No Gimmicks, Just Love

I had never built a raging bonfire in someone’s front yard before. But, i gotta say, it was a lot of fun. As we piled boards and tree limbs taller than ourselves, flames leaped above us engulfing it all.

But, we weren’t there because of the fire. We were there because of the water.

Six months ago in a very small community around Chehalis, Washington, one of the most devastating floods to ever hit our state destroyed the little city of Adna. An estimated 20 inches of rain fell in only 24 hours. But, it wasn’t just the rain. It was the snow it melted with it. And together they caused a flood that buried our main freeway in Washington (I-5) 12 feet under water for days and nearly washed away poor Adna.

Where we were standing today, water had invaded at the height of 8 ft, raging straight through downtown, though people’s homes and at the rate of a class three rapid. It ripped houses clear off their foundation, piled mud several feet deep inside their homes, and took cars, trees, and animals all with it. The lady whose house we stood at today, along with most of her neighbors, were rescued only by going to the upper levels of their house and eventually by rescue helicopters that were the only way out of the ocean of water around them. In fact, she had only just moved back into her house two days ago…six months later!

And so today, we gathered up what was left of her garage that had been pulled down, and carried it into a giant rotten pile, and burned it.

I guess we were used to seeing this type of stuff by now. For the last three weekends, our youth staff has taken high school students from our church down to Chehalis to help clean-up people’s property and restore their land and their homes. And during that time, we have burned plenty. We have shoveled tons of mud. We leveled ground. We built fences. We crawled in dark, dirty places and scooped and vacuumed dried mud. We cleared debris and brush.

But, i think most of all, we learned people’s stories. We met Darryl, who was gone with his wife on vacation when the storm hit. They came home to a house buried in at least four feet of mud. We met Jan, who watched her entire neighborhood disappear, only to be rescued in distress by the helicopter. We met Steve, who lost his entire house, and is now rebuilding. And many more.

My favorite, though, was Dennis. Dennis is the preacher of the little evangelical church in Adna. He showed us his completely gutted church building today and told us their story. They weren’t home either when the flood came. But the damage to their home and the church next door was near total. FEMA estimated their total loss at about $180,000, which is a lot for a church of 50 people to overcome. He told us that there were times he didn’t think it could be done.

But, that was before the Christians showed up. Immediately after the disaster, churches mobilized and came to help. They tore out flooring and wall board. They dug out houses from mud. And they helped begin the restoration of this tiny church in Adna you’ll probably never visit or hear about.

His doubt was before people in the community sold property elsewhere and gave gifts of $5,000 at a time for rebuilding. It was before a small church of 100 people in Oregon felt that God was calling them to give their entire savings nest egg of $10,000 to help them.

And it was at this point in the story that Dennis said something that moved me. “Look around. Things were really bad here. And at times we have wanted to give up. We get weary of all this. And in one way we wish this were over. But, we would never choose to take it away and not go through it. God has taught us so much about trusting Him.”

Easy for a preacher to say? Maybe. But tougher for a preacher that has lost nearly all of his own personal belongings.

But it wasn’t just this preacher. It was the whole community. Nearly everyone we helped in the last three weeks said two things: 1) the flood had brought about so much good (even Adna has cellphone service now because relief groups came down and didn’t have cell coverage and went home and complained to their cellphone companies and they built several cell towers!) and 2) it was these crazy followers of Christ that are the only reason they are there today.

My new friend, Darryl, isn’t a Christian. But, even he noticed the large outpouring of love from these Christ-followers. He told me, “When i saw the damage, I told my wife, let’s get out of here. It is time to just move on and start over somewhere else.” You know why he stayed? In his words, “well, the church showed up.”

And not just the local Adna church. The Church showed up. All of them. From all traditions, backgrounds and theologies. Working side by side, they helped dig Darryl’s house out of the mud, demo it all the way down to the studs, and rebuild it so that he and his wife can live in it today.

Mud. Piles of debris. Blisters. Sunburn. Fence-post diggers. Burn piles.

It was the most beautiful thing I have seen in a long time.

I know a lot of people have a really suspicious and even bad mindset toward Christians today. I even understand why. I think i do too, sometimes.

But, I’ll tell you who doesn’t. The beautiful people of Adna. They aren’t suspicious. They are overwhelmed with gratitude and love. No one loves the church more than them.

Wanna know something crazy? The little evangelical church in Adna has grown almost 50% since the flood. So has the little church nearby in Boistfort, WA. And so have many more.

And every one of them knows it’s grown because of the sacrificial love they have shown, impartially, to those around them in need. But that isn’t why they did it.

And really, that’s exactly why it’s worked.

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Who Would Jesus Bomb?

