Where Are You?

http://m.huffpost.com/us/entry/6795764?utm_hp_ref=religion&ncid=tweetlnkushpmg00000067

I just posted the above article and the following comment on our church’s private FB page for our LGBTQ support group The Open Door: “As you read thru this article about the high price that evangelical churches like ours is paying for breaking from the herd on the LGBTQ issue, I hope you’ll contemplate a few things:

1) Attendance, giving, and standing among other churches, etc., are seriously impacted. Lay offs of valued staff, cuts in pay, harmful accusations and recriminations, departure of long time members and close friends, etc.  Every pastor and every church that feels led in some significant new ways to love and include LGBTQ brothers and sisters pays a big price. (As I meet with pastors of established “Welcoming and Affirming” churches, I find that they are often surprised to hear how costly this is to churches like ours because, in their churches and in their present circles, this has long been a ‘settled’ issue. For historically evangelical churches, however, this is far, far from being the case.)

2) While many LGBTQ Christians applaud these efforts and changes, it doesn’t seem like many of them increase their serving or giving (if they were already attending these churches) or become regulars or tithing/serving members to offset the losses. My sense is that some are still waiting to see/hear/experience how newly inclusive churches like EBCLA will be towards LGBTQs, and as the senior pastor, I think I get that. Maybe even more then some of you might think. But if you think back to the Civil Rights Movement, the few White churches that stood up against racism and segregation suffered myriad losses as many from their base left for ‘whiter’ pastures. But even as many Blacks vigorously and gratefully commended them, only a smattering ever chose to start attending and become contributing members. I’m sure that they too were still naturally suspicious or at least wondering how affirming these churches really were or would become. But imagine how this came across to the beleagured White pastors and leaders, who were paying high prices for swimming against the tides of racism, prejudice, injustice, and oppression. As they surveyed their now-nearly empty sanctuaries, they must have had moments where they wondered internally or aloud why more Blacks, especially Christian ones, weren’t coming now to be part of the transformation of these churches.

I know that we are still quite early in this effort and there are substantive issues like performing same-sex weddings that still aren’t resolved. But I hope you will at least begin to imagine how the straight remnant might feel at times when, despite all they’ve done and all they’ve suffered, they don’t see more LGBTQ brothers and sisters joining them to forge this Redemptive Community. It can get quite discouraging.”

I’m guessing that some of LGBTQ group regulars (gay and allies) will respond by insisting that however our church and I are suffering and experiencing disparagement and disenfranchisement, our current discomfort doesn’t hold a candle to how terribly and how long LGBTQ Christians have suffered all this and more. And they would be right. I can’t begin to imagine how it must be to grow up–especially in ‘Christian’ environments–struggling with one’s gender identity without any affirming support, without any constructive help and guidance. And to top it off, even wondering whether you are loved unconditionally by God.

This post is not to diminish or dismiss the very real, very deep, and very intense suffering that our LGBTQ sisters and brothers have suffered in their families, in our churches, in our Christian schools, and in this country. In fact, it’s the fact of how terribly most of you have suffered yet still cling to your faith in Christ that fuels my relentless pursuit of a way back home for you in our churches.

I felt led to write this post because I wanted you to know that pursuing my call from God has come at a cost to me, yes, but more importantly to our church.

The number of giving units the past two years has dropped. Thankfully, we ended last fiscal year in the black, but part of this was due to unplanned reduction in payroll (our Office Mgr passed away suddenly and we decided not to replace her.)

Our Sunday attendance has gone down the past two years, too.  Many with young children appear to have shifted to the earlier service, but this doesn’t account for how much emptier second service is. And I hear from my staff that there are still other regulars who are nervously waiting and wondering if they can stay.

So I guess what I’m saying here is that, similar to the post-CRM White churches that paid a gigantic price to become integrated churches but never really saw a significant influx of non-White regulars and members, evangelical churches that believe the Lord is leading them to find meaning-filled new ways to love and include LGBTQ Christians  are still hoping and waiting to see if they will not just applaud their efforts but commit themselves to joining in the effort and thereby lessening the churches’ pain and suffering.

Far more evangelical churches are still firmly against moving in this direction. And there are unknown numbers with pastors who are secretly wrestling with what to do, but are afraid of the real cost it will require. So when both of these sizable groups don’t see LGBTQ Christians responding in kind, the former will feel validated in their lack of effort and the latter will deem it not worth the high cost.

