On Sunday morning I shared something with my congregation that I had never publically put to words: “Your pastor has mental illness.”
I began a 4-part sermon series on stress, specifically how to transform stress into happiness. I’ve learned quite a bit about stress management and transformation through my battles with major depressive disorder, also known as clinical depression. So to offer some ethos and pathos to the subject matter, i.e. Yes, your pastor really does know what he’s talking about and can personally relate to you!, I mentioned to my congregation a disease I have which has been with me through most of my adult life. It’s been my number-one health concern.
There have been several times that depression took me to the depths of suicidal ideation. Several years ago I was even admitted for a week at an inpatient mental health care hospital for debilitating depression and suicidal intentions. Antidepressants to keep my brain chemistry at good, balanced levels have been a regular part of my wellbeing.
Presently, I’m doing really well. I treat depression with a daily morning dose of antidepressants. I watch for the signs and triggers that pull me down into depression— things like extra stress. I surround myself with plenty of accountability from people like my wife and a handful of close friends. And when life throws a vicious curveball or my brain chemistry somehow gets out of whack, I bring my doctor and therapist into my support network, too.
I mention all this, not to garner sympathy or to create a stir, but to continue my work of casting a luminous light on the most shadowed, closeted, and one of the most prevalent health concerns many of us face. We see the terrible effects of it when someone like Kate Spade takes her own life or when someone violently acts out, causing massive human carnage. We see it in the lives of most of our homeless neighbors. Mental illness affects community and world leaders, celebrities, stay-home parents, teenagers, corporate executives, and yes, clergy like me. It takes the shape of depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, PTSD, eating disorders, schizophrenia, mood disorders, and a whole host of other diagnoses. For far too long now, mental illness has been badly misunderstood and unfairly scrutinized, resulting in a social environment in which critically needed support for those suffering from mental illness and and their caregivers becomes extremely difficult to find.
That is especially true in the church. In the church, much shame surrounds mental illness.
I’ve often called depression a disease of double shame. There’s the inward shame of worthlessness, hopelessness, apathy, emptiness and nothingness. Then there’s the outward shame, the things explicitly said or subtly implied that depression is a result of spiritual and moral failure: “Just give it to God in prayer and you’ll feel better.” “True believers always have joy.” “Real Christians don’t get depressed.” “Depression is a separation from God.” “Just be grateful. Just keep your chin up. Trust God.”— implications that I can’t do or haven’t already done those things.
It’s time to come to grips with the truth that mental illness of any kind is not spiritual or moral failure. It doesn’t indicate innate character, moral, spiritual or emotional flaws any more grievous than anyone else’s. It is, quite simply, bad brain chemistry brought on sometimes situationally, most often as a chronic condition, or both.
So how can faith communities and any other forms of human community care for people with mental illness and their loved ones? Several key things come to mind (no pun intended):
1) Put aside your assumptions. Listen and learn. Misinformation has created the stereotypical perceptions we commonly use to frame mental illness. Throw those out, and offer the gift of deep listening and a willingness to learn. What’s it like? What does it mean and not mean? How do we cope and live? Let us, we who have mental illness and our loved ones, show you our world and how we struggle.
2) Abandon judgmentalism. (See #1.) In addition, avoid finger pointing and fault finding.
3) Be a companion on the journey. Attempting to give advice, thinking that the right words will make it better, or coming with any attitude that you’re “here to help” only makes things worse. Think of it as coming alongside as a friend. Deeply listen. Listen to understand. Give us space when needed. Show compassion in simple, practical ways. But remember: we’re not your problem to fix. Only God can do that through a whole network of supportive care. And you may be blessed to be one of those people.
4) Be an advocate. Look out for people with mental illness. When you can, speak up to protect our dignity and correct misperceptions. Help others to understand what mental illness is and isn’t.
The healing balm for mental illness is the persistent, gentle light of understanding love, quality medical care, time and space. I know this full well. I’m here today because of it.
And I can also say that we who have mental illness can live happy, productive, deeply spiritual lives. I’ve learned a lot about light and darkness, life and death, pain and healing, salvation and redemption through my ups and downs with mental illness. Those are lessons I would never give back, and for which I am deeply grateful. These are gifts that can richly bless the world, too. That’s my hope.
[This a sermon I shared with Trinity UMC on Sunday May 13, 2018. The biblical text was Romans 1:18-2:5.
I’m sure some of us are asking why we are talking about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people and issues on Mother’s Day of all days. Well, in some ways, it’s quite fitting. Ultimately we’re not just talking about issues, beliefs, and rules. We’re talking about people. And each of these people has a mother— a mother who has gone through on a much deeper level the struggle we all have of learning how to love, understand and include other people.
A Tale of Two Mothers
Today, I’d like to honor two mothers I know very well. (To safeguard their privacy, I’m keeping their names anonymous.) These mothers are very different women, yet they both have two things in common.
First, they both have a child who is homosexual. One has a daughter and one has a son. Here’s the second thing they have in common: they unconditionally love their children— one who is gay and one who is lesbian.
They have both been fully involved in their children’s lives and the lives of their respective partners. They’re proud of their children and fully support them. Indeed, these two children have wonderful mothers whom I would be privileged to have as a mother, too.
As I mentioned, these mothers are also quite different. One mother embraces her child’s sexuality with no condition and with full acceptance. The other mother has found her child’s sexuality to be unbiblical therefore sinful.
But here’s the beautiful thing: just watching these mothers unconditionally love their children, we would never know they had any kind of ideological difference between them. They are mothers who love, nurture, and fully support their children. They remind us that when it comes to loving and nurturing our children, ideology rarely comes into play.
What’s the Controversy All About?
So, back to the issues… A lot of people ask me what all the controversy is about. Why are we as a local church and denomination caught in a debate about LGBTQ people, homosexuality in particular?
Right now, the future unity of United Methodist Church sits on a knife’s edge directly over the matter of homosexuality and three questions in particular:
1) Is homosexuality sinful or not?
2) Can same-sex marriages be performed by our clergy and in our churches?
3) Can people who are LGBTQ be licensed and ordained as clergy?
The United Methodist Church has been locked in this debate since 1972. (Not to make you feel old, but that’s longer than I’ve been alive!) In 1972, the UMC took a stance on homosexuality, stating that it is incompatible with Christian teaching. Through the years the rules have gotten more specific, stating quite explicitly that self-avowed “practicing” homosexuals cannot be licensed or ordained as clergy and cannot be married in our churches or by our clergy.
The UMC has not clearly addressed how we understand people who are bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning. This morning, I don’t have time to explore all of this here. Yet by and large the debate has been around homosexuality.
Ideologically, there are three main camps of people.
In one camp are those who want gay and lesbian people fully included in the church. They want to see marriage and ordination completely opened to people who are gay or lesbian.
To make their argument, they say several things. They state that all people are made in God’s image, and that some, for no fault of their own, have been born as gay or lesbian. That is their God-given identity. They state that Jesus never taught on homosexuality, and that Jesus challenged social norms that excluded groups of people from the faith community.
Furthermore, the few places where the Bible addresses homosexuality do not apply to people who are gay or lesbian living in covenanted relationships.
In the second camp are those who uphold and are striving to protect our Book of Discipline’s teachings and standards on homosexuality. They believe the Bible clearly teaches that all homosexuality is sinful. God made marriage for one man and one woman. Thus, people who are in homosexual relationships are living in sin and should not be married or ordained.
In the third camp are those who feel caught in the middle of this massive debate without strongly holding any particular ideological view. These people are more interested in loving and not judging, and they want to move on from the debate to just being the church.
As you can see, there is a lot of divergence on the issues related to homosexuality. And once again, it’s over a range of issues including biblical interpretation, the definition of marriage, and our standards for ordination.
