Monthly Archives: February 2011

Christians and Homosexuality: A Personal Take

…a rough transcription of a sermon I shared at First United Methodist Church of Laurel, MD on February 20, 2011

[Disclaimer: For my friends and readers with passionately defined views regarding the nature of human sexuality, homosexuality in particular, no matter your views, you will most likely encounter things in this post that will offend, upset, or even shock you, i.e. “Wow, I didn’t know he thinks that way! How dare he!!” You’ve been warned now. Keep in mind, however, that I continue to listen and strive to love and respect both you and your perspective, even when we have serious points of disagreement. Having spent countless hours in learning, conversation and dialogue about LGBT sexuality, most especially with people who are LGBT, I have learned to tolerate the heat of disagreements I’ve encountered with both conservative and progressively minded folks. I have also come to see that we share far more in common than we often realize, even in the heat of our differences.]

Scripture: Romans 1:18-2:5

I had originally intended to share a message grappling with the topic of homosexuality in the last series of sermons I preached called “When Christians Get It Wrong… and How to Get It Right Again.” But then things like surgery got in the way. And of course, none of my stand-in speakers wanted to touch that topic with a ten-foot pole!

Yet God has a way of continually showing me that nothing is by accident, including this delayed sermon. In the time I was recovering from surgery, two dramatic things concerning homosexuality have happened. In light of these things, I think the time is particularly right for us as Christians to call on the Holy Spirit’s guidance, read up on Scripture, examine again the historic teachings of the Church and take an honest look at the present realities of gay and lesbian people, all so that we can get a grip on what we believe concerning homosexuality. Just as importantly, we need to understand how to live those beliefs with our gay and lesbian family members, friends, and neighbors.

The first dramatic thing to happen occurred at the beginning of this month– a statement of counsel prepared by 33 retired bishops of the United Methodist Church. They are asking for the removal of this statement from our Book of Discipline:

“…The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.” ¶304.3

They understand this statement to be embarrassing, insensitive, and discriminatory towards gay and lesbian men and women who demonstrate the necessary graces, fruits, and abilities to be ordained clergy.

It’s important to understand a few things about this statement. Because it’s crafted by a group of bishops, it does carry a lot weight and importance. However, bishops cannot change our church’s stances and policies. That is left to our General Conference, a body of elected clergy and laity who meet every four years primarily to edit and update our denomination’s Book of Discipline, which alone articulates our policies, protocols, and procedures. In the mean time, this statement’s gravity cannot and will not be ignored.

Then only a few weeks later, some historic legislation has been moving through Maryland’s state government. Just this past week, the Maryland Senate Judicial Proceedings committee approved a bill for a Senate vote that would legalize same-sex marriage in Maryland. Up until this point, the Maryland Senate had been one vote shy the filibuster-proof majority it would need to end the debate and vote. State Senator Jim Rosapepe, our state Senator, has agreed to be that deciding vote. That all but assures passage of this bill through the Senate. The House of Delegates is expected to pass the bill, and Governor O’Malley has promised to sign the bill into law. When that happens, Maryland would become the sixth state in our country to legalize same-sex marriage.

It almost goes without saying that this is a very, very emotionally charged issue. Why? It’s because we’re dealing with the fundamental aspects of our humanity: love, relationships, marriage, and family. For us Christians, we’re also talking the role of the Bible in defining sexuality, what is sin and not sin, and how the pages of Scripture might possibly speak to the experiences of gay and lesbian people.

When talking to Christians about homosexuality, especially when events such as I’ve mentioned unfold, there tend to be three distinct responses.

One Christian response strongly affirms the rights and dignity of gay and lesbian people. This response believes that gay and lesbian people are made in God’s image and are therefore of sacred worth to God. They were born, at no fault of their own, with a propensity to be attracted to people of the same gender, something that is therefore not a sin but an essential make-up of their being, no less than heterosexual people. The most important aspect of the Bible to them is Jesus’ treatment of all people and the fact that he never condemns homosexual relations. In fact, he embraced and included people whom the religious community rejected for being sinful or unclean.

Another Christian response, just as passionate but very different, is condemnation of homosexuality– not of gay and lesbian people as people, but of homosexual attractions and relationships. They too affirm that gay and lesbian people are made in God’s image and are therefore of sacred worth to God. Yet in reading the Bible, they see several passages, including the Romans passage above that denounce homosexual relations as an act of sin. They believe, based on their reading of Scripture, that God designed sexuality exclusively to be shared between a man and a woman.

