Guns and Kids and Jesus

Early this morning I opened Facebook, just as a way to ease into the day. Instead, I was confronted with a picture that won’t leave my mind: An adorable, chubby-cheeked, 8-year old little girl smiling into the camera. She lived just a stone’s throw from where I attended college. And she died at the hands of the 11-year old boy next door with a shot gun.

I know there’s many perspectives on this issue. I know there are legitimate reasons to own and carry guns. I know many trustworthy people who do so.

I know that the basic problem is a conundrum. While I feel safer with less guns, others feel safer with more. We aren’t both entirely wrong… or entirely right. What makes one person safer (like a Dad who sleeps with a gun under his pillow) puts another in danger (like the little kid next door who accidentally comes across it.) Pass a law to prevent the mentally ill from owning a gun, and the young woman being treated for depression following a rape is an unintended casualty, now unable to protect herself.

It’s complicated. I get it. But tonight I’m grieving a little girl. So I have some things to say.

First, about kids.

Guns harm kids far more often than they protect them. A gun in the home will accidentally kill a child, or be used by a teen to commit suicide, many-fold more times than it will be used to ward off an intruder. So please accept that a gun simultaneously protects AND endangers your family.

Children can be taught to shoot, load, unload, clean and store a gun. But they cannot truly comprehend the meaning of “forever dead.” Time and again, kids involved in shooting incidents say over and over and over again that they thought their Mom or Dad or sister or friend would get back up after they said they were sorry. They do not.

Kids can’t drive or work or volunteer at the puppy shelter till they are 16. Can’t buy cigarettes or a lighter or vote till they are 18. Can’t buy alcohol till they are 21. Can’t rent a hotel room without an adult till they’re 25. Why? Because while an 11-year old may possess all the physical dexterity and intelligence needed to drive a car, his brain isn’t ready for the responsibility.

So don’t tell me that parents just need to teach their kids about guns, anymore than parents should just teach their toddlers about the poisonous chemicals under the kitchen sink. While most kids will stay away from guns when told to, some won’t. And if they don’t, they might die. Or maybe the 8-year old girl down the street will die, instead.

Second, about Jesus.

There are lots of legitimate arguments for owning and carrying a gun including (but not limited to) self-protection, sport, and constitutional rights.

Jesus, however, isn’t one of them. He never gave us instruction or permission to kill someone else before they have a chance to kill us. Instead, he told us to turn the other cheek, give the coat off our back, walk two miles instead of one, love our enemies, and go out into the world as lambs among wolves.  When his disciple used his sword in an attempt to protect Jesus, he reprimanded him, healed the injured soldier, and spoke words that should echo loudly in our hearts and minds today:

“If you live by the sword, you will die by the sword.”

Jesus taught that we die in order to live… not that we kill in order to not die.

The teachings of Jesus are often hard to swallow… and so many folks might simply conclude that this is one they don’t buy. They might simply choose to disagree with him on this point. Every human being is completely free to choose what they believe is right and true and good. So if you want to own a gun as an American… or a Southerner… or a hunter… or because of your fears… or because of your rights… then you absolutely have grounds to do so.

What you should NOT do is lump gun ownership and usage in with Christianity. Keep your gun, but leave Jesus out of it.

Tomorrow I will have writer’s remorse, and I will feel bad for the obvious points I’ve overlooked, the unchecked passion, and the people I’ve offended.

But for tonight, all that really matters is a blonde-haired, brown-eyed little girl.

God’s peace…..

Lambs or Wolves?

These were his instructions to them: “The harvest is great, but the workers are few. So pray to The Lord who is in charge of the harvest; ask him to send more workers into his fields. Now go, and remember that I am sending you out as lambs among wolves. Don’t take any money with you, nor a traveler’s bag, nor an extra pair of sandals. And don’t stop to greet anyone on the road…” (Luke 10:2-4)

Our pastor this morning spoke on this passage, as well as a number of verses that followed it. The first half of the sermon was wonderful… enlightened, inspired, filled with humble instruction. The second half of the sermon… well, I couldn’t tell you.

As Father Chris worked his way through this passage, he stopped. He’d been talking about the instructions Jesus gave to those he was sending out, particularly the phrase, “I am sending you out as lambs among wolves…” He jokingly said that it was a bit different than most motivational speeches! He was about to move forward, then suddenly paused. He asked that the next passage be removed from the screen so that he could go backwards for a moment. And then he asked us a question.

It’s a question that stopped me cold. It’s the reason I don’t recall the last half of the sermon.

