When It Happens…

            We have a sister congregation somewhere west of the Mississippi that is, in many ways like us. They are slightly smaller than we are, about as diverse. They have been around about as long as we have. They take the Bible just as seriously as we do. They have a similar “feel” – they feel like a family. At this congregation, men and women who are gay feel secure to come and ask for the prayers and support of the congregation to help them lead obedient lives.

            This has never happened here.

            In my 25 years at Manassas folks have come forward to confess just about everything, and ask for prayers. We have always loved and supported each other through challenges and temptations. But no gay man or lesbian woman has ever come asking for our prayers and support. Why? Is it because none of our members have ever been gay? We know this isn’t true. Is it because gay members assume they will not receive the support and prayers 0f the congregation in their struggle – at least not from everyone? Yes, I believe that is exactly the reason.

            Is this assumption correct? I hope not. Christians speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4.15), with gentleness and reverence (I Peter 3.15), and willingly bear each other’s burdens (Galatians 6.2).

            Let me be clear, because the Bible is clear. It is wrong for one person to have sex with a person of the same gender (Leviticus 18.22, 20.13; Romans 1.27, I Corinthians 6.9, I Timothy 1.10).  But scripture does not teach that we should be hateful about this.  As a teen, in Sunday school, I was taught that “homosexuals are an abomination,” that “all gay men have the potential to act like the men of Sodom”, and that “being gay is as bad as committing bestiality or murdering your parents.” I have heard similar things spoken here over the years – sometimes in Bible class. These statements are wrong. They contradict what we know from life. They contradict what we know from the Bible. They certainly discourage any gay man or lesbian woman from asking for our prayers.

The verses mentioned above are often used as evidence that derision for homosexuals is God-sanctioned. Yet when one reads those passages, one finds that the same lists include the covetous (I Corinthians 6.10), liars (I Timothy 1.10), heterosexual adulterers (Leviticus 18.22, 20.10), and sinners in general (I Timothy 1.9). No one ever taught us that coveting was equivalent to bestiality or murdering one’s parents. The men of Sodom were rapists. Many certainly had wives and families. Almost all men who rape other men or molest boys identify as straight. It is Biblically, and factually wrong to associate the men of Sodom with all gay men.

            The list in I Corinthians 6.9-11 is important because it says gay men have become Christians. And such were some of you, but you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of our God (verse 11). Paul reached gay men at Corinth with the Gospel of Jesus. Was this evangelistic success accomplished by derision and hatefulness or with friendship and respect? We know the answer to that question.

            Whenever it happens that a brother or sister comes and says, “I am gay, and I want to lead an obedient life. I need the prayers and support of my church family to face this challenge,” we will surround this person with love, prayers, and encouragement.  If we don’t, we will be the sinners.

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           Back in 1968 when Andy Warhol made his comment to photographer Nat Finkelstein about everyone enjoying 15 minutes of fame, he seemed prescient, and the notion entered the cultural water-supply. I would argue that Warhol's prediction is only partially fulfilled. Some people do enjoy their 15 minutes of fame. I offer Clara Peller, William Hung, and Michael Edwards as exhibits A, B, and C. The greater cultural phenomenon is that some folks take 15 minute's-worth of interesting content and parlay that into long careers and massive fortunes. I offer the names Hilton, Kardashian, and Lohan as exhibits C, D, and E.

            Those who take a teaspoon full of talent and manufacture a fortune and a career usually do so by combining physical attractiveness and shamelessness. Our culture is obsessed with "reality" — with famous people baring their lives and their bodies for public inspection. Of course, nothing could be less real than "reality" entertainment. The camera changes everything it captures, and everyone in front of a camera strikes a pose.

            A century ago our culture had the same appetite for celebrity, but most of those celebrities were guarded about their personal lives. No celebrity couple has been as popular and well-known than the Lindbergh's were in the 192o'3 and 30's. Charles was the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. Anne was a Senator's daughter who was a pioneering aviatrix herself, helping her husband set records and explore air-routes. If these accomplishments were not enough to ensure their celebrity, their firstborn son was notoriously kidnapped and murdered in 1932. Through it all, both Lindberghs were fiercely private.

            In a 1931 flight, Charles and Anne proved that the quickest air-route to Asia was across the Arctic Circle. In 1932 their son was kidnapped and murdered. In 1934 Anne wrote about their 1931 flight in a book titled North to the Orient.* In North to the Orient she does not mention any of the details of that hellish year, 1932 — but she does mention her son. After taking off from New York they flew over Long Island, and she could see "the harbor where my family waved, the white farmhouse on the point where my baby was. What a joy to hold them all in my eyes at once, as one tries to possess all of them in one look." Later, in Japan, she hears a melancholy song at a tea ceremony, and asks for a translation. It is the song of a mother who has lost her infant son, and Anne writes: "I long to see my boy." She wrote that line after she had already lost him. I think that despite the fierceness of her privacy, Anne has given us a moment of reality, and bared for us her heart.

