Saturday, October 25, 2008

On Marriage, the Church, and the Nation

My people are destroyed from lack of knowledge.

                        Hosea 4.6

To Begin

I was better than halfway into today’s originally scheduled post when an email from my parents came in. I cringed on seeing the subject:

Fw: Short video on VOTE YES on 2 and effects of Same Sex Marriage on Parental Rights: Very interesting

As many of you already know, my parents are retired Pentecostal ministers. They tow their church’s doctrinal line against homosexuality and while they’ve slowly managed to accept my being gay, they’re a long ways off from accepting homosexuality or believing it's acceptable to God. After a terrible rift over this, we recognized that how things are isn’t what any of us wants. But it’s all we’ve got to work with and we’re doing our best to stick together despite our differences. We keep our lines of communication open and candid, which often taxes one end or the other. Realizing the fragility of our connection, neither side goes out of its way to introduce volatile topics like politics or social controversy; we’ve learned all too well how quickly and dangerously they turn personal. So it surprised me to find an email from them—forwarded, no less—about same-sex marriage.

I opened it gingerly, as if it were a letter bomb. It read: “Hope you are having a good day. You probably already know about this. We received it today. Love You. Mom and Dad.” The original email came from a minister at their church. Her note said: “Short but a stark reality that you as a Christian parent Could be jailed like this Massachusetts dad for protecting his children.”

No, I didn’t already know about this and my folks’ decision to risk trouble between us by sending it my way stirred my interest. I stopped working on the blog long enough to take a look. Sensing they were hoping for a reaction, I decided to write them back immediately. Seven hours passed. As I read what I wrote one last time before sending it, I felt strangely compelled to share it here with you, my other “faith family.”

This is a policy breach—and a significant stylistic departure—for me. When I started Straight-Friendly, I purposed that I’d protect it from getting dragged into political and theological debates. There were bigger, better things to discuss: God’s acceptance, following Christ, loving our neighbors, and so on. I also pledged to keep each day’s post as short, crisp, and clear as possible. I’m breaking both rules here for one reason. I truly believe the same-sex marriage debate crystallizes the entire “gay issue” that presently divides the church and is responsible for the alienation of countless earnest believers, gay and straight. All of our disconnects feed into the discussion and how we as Christians and Americans conduct ourselves regarding this will have long-reaching impact on our lives, our faith, our culture, and the world at large.

So I’m asking your indulgence in the length and focus of this post. Very little, if any, of what I say below hasn’t already been said by many others and in better ways. But given what Straight-Friendly is all about, it seemed necessary to break with convention long enough to address the issue here.

The Massachusetts Story

The video that prompted this is directly below. It’s produced by The Family Research Council, hosted by that group’s president, Tony Perkins, and is sponsored by It runs nearly seven minutes and I encourage everyone to look at it, particularly if you’ve somehow managed to escape exposure to the prolific “protect marriage” propaganda that’s run amok before the upcoming elections. For those of you cramped for time, however, here’s a brief overview.

Massachusetts parents David and Tonia Parker were outraged when their five-year-old son returned from Kindergarten in a public school with a “diversity book bag” that included descriptions of same-sex households. They went to the school’s administrator to protest this as contradictory to their religious values and overstepping the school’s educational responsibilities. They asked the administrator to inform them prior to producing any future programs or materials that similarly endorsed same-sex relationships and to provide them with a waiver excusing their son from these activities. The administrator refused, stating that since same-sex marriage was legal in Massachusetts, it was the school’s job to present it as “normal” and “acceptable.” Mr. Parker refused to leave the office until his demands were met. The admin called the police, had the dad arrested, and a new martyr for religious intolerance was born.

The Email

Making Mistakes to Correct Mistakes

"We didn't think it was appropriate to discuss that with our five-year-old, number one, and if we ever felt it was necessary, two, to have that discussion with our son we would choose the timing and manner in which to discuss that with him."

Ms. Parker is absolutely correct about this. And this story grieves me deeply—it's a terrible example of the state attempting to overcompensate for social inequities by creating new ones. Unfortunately, though, this is how democracy works. In trying to correct one mistake, we often make many more mistakes. And it takes time, a long time.

Two prime examples of this, I think, are slavery and women's rights. Emancipation and suffrage were not only necessary; they were essential to our integrity as nation committed to "liberty and justice for all." Yet here we are, decades later, still struggling with how to ensure equal rights for racial minorities and women without denying other groups' rights. The Constitution strikes this note at its outset: "in Order to form a more perfect Union." The greatest thing about America—what sets us apart from virtually every other nation on Earth—is our acceptance that we're a work in progress, a steady strive for perfection. That's what makes us "a city on a hill," as Reagan so beautifully applied Jesus's description of justice to us.

Marriage, Divorce, and Eunuchs

I bet I'm asked at least two or three times a week about same-sex marriage. And the majority of those who ask are initially taken aback by my reply. "Marriage" is a holy sacrament ordained by God in the Garden of Eden. In Matthew 19, Jesus unequivocally defines it as the joining of a man and woman. Case closed. But there's a lot to consider before arriving at this decision and I'll try to explain it as best I can. (Prepare yourself: this is going to take some time.)