It’s a question that continues to rumble around my head and my heart. A question we should ask ourselves every day of our lives. A question we should ask others. A question from God. And a question that I hope sticks with you, as it did with me:

As Christians, are we more like lambs… or more like wolves?

That is all.

My Journey: Michael Alan

Some people come into our lives and leave footprints on our hearts and we are never, ever the same. –Flavia Weedn

I ran into a friend recently, who asked, “Where have you been? I haven’t seen you in forever!”

We caught up for a few minutes and parted ways, but her question stuck with me. You see, it’s been a strange couple of years… and people who have known me for a long time aren’t quite certain what’s happened to me. Some days, I’m not sure either!

A few years back, I went through a period of healing from a destructive, abusive relationship from my teenage years. Coming face-to-face with my own neediness, stupidity, naivety and stubbornness was painful. Ugly.  Humiliating. I understood, for the first time ever, the true meaning of the phrase, “There but for the grace of God, go I.” I understood how life can turn on a dime… how just a few missteps can so easily turn you into a statistic. Someday I’ll write about that healing journey, but for now it serves as the context.

Fresh off that time of self-examination and healing, my perspective had shifted. I had gained a new understanding of the depravity of humanity… a new appreciation for my own inner strength… and a renewed understanding of God’s grace.

But I also experienced a new hunger… a longing for a God that perhaps I didn’t know nearly as well as I thought I did. I began to wonder how much of my faith had been of my own making – shaped and controlled by human hands, for human consumption. Words from the prophet Isaiah lodged themselves deep into my soul and refused to let go:

The poor, deluded fool feeds on ashes. He trusts something that can’t help him at all. Yet he cannot bring himself to ask, “Is this idol that I’m holding in my hand a lie?” (Isaiah 44:20)                                    

I began to see some aspects of my faith differently. There were striking similarities, for example, between my faith walk and my career path. Success at work, and leadership at church were achieved in much the same way. It wasn’t any particular behaviors that were troubling to me, but the overall pattern.  The big picture. My faith journey was feeling kind of like a spiritual Mount Rushmore: impressive rocks to look at… but most definitely shaped by human hands.

After all, what good is a god made in my own image?

I began to pray for a glimpse of God that hadn’t been packaged by humans for the maximum emotional impact. I wanted to let go of my own control-freak mentality, and instead adopt the spiritual equivalent of floating on my back in a pool of water… allowing his current to take me wherever he chose. I immersed myself in the Bible and in prayer… and I prayed for the courage to relinquish control.

It was a good prayer but, in retrospect, a rather dangerous one. The water I visualized floating in? Turns out it was actually the deceptive calm at the top of white-water rapids, and I was already being swept away by currents far stronger than I could’ve ever imagined!

white water rapids

Enter Michael Alan, stage left.

Mike was at that time one of 24 pediatric residents that I taught as part of my job at a teaching hospital. He had completed medical school, and was in his final year of training to become a pediatrician. He was smart, funny and talented. He had been accepted into a pediatric gastroenterology fellowship. He had a great work ethic, a wicked sense of humor and a very bright future.

And he was gay.

I’d known he was gay for a couple of years. He didn’t hide it, but was understated. We had a good relationship of mutual respect. And yet, there was a barrier there. I began to realize that I held him at arm’s length… kept things intentionally superficial… steered away from anything that might lead to “that” subject. I felt like I was on guard. In retrospect, I think I was subconsciously waiting for the pervert to pop out.

As Mike neared the end of his residency, at the same time that I was experiencing a renewed spiritual perspective, my internal assumptions began to gnaw at me.

Why did I assume that because he’s gay, he must be a pervert? Why did I feel as though getting too close to him would compromise my faith? Why was it such a surprise that a gay person could be one of the best, brightest, most responsible residents I’d ever taught?

It became readily apparent that his character didn’t match my assumptions. Which led to more questions.

Where did my assumptions even come from? What did I know about homosexuality from a biblical, or scientific, or sociological standpoint? What did I actually believe… and why? Who did I learn it from… and were they reputable? Had those I listened to formed a studied opinion, or had they listened to someone else?

I realized that my beliefs were a mish-mash of tradition, impressions, upbringing, culture, and borrowed beliefs. I’d skimmed a Bible passage here, a scientific article there. Overheard a conversation here, half-listened to a sermon there. I had trouble remembering what I’d heard from a talk show versus a teacher versus a pastor. Somehow, it had all formed itself into a belief system… but an unintentional, poorly-formed one.

It wasn’t nearly good enough; the human being in front of me deserved far better than that.

