Of Wedding Vows and Sinner’s Prayers

KissOn my recent visit to Whitcomb Court with members of the police department and the “faith community” there was a woman in my group who insisted on asking everyone we visited, “If you were to die right now do you know for a fact you would go to heaven?” Usually the answer wasn’t yes or no: it was, “I think so.”

“You think so?” the woman asked. “Do you want to know how you can be sure?” And then she quoted Romans 10:9: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead you will be saved.” And then she would ask the frightened young woman standing at the door to repeat after her as she led her through a version of “the sinner’s prayer,” similar to the one below:

Dear Lord Jesus, I know that I am a sinner, and I ask for Your forgiveness. I believe You died for my sins and rose from the dead. I turn from my sins and invite You to come into my heart and life. I want to trust and follow You as my Lord and Savior. In Your Name. Amen.

At the end of one such prayer she said to the young woman standing there, “Now you’re not a sinner anymore; you’re saved.” And I wondered: does it really happen like that? Are there “magic words” that can save you?

Later I thought about how I do a wedding. At some point I ask the groom to repeat after me, and I lead him through his vows. Afterward I do the same with the bride. And at the end of the service I say, “I now pronounce you husband and wife.” When I sign the marriage license after the ceremony I attest to the fact that these two—who used to be single—are now married.

In some ways it seems like magic.

But I don’t think I would be there if I weren’t convinced that they wanted to be married, that they were doing because they loved each other.

Let me give you an example:

Two years ago my daughter and her fiancé were married before a magistrate at New York’s City Hall. I saw the 45-second video. The magistrate asked Nick if he would be willing to take Ellie as his wife and he said yes. And then he asked Ellie if she would take Nick and she said yes. And then the magistrate (who was clearly enjoying his role) drew himself up to his full height and by the authority vested in him by “the great state of New York” pronounced them husband and wife. And that was it; they were married.

But there’s more to the story.

Nick and Ellie had known each other in high school in Washington when Nick was an exchange student from Australia. When he decided to come to New York to see if he could make it there as a chef (because if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere) he got in touch with Ellie. They began to send e-mail back and forth, and then text messages, and then long (expensive) phone calls until Nick finally invited Ellie to come see him in Australia. She did, met his family, did some sightseeing, and when she was getting ready to leave Nick said, “If I come to New York do you reckon I could be your boyfriend?”

That’s what happened.

He came to New York and they began dating and at the end of a year he found out that his visa—which he had thought was a two-year visa—was about to expire. He was going to have to go back to Australia. But Ellie didn’t want him to go back to Australia, not without her. She loved him. And he loved her. And that’s when they began to talk about getting married. Three weeks later they stood in front of that self-important magistrate at City Hall and exchanged their vows and seven months after that—to the day—we had a “real” wedding ceremony on the banks of the Rappahannock River right here in Virginia. I did the wedding, and when I asked the groom to repeat after me I heard his voice break. When I asked Ellie to do the same I saw the tear slide down her cheek. I was convinced that they weren’t just going through the motions, that this wedding—which had gotten its start under such unusual circumstances—was the real thing.

That’s not the feeling I had at Whitcomb Court.

I believe the decision to follow Jesus is every bit as personal as the decision to get married, and twice as important. It’s not something you can force somebody to do. When we stand before the Lord someday I don’t think he’s going to ask us if we’ve said the sinner’s prayer. But he might ask us what he asked Peter that day by the seashore, the kind of thing people have been asking each other for centuries before taking the plunge of marriage:

“Do you love me?”

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.