Show Them the Ocean (A Challenge to Christians and to the Church)

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Going to the beach is like meeting God.

There’s that moment when you make your way down the path that cuts through the dunes. As you walk further, the quiet noise in the distance gradually becomes a welcome roar. You crane your neck as if unsure it’s all still there. Your pace quickens as the sound rises and the wind grows, and suddenly you’re emptied out into the full, vivid majesty of it all. 

And you breathe.

It never fails to level you.
It is never commonplace.
It is always holy ground.

I know that if you’ve been there, you understand exactly what I mean.
I also know that if you haven’t—well you just don’t.

That’s the thing about the ocean: until you experience it no one can explain it to you, and once you have experienced it no one needs to.

The love of God is this way.

For far too long, Christians have been content with telling people about the ocean and believing that is enough.

We’ve spoken endlessly of a God whose lavish, scandalous love is beyond measure, whose forgiveness reaches from the furthest places and into our deepest personal darkness. We’ve spun gorgeous, fanciful tales of a redeeming Grace that is greater than the worst thing we’ve done and available to anyone who desires it. We’ve spoken of a Church that welcomes the entire hurting world openly with the very arms of Jesus.

We’ve talked and talked and talked— and much of the time we’ve been a clanging gong, our lives and shared testimony making a largely loveless noise in their ears.

They receive our condemnation.
They know our protests.
They experience our exclusion.
They endure our judgment.
They encounter our bigotry.

And all of our flowery words begin to ring hollow. It’s little wonder they eventually choose to walk away from the shore, the idea not compelling enough to pursue as delivered through our daily encounters with them.

Church, the world doesn’t need more talking from us. It doesn’t need our sweet platitudes or our eloquent speeches or our passionate preaching or our brilliant exegesis. These are all just words about the ocean and ultimately they fail to adequately describe it.

The world needs the goodness of God incarnated in the flesh of the people who claim to know this good God.

As they meet us, they need to come face to face with radical welcome, with uncaveated love, with counter intuitive forgiveness. They need to experience all of this in our individual lives and in the Church, or they will decide that it is all no more than a beautiful, but ultimately greatly exaggerated story about sand and waves and colors that cannot be described.

Church, stop talking about love while living such bitterness.
Stop speaking of Grace while offering so little of it.
Stop preaching mercy while withholding so much of it.

Be quiet and simply love people the way Christ commands you to love them.
That is how they will know him.
This is the experience that transcends any words.
This is the place that is always holy ground.

Christian, stop talking.

Look people in the eye, take them by the hand, and with your very life—show them the ocean.

Why Being LGBTQ IS “God’s Best” for LGBTQ People

PrayingMan

I was already thirty minutes into an ever-intensifying conversation with my then Senior Pastor, about the many LGBTQ students in our student ministry who were clearly becoming a source of mild discomfort for some concerned older folks in our community. After a frustrating half hour of evasive theological language, a good deal of hair-splitting semantics, and lots of vague non answers, I finally just laid it all out there:

“So, what exactly do you want me to say to these kids?” I asked.

He replied flatly, “Tell them that this is not God’s best for them.” 

I’d heard that phrase hundreds of times before; from pastors and Christian speakers, from church friends and parents in our community. I’d heard it so many times in fact, that it had become religious white noise that I barely noticed. Yet this time, in this very moment I suddenly realized that it didn’t ring true for me anymore. It was no longer a good enough response. It actually felt more like a lie—and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to say it to hurting kids any longer.

That was the day that I became a fully LGBTQ-affirming pastor, though it would take years to get up the nerve to admit it to myself, let alone to anyone else.

I’d already long ago wrestled through the “clobber passages” in the Bible regarding homosexuality and had come to the conclusion that they had no relevance to a modern understanding of gender identity or sexual orientation; nothing of consequence to say about the inherent moral value of someone born LGBTQ. Now though, I started to recognize the way the Church was damaging young people in the gay community, even while using language that on the surface appeared compassionate and tolerant. As that great poet James Brown used to say: Like a dull knife, you just ain’t cuttin’. You’re takin’ loud, not sayin’ nothin’. 

Telling someone that their identity and orientation are “not God’s best for them” is really a clever cop-out; an attempt to seem both benevolent and firm, kind but faithful, sinner-loving but sin-despising. 

