When All the Outcasts are Called in

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We’ve all known what it feels to be an outcast.

The sting of being pushed to the periphery by people we love and expect love from, is unlike any pain we can ever encounter, because it is injury at the exclusion, combined with the grief at what we’ve lost in the process—proximity. We remember what used to be, how we once felt, where we used to belong. We find ourselves alone and holding solitary vigil for what has died too soon.

The Church produces outcasts far too well.

It tends to create distance with those people who are too something; too messy, too loud, too rough-edged, too needy, too conservative, too left-leaning, too outspoken, too political. We force them from our presence, withhold fellowship from them, and deny forgiveness to them—all in the name of a Jesus who we’ve repeatedly told them loves them. The cognitive dissonance this creates in people is enough to level them, and to distort their image of God for good.

For all sorts of reasons, many of us have been made to feel we are misfits in the places where the people of God gather. A doubt we’ve expressed, a decision we’ve made, or a belief we no long hold, all become barriers. Sometimes this is explicitly stated, and other times it is eloquently spoken in silence and separation. Both are equally devastating and equally wrong.

Because I have good news for all of us religious misfits: Despite what we may have been told—we do fit.

All the outcasts are invited in. Jesus says so. That is the heart of the story. That is the Gospel.

The table of Jesus was scandalously open. He dined with priest and prostitute, with the religious elite and the common rabble, with the spiritual teachers and the street people. And this is the Jesus we are all invited to sit with; without condition, without caveat, without any further renovation. 

This elemental truth is so very easy to miss:

Sometimes pastors don’t get it.
Sometimes churches blow it.

Sometimes denominations miss it.
Sometimes it evades the heart of evangelists. 
Sometimes other Christians lose sight of it.
Sometimes we forget it.

But it is still the invitation. It is still the irreducible core of Christianity for those who wish to claim it: the radical hospitality of a perfect love that overcomes it all; our mess, our mistakes, our deepest flaws and most spectacular failures.

When a church or a heart has been fully saturated with the love of Jesus, there can be no outcasts in their midst. There will be no place to banish others to, because they will recognize there is no outside to be defined. When the Church or a Christian gets this kind of love right, the world is radically included. Everyone fits. They become in-casts.

This is what you need to know, friend.

Despite what any person says, or what any pastor’s told you, or what you’ve read online on—you have not been cast out, you have been called in:

to relationship,
to fellowship,
to forgiveness,

to love,
to grace.

The door is wide open and no one gets to keep you from entering in and having the run of the beautiful house; with its rooms packed floor to ceiling with goodness that you don’t have to earn or deserve or win.

The day you realize that is the day you’ll no longer wish you could find a home in your own skin—you’ll already be there.

 

Exit Interviews: What I Wish My Former Pastor Knew, Part 1

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Note from John:

I’m very fortunate that I have a venue for my voice to be heard, and realize that most people do not. As a pastor, I spend a great deal of my days listening to people’s stories and trying to speak and write in such a way that those stories are represented in the world—and particularly in the Church.

I asked my readers a simple question, and the responses have been overwhelming in number, and in the depth of faith and pain they reflect. I believe they deserve to heard be directly, and over the next couple of weeks I will share as many as I can. I hope they will minister to you, that they will bring some comfort and encouragement. I hope you’ll realize how very not-alone you are in your desire to pursue faith in the tension between God and organized religion.

And if you’re a faith leader in any capacity, I hope you’ll sift these words to find the ones that resonate and reveal to you the ways you might better do the important, life-giving work you are called to do. 

As you read, resist the temptation to refute or argue anyone’s response. Simply listen and allow each person’s experience to weigh the same.

The question was: If you’re no longer in a church or struggle with the one you’re a part of—what do you wish your pastor/priest/minister/leader knew?

I want your message from the pulpit to be the least important thing you do for the week. I want to know that you see me, not just as a body on Sunday morning. Not just as someone who has something to give. I want to know that you see me and know my story. Nothing you have to say on Sunday morning counts, If I do not feel know and supported on the journey I am on. And I want you to give me permission to be on a journey, to be seeking. I don’t want to have to follow your rule book or listen to the answers you pull out of your playbook. I want permission to find my way. I want you to listen. And maybe even be open to learning from me in the way that I want to learn from you.

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I wish my former pastor knew is that my sexuality didn’t deter my love for ministry. If anything, it made it much stronger.