From My Non-Religious Friends
So, once again I turned to my non-religious friends to get their reaction to Christians and the LGBTQ community. Let me tell you, I was not prepared for the Pandora’s Box of highly emotional responses I got. Clearly I touched a raw nerve within these friends.
Their response reminded me of studies conducted with non-religious young adults. When these young adults were asked what they think about the church, typically their top answers have been: hypocritical, judgmental and anti-gay.
I’m going to share a few things folks said. In all fairness I’ve had to edit them quite a bit without losing the essence of their thoughts. As always, by hearing these folks, I’m not asking you to agree with them. I am asking you to listen and to try to understand them. We can offer that to anyone, regardless of how much we agree or not agree.
One friend who has a child who is transgender said,
The problem stems with the Bible. I realize that it’s Old Testament and a lot of folks discount much of what’s in the Old Testament, often touting the New Testament as being the kinder, gentler portion of the Bible. And while it’s often argued that “being gay isn’t the problem, acting gay is” … in other words, you can be gay as long as you act straight … that argument is idiotic. It’s a bit like telling a cat that it’s okay to be a cat, as long as you can bark like a dog.
And it leads to oppression and persecution, because it allows, or in fact, demands, that homosexuals, and other members of the LGBTQ community be persecuted. It is, to me, one of the most heinous parts of the Bible, and the Christian religion. And it’s unforgivable to me. I know those are very strong words, and I usually try to temper my words with as much understanding as I can. But this part stirs me up so much that I find myself being angry and resentful.
Another friend who identifies as queer— in other words, not having a definite sense of sexuality or even gender says,
I’m queer and there are many parts of this country I don’t feel safe in. If god created all things, then god created me and other LGBTQ people. Sadly the more Christian the environment the less safe I feel. I work at a suicide prevention hotline and we have many callers who have self harmed or have thought about killing themselves for something they have no control over. It is heartbreaking to hear stories of parents abandoning their children for being honest about who they are. You have not failed as a parent if your kid is LGBTQ. You have failed as a parent and as a Christian if you abandon your child for being who they are. People are literally dying because of the archaic views perpetuated by the church. Before you speak out and criticize someone for who they are, remember that what you say has an impact and can cost someone their life.
When I asked my friends what they would like to see the church do better, one friend replied,
In my rosiest day-dreaming, the churches would own up to what they have done and take a stand for change. “Just like scriptures were once used as an excuse for slavery,” they would say, “we have also used them to justify misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and other despicable attitudes. No more! We must now admit that Jesus never spoke about sexual orientation, and that even Leviticus has so much more to say about drunkenness and food restrictions than about homosexuality. We should have not used these few words to ruin the lives of so many people. We are sorry and we will try, for the rest of our lives, to make up for our mistakes.
So… where do I personally sit with these issues regarding our LGBTQ neighbors?
First let me say that I have not addressed these issues very much with you because literally no one has ever asked me what I think. And I’ve been okay with that, actually. I have not wanted these issues to become a distraction for us. We have a mission to fulfill of becoming like Christ and sharing his gospel with the world. I don’t want anything to take our eyes off of Christ and the mission he has put us on.
I have not wanted— and I still don’t want anyone— to hear what I say and use it to justify and strengthen their own hardened position.
Worse yet, I have not wanted to share what I believe and have someone come to the conclusion that if I believed all that then they could no longer have me as their pastor and Trinity as their church, especially since there are far larger and more important things we do agree on.
I share with you today, asking that you receive what I say as my personal, biblical convictions. I’m not asking you to agree with me, but I would like you all to take a step back and listen, not only to what I say, but also to why I say it.
To get at that, let me tell you a bit of my journey with these issues.
Before becoming a Christian when I 18-years-old, I had no opinion one way or another about gay and lesbian people, other than the typical stereotypes most of us had.
As I came into the church, I heard my pastor teach from the Bible showing quite emphatically that homosexuality is condemned as a sin. One of the main passages he used was our passage from Romans. So, I took that as my point of view, quite stridently. I didn’t hate gay or lesbian people. I did not reject them. For me, it was simply a matter of upholding the integrity of the Bible as the Word of God and upholding its teachings.
As I continued to grow, I began to meet and get to know gay and lesbian people. The first thing I began to see is how extraordinarily complex this whole issue is. It’s not just a matter of whether or not homosexuality is a sin, as important as that is. It also has to do with the very complex nature of how and why people are gay and lesbian in first place. And it has to do with how we Christians relate to and minister with gay and lesbian people.
I also heard many, many stories of gay Christians who grew up knowing that they were somehow different. They prayed and prayed for God to make them straight and take away these feelings towards people of the same gender. Many even tried straight relationships. After causing immense pain to themselves and to others, they came to accept themselves for being gay. In other words, it was not a choice to be gay. While they would have rather been straight to avoid all the stigmas of being gay, they came to the conclusion that they are who they are. More importantly, they came to realize that God loves them for who they are.
I have spent countless hours reading Scripture and getting to know gay and lesbian people better. All along, my desire has been to be true to Christ and true to the Bible’s teachings. I have wanted do so in a way that meets the reality of the gay and lesbian people I know.
I believe the strongest, most applicable passage from the Bible that addresses homosexuality is the passage in Romans 1:18-32. In a nutshell, it says that the very humanity of people has become corroded and corrupted by our turning away from God.
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. Romans 1:18-19
Since we have turned away from God, Paul says,
Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.
God’s punishment for turning away from God is to give us over to very worst of ourselves.
From there Paul gives a whole list of things that illustrate the worst of humanity turned away from God. He says,
Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.
Then it gets worse. Paul says,
They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy.
In other words, we are made by God in God’s image. So when we purposefully turn away from God, we turn away from the source of our humanity. Then we become sub-human and animalistic. We even embody evil itself.
We see this kind of awful sub-humanity all the time, don’t we? We see it in the news. We see people we know acting this way. Sometimes we even see it in ourselves.
A prime manifestation of sub-human evil in Paul’s day was temple prostitution. Men and women would go in to pagan temples and do unspeakable, lust-filled things with both men and women, even when they were heterosexual. That’s what Paul means when he says that men and women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, lust-filled relations, all with the intent of merely using other people for their own desire and pleasure.
So the question is, does this awful picture of humanity describe all gay and lesbian people?
The answer for me, quite clearly, is NO!
There are certainly heterosexual and homosexual people who act out of lust and use other people for pleasure. Young people today call this “hooking up.” That is a terrible travesty of the gift of sexuality God has given us. Adultery, hooking up, one night stands, and any other kind of sexual activity outside the covenant of a firm, lifelong commitment between two people is always a degrading of our bodies. It degrades God’s gift of sexuality and is therefore sinful.
But this doesn’t at all describe the relationship between two people of the same gender who make a lifelong commitment to one another, and now within the bond of a legal marriage.
In other words, the kind of homosexuality the Bible condemns does not describe gay and lesbian people who are committed to a lifelong monogamous relationship. These people are not degrading, abusing, or lusting after each other. These folks are committed to mutually nurturing love, commitment, and respect, just like heterosexual couples.
I don’t understand same-sex orientation and attraction. Because you and I have been raised in a culture which has shunned and closeted same-sex relationships, it all does seem strange to me.
But I’ve come to learn two things: first, same-sex relationships are authentically loving and nurturing. Secondly, the kind of degrading, lustful, abusive, coercive homosexuality the Bible describes does not fit the gay and lesbian people I know.
There is certainly homosexuality and heterosexuality that is degrading, abusive, and lustful, but in the case of two people committed to a lifelong covenant of love, it is not.