I don’t have any data to quote, but my guess is that, following the Civil Rights Movement or even the end of apartheid in South Africa, very few Blacks joined the courageous churches that chose to take a stand against the injustices and exclusions. Let’s hope and pray that, going forward, this will not be the case in the journey of a small but growing number of historically gay-excluding or -condemning churches to allow Christ to destroy the walls of hostility that have kept gays and straights from forging redemptive communities.

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Self-emptying Evangelism

iStock_000003026106Medium

http://sojo.net/blogs/2014/08/11/how-i-kissed-evangelizing-goodbye

[I wrote the following ‘comment’ after having posted the above-link by my good friend and careful thinker Cindy Wang Brandt on my FB page. What began as a chance to put down a few related thoughts ended up being more of a blog that elaborates on her realizations re: evangelism. Fool that I am, since I started composing my comments on my iPad after waking up this morning, I typed all that follows with my two thumbs.]

Applying Steven Covey’s and Cindy Wang Brandt’s approach, I’ve learned to ask myself, “How open am I to be impacted and influenced first by who this person is and what they truly believe, to demonstrate such a deep and sincere understanding of them first?” Because quite honestly in my past, I approached sharing my faith as a 100% one-way conversation. In other words, I want you to understand (and hopefully be transformed) by my truth, my story while I am unmoved, unpersuaded, unconverted by anything you share. One of the greatest gifts anyone can offer someone else (especially if they are quite different from you) is to understand them, to the point where they are convinced that you do. This is never something that any of us can declare, e.g., “I understand you.” Only the other party can tell us whether we have in fact given them this gift. Or not.

Not feeling understood is frequently the root cause of not only failed attempts to share the gospel of Jesus. It is one of the reasons why there is so little real dialogue, so little empathy, and so much talking past each other, on ANY subject, in so many settings. Empathic Listening is not a technique of persuasion. If approached like that, it is disingenuous and utterly lacking of Christ’s Spirit. Jesus first emptied himself (Phil 2) before coming to us, before becoming for a time our flesh. His willingness to incarnate himself continues to demonstrate to us that he deeply understands what it means to be human, even though he is God. The Son of God’s incarnation was ultimately his way of empathizing with us, of being willing to be transformed first.

Jesus risked being transformed by us first without any guarantee that we would be so moved by this self-emptying act that we would then all be open to understanding him and being transformed. Some were so unmoved that they wanted to destroy him. But Love will always go first, will always risk being unrequited, rejected, even taken advantage of.

Think how much this Christ-like example is needed today in the Middle East or between rich and poor, straight and gay, women and men, young and old, parents and teens. Without the willingness to lay down one’s agenda to be understood first, to be declared right, to come out on top, there will only be serial monologue–with neither party truly listening to understand, but only formulating counters and comebacks–and never any genuine dialogue.

And as ones who’ve supposedly been transformed by Christ’s empathy, we should always be the ones to seek to understand first. But sadly, this rarely happens. Years ago, I was leading a small group of struggling Christians and curious outsiders. One of the latter was a quiet man with a Masters in Zen Buddhism and a doctorate in clinical psych. I spent much of our first two sessions trying to convince him that Jesus trumped Buddha, that I was absolutely right and he was absolutely wrong. He sat that passively and I thought I was winning. He then spoke up. “I’ve read the entire Bible several times through, even studied Barth’s Church Dogmatics, before deciding that what I was seeking could be found best through Zen. Much of what you’ve said is inaccurate. There are seven schools of Buddhism, and mine doesn’t believe in a soul, so the question of where I will spend eternity is irrelevant. Where did you ‘learn’ this? Have you read our sacred texts? Have you spent any time with Buddhist priests?”

In a rare moment of emptying, I confessed that I had done none of those things, that my declarations were based on vague recollections from a Christian paperback that I’d read back in high school that purported to explain and disqualify the 3 other major religions in the world. “Since you’ve studied both, please help me understand why you ended up choosing Zen.” And for the rest of that session, I concentrated on understanding why even if I didn’t always agree.

When he was done, his countenance was different, less defensive, softer. He then looked at me and asked, “What caused you to let me speak, to talk about my own beliefs? Christians always do all the talking. What kind of Christianity is this?” I meekly replied, “The kind that is trying to be more like Jesus.”