_______

That instead of working so hard to save people’s souls for the next life, I would like to see them working just as hard to help people during this life.

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That their complete silence towards me since I’ve left had hurt more than anything they might have said while I was there.

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That mercy and grace are indispensable when building community…
That we have all sinned and fallen short….
That doubt can foster growth…
That it is not a zero-sum game…
That where ever one finds love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control, the Holy Spirit is there…
That I still want lovely things for them…

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I want them to know that I can’t come back until their love feels like love; when it validates and heals rather than condemns, when they treat me like a person instead of a project.

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Eighty percent of every church’s beliefs come from the culture around it, whether they conform or define themselves by nonconformity. Their beliefs follow or fight against trends in politics, the economy, changing social norms. What we believe and how we act rarely has anything to do with God, so let’s stop acting like every bit of dogma is God’s honest truth—and make some room for people.

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I wish the pastor of my Catholic church could understand how hard it is for me to attend Mass with my Transgender son in light of Pope Francis’ recent remarks. I wish he knew how I sat there in bitterness, resentful of having to tithe to an organization so intent on rejecting people like my young child. I wish the pastor could be brave enough to outwardly love and support the LGBTQ community, and even start a group so that we didn’t have to feel so alone. I wish the pastor could preach about how although not all Catholics might agree, we still deserve the same love and respect, not condemnation

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I would like my former pastor to know how free I am. He said when our family left his church that we were headed to destruction, but in fact we have never experienced more joy and freedom than we do now. I would like him to know that he is the one in bondage. Not only is he in bondage, he is putting chains of bondage on each and every one of his members. The damage he has done (in the name of Jesus) is irreparable. I want to believe in Jesus still, but the Jesus I was taught of doesn’t look anything like the Jesus you speak of.  “I like your Jesus…”

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I wish they knew how hurtful it is to receive emails inviting me to conversion therapy classes.

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I wish he knew I am not ‘back sliding’ or lost the plot or lost my faith in Christ. I really wish after 10 years and starting a ministry that I was worth a phone call or coffee date to say, “Hey, you ok? I see you and your family have left and we miss you, and if you want to share I would love to know why you left and if you guys are okay.” I wish he knew the cost of losing my church family and I wish he knew that all those people who have left are not just the trash taking themselves out, but people worth something.

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I wish they knew how the church’s overt sexism and bi-phobia, and eventually its rape apologetics caused me to feel more pain and anguish in the community than away from the community. That after 20 years since leaving Christianity, I still do not feel safe or welcome as a human being in the church, let alone loved. I am happier keeping my distance.

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I wish my pastor knew about how vulnerable I was at the time (as a teen), and how much I needed him to be who I thought he was. I wish he knew that I had caught on to every attempt at manipulation, every subtle mention of the situation at the podium, and every condescending tone of voice he used with me. I wish he knew how damaging that behavior was to my ability to trust people in a critical age of my life. And I wish he knew that my refusal to go back to any church is due to his hunger for power, not because I was a “confused sheep” that was led astray.

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I wish you knew how hard it was for me to walk away from a ministry that I would have done for free. I wish you would remember who you are as a godly man, swallow your pride, and seek my forgiveness. I wish you knew that it was because of your ungodliness that I have a very hard time trusting male leaders. I wish you knew there are no titles in the kingdom of God that we are all equal. There is no brotherhood or sisterhood—only friendship.”

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That God works in ways beyond our own understanding.  Just because we don’t understand something, it doesn’t mean that God doesn’t have His hands on a life that desperately wants to love and worship. No one believed Paul when he first spoke of the grace that changed his heart.  We who are gay or transgender can indeed be used and used effectively. All they need to do is give us a damn chance.

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I wish my pastor knew how hurt I am by him not being the friend he advertised himself to be.

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That hate drives young people away. Fear (“You’re going to burn if you don’t do x,y, and z . . .”) is very off-putting. It may have worked in the past. Not now.

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I would like them to know that having questions, experiencing doubts and being uncertain about things the church is teaching, does not necessarily equal spiritual immaturity. No one comes right out and says that you are spiritually immature because you are struggling with things like the concepts of Heaven and Hell, or substitutionary atonement, or the inerrancy of the bible, or the sovereignty of God etc., but when they kindly offer to pray that God will make these things clear to you, what they are really saying is that they hope you settle down soon and get back to seeing things the way they do.

