Grace with Amazing Grandeur

Isn’t it fascinating how Apple, American Airlines, the NFL and others have stepped up to give the Arizona State Legislators a lesson in basic civics and American Democracy?  Freedom of Religion is basic to our guaranteed liberties in this country. But when the freedom to practice one’s religion bumps into and limits the liberties and rights of other Americans, freedom of religion, of necessity, compromises – not in the private sphere of one’s own heart, family or religious community, but in the public arena where we all live and move and have our being. The Arizona Legislature passed a bill which would have allowed, invited actually, discrimination, by legitimizing the refusal to do business with other Americans. Governor Jan Brewer, listening to Apple, American Airlines and most of the business community, and, one hopes, her own conscious, vetoed the bill.

I have to remind myself every day of how far we have come on the issue of gender orientation and sexual practice. The movement toward gay marriage continues to gain momentum. Amazing!

My own journey in this matter has been long but steady. Growing up in the 1940’s and coming of age in the 1950’s, I don’t think I knew there was such a thing as homosexual orientation until I was in Junior High School, and then it was only in the crudest way. I learned early, simply by listening to my peers, that it was a sick aberration, to be made fun of, denigrated. I recall one time hearing neighborhood chums talking about looking for some”queers” to beat up. I’m relatively sure no one ever carried it out but the threat made a lasting impression and troubled me. When I told my mother about it, she explained homosexual orientation as best she could and let me know that violence, even verbal violence, was not acceptable. She told me that she knew men -and women – who were quietly homosexuals, even in our Presbyterian church. I was astonished. Who knew? I still cannot bring myself to use the designation”queer” even though I think I understand the intent and meaning of those who do. For me, because of the way I heard it used, it remains in the category of the “N” word.

I carried my adolescent attitude into adulthood, modifying my position only by concluding that same gender attraction was a sickness that should not be persecuted, but treated and cured therapeutically.

Basic attitudinal change began when I became acquainted with a gay church member, a high school student. I was a student pastor. He made an appointment to talk to me. In our first conversation he haltingly explained that he thought that he might be homosexual and asked me what I thought he should do about it. He was certain that his parents would not understand and might disown him, particularly his father. I was so unnerved and unprepared for the experience that I made an appointment with the seminary Dean, explained my dilemma, and sought his advice. When I explained my understanding of homosexuality he referred me to a prominent downtown Chicago psychiatrist. He was a Presbyterian Elder and kindly made time for me and gently explained that medical science was just then beginning to suspect that gender orientation was not at all an aberration, certainly not a choice, but a given. It might be natural, he said. It might even be a gift from God. I was stunned. My journey picked up speed.

I learned from my people, as is the case with pastors of congregations. Faithful church members, faithful Christians, showed me something new – that committed, loving and faithful same sex relationships were not only possible but life giving. I also began to witness a recurring phenomenon of men and women tragically investing years and great resources in the futile attempt to change their sexual orientation.

By the time the issue presented itself in the life of my denomination, in the form of ordination for gay and lesbian Presbyterians, I had come almost all the way around. I advocated and argued for full inclusion in my church and for the right of gay and lesbian Presbyterians who believed themselves called by God to be ordained, just as I had been. In time, the Presbyterian Church (USA) agreed.

The final leg of my journey is gay marriage and my guide has been my granddaughter. She is our first grandchild. She is a college graduate in Music and Anthropology, a gifted cellist, teaches cello and piano lessons, plays in an ensemble, loves her life – after a harrowing and painful few years coming to terms with who she is. She and I have always been close and I have loved her with all my heart ever since I held her in my arms as an infant. I baptized her – a powerful experience for any pastor. She was fast asleep. First grandchildren give us our grandparental names, the first thing that comes out of their mouths. Ours are just as embarrassing as anyone’s, particularly Sue’s. When my granddaughter was in college, during summer family vacations at the beach, sitting in rocking chairs pondering the ocean, she used to quiz me about religion, science, the historicity of the bible, evolution. One day she asked, “Granddaddy, what about Jesus?”, giving me a dynamite sermon title for later.  When she was in her early twenties and an occasional visitor in our home she telephoned one time and invited herself to dinner and said she had something to tell us. I will never forget sitting at our table, after dinner, her taking both of our hands, telling us how much she loved us and how much we meant to her and saying, “I have to tell you – I’m a lesbian.”