I see the bumper sticker all time. In fact, i’ve thought about getting one myself. It’s just that i can’t afford the gasoline to actually drive my car anymore and display it. And i think it would look a little ridiculous on my bike.

A few weeks ago, it became more than a bumper stick for me though. You see, i’ve been hanging out with this guy named Rick. And in my adventures with him, i’ve found myself experiencing a lot and re-thinking a lot more. [see my last three blogs for the whole enchilada].

But, i was recounting my experiences at the bath house with a few friends of mine the other night. And as we sat around, i told them of life at the bath house, of the men who came in compelled by their addiction, and of the two of us who sat there patiently handing out an imperfect solution because it was the only thing we knew to do.

And as i shared these experiences, one of my older friends was obviously getting agitated. She squirmed in her chair. I could see by the look on her face that she wasn’t completely approving of my choice of Thursday night activity.

I should have known she would be skeptical. Of course, i already know her and if i had thought back, i would have realized that this type of conversation would really stretch her theologically and spiritually. But, she is my friend. And she is a bit of a hero for me. She has been involved in missions work across the world for many years. She knows what it means to love and meet people where they are in their life and to nurture them to faith in Christ.

So, i was surprised when after hearing the whole story she asked this question: “Are there any mosques in town?”

“Like Muslim Mosques?” I replied. “I know there is at least one in Seattle that i’m familiar with.”

“Great,” she said. “Here’s what we are gonna do. We are all gonna write letters to the mosque and tell them about this gay bath house. And i guarantee you, in two weeks they’ll have bombed the place.”

WHAT??? I’m not sure if i actually was able to get out any intelligible words at this point. I was completely dumbfounded. I wasn’t even sure i had heard her right. Maybe i had just misunderstood.

“But…that isn’t the only bath house,” I offered, hoping that somehow she would clarify.

“Well, then we’ll tell them about all of them. Trust me. They’ll deal with the problem.”

Now, i’d like to stop here for a second and explain a few things. First of all, i don’t really think that if we wrote any letters of the sort to the local mosque in Seattle that this kind of “solution” would actually happen. Not every Muslim, and certainly not the ones i have been around in this area, actually consider “bombing” a legitimate solution to anything. And i’m fairly certain that a large portion, if not all of them, may be very offended by even the suggestion being offered here. And in that sense, i’m offended with them.

Secondly, i find it very ironic that people who justify the use of war against Muslim extremists who employ this sort of tactic, would then find it in some way divinely acceptable to use these same terrorist tactics to promote their own agenda or sense of moral decency. In a very scary way, the lines between militant Islam and militant Christianity become about the same thing.

Friedrich Nietzsche once said: “Be careful in pursuing the monster that you do not become the monster yourself.”

Sadly, I think a lot the “Christian” world could be accused of this latter atrocity today. We have become too blood-thirsty. Too eager for the fight. The intense (and almost naive) backing of the United States war in Iraq and Afghanistan by many “Christians,” alone, suggests that this danger is alive and well.

And as all this is going on in my head, i realize that i have to say something. Although no physical bombs have actually gone off, a large verbal bomb has just been detonated in the room.

“But, i don’t want anybody to blow up the bath house . . . and besides, i don’t think Jesus is going to allow me to do that.”

After a lot more discussion, my friend seemed to settle down. In fact, at one point she even retreated to a position of “oh, i was just joking.” The reason i’m writing this, though, is because i don’t think she was.

And so, what do you do? What do you do when your friend, that has made of life of loving people not like her, displays that type of bigotry and hate? What do you do when mega-church pastors around you seem to demonstrate the exact opposite of the love of Christ they say they represent?

You see, i learned in the bath house that i am called to love everyone. I’m called even to love the most diabolically oppressed men who throw away their lives to an addiction. I’m called to love even the people that everyone else (religious or otherwise) write off as garbage or as a social disease. I’m called to love the people that go to the gay bath house. I’m even called to love the people that own it and make me most angry by feeding these hopeless people’s addiction and even making money off of it.

But, would Jesus bomb the bath house? Absolutely not. He calls me to love the people there, not to destroy them.

But, here’s what i learned from my friend that night. Not only does Jesus call me to love the guys at the bathhouse. He calls me to love my friend too.

You see, i believe she is dead wrong. I believe the Mega-pastor is dead wrong. But, if I’m to be a consistent lover of God, I’m called to love them too. And in some ways, it is easier for me to extend my love to those in the bath house than to those in God’s house.

So, I may call them to conviction. I may be critical of their response to others. I may even have to challenge their assumptions of how big God’s grace really is. But, i am not allowed to treat them with any less love than God does.