Jesus's definition of marriage comes in a larger discussion about divorce, where He also says that divorce is unlawful except in cases of adultery. He says Moses's relaxation of this principle—permitting divorces of convenience—happened because the Jews' hearts had hardened toward God. This seems to be the case with us, too, particularly those of us in the church, who have taken a casual position on divorce and remarriage that totally contradicts Christ's teaching. When Jesus says this, the disciples suggest if all marriages are iron-clad then it would be wiser not to marry than risk living in inescapable misery. Christ's reply is most perplexing. He upholds marriage as a commandment for all heterosexual men by exempting three kinds of "eunuchs"--those who are "born that way" (Type 1), those made by man (castrated servants; Type 2), and those who practice celibacy for the Gospel's sake (Type 3). He prefaces His teaching by saying, "Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given."

If we take Christ's teaching in its totality—and we must, especially if we rely on it as Scriptural proof that marriage is an exclusively heterosexual institution—then we have to acknowledge, endorse, and live by its three precepts. 1) Marriage is solely intended and sanctioned between a man and a woman. 2) Divorce and remarriage are only permissible when either spouse is unfaithful; anyone who divorces his/her first spouse for any other reason (incompatibility, negligence, etc.) and remarries is an adulterer. 3) While the vast majority of men are expected to marry, there are three distinct exceptions to this rule: castratos, priests, and what apparently are homosexuals.

Of course, one might object to interpreting "born that way" as a reference to gay men, choosing a narrower, more literal reading that suggests Jesus was talking about infant boys born with "ambiguous gender" or hermaphrodites. Yet both these phenomena are so rare (2 in 10,000 for gender ambiguity and only 500 documented cases of hermaphroditism in all of human history) that it seems unlikely Christ meant physiological malformation or that the disciples even knew such anomalies existed. What we do know, however, is that Type 1 eunuchs were a common fixture in Jewish and other ancient societies.

The Prophecy of Acceptance

Mosaic law banned them from temple worship. Most historians and theologians concur that this was because Leviticus forbade same-sex relationships and therefore supports the notion that Jesus indeed was speaking of gay men as born eunuchs. Then, in Isaiah 56, we hear God call "the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant" back to worship. "I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will not be cut off."

This is Messianic prophecy and we see it fulfilled in Acts 8, when Philip leads the Ethiopian eunuch to Christ by explaining Isaiah to him. We can be certain the Ethiopian was a Type 1 eunuch because Luke specifically describes him as "an important official in charge of all the treasury of Candace," meaning he was neither a castrated slave nor a celibate priest. Furthermore, we're told that he had just come from worshipping in Jerusalem—presumably in the temple's outer courts, given his status as a eunuch and non-Jew—and I think Luke makes a point of telling us this to give us a very specific example of God's faithful promise to welcome previously excluded eunuchs who obey and please Him once the Messiah had come.

Stuck at a Crossroads

I know this is a lot of background, and I imagine you'll find much of it questionable or frustrating, but I wanted to include it because it significantly affects how we should approach same-sex marriage from a Scriptural and spiritual standpoint. Jesus's doctrine of marriage puts us at a crossroads. It's good news and bad news for both sides of the "gay debate," albeit in different ways.

On the right, Christians who oppose same-sex marriage should rejoice because not only did He conclusively confine marriage to heterosexuals, He went on to specifically disqualify homosexuals. That's good news for religious conservatives. Now here's the bad news. In doing so, He categorically confirmed homosexuality as a fact predetermined at birth. It's not a choice, an "alternative lifestyle," or any other label that implies it's something that a person decides to become or a habit that can be broken. Jesus says it's in the genes, as much a part of a person's make-up as the color of his/her skin or his/her family's medical history.

So, by basing their opposition to same-sex marriage on Jesus's teaching, conservative Christians have to reconcile that with their belief that homosexuality in and of itself is a sinful practice, rather than the congenital condition Jesus says it is. Taking the first part of His message to advance what is basically a political agenda and ignoring the back half amounts to straining at gnats and swallowing camels.

The Question Is…

The question isn't whether homosexuality is fundamentally wrong. It's whether homosexual individuals live according to Christ's law in a manner that pleases God. In other words, according to Isaiah 56 and Acts 8, gay people and straight people are equally entitled to Calvary's inheritance. We're all the same in God's eyes and we should be united in faith, working together to reach perfection through Him. This is good news for gay folks, especially those who've been ostracized from practicing their faith because of their sexual orientation. (And they number in the tens of thousands.) God wraps up His promise in Isaiah by saying, "My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations." No one is excluded and I can't imagine any true Christian would support a ministry or pastor who suggested otherwise.

But given that God specifically called out eunuchs (and foreigners) prior to saying this, it directly contradicts any teaching or dogma that insists gay people can't follow Jesus and accept their sexual orientation at the same time. It's what they do with it—how they live and the priorities they make. On this level, their issues are no different than their straight brothers and sisters—with one exception.

Lost in the Margins

Social and religious intolerance has done such a fine job of marginalizing gay people—removing them from the mainstream—that they've been forced to create their own subculture. While there's much about it that's positive, just as much is dangerous and damaging. With no other place to go, gay society grew in, and continues to thrive, in bars, nightclubs, and bathhouses—commercial venues that promote values and behaviors directly opposed to Christ's teaching.

