Friday, February 26, 2016

Transcending Transgenders, Tax Collectors, & Westboro Baptists

While calling on one of my big box stores this week, I ran into an associate who used to work in the toy department but whom I hadn't seen in awhile. It was like a shock of cold water because he was clearly transitioning to becoming a she. Hopefully my initial inward reaction didn't show outwardly. I talked with him for a few minutes and then he went back to work. As he walked off, I noticed the harsh or disgusted looks of customers and that I got a few myself for talking with him. 

As I went back to my work, I could not help but continue to think about this young man. I know very little about his life and what choices led him to where he is today, but I would love to sit down and find out more. I love what Eugene Peterson wrote, "People are not problems to be solved. They are mysteries to be explored." Everyone has a story that they want to share, to know that they are being heard, and I am someone who wants to hear them.   Without judgment or condemnation. I'm sure he gets enough of that in his life already.

For graduate school, I went to an ultraconservative Christian university. While there, I met more young men and women who were gay and lesbian than I ever did at my liberal arts undergraduate college. They were closeted and struggled gravely with their sexuality. These were Christians who were terrified of coming out for fear of rejection by their families and their churches. Many had prayed repeatedly to be delivered from their sin and questioned why God wouldn't change them. Whenever someone came out to me, it was nervously and with great fear. How would I respond? They seldom looked directly at me when they told me. It was always one-on-one. And it usually ended with, "And I'll understand if you don't want to be friends with me. . ." My heart broke to hear this. My response was always, "I'm still you're friend. This doesn't change that. Mine is not a conditional friendship. I will stand by you and love you as your friend no matter what."  I shared tears and hugs with them. I loved them.

One of them asked me, "Do you think I'm going to hell?"

Having grown up in the church, the answer I was programmed to respond with was, "Yeah! Of course." But that's not what I found myself saying, "Only if you reject the grace of God just like anyone else who does." Did I just say that? And then I said, "Last I checked in the Bible, homosexuality was not the unforgivable sin."  What? Did that just come out of my mouth? I don't think the university's founder, Pat Robertson, would have agreed with me, but I have found we seldom agree anyway. And there are probably many in the Church and those who may even being reading this now who don't agree with me.

I know because I've heard them over the years. I have been in Sunday school classes and heard adults say hateful things like, "I would never allow one of them in my house!" or "I would rather my child die of cancer than be gay!" How unloving and un-Christ-like are such statements. It saddens me to hear such statements because there is nothing of our Savior in those hateful words. Jesus said the greatest commands were: love God and love others. Where is that love in what they were saying? Where is the compassion of Christ in those revealing statements? Scripture tells us that "From the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks" so what does this say about their hearts?

What they don't get is that, if Jesus were walking on the earth today, those people are exactly who Jesus would be socializing with. He went to all the wrong places and hung out with all the wrong people of his day. He embraced the marginalized, the outsider, the lonely, the broken, the hurting, the fringe, and the unwelcome. This is part of why the Pharisees hated him so much. We know you're a great rabbi, but look at what you're doing and who you're hanging out with.  Jesus was not concerned about reputation, he was concerned only with loving people into the kingdom, loving people to his table. That's why he shared meals with prostitutes, sinners, and tax collectors (for a modern version of this, picture Jesus eating with guys from Wall Street). I'm glad he did because his doing so invited me to the table as well.

While eating at the home of Levi, the tax collector, the Pharisees were indignant and approached the disciples and questioned why their teacher would eat with such unclean, undesirables. Like Garth Brooks, Jesus had "friends in low places" or, like Randy Travis, "a better class of losers."

Jesus, overhearing them, replied, "Who needs a doctor: the healthy or the sick? I'm here inviting the sin-sick, not the spiritually fit" (The Message). He was not only referring to those who knew their sinfulness but to the Pharisees who felt secure in their own self-righteous piety who would not dare taint themselves at the table of the lost. I'm glad Jesus did because that made me welcome at the table.

