KOH2RVA: Day 237

tug_of_warOkay, campers…we’ve had our fun. We’ve spent the week sharing our thoughts and feelings about homosexuality. We’ve done it in a respectful way and my hope is that we’ve all come to a more compassionate place, but as I wrote in Tuesday’s post I am not on a crusade:

I’m on a mission trip.

And today is Day 237 of KOH2RVA, First Baptist’s year-long, every-member mission trip to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia. It’s a big one. I’ve been up since 5:00 just because there’s so much to be done.

At 9:00 this morning Dr. Terry Whipple and friends are going to host “The Physician Within,” which started with Terry’s dream of taking a medical mission trip without ever leaving the city of Richmond. Today the topic is back and neck pain, and if you have either, or know someone who has either, I hope you will be in the dining hall of Richmond’s First Baptist Church at 9:00. The workshop will last until 11:30 this morning, which should give you enough time to have a leisurely lunch with friends before moving on to…

The “Spring Bash” at the Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School on Church Hill. The Generosity Team at First Baptist challenged the church to provide gifts and prizes for the middle schoolers who will be competing today and the response was overwhelming, but we could still use some volunteers to help out with the games.  We’re hoping for two shifts: one from 11:00 to 1:00 and another from 1:00 to 3:00. The school is located at 2124 N. 29th Street. Your help would be greatly appreciated.

I’m hoping to spend some time at each of those events, but it’s Saturday, the day I finish up the sermon, and there’s a whole lot left to be written. But the people who were made uncomfortable by last Sunday’s sermon will be glad to know—this one is about Paul’s vision of the man from Macedonia saying, “Come over and help us!” It’s not about homosexuality at all. Because I’m not on a crusade:

I’m on a mission trip.

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 235

cats and dogsThe conversation on this blog over the past two days has been fascinating and yesterday, especially, it had the feel of a lively roundtable discussion among people with very different views, but very respectful attitudes. I want to thank Anne especially, for hanging in there when many disagreed with her views. She was unflappable, and never appeared to get angry. Near the end of the day she was almost cheerfully suggesting reading material to her new friends Don and Daniel.

I admire that.

I do have more to say on this topic, but I’m not going to say it today. Today I’m going hiking with my brother Greg who has been working as a missionary in North Africa for the past year. We’re going to huff and puff our way to the top of Old Rag Mountain, pausing from time to time for long, thoughtful conversations (and a chance to catch our breath). I won’t have a cell signal for most of that hike, and therefore won’t be able to moderate discussion on my blog (nor should I, when I have the chance to walk and talk with my brother). So, I’m going to make a suggestion:

Do something today that brings heaven a little closer to earth, and at the end of the day tell me what it was.

I appreciated Melissa Ansley Brooks’ comment on my Facebook page when I mentioned that I’d had 1,588 views on my blog on Tuesday. She wrote: “Could you give my contact information to all of those people who viewed your blog…because I’ve got some Kingdom work that needs doin’….poor kids to feed, motherless babies to rock, middle schoolers to tutor, widows to comfort, sick people to visit…and I need some help!”

For those who have ears to hear it, it could be the voice of Jesus himself.

KOH2RVA: Day 234

black eyeYesterday’s post generated lots of discussion, and a number of important lessons:

The topic of homosexuality is red-hot. There were 1,588 views on my blog yesterday, the second highest number since I’ve been writing. It wasn’t because the post was so well written; it was because I was writing about homosexuality. I discovered once again that everybody has an opinion on this topic, and the opinions tend to be strong.

Never assign motives to another person. I did that yesterday. I said that I was trying to imagine why 15 churches were thinking about pulling out of the Richmond Baptist Association and the only reason I could come up with was fear. One of the people who commented on my blog wisely pointed out that I could have asked someone from those churches, rather than making up motives. She was right, and I apologize.

Fear is not the only factor. When I did talk to someone from one of those churches yesterday I was assured that there were several reasons a church might consider such a move. Identity was one of them: you might get to a point where—without any animosity—you simply sensed that “these just aren’t our kind of people” anymore. Fidelity was another: where, in order to be faithful to your understanding of Scripture, you might choose to distance yourself from those with a different understanding.

People can disagree respectfully. Although there were a number of different views expressed in the comments on my blog yesterday, they were expressed with courtesy, and even with Christian love. I especially appreciated the one that began by addressing a fellow commentator: “I love you. You’re my sister in Christ.” While opinions were strong, they were never used as weapons.

It’s easy to be distracted. I have to admit, I spent a good bit of time yesterday checking my blog, reading the comments, answering email, talking on the phone, meeting with people who had questions or concerns, and in all of that, I’m sure I neglected much of the other work of the Kingdom. At the end of the day I went to RVA United, in the sanctuary of First Baptist Church, where a group of young, committed Christians had been working for days to create an incomparable worship experience for 20-30somethings in our city. They weren’t distracted. They were focused. And it showed.