And so I began to intentionally examine the issue. (My eventual biblical, relational and scientific understanding is another story for another day.)  And then, just a couple of months before Michael Alan graduated, I asked if he would be willing to share his story, with no agenda on my part other than to listen and learn. He said yes. We met at a local pasta restaurant. We were both nervous, joking too much, laughing too loud. Eventually, though, we began to really talk… and really listen.

That sacred encounter is forever etched into my soul. His vulnerability, as he shared seemingly simple stories that had never before been spoken. His courage, learning to navigate through life with very little guidance…  and with his heart intact. The practicality of learning when to remain silent, even when he longed to be fully known by others. The emotional strength to lead a double life out of necessity. The hurt of rejection… the fear of confrontation… the loneliness of isolation.

I confessed that much of my impression of gay people was what I saw on TV, from lobbyists or demonstrators. He confessed that much of his impression of Christians was from televangelists. Neither of us felt well-represented by those groups of people.

Although he wasn’t plugged into Christian circles, he was nevertheless aware of what they said about people like him. He tried to avoid them when he could. He felt their disgust, their condemnation. He assumed they accurately represented God.

He assumed that they accurately represented God.

I will share more of Mike’s story over time, since he’s only the most amazing young man on the face of the planet. But for now, I have some questions.

Who is able to represent God? The Pope? The Session? The Board of Deacons? The seminary graduate? The Sunday School teacher?

Does it require a doctorate?  Graduation from a specific theological institution? A 2/3 vote from the congregation? A denominational policy statement?

And what am I to do when my two greatest heroes of the faith — both Christians, both with deep reverence for God’s word, both with lives that speak clearly of their love for Christ — reach different conclusions over this subject?

I don’t pretend to speak for God. I think it’s one of the most dangerous, arrogant, nearly-blasphemous things we can undertake. But I CAN tell my own story and give my opinion of what it means.

I asked God to reveal himself to me… for a glimpse of him that wasn’t contrived, or man-made, or controlled. I had no idea what I was asking for, but I believe that my prayer was answered. God revealed himself in the eyes and heart and courage and vulnerability and grace and humility and love of a young man named Mike.

Despite my promise to talk to Mike with no agenda, I subconsciously believed that with enough love and compassion and grace, I could change him. Or that God would change him through me. But see… that isn’t what happened. Not to me, nor to thousands of people world-wide who have had a very similar experience, when they have finally had a genuine relationship with a real-live, honest-to-God gay person.

As we shared that day, and many days since then, I felt the whisper of what I believe to be the voice of the Holy Spirit:

Listen. Learn. Love.

Be transformed.

In my opinion, the shifting that is occurring within the hearts and minds and souls of people all over the world isn’t an agenda, or an organized political movement, or a liberal takeover, or a hijacking of Christianity, or the work of lobbyists.

I believe it is the movement of the Holy Spirit. I believe it is God revealing himself, through people like Mike. I believe it is God asking us to listen rather than talk… to learn rather than teach… to be changed ourselves rather than to change others.

So to answer my friend’s question… where have I been?

Shooting the rapids. Having the most exhilarating, terrifying, peace-filled, joyous, laughing-till-tears-stream-down-my-face time of my life.

And I will never, ever be the same.

The Difference

When Jessica was around 4 years old, she came bounding down the stairs, yelling excitedly,

“Mommy! Mommy! Guess what?!? You’ll never believe it!!!”

I looked up, already smiling, to see what I was about to never believe. Anyone who knows anything about 4-year-old little girls knows that everything is a drama, with the whole world their stage… complete with lots of exclamation points and hand motions. There aren’t many things in the world more adorable…

“Look, Mommy… THEY’RE TWINS!!!!!”

She landed at the bottom of the stairs, breathing hard, face flushed, with two small dolls clutched in her arms. They were cloth baby dolls, purchased at two different stores, and they were indeed identical: the same size, the same hairstyle, the same dress, the same tights, even the same sewn-on shoes. But there was a rather obvious difference, too. One had dark chocolate skin, while the other had off-white skin.

We had never discussed race with Jessica, and had been intentional about finding ways to describe people that didn’t involve skin color or any sort of disability. Instead of referring to someone as “the little black girl,” or “the boy in the wheelchair,” we would instead say, “The little girl who helped you with your backpack” or, “The little boy who always wins the reading contest.” We didn’t have a blueprint for how to do it, and to be honest we just kind of faked our way along, not sure if it would actually make any difference.

So when my ultra-observant daughter… the one who would come home after an evening out together and describe 50 different details of the restaurant, the people, the songs playing, the signs on the way home, most of which I’d failed to notice… when THAT child called those dolls twins, I was stunned.

I recovered as quick as I could, and said, “Uh… yes! They are twins! How crazy is that, when we bought them at two different places?”