Then there is a third Christian response that often goes under the radar. This response doesn’t really see this issue as all that important, or doesn’t quite know what to think about something as complicated and controversial as homosexuality. These Christians would be content to see that all people are loved and respected by one another, understanding that God loves each of us, especially when we fail to love God and others as we should.

Overall though, I believe that Christians have done a pretty terrible job dealing with the issue of homosexuality and our differences over this issue. We have been stuck in a fierce debate for close to 40 years. Each side as demonized the other for being unloving, ungodly, compromising the gospel, and causing division in the Church.

Not only that, but when young adults are asked to describe Christians and the Church, one statistic shows that 91% would describe us as anti-gay. The reality is, right or wrong, young people understand homosexuality much differently than their parents and grandparents do. In my personal experience, I know many people, young and old, who will have nothing to do with the Church primarily because they perceive us to be anti-gay.

In our church, I’ve talked to enough people to realize that we have very diverse opinions on homosexuality which encompass all three of the above Christian responses I just mentioned. So I realize that no matter what I teach regarding homosexuality, I risk upsetting some people. Therefore, I believe that we must commit to some critical things when dealing with this or any other hot-button topic: commit to listening, respecting, and loving each other through the differences we may have. We must continually affirm that the greatest common factor among us is never a conflict but rather Jesus Christ our Lord.

Switching gears, I thought that a good way to teach about homosexuality from my Christian point of view would be to share my own story of how I have arrived at my understandings of homosexuality. I don’t share this in order to ram anything down your throat. I share these things to give you a springboard to formulate your own biblical, Christ-centered views, realizing that at the end of the day, we will most likely remain diverse in our views.

Before coming into the church and becoming a Christian at the age of 18, I had no opinion one way or the other concerning the morality or acceptability of homosexuality. I lived in a world of stereotypes, especially of gay men, but that never formulated into any kind of strong view. Yet when I came into the church, I began to hear my pastor and many others teach and preach from the Bible that homosexuality is condemned as a sin. The Romans 1:18ff passage was certainly one of the main passages that was repeatedly quoted.

Hearing all of this, how could I argue with the Bible, especially if the Bible is God’s Word? So, I took as my point of view that the practice of homosexuality is sinful, and I took it quite stridently, too. I didn’t hate or look down upon gay or lesbian people, nor did I reject them. For me, it was a matter of upholding the authority of biblical standards, and in this case, biblical standards on human sexuality.

As I continued to grow and mature, I began to meet and get to know more and more gay and lesbian people. I began to see first-hand how extraordinarily complex this whole issue is. It’s not a mere matter of whether or not homosexuality is a sin or not, as important as that is. It also has to do with the very complex nature of how and why people are gay. It also involves the question of how Christians relate to and minister with gay people.

I also began to listen to many, many stories, particularly from gay Christians who all shared that they grew up knowing that they were somehow different, that unlike most all their friends, they were attracted to people of the same gender. They prayed and prayed for God to take those feelings away and make them straight. Many even tried straight relationships, and some even married someone of the opposite gender, only to fail at their marriage. In other words, it didn’t seem to be their choice to be gay. In fact, given the choice, many would rather have been straight to avoid all the stigma and rejection from being gay. Finally, they came to accept themselves for who they are, recognizing that God loves and accepts them just as they are.

In reflection, I believe, based on how I read the Scriptures, that God designed sexuality to be shared between a man and a woman and that homosexual attractions and relationships, while not necessarily a conscious choice, is not within God’s plan and intention for human sexuality. The best biblical understanding I can derive comes from that same Romans passage in which Paul attributes homosexuality to be the result of a fallen humanity that has turned away from God. When it comes down to it, I cannot see Scripture affirming homosexuality, only condemning it as outside of God’s will.

However, I do not and I will not teach or preach this belief stridently or often at all. I prefer to get into it as little as possible. And that has been to the dismay of many church members I’ve worked with who would prefer that I become more ardently vocal against homosexuality. I will not.

The fact is, this is a deeply painful issue for me. I have very close family members, friends, and neighbors who are gay and lesbian. I trust and love them very, very much, and I always will. I have listened to many of their stories. As a result, I live every day in a tension between my biblical beliefs and the fact that most often those same beliefs stir up so much hurt within my gay and lesbian friends, family members, and neighbors. I just can’t relinquish my love and embrace of them or my love and embrace of God’s Word. Therefore I live in this constant, painful tension.

I’m also deeply conflicted over the nature of the debate concerning homosexuality. It can get particularly nasty and polarizing. While I vote my conscious whenever I’m asked to, I do not want to contribute to the divisive intensity of the debate. Furthermore, I do not tend to sign on to petitions or take strong public stances on homosexuality.