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Staying Connected Till the End: Getting Ready to Put Down Our Dog

_Chewy_DxOI believe it was last November when I posted on FB that the older of our two golden retrievers was literally on his last legs. I can’t remember the year when we adopted Chewy through the Golden Retriever Rescue group, but he’s been with us for around 8 years and he was supposed to be about 5 yoa when we added him to our family. He’d been neglected and abused before he was rescued off death row from a shelter in Bakersfield, CA.

The GRR group had to scope out our backyard and basically do a home study on our family before they’d greenlight the adoption. At the time, it seemed over-the-top, but in retrospect, given what some of the rescued dogs have gone through, I can see why they are so thorough. When the volunteer caseworker called us, I assured her that our backyard is like Shangri-La for dogs. One hundred feet wide and probably 75′ deep, covered with a lush Marathon II lawn and shaded by four old-growth avocado trees and numerous Japanese maples, it’s a far cry from the cramped and barren dirt backyards that Chewy had known before. We passed.

True to his breed, Chewy was clearly the happiest when he was hanging out with us or when he was chasing furiously after a tossed tennis ball. Unlike some of the previous golden retrievers we’d had, he seemed to thrive on constant contact with us, whenever possible. While I’d be watching TV, he’d settle down in front of me, flop over on his side, and then extend a front leg so that his paw was touching my foot. He’d keep that up until or unless he’d fall asleep. It was like he wanted me to know that he was there for me.

Chewy never had a great sniffer. I used to think it was because golden retrievers rely on their eyes to spot where the just-shot goose has fallen, not their noses. But when we added Puppy Dylan to our clan several years later, it was obvious that Chewy’s nose just wasn’t working at 100%. On a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being a bloodhound’s ability to smell things), Chewy was probably a -4. But as long as he could see where you’d thrown his ball, he’d hustle down to the general vicinity and delight in nosing around until he found it.

Near the end of Dylan’s first year with us, he began to outrun Chewy for the ball. Over the next few years, Chewy would still be searching for it long after an exultant Dylan had discovered it and brought it back, praying for just one more throw. We just thought it was because Chewy had such an impaired sense of smell, but he was later diagnosed with congenital blindness, where the rods in his eyes were slowly losing their functionality. We’re not sure when he went completely blind, but he’s been that way now for at least the last 3 years.

I can’t be positive, but I think Chewy has been okay with losing his eyesight. Maybe it was like the world was slowly fading to black. And then maybe he just assumed that the sun had gone out and we were all wandering around in the dark. He clearly had a mental map of our terrace–where he eats and sleeps–and all the trees, slopes, and contours of our backyard. But we stopped bringing him inside because he couldn’t navigate around our furniture and walls. And we couldn’t take him on walks anymore because literally his every step was furtive and uncertain.

Fortunately, when Dylan wasn’t galavanting around the yard or warning a passing dog that it was trespassing, he loved hanging out with his slow pal Chewy. We’re pretty sure that Chewy has stayed alive and active these past couple of years because he has a younger buddy that loves him. And licks the inside of his ears. Twice daily. Delicious.

So last fall, when Chewy was having trouble getting his rear legs under him, we assumed our faithful old companion was at the end of his days. We struggled to get him into the back of my SUV that night and brought him to our long-time vet friend Dr. Ann Tsugawa. She works nights at an emergency vet clinic in Pasadena and has been so sensitive and caring when we’ve needed help putting down previous pets. But after weighing him, taking his blood, and doing some x-rays on his spine, she pronounced that he was struggling to get up because he was about 20+ pound overweight due to a thyroid that wasn’t functioning properly and far too many fallen avocado treats. She sent us home with some tiny pills and instructions to chop down our avocado trees.

We gave him the pills and I put up a 2ft-high fence that spanned the width of our backyard to keep Chewy from going down to where the green gems were waiting to be found and devoured. He lost about 18 lbs and regained his mobility. But we knew that each day would bring us closer to saying goodbye to him, given his advanced age. So we brushed him more, we talked to him more, we patted and stroked his head more. Because we wanted him to know and experience that he still mattered to us, even though he had so many limitations.

