More Like Jesus

Let me start by lifting up for prayer all the people who have been uprooted and traumatized by Harvey and it’s aftermath. In times like these we need to come together as people of all faiths to take care of those who need us. In addition to your prayers, please contribute your time and/or your gifts to help them.

Two news items came out this week that provoked this blog. The first was a synopsis of a book by Brian Zahnd—Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God — in an article by Jonathan Merritt in the Religion News Service. Although I haven’t read the book yet (I surely intend to!) the article captured my imagination and took me back to a time when I was beginning to remember the importance of faith in my life.

Pastor Brian Zahnd’s book focuses on Jesus as “the perfect theology.” At a time when I needed to return to God, the thought that came to me was “Jesus was right.” I did not think “I am a sinner,” or “I need God’s help” or even “I need to go to church.” My thoughtwas that Jesus was right in everything he taught and in everything he did—you know, all that stuff we learned in Sunday School. Jesus was right in his emphasis on loving both God and others, he was right about how we are to relate to money and material things, he was right about the priority we are to give to helping people in need, etc. My next thought was that if everyone in the world did what Jesus taught, what a great world this would be. Then my mind said that could never happen—which led me to the conclusion that even if it didn’t happen, my job was to do my part. That conversation with myself eventually brought me back to church, leading me to the rest of my “herstory” as a pastor and Christian leader.

So you can see why I’m fascinated that Pastor Zahnd has captured my thought as the subject of his book. He tells us that Jesus is the perfect incarnation of God, the living theology (understanding of God) whose example we are to follow and through whom we are to interpret and understand the Bible. To make a point about how misdirected we can become if we don’t focus on Jesus, Pastor Zahnd shares this historical example from the American colonial era:

 

In 1637 the English colonial leadership in Connecticut sought to launch a war of aggression against the Pequot tribe for the sole purpose of acquiring their cultivated land. … When some of the colonists expressed moral qualms about launching an unprovoked attack on their peaceful neighbors, the matter was referred to their chaplain, the Reverend John Stone. After spending the night in prayer, Reverend Stone “was ‘fully satisfied’ with Mason’s proposal.” At dawn on May 26, 1637, the armed colonists attacked “the main Pequot village at Mystic Lake on the central Connecticut River, killing an estimated 400 to 700 Indians. Most of the dead were women and children… —burned to death in their wigwams as the English slaughtered those who ran.” Captain Mason describes the slaughter in these words: ‘Thus was God seen in the Mount, Crushing his proud Enemies and the Enemies of his People…burning them up in the Fire of his Wrath, and dunging the Ground with their Flesh: It was the LORD’s Doings, and it is marvelous in our Eyes!’

This story leads me to the next piece of news I received this week: The “Nashville Statement on LGBTQ & Transgender Acceptance.” This statement was published with much fanfare by a relatively small group of conservative evangelical leaders on August 29, to reiterate their denouncement of homosexuality. This statement begins by claiming that Western Culture has become “increasingly post-Christian,” and that those who support the LGBTQ community are a part of a “secular spirit” who are drawing away from God. They ask: “Will the church of the Lord Jesus Christ lose her biblical conviction, clarity, and courage, and blend into the spirit of the age? Or will she hold fast to the word of life, draw courage from Jesus, and unashamedly proclaim his way as the way of life?”

This group of conservative leaders lift themselves as having a complete understanding of God and the Bible. But they don’t. The “biblical conviction and clarity” they promote as coming from Jesus comes from them, not Jesus. They want us to believe that every true Christian must accept their viewpoints as the only Godly “way of life.” We don’t. They think they have the exclusive right to tell others what is God’s truth. They don’t. They are no more perfect than other humans, they do not get the final say on how the Bible is to be interpreted or the right to tell us what to believe, and we don’t have to worry about the wrath of God just because we don’t agree with them.

What Jesus says is more important than what these conservative leaders think. Jesus says the highest commandments for us are to love God and to love others as we love ourselves. Defining how we love others as ourselves has to be interpreted both individually and collectively. If your love doesn’t feel like love to me– if it condemns me for what Ibelieve and for how I interpret the Christian way, if it condemns me for disagreeing with you–it’s not real love.

