KOH2RVA: Day 248

tearsI can’t imagine a more beautiful day has ever dawned on the city of Richmond than this one. I’ve just come in from a run on Monument Avenue, where the light was golden, the world was in bloom, and the love of God was in the air I breathed.

Last night was a different story.

Because of some confusion among our members about the intent of my April 28 sermon, I stood before the deacons last night to explain that I am not on a crusade to turn First Baptist into a gay church, that I am not planning to ordain a gay minister, and that I am not hoping to perform a gay wedding. What I am is a pastor, and because I am I often sit in my study and listen to people pour their hearts out, often through tears, and sometimes what they tell me is this: “I’m gay.”

But here’s the problem: because I am a pastor I can’t share that secret with anybody else. I can’t talk about the person; I have to talk about the issue. And when I talk about the issue people sometimes assume that I have a gay agenda—that I’m trying to turn First Baptist into a gay church, or that I plan to ordain a gay minister, or that I hope to perform a gay wedding, when the truth is that I’m thinking about _______________, who sat in my study with tears in her eyes, wondering if the church would still love her if they knew the truth about her.

I wanted to say, “Of course they would!” because I know the people of First Baptist Church. I’ve never known a more loving congregation. If I told her story from the pulpit they would rush to put their arms around her and reassure her of their love and our deacons would lead the charge.   But homophobia cuts both ways. It makes people afraid of homosexuals and it makes homosexuals afraid of people. They keep their secret to themselves.

Because not everybody is so loving.

I tried to explain all this to the deacons last night. I don’t think I did a very good job. During the question and answer period someone asked me if I were planning to do a gay wedding. I said no. He told me later that it wasn’t really his quesion.  He doesn’t have a problem with gay people.  He needed to ask, he said, simply because so many people had been asking him. He wanted to have an answer for them. “Tell them this,” I said. “Tell them I’m a pastor. Tell them that I care about people, and that some of the people I care about are gay.”

But they aren’t the only ones I care about.

I care about the ones who have a real problem with this issue, the ones who have been sitting in my study nearly every day in the last few weeks telling me they just can’t ignore what the Bible says about homosexuality. I tell them I can’t ignore it either, and that this is what makes it so hard for me. I would love to tell homosexuals they can do whatever they want, but I can’t, not anymore than I can tell heterosexuals to do whatever they want. The Bible won’t let me. But the Bible also won’t let me hate. I have to love. I have to love people who are gay and I have to love people who flinch at the very mention of the word.

I’m a pastor.

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?”

A Prayer of Thanksgiving for Truth

I came across this prayer in this morning’s devotional reading, and loved it, as I love many of William Barclay’s prayers.  Be edified.

O God, we thank you for all those in whose words and in whose writings your truth has come to us. For the historians, the psalmists and the prophets, who wrote the Old Testament; for all those who in every generation have taught and explained and expounded and preached the word of Scripture: we thank you, O God.

Grant, O God, that no false teaching may ever have any power to deceive us or to seduce us from the truth. Grant, O God, that we may never listen to any teaching which would encourage us to think sin less serious, vice more attractive, or virtue less important; grant, O God, that we may never listen to any teaching which would dethrone Jesus Christ from the topmost place; grant, O God, that we may never listen to any teaching which for its own purposes perverts the truth.

God, our Father, establish us immovably in the truth. Give us minds which can see at once the difference between the true and the false; make us able to test everything, and to hold fast to that which is good; give us such a love of truth, that no false thing may ever be able to lure us from it. So grant that all our lives we may know, and love, and live the truth, through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

From: William Barclay, Prayers for the Christian Year (New York: Harper, 1965)

This Is How We Do It

I got e-mail from a church member recently telling me how disappointed she had been in the way I handled the vote on the 2011 budget at the end of the 8:30 worship service last Sunday.  She said, “You told everybody that it was a done deal, that we had already voted on it, and that we were just giving our affirmation to a previous decision.  You asked for a show of hands if we were for the budget, but not if we were against it.  It made me feel like I don’t really have a voice in the decisions that are made at First Baptist Church. ”

I wrote back immediately, saying: “Please forgive me.  I was confused.  I thought we had already voted on the budget at our last quarterly business meeting, and that we didn’t really need to vote on Sunday.  Then I looked down at my bulletin and it said, ‘Vote on the Budget.’  So I asked people to raise their hands if they wanted to affirm the budget but didn’t give them a way to oppose it.  I blew it in almost every possible way at 8:30, but got it right at 11:00.  I’m very sorry.”

She wrote back to me and said:  “Thanks for the explanation.  That’s a very good explanation.”

The explanation of course is that I messed up.  I made a mistake.  I didn’t deprive her of her voice intentionally; I did it unintentionally.  But what she did was a perfect illustration of the sermon I had preached that morning.  I had said that if someone in the church does you wrong you should confront him, just as in says in Matthew 18:15: “If another member of the church sins against you, go to him and tell him his fault when it is just the two of you alone.  If he listens to you, you’ve won your brother back.” 

I wrote back to her, congratulating her on the way she had handled things.  “This is what you did,” I told her.  “I sinned against you.  You confronted me and made me aware of what I had done.  I listened to you, apologized for my mistake, and you forgave me.  That’s just what Jesus was talking about!  And,” I added, “I hope you’ve won your brother back” (smile).

“Absolutely!” she replied, and went on to tell me that she had appreciated the sermon very much, but after the vote she hadn’t been able to think about anything else.  Once we got that cleared up, we were free to move on to other things.

I wanted to share that story here, because it seems like a perfect illustration of how to make peace with someone who has offended you.  You don’t talk about that person: you talk to him.  You tell him what it was that offended you and why.  You give him a chance to explain, and perhaps even apologize.  If he does, then you forgive him and move on to other things. 

Doesn’t that seem like a better way than fuming about it quietly for days or even weeks, holding a grudge against the offending party until you can’t even stand the sight of him anymore?  Jesus understood: if you don’t go to your brother when he sins against you, if you don’t tell him his fault and give him a chance to apologize, then you lose your brother—not because of his feelings toward you but because of your feelings toward him. 

I don’t know about you, but I need all the brothers and sisters I can get these days, and for that reason I’m thankful that one of my sisters was brave enough to write to me and tell me my fault.  It’s not easy to hear such things, but believe me, it’s a whole lot better than not hearing them.

Little Jimmy

untitled-2I don’t know how it is for you, but I am often harder on myself than on anyone else.  I can counsel with others and no matter what they have done I can usually nod my head sympathetically and show some understanding.  But not with myself.  Where I would forgive the shortcomings of others I often scold myself, wag my finger, and say, “How could you?!”  I tend to hold on to sins that God has forgiven long ago, sifting through them from time to time to remind myself just how wretched I really am.

And that’s where this picture comes in handy.

This is a picture of me when I was two years old.  I find that when I look at it I feel tender toward this little boy and far more forgiving than I might be otherwise.  I begin to understand that my inability to forgive myself can be crippling, in the same way Jesus understood that we cannot love our neighbors as ourselves if we cannot love ourselves.  It’s not that I use this picture to excuse my behavior, not that I look the other way and let “Little Jimmy” do whatever he wants.  It’s just that I begin to confront his behavior with love instead of anger, like someone who could be redeemed rather than someone who should be condemned.

I have a feeling that God is able to see what is most lovable about us even in our worst moments.  I have a feeling that’s what keeps him from blasting us straight to hell on most days, and instead keeps him opening his arms to receive all his prodigal sons and daughters.

Even Little Jimmy.