Last night, my wife and daughter noticed that he was sitting Sphinx-like on the tiled terrace, uttering short, muffled barks. We guessed that it was because he needed to relieve himself, but couldn’t raise himself to walk down the two wide steps to get to the grass. It was a struggle, but we got him down the steps. As soon as his wobbly rear legs touched the grass, they seemed to gain new life and he walked gingerly around before plopping down on the grass. We brought him his supper dish and water, which he consumed with gusto. When I looked out the window after midnight, he was in the same spot, head up, panting. I went to the garage and turned off the automatic sprinklers because I had a feeling he wasn’t going to move from this spot.

When we awoke this morning, Chewy hadn’t moved an inch. He seemed alert, but he was clearly thirsty. My wife gave him his morning Milk Bone and then she and our daughter left. But not before telling me to contact Dr. Ann about bringing him in tonight to put him down.

I went out this morning with more water, which he drained, After stroking his head a bit, I took what will probably be the last photos of Chewy, hoping to capture his essence, his spirit, his enduring “Life Is Good” attitude even though his life has been hard. Even though he hasn’t been able to see us or to watch our daughter grow from a seven-year-old to a teenager, I hope that he knows and feels that we are his family or his pack, and that we will hear and see what he’s trying to tell us today. “I’m there now. I’m ready. You’ve blessed me with a far better life than what I ever dreamed was possible. I’m really old and tired now. Help me. Help me to end my life with dignity. Tonight, as we all wait for the medicine to take effect, let me feel connected with you until I take my last breath.”

And we will, Old Friend. We will.

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When Did Being “Conservative” Become the Safest Thing for a Christian to Be?

I served as the morning Bible teacher.

I served as the morning Bible teacher.

I just finished speaking at a historic week-long annual Christian conference. I met my future wife while both of us served on staff at the conference’s 1979 high school camp and we helped lead subsequent camps for teens and then career-young-adults. But although we went to the main adult conference a few times, we never made it an annual pilgrimage like so many others did. So when the sponsoring organization invited me to speak at the adult camp in 2012, I was surprised and excited to bring my take on the book of Hosea to the conferees. From the feedback I received, many of them appreciated how I had them wrestle with being “Gomer,” the chronically unfaithful wife of the long-suffering prophet Hosea. So later that same year, I was invited to come back as one of the main preachers in Summer 2014. When I was told that Dr. Tony Campolo was going to be the other speaker, I immediately agreed. After all, Campolo has inspired me for decades with his powerful prophetic messages, thoughtful books and blogs, and his heroic example of loving the poor and the despised. Besides, I don’t know of too many other preachers (especially Asian American ones like me) who wouldn’t feel intimidated to share the pulpit with Tony. Let’s just say that however overwhelmed I was feeling, I was much more excited to spend a week with one of my all-time heroes and fellow American Baptist.

Apparently the choice of Tony and I for this summer’s conference raised eyebrows among some conservative Asian American pastors and Christians. Some labeled us both as “Emergent” Christians (post-Modern, ‘too liberal’) and shared their grave concerns with the parent organization. Despite these accusations and their supporting ‘evidence’ the executive director and his trustees weren’t convinced that we were surreptitious members of this sometimes controversial recent branch of Christianity. They stood by their selection of us both, believing that many new folks would want to come hear us open God’s Word that week.

Tony had graciously submitted himself to hyper-scrutiny by those concerned, He answered all their questions patiently and continued to assert his unwavering beliefs in the critical tenets of orthodox Christianity. This, however, didn’t allay the concerns and fears of our critics. So, in a move that disappointed many, Campolo humbly withdrew from speaking. At 79 yoa, he simply didn’t want to put any more energy and time into defending himself and his faith, and he didn’t want to be a distraction for the conference.

What most didn’t know until I revealed it in my last message was that I too had rescinded my acceptance to speak. I also didn’t want to continue to be a lightning rod and I also didn’t want the ED and his board to feel trapped if they changed their mind but were afraid to offend me or hurt my feelings. I wrote, “I still feel that God has given me something to say that week that’s important, but I don’t have to speak. Please pray about it some more. If you then still want me to speak, I will. But don’t feel like you’re between a rock and a hard place.” They did pray about it more and ultimately affirmed that they still wanted me to speak. I’m sure that this decision wasn’t reached without a great amount of soul-searching, because they knew that some of their mainstay churches were probably going to ‘boycott’ this year’s conference, which meant that their organization was going to have to absorb a gigantic hit to their wallet. Even though Campolo had backed out and even though they’d replaced him with someone who was completely without controversy, they were being told by these conservative churches that the original choice of Tony and me was a disturbing sign that they were becoming “too liberal.”

