Snakes are a hard subject for a gardener to write about. Biblical imagery of snakes depicts them as evil, a stand-in for the devil. Like most folks, my gut reaction is one of fear and revulsion. On the other hand, as a farmer, I know, intellectually, that they are an important part of a balanced garden ecosystem. So while the sight of snakes chills me to the core, I don’t kill them unless they pose a direct threat to our chicks or rabbits. Often in life and in farming, I find myself needing to hold in tension something that performs a vital function even as it invokes fear and revulsion.
I’ve paired these stories of snakes with the story of switching denominations because something about the stories felt to belong together. I’m not sure though who the snakes are in the story. Are the snakes evil? Scary? Misguided? Misunderstood? Useful? Sacred? Am I the snake? Or are the snakes in the church? Sometimes it is hard to tell.
Although we are not strictly following a permaculture design for our farm, we do attempt to use some permaculture principles and design elements in places. One I was eager to try was hugelkulture – a layered bed made from logs, leaf litter, compost, and soil. The logs take a long time to decompose and meanwhile provide moisture retention and slow nutrient release for the bed. I identified one area on my field that was too riddled with roots to really dig down to make a garden bed and decided to place a hugelkulture bed there. I built the bed during the late winter/ early springtime and seeded it with clover and rye, which I planned to weed whack back and then plant into once the temps warmed up. All was going to plan as the temps warmed and a nice crop of clover began to emerge across the bed.
Weedwhacker in hand, I moved through the garden taming the overgrowth between the rows as I approached the hugel bed. Now the bed was about 3 feet tall and uphill from me, so it was difficult to see around it. As I turned down the walkway beside it, attentively watching what I was weed whacking, I saw a flash of black lunge at me over the head of the weed whacker. I dropped my tool and ran back a few yards. Glancing back at the area, I saw a large black snake. I moved back, my eyes squarely fixed on the snake as it slithered back into the hugel bed. As the last of its tail slipped into a hole in the bed, I noticed the whole 30-foot long bed was writhing. Another snake appeared and another and another. Soon I saw at least half a dozen, maybe more, black snakes moving in and out of holes in the soil of the bed. Turns out snakes love hugelkulture beds and I had disturbed their nest. Needless to say, I did not weed whack that bed again or go anywhere near it for the rest of the season. After a few frosts, the following fall gave me hope the snakes were gone, I removed that hugel bed. Experiment over.
The whole summer was filled with more snakes than I had yet seen in my life. There was the one I almost grabbed thinking it was a hose. Numerous snakes crossing the driveway as I arrived home. The snake I almost stepped on because it was sunning itself on the steps of my back porch. The snake in the shop that bit Bones when she reached for a tool on the shelf. The snake that ate all of the eggs our broody hen was trying to hatch. The snake that lived in the hedgerow along the garden edge. The snake that got caught in the chicken wire along the bottom of the garden fence line. So many snakes. I mentioned this to a friend while helping trellis tomatoes at his farm one day. He said they hadn’t seen any snakes that year. I said, “Except for that one you mean?” And pointed to a huge rat snake that slithered by just at that moment. I’m pretty sure it followed me from my farm.
I saw so many snakes that year, I decided it must mean something.
I’m a cradle United Methodist. My parents met at youth group at their UMC church in Charlottesville, got married in that church and I was baptized there. We weren’t at a UMC church for my first 11 years, but that was more a function of military life and frequent moving. Once the moving slowed and we moved off base, the UMC is where we returned. I would say I grew up in Fredericksburg UMC. We moved to Fredericksburg as I entered 6th grade. Mom “shopped” around at the various UMC churches in the area, but it was when my friend Sarah invited me to come to church with her that we settled on a place. I actually remember that first day going to Sunday school with Sarah at FUMC. Susan was the 6th grade Sunday school teacher. I remember how warmly she welcomed me and how much I enjoyed the class. I don’t remember anything we learned that day, only that I felt loved and welcomed.
FUMC was a vital home for me through middle school and high school. I found so many folks there who offered themselves to the youth of the church with such love and devotion. From Sunday school teachers, youth leaders, volunteers, pastors, and other adults who loved and supported me, raising me in the church to know that I belonged and mattered – to them and to God.
I actively sought out a Methodist college, Pfeiffer University, where I majored in Christian Education and church music. My whole life revolved around hanging out in the Christian ed department or participating in the religious life programs of the school, with a smattering of lacrosse thrown in. My first summer in college I did a summer intern program with the UMC Board of Global Ministries where I was placed at a Methodist-affiliated community center in San Marcos Texas to provide programming for their summer youth work camp.
