KOH2RVA: Day 236

Portrait of young boyNot long ago I had coffee with a church member who put it bluntly: “What do you think about homosexuality?” We had been talking about the recent decision of Ginter Park Baptist Church to ordain an openly gay man and she wanted to know where I stood on the issue.

I was caught a little off guard, so I asked, “What do you think about it?” She said, “I think it’s a sin.”

And that got the conversation started.

I can’t remember everything I said in just the way I said it, but I’ll try to capture the gist of the conversation below, and maybe even add a few thoughts. I said:

“I don’t think it’s a sin to be homosexual, but the Bible is pretty clear about homosexual behavior. It condemns it. But it also condemns a lot of heterosexual behavior, including adultery and fornication.”

I said, “Some people believe that homosexuality is a choice—that people choose to be gay. I suppose that’s possible. We humans are born sinners. We’re capable of almost anything. But in my conversations with gays and lesbians I haven’t talked to anyone who said they chose to be that way. They sometimes ask me, ‘When did you choose to be heterosexual?’

“The answer, of course, is that I didn’t. I didn’t choose to be this way; I discovered it, and, frankly, when I did I was mortified. I couldn’t believe the thoughts I was having about girls. I had always thought of myself as a ‘good Christian boy,’ but the thoughts I was having didn’t seem good or Christian. They seemed sinful, shameful. In those days I underlined long passages from Romans 7 in my big, green Living Bible, including this one: ‘I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway’ (vss. 18-19).

“That described me perfectly.

“I wept over my sin in those days. I prayed over it. I asked God to forgive me. Now imagine if my sinful, shameful thoughts had not been about girls, but about boys? What would I have done then?

“I don’t think homosexuality is a choice; I think it is a discovery. The question, then, is this: if you discover you are homosexual, what do you do with your homosexuality? It’s not that much different than asking, ‘If you discover you are heterosexual, what do you do with your heterosexuality?’ For me it was the biggest challenge to my Christianity, or maybe just the most obvious one. When the preacher talked about sin I would swallow hard and look away. I knew what he was talking about. But at least I had this promise in front of me: that someday I could get married and express my sexuality in a God-honoring way. The church (and the Bible) would bless that union. The minister would tell me I could kiss my bride. My friends and family would throw rice—a symbol of fertility—a subtle way of telling me to ‘get on with it!’

“But again, what if my thoughts back in those teenage years had been about boys and not girls? There would be no promise of future happiness, no hope of expressing my sexuality in a God-honoring way. I would have to do what I did then—suppress my thoughts and feelings as best I could and tearfully beg for God’s forgiveness when I couldn’t—for the rest of my life.

“That doesn’t seem fair, but my commitment to the authority of Scripture won’t allow me to dismiss the Bible’s teaching on homosexual behavior any more than I can dismiss its teaching on heterosexual behavior. The same Bible that says, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” says, “Thou shalt not lie with a man as with a woman; it is an abomination.”

“I have to deal with that.

“But I also have to deal with this: the young man who grew up at First Baptist Church, who went to Sunday school here, who learned to sing, ‘Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so’—this young man who sits in my study and looks up at me with tears in his eyes, asking, in a trembling voice, ‘Am I an abomination?’

“What do I say to him?”

KOH2RVA:Day 233

confusion4I got a call from Mary Ann Delano yesterday telling me that people had been “confused” by Sunday’s sermon. Mary Ann is the chair of the deacons at First Baptist. When she calls I listen. But I did wonder what people were confused about. I thought the sermon had flown like an arrow through the air toward its crystal-clear conclusion, which was this:

Bless my heart, every time I hear this story (about Peter and Cornelius) it forces me to deal with the possibility that God is willing to accept people I am not, and every time I hear it I need to ask, “Lord, am I calling something ‘unclean’ that you have made clean? And if so, would you show me?”

But I did refer to gay people in the sermon, as an example of those we might have difficulty accepting, and that reference came just a few weeks after I spoke up for a church in the Richmond Baptist Association that ordained an openly gay man. Put those two together and you might jump to the conclusion that the pastor of Richmond’s First Baptist Church was on a crusade of some kind.

Let me be clear: I am not.

But every time I preach from Acts 11:1-18 (the lectionary text for the day, selected months and years before the recent meeting of the Richmond Baptist Association) I seem to get in trouble, and it’s because the text forces us to consider those people we think of as “unclean.” In fact, someone sent me a copy of (Pastor Emeritus) Jim Flamming’s sermon on this same text from 2004—“Who Is Unacceptable to You?”—where he talked about the sheet that came down out of heaven in Peter’s vision, the one with all those unclean animals in it. He said it becomes quickly evident that the point of this vision is not animals but people. “Which people or groups of people do you consider ‘unclean’?” Dr. Flamming asked. “Who would be at the center of your sheet?”

