David is dead.
If I could write that with more poetic flair, I would, but it would be no less piercing to his mother.
His obituary celebrates a theatrical whirling dervish who “loved all he met, cheered on the underdog,” and brightened the world with “an incredible smile, an infectious laugh,” and “the best bear hugs of anyone.”
On the scorecard, however, David is just another tally mark in the Overdose column. We say that addiction killed him, but that’s not true. The drugs, like most addictions, were just self-medication for deeper wounds. They always are. I heard someone say that we live in a world at war, and nobody gets out of here unscathed.
Anyway, David is dead. As Dickens proclaims, that must be acknowledged should anything wonderful come of this tale.
In Matthew’s Gospel, we find Jesus under attack. An “expert in religious law” (NLT) is baiting Jesus by asking, “What’s the most important commandment?”
Jesus doesn’t flinch. “Love God … and love others.” Everything else, Jesus explains, rests on those two pillars.
Love God. Love others.
I wonder what Jesus thinks of how we’ve mistranslated his words.
Did I mention that David is dead?
“The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians”
We celebrated our daughter’s 17th birthday in a hotel last night. She’s visiting colleges this week. Laura and I swing from joy to frustration to panic as our baby girl tests her wings. Can she make it? How many times will she fall? Will someone be there for her when the world assaults her beauty?
These questions shook me awake at 3am. Unable to get back to sleep, I snuck down to the hotel lobby to try to work. However, I was too distracted to write. My thoughts about my daughter shifted to a friend now fighting for her own child, Sam. Sam isn’t wrestling with addiction or college choices, but the kid has a problem. If you don’t believe me, just ask Sam’s church.
Like all of us, Sam is trying to navigate the world’s mysteries. Unlike most of us, this teen is also struggling with gender identity. I’ll admit that I don’t understand. Why would a kid so like my own—playful, intelligent, and a lover of all things Harry Potter—choose such a crusade? I mean, gender identity? Why invite the inevitable scorn and ridicule? I’m glad I chose a better route—being a white, middle-class, straight male makes things much easier.
The church has pointed out Sam’s tactical error.
His uncle had told me that David was doing well for the first time in forever. He’d been through recovery, made some good friends, and found a church he loved. David was healing, but far from whole.
About this time, the gay marriage debates were making headlines as many churches were standing up for “Biblical Marriage.” (Friends, let’s be honest, we could use scripture to give marriage many definitions … while ignoring Jesus’ words on divorce, but I digress …)
One Sunday, David’s minister tackled the issue in a sermon. It doesn’t matter what was said. What matters is that David interpreted the message as being anti-him. (Did I mention that David was gay? It likely slipped my mind because being gay was the least of his worries at that point.)
David never went back to that (or any other) church.
“[God] is not watching over his dignity.”
My grandfather was an old-school, hellfire and brimstone, country preacher, so I understand the hard lines we feel obligated to draw. However, I also recall George MacDonald’s words: “[God] is not watching over his dignity. It is you who fear to be sent away as the disciples would have sent away the little children.”
And send them away, we do.
That day David heard, “Unwelcome. Your kind will not be tolerated.”
He was dead within months.
I’m not blaming that church for David’s death. However, even with the purest intentions, a twisted message sent away a young man who was fighting for his life.
To be blunt, my soul boils when Christians devise litmus tests for the worthy (none of us are, you realize). I suspect some doctrine police were rebuking a certain group of roof-destroying hooligans while ignoring the beauty of Jesus healing a broken man. (Luke 5: 17-26) Too busy fighting the wrong battles, some churches have missed Jesus’ example: instead of putting up more barriers, Christians should be tearing the roof off the place!
I’ll not debate scriptural interpretations and to what extent gender and sexuality issues do or don’t fit our definition of sin. However, I find it conveniently cruel that sexuality/gender is the ONE area where the sanctity of faith must be championed. I’m straight, been married to the same woman for almost three decades, and I’m confident that my sins are far greater than David’s gayness, and if he’s not free to come (to quote the old hymn, “just as I am”), then none of us are.
Sam lives with constant anxiety. The child feels trapped inside a human cage, and death sometimes seems like a solution.
Sam’s mother turned to their church for help. God’s dignity was preserved in the diagnosis: “Sam is choosing something unnatural. Silly Sam. Until this is corrected, we invite Sam to sit quietly in the back. And, no, Sam, you may no longer participate in our services … not until you’re fixed, anyway. Thanks for your confession.”
In a world at war, church had been Sam’s only refuge.
“What are you talking about?” my friend cried. “I’m saying that my child wants to die! And all you can do is pile on?”
“We love Sam,” replied the church. “We look forward to Sam making the right choice and one day being well enough to stand near our stage. Now—shhhh—the audience is watching.”
Brennan Manning writes: “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians: who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, walk out the door, and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.”
How have we translated “love God and love others” into “defend God’s dignity and resist people we don’t understand”? That may be unfair, but perception is reality, and that’s what the church’s great mission looks like for too many people. If Christians remain more concerned about safeguarding a particular way of life than about showing Jesus’ uncompromising love to a hurting world, then we all lose. And don’t give me that spiel on tolerance. Jesus didn’t say, “Honor God and learn to moderately tolerate others.” No one wants to be tolerated; we all need love.
Jesus replied, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.”
Matthew 22: 37-40 (NLT)
Indeed, we are living in a world at war, and the church will lose if it continues to misinterpret the marching orders: Love God. Love others.
I’ll admit, that can be difficult, confusing, and scary … and sometimes costly.
Just ask Jesus.
It’s too late to ask David.
It’s not too late for Sam.
Be well, friends.
5 thoughts on “Hey, Church! You’re Losing the War!”
Unfortunately, complementarianism, gender roles, and biblical / traditional marriage are all idols to which the church is bowing; idols to whom the church is willing to sacrifice souls to in order to preserve t’s all-important reliance on authority and submission.
Thanks for such a needed article, Bert. My heart & prayers are with David’s family & Sam & his family. We are fearfully and wonderfully made, each one of us, special & unique. I celebrate David & Sam and just wish David could have known that on this planet but rejoice that he does now.
Thank you for sharing this! Incredibly timely for churches in America. All are welcome – and all means all!
I had a brother. Those are four of the saddest words to write. He had pains this world couldn’t ease, much like the boys in your story. I thought of him while reading this. The surprising thing about addicts is they seem hard, criminal, and unloving, when the exact opposite is true. Before my brother died, he loved to take in stray pets. Do you see that? He took in any animal that needed a home–regardless of gender, looks, color, or size. But at 27, he still couldn’t find the safety and security he was looking for. He sadly found it in a syringe of heroin and cocaine and died in a hotel room by himself. That was eighteen years ago. But now, when I look up to the skies, I think of him sitting at the right hand of God, who gives him daily security and unconditional love. In my mind, God takes everyone in and doesn’t judge. Thank you Bert- what a beautiful post.
It is possible to uphold God’s truth about our identity. This actually means dignifying people, in our words and actions, as is their due as children of God. We can still lovingly uphold truth. But the truth without love is a crashing cymbal and a clanging gong, and if we think that this is the way to do it, then we are missing the point. The truth and love are on the same side. The law was given to Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
Thank you for your heartfelt post.