“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3.16)
In my Southern Baptist and Pentecostal days, I used to have Scripture memorized backwards and forwards. These days, John 3.16 is pretty much all I have comfortably memorized and now with my Bible app on my iPhone handy at a moments notice, there’s not much hope that I will be re-memorizing those Scripture verses I once knew by heart. In general for any Christian, John 3.16 seems to be the slogan or litmus test on what it is to be a Christian or a follower of Jesus Christ. It’s simple, really. Believe in Jesus and you are in. Don’t believe and you are eternally separated for life. It’s like that fashion reality show Project Runway, “You’re either in or you’re out.”
Recent news of gay bullying and suicide deaths is a painful reminder how dangerous it is when we as a society play the who’s in and who’s out game. In my opinion, it is especially wrong and painful when the Church does it. Growing up in the church, I heard a lot of what I wasn’t able to do and what I shouldn’t do as a good Christian. Some of it, I couldn’t really understand. One was having to wait until I was thirteen to take communion because as a child I was considered too young to fully understand the ritual of the Lord’s Supper. I wondered whether there were many adults who understood the ritual themselves. The hardest “don’t” for me was not being able to be in some type of leadership because of my gender. Whether it was a college Christian group, my church, and at one time even my parents, I could not serve in a leadership capacity because (unfortunately) God created me as a woman. Because I didn’t have any women role models, it was easy for me to be convinced that they were right. This was a painful time for me that resulted in a loss of identity and purpose. After college, this manifested itself in fun yet random ways: tandem jumped out of an airplane, was a beauty pageant contestant twice, was an evening DJ for a “fire and brimstone”-type Christian radio station, and taught at a school for children with autism. Of course there was also the not-so-fun ways as well – the self-loathing, non-self-appreciation, deep sadness, and just an overall feeling of being lost. Now as a pastor looking back on those days, there is a great sense of gratefulness that I am able to do what I truly feel God is calling me to do. And I’ll be honest, a sense of relief as well. Lord knows what I would be doing right now if I didn’t go down this path. Let’s just say I wouldn’t have made a very good Miss Reno.
Why does it matter anyway who’s in and who’s out? Aren’t we all out and that’s what makes God’s love, compassion, forgiveness, and grace incredible and worthy to celebrate? As a society, aren’t we already good at excluding each other? Today, it’s the Muslim and Hispanic communities and not too long ago it was the African-American and Japanese-American communities. I remember as a kid witnessing how some people would treat my parents, looking down on them as immigrants and making sure they knew that they were on the OUTside of society. Only to find refuge in a Korean Presbyterian church, where they felt safe and on the INside. Isn’t church a place that should be a sanctuary and refuge for all those on the OUTside?
What baffles me even more is when those considered in the “minority” buy into this game of who’s in and who’s out. In this case, usually people say that it all comes down to Scripture. The Scriptures clearly state who’s in and who’s out. I remember a colleague of mine telling me that one time he went to visit a church member in the hospital. She wanted the pastor to read something from the Bible that would comfort her. The only thing she was clear about was that the pastor was to not read anything about masters and slaves. She heard enough about those Scriptures growing up on a plantation. We all know those Scriptures that are often used to justify exclusion from one group to another, whether it’s Scripture about masters and slaves (Ephesians 6); wives submitting to their husbands (Ephesians 5); or women’s role in the church (1 Timothy 2). Probably the most direct Scripture used to justify exclusion of the QGLBT community is Leviticus 18.22 and 20.13. Well, if we are going to be consistent in our “ethics,” shouldn’t we also take Leviticus 21.16-23 to heart, where it states that anyone with a disability or any kind of defect is not qualified for “priesthood”? I sure hope the fact that my arms are two inches longer than they are supposed to be doesn’t disqualify me from being a pastor.
I say that to not be funny, but to highlight how maybe our use (or misuse) of Scripture shouldn’t be the litmus test of who is in and who is out. Instead, our capacity to love – love those that are different, hurting, and misunderstood. And I’m not talking about the “love the sinner, hate the sin” kind of love. I’m talking unconditional love – the kind of love that can heal a wounded heart, mend a hurting soul, and reclaim a loss of identity. Can we as Christians possibly exude this kind of love so that not one more beautiful child of God has to feel like the only answer is ending one’s life — that the only hope for the pain to stop is by not existing at all? I mentioned how my college years were hard years to live through, but they would have been harder if it wasn’t for this one person who inspired me to stay in church and not give up hope. And this person is gay. I can’t imagine where I would be if this person didn’t use the God-given gifts of ministry to mentor me.
Last year when my son was in Kindergarten, his class spent the first semester focusing on social interaction. They learned the difference between saying warm fuzzies and cold pricklies. They learned how to resolve conflict using I-statements. They learned empathetic listening. At first, it was hard for me to not be impatient and wonder why my child wasn’t learning algebra yet or writing his first novel, but looking at the world, I’m grateful that his teacher is taking the time to teach them because Lord knows our society lacks the ability of empathetic listening. I am also grateful that my son has a teacher who is an incredible role model and ironically whose marriage to her partner was misused in the Prop 8 campaign as an example that schools would have to have mandatory field trips to gay marriages if approved.
Here is my warm fuzzy to those who are hurting because they have been told or made to feel by others that they are not precious and beautiful: You are precious and beautiful and created amazingly special in God’s eyes.
Here is my cold prickly to all those who allow fear or “different” get in the way and therefore ends up causing hurt and pain: Wake up! Stop it! Get a clue!
And lastly, here is my I-statement to the world: I feel sad when every generation you choose to segregate another group of people because of race, gender, age, sexual orientation, or some other oddity like my freakishly long arms because it causes unnecessary hurt and pain. Life is hard as it is. I’d appreciate it if you would love yourself a little bit more because by doing so you would have the capacity to love others as well – even those that are different from you or just don’t understand.