Walking Together

I want to tell you a true story. Johnny was my cousin and my favorite person to hang out with as a kid. He was four years older than me, but never excluded me from what he was doing. We played in my grandmother’s attic for hours in the winter and on top of her flat-roofed garage every summer. During his teen years he turned to music. He could play anything. I loved to hear him on the piano. Once, when I was a teen, I told him that more than anything I wanted to play a song on the piano (I couldn’t read music). He numbered the keys in the order I would hit them, and I played The Entertainer!

He died when he was 30–January 1993. I lost someone very special. He died of AIDS. Yes, he was gay, but to me he was almost a big brother, a musician, an artist–he could turn any fabric into bedspreads, comforters, curtains…he died in Key West surrounded by friends and his parents. I flew down and conducted his funeral because, despite the fact that he had been a church musician before he contracted AIDS, no preacher would visit him. The church as a whole…all churches I knew of…turned away. It was that same year I met a woman in Georgia as she wept. When I asked her what was wrong, she answered, “I can’t tell my church that my son is dying of AIDS. They won’t let me return, or they won’t conduct his funeral.”

When I flew into Key West, a very kind gay young man picked me and fed me lunch. That night two gay men fed me dinner and invited me into their home as a friend. They rented a boat and a group of gay men went out onto the ocean (along with his parents) to scatter his ashes. They packed a lunch for us all. They never asked me to pay for my own meal.

The year before, I had been struggling with serious family issues. The only professor at Emory to reach out to me was a professor who also happened to be a lesbian. She helped me find a Christian counseling group that basically saved my life for the next two years.

During my lifetime, I have been friends with several people in the LGBTQ community. I haven’t thought of it much until lately, because I just thought of them as friends. I didn’t worry about their sexuality. But with all of the news about their rights being taken back away, I can’t help but want to speak up. No one in that community has ever harmed me, tried to have sexual relations with me, tried to “recruit” me, judged me for my faith or my struggles. They have just been friends.

As both a married and now a single woman, plenty of straight white Christian men have invited me to “sleep around,” let them “comfort” me, have a little fun that I didn’t ask for. Some of them were married and asked me to be discreet if I accepted their offer. I turned them down. That’s not who I am.

I get it that for some of you this is an issue of faith–you see a gay person as a sinner based on your theology. Please live out your faith! If that’s what you believe, never engage in a same-sex marriage. I live in a democracy that supports religious freedom. Many of my friends live out their faith differently. Many of my friends identify as Christians also and worship, serve on mission teams, teach, etc. I support their rights in this democracy also.

I will be hurt if my friends lose the right to love whom they choose to love after they fought for that right. They have stood by me when the church didn’t. I will stand by them out of the same friendship and love that they showed me. I am not going to try to define anyone’s theology. But I am going to speak up for someone who wants to grow old with a person they love. That’s beautiful, and it hurts no one!

This is not a theological debate on what defines sin. None of us would ever agree on that. When I was going through my divorce, I had plenty of people quoting Scripture to me and telling me how sinful I was. And for friends remarried, many Christians believe a second marriage is a sin. Divorce and remarriage are legal in this country (even though I wish divorce never had to happen–it hurts many people). I would not have survived my marriage if it had not ended.

But nowhere does Jesus tell me to legislate what I define as sin. And if I could, I would legislate most of his words that people forget to live by. Feed my sheep. And what if we legislate his words to the rich young ruler when he said the man had to give everything away? And what if we legislate turn the other cheek? Luke 14 telling us to bring in the poor? Matthew 20, lead by being a servant.

We can’t legislate our beliefs. We can only live them and in this nation we are blessed that we can share them. But this is about the secular world and democracy. I will not legislate away the rights of people I care about.

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Dear Christians…

Dear Christians, we have a long and complicated history of those of us claiming this name. I don’t think there has ever been a time when we all agreed. Even Paul and Barnabas had their disagreements. We all have to look to Scripture to find Truth, but that can be complicated because of the many ways to interpret some things. So we have to stay in community to discuss together what Truth looks like. And we look back to history and tradition to see when we have gotten it right and when we have gotten it wrong.

I keep reading posts quoting preachers like Franklin Graham that seem to justify seeking our own comfort and safety over the lives of others. I have a lot of respect for the Graham family. Don’t get me wrong on that—I am not calling them evil or intending disrespect to any of their ministries. But just like you and I are flawed, are sinners, so are ministers. They can get it wrong at times and history is very clear about that in the following examples that I think you will agree with:

First, look at who Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote the Letter from the Birmingham Jail to—Christian ministers and leaders. It was his response to a public statement of concern and caution issued by eight white religious leaders of the South. They wanted to keep their churches safe and their white members out of harm’s way. Outside of that, these were respected ministers doing very good work in other areas. Look at the wording—the ministers were calling the Civil Rights Movement “unwise and untimely.” They were also calling for a ban of the “outsiders” (King and his colleagues) coming in to their communities. Sound familiar?

