I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the LORD!” (Psalm 122.1)
Till Every Exile Comes Home
What gracious Facebook friends I have! Besides linking posts on Straight-Friendly’s group page, I also put them on my personal page, dropping them on family and friends. Every time I post a link, I hear a lot of them groan, “Here he goes with that stuff!” Yet, other than a couple tightly wound Christians, not one has charged me with overstepping. In fact, I’m often surprised and moved by positive responses from people I considered unlikely to show any support. Ever the optimist, I imagine those who’ve not said anything pro or con view the links favorably. Meanwhile, the realist in me argues that many dislike what I do and are too polite to complain. The truth, I guess, lay in the middle. Most probably breeze by my stuff as I do much of theirs, because Facebook is the Land of the Unhidden Agenda, where any and everyone can say what’s on their minds and keep saying it until they’re tired of saying it—usually long after people tire of hearing it. Whether or not my FB friends look kindly on what I say and do there, it’s a smart bet they’re over it by now, many of them wishing I’d give it up and move on. Sometimes I wish I would, too. But I can’t.
When God’s Spirit and Word spoke healing to my heart, it broke anew for multitudes of LGBT and straight believers unjustly ostracized by foul doctrines of fear, shame, and rejection. Assurance that nothing can separate us from God’s love won’t let me quit saying so till every exile comes home. Compared to the task facing those of us who hear the Spirit call the Church to renew its first love—the Gospel of grace, equality, and inclusion—I know my efforts don’t carry a flea’s weight. Yet having so little to offer compels me to do all I can in the biggest way. With regrets to those who are weary with me, I suspect this obsession is with me for life, gaining insistence the closer we get to a day when Christians of every gender, ethnicity, orientation, class, and persuasion are joyfully, freely welcomed by all members of Christ’s Body.
Can—will—that day arrive? Along with believing there’s no good reason why it can’t, I find no use in excuses for why it won’t. Or so says my optimist. It never saw a mountain it couldn’t scale once faith in God’s power and trust in God’s purpose entered the picture. Oddly enough, my realist, who generally sides with logic and skepticism, doesn’t disagree. It does, however, stop short of buying the dream without caveats. Reviving the Apostles’ doctrine of Christ’s acceptance relies on us forsaking prejudices and myths that wormed their way into our traditions, fractured our unity, and corroded our witness. That’s a tall order.
Belittling a Few to Mass-Market Belonging
Since many who govern Christian lives obtained and hold power by preaching fear of rejection, we can’t imagine they’ll champion equality and inclusion. Early in the Christian movement, it became clear the leader with the biggest draw held the most clout. Not a few figured out that barring select groups was the quickest, surest way to pack the house with would-be insiders. For centuries, those charged with advancing the Gospel have built huge, slavishly devoted followings by fueling an intrinsically covetous desire to have what others can’t get. Twisting Scripture every which way—or, if that failed, inventing exclusionary “theologies” from whole cloth—they present the Church as a members-only organization, not the let-everyone-come organism Jesus brought to life with His blood. As a consumer strategy, belittling a few to mass-market belonging couldn’t be more effective; its replication in every ad touting status or getting ahead verifies that. One thing’s certain: it inflates many prelates and pastors’ self-importance and makes a lot of them very rich—every one of them fully aware that hawking the Gospel to endorse exclusion negates Its truth and cheapens the price Christ paid to substantiate It. Exclusion is the most subversive, dangerous doctrine ever visited upon Christ's Church.
You’d expect the shameful history of religious wars, public strife, and private torment brought on by Christian exclusion would cause every leader in every faith community to demand it cease, regardless if they care or even understand that true discipleship is defined and measured by Christ’s command to love God and others without restraint. But here’s the rub. Nullifying doctrines of inequality and exclusion cancels all power to leverage fear of rejection as a control mechanism and campaign tactic, which many in authority can’t afford to do.
Suppose churches literally became what Jesus indicates they should be: safe harbors where none is rejected and all are equally entitled to God’s grace. How would that work? It’s humanly impossible. Despite the New Testament’s outlay of church governance, only a lunatic would try to hold such an unmanageably diverse and needy crowd together. With nothing to fear, what’s not to lose? Without sinners to keep out, there’s nothing to keep saints in. If Jesus means what He says in John 6.37 (“Whoever comes to Me I will never drive away”), and if the Spirit and the Church actually say what Revelation 22.17 says (“Let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.”), we’re looking at a managerial nightmare. Not that there will be much to manage. Nobody joins a club that lets anybody in.
My realist urges me not to lose sight of the scarred history, ingrained traditions, and nagging insecurities that plague the priestly caste at the summit of the mountain that my optimist hopes to conquer. Waiting for an invite like the one in Revelation wastes precious time. That offer has stood since Christ stepped out of the tomb. It will forever stand. There’s no excuse for stalling in the valley, starving for community and nurture until those at the top send invitations barreling down the hill. If that’s what it takes to press our way toward inclusion, we ain’t going anywhere for a while, because what we’re waiting on ain’t coming any time soon.