You would think that by now I would have learned all of life’s important lessons, but I haven’t. There’s still plenty to learn. And yesterday I learned some things.

I hope you did, too.

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.

Leaving the Church?

I just read this column on the Associated Baptist Press website and wanted to pass it along to my readers.  It’s by Carra Hughes Greer, Minister to families with youth at Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, GA.  She titled her column: “Why 20- and 30-year-olds are leaving the Baptist church.”

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(ABP) — Many 20- and 30-year-olds share a distaste toward Baptist churches. As a young minister, I believe my peers need the community and nurturing of a church. I hope the church will hear the cries of these young Christ-followers and see the value, the vision and the deep compassion they possess.  

Young adults decide not to attend church for a number of reasons, but there is a particular trend among 20- and 30-year-olds that pertains to local Baptist churches.

The split of the Southern Baptist Convention caused many young Christ-followers to be very disillusioned with the church at an early age, but that isn’t solely to blame. There are more compelling reasons keeping 20- and 30-year-olds at an arm’s distance from the church.

There are two types of Baptist churches which young Christ-followers are familiar with — and disinterested in — the “harsh church” and the “watered-down church.”

The harsh church isolates itself from other denominations. Its voice is brash, critical and cold to the changing culture. This church has leaders who speak with loud voices, not just in decibels, but to the media and government in protest against issues regarding school curriculum, the health-care system, marriage or churches with female pastors.

Young Christ-followers hesitate to be associated with a group of Baptists labeled as “crazy” by society for making outrageous statements such as declaring that the cause of Haiti’s earthquake was the result of a pact they made with the devil or that the Sept. 11 attacks were brought on by feminists, abortionists and homosexuals. Why would anyone want to join a community of “believers” that seems hateful and compassionless?

In contrast, the watered-down church is unappealing because of its prophetic muteness. More concerned with institutional preservation, this church avoids stepping on theological or ideological toes.

Young Christ-followers want to hear the church discuss and dialogue about homosexuality, social justice issues, women in ministry, poverty, environmental concerns, human rights issues, health-care issues, the AIDS epidemic in Africa, orphans in China, monks in Burma, etc. They are eager to have open, honest, almost jaw-dropping, conversations balancing current issues with their faith.

Instead of church politics, they want churches to become missional. They understand the institutional church but desire the simplicity of the early church. They grow weary of time and money spent maintaining the large church grounds, renovating empty Sunday school rooms, installing the latest technology and managing growing numbers of committees. When the church becomes too distracted to be a church on mission, young Christ-followers focus on serving through a para-church or nonprofit organization that is directly meeting the needs of others.

So, what can our churches do to reach out to young Christ-followers?

First, churches have to be willing to open their doors to a new generation of Christ-followers and understand they do things differently. This new generation thinks, communicates, tithes and serves differently. It is guarded when it comes to trusting authority, so it is crucial that leadership within the church be transparent with them. This group is searching for authentic faith, authentic leadership and authentic ministry.

Churches must also practice what we preach. If we tell these 20- and 30-year-olds we are open to dialogue about social issues, the environment, etc., then we must actually talk about these issues in our Sunday school classes, Bible studies and sermons. Watering down the gospel or avoiding issues altogether only causes bigger rifts in the relationship between the church and young Christ-followers.

Third, our churches must begin to reflect our changing communities. The ministerial staff must diversify to include people of all ages, races and genders as leaders. With a diverse staff, the church will begin to experience things through others’ eyes and more voices will be represented from the pulpit. Young Christ-followers will feel accepted as part of the congregation if they see faces just like their own doing things like preaching, teaching, leading, reading and serving.

Finally, all preconceived notions of these young Christ-followers must be thrown out. Not all of them expect loud, Christian rock music, want to wear torn jeans and a T-shirt to church, seek a coffee bar in the worship space or the biggest and brightest LCD screens. Many of the stereotypes our churches have concocted of young Christ-followers are false or at least skewed. 

There is a lot at stake. For older generations, it can be painful to recognize that the institution they worked so hard to establish, buildings they worked diligently and gave sacrificially to pay for, and familiar traditions are of waning importance to young Christ-followers. Instead, the mission and service of the church ranks as highest priority.

For younger generations, what’s at stake is our ability to find ways to relate, engage and work side-by-side with older generations finding common ground on issues of social justice, faith development, worship experiences, etc.

Contrary to what some Baptist churches believe, young Christ-followers are not pagans running from God into the arms of another religion. They simply desire to be heard and understood for who they really are and for their vision of the future of Baptist churches.