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A Dorm Room, a Verse, and a Promise

a sermon by Rev. Jordan Conley


June 20, 2018

Executive Director LeDayne McLeese Polaski represented BPFNA ~ Bautistas por la Paz at a worship service sponsored by the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists (AWAB) in Dallas, Texas at Partner Congregation Church in the Cliff on June 13, 2018. This excellent sermon was preached by Jordan Conley and is reprinted with permission from him and AWAB.

Deuteronomy 33:25; 27a

August 6, 2010. I was driving a car loaded down with nearly everything I owned. It was college move-in day, and I made the 3 hour journey with my family from our ancestral home of Knott County, KY, deep within the Appalachian Mountains, all the way to Louisville and the campus of Boyce College and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. I was going to Bible College to become the only thing I had ever really wanted to be; a Pastor. The road to Louisville was long, not only in miles but in spirit. Our little county had around 16,000 residents and by the time I graduated high school, I had probably preached on a Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night, revival, or a youth rally to nearly everyone in the county at one time or another. I was nervous, but excited to begin my next chapter.

The first orientation class that weekend focused on finding a local church in Louisville. Some of our professors were introduced to us and spoke of the importance of immersing ourselves in the ministry of a local church. One professor in particular gave a word of a caution that caught me off guard. He said, “Now remember, just because a church says ‘Baptist’ on the door does not mean it is a theologically sound, Bible-believing Baptist church. Take, for instance, Crescent Hill Baptist that is here in our neighborhood. If you visit there on a Sunday morning, you may hear a woman preach, they have openly gay members in their congregation, and, if you visit on Sunday morning and they see the seminary parking sticker on the back of your car, they’ll ask you to leave.” ‘Well’, I thought, ‘I’d better steer clear of that place.’

Those first couple of years, I tried my hardest to be a good up-and-coming Baptist Pastor. I studied Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, I filled pulpits across Kentucky, I worked part-time during my summer and winter breaks, but I quickly found that no matter how busy I tried to make myself with studying, or preaching, or work, it became harder and harder to deny the reality that I was gay. Of course, this didn’t come out of mid-air. I had the feeling for a long time, but I was praying for those feelings to go away. I was reading books about conversion therapy. One night, I recall lying face down on the rug in my dorm room, and as I was there, my face pressed against the rug, tears streamed down my face from midnight till 3am or so, pleading with God that things would change. My fears quickly grew into an obsession. I worried constantly, every minute of every day. “Did anyone know? Was it obvious? What will my family do? Will they still love me? What will my church do? What will my little county, all those people who think so highly of me, what will they all do?” 

By my senior year, worry and fear gave way to a full blown crisis. I began to realize that graduation for me would not be a gift, but rather the continuation of this toxic cycle. A few days into my senior year, a small congregation approached me and wanted me to consider their Senior Pastor position. I met with their search committee, they watched me preach a couple of times, and they were prepared to call me as their minister. Just a few weeks earlier, I met a guy named Patrick. He was nice, attractive, and I had never had an easier time talking to anyone in my life. I remember walking back to my dorm room the very first night we met and thinking, ‘what a shame. He’s such a nice guy, and I’m going to have to tell him I’m going to take a Pastor position back home and moving away.”

Somehow, I thought it would be my way out of dealing with everything. Before I accepted the position, I wanted to get the opinion of a professor who was very influential to me during my college years. I walked into his office at Carver Hall, I told him about this church offering me the position, and he said, “Don’t take it.” I looked at him sort of puzzled, and he explained himself, he said, “I don’t think you should take this right now. Finish your senior year on campus. Get your M.Div. after you finish here, they’ll be other opportunities.’ Then he paused and chuckled a bit and said, “If you take this” and I can remember this day his laughter as he said this, as if it were the most ridiculous thing a person could say, he said, “if you take this, I don’t know, I’ll call the search committee chair and tell them you are gay or something.”

I was struck with a bone chilling fear that I had never felt up to that point in my life and haven’t felt since. I smiled, politely thanked him for his advice, then left. I went back to my dorm and cried. I was at my wits end, I literally had no idea what to do, and as I sat there with my head in my hands, crying out to God, I remembered a verse from scripture. It was a memory verse that I had learned when I was a kid in Sunday school at the little Freewill Baptist Church I grew up in back home. It was from Deuteronomy of all places, and I could remember it, still drilled into my mind in the old King James Version I had memorized all those years earlier.

The verse was Deuteronomy 33:25, “Thy shoes shall be iron and brass, and as thy days are, so shall thy strength be.” 

