Several Sundays ago, I heard a sermon that struck something inside me. The thoughts it brought up keep repeating over and over in my mind, and you know me. When that happens, it’s a large clue that whatever I am thinking needs saying. As it stands, it has taken me a while to get to the “saying it” point, as is evidenced by the fact that I am posting this several weeks on.
In the ancient Israel of the prophet Nehemiah’s time, Jerusalem was conquered, razed, the Temple destroyed, and the Israelites taken off into slavery. After decades in Babylon, some of them were then allowed to return to Jerusalem. However, the walls of the city remained broken down and destroyed for a long time. As the pastor giving the sermon analyzed, broken-down walls meant disgrace, defeat, and judgement, a lack of protection, and were a constant reminder of when everything went horribly wrong. In Nehemiah’s time, according to the pastor, the surrounding countries had “no respect for God or His people” and come against and conquered them because God’s people did not live up to His requirements, had set aside their faith, and ignored His messengers (2 Chronicles 36). The Israelites lived in exile for decades before being allowed to return home to rebuild their city and their Temple.
That idea about the countries surrounding Israel having no respect for God or His people stuck with me, or, more accurately, a reason behind it stuck with me. In our current day in 2019, what I have seen, heard, and what has coalesced in realization is that people outside of Christianity often have no respect or love for God or His people because His people have no love or respect for those outside. And that thought was a gut-strike, keeping itself on repeat in my mind throughout the remainder of the service.
People often “do not love and respect God” or the people who claim to be His, because the latter do not love and respect those outside their own echo chambers, or ostensibly even those inside at times. In the past several months, we have seen new holes open up in the proverbial coat of several areas of the Christian church institution. We have once again had light shone on secrets and dark corners in trusted, cherished parishes that have caused incalculable pain, damage, and life-altering trauma. At the same moment, in almost the same breath, when Christlike love and presence were needed most, in another denomination a decision made by a few was reinforced to ostracize the many, an entire community of people, and to deny them a place in that faith and, presumably by extension, in God’s love. While I have watched the beauty of Methodist churches rising up and standing in solidarity and love with their people–all of them–the reality must still be faced. Christians have—in a few very loud corners—with their tongues proclaimed to love the Lord their God with all their hearts, souls, minds, and strength, and that they love their neighbors as themselves. Meanwhile, with their hands, they have betrayed those words and crushed them into sand that ends up blown into the eyes of those whom they have denied.
Does that come across as harsh? Maybe it does. Maybe it needs to.
I have written on this before, so it really should come as no surprise where I fall in this discussion of love, faith, and inclusion. Is it every single Christian who is guilty of this? No. By no means, no. But there are, unfortunately, enough to make a very crucial difference in the impact of our faith and the weight by which we are measured. The very last part of the sermon that Sunday hit me, this time right in the heart. It was a challenge to the congregation to “work together to bring glory to God and blessing to those who dwell in Him”. The pastor said four things that have stayed with me:
1. Do not ignore the needs in our community or in our church! Be honest about what is broken.
2. Don’t wait for someone else to get involved. Go for it!
3. Use what you have, and trust God for what you don’t have!
4. It is okay to expect a miracle, but it is not okay to wait for one.
These four admonishments may seem simple on their faces, but they are heavy with truth, Dear Ones. The one that has lodged its razor-sharp corner in my heart is “Be honest about what is broken”.
Our lack of love as Christians is broken.
Our lack of understanding is broken.
Our lack of humaneness is broken.
Our lack of mercy is broken.
Our lack of Christlikeness is broken.
Our denial, our erasure, these things are all broken.
We are broken, just as others are broken. Broken and in need. Why do we as Christians try to deny the love and open arms of God to someone else (as if we could!) when we are in such desperate need of them ourselves? Newsflash: God doesn’t need our permission to love someone. His love is not predicated on what we as fallible humans think. Again: God. Does not. Need. Our. Permission. To. Love. Someone. As Christians, we are not the gatekeepers to God’s love. We are supposed to be the instruments of it, but our actions, words, and attitudes can actively destroy the chance for that relationship to be born. We can actually get in the way of the love we claim to espouse.
Be honest about what’s broken. It seems a simple and difficult enough idea at the same time, doesn’t it? In these weeks, I have been faced with what might appear to others to be a simple choice: to post or not to post, to share or not to share. I am trying to pull all of this thinking into words and then be brave enough to “say” it out loud. I have posted a few things lately on social media pertaining to the LGBTQIA+ community and my Christian faith that I personally feel deeply and strongly about, as I have in the past. These are beliefs, statements, and stances that I know that some Christians in my life would, most likely, deeply disagree with. That alone has caused me a bit of anxiety. But, at the same time, I had a heart-nudge (which I have come to recognize as God’s prodding and actively try not to ignore), and I wanted to be true to my conscience, my faith, and my convictions.