The percentage of persons in the United States who identify themselves as gay, lesbian or transgender is around 3.8%, making them a very small minority (see this Gallup Poll article) They pose no threat to American Christianity. Many in fact are Christians, and many other Christians support them, including me. My interpretation of the Nashville Statement is that The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, who wrote it, intend to excoriate and ultimately eradicate the Christian LBGTQ community and their Christian supporters from living peacefully alongside them as Christians. Jesus’ fiercest wrath was against religious leaders who thought—like this Council and like Reverend Stone in 1637—that they had the right to judge and condemn others in the name of God (See Matthew 23). “How can you say to your neighbor,‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye?” Matthew 7:4.

The “Nashville Statement” disparages, tortures, and nails to the cross the LGBTQ Christian community and their Christian supporters. The Christian leaders who wrote it stand before them shouting “crucify them, crucify them.” Who is more like Jesus?

Lessons I’m Still Learning From My Brother John, R.I.P.

I recently came across the obituary for my brother John, who died in 1991 at age 47.  I surely miss him. John was the 4th of my 5 older brothers, the middle of seven children.  He used to say “The middle child gets all the aches, the middle child gets all the breaks”–and I don’t think he meant the good kind of breaks!

brother johnJohn was my buddy. When sibling rivalries and competitions broke out, John was always on my side against my brothers Bill and Robert. (My two oldest brothers, Hosea, Jr., and Donald, were too old to be involved with our games, and the youngest, Rick, came along much later.)

John was a mentor for me my first year at Southern Illinois University– he was a senior when I was a freshman. When he got married, he and his wife became a part of the regular crew who used to party with us in Chicago during the 70‘s. I could count on him to help me out with the children after I divorced, before he moved to New Jersey.  After his two failed marriages, he was here in Washington DC with me, both of us divorced, helping each other out with the kids. His son stayed regularly at my house and vice versa. We played tennis together and sometimes he would even attend church with me.

I really enjoyed having John living near me–the rest of my brothers were in different cities across the country.  So I became angry when he told me he was leaving DC to move to San Francisco. But my anger was about more than him leaving.

You see, he told me that he was leaving not only to take on a new job, but also because he was coming out of the closet.

He probably knew it was hard for me to take because I didn’t talk to him about it. I was angry because I thought he valued his sexual orientation more than his son.  Hosea (named after my father) was a senior in high school, and didn’t want to go to San Francisco, so John asked if Hosea could live with me, which he did, even coming home to my house during his years in college.

But now I know that I was also angry because I didn’t want my brother John to leave me. I knew I was going to miss him.  And I still miss him.

my brothers

After he told me he was gay, I realized I should have known it. John was not like my other brothers, who were all into judo and karate and the like. John played tennis. When he was growing up, the other kids used to call him a sissy. He used to hang around several others in our community who were also called sissies. He got beat up at least once that I know of.

Looking back on my anger when he left for San Francisco, I realize now that I wasn’t thinking at all about his needs. He must have been wrestling for a long time with his sexuality at a time when it wasn’t acceptable for him to be who he was. For him to live out his life as a lie to all of us all of those years must have been terribly difficult. The job in San Francisco must have been like a dream come true. He could go to a place where he didn’t have to hide or to lie, where he could be who he was.

I wish I had gotten over my anger so that we could have been pals again, so I could have met his new friends. I don’t even know if he had a special partner or not. I didn’t get a chance to tell him how I felt, because he died of AIDS a few years after he left.  I suspect he knew that he had the AIDS virus when he left, but he didn’t discuss it with anyone in the family.

What I learned from his life is that being gay was not a choice for him.  He would not have  chosen that childhood. He would not have chosen to pretend at his marriages in order to fit in. He would not have chosen to suffer with AIDS without telling any of his family.

I’ve also learned that I didn’t have the right to judge him. I should have been more compassionate. I should have talked to him, listened to his needs and his desires. I should have been there for him the way he was for me when I needed him.

The reason I’m sharing this with you readers now, with tears in my eyes, is because my brother John’s life has helped me to understand some things about how the Church ought to approach homosexuality and LGBT issues.  I’ll share more of my views about that next week.

For now, I’m comforted by believing that John knows how I feel.  He knows that I finally get it. I love you, brother!