I Cast the First Stone

When I was a young child a new pastor and family came to our church.  I truly don’t remember a thing about the man who was there before him.  Pastor Mark was THE pastor of my youth.  He was a second father.  One who came to the hospital to pray with this scared 7 year old who was about to undergo surgery.   His wife was a second mother to me.  She spent many church services massaging my hands and silently giggling, shoulders shaking,  at the funny word murdering mistakes that her hubby was known for.

But, his son.  HE was my other half.  He could finish my sentences.  He loved that I could belch like a competitive eater.  He didn’t think it strange at all to spend hours singing and playing piano together.  We made up songs.  We played his fantastic, brand new Atari.   We swam until our skin was pruney and he needed a fork to help get his swimsuit tie unknotted.   He ate lima beans that my grandmother cooked us for a late night snack –without question.   We had conversations with his dog (who had a slight speech impediment, by the way).  He chose me as his sidekick for a trip to the circus.  We jokingly called all motorcyclers “heck’s angels” as his grandmother did.  I still do.  We spent New Years Eve on the corner by his home yelling and singing back and forth to the patrons of the bar across the street.  (We really were supposed to be in the church fellowship hall with everyone else).

And then after he graduated from high school his parents moved to take  a different church a few hours away.  I was devastated.    Yes our relationship had changed by then.  He had dated in high school.  I had dated.  He had school friends that I didn’t know well.  We even had some sizable spats.  But I cried big, ugly, eye swelling, nose dripping, sobs when I heard the news.   What would my world look like without Nate nearby?

Our youth group friends took a few trips to visit.  We wrote letters–real letters that needed pen and special stationery.  We still were a part of each other’s lives.  Not daily.  Not even weekly.  But a real part of each other’s lives.  Until the day I learned that he came out as gay.   I was shocked.  I was stunned.

I HAD TO SAVE HIM!!!!

I wrote a heartfelt letter to him where I reminded him that I loved him.  And how I was sure he was confused.  And how I had always imagined being in heaven together.  And how now that wasn’t possible if he was truly gay.   And how he knew better since he was a pastor’s son.  Yeah.  I was that stupid.

I lost him that day.  For over 25 years.  Not because he moved away.  Not because he really changed (Come on!  We had sung show tunes for hours and hours together…).  Not because we couldn’t still be friends.  But because I hurt him deeply with my thoughtless and knee jerk reaction to a declaration of his true self.

Once, in high school, Nate had been hospitalized due to a mental breakdown.  I was at his home with his family when they decided to take him for medical help.  I can see his dining room, the stairs, the color of the light, the worried eyes of his parents.   I worried myself to sleep that night.  I peppered his mom with questions of his condition and progress. I anxiously waited for his return home.  He came to my house on the first night after his release.  I can still feel the short, stubbly hair on his head as I ran my fingers across his scalp and watched tv together.  I have no idea what was on tv.  I have no memory of what we talked about.  But I recall he  was smiling and all was right with the world.

So, how could that love become so marred by judgement?   How did I lose sight of my friend and instead only see his sexuality?   Who was I to determine his worth in God’s eyes?  I was an ass.

Romans 5: 1-2 says—“Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.  And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.”  If we gain access to  and forgiveness from God through faith, why would it be possible to lose that access and forgiveness?   I knew that Nate was a Christian.  I witnessed his very real faith.  And yet I condemned him because I didn’t understand.  I couldn’t square up how a gay person could be a Christian too.

Life is full of grey areas.  The Bible does indeed speak against homosexuality.  In Leviticus it is declared an abomination.  But, let’s keep in mind that Leviticus also declares eating fat to be unholy (mmmm, I love me a well marbled ribeye steak), and that any clay pot touched by a man with ‘bodily discharge’ must be broken.  The laws in Leviticus were established as a means to show devotion to God, to protect His people from illness and diseases, and to demonstrate that humans are unable to actually keep the Law of God.   Let us remember that “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.” (Romans 8:1-2)

But, but, but… Sodom and Gomorrah.  Yes.  A royal mess of sin and debauchery that God chose to wipe off the face of the earth.   Might I also point you to Ezekiel 16: 49 where it says, “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom:  She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.  They were haughty and did detestable things before me.  Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.”  Oops!  It appears that perhaps callousness and a lack of care for the least played a  large role in the destruction of that city.   Maybe it wasn’t just those darned gays!