Every day, another gay kid gets off the bus from Louisville or Des Moines or St. Louis [in Chicago] and the first place he heads is Halsted Street, because that's where he "belongs." At first, it's fun and exciting; if gay people know how to do anything, it's how to have a good time. The opportunity to be himself, to feel accepted without having to deceive or mislead others, is profoundly thrilling—particularly if he's either too terrified to come out to his family and friends at home or if they saddled him with rejection, fear, and shame when he did. Because he's emotionally vulnerable, gay culture can be very seductive. Its alternative to faith is hedonism and its resentment toward the church and believers runs deep. The assumption is that Christ and His followers want nothing to do with any self-accepting non-hetero person. And while this is absolutely a lie, the hostility leveled at gay rights and the gay community in general in Jesus's name proves otherwise. The propaganda speaks for itself.

Meanwhile, literally millions of gay folks are slipping away, drowning in a whirlpool of promiscuity, substance abuse, depression, suicide, and alienation. In America and the rest of the western world, the vast majority of these people come from families and communities with strong Christian traditions and values. Once they establish a level of personal comfort with their sexual identities, they find themselves disoriented, incapable of finding their way home—back to God and the life in Christ they knew. They're prodigals. Unfortunately, if they arise and go their Father's house, their reception is seldom anything like the one Jesus described. Instead of being embraced and surrounded by rejoicing, they're told they can't be true to themselves and please God at the same time, despite the fact that God says "Not so!" in Isaiah and Acts.  So what do they do? They turn right back around and head for the pigpen. This time, however, they're not listening as others tell them their faith and the church is useless—they're saying it themselves. The cycle continues over and over, and with each spin more precious souls are lost.

Stoking the Fires

Thus, while I agree with the video in principle—and I hate that overly zealous equal-rights policies resulted in the Parker family's suffering—I have to disagree with it in practice. The church, its leaders, and its people do themselves a great disservice by taking their opposition to same-sex marriage into the streets instead of being content to exercise their voting privileges as American citizens.

First, they actually generate wider controversy that ultimately ricochets by stoking the fires of those who advocate same-sex marriage. I've seen dozens of Public Service Announcements opposing straight-only marriage initiatives in Arizona and California, all of them in response to fear-mongering ads produced by the Christian right. In Phoenix and LA, two priests who defied their Bishops' directives to instruct their parishioners to vote for same-sex marriage bans have been pulled from their pulpits and are now incredibly powerful symbols of religious victimization. After their stories were publicized, polls in both cities surged in opposition to the initiatives.

Campaign Issues

Second, while the church is theologically correct to oppose same-sex marriage, the spirit of its campaign against it is sadly wrong. The Parker video is a perfect example of this. Undoubtedly, what the Parkers experienced was horrible, unnecessary, and most definitely illegal. As a die-hard liberal, I could never conscientiously approve of any action that lands a man in jail for protesting public policy and asserting his parental rights. (Besides, it's just stupid for the school officials to defend their nutty decision to introduce diversity training at the Kindergarten level. We know dozens of gay couples who've adopted and are raising beautiful, well-balanced children and they'll tell you the last thing their five-year-old needs is to be singled out as "special" because of them. Kids that young don't need to be subjected to that. Furthermore, every gay parent I know would side with the Parkers—this discussion should stay in the home and happen at the appropriate time. It's not the teacher or school administrator's job, even if same-sex unions are state law.)

Having said all this, though, I think it's wrong of Tony Perkins to exploit the Parkers' case as a means of spreading fear. And it amazes me how boldly he states his intentions to do so. "If you don't vote to ban same-sex marriage, this very well could happen to you! You could go to jail!" That's true, evidently. But is it realistic? Hardly. In fact, due to the Parkers’ case, I'm sure school boards everywhere are revising their diversity curricula because you'd have to live in a cave not to see the lawsuit that's coming. And from a legal standpoint, the issue of same-sex marriage is moot. Mr. Parker could have been protesting any topic that infringed on his parental and religious rights—dress codes, sex ed, bilingual instruction, etc.—and the school would still have been at fault for not accommodating him, let alone having him arrested.

A Spirit of Fear

By using Parker's story to scare unthinking people into voting his way, Perkins is completely out of line with Christian doctrine. Its rallying cry is "Be not afraid!" Jesus told us He has overcome the world—there's nothing to fear. Paul said we haven't been given a spirit of fear, but one of love, power, and a sound mind. John writes, There is no fear in love, because fear has to do with punishment, but perfect love drives out fear. Fear and love can't occupy the same space and from where I sat, I saw no love at all in this video. This saddens me because according to Jesus, it's love that shows the world we're His—not righteousness and most certainly not fear. I can't imagine who Perkins is trying to reach with this message; it seems to me he's preaching to the choir. His motives are so transparent and his distortion of the case is so obvious that I hardly believe any thinking person could be persuaded by it. If anything, the video's undertow of fear and malice most likely would drive undecided voters the opposite direction, leading them to think voting against same-sex bans is the Christian thing to do.