That following fall I attended an event called Exploration ‘98 put on by the UMC to encourage young leaders to pursue ordained ministry. While I was there I felt a clear calling to pursue ordained ministry. I contacted my home church almost immediately upon returning home and began the ordination process with the UMC. Eager and precocious, I sped through the ordination process during my remaining years at college, completing everything I could before attending seminary. Once I decided to attend seminary, it had to be a Methodist school. I looked at all the Methodist-affiliated seminaries on the east coast. My mom and I even did a driving tour hitting Wesley, Drew, and Boston. I eventually applied to just Wesley and Candler. Both schools offered me full scholarships funded by the UMC. I accepted at Candler. During my time in seminary, I worked as a youth minister as a large UMC church in a suburb of Atlanta.
My whole life was firmly rooted in the UMC and my future with the UMC seemed assured.
Seminary, if you are engaging in it fully, has a way of upending one’s world. I had known Candler was a fairly liberal place and was prepared for that, though I would have counted myself more of a moderate theologically and somewhat conservative politically. For the first time, I was meeting folks whose beliefs were quite different from mine. The conversations pushed and stretched me in ways I couldn’t have imagined. And although I was somewhat neutral on the subject of homosexuality, I had never before met a person who was gay (much less considered myself so!) until I encountered some folks at Candler who completely wowed me with their faithfulness, deep theological thinking, and clear calling to ministry.
After coming out, I fairly quickly developed a solid, integrated identity that acknowledged my same-sex attractions as but one part of the larger picture of who I am. I still held strongly to my identity as a person called to ordained ministry and saw no conflict between the two, or rather saw that both identities were important and in some ways complementary parts of me as a whole, beloved child of God. Not that it was without its bumps, but once the words “I’m gay” were out, I came to self-acceptance fairly quickly and easily. The hardest part was wrestling with where that left me with the United Methodist Church. As you’ve read, my whole life had led me to a deeper attachment to and engagement with the UMC. I was Methodist through and through. But did the Methodist church want me any longer?
While I was completely out to my seminary peers, friends, and family, I remained somewhat closeted at the church where I worked. The lead youth minister was very conservative and I feared telling him most of all. Instead, I took tentative steps into coming out. First I told the other assistant youth minister, who was a fellow student at Candler, and would almost certainly find out if I didn’t tell him. I imagined staying closeted until I graduated and never having to face a possible backlash at that church. I might have except my last year, the Youth Pastor decided we should do a unit on sexuality with the youth. Knowing this would cause some internal conflict for me, I decided to discuss it with the Senior Pastor. I hardly had contact with the Senior Pastor given how large the church was. Being with the youth on Sunday mornings, I rarely ever even heard him preach. So I scheduled a meeting with him where I came out to him and told him I was struggling with how I would lead the youth in this unit on sexuality. He said I could share that there are a variety of opinions, but be sure to emphasize the official statements from the denomination. I felt somewhat okay about that. He also said that I needn’t come out to the Youth Pastor until after the sexuality unit, but then I needed to tell him. All in all, it was less scary than I had imagined, and I thought the Senior Pastor was at least a little bit in my corner.
I kept quiet through the whole sexuality unit, but the internal pressure from hiding was becoming unbearable. Finally, the build-up was too much and I told the Youth Pastor when he came by my office (a desk in a closet!) one afternoon. He did not respond, mumbled something about the schedule, and walked away. A few days passed before my next workday and I knew I had to confront it. After settling in, I went to the Youth Pastor’s office and sat down. He started in on some questioning about our plans for the upcoming youth retreat. I stopped him, asking if he had any questions about what I had said. He got up, walked over and closed the door, and then sat back down. I don’t remember what he said after that, it was not awful, but not supportive either. He said he needed to spend some more time thinking about what to do. And he insisted that I tell the Minister for Congregational Care, his boss. I really did not want to tell him.
The Minister for Congregational Care was my official mentor for the ordination process – the person who would write my recommendation for ordination and the review of my work at the church. Telling the Minister for Congregational Care meant jeopardizing my ordination status. Not knowing what else to do, I did as I was told and told him. His response was also quite mixed. On one hand, he seemed personally supportive, on the other hand, he expressed the opinion that he was now compelled to report this to the ordination board. I begged him not to, to let me figure out on my own how and when I would handle it. He agreed not to do anything immediately. Still, fear now hung over me.
One day I was out in the garden preparing to weed whack. As I knelt down to pull the starter, I noticed a black hose near the head of the trimmer. I let go of the starter and reached for the hose. It moved. The hose, of course, was a long, black rat snake. It darted past me and slithered under an overgrown bush. After my breath returned to me, I decided against weed whacking that afternoon. A year later I was working near that bush when I realized I had been avoiding it since the snake sighting. Since I was too afraid to work near the bush, it was even more overgrown than last year. I laughed at myself. How silly of me to avoid somewhere just because I saw a snake there last year. So I mustered up some courage and walked toward the bush. After a couple of steps, I saw the familiar rustle in the grass and caught the glimpse of a snakes tail as it darted under the bush. Snakes do strike twice in the same place.
