What have we learned?
Over the past three months, I have taken an in-depth and sometimes personal look at the lives of three individuals: Don Schlosser, Brian Copeland and Debbie Ottarski. Each story unique. Each story peppered with drama.
These individuals had one thing in common: the fact that at some point in their lives, they were somehow rejected by a Christian organization. Don Schlosser, employed by LifeWay (formerly The Sunday School Board of The Southern Baptist Convention), was fired. Brian Copeland, employed by a Christian music company, was told, “they needed new leadership.” Debbie Ottarski, who was deeply involved with her church in Nashville, carrying a variety of leadership positions, was told in a letter from the church leadership to not come back if she didn’t receive counseling and reconcile with her husband.
I had a variety of reasons for interviewing these individuals. First, I simply wanted their stories to be told. As I get more and more acquainted with the gay Christian community in Nashville, I keep finding stories that are similar. These stories grabbed my attention, and I felt they needed to be shared with a larger community. Second - and this is the most selfish reason - I wanted to talk to as many people as I could who had reconciled their faith and their sexuality. I have proudly grown up in a Southern Baptist environment. My undergraduate degree is from a Southern Baptist college, and I graduated from a Southern Baptist seminary. My walk with Christ is not an “option” I put on for Sunday morning. It is what I am. I don’t leave my faith at the door of my sexuality. I can’t be one way on Sunday morning and another way in a bar Saturday night. I love God. I love the church. Always have. Always will.
And yet, despite this dedication, I have always known what turned my head. And in my opinion, these two just couldn’t go together. Yet, here in Nashville, I found people who seemingly were satisfied with their walk with Christ and their sexuality. So I began interviewing these individuals to see what they had come to understand, what insight they might have for me and anyone else struggling to make these two worlds fit together.
In looking back at these three articles, I hope I haven’t turned anyone away from any kind of Christian organization. If so, I apologize. That was not the point. I don’t want people boycotting LifeWay or abandoning Christian music or any other faith-based company. My point in looking at Christian organizations specifically was to see that God has entrusted these individuals with a gift or an ability to be used for His purpose. So therefore, the question becomes, as I stated in Don Schlosser’s article, “God trusts us, why can’t others?”
So what have we learned over the past three months? Or, more specifically, what have I learned over the past three months?
Debbie Ottarski had a difficult life as a young girl. Her parents divorced early in life. She was taught she was a mistake. She had no one to lead her to Christ at an early age. Her husband introduced her to Christ and helped lay the foundation on which she would build her life.
They became active in the church. Debbie found a place to use her God-given abilities and her passions. She was able to corporately worship together with a family of believers, which brought her a tremendous amount of joy.
Despite being told in a rather impersonal manner to not return to church (by letter), Debbie overcame this difficult period in her life. She could have easily written off church and anything that represents God or Godly pursuits.
But she didn’t.
She could have easily said, “Those hypocrites! I’m never returning to church.”
But she didn’t.
Debbie stayed the course. She said, “Once you have worshipped with other believers like I had in my former church, you never forget it. God’s Spirit calls you back to be with His people.” She remained focused on the God who claimed her as His and is now unapologetically using her abilities and passions in a Nashville church, worshipping together with her partner. Debbie didn’t let her disappointment with mankind become confused with a disappointment with God. As the bumper sticker says, “Christians aren’t perfect; just forgiven.” None of us are perfect. If we were, we wouldn’t need a Savior.
Brian Copeland grew up in a Southern Baptist environment in East Tennessee where his faith was “dipped and batter-fried.” As a young man he toured with his family in a Southern Gospel singing group. He attended Carson Newman College and graduate school at UTK.
Eventually, he moved to Nashville and worked for a Christian music company. Being gifted and talented, his work excelled and he developed a name for himself in that industry. Despite his success at work, his supervisor wanted him to “step back from his job and focus on getting a family.” It would make his supervisor’s work easier. No one would have reason to worry.
Brian didn’t get married, and he didn’t get a family…at least in the sense his supervisor wanted. So Brian was eventually released from his position.
Brian is now happily committed to his partner Greg Bullard and working as a successful realtor. He has plans to begin the first Christian record label for accepting and affirming artists. Again, Brian could have easily resented the whole of Christian music and turned his back on it.
But he didn’t.
He could have easily thrown himself the biggest pity party imaginable.
But he didn’t.
Like Debbie, Brian remained focused on the God who created him and gifted him. Brian said, “When Christ died, it created a direct connection for all of us to God. My removal from that job made me be still long enough to finally hear Him.”
If we look to mankind to truly represent Christ, we will always be disappointed. Yet Brian was and is committed to Christ. His mindset isn’t “as long as things are going ok, I’ll be dedicated.” And because of this commitment to Christ, God still gives Brian outlets for his abilities.
Don Schlosser also grew up in a Southern Baptist environment. Early in his life, he described himself as a “Super-Christian.” He eventually graduated from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Here he was focused on realizing his talents and finding a ministerial setting to utilize them and have the most impact possible. He eventually was employed by LifeWay where he continued to excel and became an accomplished composer, publisher, conductor, and conference leader.
Don continued to wrestle with his sexuality while employed by LifeWay. He sought counsel, he prayed, he talked to many individuals and he read many books.
Despite his searching, and despite his dedication to the God he was serving, Don eventually came to the conclusion he could not change what God had created him to be.
LifeWay found out about Don’s struggles and dismissed him immediately. Like Brian and Debbie, Don could have easily turned his back on God.
But he didn’t.
He could have easily said, “Forget the whole Christian thing. I’m not going to let them hurt me again.”
But he didn’t.
Don said, “Learn that you are ok. You aren’t damaged, broken or a mistake.”
These three individuals had every reason in the world to start singing, “gloom, despair, and agony on me.” They had every reason to develop a major chip on their shoulder toward the church or toward anything or anyone that represented God or Godly pursuit. And yet, these three people remained faithful to the God who gifted them, who loved them, who claimed them as His and would not let go.
If God doesn’t trust us, if God doesn’t love us, if God didn’t send His Son to die for us, then we need to rewrite the Scriptures. John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him, shall not perish but have eternal life” (NIV, emphasis by the author). There are no qualifiers in that verse. I am a “whoever.” And if you have made a commitment to Christ, you are as well. These three individuals embody the victory that can be obtained by placing God first and foremost in your life.
God has gifted each of us with an ability…a talent. Some of you may be amazing organizers. Some may be gifted artistically. Some of you may be incredible listeners or speakers. Others may be gifted technically or have the ability to teach. Whatever that gift is, God has trusted you with it. So, what are you going to do with it?
My hope is that some of you will find a church home where you will be loved, accepted, challenged to grow in your faith and given the opportunity to use your gifts. So over the next several months, I will be profiling a variety of churches in the Nashville area to hopefully intrigue you enough to search them out and find a church to call home.
Keep the faith! I’ll see you next month.