To me, what that verse doesn’t say is just as important as what it actually says. What that verse doesn’t say is something to the nature of, “your days will be determined by your strength”, or “your reward lies in your strength.” But the verse says, “As thy days are, so shall thy strength be.” I didn’t need to worry about the next day, or the day after that, I didn’t need to be concerned about how everyone else was going to react because there was grace, not tomorrow’s grace, or next week’s grace, but there was sufficient strength, sufficient grace for today’s worries. I thought of Jesus saying, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.” I thought of Jesus saying, “Do not worry about tomorrow for tomorrow will be worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” “As thy days are, so shall thy strength be”. I remember I got up, I opened up the bible to Deuteronomy 33, and read the entire chapter. I got down to the verse I hadn’t memorized, just a couple verses after verse 25 and I didn’t even realize it was there. Verse 27 says, “The eternal God is thy refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.” I used to think that old song we sang, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”, was the strangest thing. Who sings about leaning? But that night, I learned how to lean.

Those promises in Deuteronomy 33 were given to the tribes of Israel in a time of transition and uncertainty. Moses, who had led them out of bondage in Egypt, Moses who had been their guide for so long, his time on earth was drawing to an end. Israel was finally ready to enter the long awaited Promised Land, they were on the precipice of the land flowing with milk and honey, and they were so close they could almost taste it, but their leader would not taste it with them. As Moses is drawing to the end of his earthy journey, he has a final word of blessing for the children of Israel, just as Jacob had given a final blessing upon his sons before he died. Moses, knew this new land would be unchartered territory for his people. Moses also realizes in addition to the prosperity promised to his people, that there would be very real, very serious challenges to survival in this land of unknown. So in this his final blessing, right before his journey ends, he says to his people, ‘I can’t go over there with you all, I can see it, but I can’t lead you there, I can’t make a path for you, but don’t forget that even though I can’t blaze the path in front of you, God will give you iron and brass shoes to wear”. When you make your journey and you are there, in good times, in bad times, remember, “The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.”

Folks in the LGBTQ community know all about facing unchartered territory. After that night back in my dorm room, I entered a time of unchartered territory that often looked pretty grim. After that night, I called up that church, the one I’d been warned about that very first orientation weekend. I met with Jason, our Pastor, and because of our first meeting I visited the church. Later, I met church members who plugged me in to a part time, then a full time job. I met church members who helped me transfer my credits and enroll in another college to finish my degree. I met church members who are now family. Because of my relationship with my AWAB and CBF affiliated church, not only do I have hope, I have a college degree, a career, an affirmation of self-worth as a beloved child of God, and a husband named Patrick. To say there was unchartered territory would be an understatement. The journey hasn’t always been easy, but I had iron and brass shoes to wear and there was sufficient grace for that day, sometimes just enough, not enough to carry to tomorrow, but enough for that day.

Stories like mine happen when churches like Crescent Hill, decide not only to talk about the love of God, but show the love of God. Stories like mine happen when churches decide that LGBTQ folk shouldn’t be allowed onto the bus, to be told they can ride the bus, as long as they are comfortable with sitting in the back of the bus. Stories like mine happen when churches make more room at the table, when they pull up more chairs, when they cast a wider net. Stories like mine are full of hope, full of grace, full of love, that is what happens when a CBF church fully affirms and welcomes LGBTQ folks.

The day the news came out about the CBF hiring policy and implementation process, I read the story. As I read it, I went back to that day in the professor’s office when he said jokingly, “I’m going to call the search committee and tell them you’re gay.” For a few moments I felt less than, less of a person, less of a preacher. Then I recalled that old verse, “Thy shoes shall be iron and brass and as thy days are, so shall thy strength be.” I’ve found sometimes, maybe that mountain doesn’t move, but God will give you iron and brass shoes to wear while you climb. Maybe the storm doesn’t cease right away, but God will get in the boat with you.

AWAB friends, thank you. Thank you for standing for equality and for justice. Thank you for envisioning a world in which a gay Baptist minister with an Appalachian twang can stand and unashamedly preach the gospel. Thank you for not settling, and thank you for recognizing that the LGBTQ community has been persecuted by the church for centuries, and that now is the time for affirmation, not simply toleration.

Our work isn’t over. There are many in our community who are struggling right now, and feel there is nowhere to turn, that the mountain is too high, and the valley too wide. There are many struggling with their self-worth, with strained family relationships, struggling with God. Let us continue the good work. Let us continue to speak up for the voiceless, to uplift the downtrodden. Let’s continue to illuminate policies and practices that attempt to subjugate the LGBTQ community to a ‘less than’ status within the church.

The work ahead may be hard, the progress may seem slow, the journey may seem long, but remember my friends, “Thy shoes shall be iron and brass, and as thy days are, so shall thy strength be.


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