April 11, 1995: The Day I Enbraced “Gay Marriage”

Posted on May 22, 2012


Twenty years ago a dying man handed me a typewritten manuscript which he had hoped I could somehow use in the eulogy he expected me to give in his memory.  John Saunders Bone died of Pancreatic Cancer but I did not offer the eulogy.  John and his partner Bill were, after all, beloved members of the Northwestern University Chapel (Alice Millar Chapel) family and John was a nationally known and respected theologian, so Doug, the student intern, would not be giving the eulogy.  I was relieved at the time.  Who wants to choke delivering a eulogy?  Screwing-up a eulogy is like putting the wrong frame on a masterpiece or hanging it crooked in the museum.  I was happy to let the Chaplain do it.  But all of these years since that time I have wondered if John was well served by a memorial service that did not rely on the manuscript of a sermon from 1983 which John called “On Listening to Your Life.”

A few weeks back I combed through old manilla file folders looking for that manuscript.   My denomination had recently voted yet again to prohibit “self -avowed practicing homosexuals” from being ordained to serve as clergy and I felt the familiar disgust for my own privileged status in such an exclusive club.  Although I believe life has offered me numerous opportunities to be aware of the inherent holiness of all people including those who desire intimacy with same sex lovers, it was the pastoral care call to the home of John and Bill that became my “clack-clack” moment (read the sermon below to understand “clack-clack”).    These two men had loved each other monogamously for over twenty years.  I had been in the home of two seminary women who had lived together in love for years, but somehow this awareness of men as “married” partners was novel to me.  It shattered stereotypes and freed me to accept the concept of “gay marriage.”  These men loved each other with all of the tenderness I had witnessed in most heterosexual couples.  I loved being in their home.  It grieved me deeply to think that Bill would soon have to learn to live without the love of his life as John approached death.

Here is all that I want to say about the sermon before you read it.   I oppose my denomination’s (and my country’s) prejudice against gay marriage.  I also oppose the United Methodist Church’s prejudice against gay and lesbian clergy.  John Bone was a gay man closeted in the Baptist Church.  In this sermon “Listening to Your Life,” John’s only mention of his soul-mate Bill appears this way:

A glance passing between two strangers in the night on an avenue in a large city at one o’clock in the morning produces a charge of electricity sufficient to initiate and sustain an intimate relationship lasting seventeen years and counting.

We do not hear the name of his companion, though I know he was sitting there in worship the day this message was given.

In the sermon John reflects on the day he proposed to a woman and was rebuffed by her.  He tells us it would not have worked out.  She knew.  God knew.  Some in the congregation knew, but not all.  John couldn’t risk everyone knowing the truth because some would use it against him.  This is the great irony and tragedy of this wonderful, but veiled autobiography.  John Bone’s life was forever hinting to him that he was gay, an asset among many in John’s personality and composition which equipped him, by God even if not by all churches, to be clergy.

I deeply regret how many men and women are forced to remain closeted as John was.  I will continue to work toward a church free of anti-gay prohibitions.

I also regret never offering insights from John’s wonderful sermon to the people gathered to celebrate his life that day in April 1995.  So here at last I am finally re-typing the sermon from a man who was ordained by eight pairs of hands in a Boston suburban church in 1944.  They had no idea he was gay…it didn’t matter.

“On Listening to Your Life”

Sermon by

John Saunders Bone

Jeanne Vail Chapel

August 14, 1983

Proverbs 3:1-24 and 2 Corinthians 5:17-6:2

Today is another milestone in my life.  At approximately 10:30 Am Eastern Daylight Time, I became what is euphemistically called a Senior Citizen.  Sixty-five years of age.  True!  But hold the applause.  I know it’s hard to believe.  I know I don’t look a day over 64.  It’s hard to believe myself.  But here’s my birth certificate and my Medicare card, with my middle name spelled wrong, in a typical act of bureaucratic efficiency.  While the computer has erred, the clock has not!