One of my main focal points all week was on the Pharisees in the New Testament. Knowing full well what the sponsoring group was being accused of, I started asking this question of various people during our conversations about all the controversy leading up to last week: “Were the Pharisees conservative or liberal?” The obvious answer is that they were conservative, and proudly so. They prided themselves on their careful study of Jewish Scripture, their meticulous adherence to the Jewish moral code, and assumed therefore that they were much closer to YHWH God than tax collectors, thieves, and prostitutes. Yet Jesus labeled them unbecoming things like broods of poisonous snakes, white-washed tombs, and blind hypocrites. He told them stories designed to jolt them to realize that they were much farther from YHWH God than most of the other sinners that they regularly condemned. According to Jesus, being conservative was clearly NOT the safest thing in the world to be.

I followed up with this query: “And did the Pharisees think Jesus was conservative or liberal?” Here again, the answer is obvious. They believed that Jesus was far and away a liberal and they branded him with unflattering labels like “blasphemer” and “heretic.” When the Apostle Paul was still a proudly conservative Pharisee (named Saul), he even went after early followers of Jesus, persecuting and pounding them, even putting some to death. While Jesus never claimed to be ‘liberal,’ his actions declared that God was far less restrictive with his love and mercy than the avowed conservatives of his day. While many conservative Christians today would never stick the dreaded “L” tag on Jesus, an honest reading of the Gospels shows that the Pharisees clearly tagged Jesus as a liberal.

So when did the meaning of the two labels get flip-flopped? When did being a conservative Christian automatically come to imply standing in the safest place, occupying the holiest seats closest to God’s throne, being the ones most clearly in the possession of Truth? The record of the Gospels makes the exact opposite case, yet untold numbers of Christians today proudly identify as conservatives and also use being conservative as God’s standard for truth and being above reproach.

I’m really not a liberal Christian, but I’m also no longer a proud and defiant conservative one. And because I no longer wrap myself in all the trappings of conservatism, I’m not surprised when some of my more conservative Christian sisters and brothers (mainly the males, though), are suspicious or even critical of me. Or Campolo. You see, in these circles, if you’re not conservative, then you’re in danger of sliding down the slippery slopes of liberalism. I will be the first to agree that it definitely is possible to become “too liberal” but what I hardly ever hear is that it’s also just as possible (and just as dangerous, if not more) to become “too conservative.” Both extremes can become too self-righteous and too dogmatic, even vicious. Which is why I firmly believe we need to have churches, denominations, organizations, and conferences that have a healthy combination of conservatives and liberals in them. Both have blind spots that are only apparent to non-partisans.

However, I believe that this will only occur when those more right of center are convinced that being conservative doesn’t automatically mean being safe, right, and closer to God than being liberal. True and needed convicted civility among conservative and liberal Christians can’t and won’t occur so long as both sides view the other as being far from God and God’s truth. And I think it would grease the rails of reconciliation greatly if more conservative Christians stopped putting more liberal ones on the defensive. I’m pretty sure Jesus said to focus on the log in our own eyes instead of pointing out the sawdust in our neighbor’s eye.

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This Problem Already Has a Proven Solution

[Sojourners asked me to write this as a follow up to the Harper/Wallis post.  I submitted it but I never heard back from them.  So rather than waste this piece, I thought I’d post it here.]

 

 

A recent post by Sojourners’ Jim Wallis and Lisa Sharon Harper (http://sojo.net/blogs/2013/11/21/only-19-percent-are-women) brought to light how most major Evangelical conferences are still reluctant to feature qualified women as plenary speakers.  In a quick survey of 34 such conferences, only 19 percent of the main addresses were given by women.  To Harper and Wallis, the paucity of females on these influential platforms is a serious problem.

 

“…So, it is not only a sociological problem, but a theological one — an ecclesial one — when more than half the church is excluded from upfront leadership, prophetic ministry, and public teaching. This denial repudiates the power of the gospel of reconciliation.

 

 

“The church writ large in the United States and the Western Church more broadly continues to struggle with a history of under-representing women and people of color in leadership. These kinds of things don’t change overnight. And while acknowledging the problem is important, knowing it’s there doesn’t fix it.”

 

 

They briefly mention here that this problem extends beyond gender-representation; most of these same prominent Evangelical conference line-ups are also bereft of women and men of color.  