            This is an exceptional gift. One is reminded of the famous comment Stephen Vincent Benet made in his epic poem John Brown's Body about General Robert E. Lee keeping his heart safe from the "pick-locks of Biographers." It is rare that we get a clear glimpse of the true heart of another.

            To truly observe a heard laid bare, one must open the word of God. David surely gives us his heart time after time in the Psalms. David is called the man after God's own heart (Acts 13.22). This was the reason he was chosen to be King (I Samuel 3.14); for no one lays His heart bare like God does.

How can I give you up, 0 Ephraim? How can I surrender you, 0 Israel? My heart is turned over within Me.  Hosea 11.8

I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have drawn you in with lovingkindness.  Jeremiah 31.3

This is love — not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent His Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.  1 John 4.10

            In every verse of the Bible, as well as every sunrise, every rainfall, every fresh-baked loaf, every new-born child, God bares His heart. We need no pick-locks to help us discover it — the love inside is visible and real.

                                                                                                           

*North to the Orient, by Anne Morrow Lindbergh; Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1935.

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         After suffering a brain injury back in 1997, I experienced four long-term effects regarding my hearing. There was some general hearing loss. I lost the ability to tell the direction of high-pitched sounds. I used to have the ability to conduct one conversation and listen surreptitiously to another simultaneously. This ability, which came in quite handy at my last job, was completely lost. The fourth and most life-altering effect was that I developed a severe and persistent case of tinnitus.

            The audiologist told me that this was to be expected, I had scar tissue on or in my ear canal. It started out as static in my left ear – often really loud static. This evolved into a ring, which I have identified as a high B-flat. It is always there. Sometimes it is oppressively loud. Sometimes it keeps me awake. Sometimes there is a second, discordant note. Sometimes (and this is the worst) the note varies at odd intervals. I know that certain factors make my tinnitus worse – fatigue, stress, and especially caffeine. But nothing makes it better.

            I’m known as a fairly loud person. I have (or at least had) a booming voice. I play music loud. I have no doubt that the tinnitus has increased my need for volume. The thing is, I loved silence. I loved the early morning in the office – 6:00 am say – when everything was absolutely still. This was the best time to study and pray. But I have not experienced silence, even for a moment, since January 1997.

            I have been teaching I Timothy on Sunday mornings, and the apostle Paul has a few things to say in favor of quietness in this letter. In chapter 2 he says that quietness typifies the life we should pray to live.

First of all, then, I urge that entreaties, prayers, petitions and thanksgivings be made on behalf of all men – for kings and all that are in authority, in order that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior. I Timothy 2.1-3

            He goes on a few verses later to use the same word, “quiet,” to describe how a woman should conduct herself in worship (v.11).

            This all leaves me feeling more than a little bit left out. A cursory reading of this passage and so many others (Psalms 4.4, 46.10, 131, 139.18; and Habakkuk 2.20 are good places to start) might make a person deprived of silence feel a little “less than” – somewhat spiritually disabled.

            Paying attention to the text, though, reminds me that the word “quiet” Paul uses in I Timothy does not mean silence, it means “quietude”, stillness. Stillness is not dependent on silence (either external or internal). It is the gift we receive from God because He is present.

The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down is green pastures. He leads me beside quiet waters. Psalm 23.1

Surely I have composed and quieted my soul. Like a weaned child rests against his mother, I have quieted my soul within me. Psalm 131.2

            Even that famous phrase from Psalm 46, be still and know that I am God, means “stop struggling and know that I am God.” Most modern translations phrase this verse that way, although I prefer the earlier translation.

            Silence, then, is a matter of location and choice. It is the gift we have when we know God is present AND we decide to stop struggling and lie down beside the quiet waters He provides.  Neither tinnitus, nor boom-boxes, nor traffic, nor any of the noise pollutants we encounter can take this gift away.

                                                                                                

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     My daughter Julia, who always finds the coolest stuff online, sent me a link to a story from the History Channel website which Becka Little posted May 3 about a new book by Zora Neale Hurston being published this month. Hurston died in 1960, and had been forgotten for decades when she died.  But in the 1920’s and 30’s she was the most important woman writer of the Harlem renaissance. In the 1980’s she was rediscovered, largely due to the efforts of Alice Walker. Her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God became a best seller (I prefer Jonah’s Gourd Vine, myself). Hurston was a writer by talent and inclination, but an anthropologist by training. Her book Mules and Men is a landmark study of African-American folklore and history. The new book, Baracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo, is also a work of anthropology.

            In Baracoon Hurston interviews the last living survivor of the Middle Passage. Although slavery was not ended in this country until the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1864 (England, the country we said all those nasty things about in the Declaration of Independence, abolished slavery in 1807) the international slave trade was abolished here in 1807. Slave ships still smuggled newly acquired slaves from Africa to this country as late as 1860.  Hurston found a man, Cudjo Lewis, living near Mobile, who was delivered to the Gulf Coast of Alabama from his home in Benin on the slave ship Clotilda – the last slave ship to bring human cargo to the United States from Africa. 