So that said, doesn’t the Bible establish marriage and sexuality as between a man and a woman? The answer that is yes- most definitely, yes. In the beginning were Adam and Eve. From there, the Bible celebrates the love and commitment between a man and a woman.
Yet that does not necessarily exclude the loving fidelity and commitment between people of the same gender.
Surely then, with this kind of open-armed invitation, God makes room for gay and lesbian people who are striving to be God’s holy people.
I know many people who are gay and lesbian who have given their lives to Jesus Christ and are baptized and Holy Spirit-gifted. They clearly demonstrate Christ-like love, holiness and leadership. Their lives are exemplary. They often far exceed straight people in the their ability to offer grace and love.
To say that gay and lesbian people do not have an equal share at the table of Christ with us is a travesty to their humanity, an insult to their baptism, and a blatant denial of the fact that they are made in God’s image and are restored by grace, just like you and me.
So as a human being and as a pastor, I am committed to embracing and fully including my LGBTQ neighbors as fellow sinners along with me. They are just as much in need of God’s grace as I am- no more and no less.
I’d like to switch gears now and address three important questions some of you may be asking.
Some may be asking: “Do you or would you conduct same-sex marriages?”
The answer is no. Our Book of Discipline outlaws this. Purposefully going against the Book of Discipline is a very serious matter, and at this point, I have not felt convicted to break this critical standard of our church.
Some others may be asking: “Do you support someone who is gay or lesbian being ordained?” If they meet all of the qualifications set forth in the Discipline, if they exhibit outstanding Christian character and are single living in celibacy or faithful in marriage, then yes.
However, this is difficult, too. Our Discipline outlaws gay and lesbian people becoming clergy. As I just mentioned, intentionally breaking our church’s Discipline is a grave matter. It’s something I take very seriously.
Thirdly, some may be saying, “All my life I’ve been taught that homosexuality is sinful. Now you’re trying to tell me that it’s not?” I’ve tried to show us this morning that it’s not simple.
As I’ve said, there are forms of homosexuality that are every bit as sinful as some forms of heterosexual sex. (In fact, the Bible has far more to say about heterosexual sin than homosexual sin.)
But a covenanted monogamous relationship is not the kind of homosexual sin the Bible was talking about.
And just because we’ve been taught something all our lives doesn’t necessarily make it true.
For example, many, many people have been taught that Bible establishes black people as inferior to white people. People have used Genesis 9:25 to make their point. And from a very basic reading of the Bible, it would seem that over and over again the Bible upholds slavery.
But we know full well that slavery is evil. We know full well that black people and white people are intrinsically equal in every way.
So to read the Bible in a way that merely affirms our prejudices is bad biblical interpretation! Let me say that again: Reading the Bible in a way that merely re-affirms our prejudices and our stereotypes of people, especially our LGBTQ neighbors, is a terrible misreading of the Bible. Where Do We Go from Here?
Now, with all that said, where do we go from here?
I fully recognize that many of us here don’t see things the way I do. I want you to know, that’s okay.
This is a difficult issue. So, I do not look down on people who believe differently than me or read the Bible differently than I do on issues about human sexuality.
The simple fact is, there is an enormous amount we already do agree on- very important and more important things. As it says in book of Ephesians:
There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
That is just as true, no matter how we come down on issues of human sexuality.
Not only that, but right after Paul laid down that awful picture of humanity without God, he says to God’s own people,
You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.
In other words, when we judge and condemn other people for any reason, we judge and condemn ourselves. We forget that we are messed up sinners, too- people in need of continual repentance and forgiveness of our sin.
As a congregation we do not see the same on these issues. Many of us passionately believe different things about human sexuality. We are deeply conservative, very liberal, and everywhere in between.
I respect that because I respect you.
I do believe we can make room for each other because we’re all disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ. Just as Christ laid down his life for each of us, we can put our differences aside to love and lay down our lives for each other.
We have our differences, yes. Yet you and I decide what to do with those differences.
If we allow our differences to divide and distract us, then we’re letting the devil have his way. The devil wants us to take sides, divide, fight, and walk away from each other.
But if we commit ourselves to humility, to respect and to Christ-like love, then we can continue on, committed to Christ’s mission of taking his good news to all people. After all, at the end of the day, everything I’ve mentioned here boils down to God and to people.
I worship a God who sent his son Jesus Christ to die on the cross for all people. That means I am committed to loving, serving and including all people— all of you and all of our neighbors. I hope you’ll do the same for me, for each other, and for all of our neighbors, gay or straight.
In that way we will continue to crucify the unChristian tendencies within us to judge, make and choose sides, to exclude, to hate, to gossip and slander.
Then we become fully like Christ who died on the cross and was risen for us and for all people everywhere. Amen.
[This is a letter I shared with my congregation, Trinity United Methodist Church, this past Sunday February 18, 2018.]
This week, my heart has been very heavy. By now we have all seen the news of Wednesday’s deadly school shooting in Parkland, FL. As a parent, I think of all those parents and grandparents who sent their children to school that morning, never to see them alive again or to discover that they have been hospitalized from gun shot wounds and other related injuries.
I send my children to school every day. To think that this could never happen here in their schools is folly.
Today, I will yet again lead us in prayer for the victims of Parkland, FL, their families, their community, and our elected leaders. I will pray…
…just as I prayed after the Columbine High School massacre,
…and after the massive shooting in a movie theater in Aurora, CO,
…and as I prayed after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School,
…and as I prayed after a large-scale shooting in an office building in San Bernardino, CA,
…and as I prayed after the massacre at an Orlando, FL, night club,
…and as I prayed after the widespread carnage at an outdoor concert in Las Vegas, NV,
…and as I prayed after a gunman invaded a church in Sutherland Springs, TX, killing over two dozen worshippers,
…and as I prayed a just few weeks ago for a shooting at a high school in Marshall County, Kentucky.
There are so many others, too.
I have to confess to you that I am getting very tired of simply praying.I’m running out of words, and I have run out of patience. I believe God wants us to pray, yes. I also believe that God has put us on a divine mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. In other words, as disciples of Jesus, we are in the business of bringing about real change and eternal life in a world bent on violence and death. We do this in fulfillment of what we pray every Sunday: “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
In the name of Jesus Christ, it is time for us to act towards ending all this senseless gun violence and death. I know there are controversial issues involved in this crisis- issues such as gun control, mental health care, and law enforcement procedures. I know we all don’t see eye to eye on these hot-button topics, and that may make talking about gun violence and forging a way towards ending it a difficult task. But I also believe it’s time to step outside of our familiar political/ideological belief systems. It’s time to get humble, to listen, and to courageously advocate for some common sense solutions that will most likely touch on the issues of gun control, mental health care, and law enforcement.
We are conservative and liberal and everywhere in between. But we’re not dealing with a conservative or a liberal problem, or a Democrat or a Republican problem. We’re dealing with a human problem whose perpetrators and victims go well beyond any notion of party or ideology.
Therefore, we cannot be afraid of having a conversation about how to end gun violence, and then we cannot be afraid of stepping out to be advocates for the lives of our neighbors, most especially our children.
In the face of this crisis, it’s tempting to sit back and mindlessly watch the endless talking head debates on TV, to point our angry fingers of blame and to get cynical about the state of our world. It’s all too easy to throw up our hands and surrender to the magnitude of the problem. However, it is increasingly clear that we cannot afford to sit in idle fear any longer. To do so puts the lives of our neighbors, ourselves, and our children at grave risk.
In response, I would love for you to share with me your ideas and thoughts. What would you like to see Trinity do? How would you be a part of it? What steps can we and you take right now to be Christ’s disciples who work for an end to gun violence in our schools and communities?