There are a few verses in the New Testament that mention homosexuality as a sin.  (1 Corinthians 6:9-11, Romans 1: 26-28, Mark 10:6-9, 1 Timothy 1:10-11 for example).  But I would offer that they need to be seen in context and considered with the culture of the day.  Some say that these verses refer to the historical practice of orgies and of predatory older men seeking young boys.   And let’s not forget that God sees sin as sin.  There is no hierarchy.  I sin just as much in God’s eyes as a heterosexual having casual sex outside of marriage as a homosexual.  No difference.  None.  Zero.  Zip.

But, to me, the larger context is this—the Bible mentions homosexuality 7-13 times total (depending on how strictly you interpret the verses).  Do you know how many times the Bible addresses the poor and how we are to treat them?  Over 440 times in over 380 separate verses.  Over 440 times compared to 7.  Is it just me that thinks that perhaps God saw our care for others as a bigger issue than the sexuality of individuals?  Do you know how often Jesus himself addressed our care of the poor?  At least 9.  How often did he address homosexuality?  Zero.  Never.  Nope.

It’s a messy topic.  It doesn’t have 100% clear cut answers.  I will always wrestle with what the Bible has to say about it.  I desperately wish that I had definitive answers for those who struggle with this topic.  I do not.  We humans are all broken in our own unique ways. All. Broken.  But, I no longer wrestle with how I am to respond to my gay friends and acquaintances.  I am to love unconditionally.  Just like with everyone else.  I am to interact without judgment.  Matthew 7:1-2 says “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.   For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”  I am, as always, to follow the example of Christ.

I have since reconnected with Nate.  I apologized for my harsh words.  I am thrilled that he was gracious enough to accept me again.  But, I will never recover those lost years of sharing life with my friend.  I was not there when he lost his brother suddenly.  I was not there when his mom fought cancer.  I was not there when he was hospitalized for depression.  I was not there to celebrate his successes and his creativity.  I can never get those years back.  I can never erase the hurt.

So, to my Christian friends I say–our job is not to judge, our job is not to save, our job is not to have all the black and white answers.  Our job is to love and love with all our heart.  The rest is up to God.

It’s All About Grace

I am a “born again” evangelical Christian.  Please don’t hold that against me.

After years of mindlessly following examples of respected people in the church and believing that all they said MUST be based in scripture, I’ve realized that I have been mistaken.  The church has absorbed much dogma and tradition that has no basis in the Word or in the example of Christ.  My secular friends and coworkers have all had negative experiences regarding Christians and the church.  They have been hurt, judged, deemed unworthy, cut off from family, yelled at, shamed, and brought to tears.  Most of these Christian interactions have pushed them far away from ever opening the Bible to see for themselves what this whole  God thing is about.  Many others have left the church due to its perceived hypocrisy and hatred.

The meaning of Christian is “follower of Christ”.  Or maybe we’d prefer “of, pertaining to, or derived from Jesus Christ or His teachings”.  Or, “exhibiting a spirit proper to a follower of Jesus Christ; Christlike”.  Perhaps “decent; respectable” and “human; not brutal; humane”.  Or maybe,”a person who exemplifies in his or her life the teachings of Christ”.   If we are truly what we claim to be then I would think we should try our best to know the teachings of Christ to the best of our ability and to strive toward living them out in our own lives.

But be forewarned, Jesus was/is a radical and controversial figure.  He always put others before Himself (there goes the “what about Christians’ rights?!” argument often heard from church leaders and alarmist radio and TV hosts).  He exemplified grace and forgiveness (uhoh, there goes the “tsk tsk, I can’t believe they have gotten themselves into that situation!  It is not my responsibility to help them clean up their mess).   He was completely silent on the issue of homosexuality (perhaps it shouldn’t be our number one concern if the Son of God Himself never chose to address it).   He hung out with the untouchable and lower class of his culture (there goes  looking down our nose at those people in Walmart and trailer parks).  But, but, but… I would never look down on anyone!  Please, we all have.  We might as well admit it to ourselves even if we aren’t ready to acknowledge it to anyone else.  And God already knows so there’s no sense trying to keep Him in the dark either.