Those occupying the mountain may rule it to their liking. But they don’t own it and can’t stop us from climbing it. So why keep murmuring about high officials and lofty communities too terrified of falling to budge? They don’t have to come to us—and we need to stop wishing they would. What they do or don’t do to end the Church’s long night of exclusion has no impact on us. God gives all exiled believers a fear-free, outrageously joyful answer to their dilemma. It’s not a demand or denial. It’s a decision, delivered on wings of a song that says, “Let’s go up.”
Going to Meet God
I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the LORD.”
Most of us raised in church grew up singing one or another version of Psalm 122.1. Composers have set its lyric in every style and genre—from toe-tapping, let’s-get-our-praise-on versions that emphasize the “glad” end of the sentence to richly sacred hymns that evoke the privilege of entering God’s house. Psalm 122 is the third in a 15-song suite (120-134) known as “The Songs of Ascent,” sung by ancient Jews while climbing Jerusalem’s Temple Mount (a.k.a. “Mt. Zion”) for festival services. These songs surpass others that extol Temple worship. They’re informed with a sense of community and stubborn hope. They span an enormous range of emotions, referring to the best and worst of Israel’s experience. As worshipers look up to the Temple, they repeatedly describe a God Who watches over them. Their joy mounts as they sing; reciting how far they’ve come makes vivid where they’re going. It’s bigger than going to church out of obligation (like many part-time Christians do at Christmas and Easter). They’re going to meet God, every song drawing nearer to God’s dwelling.
A fascinating aspect of The Songs of Ascents surfaces with four (122, 124, 131, and 133) composed by the Temple’s visionary, David, and a fifth (127) by its builder, Solomon. Yet these songs are written like the rest: in the voice of a commoner marveling at God’s goodness and power. Israel’s two greatest kings join the procession—not out of noblesse oblige or politically savvy solidarity. Implicit in their point of view one finds an electrifying confession of faith. This is God’s mountain, God’s house, and they, along with every pilgrim, are God’s people. They own these truths without presumption of owning what belongs to God. Canny recognition of what’s theirs and what’s God’s frees them from inequities and fears that shatter community and sanction prejudice.
David and Solomon leave their palatial heights to ascend Mt. Zion with their people. They surrender authority as Israel’s anointed leaders to honor Who’s really in charge. And while Israel habitually backslides into exclusionary policies, both kings consistently take a hands-off approach regarding elitism. God’s awesome reality in their own lives—made real by keen awareness they’re undeserving of divine favor—stays before them. In Psalm 131.1-2, David writes, “O LORD, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high. I do not occupy myself with things too great and marvelous for me.”
The Spirit of Ascent
This is the spirit of ascent: the mightiest man in Israel admitting he’s not big enough to take the reins from God. Weighty matters exceed his knowledge and authority. Much of what happens around him is unmanageable. What God demands is humanly impossible. Yet David doesn’t grab for control to retain to power and position. He’s so smart about where his authority ends and God’s begins that he celebrates his limits. And when the call goes out—“Let’s go up to God’s house”—he’s thrilled. It’s a little thing. But he does it in a big way.
When we answer the call to go up, we bear in mind our ascent is about meeting God where God dwells. We concede our limitations while doing what we little can in a big way. With that comes a lamentable concession that not every church is a house of God. Many don’t nurture organisms where faith thrives and all are invited to take the living water as a gift. They’re merely clubhouses—organizations whose members define themselves by what they’re not instead of Whose they are. They’re founded on covetous desire to have what those who don’t fit the accepted profile can’t. They preach and practice belittlement to conjure a false sense of belonging, status, and getting ahead. Thus, we have to free ourselves of the idea that boycotting worship because expertly marketed clubs won’t admit us proves anything. Our ascent bypasses such places without a glance. They’re not where we want to be, nor should be. Not being welcome is our first indication they can’t provide what we need. We’re climbing God’s mountain to meet God. Jesus promises never to drive us away. The Spirit and the true Body of Christ says, “Come.” We must own these truths.
A New Normal
In every Christian exile there’s a profound longing for a safe home where none is belittled and all belong. Those we find will, in many cases, be nothing like those we left. Our trek isn’t intended to return us to clubhouses that mock God’s sovereignty and our making. Our ascent leads to homes that defy the norm in obedience to a new normal. Once we start filling up authentic houses of God, members-only mentality will self-destruct. Fear of rejection will lose its luster, and physical, emotional, and spiritual violence born of exclusion will cease. For that to go, however, we must let go fantasies that homes where we’re not wanted or appreciated will suddenly change their ways. Mistaking magical thinking for faith-bred optimism can be as paralyzing and unproductive as stubborn denial.
Though it seems those occupying the summit hold the power and write the rules, nothing could be further from the truth. The power resides in us. The only rules that merit attention are laid out in God’s Word. They’re not hidden in obscure passages or legalistic fine print, either. They’re writ large in Old Testament commands to welcome the stranger and embodied in Christ’s life and teachings. God’s Spirit beckons us to God’s house. Let’s respond gladly. Let’s go up.
You call us to Your mountain, to meet You in Your house, O God. Forgive our reluctance to climb. Make us glad as we go up and lead us safely home. Amen.
There’s no excuse for stalling in the valley, expecting an invitation to come rolling down from those who occupy the top of the hill. Power to go up and meet God resides in us.