Again, I ask you not to respond merely from within a familiar ideological framework. Let’s put aside bumper-sticker slogans, the usual talking points, and shrill arguments. These tactics are too easy, too unimaginative, and frankly too dangerously safe. Let’s stretch out, because clearly the ideological liberal and conservative trenches that many people shout from are not serving our country well. It’s time to extend ourselves across the breach, stand in the gap, and forge a new way ahead. Nothing short of precious human life is at stake.
In the coming weeks, I will offer us some opportunities to prayerfully discern and brainstorm some Christ-like ways for us to advocate and work for safer schools and communities shielded from the threat of gun violence. I ask you to join me in the effort. And as we pray, may we follow God’s prompting to act in courageous ways for the protection of our communities and schools, all in the name of Jesus Christ, our crucified and risen Lord.
I was sitting in the back seat of my sister’s car and saw the oncoming vehicle quickly pull out into the intersection in front of us. There was no way to avoid hitting that car. All I could do was close my eyes and brace for the inevitable. CRASH! Even with my futile efforts to brace myself, I got pretty banged up and took an ambulance ride to the hospital. (My sister’s car was totaled, but thank God, no one in either car was seriously hurt.)
Last Tuesday I published a blog post giving my support to a sister-in-Christ, Tara “T.C.” Morrow, a woman married to another woman, who is seeking ordination as a Deacon in our United Methodist Church. I have not publicly shared my views on LGBTQI+ issues for at least four years, opting instead to be a voice for dialogue, mutual respect, and a way forward– work to which I am still strongly committed. But I felt a firm push from Holy Spirit to speak out for T.C., and so I did.
Then I braced myself for the inevitable crash. But then again, why put myself in this position at all?
After watching T.C. Morrow denied commissioning as a Provisional Deacon simply because she is a lesbian, I could not remain silent anymore. To block her path to fulfilling God’s call upon her life as a servant of the church is to depreciate her Christian character, her gifts, graces, her place in the church, and even the integrity of her relationship with Jesus Christ. That is a travesty which damages her and the whole Body of Christ, and it was time for me to say something about it.
In so doing, I knew there would be backlash. It didn’t come at first. In fact I was surprised by all the overwhelmingly positive feedback, especially from folks I didn’t expect to hear from. But then like a tsunami wave, the backlash hit. I’m sure there will be more surges to come.
In writing this post, I went back to re-read some of the comments from my conservative siblings in Christ. Here’s how they reacted to my post:
“…bending Scripture to suit… [your] desires”
“Pastors and church leaders will be held accountable for preaching false doctrine and misleading their ‘flocks'”.
“You are building a house on sand.”
“…teaching that lust is not a sin.”
“…calling sin something else and refusing to call people to holiness – that’s a serious problem.”
“May it never be said of me that I affirmed anyone in their sin. Do not be deceived.”
“There is no love in this. This is nothing but eisegesis.” [Eisegesis is expressing one’s own personal ideas instead of lifting up the meaning of the biblical text.]
And there have been other comments and inferences to the effect that I’ve thrown out, ignored, or perverted Scripture, that I’m accommodating societal sin, that I don’t understand true love, that I’ve been led astray, that I’m turning a blind eye to sin, calling evil good, blah, blah, blah…
Nobody has explicitly accused me of apostasy yet, but I’m sure it’s coming.
What gets to me about all the criticism, however, is that much of it is arguments in a vacuum. Folks are thinking and arguing for principles that do not intersect reality. Yet when confronted with reality, they hot-skip through it like bare feet on hot coals in order to stay put in their disembodied principle bubbles. This occurred to me after I read and re-read many carefully articulated arguments about how sinful homosexuality is, and about how folks like me are supposedly bending the Bible and church law to accommodate our agendas.
So let’s talk about accommodating agendas. That’s the first argument in a vacuum. It’s clear that at present the only agenda the United Methodist Church is accommodating is the conservative majority’s on this issue. Their attitude that ordaining someone like T.C. Morrow would be “accommodating” sin tragically misses the point. It ignores all of the gifts that people like her bring to the church. Anyone who does not know, refuses to know, or refuses to see all the blessings, gifts and graces that people like T.C. bring to the Christ’s Body, opting instead to throw her and other gifted and grace-filled gay and lesbian Christians into a garbage can category of “sexually sinful,” demonstrate the principle vacuum they choose to indwell.
That leads to the second argument vacuum of my critics- that all gays and lesbians in committed relationships are living in sin. I’ve tried to make the biblical argument that folks like T.C. Morrow are not “living in sin,” but let’s also look at the fruit of their lives, which is something my critics at times blatantly ignore. Living in sin blunts a person’s entire existence. Jesus said, “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit” (Matthew 7:18). I think we would all agree that sexual sin is so fundamentally damaging because sexuality is a key aspect of our humanity. Sexual sin or any other deeply ingrained sin affects the quality of our relationships with God and others and mars our psychological and emotional well-being, our self-worth, and our judgment. Denial and lies become second nature. Live with a lie long enough, and our whole lives become a deception designed to keep the lie of sin in darkness.
It’s hard to say emphatically enough that this does not at all describe so many gay and lesbian Christians I know! They are powerful disciples of Jesus, whole, emotionally and spiritually healthy, balanced, everyday people. Their lives exhibit the fruit of the Holy Spirit. There is no lie or denial. Granted, many have had to grapple with the emotional and spiritual pain of coming to grips with their sexuality, but that stems from being gay and lesbian in a larger world and church culture that is hostile to them. Aside from this very real struggle, gay and lesbian people are just as whole and healthy in Christ as straight people. To then turn around and say that these same folks are broken in sexual sin is a statement made from ignorance, plain and simple.
In my Facebook feed, one friend, a gay man in a committed relationship, went through great pains to share how balanced, happy, healthy and fulfilled he is, especially in how he applies Christ-like principles to his life and relationships. (I’m sure that’s not the first or the last time this man has had to prove that he’s “normal”- something us straight people will never have to experience.)
In response, one of my conservative friends replied, “This conversation isn’t about you. It’s about what the church teaches,” as in church law and doctrine. Say what??
I was totally flabbergasted by that comment! Is not the church a people of God? Is not the church called to be in ministry and community with real, live people? This rather callous response is a perfectly unfortunate example of someone choosing to insulate themselves within an impermeable principle bubble. No worthwhile missiology and ecclesiology can ignore the real life stories of everyday people, or write them off as rubbish. But for folks arguing in a principle vacuum, real people, their lives and experiences don’t matter as much as the convictions they desperately cling to, in this case their badly misinformed “biblical” belief that– despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary!– all gay and lesbian people in committed relationships are lost in sexual sin.
In closing, let me say that not all my critics are making arguments in a vacuum. Several have the humility and decency to remain open and to keep wrestling. I join them in their struggle, all the while striving to avoid my own potential argument vacuums, too. I want to join those who remain teachable, moldable, and open to the Holy Spirit. This same Holy Spirit keeps us alive to the realities of our mission field while keeping us tightly tethered to the anchor of our faith, the Word made flesh, Jesus the Christ.
(The following is adapted from a sermon I preached on Sunday January 22, 2017.)
“Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.
“Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.
“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”
Matthew 23:1-13, 15, 23-28
As I thought about today’s topic- the claim made by many non-religious skeptics that the church is filled with hypocrites- I could not avoid this passage of scripture. It’s harsh. It’s very difficult to read, and believe me, it’s even more difficult to teach and preach. And yet, the jarring parts of the Bible which perplex and disturb us are most likely the things we need to hear the most.