This applies not only to this video, but to the Christian right's overall shock-and-horror publicity strategy. No doubt about it, fear works. But it's not of God. And using fear in His name is every bit as dangerous and unscriptural as ignoring Jesus's marriage doctrine, perhaps even more so, because it's misleading. If not overtly, these religiously framed anti-rights campaigns implicitly promote prejudice and hatred; they're so primed with fear and hostility they can be easily misconstrued by weak-minded people as sanctioning violence and hate crimes. We've seen this in the abortion conflict, where excitable individuals have taken the right-to-life message as a cause to kill. The same holds with race: the KKK and other white supremacist "churches" have combined fear and faith to incite riots and lynching. While no sane person would interpret this or any other pro-ban video as a license for gay-bashing, they inadvertently prey on the fears of people who will. This is grossly irresponsible on their part as citizens but even more as Christians. If you cause one person to fall into sin, Jesus said, better you should tie a millstone around your neck and jump into the sea.

The American Thing

And, thirdly, if it's not the Christian thing to do, it's still right to vote against the same-sex marriage ban because it's the American thing to do. When we declared our independence, the first principle we adopted was this: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." In America, what's good for one is good for all. We believe in the unalienable, God-given rights of every man and woman to have equal opportunity, regardless of class, ethnic, or religious differences. This is why the Founding Fathers so adamantly insisted on separation of church and state.

This street flows both ways and as Christians we need to understand and accept our civic responsibilities in keeping with the laws of the Land. As an American, I cannot possibly support any policy that deprives my fellow citizens of the same rights and privileges I enjoy. This essentially is the principle that the California and Massachusetts courts upheld in their same-sex marriage rulings. It's illegal and un-American to tell gay couples they can't have the same rights as straight couples to common property, next-of-kin status, medical access, tax exemptions, etc., because they don't meet Christian marriage standards. On the other hand, it's completely legal and totally American for Christians to exercise their freedom of religion and limit the sacrament of marriage to heterosexuals. This is how democracy works.

Slip-Sliding Away

Is it not obvious to everyone that we're using one word—"marriage"—to mean two different things? Marriage in the courts and marriage in the church are not the same. When the courts overturned discrimination against same-sex couples, their decision had no religious connotations whatsoever. Nor should they have. They weren't approving or endorsing same-sex marriage as morally acceptable. They were rejecting discriminatory statutes as legally unacceptable. Morals fall under the province of the home and church. That's where this controversy over the legitimacy of same-sex marriage should live—and not in the political arena, where many Christians have placed it. This has stirred up needless confusion between how our laws define marriage and what Jesus said it was. This should not be. Christ Himself drew a line between civic law and religious doctrine: Render unto Caesar what is Caesars and to God what is God's. The religious right’s attempts to superimpose its doctrine on our legal system disobey this principle.

What's more, it diminishes God's authority and power by dragging His name into human affairs. This brings to mind Jesus's response to the Pharisees who accused His disciples of impiety because they ate without washing their hands. (Not surprisingly, He quotes Isaiah in the process.) "You nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied of you: 'These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men." Is that what we need? A manmade rule to enforce a spiritual doctrine? Surely we know better than that. Surely we know where it leads.

The minute we let our religious beliefs dictate our civic responsibilities, we open ourselves to all kinds of threats. Actually voting for propositions that legalize inequality—now that's something we really need to be afraid of, because once that horse gets out of the barn there's no telling where or far he'll go. And the church should be the first to worry about this. Once we make a practice of ignoring Constitutional precedents to suit our personal values, we're well on our way to propositions against religious organizations' non-profit tax status, curriculum standards in parochial schools, government licensing of ministers, etc. If we invoke religion on one matter, we make it an issue for all. And given the rising tide of alarm and disgust over how many political and religious leaders have tried to leverage fear and faith to run rampant over the Constitution, it's most probable that the voting majority will have no compunction about voting for propositions that reel these rabble-rousers back in by limiting religious freedoms for everyone. It's a slippery slope that we'd be foolish to try and navigate. And we're all the more foolish for not seeing that these "marriage protection" initiatives are just the thing to send us sliding downhill fast.

The Red Flag

But finally (and I so apologize for going on this long, but I guess I really needed to try to explain myself as fully as possible), I'm most troubled by this video because of how it deceives gay (and gay-friendly) people into believing Christ nor His church cares about them. Of course, this isn't so, yet what else are they to think after hearing Ms. Parker call homosexuals sinners and Mr. Parker equate gay inclusion in mainstream society as "a war against the family"?  I totally sympathize with their anger and outrage—it's undeniably justified—yet there's no denying the hostility and fear underlying it.

When gay people see and hear this, a red flag goes up that says, "Keep out!" Unfortunately, they don't attribute that to the Parkers and Perkins. They view them as typical of all Christians and it becomes one more reason (or excuse) to avoid Jesus, His church, and His followers. It pushes them ever farther from knowing His love, grace, and power in their lives. It strands them in the shallows of a culture and community consumed with transient pleasure, self-gratification, and abusive habits. And for the relative few who, like Walt and I, make do by pursuing our faith in more tolerant, welcoming denominations, it just reinforces the idea that we're not likely to be able to return to the churches, service, and worship we were raised to love any time soon. In fact, I've pretty much given up believing that will happen in my lifetime. I've put all my hope into making up for the joy and fervor I've lost down here once I get to the other side.