My God-given role has been to be a peacemaker by attempting to bring about dialogue and understanding between different points of view on homosexuality while seeking an alternative way forward for us Christians to take other than the disparate options offered by either side of the debate. Let me tell you, this has been every bit as difficult as taking a strong public stance on one side or the other. I have been treated as a traitor and a compromiser by some of my conservative friends and colleagues. I’ve been viewed as anti-gay and a bigot by some of my progressive/liberal friends and colleagues. I’ve been called out by both crowds for all the above on the same day, even! Peacemaking has not been an easy road to take… at all.

Yet, all in all, there is something I want you to hear loud and clear. As long as I am pastor of this church, I will not tolerate anyone being turned away, mistreated, demeaned, ostracized, or in any way unloved because of their sexual orientation. If you are gay or lesbian, I will always be your pastor, and this will always be your church as much as you allow us to be. I will always love you, and I will defend you in the face of any attitude that is less than fully loving or accepting of you as a child of God and my sister or brother in the Lord.

I will gently tell you what I believe the truth to be about human sexuality. We may wrestle through that, and sometimes we may both come out of it limping. But I will always embrace you as my brother or sister in Christ. If anything, I’ll learn to hold on to you more tightly and compassionately, as long as you allow me to.

So, how do we as a church get it right when understanding and relating to our gay and lesbian family members, friends, and neighbors?

First, we must always affirm our faith in the Bible as God’s Word and what it teaches while remaining open to listen to the Holy Spirit’s counsel, especially in the voices of others. We must respect the fact that while I believe the way I do, it may severely contradict they way you believe. I may firmly believe you’re wrong, and you may believe the same about me. Yet we must listen to each other. We must especially listen to understand not just what the other believes, but respectfully listen to why they believe what they believe. And who knows? We might actually learn something from the Holy Spirit that would impact our own views!

Secondly, we must live in an unconditional love towards others whose views are different from our own and towards those who are gay and lesbian. As for me, I know I’m doing this well when others who are different from me don’t perceive me as standoffish, guarded, close-minded, holier-than-thou or in any way unable to love and accept them. When I can fully identify myself with them and they sense that, then I know that I’m getting closer to Christ’s unconditional love.

Believe me, that’s not a compromise or a cop out. I’ve learned my methods from none other than Jesus himself. Do you remember when Jesus shared a meal at Matthew’s house? He was there with the notorious ragamuffins of his day: tax-collectors and “sinners”. And of course, the religious people were all over Jesus’ case for that! “Jesus, don’t you know who you’re eating with?” In Jesus day, you only shared a meal with those whom you closely identified as your trusted friends and family. Jesus ate with Matthew and his guests anyway, and I’m pretty sure he wasn’t sitting around arguing with the tax collectors about their unscrupulous tax collecting methods or calling out the sinners for their wrongs. He was simply being with them in an embracing love of God. And that love of God has the power to transform us all, gay or straight, sinners all, into God’s holy people, in God’s time and in God’s way.

In other words, in the turmoil and complexity of these tumultuous times and debates, it really does come down to asking that simple question, “What would Jesus do?” By God’s grace, we endeavor to do it, and we discover the abundance of life that comes from living like Jesus.

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The Donor Who Became a Recipient

If life has a constant most of us could agree to, it’s the Forrest Gump Principle: “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.” How true. In my case, what began for me as an opportunity to be a live kidney donor quickly revolved into the humbling experience of becoming a recipient, not of an organ per se, but of other life-giving blessings, both spiritual and physical.

My realization of this revolution began with a conversation I had with Dave, my recipient’s husband, while I was still in the hospital recovering from kidney donation surgery. He and I were talking about the nature of serving versus being served. In my pain medication-induced mental state, I can’t recall how we got into that subject or how it resolved. But I do remember reflecting with Dave on my experiences with the story of Jesus from John 13 which tells how the Lord himself washed his disciples’ feet.

On several occasions, I’ve participated in foot-washing experiences on Maundy Thursday of Holy Week or during small group settings. It’s never a problem for me to wash someone else’s feet. Hey, if it means helping or blessing someone else, sure, I can do that. Sign me up anytime! Yet when it comes time to switch positions and place my feet into the hands of someone who will wash them… well… to be honest that’s a wholly different, and frankly, painfully uncomfortable thing to do. My gut reaction is to smile and discreetly wave it off, saying, “Please don’t bother yourself with that. I can manage for myself, thank you very much.”