Something in my initial hesitation caught her attention. (Remember I said she was ultra-observant?) She stared briefly at me, in that creepy “what are you hiding from me” look that all young children possess, and looked carefully back down at the dolls.

Then she said, “Wait a minute… there’s just ONE difference…”

I could’ve kicked myself. I knew what was coming. And I wasn’t the slightest bit prepared to discuss racial issues with a super-inquisitive 4-year old. But, like is always the case in parenting, you just keep on going, rarely able to prepare adequately for the moment.

“Look, Mom… there’s only ONE difference. This one has blonde hair, and this one has black hair…”

Then, proud that she’d figured out the difference, she ran back upstairs to play with her twins.

Recalling that story never fails to take my breath away. It reminds me of the beauty and clarity in the eyes of a child… and the cloudy, murky vision of us older and wiser adults.

Why do I glance at people and automatically place them into categories? Why do I define people by the color of skin, the cadence of voice, the body language, the facebook posts, the political stance, the clothing, the car, the smell, the size? And why are certain categories more important than others?

I tell myself, well, some things are more obvious than others. How am I supposed to know that a man wearing dirty jeans, driving a truck with a gun rack, with a pronounced Southern drawl is actually a millionaire? Let’s be real here… he looks like a good old boy driving to his modest home and family after a hard day’s work.

And yet… changing just a few details gives lie to my rationalization. Because if the man was dressed the same, driving the same old truck, but was black rather than white… my assumptions may be different. I may assume that he’s up to no good, or be less likely to assume he’s going home to his family. I might think the gun rack was for hunting people rather than deer.

It seems that we spend much of our time and brain power placing the world around us into categories. As we walk down the hallway, or through a crowded store, our brains register millions of images and thoughts.

Black. White. Pretty. Obnoxious. Fat. Latino. Handsome. Foreign. Polite. Disabled. Muslim.  Arrogant. Happy. Ignorant. Short. Indian. Tall. Kind. Funny. Weird. Bright colors. Barefoot. Silly. Belly showing. Tattoos. Professional. Poor. Stressed. Loud. Helpful. Sick. Cute. Noisy.

We overhear conversations all around us, and with a nearly audible “click”, we place them into categories.

Liberal. Right-winger. Evangelical. Progressive. Tree-hugger. Rich. Poor. Gang-banger.

And then based on those categories, we make additional assumptions.

Lost. Ignorant. Flighty. Racist. Entitled. SOB. Rich. Backward. Irrelevant. Brainwashed. Worldly. Bigot. Lazy. Greedy.

All of this, it seems, can flash through our minds in an instant… so before we even open our mouths to have a conversation with someone we don’t know, we’ve already formed opinions and judgments about them. And they have already formed opinions about us. Sometimes they are correct… sometimes they aren’t… and how would we ever know? It’s already all muddled up by our assumption and presuppositions.

It was into just this kind of arena — political and religious tension,  power plays, vicious ideological separation, and intense competition for hierarchy — that Jesus did something remarkable. Something crazy. Something that turned everything upside down. He brought a little child forward, and he said to the crowds,

“I tell you the truth, you must change and become like little children. Otherwise, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. The greatest person in the kingdom of heaven is the one who makes himself humble like this child.” (Matthew 18:3 NCV)

A part of me loves this passage with all my heart — it is an important reason I became a pediatrician, because it strikes a deep chord within me, resonating like the lowest string on a bass violin.

But another part of me is terrified by this passage. Because when I’m in conversation with other people, I’m far more interested in winning the argument than in making myself humble. I’m far more interested in honing in on their weaknesses, than exposing and admitting my own weaknesses. I’m far too busy clicking people into categories, following where that leads me, and then after the fact recalling the words I spoke… while having difficulty remembering anything the other person said. I’m far more interested in being at the top of the ranking system, than at the bottom.

Oh, to have the eyes and heart of a child. To learn not to see, in order to see more clearly. To become deaf, in order to hear. To become foolish, in order to be wise.

To look at the people around us, and be able to pronounce with utter certainty, “There’s just one difference. This one has blonde hair, and this one has black hair….”

 

Matthew

Sad Boy[This is a true story, told directly to me with permission to share it. Even so, I have changed the name and a few details]

When he was 5 years old, Matthew saw the picture of a little boy on the side of a milk carton. He asked his Mom, Rebecca, about it. She explained that the little boy was missing and  the picture was to help other people find him. She felt the heaviness of heart, to even discuss something so terrifylngly horrible to her Mom’s heart.