Where does grace come in when a woman trying to enter Planned Parenthood has to walk the gauntlet of protestors declaring her to be a baby killer?  Do the protest signs and gruesome pictures make her feel loved?  Do these people demonstrate the love of Christ by shaming her?  I’m choosing to not address the very real scenario right now that the above mentioned woman might be entering the clinic for routine care since that is the majority of Planned Parenthood’s actual function.  What of the woman leaving the clinic after choosing to have an abortion?  Do the pro life lobbyists make her feel welcome to share her story of what drove her to that difficult decision?  Does she feel any sense of love whatsoever?  Or simply judgement and shame?  Would the church help her heal or simply deepen the wounds by repeatedly and mindlessly talking of the ugliness of abortion?

When is the last time you have messed up–I mean REALLY messed up–and needed someone else to remind you of how awful your choices have been?  Yes, I realize that there is a time and place for us to rebuke one another for behaving contrary to God’s commandments.   But I would suggest to you that most people heap plenty of guilt on themselves with absolutely no outside help.   What most humans need is someone to love them, hold them, listen to them, gently guide them.  Self loathing and guilt paralyzes us from moving forward.   Guilt and self hatred does not come from God.  It actually pushes us far away from God by telling us we are not worthy to even talk to Him, we are not worthy to seek forgiveness, we are not worthy to heal.   We Christians would be far more successful at showing others what it is that we believe in by simply loving people and pointing them in the direction of Christ without harsh declarations. Why would anyone listen to us if all they hear is judgment, shame, and piousness?  Isn’t conviction of sin the job of the Holy Spirit?  What makes us think we should take on that role?  Didn’t Jesus Himself say to the crowd watching for judgement of the woman caught in adultery, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”?  (John 8:7 NIV)  Jesus was pure and sinless.  Surely He had the right to stone this woman according to the law of the time (well, that and that He was God).  Instead He said, “Then neither do I condemn you.  Go now and leave your life of sin.”  (John 8:11 NIV,  upon witnessing the crowd dispersing after the realization that they could not in good conscience kill this woman).   What do you think that woman thought of Jesus after that moment?  I suspect He gained a follower in that moment.  He had literally saved her life.  Not by force, not by scolding, but by love and grace.

But wait!  Aren’t we judged and punished accordingly by a vengeful God?  Isn’t all bad stuff due to our screw ups?  No.  Indeed some of our difficulties are brought on by our personal choices. Yes, someday we will all be judged.   BUT, Jesus himself healed a blind man AFTER pointing out to the disciples that his blindness was not the result of sin.  “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” (John 9: 3).  His handicap simply “was”.  Not punishment.  Not judgement.  Just reality.  It was a circumstance allowed so that the grace and glory of God might be demonstrated.  So why then do church leaders like to spout off that earthquakes, or AIDS, or floods, are judgements from God for our laws, or for homosexuality, or for our general sinfulness?  Does it sound like the same God would send  His son to earth to save us but then beat us with a big stick at the same time?  Jesus said in John 10:14-15,  “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me—just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.”  If He was willing to lay down his life for us, why would he then proceed to punish everyone for the sins we all commit daily?  Do good shepherds randomly punish their sheep for everything they do wrong?  They care for them, guide them, feed them, and redirect them when necessary.

I chose to start this blog because it has become very apparent to me in the current political/religious/social environment that there are distinct camps forming around what is right and what is wrong.  There are distinct and stubborn factions willing to pick and choose what parts of the Bible they follow based on their own prejudices and opinions.  I see the church split into those who act like sin must be beaten out of everyone via laws, pronouncements, and separating ourselves from ‘the other’;  and those who think that grace and love is the key to drawing others to Truth.  I will tell you now that I fall firmly in the camp or grace and compassion.  There’s a reason the old saying “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar” has endured.

I write not as an expert, but as someone encouraging us to question.  Always question our own motives.  Always question our own actions.   Always question our own beliefs.  Do they match what Jesus Himself called the greatest commandment?  In Matthew 22:37-40, Jesus said: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”  When I become pure and sinless, then I will have the right to throw stones.  Until then, I live because of the grace shown me by God.  And I have no right to show others anything other than grace.