But he didn’t preach that sermon a month after the Richmond Baptist Association had voted to maintain fellowship with a church that ordained an openly gay man, and he didn’t speak up for that church in that meeting. I did, and I can see how some people would make a connection, and think that I was on some sort of crusade.

Let me be clear: I am not.

I don’t think the two are unrelated, but when I spoke up for Ginter Park Baptist Church I was speaking up for the mission of the Richmond Baptist Association. I was trying to say, “Let’s not let the action of one church derail our mission.” Baptist churches are autonomous. We can’t tell them who to ordain and they can’t tell us. But we can work together in spite of our differences for the greater good and that’s what I was arguing for. I was thinking about Camp Alkulana and the three Baptist centers in Richmond that do such good work. I was hoping we wouldn’t lose Ginter Park’s contribution to that mission.

But now I understand some 15 churches are considering leaving the Association because we voted not to kick Ginter Park out. I called the pastor of one of those churches last week—a big church—and asked, “Is it true? Are you going to let the action of one small church cause you to abandon your long-term commitment to the mission of the Richmond Baptist Association? Isn’t that like the tail wagging the dog?”

I tried to imagine why his church would even consider such a thing and in the end decided that it must be fear. The churches that are thinking of pulling out are afraid that if they don’t they will become guilty by association—quite literally—and that everyone will assume they affirm gay ordination. They are afraid that by working with a church they consider “unclean” they, themselves, will become unclean.

That fear of contamination was the same fear that kept the early church from having anything to do with Gentiles until that day on a rooftop in Joppa when God told Peter not to call unclean what he had made clean. Suppose Peter hadn’t gone to the home of Cornelius? Suppose he had been too afraid? God’s mission could have stalled out right there, the Richmond Baptist Association would have never existed, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

I don’t want God’s mission to stall out, and I certainly don’t want it to stall out because of fear, but I also don’t want it to stall out because of confusion. I’ve tried to be clear about why I preached what I preached and why I did what I did. If you have questions or comments please post them below.  In the meantime, let’s get on with our mission.  This is Day 233 of KOH2RVA:

There is good work waiting to be done.

KOH2RVA: Day 211

argument-380x258I had coffee yesterday with a pastor from the area who said some unkind things about me in one of his recent blog posts. A friend in town asked me if I had seen it. I hadn’t, but when I read it my first thought was, “Well, this man just doesn’t know me!”

So, I called him and asked if we could have coffee sometime, and that’s what we ended up doing yesterday afternoon, at the Starbucks on the corner of Broad and Bowe.

The conversation was cordial. We spent some time talking about our families and about our ministry, but eventually we got around to the subject of his blog post, which was the recent decision by the Richmond Baptist Association to allow Ginter Park Baptist Church to maintain its membership, even though it had ordained an openly gay man to the ministry. His argument was that by speaking up for Ginter Park Baptist Church I had affirmed gay ordination.

I didn’t see it that way at all.

I told him that what I was speaking up for was missional partnership, and that it was something that had been reinforced through KOH2RVA. On this year-long, every-member mission trip I have discovered that there are a number of other churches, organizations, and agencies that have a similar mission—in their own ways they, too, are working to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia.

St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, for example, just across the street from First Baptist, has a food pantry for hungry and homeless people. St. Mark’s does church differently than First Baptist. They have some different beliefs than First Baptist. But one of the things we agree on is that hungry and homeless people need to be fed; we both see it as a way of bringing heaven to earth.

So, do we have to agree on everything in order to work together? Not at all, at least not where feeding hungry people is concerned. But I wouldn’t invite the rector of St. Mark’s to teach a class on our core beliefs at First Baptist and he wouldn’t invite me to do that at St. Mark’s. Our beliefs are different enough that it wouldn’t be helpful.

So I was telling this pastor as we had coffee yesterday that I didn’t think we had to agree with everything Ginter Park did in order to partner with them in mission—sending inner-city kids to Camp Alkulana in the summer, for example, seemed like something we could both get behind.

But he didn’t see it that way.

He talked about tribal identity, and said that what Ginter Park had done really put them outside the boundaries of the Baptist “tribe,” and that they could no longer be considered part of us. For that reason we could no longer work together; we were too different.

He had a point. I’m guessing he wouldn’t invite the pastor of Ginter Park to teach a class on core beliefs at his church, and the pastor of Ginter Park probably wouldn’t invite him to teach that class at hers. But couldn’t they agree that inner-city kids need to go to Camp Alkulana in the summer, and couldn’t they pool their resources to that end? Do we have to agree on everything in order to work together?

I’m afraid that what’s going to suffer in this dispute is not his church or her church, but those inner-city kids. And isn’t that always the way it is? We Christians start arguing about doctrine and neglect our mission,

And children suffer,
And people go hungry,
And the good news isn’t shared,

And Jesus sighs.