I Wonder

What would happen, I sometimes wonder, if Pentecostals and Fundamentalists and Catholics and other sects that aggressively oppose homosexuality wholeheartedly embraced what God said in Isaiah 56, what Jesus taught in Matthew 19, and what Philip demonstrated in Acts 8? What would they do if they opened their hearts and doors to gay men and women and viewed them the same as every other believer in the room? What would the world see if these highly impassioned believers channeled their faith and courage to stand against homophobia, inequality, and social injustice? How would our society change if tens of thousands gay folks could be convinced that God and His people love them, accept them as they are, and want them to live healthy, productive lives that please their Maker? How would straight believers benefit from overcoming their fear and assuming the role of faith models for countless gay people to emulate? How many lost souls would be redeemed? How many alcoholics and drug users would be healed? How many AIDS cases would be prevented? How many suicides would be disabled? How many homes would be mended? How many more soldiers of the cross would take the field? How many more poor, sick, and spiritually distraught people around the world would find the help they need?

I wonder.

Mr. Parker is right—there is a war going on. But it's not gays versus Christians, liberals versus conservatives, or sinners versus saints. It's good versus evil. We already know who wins. I just wish we could get over our disagreements and fears of one another and learn to fight together for what's right.

I pray this helps you understand my position on this issue. How and what you believe is yours to decide and account for. More than anything, I want you to know that our differences about this or anything else are not important. What matters is that we continue to understand and care for each other despite them. I love you both very much—with all my heart.


Friday, October 24, 2008

Say So

O give thanks unto the LORD, for he is good; for his mercy endureth forever. Let the redeemed of the LORD say so, whom he hath redeemed from the hand of the enemy.

                        Psalm 107.1-2 (KJV)

What Has He Done for You?

Christianity is a personal faith, an endless bolt of fabric cut to fit millions of unique patterns. While the weave, texture, and hue provide consistency within its ranks, no two believers look exactly alike. This has less to do with individual style (though that plays into it) than form—distinct aspirations, needs, and experiences that shape each of us. We follow Christ for different reasons, we serve Him differently, and we experience His power and love differently.

Because of this, Christianity is also a mysterious faith. It fundamentally offers the same things to all—forgiveness, redemption, acceptance, love, hope, peace, confidence, and so on—yet its impact and meaning vary profoundly from person to person. How this works can’t be explained. Why, however, seems fairly simple. Regardless of age, background, or upbringing, we all come to Christ mid-story. Therefore, He changes us specifically to suit our situations. He rewrites our narratives, giving each of us a story unlike any other, a story we should be eager tell if asked, “What has He done for you?”


Still, discussing our faith makes many of us uncomfortable. Instead of describing discrete (personal) aspects of our walk with Christ, we prefer to be discreet (private) about what He’s done for us. This is understandable to some extent because it involves a degree of self-disclosure we’d rather not delve into, particularly with casual acquaintances. Oddly enough, it seems that believers whose lives are radically transformed after coming to Christ are more apt to tell their personal stories than those whose struggles are less, well, melodramatic. We’ve all heard tremendous accounts of indisputably divine interventions—narrow escapes, rescues from addictions, event reversals too miraculous to be written off as coincidences, etc. Yet how often do we hear stories about how someone’s faith enabled him/her to overcome jealousy, say, or boastfulness or intolerance?

Why don’t we tell how God’s mercy redeems us from these “little” problems? Maybe we consider them too minor. (Although they’re not.) Maybe we’re embarrassed. Maybe we honestly believe we handled them ourselves. But here’s the long and short of it. God has done marvelous things for us and we can’t be shy about telling others. We set personal discomfort aside for the sake of letting them know He can and will do similarly wondrous things for them. We may not like doing it, but love for our neighbors compels us to.

Strong Talk

It’s good for them to hear our stories and what’s more, it’s good for us, too. Revelation 21.11 says we will overcome by the blood of the Lamb and the word of our testimony. Telling of God’s goodness is strong talk. It forces us to flex muscles we might otherwise neglect. First, it reminds us He’s the central character in our stories; His love and mercy drive the plot and determine the outcomes. Second, it inspires gratitude; how can we explain all He’s done for us without offering up thanks? Third, it reinforces our faith; when we tell others how far we’ve come, it increases our confidence that His grace is sufficient for whatever we face now and in the future. And finally, it just feels terrific to explain how much God loves us, how He works in and through us, how He watches over us—all that great stuff that comes from an accepting, forgiving Parent.

Give thanks to the Lord, the Psalmist wrote, because He’s good. His love never fails. He has redeemed us—paid the price to restore us to our rightful place as His people—and we shouldn’t hesitate one minute about saying so. (When I read this, I almost hear the Psalmist say, “Now that’s what I’m talking about!”) What has God done for you? Speak up. Somebody you know needs to hear your story and you need to tell it. Say so.


If God has done anything for us, we should never hesitate to say so.

(Tomorrow: Crumbs)

Thursday, October 23, 2008


Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.