Let me say very quickly that while five years ago I hardly expected to reach this age and anticipated early retirement, the remarkable turn-around in my health this past year has moved me to plan on full employment for a few more years.  At first, I thought I would reflect on the aging process this morning, but while I am aware of certain diminutions of powers–I don’t really walk slower, people are walking faster in this competitive world.  My eyesight is keen and my hearing good.  I do wish, however, that people would speak up when they have something to say and not mumble.  However that process sermon will have to wait for Volume One of my memoirs to be entitled Reflections of a Peony Watcher, to be followed by Traveling with Dorcas, and Staying Home with Sam.  And for those anticipating a juicy expose of my private life, Dorcas was a black Labrador Retriever with whom I spent 13 years, and Sam is our Siamese cat who adopted us as people persons three years ago.  Instead, today I want to reflect a little on the road I have traveled and yet stretches ahead.

Frederick Buechner, whom I have quoted elsewhere in the Order of Service, writes in an autobiographical book, The Sacred Journey:

If God speaks to us at all other than through the official channels as Bible and Church, I think he speaks to us through what happens to us.  God speaks not just through the sounds we hear, but through the events in all their complexity and variety, through the harmonies and dis-harmonies and counterpoint of all that happens to us.  The meaning of these events, the meaning, in other words, of what God speaks to us is always an incarnate word–a word that is not spelled out alphabetically in syllables, but enigmatically in events.  They are words fleshed out in the everydayness of life no less than in the crises of our own experience.  And the meaning of an incarnate word is the meaning that it has for the one it is spoken to, the meaning that becomes clear and effective in our lives only when we ferret it out for ourselves.

What I propose to do this morning is to try to listen back over some of the happenings in my life.  To listen back over some of the happenings in my life. To listen for the sound above all else of God’s voice–those moments in the past 65 years–remembered, half-forgotten, though which, however dimly and fleetingly, I glimpsed the sacredness of my own journey, and in so doing, to help you begin to listen to your own life for whatever of meaning of holiness there may be for you to hear.

For the past year and a half, I have spent every other week in the principal offices of the Ministers and Missionaries Benefit Board of America Baptist Churches USA, my employer, in New York City.  From my office on the 17th floor of the Interchurch Center on Riverside Drive, irreverently known as “The God Box,” I look out at the huge Gothic structure of Riverside Church one block away.  That structure holds a central place in my life.  It was a hot August day 52 years ago.  I was a lad of 13.  My father and I were on a day trip from Boston to New York.  Seeking relief from the heat, we rode a double-deck bus north from midtown Manhattan.  Coming up Riverside Drive we saw the church, and getting off went inside, walking directly to the great nave, a space rising to groined ceiling 100 feet above the aisle.  There were many people moving about me as I started down the center aisle.  Quite suddenly, I was overcome by a strange sensation.  No longer aware of people , even of my father close at hand, everything and everyone receded into the background.  In the dimness f the place, I experienced a stillness and a coolness, but something more–a presence such as I had never experienced before, and have not experienced since.  I can even now say that in those moments I felt I was in the presence of God.  And more than that even, that He and I were walking down that aisle.  How long the sensation lasted I cannot say; but so intense and real was it that I have never forgotten it.  Often I have longed to recapture it.  It has never come again in just that way.  Yet it has been an experience which has continued to surround and sustain me.  I remember now little else about that New York trip except that, for a moment or two, I lived with God.  I think of that experience every time I look at Riverside Church.

Of course, it is not usual, or often, for such a striking event to happen to one.  The word and presence of God is often much more subtle.  Perhaps almost missed at the moment of happening.  Buechner has written several novels.  In The Final Beast, there is a description of a young minister who believes himself on the threshold of a religious vision.

He lies flat on his back in a field behind the barn, near an orchard, early in the morning.  Arms stretched out, palms open and up.  He is watching for something–for the sky to cleave, fold back like a tent flap to let the splendor through.  “Please, please,” he prays.  Then raising his head he looks about.  Nothing happening, except that everything he could see, the shabby barn, weeds, orchard, had too much the look of nothing happening.  “Then two apple branches struck against each other the limber clack of wood on wood.  That was all, a tick-tock rattle of branches.  But then a fierce lurch of excitement at what was only daybreak, only the smell of summer coming. Just clack-clack, but “Praise him,” he thought.  “Praise him…” Maybe all his journeys, he thought, had been only to bring him to hear two branches hit each other twice like that–to see nothing cross the threshold, but to see the threshold, to hear the dry clack-clack of the world’s tongue at the approach of the approach of the world’s splendor.