In reality though the phrase smacks of laziness, allowing the speaker to:
– avoid engaging the Scriptures thoroughly and thoughtfully regarding complex matters of sexuality.
– ignore what Science has been speaking clearly to us on these matters.
– sidestep what a practical working out of the statement really means as it relates to things like ministry involvement and open, committed relationships for LGBTQ Christians in the Church.

In other words, those who are saying this phrase to and of the LGBTQ community don’t usually mean that these people are living a life that is less than God intends for them (because this is impossible to determine), it means that they are not willing to fully welcome these folks in their churches without eventual change. It is ultimately a devaluing of people disguised as affirmation: “I believe God wants better for you, and I will demand that you ultimately agree with me in order for you to remain here in good standing.”

Telling any human being that something fundamental and involuntary about them is not God’s best for them, leaves them in the tragic position of believing that they themselves are inherently less-than. It births a lifetime of self-loathing and guilt that suffocates a soul rather than giving it life. It makes people feel alienated from the rest of the faith community (who, curiously already apparently have God’s best).

The logical follow-through to such a position is to ask LGBTQ people to change (however that is supposed to work) or to be celibate; to live a life without intimacy and companionship and the deepest connections with another. I don’t believe those are things we can impose on other people.

Jesus speaks in Scripture that he comes so that we can have an experience of “abundant life”, but he doesn’t succinctly describe what that looks like, and we would be foolish to determine his meaning for anyone else. God works in and around and through people as God desires, and this is never our jurisdiction.

Here’s what I do know about “God’s best” for people:

God’s best for people is not isolation or denial or exclusion or conditional acceptance.

God’s best for people is authenticity; the truest truth about who they are.
God’s best for people is being free to love and be loved, to know and be known, to care and be cared for.
God’s best for people is them recognizing they bear the very likeness of God.
God’s best for people is being allowed to spend a lifetime alongside someone they love.
God’s best for people is being able to participate fully in the life of the greater Church and the local church of their choosing.
God’s best for people is them realizing that they are inherently good because that is their default condition.
God’s best for people is to not have to continually overcome Christians just to get to Jesus. 

It’s the height of arrogance to assume that the manner in which someone loves is up for another’s debate. I’ll never tell an LGBTQ person that their gender identity or sexual orientation are not God’s best for them, because I simply do not believe that to be at all true.

And I trust that the God who made them—already knows what is best for them and speaks more clearly to them on these matters than to anyone else.

As for me, it is enough in my lifetime to devote my energies to determining what God’s best is for me—and if I am to believe Jesus, it all starts and ends with loving all people as I desire to be loved. 

Go and do likewise.

I’m Boycotting Fear

No fear concept, word on grungy blackboard

You can boycott Target if you want to, friend. 

I’m not going to try and change your mind anymore.

I’m not going to argue with you.

As for me, I’m boycotting something else.

I’m boycotting fear.

I am also emphatically saying “no.”

I am saying no to manufactured bathroom battles that distract me from the work of loving people, of encouraging them, of seeing them; the work of compassion and equality to which I am called.

I am saying no to the politics of fear that imagine a thousand terrors lurking in restrooms and around corners, to perpetuate the necessary narrative of a sky that is always falling.

I am saying no to cheap religion that needs an ever-encroaching enemy in order to give itself life and to stimulate zeal and to make itself feel valid.

I am saying no to the faith of least resistance, that eschews the difficult and the complex conversations, in favor of stark black and white caricatures of the righteous and the wicked, of the inside and outside.

I am saying no to the myths that we are at war with one another, that we are all that different, that there are any real sides to take that fully separate us.

I am saying no to the lie that our women and children are in danger, and that the only way to protect them is to damage someone else.

I am saying no to “religious liberty” that makes someone else less free. 

I am saying no to an impotent spirituality that is so easy threatened by people and circumstance, that it always requires violent defense.

I am saying no to a weaponized, politicized Christianity that has so very little regard or need for the compassionate, merciful ways of Jesus anymore.

I am a person of deep faith, saying “yes” to what my faith is supposed to be a yes to.

It’s a yes to loving people as I desire to be loved.

It’s a yes to healing more wounds than I inflict. 

It’s a yes to yielding to the needs of others before my own.

It’s a yes to making the world more decent because of my presence.

It’s a yes to honoring the inherent worth of every person I share this space with.