                        Matthew 28.20 

No Country for Unorthodox Believers

A recurrent theme for GLBT and other unorthodox believers is feeling like “people without a country.” On one side, we struggle with rejection from religious traditions and communities we cherish. It goes beyond not being welcomed; we feel unwanted. On the other, the vision and values commensurate with our faith often put us out of kilter with those in more tolerant environments.

When we decide to follow Christ’s map and example, we should understand this before taking the first step. It’s not as simple or romantic as “marching to a different drummer,” because much of the time the pervasive racket disables our ability to hear our own thoughts, let alone His voice. A lot of that noise comes from people telling us what we should think and, worse yet, what God thinks. But in the middle of it all, Jesus still calls us to follow Him. Unable to hear Him clearly, we have to know the truth He speaks is there, lost in the mix of opinions, dogma, manipulation, and fear pounding in our ears. Unable to see Him fully, we have to know He’s in front of us, leading us across a minefield of charges planted to intimidate us into conforming to others' beliefs, standards, and customs.

Defying Nature

It’s essential to remember, first, foremost, and always, that our road features no visible signs for direction or markers to measure our progress. This has been true from the beginning, starting with the handful of people who first chose this route. They constantly reminded themselves that they were traveling down what looked like a blind alley to others. Here’s Paul, writing to Corinthian believers: “We walk by faith and not by sight.” (2 Corinthians 5.7; KJV)  The Hebrews writer famously defined faith exactly in the same way: “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” (Hebrews 11.1)

This concept seems basic in principle, but it’s supremely difficult to practice. It disputes life experience, discounts personality, and overrules conventional wisdom. It hoists us above human instinct and reason to consider the world from a radically different angle. It confuses those around us and dramatically alters how we manage our lives. In fact, when we follow Jesus, we embrace the most unnatural lifestyle known to man. And defying nature often isolates us from mainstream logic. We feel left alone to deal with our thoughts and problems.

Never Alone

The great slave spiritual exquisitely captured the utterly unnatural experience of following Jesus: “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, a long way from home.” When these emotions rise, though, we ignore feelings we harbor to ignite faith we hold. We anchor our confidence on hopes we can’t predict and truths we can’t prove. When people observe our insistent reliance on faith without evidence to back it up, we look like unhinged idiots flapping in the wind. Religious bigots and secular cynics alike find our certainty in God’s loving acceptance wrong-headed, futile, and disturbing. Either they push us away from them or rush away from us. And we’re alone again—naturally.

This double-barreled alienation is nothing new. Jesus stressed its inevitability with warnings that His path crosses long, solitary valleys. Yet He also reassured us we’re never alone, no matter how forsaken we feel. “I will not leave you as orphans,” He promised in John 14.18. “I will come to you.” And His closing words in Matthew’s gospel stand as a timeless truth we should claim wholeheartedly: Surely I am with you always. Natural feelings goad us to conclude we’re shoved aside, stranded in no-man’s land without love and companionship. But unnatural faith says, “Not so!” Surely He’s with us. Always. To the very end.

Although it often looks and feels like we're traveling a lonely road, Christ is with us always, to the very end.

(Tomorrow: Say So)

Personal Postscript: So Glad You’re Here

This week professional obligations put me in an awkward spot I’m usually able to avoid. I couldn’t balance long hours of work responsibilities with my daily commitment to Straight-Friendly. The extraordinary people and project I was involved with—launching a new indication of an HIV therapy that will save countless lives—demanded and deserved my complete energy and attention. So I reluctantly posted a “be back soon” message here.

When I finally found time to pull some thoughts together—after a fashion; I apologize for the sloppiness of the last few posts—I hastily deleted the apology before reviewing and posting the responses many of you left. They were truly sweet to my soul. And although you obviously had no idea of the personal meaning and significance of the work that drew me away from S-F, your patience and spirited encouragement strengthened me to press ahead.

I remain as committed as ever to Straight-Friendly's daily format and now that I'm back at my desk, we'll get caught up as quickly as possible. But since I inadvertently botched the chance to publish and acknowledge your comments, I want to make sure you know how grateful I am for them. I so glad you're here and never, ever do I want anyone to feel ignored or taken for granted. May God bless you richly for your invaluable contributions and collaboration in this work.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Jailhouse Rock

Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.

                        Revelation 1.17-18

Life or Death

I’m presently at a meeting to launch the expanded indication of an HIV/AIDS treatment. In the opening session, the keynote speaker asked the audience to stand in groups: those who’ve been fighting the AIDS wars for the past 20 years, then 10 years, and so on. To the first group, he said, “You entered this battle when it focused on preventing death and you’ve watched it shift to where we are now—saving lives.” The contrast seemed subtle and elegant when he said it. But I’ve been rolling it around in my mind and the more I think about “preventing death” and “saving lives,” the more starkly one compares with the other. And this leads me to ponder a bigger question: what’s behind our need to believe? Are we preventing death or saving lives? Because, when you get down to the nub of why we have faith in Christ, it really is a matter of life or death.