My friend may not be right. She may not be living a lifestyle (without ultimate love) that i condone. But, in those ways, is she really so different than my new friends at the bath house? And if i’m called to love them, certainly i am called to love her.

I think i’ve written about all i can on this topic for now. It is interesting to me that many more people have read this blog and left comments about this particular topic than any i have written. Obviously, this is a sensitive and important issue for many of us.

But, i have been encouraged this past week as i have read your comments and responses. If nothing else, it reminds me that there are many people that follow Christ today that are desiring to show love to ALL people. And if that is the case, then maybe there is a great deal of hope for the world.

So here is my prayer…

God, bless my friends at the bath house. May they be free from sexual oppression and may they find ultimate peace and fulfillment in You.

God, bless my Christians friends that don’t show love like they should. May they experience Your love to an even greater degree and may that love shape them into greater lovers of You and Your people.

Amen.

Mega-pastors can be Mega-wrong

Every week, I look forward to one major event:  The Office on NBC.   Seriously.   I could watch Dwight Schroot talk about his beet farm all night long.   And for a few moments on Thursday night what happens in Scranton, NJ is the most important part of my world.

But on this Thursday night, during a commercial break, the local NBC news affiliate ran a teaser headline for the 11’oclock news that had me more intrigued than a Michael Scott office policy meeting.

“Mega Church Pastor Protests High School Students.”

Now, headlines like that tend to catch my eye. So, I tuned into the local Seattle newschannel website to read up on what it was all about (after “The Office” was over, obviously).

The basic story was that each year, high schools in the Seattle area (and probably elsewhere) celebrate a day called “day of silence.” It is an event sponsored by an all student led group—the “gay/straight alliance”—that encourages students to not talk all day in order to bring awareness to and solidarity with potentially gay students among them that are treated poorly, made fun of and often don’t have a credible voice.

A local mega-church pastor, who lived in the community of one such high school, decided to organize a protest of the event. So, in front of many news cameras, he called for 1,000 members of his church and other Christians to come down and picket and protest outside of the school for the whole day, chanting their anti-gay views and “correcting” the sin of a few through the personalized and compassionate forum of a billboard sign.

Now, in one sense, i realize that “day of silence” probably has a pro-gay agenda to it. But, as i read the article, i couldn’t help but wonder, “what is so wrong about not wanting gay students to be made fun of, physically abused or emotionally taunted?” In that regard, as a follower of Christ, i whole heartedly agree with the sentiment of the day. And on any level, what does picketing a bunch of high schoolers really accomplish?

My problem was i had just come home from sitting inside a very promiscous gay bath house in Seattle, where i had been sitting with my friend Rick handing out condoms and information to everyone who walked in. We didn’t personally know any of the guys that came in that night. We didn’t have any signs. We weren’t chanting anything. We simply handed out latex.

[see my previous two blog posts for the whole story]

And as i sat at home reading the news story, the dichotomy of events perplexed me. On the one hand there was a mega church pastor that many people know, calling for Christians to protest teenagers attempting to humanize homosexual people that are often treated otherwise. And on the other hand, there was an everyday Christian that nobody knows, living with AIDS, sitting in a place most don’t know about and would never want to go to, handing out medical prevention (though not perfect) to oppressed adult addicts.

Both men agree homosexuality is not God’s ideal. The issue isn’t the morality of the lifestyle, but of the morality of our response. And because morality is a fuzzy term, let me define it this way. At issue is not whether Jesus approves of homosexuality as God’s ideal, but how Jesus would respond to people that are homosexual.

And in this case, the Mega-Pastor is Mega-WRONG. What the MP (mega-pastor) fails to realize is that protest without relationship is simply verbal violence. What the MP doesn’t understand is that compassion for people who don’t agree with you is “loving your neighbor as yourself.” What the MP has mistakenly accepted is that if you yell loud enough Jesus’ voice will be heard, when Jesus himself yells only at the religious pharisees and whispers grace to the sinner.

And what this reminds me is that, apparently, you can have everything RIGHT in your theology, but not be RIGHT. You can worship God in all the RIGHT ways, but not be RIGHT.

And as far as i can tell, Jesus never organized a protest of anything (unless you count his little tirade against the religious leaders in the temple), he simply went and ate and spent time with people who’s lives missed the mark of God’s ideal, calling them to something more fulfilling. He loved them to “abundant life.” There was no place for protest.

And so, Rick sits in Seattle at a gay bath house. No signs. No chants. He hopes that he is making a difference. Is a condom the answer to the problem? No. The problem is much more complex that what simple latex can fix. There are emotional, spiritual and mental issues that must be addressed. A holistic answer is needed.

But in the vaccuum of that answer, it is the only thing Rick knows to do. And so he does it.