Over the past few weeks and days, my heart has broken repeatedly. As a teacher, I look back and think of students that have sat in my classrooms over the past ten years, who have written of abuse they have suffered, of loneliness, isolation, self-hate, and fear, and the resulting trauma and self-harm. Students whom I have known to be or suspected were non-hetero, non-binary, etc., and the struggles they have battled through. I cannot fathom telling these beautiful, deep-hearted children that they are a mistake, that God doesn’t love them, doesn’t value them, or that they don’t have a place in their faith if they feel called to serve in that capacity. I cannot wrap my mind or heart around it. Not when the people I have been privileged to meet, know, love, and who have been formative in this, the second half of my life, are so broad and deep and wide and who span the entire spectrum. People whose light and love and faith have supported and walked with me through hard moments and times. Tender people who have unclenched my fists and held my trembling hands in theirs, both literally and figuratively. Beloved people who have treated me with kindness, mercy, humanity, and understanding beyond anything I could have hoped for.
President of Biola University, Barry H. Corey, recounts the day when a friend and colleague in Bangladesh took him out to lunch and then proceeded to tell him about her homosexual relationship and the partner waiting for her back in the States. He asked her why she was telling him as he was “obviously straight […] and neither a trained counselor nor LGBT ally” (Love Kindness, 60). Karen replied that she had told him “because she believed authentic Christians see people first and foremost as created in God’s image and of immense value” (60-61, emphasis mine).
So many people in the LGBTQIA+ community, both young and older, have been told, both directly and indirectly, that they are “less than” (less than desirable, less than acceptable), having any identity as God’s or being created in His image wiped away because they are “unworthy” or “wrong”. As a result, so many of them leave and never darken the door to a community of faith again because…well…who would want to? In this, I believe that the Christian church is broken. We fail to see God’s image in those different from us and therefore miss the deep value He has placed in them.
In For the Love: Fighting for Grace in a World of Impossible Standards, author Jen Hatmaker unpacks this idea with open honesty:
“We [Christians] are losing influence in our culture, and it isn’t even a mystery as to why. Folks are explaining plainly why they are leaving faith or are too afraid to come near it. One of the chief reasons is this: Christians.
I realize the mass exodus is multifaceted and deserves a fair analysis, but the common denominator is so abundant, we have to face it. [Cultural] conversions are happening inside and outside of Christianity and are necessary to assess and understand. But treating each other poorly is not a factor Christians can pass off.
[…] This is the next generation weeping for their gay friends and classmates, rejecting the church that maligns an entire community. This is my smart and funny friend who lives in loneliness because her Christian “friends” wounded and shamed her, and she is afraid to try again.
[…] If we are inhibiting others from finding Jesus [through our behavior] this constitutes a full-blown crisis. Ultimately, the rejection of Christians predicates the rejection of Jesus, and if that doesn’t grieve us, we have missed the whole point. Jesus tried to impress this upon us. I mean, He was obsessed.
“By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).” (190-192, brackets mine)
Something that Hatmaker reminds her readers of is that there absolutely is a correlation that can be drawn between how we as Christians treat each other and our fellow human beings and how the world that is watching us will feel about Jesus. If we say we are all about love and mercy and kindness and yet we condemn, decry, and dehumanize, how can people be anything but confused, hurt, and angry? The links between our belief, our words, and our actions are woefully broken, leaving us as Christians with a reality to face.
Our lack of love is broken.
Our lack of understanding is broken.
Our lack of humanness is broken.
Our lack of mercy is broken.
Our lack of Christlikeness is broken.
I am not waiting for a miracle. I am expecting one, yes, but I am not waiting for one. Our generation cannot afford that, and neither can the next one. I will love. I will be kind. I will pray. I will encourage. I will use what I have—my presence, my influence, my voice, my words, my arms—and trust God for the rest. I will tell my students that they are welcome in my classroom and in our school community just as they are. I will remind my friends and family—daily if need be—that I love them and thank God for them. I will do my best to speak out against injustice and call those in power to account. I will commiserate with, support, and comfort those who are suffering. I will do my best to live what I believe and write. We belong to one another, and that is how I choose to live.
“Above all, I desire to be part of God’s image-bearing people who relate to each other full of grace and truth, the same way God relates to us through Christ. Loving those who are different than we are is what we are supposed to do. And we’re called to serve together, to eat together, to have long and meaningful conversations with each other, to listen to each other, to sit on pews beside each other. […] I am working on the kindness of listening, understanding more and more the difference between listening while waiting to respond to someone and listening while wanting to learn about someone. Kindness is the latter.” (Corey 63-64, emphasis mine)
I am expecting a miracle, yes. I am not waiting for one, no. Love, listening, kindness, connection. These are the miracles I choose.