Matthew couldn’t get that little boy out of his head. He worried about why the little boy got lost, and was fearful that the same thing could happen to him. One day while riding in the car, he was worrying, and ruminating, and asking questions. Rebecca had tried every way she knew to reassure him and provide an appropriate explanation. Finally, in desperation, she pulled the car to the side of the road, turned around and looked him directly in the eye.

“Matthew, you don’t need to worry about that happening to you. Because if you are ever lost, I will crawl through shards of glass for you! I WILL FIND YOU.

Something about the fierce look in her eyes must’ve done the trick, because he never brought it up again. (Or maybe it just scared the heck out of him… sometimes us Moms do that…) 😊

As a young boy, Matthew was good at baseball, but he didn’t like sports and other “typical” boy things. It seemed to bother him, especially since his Dad was a coach. So every night, when they put him to bed, his Mom and Dad would say to him, “If all the little boys in the whole world were lined up, we would choose you…”

When Matthew was 8, he asked Jesus into his heart. His whole family (Mom, Dad and two sisters) gathered around him and prayed together. He took it seriously, his faith, from that moment forward. He loved Jesus and he loved church — which was a good thing because his family was deeply involved. Dad was a church officer, Mom held nearly every role imaginable, and they were an “every time the doors are open” kind of family. Life was good.

When he was 10 he began to realize more than ever before that he wasn’t like the other boys. He was different. He liked being friends with girls but didn’t seem to like them in the same way other boys did. He enjoyed different activities than other boys. He started to wonder… am I gay?

When he was 11 he started coming home from church and going straight to his room. He loved his church, loved all the people who were like family to him, loved his youth group. But he heard things that hurt him and confused him. His church wasn’t one to make fun of people or treat others like they were “beneath them”… except for gay people. It was like the one area where it was okay to lump everyone together and say bad things. He never heard gay people or homosexuality discussed in any context except for “sin” or “sex”. He didn’t understand that, because he’d never had sex with anyone… or even wanted to. He prayed about it… a lot… but didn’t tell anyone. He wasn’t sure who among his family, his friends, or his church family was safe.

When he was 12 he started to get angry at God. He heard from church what God thought about gay people and it seemed so unfair. He asked God, “Why did you make me this way? Why can’t you love me? I don’t want to be gay, but you won’t help me…”

As a teenager he had a girlfriend for four years… and it took a year before he kissed her for the first time. She was more like a soul mate than a girlfriend, really… but it kept people from asking too many questions. One night he called her because he was afraid he was a danger to himself. He started cutting, because it helped the pain go away, at least for awhile.

There were lots of times, at 12… 15… 17… 20… 23… that he wanted to talk to someone. REALLY talk to them. To share his deepest secret, and come clean, and get some good advice. Most of all, more than anything, he wanted people to know who he really was, and still love him.

But he was afraid. All those voices were in his head. The pastor voices. The family voices. The Church voices. Gay people were often compared to pedophiles. Or to people who want to have sex with animals. Or to people that had sex with a different person every night. He didn’t understand those comparisons AT ALL, and he kept waiting for people to stand up and say that one doesn’t have anything to do with the other. He was really, really close to his family… but they heard those same messages and didn’t seem to disagree… so he remained quiet. He carried his burden alone.

Finally, at the age of 26 — after around 16 years of carrying this secret around with him — he could no longer keep it in. He was with his family, and was edgy and anxious. He left, and then just a couple of minutes later he called them. He sounded upset, afraid… like he was hyperventilating. He said, quickly, “I have to tell you something. I’m gay.” 

Rebecca says, “We did the right thing. We reassured him that we loved him. We did the right thing. But when we hung up the phone, we looked at each other and fell apart. I later found my husband crying alone in the closet. You feel the axis of your world shifting, and you have no control over it. We asked our son if we could have 6 months to get used to it, and band together as a family, before telling others. That was a very smart decision.”

After Matthew told his sisters, his family did something way cool. They called him on the phone, all together, and they said….

“Matthew, if all the little boys in the whole world were lined up, we would still choose you….”

It’s a good story. And it’s a not-so-good story.

Rebecca is so happy for her son, and so proud of the man he has become. But she grieves for those times when he was alone and hurting. She aches when she remembers the Sunday afternoons after church, with his bedroom door shut. She wonders what he was thinking. She wonders what the voices in his head were saying to him. She wonders of the impact on his faith.

She remembers asking Matthew why he waited so long to tell them. His response is seared into her heart: “I had to get myself financially ready, in case you turned away from me. Your emotional support is SO important, and knowing that you know is so important. But I had to be ready in case you walked away from me.”

