripture lead us to do so. Better yet, we are family because the voice that gives breath and life to the words of scripture calls us to be united.

Sometimes our father’s wry sense of humor finds expression in my thoughts. When I begin the Lord’s Prayer, I pause to humorously wonder who I’m addressing as I say, “Our Father, who art in heaven.” Is it my heavenly Father, or my earthly father who resides in heaven? Of course I’m praying to God, but it also helps me to remember who my father was and how he shapes my understanding of God as Father.

Because Jim Barksdale embodied love and grace, it feels natural for his children to embrace one another with love and grace as well. His voice, which we longed to hear, calls us to nothing less.

There are thousands more siblings, born from above, who desperately need to hear our heavenly Father’s voice and to be fully welcomed as family.

The Church of the Nazarene has orphaned brothers and sisters who are listening and longing. Our LGBTQIA+ sisters and brothers are listening to our words. What are they hearing us say about them? Is there room in the family for them? Do they fit into the stories? Are they welcomed fully? Might our Father’s legacy be enriched and expanded by their inclusion? Do our words accurately embody the voice of our Father?

Our LGBTQIA+ siblings are longing to be accepted unconditionally. I’ve learned this by listening to them. I’ve heard Rachael, who is gifted with a soft heart and a sharp mind and yet would not be welcomed in church leadership because of her sexual orientation. This dear sister loves Jesus and His church, but is not finding a home in the Church of the Nazarene because her divine gifts and graces of ministry are met with deaf ears.

I’ve listened to Cortney, who is in a loving, monogamous, flourishing romantic relationship, but cannot hear that this is blessed by our Father because of her partner’s gender. This cherished one loves God and loves her partner but is not finding a home in the Church of the Nazarene because our love for her finds its limit precisely where her love begins.

These are honest-to-God siblings. As I’ve listened to their voices, I’ve come to realize that we share the same Father. Their words clearly echo our Father’s voice. They enact justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. I can extend my hand to them and embody John Wesley’s plea, “If thine heart is as my heart, if thou lovest God and all mankind, I ask no more: give me thine hand.”

What’s the alternative? Shall I stand outside while the Father throws a party for my siblings? Can I impose limits on the Father’s love? Will I stand silent while brothers and sisters are denied their place in the family? Will I let discomfort and aversion for risk keep me from publicly embracing my precious kin? Shall I fall into what the prophet Ezekiel called the sin of Sodom: being proud, having plenty, enjoying peace and not helping those in need?

Or will I hear the Father’s voice naming who’s in the family? Can I honestly believe that Jesus fully reveals the heart of the Father; that he fulfills the law and sums it up with a simple invitation to love God and love each other? Will I submit to the Spirit in order to discern how to best love my siblings?

Hear this: there has never been a time that Marie and I weren’t brother and sister, bound by the shared blood of our father. There was just a period of time when we didn’t yet know it. There has never been a time when our LGBTQIA+ siblings haven’t been part of the family of God, bound by the blood of Jesus. There’s just a period of time when we haven’t yet known it to be true. It’s time for the Church of the Nazarene to listen to the voice of our Father and welcome our siblings fully into the family.

Justin Barksdale has served as a pastor in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition since 2002. He earned his MA from Northwest Nazarene University. He resides in Western Washington with his wife and three children.

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