KOH2RVA Day 192

disaster-responseLast night the Richmond Baptist Association voted to maintain fellowship with Ginter Park Baptist Church, a church that recently ordained an openly gay man to the ministry.

The vote was close—very close—but it was enough to establish a simple majority and settle the question, at least for last night: Ginter Park can stay in the RBA family. How the churches of the Association will respond to that news remains to be seen.

But here’s what I find myself wanting to say this morning: Baptists and Buddhists can work together if the cause is just and the mission is clear.

When Superstorm Sandy pounded the coast a few months ago, for example, Baptists from Virginia were among those who raced north to provide relief. But they weren’t the only ones. People of different faiths and people of no faith at all were working alongside them to provide food, clothing, and shelter for people whose homes had been lost in the storm.  They didn’t have to agree on every point of doctrine in order to work together; just on that point that insists that people who are hungry and cold need some help.

I remember my own experience with disaster relief after Hurricane Fran hit the North Carolina coast in 1996. I jumped in a car with a few other Baptist men and drove to Wilmington, NC, where I ended up washing out empty food containers after hot meals had been delivered. I worked side by side with a delightful older couple whose views were almost completely opposite of mine. If we had been in a Baptist meeting, we would have voted differently on every issue.

But we weren’t.

We were in a disaster-stricken area trying to provide relief to people who had almost nothing left in the world. We didn’t have to agree on everything to agree that what we were doing was both urgent and important.

I think Sterling Severns helped us see that last night. He said that when he came to Richmond as a pastor nine years ago he asked his new church why they supported the Richmond Baptist Association. “Because of Camp Alkulana,” they said. Because every year the RBA takes busloads of boys and girls from inner city Richmond to spend a week at camp—breathing fresh air; hiking, camping, swimming; and learning about the love of Jesus in a beautiful natural setting. For those kids, for that week, heaven really does come to earth. That’s one of the best reasons why Sterling’s church, and my church, and Ginter Park Baptist Church give money to the Richmond Baptist Association—so those kids can go to camp. We don’t have to agree with each other on everything to agree that that’s a good thing, and something worth doing.

So, in spite of all our discussion about homosexuality last night, and about what the Bible says, and about what we believe, in the end we voted to keep on working together on what we agree is important—those kids who go to Camp Alkulana, for instance. And if the Buddhists decide they want to send us a check?

We’ll take it.

KOH2RVA: Day 67

Can you bring heaven to earth by making a motion at a Baptist meeting?

Well, no, apparently not.

I went to the microphone yesterday during the miscellaneous business portion of the BGAV annual meeting to ask if we could amend a recent decision made by the Executive Committee of the Virginia Baptist Mission Board. You see, the BGAV—the Baptist General Association of Virginia—meets only once each year, and when we are not in session the Executive Committee of the VBMB makes our decisions for us. Recently the Executive Committee decided to sever ties with Richmond’s Ginter Park Baptist Church for ordaining an openly gay man.

I know, I know…that’s way outside the “norm” for Baptist churches. But when I stood to make my motion I simply asked if we could appoint a study committee to look into the matter and bring back a report at next year’s annual meeting. I said, “I don’t want to open the floor for a discussion of how we all feel about homosexuality, because we would be here for the rest of the week, maybe the rest of the year. And I don’t want to talk about whether this church had the right to do what it did. Of course it did. Baptist churches are autonomous. No, what’s at stake here is the question of whether or not we can maintain fellowship with a church that has taken such action.”

And that got things started.

Part of what I was hoping for was that our annual meeting would not devolve into a shouting match about homosexuality, and I think my motion accomplished that. While most of the people who spoke to the motion were passionate, there was no shouting, and we mostly stayed on the subject. The subject was whether or not a church that had done such a thing could stay in the BGAV “family.” In the end, the answer was no. My motion was defeated 426-164.

The decision of the Executive Committee stands.

I learned only later that the BGAV, in its 190-year history, has never before severed ties with a church, not for welcoming blacks, not for ordaining women. And while I’m sure the Bible was quoted in those instances, and Scriptural reasons given for why such churches could not remain in the family, they did, and maybe that’s only because our sense of family is strong.

I talked with someone at this meeting who has a gay daughter. She said that the news came as a shock to her when she first heard it, but that there was never any thought of kicking her out of the family. “She’s my daughter!” she said, as if that explained everything.

For many people it does; our sense of family is strong. I’ve told my own daughters there is nothing they can do or say—nothing—that will keep me from loving them. But after yesterday I’m wondering how some of our sons and daughters will feel about their place in the BGAV family, and it’s one of the reasons I made my motion: if we’ve never kicked a church out for any reason, don’t you think we could take some time to consider this one? And even if we did end up in the same place, can’t heaven come to earth through respectful talking and listening?

I wonder.