“Just as the eighth-century prophets left their little villages and carried their ‘thus saith the Lord’ far beyond the boundaries of their hometowns; and just as the Apostle Paul left his little village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to practically every hamlet and city of the Greco-Roman world, I too am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular hometown. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid. Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea.” –Dr. Martin Luther King—History has proven this minister right and the other ministers of that day wrong.

And then there’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer—another minister like King who got it so right. He was a German minister and theologian who came to America to study. While here, Hitler began his rise to power. Bonhoeffer could have stayed safely in America and lived out the rest of his life here. Instead, he returned to Germany and spoke out against the injustices towards the Jews and eventually was executed for his stand. While alive, he begged Christian churches to hear the cries of the Jews and take a stand.

“Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. At the end all his disciples deserted him. On the Cross he was utterly alone, surrounded by evildoers and mockers. For this cause he had come, to bring peace to the enemies of God. So the Christian, too, belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes. There is his commission, his work. ‘The kingdom is to be in the midst of your enemies. And he who will not suffer this does not want to be of the Kingdom of Christ; he wants to be among friends, to sit among roses and lilies, not with the bad people but the devout people. O you blasphemers and betrayers of Christ! If Christ had done what you are doing who would ever have been spared’ (Luther).”
― Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community

We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.

Being a Christian is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God’s will.

Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness, and pride of power, and with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear … Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power. Christians should give more offense, shock the world far more, than they are doing now.

There is no way to peace along the way to safety. For peace must be dared. It is the great venture.—Bonhoeffer, Cost of Discipleship

 Let’s be clear:  If you read the Bible from front to back as a whole, you will see that there is nothing logical or safe about Christianity. Every call to follow God’s will through the entire Bible calls for actions that don’t fall into line with human reason and logic. Nothing Jesus did was logical. Nothing tells us to worry about ourselves first. And if we put our nation above God’s will, that is idolatry. True Christians throughout history risked their lives for others in Jesus’s name–hiding Jews in their homes at great personal risk. The white Christians who finally stood with Dr. King.  Think of all of the heroes of our faith. Think of Corrie Ten Boom. Think of the people whose names we will never know. Read about Rahab who hid the spies in her house. Read about the wise men who refused to return to Herod and tell him the location of the child. Read about the people who brought Paul into their homes all of the times the authorities wanted him dead. Think of the person who hid the disciples in his upper room when everyone was sure Romans and Jews would kill any sympathizers. That is Biblical. Think of the displaced Americans on 9/11/01–their planes had to land in Canada when our airports closed. It’s a beautiful story of 7,000 stranded, unvetted travelers who landed and the people of a small town who took them in and fed them and cared for them not knowing if some of the travelers were ones who might cause harm.

Some people will confuse the facts about who is a refugee—a refugee has that name because he/she has proven to be persecuted because of faith, race or location of their home. They are wanted dead by those who hate them not because of the refugee’s actions but because of the hate in the heart of the hunter. These people undergo extensive vetting. These are not people seeking a visa to get a job. None have attacked us. None caused 9/11. These are people trying not to be killed just because of who they are. Tell me you don’t really think Jesus would say, “Now, you people over here be safe. Let somebody else help if they want to.” And Jesus never told us to just send money. He said go. He said heal. He said love above all else. He said put your life on the line, Peter, Paul, John…Christians. He said take up your cross. It may kill you, but I will reward you. That’s Biblical.

I love you and am glad we are on this journey together.

Dear Refugees…

Dear Refugees,

I can’t imagine what you must think about Americans right now, much less American Christians. You must be tempted to hate us, though we both know that hate solves nothing. You must be weeping tonight because lies and fear are putting you in harm’s way—keeping you from family members who are already here in America—keeping you in war zones where your children go to bed crying every night wondering if they will die or if they will waken to find that they have been orphaned.

Our nation—the same one who just held a march about being pro-life—have said through our actions that your life doesn’t really matters as much as our comfort. We know the odds are that you will die of disease in a refugee camp or be killed by a bomb set off by someone who hates you just for the sake of hate. But our nation just declared that you are somebody else’s problem. My faith tradition tells me that my Savior said, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40). But my nation, my fellow Christians, just said that we will see if somebody else will help. It’s not going to be us. I am so sorry. I love you and would do anything I could to save your life. I know what it is like to be scared.