But I have had to learn that sitting there while someone washes and dries my feet is a necessarily humiliating experience for me, much like it was for Jesus’ disciple Peter. It’s Jesus’ way of teaching this proudly self-sufficient alpha male that I must make room in my life for others to serve and give to me. It’s Jesus pushing me to realize that I am far more needy than I realize, and that for my soul’s sake, I must yield to the servant Christ within my sister or brother who would lovingly kneel to wash my feet.

Little would I know, the opportunity to relearn this figurative experience in real life began to happen the day after I came home from kidney donation surgery. On the afternoon of that next day, I started to get some serious GI rectal bleeding that cost me an immediate return trip to the hospital. (Side note: I won’t bore or gross you out with lots of medical details except to say that the bleeding stopped. After three major tests produced no conclusive results, I ended up back home with instructions to follow-up with my primary care doctor.) Yet those miserable five days back in the hospital shaped into a defining wilderness experience I never want to repeat, but whose lessons I hope to keep closely.

I had lost so much blood that I required two units of blood. Never having needed a blood transfusion before, I wasn’t sure what to expect. All I knew was that my condition was worse and even more life-threatening than I knew. As I laid there in the hospital bed gazing up at each bag of blood that was slowly draining into my body, it occurred to me that this was no manufactured IV fluid or medicine. This was created and then voluntarily taken out of someone else’s body, and now it was flowing into mine. Someone freely donated this blood and at that moment, it was saving my life.

For the next couple of hours I looked up at one unit of blood and then the other, trying to imagine the faces of those anonymous donors. Several nights later I had a strange dream about that very thing. In my dream the first unit was given by a stay-home mother of four who donates regularly to her local Red Cross donation center. Then I dreamed that the second unit was donated by an African-American man who happened to walk into a blood drive hosted by a local church. It doesn’t much matter to me how true the dream was. The dream painted a greater reality of both the diversity and the generosity of people who donate blood. Two people, each giving a pint of blood, saved my life.

If that wasn’t leveling enough, I certainly wasn’t prepared for what I experienced next. While I was in the hospital and every day since, my family and I have been bathed in a steady stream of prayers, cards, and meals. Folks have given expressions of concern and love over the phone, by e-mail, on Facebook, in good-old-fashioned hand-written notes. Occasionally, we’ve gotten warm, short visits from friends and family. We have been carried along by the hands, voices, and hearts of hundreds and hundreds of people. I’m not sure how to put into words how deeply moving all of this has been. (Even that last bit of dribble seems so hopelessly cliché!)

I even had agnostic and atheist friends tell me that they would pray for my recipient Ann and me, since they knew it would mean something to us. Spiritually speaking, it doesn’t get much more selfless than that, especially for people who don’t believe in a deity, much less any form of prayer. If only more of us believers could be so thoughtfully giving…

So, here I sit, pondering all of this, my feet being gently washed by countless people. I struggle to put into some kind of meaningful expression the impact of tables turning, of the donor who quickly became a recipient. All I can say is thank you. Thank you for breathing restorative life into me and for the profound lessons your gifts continually teach me. In you and in the giving of your very selves, I have seen the face of Jesus Christ, who “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to offer his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

Again, I offer my love and thanks to God and for God in you!

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Lessons Learned While Staying Home from Church

It had never happened to me before: Blairlee and kids heading over to church while I stayed home. That may not seem so out of place for some of you, but considering I’m the pastor of the church, believe me, I felt way out of place. Granted, recovering from surgery is an excellent excuse to take a Sunday off. And I had no worries, either. An awesome guest preacher and a well-abled group of laity lead things along just fine without me.

But I’m glad an oddball couple of couple hours on a Sunday morning didn’t go to waste. In fact, they opened up an opportunity I otherwise wouldn’t have had, especially if I was simply away on vacation. My friend Bill came over for a while. Before he came, Bill asked me, “Hey, you’re not going to drag me over to church are you?” I told him not to worry. After all, the pastor’s on medical leave.

I’ve known Bill for almost four years now. He’s in his 20’s, a maverick, extremely intelligent with an entrepreneurial streak, and a natural ability to affably connect with people of all kinds. I’ve always deeply enjoyed our conversations. His keen insights and quick mind never fail to keep me on my toes. And I think more than most any person, Bill has taught me well about the gifts and perils of  today’s church.

Bill was raised Roman Catholic and after getting completely fed up with the church sometime in his teen years, he quit going and became fiercely agnostic. Then, when Bill was 17 or 18, a youth-young adult pastor from a local church befriended him, loved and accepted him, and over time led him to Christ. Bill’s passion, talents, keen mind, and people skills quickly led him into ministry opportunities. He became an effective youth and young adult leader, teacher, and mentor.