I love that there is no "other" or "outsider" with Jesus. And he doesn't allow us to have them either. He doesn't let us cherry-pick who we choose to love as all our neighbors. Oftentimes it's harder for me to love my brother and sister in the Church than it is those outside the body. I find it harder to pray for those who would cruelly carry signs that declare "God hates fags!" or protest funerals. Behind their hate is fear and the Bible tells us that "perfect love casts out fear." Pure faith is based on love, the unconditional love of God, but religion is what happens when faith is replaced by fear. Religion is what creates a Westboro Baptist and other congregations like them.

Christians need to respond in truth and love. They need to approach anyone with humility and compassion.

Consider this:

Suicide is the leading cause of death among young gay and lesbians (ages 15 - 24). 30% of youth suicides are gay and lesbian. These numbers go up drastically for transgenders. 4 out of 10 attempt to kill themselves. 41% of transgenders have attempted suicide. This is heartbreaking. Gay, lesbian and transgenders are real people with real hearts. They are fragile and hurting.

How does the church respond?

Do we offer a love that is healing or words and rhetoric that is hurting?

Do we offer them the love of Christ or the condemnation of Pharisees?

I have recently been reading the book of Acts and I came across this odd section in chapter 2 of Philip being told by an angel to take the dusty desert road from Jerusalem to Gaza. He obeys and does so at noon, which is under the harsh midday sun, the hottest part of the day (exactly the same time Jesus met the Samaritan woman at the well). This is a time when travelers stay off the roads. I love how God calls us to unexpected places at unexpected times to meet unexpected people. 

As Philip is traveling down this wilderness road, he spots an Ethiopian eunuch sitting in his chariot, reading a scroll. Now I'm sure Philip would have preferred to pass this man by, after all, eunuchs were considered unclean and were not allowed to worship in the temple. Yet he overcame all social reticence and obeyed God's command to go to this man. The Ethiopian was most likely being read aloud to by his servant, after all he was the chief treasurer of Queen Candace. Philip approached and asked if he could help him understand what is being read. The eunuch, who was clearly frustrated, replied, "Yes, how can I understand if someone does not explain it to me?"

Philip then correlates the passage of Isaiah that was being read to Christ. He begins to share the good news with the eunuch. Not only does he come to accept the truths being shared, but as they are going along the road together, they come across a body of water. We don't know if it was a pond or stream or even just a puddle, but the Ethiopian eunuch is excited and announces that he wishes to be baptized. In fact, his exact words are, "What is hindering me from being baptized?"

I'm sure the part of Philip that understood that eunuchs were impure and unwelcome to worship in any temple or synagogue could have rattled off laws forbidding this act, but he didn't. Whatever obstacles there were, he understood that none were greater than the love and grace of Jesus Christ. Philip, like Christ, knew love was always greater than the law. 

The Ethiopian eunuch was embraced by the love and truth of Christ. He rejoiced in this acceptance. He, like Philip, would then go on to do as the closing of the book of Acts tell all of us, "Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ!"  

We worship a God who, while we were still a far way off, runs to us. He is unconcerned with socially appropriate responses. He is a Father who's overwhelmed by a love for us that caused Him to create us in the first place. He runs to us and embraces us. He doesn't demand that we clean ourselves up first, either, but draws us into a big, full-embraced hug despite our stench and the filth that covers us from head to toe. We go from unloved to beloved in an instant. 

Mother Teresa once said, "If you judge people, you have no time to love them." And Jesus has called us not to judge but to love. In fact of faith, hope and love, it is love that is considered the greatest of these. I approach anyone with humility, grace, mercy, compassion and, hopefully, understanding. I offer only friendship to those who want it. As I said before, I will listen without judgment or condemnation as I don't sit on the throne and have not been called to be some spiritual Judge Judy here on earth. I have to remember "specks" and "planks." 

Jesus said in John 15:9, "As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you," so to do I respond in that love to people who so desperately need it. 

I'm not here to debate or argue or get caught up discussing the media or the LGBT "agenda." I am not interested in adding more vitriol to this issue as there is far too much of it out there as it is. I simply pray that anyone who reads this does not do so in outrage that leads to being enraged. My goal is not to provoke, but to ask only that we reach out as Jesus did. His only confrontations and words of warning were for the religious not for the bruised reed or smoldering wick. To the latter he responded in tenderness and healing. I ask only that we, as his disciples, do likewise. 

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