Libby Tedder Hugus
In this parable of an open letter, I use an analogy to imagine the Church of the Nazarene as “Mama”—the denominational mother who nourished, loved, educated and blessed me into my adult life. She is also the “Mama” I have had to disassociate myself from in my personal pursuit of the practice faith and vocational ministry.
In your womb I was tucked safely in the dark cave of your body while God delighted in knitting me together neuron by nerve by cell. God entrusted me to you, knowing the wisdom of your parenting would lead me in the way I should go.
At my birth you smiled into my eyes, soothed my aching cries, told me I was beloved and oh-so-wanted. You whispered that you would do everything in your power to teach me about God’s love. Soon thereafter you dedicated me to God’s good provision, witnessed by the congregation. While I belonged to you, I belonged to something much, much bigger.
At your breast I found comfort and nourishment. I listened to you hum praise choruses and faith hymns, handed to you by your Mama and her Mama before her. I knew how much I was loved. You delighted to see me unfold as a human created in God’s good and loving image.
At your feet I played and absorbed the traditions of your living, breathing faith system—rooted in years of tradition and fueled by fervent generations of resilient others longing for God’s nearness. Wide-eyed and tender hearted, I trusted you and I trusted them.
At your table I was fed the Bread of Life, watered from the well that never runs dry. I was assured of my belovedness. I was challenged to understand belovedness as my birthright, as an open invitation to other hungry humans to belong and to be saved from a life separated from love. You asked me to spread the delicious bread crumbs everywhere I went.
In your baptismal fount, I was buried to my separate ways and raised into the living flow of God’s communion; committed to being transformed in the Image of Love.
Beside you I observed and grew. I imitated you as you aimed to imitate God. I took wobbly steps in faith, influenced by those entrusted to teach. I was surrounded by Sunday School teachers and children’s pastors and Caravans facilitators and preachers and choirs of the faithful singing those same choruses and hymns. Sundays, Wednesdays, revivals, camps, retreats, district and general assemblies, quizzing, year after year I learned to practice faith.
At your altars I wept in earnest pursuit of knowing God, making choices to follow wholeheartedly. I repented sincerely when I found myself separated from God’s love.
From your womb, God and I communed. I knew God and God knew me. You introduced me to God’s story. It was as wonderful as you taught me—and more so.
I began to think for myself, as little and curious, through the pure idealism of youth. I sincerely wanted to make sense of God’s story, our story. You taught me that the founder of our faith tradition, the Reverend John Wesley, wanted us to filter our expression of faith through a “quadrilateral” (such a nerdy term, Mama) of reason, tradition, experience and scripture. Together we contrasted what you modeled to me with what I was experiencing as a human in the world.
Before entering high school, at an altar at National Youth Conference, I said “yes” to God’s call to vocational ministry. I committed my trajectory to serving God within your system. It felt scary and big, but also felt freeing and joyful. I took sincere responsibility to inherit the Nazarene mantle.
But, Mama, through a teensy crack at the edges of how I understood and experienced you, dissonance seeped in. Not all denominations were like you. Not all Christians gathered for worship like you or organized or believed or required adherence to your social standards. Something about the version of the story you told me was… off. The mental models and my bodily experiences were not integrating.
Like all healthy adolescents, I questioned you. There were ways your faith practice was hyper-individualized; too caught up in the idea of holiness rather than the practice of love. Mama, I think you lost sight of Wesley’s admonition that there can be no salvation until the whole is saved. You chose to love your polity, theology, politics and manual more than your neighbor. The focus of Jesus’ greatest commandment got fuzzy. You claimed we were “called unto holiness” and set apart. But set apart from what and to what purpose? You invested so much energy protecting “us” rather than earnestly seeking the nourishment of the whole, especially those who pulled up a chair to the table looking starkly different than you.
Perhaps this “whack-a-mole” dynamic was my first clue. If there are too many “others” or enemies to be afraid of, maybe it’s time to rethink who the enemy actually is. Afterall, there is no fear in love.
I felt especially uncomfortable about the strict rules you established around human sexuality. I had friends who did not fit the mold you prescribed as “holy enough.” They were queer—all colors of the rainbow—and they were beautiful. They were not defiled, impure, or disgusting; they were hungry seekers of the Bread of Life too, thirsty for the water that will never run dry. They were imaginative and hospitable and justice seekers, just like us.
There was a distinct code switch I perceived between what you claimed and how you acted, and like an ear worm it began to eat its way through my identification as Nazarene. You trained me up in the way I should go, but the tracks were no longer parallel with my experience and reasoning of who and how God loves. The God who communed with me also delighted in queer community.
There simply is no “us and them” around God’s table. The distinction doesn’t exist. You were behaving like we had to hoard the bread crumbs from the hungry.
The tracks you were chugging along were rigid, prideful, and fearful. You invested so much energy proving yours were the only tracks God’s holiness could ride. It’s as if you came to trust your beliefs and assumptions about God more than God. You’d forced God into your image and couldn’t trust the living love behind your assumptions. Do you see the dissonance? You don’t referee holiness, Mama. God does. And God’s love is boundless.
Why would the love and belonging applied to me at my birth not apply to my queer siblings? It is not for you to say whose DNA, sexual identity and gender expression is in or out. In God’s love, there simply is no in and out—unless we choose to separate ourselves from it. Remember? The image? We’re all created in it. Every single human you disagree with or refuse to understand is created in the same image. I am dearly wanted by God and so is every queer human.