So there it is. I should have known all along. My personal faith has been shaped by a growing sense of God’s unconditional love, the grace that Karl Barth said a long time ago makes us uncomfortable with its amazing grandeur, God’s acceptance and affirmation of all of us. My granddaughter has been my most eloquent instructor and still is.

She has a partner now. They do everything together. They are frequent guests in our home. They seem to make each other very happy.

Who knows? Maybe she will marry some day. I’ll be there if she does. I wouldn’t even mind if she asked me to preside.


  1. Beautiful.

  2. Susan Schaefer says:

    John, your last sentence brought tears to my eyes. That would be such a blessing!

    I still remember how moved I was when you baptized Hope twenty-one years ago. She now considers herself a humanist, has legally changed her name, and identifies as a boy. And yes, it is hard to lose a daughter, but I am gaining a son! And that’s a blessing.

  3. Bud & Monet says:

    Thank you.

  4. Karen Johnson says:

    Thank you so much, John for sharing your family with us. God bless you for your wonderful journey to understand and accept the gays.

  5. Blair Monie says:

    Beautiful and honest reflection, John. Of course, I love your granddaughter too! She’s a remarkable and inspiring person. Bless you! Blair Monie

  6. Charles Brown says:

    Dear Dr. Buchanan,
    You are a learned man, and a profoundly wise man. And professionally, you are the finest pastoral preacher I have ever known.
    But I am a lawyer, and I’d like to think that I understand the Constitution of the United States as well as you understand the New Testament. (That is, enough for both of us to be deeply humbled by by the words, as you might well agree.)
    One of the very worst-reported news stories of 2014 has been Arizona SB1062. The national conversation, it seems, is that a fringe group of right wing nutjobs in Arizona tried to sneak an extremist bill through the state legislature and onto the desk of Governor Jan Brewer. To your great credit, you did not go out of your way to make that extremist portrayal. But many other media outlets have, and I suggest that doing so was journalistic malpractice. President Obama made the uniquely irresponsible claim that Arizona was attempting to legalize “segregation” based on sexual orientation.
    And I would refer you to the letter that appeared on the letterhead of Professor Doug Laycock, formerly a distinguished member of the faculty of the University of Michigan Law School, where I became familiar with his national work on matters of religious freedom. (Link below.) Professor Laycock is the product of your own University of Chicago, where he got his law degree and then served on the faculty. Laycock is now at the University of Virginia, where his wife Teresa Sullivan, formerly Provost at Michigan is now the President.
    Doug Laycock is one of the nation’s handful of leading legal scholars on religious freedom. An author, a legal researcher, and an advocate in four Supreme Court cases dealing with the law of religion and the state; his is not the curriculum vitae of a fringe right-wing nutjob.
    Recently, Professor Laycock was one of eleven similarly qualified legal scholars who wrote to Governor Brewer on the subject of SB1062, and urged her to take care in considering the bill, in light of what the signatories thought was gross misrepresentation in the press.
    The Laycock letter began from the premise that the eleven legal scholars had differing personal views on same sex marriage (Laycock himself supports same-sex marriage legislation). Some of the scholars are Republicans, some are Democrats. But they all agreed that the Arizona legislation was a serious bill, with important and legitimate protections for religious freedom. It was no joke. And the press portrayal of the bill as one fomenting an outrageous level of discrimination was unfounded.
    I commend the full letter to you and your followers, here:

    Click to access Letter_to_Gov_Brewer_re_Arizona_RFRA.pdf

    The letter is in some part legally technical; my lengthy post here would be even longer if I were to try to summarize the arguments and the substance of religious freedom laws. (Did you know that we have a federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act? It was sponsored by then-Rep. Chuck Schumer and passed through the Senate under the leadership of Senator Ted Kennedy, in 1993.)
    I raise this very extended point with you, Dr. Buchanan, because I expect that you take religious liberty as seriously as you take public policy on sexual orientation. It is to me a pity, and a powerful reflection of a terribly simplistic and left-leaning national media, that the Laycock letter has been well publicized in only conservative circles (the National Review online, the Weekly Standard online, etc.) and has otherwise denied the nation a good debate on an important matter. I have seen the Laycock letter referenced in almost no other news outlets; not NPR, not any of the major urban newspapers and not any of the major television networks. I expect that my comment in this regard is the first that you have seen of it. I hope you find it worth serious consideration.
    With friendship and the utmost respect, I am,
    Very truly yours,
    Charles D. Brown

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