She is angry, that so many Christians — including herself — were so casual in their presentation of God’s anger and disapproval, without ever considering if they were protraying Him correctly. She hurts that every conversation she can ever remember about homosexuality… during all those years when Matthew was wondering about himself… were framed around assumptions of sexual promiscuity, deviant behaviors, and willful sinfulness. She aches with the realization that these discussions never considered the plight of a young boy, a virgin, a Christian, with a heart for God, who was scared and alone.

She agonizes over the fact that he prepared himself financially for the possibility that his family would abandon him. She remembers what she told him as a little boy — I would crawl through glass shards for you — and it pierces her heart to know that he wasn’t certain that it was still true.

He asked her, after the fact, did you ever suspect that I could be gay? She said, “Maybe…”

And then he said words that she will never, ever forget. He looked at Rebecca, suddenly sat straight up, and said, “Mom, you thought maybe I could be gay, but you never gave me a place of mercy and grace to lay my head?”

Those words changed her in an instant. They changed her heart, her head, the very marrow of her soul. She says, “That was NOT Matthew talking — it was Jesus. Those aren’t the kinds of words Matthew would say. I changed in an instant. Jesus was SPEAKING TO ME.” It was her first inkling that this journey would require a lot of healing and transformation… beginning not with Matthew, but with herself.

Now she hears the things people say, not knowing any better, and the Mama Bear within her wants to protect him. When she talks to other people — most especially other Christians — it feels like she is tentatively holding out her hand first, to see if they will bite. She wants to hold Matthew behind her until she can find out who is safe. And if they aren’t safe, she wants to scare them off with a mighty roar… or maybe scratch out their eyes…

One day, during a couples small group Bible study, she felt such a sense of belonging and trust that she got brave, and she told them about it. As she and her husband shared their story, and their unconditional love for Matthew, two men became visibly angry, frequently interrupting their halting description of what the past few months had been like. They got out their Bibles and stood up, angry, in a posture of aggression, talking loudly.

Rebecca doesn’t even remember what they said, but she remembers thinking, “Why are they so loud??”

And she also remembers thinking, “Not safe.”

I’m so grateful that Matthew is well adjusted and at peace… but there are aspects of his story that really hurt my heart. There are too many times I see myself as the one making callous remarks without thinking them through… and doing real harm to a child or another person in the process. I have to wonder, as a Christian, as a parent, as a pediatrician, as a human being… is my potential role in this story what I’m going for? Is it what we want to be about as the Church?

Do we really want to tell our kids, “Whatever your greatest fear, whatever your biggest hurt, whatever your deepest secret… keep it to yourself. Work it out on your own. Get your suit on every Sunday, come listen to our words, and then go home and shut your bedroom door and sort it out.”

Do we really want to tell our friends, “When you are at the lowest point in your lives… hurting badly enough for manly men to go hide in the closet and cry… you must not ask us to listen and cry with you, unless you are willing to first boldly state that you agree with our policies. And you must accept that when we stand over you with our loud, raised voices… even though it feels very much like condemnation and hurt… you must accept that it is actually love.”

Really? Friends… family… churches… human beings… is this what we are striving for? Is it the Gospel? Is it representative of the hands and feet of Christ?

I don’t think it’s what ANY OF US intend… but I think it is the reality of what we are doing. Every day, every minute… these insane arguments… the loud voices… the “culture wars”… the lack of respect on either side… the behind-closed-doors jokes about (fill in your blank) gay people/trans people/conservative people/church people. One side screams, “You obviously don’t believe your Bible!” and the other side responds, “You are obviously a bigot!” Too often, it isn’t about love, or truth… or grace, or mercy… or the Bible, or science.

Too often, it is a TURF WAR. Too often, we are just a bunch of gang bangers, slashing and shooting and exiling anyone who enters our territory. Too often, it is the kids… the bystanders… the innocent who are wounded.

Love is patient and kind. It is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice, but rejoices whenever the truth wins out.

Love never gives up… never loses faith… is always hopeful… and endures through every circumstance.

Love will crawl through shards of glass, to come and find you.

All That I Know Isn’t Much

Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely. Three things will last forever – faith, hope, and love – and the greatest of these is love.
(1 Corinthians 13:10-13)

Remember lying on your back picking shapes out of the clouds? That’s what I think about every time I read about the “puzzling reflections in a mirror”. Look! A hippopotamus! Fun fact: when I was in med school I always saw body parts in the clouds. Where others saw a dinosaur or a daffodil, I saw the aorta or the large intestine. Medical school does not necessarily produce normal people.