As my seminary career progressed and my security in my gay identity increased, I began considering that I may need to switch denominations. However, I knew that my scholarship depended upon me staying United Methodist, so I made my peace with staying, at least until graduation. I’m not one to just go through the motions though, I needed to find some sense of integrity in my actions. So I continued moving forward with my ordination plans in the UMC. At this point, it meant completing my ordination papers. A long set of questions covering theology, doctrine, personal history, practice of ministry, and adherence to the Discipline of the UMC. Two days a week I kept an appointment with myself in the library and diligently worked through writing responses to all the questions. At first, the writing came easily. Until this question:
You have agreed as a candidate for the sake of the mission of Jesus Christ in the world and the most effective witness of the gospel, and in consideration of their influence as ministers, to make a complete dedication of yourself to the highest ideals of the Christian life, and to this end agree to exercise responsible self-control by personal habits conducive to bodily health, mental-emotional maturity, integrity in all personal relationships, fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness, social responsibility, and growth in grace and the knowledge and love of God. What is your understanding of this agreement?
How could I answer that question with integrity knowing that the UMC’s definition of marriage did not include me? Each time I would open my file on the library computer, this question would scream at me on the screen. The cursor blinking at me as if begging me to just write something generic. Not lie really, just leave out some pertinent details. But I couldn’t. The deadline to submit papers arrived faster than I could process the next right step for me, and so I never turned in my papers. It was agonizing, but I knew I needed time.
General Conference, the every four-year gathering of the entire UMC was scheduled to happen the summer after I graduated. I was taking United Methodist polity for my last semester and we spent much of the class talking about the upcoming conference. Instead of final papers, we had the option of writing and submitting petitions for General Conference and then traveling to Pittsburgh to watch our petitions get processed and, hopefully, debated by the body. With a couple of friends and the help of another professor, I wrote the following petition. I even discussed it with the Senior Pastor of the church where I worked.
Amend ¶ 304.3:
While persons set apart by the church for ordained ministry are subject to all the frailties of the human condition and the pressures of society, they are required to maintain the highest standards of holy living in the world. Since the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be accepted as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church. the church is of a divided mind on the issue of homosexuality, it is the responsibility of the Board of Ordained Ministry to determine the character and relationship of its candidates for ordained ministry.
Homosexuality is a divisive issue in our church and in the world. Faithful Christians read the same Scriptures and come to vastly different conclusions and cannot agree on the matter. We believe that the integrity of the church is at stake over this issue. It would be disastrous to divide the church over an issue that is still unclear. ¶ 304.5 states, “It is understood that the requirements set forth herein are minimum requirements only.” Consequently, each conference is already given the latitude to establish requirements for ordination above and beyond what is listed in the Discipline. Our Methodist heritage teaches us, “As to all opinions which do no strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think” and “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity” (¶102). This is a way to move forward at a difficult time without losing valuable people on both sides of this issue.
Thousands of petitions are submitted every year, 21 were submitted regarding this same paragraph in the discipline, so I didn’t really expect mine to go very far. The petition was taken up in the Faith and Order Committee, amended slightly, and sent to the main floor for a vote. I sat through every committee meeting while it was debated. The debate was hard to hear, but I left hopeful that the petition had made it out of committee, even if narrowly. Then the petition came to the main floor of the conference. The debate was as expected, the same old arguments for and against. One, though, stood out. The Senior Pastor of the church where I worked, who I had thought was somewhat supportive, was a delegate that year. He stood to speak against the petition saying, “The heart of this petition strikes at the heart of United Methodism.” He knew whose heart was behind that petition. The petition failed on the floor 466 to 436. The photo above was taken just as the vote results flashed on the screen that day.
After the vote, the plenary session was adjourned for a break. I, and many other grieving folks, came forward to the altar table to gather for a service of communion. As the prayers and invitation were spoken, someone lifted the chalice high above their head and opened their hands letting the chalice fall and shatter on the floor. As I watched the chalice shatter, I knew I could no longer be a United Methodist.
Like many other current and former United Methodists I will be watching the special General Conference in St Louis this week. Not because I want to come back to the UMC, I don’t, but because the UMC is my faith family of origin. I care about what happens there. I care about what happens to my queer siblings who chose to stay. Fifteen years ago when I submitted this petition to let each conference decide this question, it felt like a small, hopeful step in the right direction. The One Church Plan has much the same intent. I’m not sure it is enough anymore. Fifteen years ago it felt like something, now it feels like too little too late. How many LGBTQ folks, many of them talented, faithful servants, is the UMC willing to let walk away?
Snakes are complicated creatures. They stir fear and revulsion in some, curiosity, and even affection in others. A very small percentage are dangerous, but many, if not most, are beneficial. Mostly they are misunderstood, wrongfully vilified. I’m not United Methodist anymore; I’ve planted my garden in a different land. I have mixed feelings about how much I still care about what happens with the UMC and whether I even have a right to share my opinion about it all. But I know this, a balanced and healthy farm ecosystem has snakes. And a wise farmer allows, or better yet, welcomes their presence.