The more I read today’s passage, the more I’m convinced that this body of Jesus’ teaching was preserved very intentionally to admonish the whole church. Jesus allows us no room to sit in idle condemnation of other people, whether it’s the Pharisees of yesterday or today. This passage stands as a mirror to the Pharisee ensconced in each of us. It’s a warning, a gut check, a spiritual reality check.
Even then, Jesus was not condemning or writing off these fellow Jews. Of the major Jewish sects in his time, Jesus was most at home with the Pharisees. Jesus shared the Pharisees’ commitment to faithfully live out Torah in the world. Jesus shared their theology, especially the Jewish belief in the resurrection and the kingdom to come. So Jesus was not addressing the Pharisees as an outsider rebel rouser railing against an evil establishment, but as a likeminded Jew. This was very much an in-house confrontation.
As Jesus confronted the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, I don’t hear stern anger or harsh pulpit pounding. I hear despair and deep disappointment. I do see anger in Jesus’ words, too, but it was anger from a broken heart rather than righteous indignation.
Hypocrisy… In essence, hypocrisy is claiming to be something I’m not. It’s a deception, a living lie. I become a hypocrite when I insist on a virtue I do not possess while hiding behind a plastic mask of righteousness.
Hypocrisy is driven by one thing: fear. It’s the fear of confronting my whole self- both the good and bad, my angels and my demons, my purity and my impurity. It’s the fear of others seeing and confronting the real me. It’s the fear of being unloved, under-valued, and under-appreciated.
And when it comes to the world of spirituality and religion, hypocrisy is particularly ugly and all too easy to find. It’s our most costly liability. We people of faith hold up very high standards of values, virtue, and righteousness. At times we prophetically challenge evil and unrighteousness in our world. So when we act in contradiction to the life of faith and righteousness we profess, especially when our duplicity wounds other people, our hypocrisy becomes terribly egregious.
When Jesus called out the egregious hypocrisy of the Pharisees, he pulled no punches. He accused the Pharisees of showboating their religious practices and adornments to impress the masses. He chastised their scrupulous interpretations of religious law while flatly ignoring more pressing issues of justice and mercy. Jesus called out their painstaking efforts to fulfill every public religious obligation while blinding themselves to their inner corruption.
Look at that list. Little has changed! Today’s people of faith can be just as showy and pompous with their religious practices while typifying that old adage of being “so heavenly minded that they’re no earthly good.” People of faith often excel in outward appearances of religious dedication while relegating the brokenness within them to the back closets of denial.
Worse still, most people rarely own up to their hypocrisy. That’s because an honest confession of hypocrisy is an admission to living a lie. The illusion has been delusion. Feigned substance has been a wispy shadow. That’s why the typical reaction to a charge of hypocrisy is to lob the accusation right back at the accuser with an incensed retort of “Who do you think you are to judge me?”
Other than a denial-infused response, how can we disciples of Jesus Christ best respond to the skeptics’ charge of hypocrisy? It’s very simple, actually: own it.
It’s been my experience that the harshest critics of the church, those who readily point out our hypocrisies, have been significantly wounded and deeply disappointed by the church. For many of them, I’m sure it’s cathartic. It’s also a way to mobilize a resistance against our malevolence.That said, we make matters worse when we respond to our critics by saying things like:
“That doesn’t describe me or my church.”
“That happened a long time ago. It’s time to move on and get over it!”
“You are talking about those other Christians who give a bad name to good Christians like us.”
Those kinds of statements are simply other shades of denial.
Non-Christian skeptics keenly see something about us that we sometimes fail to see about ourselves. They know that Christians everywhere and from every era are bound together as the church. And they’re right. We would also say that each of us are a part of the living body of Christ, a body that encompasses everyone who has been baptized into the faith of Jesus. That would include saints and villains like St. Francis of Assisi and an American South slaveholder, Dorothy Day and Fred Phelps, Sojourner Truth and Pope Urban II (who called for the First Crusade), the many Christians who turned a blind eye to the Holocaust and the Venerable Andrey Sheptytsky, a Ukrainian Greek Catholic archbishop who risked his life housing hundreds of Jews escaping Nazi persecution. All of these Christians and all the rest of us share in one church, sharing both our great good and our terrible actions and inactions.
We must therefore listen to those who hold grievances against the church, acknowledge them, ask their forgiveness and God’s forgiveness, and commit ourselves even more fervently to be like Jesus.
Every year Reed College holds a weekend of unbridled revelry called Renn Fayre. On the last night, they lock out any authorities to spend the entire night partying, getting drunk and high with the option painting their naked bodies blue while running around campus.
Donald Miller and his friends decided to be there for that final night and set up a booth with a sign that said “Confess Your Sins”. There was a catch, however. If any students approached the booth, the participants inside the booth would spend time confessing their sins and the sins of the church to these students. A student named Jake gave into his curiosity and visited the booth. Donald Miller shared with him who they were and why they were there. Once Jake expressed an interest, Miller confessed his sins to Jake:
“There’s a lot. I will keep it short… Jesus said to feed the poor and to heal the sick. I have never done very much about that. Jesus said to love those who persecute me. I tend to lash out, especially if I feel threatened, you know, if my ego gets threatened. Jesus did not mix His spirituality with politics. I grew up doing that. It got in the way of the central message of Christ. I know that was wrong, and I know that a lot of people will not listen to the words of Christ because people like me, who know Him, carry our own agendas into the conversation rather than just relaying the message Christ wanted to get across. There’s a lot more.”
“It’s all right, man,” Jake said, very tenderly. His eyes were starting to water.
“Well,” I said, clearing my throat, “I am sorry for all that.”
“I forgive you,” Jake said. And he meant it.
“Thanks,” I told him. (Miller, Blue Like Jazz, 123-4)
Miller recalled that most of these confessionals ended in tearful embraces. Indeed, God melted hearts, most especially those belonging to Donald Miller and his friends. That night was a major turning point in their lives.
This kind of humility and authenticity is the perfect antidote to the poison of hypocrisy. It is strikingly unusual. It’s an uncanny abasement of ego and arrogance that defies reason. But this is indeed the kind of selfless love- the only kind of love- that has the power to change hearts, beginning with our own.
It’s my prayer that we who claim the name of Jesus would be a people of his cross-shaped grace, that in the face of criticism, we would offer an attentive ear and an open mind. I want us to be a people who utterly reject pretentiousness and defensiveness to claim an honest heart that remains open and ready to offer God’s love and grace to anyone. I want us to be disciples of Jesus who, instead of merely wearing a cross, choose to bear his cross, thereby being transformed into a new creation of humble servants who love and bless all people with God’s uniquely selfless, self-giving love.
We see that love most perfectly in Jesus Christ. May others perfectly see him in us.
At this past Annual Conference of the Baltimore-Washington Conference, we had a very emotional debate about approving a woman married to another woman as a Provisional Deacon. (For my non-United Methodist friends, a Deacon in the UMC is a service-oriented kind of ordained ministry. Deacons are pastors who teach and preach with the church while dedicating their lives to a specific, specialized kind of service. Provisional status is the last step towards being fully ordained.) T.C. Morrow had passed through all the steps towards being commissioned, but failed to get the required two-thirds majority of our clergy.
Ms. Morrow was not commissioned. A long process including seminary and a rigorous ordination process has been halted for now.
As you can imagine, the reactions to T.C.’s denial of commissioning as a Provisional Deacon were quite emotional. Some rested assured that our denomination’s standards on human sexuality, specifically our ban on self-avowed practicing homosexuals from ordination, were upheld. Some saw this is a grave injustice, even an act of spiritual violence. Others were disheartened by the reminder that we are bitterly divided over how we understand and include people who are LGBTQ.
In the aftermath of all this, I received an unusual request. This past Thursday on the day after the vote was taken, I was given an anonymous letter to read to the entire Conference. The letter is from an LGBTQ candidate for ministry reacting to the news about T.C. Morrow. I was specifically asked to read it.