We don’t get too worked up over differences of opinion when it comes to a cumulus cloud… but we surely do over other things. Like race and ethnicity. Or gun control. Or the definition of marriage. Or policemen. Or flags. Or immigration. Or rainbows. These days, referring to someone as “he” rather than “she” is enough to draw the battle lines.

I don’t think we intend to be contentious or mean-spirited… it’s just that these topics seem to hit where it hurts. We seem to be at some sort of turning point in history. Even trying to describe THAT brings about sharp differences of perception: where some people see the dawn, freedom, and a bright future… others see the end of life as we know it.

None of us are objective, much as we’d like to pretend we are. The truth is, each of us brings our own wisdom and knowledge and experience to the table… but it’s colored with our fears and hurts and insecurities. Put it all together, and nearly any sentence uttered can result in the age-old Southern expression:

“Them’s fightin’ words!”

I think we desire certainty more than anything. We want to KNOW… and we want to KNOW THAT WE ARE RIGHT. Unfortunately, much of life doesn’t lend itself to certainty, and matters of faith require… well, faith. That’s uncomfortable. So our response is often to gather together with other people who agree with us. We gather together in clubs, or denominations, or schools of thought, or advocacy groups… often for very good reasons. But another reason may be this: there’s something about a lot of people all saying the same thing that provides confidence. (It’s why I love being in Neyland Stadium in the fall — there’s just something awesome about 100,000 people who all agree with me!)

Into the midst of our desire for certainty… our longing to be right…  and our fierce, chin-lifted, fist-clenched posture… comes Paul’s refreshingly authentic words:

Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror…

All that I know now is partial and incomplete…

Wait. What?

Isn’t Paul the guy whose words we so often use to beat each other over the head with? Weren’t his words the deep trench that put our nation at war with ourselves over slavery? That led to the splitting of denominations over the role of women? Aren’t his words the grand canyon separating us over how to define marriage?

Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror…

All that I know now is partial and incomplete…

Is it possible that some uncertainty is okay? When faced with really complex things… is it possible that it’s okay to not have all the answers? Is it possible that faith is less about having our theology tied up into a tidy package… and more about trusting in a God who is way bigger than us?

It isn’t as though Paul left us hanging, either. He didn’t just say, “Life is complicated, so do your best… have fun… chill out… hakuna matata.” No, he gave us very specific marching orders in how to conduct ourselves when we are uncertain:

LOVE.

The whole chapter of 1 Corinthians 13 says, in essence, that everything we generally put our trust in is worthless without love. Knowledge… wisdom… faith that moves mountains… sacrificial giving… the gift of prophecy… eloquent speaking and preaching… all of it adds up to nothing without love.

I wonder, if we were to use this passage as our method of grading all the arguments that occur over “what’s right”… if the score wouldn’t end up being 0-0.

Perhaps it’s time to recognize that if the guy who wrote half of the New Testament can say that everything he knows now is partial and incomplete, maybe we ought to follow suit. Perhaps it’s time to season our demands and our turf battles and our culture wars with humility and gracious uncertainty. Perhaps, in doing so, we would begin to have discussions and relationships that are, in the Bible’s method of scoring, actually worth something.

Perhaps it’s time to stop being divided over our certain beliefs… and instead become unified by our faith in the midst of uncertainty.

Three things will last forever…

Not certainty. Not truth. Not wisdom. Not theology. Not science. Not marriage. Not a specific nation. Not a specific race.

Three things will last forever – faith, hope, and love – and the greatest of these is love.

 

 

 

Alex

Boy Curled in BallThis is a true story, shared personally with me as part of a 2-hour conversation with the Mom in this story. She is one of a group of women affectionately called the Mama Bears, and these women changed my life. She gave me permission to share any part of her story that would help others. Even so, I am changing the names and a few of the circumstances, because you never know what’s gonna happen with the internet.

I’m sharing this story now, because I have been stunned over the past week at the power of words to hurt, to wound, to pierce, to divide.

It is my deepest prayer that this story might do the opposite: heal, teach, remind us of who our audience REALLY is, and bring us closer together. Or … at least a little less far apart…

Sherrie is a Christian, a wife, a mother of three beautiful children. She and her husband “lived at church,” a small, Southern Baptist congregation who loved each other and loved the Lord. Her extended family is large, and on that particular day, they were all over at her house for a birthday celebration.

The year was 1997, and in the midst of the family celebration, the TV was on… tuned, by chance, to The Oprah Winfrey Show. If you come from a big family like I do, you can easily imagine the scene: laughter, loud talk, good-natured teasing, and multiple conversations. Kids running around, tugging on sleeves, trying to make themselves heard and join into the “big people” talk.