 I think it would help if pastors stopped saying everything from the pulpit with so much certainty, if Christians were taught fewer answers and trained more in the skill of asking good questions, if the local church would be a little more humble about what they know and hold to be true, if it would not be considered heresy to think or believe differently in their midst, and if more people in the church believed that right living is more important than right doctrine.

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Our Episcopal Church is full of former Catholics and many many gay former Catholics. I often wonder if my Catholic priests and bishops know this. Do they see the good that we do and the glory it brings? Do they realize that so many of us would have been the priests and sisters that they so sorely need? Do they see that we are living out our Catholic faith through the Episcopal church because that is where we can truly be ourselves. Do they miss us? And beyond wondering if they see or know this or miss us, I want to know if they care that we are gone? Do they wish it was different? Are they fighting to change things and make things right from the inside?

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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.

 

 

 

Blasted are the Peacemakers

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Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. – Jesus

The longer you live and communicate for a living on social media, the more you come to accept a fairly reliable truth: discord sells.

Our minds are bombarded with hundreds of thousands of messages every day, all clamoring for our attentions and affections, all seeking to occupy the same increasingly crowded bit of real-estate for a few precious seconds.

And when it comes to breaking through the virtual din, nothing moves the needle quite like conflict.

As a result most people (Christians included) welcome it, nurture it, and if needed—we manufacture it. This is true of faith-based bloggers, big time pastors, celebrity evangelists, savvy politicians, and Christian folks looking to grow their brands and ministries.

All too often we who claim Christ are as divisive and antagonistic and combative out here as anyone, and I’ll be the first to cop to it and repent of it. Sure, we name drop Jesus but we’ll take you out in a flurry of tell offs and put downs while we do it. It’s a startling easy trap to fall into: begin by obeying a noble, sacred calling but end up chasing the cheap aphrodisiac of page views and post impressions.

And it would all be perfectly fine—except, Jesus.

Reading the words called the Beatitudes, which begin the most famous sermon attributed to him, there is a quiet calm on display; a dignity and gentleness that now sound foreign to our ears and easily become white noise fading off into the background. They’re actually radical, counterintuitive invitations—but they don’t generate enough heat to register that way anymore.
 
I’m afraid that if Jesus were on social media today, most Christians wouldn’t follow him. 

His posts would likely be buried in relative obscurity beneath loud, flashing layers of shade-throwing and name calling—written off as trite, religious, bleeding heart pabulum. He’d certainly never hope to go viral with that played out, hackneyed, “love one another” schtick—that snowflake. He’d surely be called a heretic by pulpit-pounding Bible Belt Evangelicals, with his “what you do to the least you have done to me” guilt trip B.S.

In fact, try and echo the soft heart of the Beatitudes these days, and you’ll find most Christians aren’t all that interested. Nothing sexy there. No juice. No bombast. No fireworks. Worse, it seems the louder people become in their call for compassion, the more they advocate for decency, and the greater they elevate humility—the more likely they are to get soundly destroyed by a chorus of sneering trolls, accusing them of watering down the Gospel. Christlike love now gets shouted down in the streets by the angry mob of our collective outrage.

So much of our modern spiritual experience runs on negativity that it’s become a core value. Take a look around. Remove the anger from many Christian’s social media expression of faith or from the platform of most Conservative Republicans and you’ll often find there isn’t a whole lot left. Ironically the more commonplace controversy and enmity become in our public faith discourse, the less interesting Jesus seems to become to us—and yet the more necessary he is.

The quiet goodness of the Jesus of the gospels is the clear antidote to the chest-beating, pot-stirring, dying-to-go-viral vanity that we mistake for fervent faith; his steady benevolence a dying language as we all grow more fluent in bitterness; his love for the other, the only remedy to American Nationalistic religious venom. 

When Jesus’ goodness and humility really take root in us, our inflated egos shrink back to their proper size, the towering facades of self we labor on crumble, and we begin seeking restoration as much as confrontation as we encounter people. We want others to be lifted, cared for, blessed.

The way of Jesus is the movement toward the small and the low places, it is the way of denial and sacrifice and yielding to another, it is the path of mercy giving and peacemaking.

This way is beautiful and filled with “life that is truly life”—but maybe that isn’t enough to grab us anymore. 

To hell with the peacemakers, war is doing better business these days.