When I met Bill while working in my extension office (Starbucks), he was discipling well over a dozen guys in his house, guys who were either Christian, marginally Christian, or just curiously spiritual. Few of them had any kind of church affiliation, but they loved and trusted Bill. If there was anyone who could befriend and engage young guys like these and disciple them to follow Jesus, it was Bill. I always marveled that God was using this guy to reach and disciple people I’d never even have a slim shot of reaching.

But Bill’s keen insight and maverick streak never let him sit too comfortably in church. If there’s even a shadow of inauthenticity or insincerity, Bill will sniff it out, then resist it or leave it. In that way, he resembles most young adults in today’s post-Christendom culture. Turned off by self-perpetuating, non-Christlike attitudes and ways of the church and church people, they’ve either abandoned Christianity altogether or are being disciples of Jesus on their own, often in alternative modes like informal small groups or house churches (without calling it “church”).

As Sunday School and worship carried on as usual at my church, Bill and I sat together in my home talking about faith and church. He’s struggling right now, and I try as best as I can to be in the struggle with him. On the one hand, Bill has discovered and still rigorously embraces the biblical message of Jesus Christ. He loves philosophy and the historic thinking and writing of great Christian thinkers, particularly in the Reformed tradition. Bill even believes in the Holy Spirit-ordained and created collection of Christ’s disciples called “the Church.”

Yet Bill is completely disgusted with just about all the current manifestations of congregational-style church and wider church culture (such as Christian marketing, retail/publishing/media industries, and a lot of parachurch organizations). To put it another way, he rejects the concept of an “organized religion” church most people think of: a church building, a structure of leadership headed by a pastor, and the kinds of values, goals, and approaches programmed into the DNA of most such congregations. This is true whether these congregations call themselves traditional or contemporary, old-style or modern, denominational or non-denominational, established or newly planted.

More often than he probably knows, when I think of my church’s ministries, aspirations, methods, and attitudes, Bill’s face and voice come to my mind. I ask myself, “How would Bill react to this? Would he dismiss it as just more-of-the-same churchiness or would he find something authentically Christ-centered?” Now let me say, I love my church, passionately so. I dearly love our people. Our church does a lot of incredibly valuable work that impacts and changes lives, both inside and outside its walls and membership rolls. Yet conversations with Bill continually remind me how far we have yet to go. That reality doesn’t discourage or embitter me so much as keeps my senses sharp and my heart tender to never forget the struggles and challenges of non-believers, young Christians turned off by church, or even my own pre-Christian, unchurched roots.

Following up with Sunday’s visit, I asked Bill to think of three things that would help churches be less churchy and more like Christ. Here’s what he said, raw and unedited:

1. Consistency/Authenticity/Empathy. No matter how hard Christians try to pretend they’re accepting and open, there’s always hot button issues that make Christians turn their nose up, as though they don’t have their own vices or doubts. In a coffee shop, over a private discussion, most Christians are a lot more down to earth. But on a Sunday morning, it’s like a brooding pool of self-righteousness. It’s not always the words that are used (e.g., We’re all sinners… etc.), but more the attitude. Christians need to understand that even their best attempts to be welcoming turn sour because the skeptic or the non-beleiver can feel right away that under the facade, the congregation looks down on their unbelief. Christians have to have empathy for the unbeliever, and remember that not believing is a reasonable position. It doesn’t make them stupid or delusional.

2. Substance. It’s very un-church like to deliver messages tackling, or at least attempting to tackle, challenging issues. But that’s what I want, that’s what my generation wants. Substance.

3. Showmanship. The whole process of church is a production. In the landscape of our culture, church almost always looks like a wonky, low-fi version of a preachy high-school play. How are people in attendance supposed to respond with honesty to something that looks, feels and sounds like entertainment. I’m talking about everything, from the size of the congregation and their seating arrangements, to the posture of the preacher, to the stage, to the lights, to the sound-system, down to the fact that people are seated in an audience, looking foreword at other people ‘leading’ something that is supposed to be for God, but to any objective eye looks more like a show. Why aren’t all these things out of sight? If ‘church’ is all about Jesus, then it should really, really be all about Jesus. Include only those things that support that end. And no, watching someone on stage ‘worship’ is not a viable excuse. It’s a crutch. (e.g., perhaps painting helps me worship, but where is the worship if I need to paint to do so?)

So, I stayed home, but I think Bill and I had Church together in a way I don’t often get to enjoy. It was brutally honest, painfully sincere, and truly all about Christ and one another. I can’t speak for Bill, but I certainly parted with him closer to God and encouraged. So, thank you, Bill, for bringing Church to me while opening my eyes a little wider to the pitfalls and potentials of being the Church of Jesus Christ in 2011.

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