Keep in mind that I am not an active advocate for either side of the LGBTQ debate. My role has been to bring people together for dialogue and discernment about how we as the whole church can move forward together without suffering a devastating split over human sexuality matters. I have my own views, yes, which don’t fit neatly into either camp. I enjoy solid relationships and endure suspicious glances from both sides of the debate.
Unfortunately, I was not able to share this person’s letter due to time constraints. However, I am sharing it here on my blog. (I have all the time and space I want right here, and I can’t be ruled out of order.)
This is not necessarily a plea on this person’s behalf. However, I do believe that in a debate of this intensity, all voices must be heard and respected. I believe it an act of of grace and humility when we strive to understand and empathize with every voice, most especially when it’s a voice with which we do not agree. The later is truly Christ-like.
Dear Sisters and Brothers,
I am writing you today as one of your own. I am a pastor who is doing my best to faithfully serve the church and this conference and to live out the calling that God has placed on my life. It is our church that raised me in the faith from my birth to my baptism to my confirmation to the day I felt my heart warmed for the first time and I knew God in my life. I am writing you today because I love you church and I love in particular this the Baltimore Washington Annual Conference. I can remember the first time I attended annual conference and feeling like I had finally found my home, a place where I belonged, a place where I could bring all of me, a place where the spirit moved me to answer my call to ministry.
Sadly, I have begun to question whether I can continue to serve among you because, as a gay person, I am wondering whether the welcome I originally felt was intended for me. I am wondering because we seem to have mostly ignored that an injustice occurred right here on the floor of conference. We have denied a candidate approved by the BOOM her rightful place as a clergy member of this conference. We denied her because she happens to be married to another woman. In doing this, we have failed to recognize one of the most gifted persons for ministry I have ever met and we are lesser for it.
To be clear, however, I am not writing just about this one candidate. I am writing as one of you who is hurting because we did this terrible thing and then moved right along like nothing had happened. We have continued on with our business as if what we have done is ok. It is not.
We have sinned and we need to seek forgiveness for the harm we have done, for the message we are sending to our LGBTQ sisters and brothers who are watching and who are gathered right in this room. The message that says you are a not really welcome here unless you are seated and quiet about who you are and who you love. We can do better. We must do better.
Your gay sibling in Christ
Thank you for taking the time to read and truly listen to another voice. If you did, you have just made our church a little bit better, even if you don’t agree.
Yesterday I published a blog post about a fictional visit from Jesus to Liberty University. I was exposing the absurdity of asking Christian students to purchase guns for self-defense by presenting a Jesus who retracts his teachings on non-violence and promotes the “kill them before they kill you and others” attitude we heard from Jerry Falwell, Jr. I was trying to create a Jesus who would affirm Falwell’s thinking and take it to its logical conclusion.
The conclusion: if Jesus adopted Falwell’s approach, he probably would have bypassed the cross. Jesus would have destroyed the people trying to kill him and established a new political dynasty which would not differ too much from any other regime of his day or ours.
I tried to use humor, wit, and biblical theology to create a satirical response to Jerry Falwell, Jr.’s reprehensible call to action, exposing how unfaithful it is to the teachings and example of Jesus. And yes, it was a lot of fun to do.
But the response was rather… muted. Maybe my post wasn’t all that good. That’s always a distinct possibility. Or maybe I offended people into stunned silence. But that hardly happens on social media these days.
In the meantime I’ve been waiting for angry people and church members to call or email me, complaining about how blasphemous I was. How dare I mock Jesus like that?? That’s usually the response to satire that involves some aspect of our faith.
When Monty Python’s Life of Brian was released, it created a massive firestorm of protest from Christian groups who lambasted it as anti-Christian blasphemy. Bring it up today, and it still gets the ire of many. It was satire! And it wasn’t mocking Christian faith or Jesus. It wasn’t even mocking religion in general, although some used it as such. Life of Brian was a satire of the sorry state of organized religion and how we often (mis)represent the gospel.
So why do Christians have a hard time with satire these days, especially when it invokes Christian motifs and figures? I think there are several reasons, and I’m sure you could list off more:
Being culturally marginalized has got us defensive. The church is in a tough spot. For 1,700 years, we found ourselves at the epicenter of culture and government. Now, we’re increasingly on the margins of both, and we don’t know how to handle that. Whenever the culture jabs us or we even perceive that they’re jabbing us, it rubs salt in our wounded pride.
Humor and religion don’t often play well together. Let’s face it. Dealing with God is serious business. It requires our very best and our utmost devotion. Humor, however, is a distraction. The very nature of humor is to knock us down a peg, to enjoy our imperfections, our limitations, and the things that would normally shame us. In fact, humor is an antidote to shame. But… humor is also an antidote to pride. High-mindedness is a pathway to pride and arrogance. Humor- and yes the Bible contains humor!- has a humbling effect. It invites us to avoid the extreme of taking ourselves too seriously. So humor can and should play a role in our life of faith.
People are hyper-sensitive these days. Sorry. I’m sure someone just got offended by that. It seems as if there’s a cultural weed infesting our First Amendment right of free speech: freedom from being offended. Very little can be openly discussed and debated without things devolving into ad hominem attacks. Disagreement is the new scandal. Words must be weighed very carefully to make sure some segment of an audience doesn’t feel belittled. (Warning: raising this point will garner a Scarlet I for being insensitive).It’s hard to say anything of consequence without issuing qualifying statements to soften the blow on people’s sensibilities. In this climate, humor and satire have become the greatest casualties.
Given all this, is it any wonder that Christians have a hard time recognizing and understanding satire? There’s a good deal of satire in the Bible, including from people like Jesus and Paul. It serves a purpose in getting our attention and encouraging us to think and do differently, more faithfully, more Christ-like.
So… on that note, fellow Christians: lighten up, will ya?
An Unlikely Encounter
Last year I received an unexpected phone call from a man I hadn’t heard from in several years. He just called me out of the blue. Of all people it was Rabbi Martin Siegel. He’s the most fascinating rabbi I have ever encountered and one of the most lovingly ecumenical people I’m privileged to know, too. Several years before that I had heard Rabbi Siegel give a lecture on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. I would have thought that the teachings of Jesus are a rather taboo subject for a rabbi. But this rabbi found tremendous wisdom in Jesus’ teachings and wanted to show us Christians the underlying Jewish meaning of Jesus’ words in order to plumb down to the real powerful depth of what Jesus was saying. I later asked Rabbi Siegel why he was doing this. His simple answer: “I hope you’ll be a better disciple of Jesus.” Wow… (On a side note, Rabbi Siegel said that he very much respects Jesus as a teacher. “Talk about him as Lord and Savior, well… that’s above my pay grade.” Very nice.)
Several years later in the summer of last year, Rabbi called me. He wanted to check on how I was doing and to invite me on a retreat he was leading. I told him I was interested, but I would want to get together with him to get caught up and learn more about the retreat.
That began a new relationship I never would have expected. The day we got together changed everything. I began to study with him every week. And here’s the key. I wanted to be around him. I wanted to learn. I wanted to safely explore my own faith and questions with a man who could help me from his unique perspective. I wanted to grow closer to God and I knew this rabbi could help me. (And he did.)
How was a rabbi, a Jew, able to sway this Gentile Christian? It’s because he loved me. He was sincerely interested in me and in my wellbeing. He exuded patience, grace, and passion. Basically, he was and continues to be an embodiment of God’s grace and wisdom.