 

 

Some of these organizers hold to the view of Scripture that prohibits women—no matter how qualified or spellbinding—from having authority over men.  So unless they are convinced otherwise, their events will never feature female speakers.  Even so, their reading of the Bible should compel them to offer more than the unchanging diet of influential—predominantly White—male pastors of gigantic wealthy churches.  I’m not just talking about going after non-White male speakers.  I’m also thinking of White male pastors who are doing significant kingdom-work but who serve in off-the-radar, simple churches, many serving the overlooked, many who would challenge the suburban, homogeneous, achievement-based assumptions of the typical speakers and conferees.

 

 

But I also know that some organizers actually do embrace that God originally charged women and men to lead together.  And they believe that Christ’s work on the cross has destroyed the curse that’s led to systemic patriarchy—however benevolent—that has kept far too many women from being restored to their rightful place as coheirs of God’s kingdom.  In their local settings, they gratefully serve together with female leaders.  However, when it comes to pulling together a platform for their group’s conference, they choose not to include females for fear of backlash or boycott from the more conservative speakers and invitees.  I know of one such women-affirming Christian ministry that has followed this pattern for decades now.  Recently their board decided to stop appeasing their most conservative constituents.  Their next annual conference will be a much broader, more inclusive picture of the Body of Christ that exists the other fifty-one weeks of the year.  They are prepared that a sizable percentage of their regulars may choose not to come, but they are praying that there will be those who come regardless, because they can see the long-standing ecumenical inequities and agree with at least the organization’s motives for bringing in a more representative line up of speakers, both in gender and theology.  They’re hoping that many who’ve stayed away from this retreat because of its excluding of female speakers and ones who come from more progressive perspectives will make it their mission to support this board and fill those empty spots themselves. 

 

 

It might begin to turn the tide on this appalling lack of representation issue if more of us who are concerned choose not to go to conferences that clearly aren’t committed to moving things in a more inclusive direction.  Even if we’ve been dying to hear a particular White male speaker address something that matters to Jesus and to us.  On the flip side, it might also help if we choose to attend conferences that go out of their way to identify and invite qualified women and people from diverse backgrounds to open up the Word and the world.  Even if we’ve never heard of most of them or if they’ve yet to write a blog or a book, if the organizers believe that they have something worth highlighting and hearing, then let’s register and show up in droves. 

 

 

 

If you think this approach won’t work, take a look at the unprecedented ongoing popularity of the TED conferences.  People flock to these talks—in person and online—not because they’ve heard of the speakers (they haven’t), not because all the speakers are men (that would be so weird) or come from the same side of the tracks (that would be so boring).  No, it’s because they know that the conveners are committed to giving the platform to anyone who has something worth saying. 

 

 

TED only has two, sacred criteria for possible speakers.  They must deliver their talk in a very compelling manner.  And they must do it in 18 minutes or less.  Sort of sounds like preaching to me.

 

 

 

 

 

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Identifying Blind Spots and the Asian American Letter to the Church

Jon Eng 吴国盛

AAletter

Two Caveats:

  1. I don’t like to be in the limelight. It’s not my natural inclination to engage in dicey conversations or involve myself in conflicts. Yet if I’ve learned anything over my short 28 years of life, it’s that there are some things where you just need to step in. Not doing so would only perpetuate further misunderstanding, brokenness and disunity with all parties involved.
  2. I cannot begin to express my admiration of Kathy Khang and Helen Lee, the two women who originally organized the open letter (Kathy is both a friend and a colleague). I am thankful for their leadership and their willingness to raise awareness for the sake of the church’s unity. It’s been encouraging to see what God is already doing. However, I also recognize that for some, certain parts of the letter have been difficult. More on this below.

Why this post?

It’s been a little…

View original post 1,994 more words

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Are You Sure I’m a Heretic?

Slide428I might be imagining this (for reasons that I shall make plain in a moment or two), but does it strike you that some people today are quite quick to label another person a heretic?  To be more specific, it appears to me that the more conservative people are as Christians, the more they believe it’s their God-ordained duty to guard God’s Truth by exposing and verbally eviscerating any person or group that isn’t perfectly aligned with their particular doctrinal paradigm or views.  I’m sure that those who don’t give a fig about that religion (or any religion) don’t even raise an eyelash when this occurs.  If they do happen to notice, they probably shrug their shoulders and simply declare “a pox on both your houses.”  The heresy wars are typically internecine ‘family’ affairs.