We choose separation from God’s love when our actions block participation with that love, not because of who we love or how we express our humanity. We choose that separation when we claim we’re more inside the circle of love than our neighbor.
Off those harsh tracks, I began to pioneer a new path in embodying the faith you handed to me. There is a wide mercy beyond all expectation. There is a fierce inner wisdom connected to my very good body and my very good sexuality and all the other good bodies and sexualities represented under the rainbow.
While I belonged to you, I belonged to something much, much bigger. I learned to trust this belonging when your version of truth played referee to who is inbounds and who is not. You claimed I was pushing too close to the boundaries Mama, and there are no boundaries. We’re all radically loved—including queer humans.
It was exhausting to reconcile the dissonance between your way of being in the world, and my new awareness beyond limiting assumptions and fears. I wanted to stay in the shelter of our familiar home. I wanted to advocate for the changes I had tasted as the wild mercy of inclusion. But you simply could not listen. Pride and fear and rigidity kept you from being willing to hear me share about what I had discovered about God’s wide love.
I had to part ways with you to stay true to God and pursue my life’s calling in vocational ministry. Dissonance management no longer served my participation in the disciple-making mission. It was too constrictive Mama. I had to turn in my credentials. I had to disassociate from you. I’ll always be imprinted by your identity Mama, but God’s full Rainbow Image is the only one I chose to mirror.
It was really painful to look you in the eyes and tell you this truth. Your eyes glistened with tears as we embraced and I turned to exit our home. Still, you’ve chosen not to change. I have come to terms with this. It grieves me. It makes me ache for what you have yet to experience of the Beloved—the same One who knit me together in your womb; of whom you sang over me at your breast; the One you taught me about in all those Sunday School classes, caravans, revivals, camps, District and General Assemblies, quizzing matches, late night conversations in college and strenuous courses in seminary… You’ve closed yourself off to an entire experience of God’s delight in the array of a stunningly diverse family.
I miss you, Mama. And more than that: I ache for the fuller, wider, more hopeful and radically inclusive experience of God’s love that you are missing. Because what you reject and exclude in your houses of worship and polity and statements of faith and Manual and polity and theology, you reject and exclude about the very same God you’re aiming to honor.
Thank you Mama, for nurturing and educating me. Thank you for pointing me to the God beyond the rigid tracks you still insist on traversing. You don’t have to throw it all out though, Mama, did you know that? Faith beyond Nazarene identification has the same roots, just more beautiful and juicy fruit than you have allowed yourself the pleasure of tasting.
I wonder if you’d like to explore what God is like outside your tightly clutched pearls of tradition and limiting beliefs? If you ever do, an incredibly blessed rainbow of humans will welcome you with sparkling eyes.
Come on in, the water is wide. Off the rippling tides of God’s deep and boundless love dance rainbow refractions of goodness. The queer community would love to show you just how deep and wide the currents of mercy are.
With all the love in my heart,
The Backstory to this Open Letter:
I am a former district licensed minister in the Church of the Nazarene, educated and graduated (with honors and recognized awards) from Nazarene institutions of higher learning. I was pursuing Ordination when I made the painful but liberating choice to part ways with my denominational Mama.
Now, as a Nazarene, I was as purebred as they come, inheriting a legacy from faithful Christians many of whom rooted their vocations in her soil. My family were Nazarene pastors, missionaries, church planters, professors, administrators, and a high-level denominational leader. My parents, brother, uncle and cousin, three maternal grandparents (two of whom were women), great-grandmother, and great-great grandmother are or were all ordained Nazarene ministers. Such a beautiful legacy to be gifted, especially in the rare form of women being validated in this calling. I loved and lead and ministered and worked for change within her bounds until I was 28.
And then I chose to leave, because I realized I could no longer belong to this particular denomination and remain true to my calling. When I used my intellect and experience to measure the matter of full queer inclusion in the body of Christ through the lens of the scriptures and tradition, my “Mama” was painfully lacking.
God’s love was deeper, wider, and more colorful than her narrow aperture was asking me to perceive. God’s feast was hosted around a more inclusive table than I was told to set. I chose to gather with other hungry folks ‘in exile’ around that table and be nourished by the merciful gospel I had come to treasure, the same one Mama taught me to seek after. I have not once regretted this choice in the decade since.
Finally, I want to offer an invitation.
For any of you seeking wider, more inclusive tables outside of Mama’s walls: come join us. The exiled desert can be full of grief and loss, and it can be full of sweet nourishment and oasis. God’s love is deep enough, God’s table wide enough: please trust me on this.
For any of you seeking more inclusive tables within Mama’s walls, consider how to organize your efforts on behalf of “the other,” especially the voiceless. Does the polity, statements of faith, theology and practice of Mama’s denomination integrate with a theology of love? Ask yourself: who is missing from this table? Why?
For any of you resisting the moral of the parable, that Mama’s walls are keeping out those who are supposed to be invited in, please consider what you believe and have experienced about humans being created in God’s Image. Is it an image of fear? An image of exclusion? An image that referees who is in and who is out? Why? Why not?
Dearly Beloved, God loved us first: let’s act like it. May love always be our compass.
Libby Tedder Hugus is a reverend, coach, author & speaker. She offers her presence to the world as a spiritual midwife, wordsmith & human resonator. She believes there is always room for one more around the table: both at home and in God’s family and that generous hospitality can and will heal the world. You can track her down at thetablecasper.org