God Encounter I share this story because I wonder why more people don’t feel the same way about their Creator? For most people, God seems to be a mere afterthought rather than Someone in the forefront of their minds and hearts. We might turn to God if we need something- if we’re desperate enough!- or we invoke God’s name as an OMG (or far worse yet, OMFG, which I will not elaborate on!) But in terms of a desire to be around God, to walk with God, to listen and learn from God… I don’t hear too many people talk like that, even many fellow Christians.
What’s up with that? Two things: religion has certainly mucked up and overly-complicated how people approach God. But I also believe there is another, much darker reason. We project onto God our own distorted views of ourselves, parental figures, and religious authority figures.
So God becomes this fussy, distant, cranky, capricious, judgmental god who blesses us when we’re good little boys and girls but punishes us when we’re bad. Or, we image God as a cosmic Santa Claus who mysteriously gives us the stuff we want if we ask him and if we’re good- well, sometimes. But be on your guard. This same cosmic Santa Clause never fails to leave us coal and switches if we get on his naughty list. Either way, this fickle god is someone to be afraid of, a god we can never understand or hardly approach except when we’re truly needy.
I believe the way to look at God in a more biblically realistic way is to first look at how God really sees us. That’s where we begin. If we know what we mean to God, we would have more confidence to look back at God to see who he really is- as much of God as we could humanly comprehend, anyway. Then we could encounter God less encumbered by the distortions and falsities we have created to imagine God.
An Important Series of Messages Starting this Sunday, I’m sharing one of the most important series of messages I have ever given. I’m calling the series “How Does God Really See Us?” No, I could ever fully answer that question, but I’ve found at least five biblical ways in which God regards us, his human creation. I’ve seen them biblically and have experienced them myself:
God’s Special Creation
Forgiven and Redeemed
Chosen and Called for God’s Purpose
These messages really tell a story of how God creates us in his image, forgives and redeems us when we fall, all through his Son Jesus, loves us as his precious children, purposes our lives to to be included within God’s divine plan of worldwide redemption, and ultimately calls us his friends.
Why are these messages so important? Because if we don’t get this right, we can never fully experience God for who God is. We would otherwise be forever distanced from God by our own limited, negative perceptions.
If you live near me in the greater Annapolis area, I hope you’ll come and experience these messages. I would to see you. And more importantly, I would love for you to encounter my master and friend Jesus who has made all the difference in my life. That’s not mere religion. It’s a relationship with a living God, something that blows apart religion. Come see what it’s all about!
For you married folks, think back to your dating years. You may have rose-colored memories of being free and unencumbered (especially some of you guys out there), but take off those chintzy pink glasses for a minute and look again. Admit it. It was a messy time filled with losers, wannabes, some good people and your share of “what in the world was I thinking” moments. You had to figure out, sometimes the hard way, who your soul mate was and what it took find him or her.
For you single and dating people, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Laugh or cry.
For you contentedly single, i.e. non-dating, folks, just laugh.
With most churches, finding and keeping new people, especially those fabled young people, is near the top of our priority list. It’s really about relevance and survival. If we’re numerically growing, we’re on to something. We’re good. We’re cool. We’re making a difference. God is blessing us. The world could be crumbling and going to hell, but all is good with us, thank you very much.
But if we’re not growing or shrinking- and both are really the same thing- then we’ve lost it. We’ve gotta get cool again. We need more bells and whistles, better advertising campaigns, MUCH better preaching and music, have more events that will get people into our doors, and then… hope beyond hope that they’ll stay. Then we need to quickly encourage any new person to join and pay up. And once that happens, finally, happy days will be once more. Hallelujah! Praise the Lord and all that jazz.
Needless to say, this kind of approach for churches in numerical decline is doomed to fail. Even if it did work once upon a time, it doesn’t have any chance of working now. The only people who this might attract are Christian church shoppers who are surveying the greatest show in town. If you’re not it, they’ll pass you up every time. Sorry.
In my years of pastoring and playing the game of attracting new people, I have finally discovered that finding and keeping new people is like dating, especially if you want to attract the right people or attract anyone at all!
How does this work? Put on your imagination cap for a minute and place yourselves in a singles party. You’re looking around the room and maybe people are looking at you. After a while, you realize that there are really five different kinds of people. I’m going to make an analogous leap and say that these also describe five types of churches. Let’s see who they are.
Specimen #1: The Midlife Crisis Dater You see him across the room and shudder- a pot-bellied middle age guy with combed over hair sporting a tight-fitting Aeropostale shirt. With his belly hanging over some Levis jeans he’s wearing a gold watch and matching chain necklace with an iPhone 4 in his hand. He saunters over and says, “Hey baby, what’s shaking with you? Can I get your digits because I’m a ratings machine and you’re a perfect 10. LOL, wasn’t that awesome? It’s a hashtag I’m cool!”
Most obviously, this guy is trying to be something he’s not because he’s not confident or content with who he is. He feels like he’s lost the cool factor he thinks he once had, and he needs it back. He’s seen the movies where the George Clooneys and Tom Cruises put on the charm and get any girl they want. But that’s not life and it is most definitely is not him.
Many churches attempt this only for it to be a tragicomic disaster. They think if they can put together a band, play hip music, buy and use a bunch of technology, and just try as hard as they can to be “culturally relevant” they’ll make it. More often than not it comes across as pathetically corny. But most of all, it’s not authentic or sincere. It’s more about trying to be something they’re not to get people they’re not so they can feel relevant and grow again.
I’ve seen this play out many times. Much to my chagrin I confess that I tried to get churches to do this. Never again.
Specimen #2: I’m Sexy and I Know It You walk over to her and get up the nerve to say something. She’s really flashy, super confident and has all the moves. Yet what you’re seeing doesn’t quite match what she thinks she is. She glances you over and with a wink and smile says, “You. Yes, you. Walk yourself over here and buy me a drink.” So you walk over and sit down next to her. She turns to you and turns it all on. She tells story after story of the high profile men she’s dated, the places she’s been, and her big-paying uptown job. An hour passes, and you haven’t spoken ten words! Then you realize that it’s all about her and hardly any about you… minus one exception: how much attention you can pay her.
A number of churches are like this, too. You go to visit and you’re immediately given a glossy folder outlining all their classes, ministry groups, mission groups, prayer groups, upcoming sermon series, and the women’s club bake sales. Their members come to you all aglow about this activity and that ministry they want you to come to. They clearly want to wow you with their stuff and their toys and their goings on. Surely, they got all the church goodies you could ever need.
There’s one problem. They have no idea who you are or what you need because in reality it’s all about them and how they can woo you into their club.
Specimen #3: The Exclusive Chatty Groups You see them gathered in a small circle laughing it up, talking non-stop, and enthralled with each other, so you walk over to see what’s up. They seem like great people. You get over to their group hoping that they’ll introduce themselves, ask for your name, ask you a little about yourself and invite you to join in.
Fifteen minutes later, no one has said boo to you. It’s like you’re a ghost. They don’t even see you. Finally, one person glances at you and waves a little, but no more. Clearly, they’re happy with each other but that’s about it.
Every church I’ve met- seriously, every single church– says they are a friendly church. They’re the nicest, sweetest people they can be. I’ve never heard a church tell me that they are a nasty hive of judgmental curmudgeons. They’re friendly, of course! Translation: we’re friendly and nice to each other.
I wish I could say this did not happen more often, but many times I would visit a church, see a group of people who are obviously quite happy in each other’s presence but don’t even pause to notice or speak to me. It’s like they don’t know what to do with me, or they simply don’t care.
There is a big difference between a “friendly church” and a truly hospitable church. Think on that one a bit.