Here or Hereafter

Christians typically view their faith in one of two ways. One group’s actions, words, and mindset focus on “prevention”—i.e., following a strict protocol to escape eternity in Hell, far removed from God’s presence. The second group seems more interested in “salvation”—i.e., realizing full potential in this life through the power and words of Jesus Christ. Without a doubt, the two philosophies overlap to cover a great deal of common ground. But I also think, when the alarm goes off in the morning and we begin collecting our thoughts about what the day holds, how we approach it places us in one of two camps: the “Here” (or “Life”) crowd, or the “Hereafter” (or “Death”) bunch.

Fact or Fiction

Where we fall regarding here/hereafter gets complicated by personal afterlife theologies. And that, I believe, comes down to need. Some of us require the premise of a literal Heaven and Hell to keep going. Others, not so much. And still others can’t get their minds around such a concept. Yet here’s what we should remember: whether the afterlife is fact or fiction, reality or metaphor, has no impact on its purpose. The main reason why belief in life-after-death is essential to following Christ is because it enlarges every present moment with eternal significance. In steadily journeying ahead—pressing “toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus,” as Paul describes it in Philippians 3.14—we’re ever aware that what we leave behind has lasting value, just as much, maybe more than what we’re striving to gain.

The Keys

When the resurrected Christ is revealed to John of Patmos, it’s fascinating to consider how He identifies Himself. He says He’s the First and the Last, the Living One who holds the keys to death and Hell. In other words, He unifies everything. He prevents death and saves lives simultaneously. We shouldn’t get locked into approaching our faith exclusively from one angle or another. We shouldn’t live in fear of Hell, nor should we be so focused on earthly life that we forget our attitudes and actions have eternal significance. 1 Peter 3.19 tells us that when Christ died, “he went and preached to the spirits in prison”—i.e., those who died before His sacrifice on Calvary. When He descended into their “prison,” He rocked the jailhouse for us all. It’s not about Heaven, Earth, and Hell. It’s about Him and our life in Him—now and to come.

It's not about going to Heaven, avoiding Hell, or living on Earth--it's about life in Him.

(Tomorrow: Always)

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Perfect Peace

You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts in you.

                        Isaiah 26.3

The Daily Mid-Term

A few days ago, while talking about the upcoming election and its final advertising/p.r. surge, my mom said, “I wish I could go sleep today, wake up on November 5, and find out who the new President is. I’m just so tired of it all.” She lives in a swing state and since I’m fairly sure she won’t vote for “that one” (i.e., my guy—the community organizer from Harvard), I heartily endorsed her idea and we both laughed. But I understand Mom’s fatigue. A lot of us—not only here in the States, but around the world—are tired of having to think so much. Watching the news or picking up a magazine was once a convenience, a pleasurable way of keeping atop world events. Now it feels more like a daily mid-term exam in political science, economics, social studies, and pop culture:

Here are six scenarios; decide what they mean; predict future outcomes based on them; and rank them in order of potential significance. BONUS QUESTION: Evaluate the source of this information for trustworthiness, relevance, and accuracy.

Disturbing Our Peace

1 John 4.1 reads, “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” All of my life, I’ve associated this verse with religious leaders. But lately, I’m not so sure it doesn’t also apply to politicians, pundits, media figures, corporate moguls, social activists, and anyone else standing to gain from disturbing our peace of mind. Part of this near-constant exhaustion and anxiety comes from our inability to escape fear-mongers. I write this from a Washington DC hotel room. Yesterday, I counted five plasma TV’s between here and where my meeting takes place—five! As I tallied each one, I also noticed that every one of them was ladling out fear, horror, and pessimism by the bucket-loads. (Nobody wins anymore; everybody’s always losing—we’re all losing.) Every time I turned a corner and discovered another grim-faced talking head hanging on the wall, I felt my stomach knot up. But had I tested these spirits as John advises—instead of letting them test me—I’m fairly confident they would have scored as “not from God,” far below the passing grade for any serious time and attention.

Going Steady

This leads me to reevaluate another personal favorite, Isaiah 26.3. It says the person whose mind is steadfast (“stayed” in the King James Version) on God is kept in perfect peace, because he/she trusts in the Lord. Once again, I’ve read this verse to mean one thing all of my life: keep God top of mind. And while I think that’s still a valid reading, lately, I’ve got a different picture of how it works.

Instead of filling my overtaxed head with the unfiltered opinions of untried spirits, I’m learning to put them on hold long enough to try and determine what God thinks first. That decides whether or not I should attend to what these other voices say. And the ones that aren’t from God, who don’t align with His principles, aren’t worth my energy and emotional investment. What a certain governor of Alaska thinks isn’t enough to rock my world, because she doesn’t pass the “spirit” test. What any talk-radio or cable-TV buffoon thinks instantly vaporizes into the ether; he/she doesn’t pass the “spirit” test. Not from God? Not important. It’s that basic. Instead of going to bed, as Mom suggested, I’m going steady—keeping my mind on things that please God, and trusting Him. I’m going to be kept in perfect peace.

Try the spirits and see if they're from God...

(Tomorrow: Jailhouse Rock)

Monday, October 20, 2008

Love Lines

Speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.

                        Ephesians 4.15

True Love Ways

In his expansive definition of love, Paul says, “It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” (1 Corinthians 13.5-7) These love lines are perhaps the most beautiful, enduring poetry ever written. Reading it leaves us starry-eyed. But we should take care to see it plainly for what it is: a pragmatic description of how real love behaves.