            Her book, based upon interviews with Cudjo Lewis was never published. Black publishers would not publish it because Hurston, the scientist, recorded Cudjo’s voice in his own patois. Black intellectuals at the time felt that this dialect fed racist stereotypes. White publishers were simply not interested. And so this important work has not been published till now.

            I am anxious to read it for several reasons. Zoral Neal Hurston is a story teller of rare talent. The experience of the Middle Passage and navigating a wholly new world has not been given such a thorough, first-person voice before. The book will further illuminate the sin of slavery – and we only benefit from such knowledge. Most of all, I want to read the book because it is the personal account of a man who was free, then enslaved, then emancipated – which is the story of every Christian.

            Jesus himself makes this clear. When he tells the Jews that the truth will set them free, they angrily reply, We are Abraham’s offspring and have never been enslaved to anyone! (John8.32-33). My impulse would be to say to them, “Uh…guys, I have three words for you: Egypt, Babylon, Rome.” Jesus’ reply is far-reaching, gathering in all of humanity:

            Truly, truly I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin.  The slave does not remain in the house forever, the Son does remain forever. If, therefore, the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed. John 8.34-36.

            Paul describes the same, universal state of humanity in Romans 6.16-18. In this passage he reminds us we were all “slaves to sin,” but some have responded to a gospel which makes us “free from sin, and slaves to righteousness.”

            This is the state of humanity. But our sense of self mirrors that of those Jews opposing Jesus – “We have never been slaves to anyone.” The freedoms we enjoy through the blessings God provides, and the sacrifice so many have made would certainly cultivate such a reply.

            Which is why understanding what it is to be a slave is so important. It is a tool by which we may better understand ourselves as Christians. How will we know the Truth has set us free – how can we appreciate our emancipation - if we have no comprehension of our own slavery?

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         We hosted the area wide meeting of Spanish-speaking Church groups yesterday. It was such a blessing to worship together. Mike Mendez (the father, the one with the great head of hair) translated my opening remarks into Spanish, and then translated the sermon of our guest speaker, brother Carlos Hugues, into English. Otherwise the service was conducted in Spanish. This posed only slight difficulties for us English speakers. Despite the language barrier we worshipped together fervently, in Spirit and in Truth.

            The songs we sang were set to familiar tunes, and there is so much Spanish in the air that even those of us who have had no Spanish language training can follow along. We all know that Salvador is savior, Dios is God, Corazon is heart, amor is love, Cristo is Christ, agua is water, and Senor is Lord. I could list 20 more words we English speakers identified because they are in common usage, or recognized from a shared background in Greek and Latin. We English speakers sang along with the Spirit and the Understanding.

            The same familiarity of vocabulary made following the scripture readings just as easy. I wish that the prayers of brother Ismael, and brother Rigoberto had been translated, as well as brother Chavez’ remarks around the communion table. Their words were so heart-felt and reverent, that even without translation we were all led in adoration of our Father.

            Brother Hugues’ lesson on Hebrews 2.1-4, encouraging us not to neglect our great salvation, was a powerful and challenging reminder of what is truly important.

            For weeks we announced this meeting as a “Spanish Language” service, but it was truly a Pentecost service.  On the day of Pentecost following the death-burial-resurrection-ascension of Jesus the Spirit was poured out upon the Apostles and they began to preach. The miracle of the day was that although 16 different ethnic groups were gathered in Jerusalem, and only 12 apostles to preach to them, everyone heard the gospel in their native language.  Something like that happened Sunday evening.

            It wasn’t that we all miraculously understood Spanish. There are three logical reasons why language didn’t pose much of a barrier.  One reason is that most of us know more Spanish than we realize. Another reason is that we humans communicate in more ways than just with words. But there was something else at work – a common language we Spanish speakers and English speakers share when we share a Salvador. We share the language of the Gospel.

Now we have not received the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things freely given to us by God. Which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual things to spiritual people. But the natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; they are foolishness to him, he cannot comprehend them because they are spiritually valued. I Corinthians 2.12-14

            Whether one speaks Spanish or English, Hope/Esperanza means something to the Christian it means to no one else. The miracle of Pentecost persists because we share the language of the Gospel.

            Christianity has been chided recently for using a specialized vocabulary that is out of touch with most folks – especially young folks. It is true that we can throw theological jargon around like incantations, use those words as Shibboleths, or as a way to keep the uninitiated at arm’s length. We sometimes fetishize words of our own making - “trinity” for instance, which are not even in the Bible.  But the vocabulary of the gospel – words like: sin, salvation, grace, redemption, peace, hope, and atonement –are necessary to the message itself. These words unite us across language barriers.

            These gospel words will form no barrier to the one seeking God, as Paul tells us in the passage above. For the worldly person, the one with no interest in God at all, his own disinterest is the barrier – not gospel words. 

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