Specimen #4: The Needy Dependent She looks like Eeyore except her eyes never stop scanning the room. She’s kinda pretty so you walk on over. Delighted, she suddenly transforms before your eyes with a radiantly beaming smile, and she immediately engages you. It’s like you’re a cool drink in a barren desert. She wants to tell you everything, and wants to know your everything, too. She offers to buy you a drink and a snack. Flattered, you agree! “I am sooo glad we got to meet tonight. I think you’re the one person in this room I’ve been looking for, and now you’re here. I know it. I can see us together so perfectly. OMG, you are the man of my dreams. You complete me. Can I have your number?”
Suddenly you have to use the bathroom… downstairs at the end of the hall.
There are churches who are desperately lonely for new people, especially young people. They feel they need new, younger people to help them survive. So when a new person or a worse yet younger person ventures in, the church barrages them with, “It’s so wonderful to have you. Finally a new person! We really need someone like you to bring in more young people. I really do hope you come again. See you next Sunday, right?”
What do you think the chance of that person coming back is? Yup. You guessed it.
Specimen #5: The Happy and Fulfilled
After a long night of all the… interesting… people above, you finally see him.
He’s sitting with a few people casually talking. He looks cheerful and content. He’s no Brad Pitt, but he seems like a decent person. So you walk over to say hello, and wow… he doesn’t ignore you. He doesn’t try to soak you up like a dry sponge. He isn’t trying hard to impress you. He just is. He’s very open to talking with you and is interested in hearing what you have to say. He isn’t trying to flirt or make moves, but he’s genuinely glad to have your company.
As you both talk, you can tell he’s very happy with his life and where he is. He’s got good friends and a supportive family. He knows who he is and spends his time with anyone who wants to come along for the ride. You can tell he likes you, but it’s free and easy. After a while, you sense that he would treat anyone who made the time and effort in the same way. He just seems whole.
Church serving a free Christmas meal
This is an ideal church, too and one who grows. They don’t sit around worrying about their numbers, anxiously trying to “fix the problem.” They don’t try to be who they’re not. They don’t try to impress people. They don’t smother new people. They just get on with being the church God has called them to be. They worship joyfully, expecting God to show up. They are always learning and growing. They enjoy each others company and willingly involve new people into who they are. They love to get out into their neighborhoods to bless people with Jesus in real, practical ways.
Are they the coolest, hippest group of people in town? Not at all. But they work hard at what they do. They believe that God is with them and that they are building Christ’s kingdom.They genuinely love God and people.
Yes, it’s that simple. Churches just need to get on with being the church, knowing who they are and what God has purposed them to be and do. Leave the dating game behind and God will grow the body of Christ in God’s way and in God’s time.
Most all of us did a major double take at the cover of the latest Vanity Fair featuring Bruce Jenner- now asking to be called Caitlyn Jenner. I know I did. For months and months I had seen pictures of a noticeably different and sometimes distressed looking Bruce Jenner. To go from that to a senior citizen-aged bombshell… It leaves room for pause, doesn’t it? Caitlyn Jenner is the most visible face of a growing movement to accept and include transgender people into the mainstream of society. Multiple states are debating transgender rights laws, both in the workplace and in the community. There is increased awareness towards children who seem to be struggling with gender identity and intense conversations on how to care for them, i.e. do we allow for them to assume their preferred gender identity, including using the bathroom and locker room of their assumed gender? How would we guide their social interactions and confront bullying? And now with the full public emergence of Caitlyn Jenner, these topics will only get more airtime.
To be perfectly honest, I have no idea what to make of transgenderism. As a Christian, my primary lens to look at this or any other reality is Scripture aided by tradition, reason, and experience. But what in the Bible or Christian tradition addresses someone like Caitlyn Jenner?
When I search the Bible, I find occasional passages like Deuteronomy 22:5:
“Women must not wear men’s clothes, and men must not wear women’s clothes. Everyone who does such things is detestable to the Lord your God” (CEB).
Interestingly enough, this passage is not found among later passages in the same chapter about sexual immortality. It’s included in a set of laws which address doing right to your neighbor and not mixing things of unlike kind, like different kinds of fiber in the same cloth, different kinds of seeds in the same crop, or different animals tethered to the same plow.
Even still, the issue of cross dressing in this passage is contextually unclear. Were folks sometimes wearing other gendered clothes out of convenience or necessity? Was there some native pagan cultic practice requiring cross dressing? Since it’s not included in the list of laws addressing sexual deviances, it doesn’t appear to be sexual in nature. It stands out on its own.
Other Christian thinkers have turned to Genesis 1:27 in which God creates humanity as male and female. So, they argue, if we’re born a male or a female, that is what we are. To change that would violate what God has lovingly, sovereingly created us to be as a part of God’s very good creation.
In the face of that, we hear the voice of transgender people saying, “Yes, I was born with a female body. Genetically and physiologically I am a female. But my whole inner being tells me I’m a male.” What’s going on, psychologically, physiologically and spiritually?
I honestly have no idea. And there’s precious little in Scripture or Christian tradition that speaks to the experience of someone like Caitlyn Jenner and transgender people like her. If I or anyone else tries to speak definitively to the moral and spiritual implications of transgenderism, we’re speaking too loudly into a dark vacuum of the unknown. And even if I did know for absolute sure what was going on, so what? What does it really change in the grand scheme of things? If I was convinced that transgenderism is sinful, would I then urge a transgender person to change their clothes and get back into the operating room? (I wouldn’t put it past some prominent Christian voices to say that, sadly enough.) Would I condemn someone who is already struggling through the guilt and shame of a mismatched gender identity?
What do we do?
Well, a few years ago I got to find out first hand. One Sunday a couple visited a congregation I was serving. It was two women, and I think most people assumed they were lesbians. But when they asked to speak to me, they revealed that one of them is transgender. She began as a man and over time transitioned to a woman. They were married before the transition happened, and amazingly enough, stayed married.
I heard their story, especially the pained story of the man who transitioned to a woman. I heard her tell me how painful it was growing up and being an adult, looking in the mirror and seeing something she wasn’t. Any chance she got, she would wear women’s clothes just to feel more like herself. Meanwhile she hid in the shame of keeping it all a secret, for fear of misunderstanding and rejection. It was a terrible secret to hide. Then, with the help and support of her wife, the man slowly began to become the woman she knew herself to be. That’s what they told me.
They wanted to tell me their story to help me understand who I was dealing with. I appreciated that. But the larger question on their minds was whether or not the congregation and I would welcome and accept them. As a test run, they wanted to know what I thought of them.
Believe it or not, preachers can find themselves speechless! That was one of those rare occasions. After thinking a moment, still stunned at their revelation, I told them this:
“I really don’t know what to think. There’s virtually nothing in my knowledge of the Bible and theology that speaks to who and where you are. But I do want you to know that I am committing to loving you and including you into my life and into our church for as long as you like. I will be your pastor. You are children of God, too. We’ll learn and grow and figure all this stuff out together, as much as we can. And I will not tolerate anyone pushing you out or in any way making you feel unwelcomed or un-incuded. I got your back.”
We prayed together, and indeed they came around for a while until health and employment issues kept them away and forced them to move. Even then, I hope the lesson God was trying to teach wasn’t lost on us. So far, it’s stuck with me.
Issues of transgender aren’t going away, and the church is once again called to respond to a social reality that ultimately involves people- people made in the image of God and loved by God. Maybe one day we’ll have a better psychological and spiritual understanding of what’s happening within the heart, mind, and soul of a transgender person. Meanwhile, I’m committed to leading a church who will love and as much as possible include people like Caitlyn Jenner and the many who are like her. I don’t know how that will all unfold. I don’t really have to know. I just do my best to love and embrace people as God’s special creation, helping them to find their true identity as disciples of Jesus, called by God to usher in God’s kingdom.