The Scriptures of my faith tradition, God’s Holy Bible, says “fear not” to us 103 times in the King James Version. There are more than 300 passages that don’t use those exact words, but still tell me the same message: just do my will without fear or worry. Walk on water. Have my Son. Lead my people. Cross the Red Sea. Stand up to Pharaoh. Take up your cross. Heal in my name. Go where you have never gone before. Yet today we allowed fear to win and rule our nation. People decided they should fear you—young mother, small child, worried father, aging grandmother, lost brother, wandering sister—because some people have done wrong. Many American men beat their wives daily, but we are more afraid of you according to people I hear declaring that you will be an outcast forever. I know your pain. I know what it is like to have no voice, to be ignored. I love you. I hear you. I am sorry.

My faith tradition reads our Bible each Sunday—the Bible that says this about love in I Corinthians 13…If I speak in the tongues] of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal… If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing….Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres…And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love… But many people have chosen not to love you even though our Savior declared that He gave us a new command to love as He loved (John 13:34). He died for us. I’m pretty sure I’m not going to die because I love you enough to grant you safety, but even if I do, it is what I was asked to do by the One who died for me. If I believe Him, I must choose to love you enough to help you find life. It’s my turn to return the love I have been granted. I am sorry so many are refusing to love you. I love you. I will do my best to show you.

My faith tradition tells me to go into the world, to embrace you and tell you that Jesus loves you. How can I tell you Jesus loves you if I don’t show you? Jesus didn’t just tell me—He showed me. It’s what we are called to do.

We have Americanized our faith to believe that God wants us to feel safe and happy I can’t find those words in my Bible. My faith never asked me to pledge allegiance to my nation (but I do love my nation). My faith asks me to love, to go, to heal, to be among you, to embrace all people, to fear not, to walk on water and just do what I truly know is right.

I’m sorry many in my Church have ignored your pain and your tears, have labelled you evil instead of called you a child of God (even if you don’t know you are yet), have chosen our desire for comfort and happiness over your need for life. I love you. Hear that. I will be your voice as much as I can. I would swim to your rescue if I had a way. I would fly you to safety if I owned a plane. If you make it here, I will call you friend. I will pray with you. Just know many of us are trying to pray you to a new life until we can find more practical ways of helping.

 

 

Church and the Call to Holiness

As an imperfect human, I struggle at times with the call to holiness. We, as Christians, are being sanctified through the sacrifice of Christ (Hebrews 10:14). I Peter (along with many other Scriptures), reminds us that as those following Christ we have a call to holy conduct while on this earth. We are called in Scripture to be set apart, to be holy while still on this earth. We are not just waiting for a heavenly change. We are living the reality of holiness here.

At times, however, I don’t live the reality of being separated for God’s honor and service. I want to have things go my way rather than God’s. Often it is because I am being impatient, wanting an answer quicker than God is providing one. At other times, I struggle because God’s plan doesn’t seem logical to me. I can’t imagine how His answer or path could possibly lead to success. Then I realize that I am defining success by human (earthly) standards.

Seeking holiness means listening to God through His Word and letting Him truly be the author of the story of my life. John 14:17 reminds us that the Holy Spirit dwells within us and will guide and teach us. II Timothy 3:16 tells us that the Scriptures are breathed out by God and should be our guide. In Hebrews 1:1-2, we are reminded that God spoke to us through His Son. We have the necessary answers for our life if we choose to hear them.

This same call for holiness goes out to churches, not just individuals. And the same temptations are present for churches and those in leadership positions. At times, a church may try to take or stop an action, wanting things to go “their way” or a particular leader’s way rather than prayerfully seeking a vision from God or hearing God’s vision through someone He chose to speak and work through. At times we may prefer the comfortable rather than the unknown. We may want the status quo rather than the distinction of stepping out to be set apart.

Sometimes, as a church, we also tend to define holiness by our own standards rather than God’s. All through Scripture, God has shown us that He is a God of surprises. When His people start to feel comfortable and “in charge” in our own routines, His call moves His people into the unexpected, into a new place or a new routine, or with unexpected people in our midst.

Our call to holiness means we must be willing, as individuals and a church, to let God be in charge. Let God upset our routines. Let God speak to us through the unexpected voices—the hesitant Moses, the youthful David, the forgiven David, the changed Paul, the fishermen, the women at the well, the tax collectors, the children, the lepers, the widow with only a mite. Remember all of those in Scripture whom He called to leave the expected, the comfortable, and the familiar. He asks us to trust Him as He unsettles us with plans that only He could dream of.