It’s a yes to moving to the margins to meet people there who are unheard and unseen and hurting.

It’s a yes to sharing whatever I have been blessed with; whether ease or comfort or opportunity or privilege.

It’s a yes to defaulting to humility instead of arrogance with those who oppose me.

It’s a yes to building bridges and not walls between people.

It’s a yes to laying down being right if it makes me more loving. 

It’s a yes to remembering the humanity of people, even when I disagree with them. 

It’s a yes to being louder about the beauty I see out there than about the ugliness. 

It’s a yes to finding the goodness in the world and giving it a boost wherever I can.

And it’s a yes to recognizing that a faith without love—isn’t worth squat.

I am doing my best in these days to abstain from all that is unloving and bitter and divisive.

So you can choose not to shop somewhere if you deem that a worthy path.

You can choose to withhold or withdraw or condemn as a matter of conscience.

I am choosing a different path.

I am targeting bigotry.

I am boycotting fear and I’m putting all my money down on Love.

That is what my faith requires of me.

That’s the greatest stand worth taking.

It’s the gutsiest choice I can make.

It’s the boldest move there is.

And it’s far stronger than fear.

I’m told that love casts fear out;

of my heart,

of the Church,

and even of the bathroom.

I’m going to believe that.

 

 

 

American Christians Should Stop Hoarding Liberty

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A year ago I attended a rally in downtown Raleigh, in protest of North Carolina House Bill Two and of the discrimination it manufactures and nurtures in our state.

It was a moving, life-affirming, hope-giving experience, but what stood out most was the incredible diversity of those gathered: of race, religion, gender identity, age, sexual orientation—noticeably more diverse than the houses of worship most Americans will visit this weekend. It was a gathering that reflected not just the vast population of our country, but I believe, the kaleidoscopic complexity of Heaven.

Standing in this extraordinary space, it occurred to me that this wasn’t at all an anti-Christian or anti-religion gathering, as many would probably like to frame it in the public discourse, where the politics of fear is priority one for some sharing my faith tradition. This was a deeply spiritual gathering, with ministers and public servants all sharing their strong religious convictions, and why those convictions have led them to this place of passionately defending the rights of all people.

I realized then just how far so much American Christianity has drifted from Jesus in its message and manner, but I caught a fresh breeze of hope too. I looked around yesterday and recognized the faith that I first was drawn to.

This is where Christians are supposed to be. They are supposed to be standing with the oppressed and the marginalized. They are supposed to be defending the rights of those without power or numbers or a voice. Wherever any people made in the image of God are being treated as less-than, Christians should be the most visible, the most vocal, the most present in condemning it. Instead we are so many times, either silent in the face of injustice or perpetuating it.

We American Christians love to invoke the ideas of Freedom and Liberty, but usually only when they suit our preferences and our plans. We will rail and rally with ferocity and boldness when we feel we are being denied such things in the most inconsequential ways. But when it comes to affording the same fundamental personal liberty to others, especially those we don’t understand or approve of, we become alarmingly tight-lipped and closed-fisted. Then we withhold both Justice and Grace with little remorse.

Far too many American Christians desire all the spoils of both Christianity and America, and yet seek to deny them to the LGBTQ community, to people of color, to low-income families, to non-Christians.

In short, we want to be Jesus to ourselves and Pharaoh to everybody else; abundantly blessed but hard-hearted and unwilling to share the wealth.

Ironically, many of the same Christian people who claim to love and respect the Constitution, seem fairly passionate about preventing other people their “Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness”; marriage, equal employment opportunity, healthcare access, church participation, use of the bathroom—things like that.

It’s a bad look for a Christian.

It’s a bad look for an American.

It betrays both the very heart of Jesus and the foundations of our country: the idea that there is inherent worth and dignity in every person, and that each should be able to live unrestrained into the fullness of this truth.  

The ideals of Equality and Freedom on which America were built are indeed fairly beautiful, but only if all people get to benefit from them identically.

And the barrier-breaking, expectation-defying, peace-making, least-loving message of Jesus is such very good news, but only when it is allowed to come to full fruition in the people and in the Church that bears his name.

We need to set Freedom free, because when we do, America is the best of itself and Christianity better reflects the image of Jesus.

Right now, neither is happening and we have only ourselves to blame.

There is a far better way.

Stop hoarding Liberty, Christians.

It belongs to everyone.