I remember telephoning a minister in Peoria, Illinois, one morning, and in the conversation mentioning that I was en route to Michigan.  The minister said, “If you happen to see our friend Al in Kalamazoo, say hello for me.” I replied, doubting that I would see Al, since I was going to Grand Rapids.  Later that day, I pulled into a rest stop on the Interstate, and as I got out of the car an auto pulled up along side and our friend Al stepped out.  He was en route home to Kalamazoo.  We shared a few moments of amusement and greeting over the coincidence.

Late that evening, in a motel in Grand Rapids, I began to feel ill.  I could not decide whether I was having a heart attack or just sever indigestion.  I was alarmed, to say the least, miles from home, in a strange place.  Gradually, as the moments passed, I realized that I was probably having a severe anxiety attack.  For some weeks I had been in sever mental and spiritual distress.  I struggled to calm myself, to turn my mind from the immediate discomfort.  I though of opening the Bible.  Some people, you  know, say: “Just open the Bible and let God speak to you.”  There’s an old story from Seminary days of the troubled soul who did this seeking direction.  He read: “And Judas went out and hanged himself.”  Thinking this wasn’t good advice, he closed the book and tried opening it again.  This time he read: “Go thou and do likewise.”

In my hotel room, I reflected on the day’s events; on that strange chance, but perhaps not chance meeting by the roadside.  Perhaps I was on a particular wavelength today.  So I opened the Bible at random and my eyes picked out the fifth verse of Proverbs 3:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight.  In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make straight your paths.  Be not wise in your own eyes.  Fear the Lord, turn away from evil.  It will be healing to your flesh, and refreshment to your bones.

It was one of those turning-points in my life.  The word, the events became incarnate.  No great vision, just a clack-clack of apple branches.  But this sustained me through the intervening years–double by-pass cardiac surgery, a resolution of inner psychic and spiritual tension.

I was in the apple country of western North Carolina in the fall of 1967 when I had another experience of God and his word incarnate in an event.  I was at a retreat center–Interpreter’s House, for six weeks, licking my wounds after eight and a half years as a minister in midtown New York City. Marney, the leader of the center, asked me to take his assignment as luncheon speaker for the local Rotary meeting.  I had never spoken at a Rotary meeting. I had always avoided those hail fellow booster organizations.  But I went that day as a favor.  I didn’t know what to say. Marbey said, “Just talk about your life as a  minister in New York City.  Those fellows probably have never seen a real, live New York minister up close.”

So I talked to them that day about the strange mix of people who make up the city church.  Of how many of them bugged me, how undoubtedly I bugged them.  But I talked principally at last about the exhaustion and loneliness that affects all who are in ministry and I asked them to reflect on their own church situation, and suggested that perhaps their ministers were in the same situation as was I.  And that perhaps the finest thing they could do for themselves, their church, and their pastor was to greet him following the next Sunday’s service, no matter how inadequate, or adequate his sermon, with a strong, firm handshake, and a straight-forward look in the eyes and say: “Pastor, I believe in you.  I want to be your partner.”  AND if the minister didn’t drop dead THAT might be the one thing that would turn him back from the edge of his personal disaster and together with you make Church happen in that place.

I sat down.  There was a moment of silence, and then vigorous and prolonged applause that continued so long I had to rise twice to acknowledge it.  And when the chairman dismissed the meeting, every single man in that room, some 40 of them, stood in line and grasped my hand in a strong grip.  Fro weeks afterward, in store and street, I was greeted, but more importantly, I heard that their ministers were greeted as well.

Later, Marney said to me, “My God, John, you brought the Gospel to Waynesville.  They were in Church that noontime in that restuarant-bar.”  Clack-clack.  Two apple branches striking together.  God and His word in an event.