Suddenly, the room became quiet as all attention turned to the television.  The guest on Oprah, comedian and talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres, had just publicly announced that she was a lesbian. Just like that, the tenor of the room changed, as this squabbling, close-knit, religious, conservative family absorbed the news and found a common bond in a shared opponent. They made fun of her, told gay jokes, spoke words of disgust, pronounced God’s certain judgment, and lamented on what the world was coming to. They were not by nature mean people, but they were in a safe place, with family, protected by the walls of their own home, able to speak freely without fear of being misunderstood. Few of them, if any, would have spoken the same words in the same manner in public. They believed in God’s grace, and were compassionate people… but this…? It was simply too much.

After awhile, Sherrie realized that her 8-year old son, Alex, was missing. He loved being a part of the whole family, and it was highly unusual for him to not be in the center of it, poking his head into every conversation. She didn’t think too much of it at first, but when he remained absent, she went looking for him.

She found him in his room, in a corner, huddled into a ball on the floor, sobbing. She was terrified, panicked, with absolutely no idea what had happened. She gathered him into her arms, asking over and over again, “What’s wrong?? What happened??” He refused to answer her. He eventually calmed down, and life went on… but it seemed to Sherrie that something changed on that day.

It would be more than twelve years later that Sherrie would finally have her answer, when Alex finally shared his deepest secret: I’m gay.

Just before that fateful day, Alex had a growing certainty that “something was wrong” with him. He felt different than his friends. He had no words to describe what he was feeling, and was just beginning to wonder if he should talk to his Mom or Dad, or one of his older siblings. Or maybe his favorite uncle, who always loved to spend time with him and was his greatest hero. As uncertain as he was about what was occurring inside, he was in the middle of a big, safe family… secure in the knowledge that he would always be cared for and loved.

But on that day, Alex was shocked to the core to realize that the differences he was feeling inside were disgusting to his family. In the manner of an inexperienced child, he internalized every word and magnified them. Disgusting. Gross. Abomination. Shameful. Hell-bound. Unlovable. Enemy of God.

Right or wrong, Alex reached a painful conclusion on that day: his family was not safe. He was on his own.

And so, Alex went through the difficult, topsy-turvy seasons of late childhood and adolescence and young adulthood isolated and alone. He carefully guarded his deepest secret, and if he shared it with anyone else, it would only be someone he was certain would understand. He sought out others who were outcasts… anyone who was “different”… and he guarded his heart against a family and a God who he believed found him disgusting.

Nearly two decades later, Sherrie has worked hard to forge a strong relationship with her son. But she grieves for the “lost years”… the times when she couldn’t be there for him, because she had no idea what he was dealing with.

Which brings me back to the present. I have to wonder, on this Independence Day, with our country more divided along religious and ideological and theological and political lines than ever before… who is our audience, REALLY? When we are in a group of family, able to speak freely… is there a young son or niece or cousin who is listening for completely different reasons than we might imagine? When we spew out words of anger and disgust at the “gay agenda” or at the “gay haters”… assuming that our words are directed at who we THINK we are speaking to… who else is listening at the edges of the crowd or the end of the pew, feeling the pierce of a knife-wound to the soul?

I believe that every moment, and each encounter, is sacred. There are no intermissions, no time-outs in life. Much as we like to believe that we can prepare for our biggest moments, more often they occur completely unbeknownst to us… in the privacy of our own home, or in an aside conversation at work, or in the hallways at church, or in the aisle of the grocery store. In those moments, when we think we can let our guard down and speak our mind… these are the moments that can become forever magnified.

Friends, please… in these days of uncertainty… please watch your words. Be respectful of others. Consider the possibility that those on the other side are simply human beings with a different opinion. Remember little Alex, eavesdropping on an adult conversation, with his life forever altered by the power of the spoken word.

If Sherrie had the power to change one thing, and one thing only, she wouldn’t change Alex’s sexual orientation. She trusts God with how He chose to create Alex. No, if she could change anything, she would change herself, her words and that of her family on that fateful day. She would slap duct tape over every mouth… she would pay attention to how quiet her son suddenly became… she would rejoice in the precious child that God had given her… and she would LISTEN.

For God’s sake – and for Alex’s sake – be kind.

If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing. If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my own body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing.

Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.

Prophecy and speaking in unknown languages and special knowledge will become useless. But love will last forever! Now our knowledge is partial and incomplete, and even the gift of prophecy reveals only part of the whole picture! But when the time of perfection comes, these partial things will become useless.

When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things. Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely.

Three things will last forever – faith, hope and love – and the greatest of these is love.

1 Corinthians 13:1-13