True love ways are built on honesty and integrity. They’re remarkably canny about human nature and always cautious against serving self-interests at others’ expense. When genuine love happens, no one gets hurt. This gives slip to the lie concealed in that tired, old preface, “I have to say this because I love you…” How often have we heard someone use that or other similar phrases to set up a statement that crushes our spirit or humiliates us? How often have we done the same thing to others? Love always protects, Paul says; it never preys on others’ vulnerabilities, inexperience, or ignorance. It always places others first and never masks our desire to criticize, get even, or correct their wrongs.

Growing Up

Paul tells the Ephesians that learning to speak the truth in love is a part of growing up into Christian maturity. The context for this is a larger discussion of religious controversy, in which he urges his readers to become established in Christ and impervious to “every wind of doctrine” that blows in their direction. Hearing anyone—including famous preachers and highly placed religious leaders—instruct against accepting or providing for any person under the guise of “true Christian love” exposes their immature, self-serving agendas. When do purposefully hurting, belittling, and/or denying equal rights and opportunities to other people ever protect them? Never—that’s when.

Does this mean those who flagrantly violate Christ’s laws should be coddled in tissues of well-intentioned lies? Absolutely not. What it tells us is that we must reach a level of maturity in our faith where we can speak the truth in love. We have to get to a place where what we say is completely free of any self-serving, distrustful, and impatient undertones. When those around us have no doubts about our love for them, the truth we speak will go unquestioned. We will already have proven it in deed before speaking it in word.

Gongs and Cymbals

“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal,” Paul says at the start of his immortal love lines. Truth spoken without love is just a bunch of racket. It may sound exciting, sort of like those street musicians who bang on pots, pans, and overturned buckets. But there’s no melody in it—no substance that lingers in the listeners’ heads and, therefore, no lasting benefit to “telling the truth.” It’s kids’ play. Before we launch any truth campaigns of our own—and, most definitely, before we jump on anyone else’s truth-at-all-costs bandwagon—we should do a quick age check. Are we, or those leading us, mature enough to speak the truth in love? 

Those who attempt to speak truth without love are like noisy street percussionists; they may be fascinating, exciting, and impossible to ignore, but there's no melody in their music--no substance in their message. It's kids' play.

(Tomorrow: Perfect Peace)

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Hear Here

Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.

                        Romans 10.17


We need to believe. We need faith. That’s always been true, of course, but with each passing day, the need for faith becomes more evident everywhere we look. Fear and his two stepchildren, Cynicism and Doubt, have taken up residence in our public squares, our learned halls, and our private imaginations. We hope for the best, yet brace ourselves for the worst. Progress and change no longer are characterized by courageous leaps of faith. They’re methodically plotted baby steps governed by uncertainty. We’ve allowed our lives to be governed almost exclusively by what we see—things we can prove empirically and explain logically. Yet we’re constantly surprised at how often rational proof leaves us unprepared for rare phenomena and human contradiction. It’s a lousy way for anyone to live. It simply doesn’t work as well as we’d like or, for that matter, as well as we pretend. For followers of Christ, however, it’s completely counterintuitive.

The prophet Habakkuk condemned arrogant, restless minds that can’t be satisfied, contrasting them with this: “The righteous will live by his faith” (2.4). Then, not once, but in three New Testament letters written to three different audiences are we emphatically reminded of this: the righteous live by faith. It’s we, the believers—not our political leaders or scientists or social theorists—who possess the insight to look beyond the visible to see what’s possible, to hope for outcomes unproven by precedent. We’re the ones capable of making leaps. Undaunted by Fear, Cynicism, and Doubt, we’re humanity’s agents of progress and change.


We need faith—not only for ourselves, but also for our world. And according Paul’s letter to the Roman church, we acquire faith by hearing the message of Christ’s word. This dependency on the Word is what separates true believers—people of faith—from “spiritual” people, who blend a sense of human decency with consciousness of divine presence. We encounter so many “spiritual” people these days, particularly those of us who live and move in GLBT circles, that many of us have got confused and consider “spirituality” and faith as almost alike or possibly the same. They are not. Faith grows out of Christ’s message; spirituality grows out of personal conviction. Spirituality steers its practitioners toward what’s best for them. Christ’s message steers us toward what’s best for others. Spirituality changes one’s perceptions of the world. Faith changes us so we can change the world around us.

Hearing the Message

Many of us who’ve been ostracized by religious bigotry and exclusionary traditions have settled in the flatlands of spirituality—keeping our distance from living by faith, yet consciously hanging near its borders. It’s time for us to head back, to find a home where we can regularly hear Christ’s message of love and acceptance, to rejoin the company of believers who live by faith. Our world, our communities, and our loved ones are stalled, paralyzed by Fear, crippled by Cynicism, and shaken by Doubt. It’s time for us to build ourselves up to take leaps of faith toward progress and change for them. We need faith, which means we need to hear the Word, which means we need to find a place where we can say, “My faith grows stronger and stronger because of what I hear here.”

People of faith makes leaps of faith.

(Tomorrow: Love Lines)