I’ve gone to a Christian church my entire life and have publicly and gladly identified myself as a Christ-follower for nearly all of those years.  I passed my American Baptist ordination exam with flying colors back the ’80s and I continue to affirm the official Statements of Faith of all the evangelical Christian institutions I’ve served as a board member, guest preacher, and now, as Executive Director of a new seminary initiative at Fuller Theological Seminary (Pasadena, CA).  In other words, I’m not just a card-carrying Christian; I’ve had my card stamped ‘legit’ by reputable, recognized Christian organizations for years.

So why on earth are some Christians who happen to be more conservative than I am now wondering or concluding that I’m a heretic?

To be fair, they’re reacting to my definitely public efforts to figure out how more evangelical churches (like the one where I’m the senior pastor) can be more loving and inclusive of openly LGBTQ Christians without celebrating any and all choices that LGBTQ believers might want to make.  I get it.  That’s an ultra-controversial topic that already has been publicly framed in extremely polarizing and contentious ways.  Knowing this, I started this journey back in 2007 with a generous amount of fear and trembling.  I knew that I would eventually find myself in the gunsights of those who are convinced that they’ve been divinely deputized to expose those who’ve strayed from The Truth.  I carried and used that same badge for probably the first 25+ years of being a Christian.  The fact that I eventually stopped wearing it so prominently is a key indicator of how my ongoing journey to be a more obvious follower of Jesus has been going.  In other words, sort of like a certain famous self-righteous, convinced-he-was-right First Century Pharisee, the alive-again Jesus confronted me with my arrogance and misguided authority.  He began to convince and convict me that me minuscule, misguided, feeble mind couldn’t possibly contain or fathom all the Truth that is God.  Which meant (shudder) that there were more authentic Christ-followers then would fit neatly into my own personal orthodox cubby hole.  Like Catholics.  And Seventh-Dayers.  And tongue-speakers.  And (gulp) liberal Methodists and chain-smoking Presbyterians.  It honestly wasn’t any kind of overnight transformation.  But the ongoing outcome has been an ever-deepening humility and a growing ability to see previously unimaginable connections with  folks that I still don’t see eye-t0-eye with on numerous things.

Here’s the dictionary definition for heretic:

1) a dissenter from established religious dogma; especially :  a baptized member of the Roman Catholic Church who disavows a revealed truth

2) one who dissents from an accepted belief or doctrine : nonconformist

Synonyms:dissenterdissentientdissidentheresiarch,nonconformist

Antonyms:conformerconformist

I was surprised that these definitions (including the synonyms) didn’t sound nearly as condemning as how I think I used this caustic adjective in the past and how some are using on me and others today.  I’m not Catholic and, as I said at the outset, I still affirm the essential pillars of the Christian faith, so the first definition doesn’t describe me.  The second one, though, there’s parts of that one that seem to stick.  For many fellow Christians, a long accepted belief has been that being gay is a result of making a sinful, willful choice.  “No one is born gay, for why would a holy God create a gay person?”  I grew up with that belief and anyone who said anything different than that was a heretic.  But with the public apology and disbanding of what was then the world’s leading “ex-gay” ministry earlier this year and my recent friendships with sincere gay Christians whose prayers for God to make them straight have still not been answered, what was once a widely accepted belief by many evangelical Christians is now not so widely accepted.  Granted, there are probably more who are struggling than who have come to accept that, most gays didn’t choose this.  And much of this shift has come from more straight evangelicals finding out that they already know and love gay people, many of whom are definitely fellow Christ-followers trying their best to lead God-honoring lives with the ‘cards’ they’ve been dealt.

If in the past, being a heretic meant that you were not conforming to a widely-held belief by your group or tribe, it seems like evangelicals like me are suspected of being heretics for the OPPOSITE reason, i.e., that we’re conforming to a shift in beliefs about what it means to be gay that is clearly occurring in the public arena as well as in growing pockets of evangelical Christianity.

The traditional definition of a heretic is quite damning.  In ages past, those tried and convicted of heresy were typically tortured and executed in horrific ways.  I seriously doubt that any of my current accusers would press for that outcome.  So maybe they’re using the wrong label for me.  I’m not a heretic.  I’m just not as conservative as they are.

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