And so it has been.

A glance passing between two strangers in the night on an avenue in a large city at one o’clock in the morning produces a charge of electricity sufficient to initiate and sustain an intimate relationship lasting seventeen years and continuing.  Clack-Clack.

A routine visit to a Dentist’s office results in acquiring the name and then the time of an analyst who is able to provide the means for a friend to free himself from an addiction to alcohol resulting in fifteen years of sobriety and a new creation of being and living.  Clack-clack.

Years ago, when I was a young pastor in Minneapolis, I had parishioners by the name Alway.  Dr. Alway was a retired professor of Soils in the farm school of the University of Minnesota.  I knew his wife best because midway in my ministry, she fell and broke her hip, and three operations had failed to mend it.  She was confined to her home ad in the bed most of the time.  I fell into the habit of visiting her almost every Wednesday afternoon.  She was a stimulating person, avid reader in current affairs and fiction.  We talked books, played cards, gossiped, kept despair at bay.  Most of the time Professor Alway remained upstairs.  His health was poor, but since he could still get out to church, he felt that Mrs. Alway should have me all to herself.  But one day he took tea with us and I remember his saying with a sly manner, “Did you know that I am particularly singled out in the Bible?”  “No,” I replied.  “Well read the last verse in Matthew.”  I did.  “Lo, I am with you Alway.”

Every Sunday, since first coming to Vail Chapel some eight years ago, I have been greatly comforted as I have sat in this room, beyond what has been preached, sung or prayed.  Because I look over at the stained glass window here at the front and I read the words:  “I AM WITH YOU ALWAY” and remember my friends and and by association experience the continuing presence of God over our lives.  Clack-clack.

Two weeks ago I left my office early and went across the street to Riverside Church.  In the intervening years I have worshiped and visited there frequently.  I remember a dark, misty November afternoon in 1941 when a junior editor of Vogue Magazine and I roamed the area, hearing 74 bells of the carillon far above us hidden in the fog, striking among other tunes Ellacomb, the hymn we sang earlier this morning.  I remember this vividly because later over dinner in teh Dragon Inn in Greenwich Village, I asked her to marry me.  She said “No.”  I was crushed.  But she was right.  It wouldn’t have worked out.  And while I didn’t hear it then, there was a clack-clack.

I was saying before I interrupted myself, that I went across the street to Riverside Church.  It was a hot, sultry July day.  I entered the nave.  Someone was practicing on the Great Organ.  I sat for a while.  I did not expect a repetition of that earlier experience, but I hoped for some simple contemporary word or event.  It was hard to hear any word.  The organist kept repeating passages.  There was a lot of disharmony.  The custodial staff were cleaning and chatting across the pews.  So I left the nave and went to the hospitality desk in the narthex to look at some photos and to purchase a recording.  Then CLACK-CLACK.  The organist swung into “Holy, Holy, Holy.”  The music swelled, echoed and re-echoed through the great spaces.  I remembered a service at Riverside on the Sunday before I entered Yale Divinity School.  The preacher that day, by coincidence (?), was Charles R. Brown, Dean Emeritus of Yale.  He sermon was an exposition of Isaiah 6.  That description by Isaiah of an early experience in the Temple at Jerusalem.

“I saw the Lord,” he wrote afterward of it.  ” I saw the Lord, high and lifted up.  And His train filled the temple.  Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings.  With two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew.  And one called to the other and said, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts.  The whole earth is full of his glory.”

The whole earth is full of God’s glory!!  That was word enough for me that afternoon, for today and for tomorrow too.

The sum of the matter is this:

“Listen to your life; see it for the fathomless mystery that it is.  In the boredom and pain of it no less than the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy hidden heart of it, because, in the last analysis, all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”

Now and then, even in ourselves, we catch glimpses of a New Creation, which, fleeting as those glimpses are apt to be, give us hope for this life and for whatever life awaits us later on.” (Frederick Buechner)

“We want only to show you something we have seen, and tell you something we have heard…that here and there in the world, and now and then in ourselves, is a New Creation.”  (Paul Tillich)


Posted in: Memoir