It makes me wish that when people thought of Christians they thought of people like Rick rather than the blow hards that get all the news headlines like our local mega-pastor last week.

It makes me think that if Jesus were here today, he’d probably look more like the average guy, Rick, than the news bite mega-pastor any way.

I often ridicule Christians, mostly because we are such an easy target. But, i really don’t think all Christians are bad. I am one. Or that church is bad. I’m a part of one.

But, what scares me is that there is a vocal minority giving my faith a bad name. No, not my faith, my God. People hear words like they did last week and think that they are God’s sentiment or God’s words. And they never have been. The mega-pastor is simply wrong.

So, here is to you, out-spoken mega-church pastor. I’m pleading with you. Please examine your response to people with the life of Jesus before you speak and act in ways that shame Him and us.

I’ll even keep using the name “Christian,” if you’ll start acting like one.

Gay Bath-House

I spent last Thursday night in gay bath-house.

Well, not the whole night. Just for three hours or so. Actually, i was back in time to watch “The Office” and the new episode of “Lost,” but it would take a whole lot to wrestle me away from both of those. Anyone with me on that?

Anyway, I was invited by my new friend, Rick. Rick is a man i recently met who has been teaching me a lot about what it means to love, follow Jesus, and live my life with purpose and intention (see my last blog). But, maybe the most intriguing part of the man is where you’ll find him most Thursday nights–in any one of three gay bath houses in downtown Seattle.

Now, i didn’t even know that there were bath houses in Seattle. I suppose it shouldn’t really surprise me; i guess i just hadn’t really thought about it. But since he had explained his presence there i felt compelled to go and discover what would draw a man back there week after week to serve people that many have written off.

Getting there, i thought, would be easy. I had an address. I had a GPS device. I had a car. Pretty much i can get anywhere. But, as i turned down the block and approached the spot where the GPS said i had arrived, i didn’t see anything. So, i drove around the block, still looking. Then again. In fact, i drove around five times looking for a business i was assured existed. Finally, in exasperation, I called Rick and asked him where to go. He told me it wasn’t marked, that there was no signage at all, but that i should simply look for a red door and go inside.

I was definitely nervous to go inside. Mostly because i just wasn’t sure what to expect. But, as i walked through the door, i met an employee at the counter and he ushered me through to the lobby, where Rick was already seated waiting.

Rick explained to me that we would sit here for our whole shift offering “safer sex” kits to anyone that would come by us. Inside each kit was a condom, lubrication, and a pamphlet on HIV/AIDS with educational information and a hotline to call.

As things weren’t too busy initially, however, he offered to give me a tour of the club. Not really knowing what a bath house was–i was still picturing a giant pool with people lounging around in pool chairs sipping ice-tea and others sitting on the edge of the pool dangling there legs in the warm water–i said, “why not?”

Now, i’m not sure i have the courage to explain to you everything i saw that night inside the bath house. But, there were some things i saw that were pretty normal: a internet cafe with people checking their email, a tv lounge with “My Name is Earl” on, and a normal looking shower area with lockers. What i didn’t see was any sort of “bath” or large pool.

But, without exposing you to everything i saw, let me explain the general purpose of the club. The basic idea is it is a place for gay men to gather and either purposely–or more often it appeared randomly–meet other gay men and engage in sexual behavior together.

And let me tell you, i was relieved to get back to the lobby! While too much for this blog to convey, there was much to see that made me quite uncomfortable. In fact, I felt like i was holding my breath during the entire tour.

However, as we got back to the lobby, i understood much more fully why we were there. We weren’t there to hand out kits that could possibly be used. We were there because the kits we handed out that night were SURE to be used. The job was no longer optional, it was necessary.

That night we sat there handing out kits to everyone who came in. And roughly half of the people coming in accepted our gift. We even got three guys to agree to be tested for HIV by the King County Health Department doctor that was there with us (In just 20 minutes, each of them knew their status).

But, it was the drive home that i had to process everything that i had experienced. And for those of you who have asked, here is what i learned…

1) Stereotypes are dead. If there were any stereotypes of what it means to be gay, or beyond that gay and in a club like that, they are gone now. Guys from every walk of life came in the club that night. Old. Young. White. Black. Asian. Wealthy. Poor. None of it mattered. There were no guys in drag. It was people you walk among and live around all day long. Any attempt to label people or stereotype them never seemed more wrong.

2) Homosexuality wasn’t the biggest problem. If you really pressed me, i would have to admit that i believe that homosexuality is not God’s ideal. In one way, i hate to make that claim. Not because i don’t authentically believe it, but because so many are saying it without love. I say it this way because i believe it is a difficult issue and a deeply sensitive one. Not involving theories or abstracts, but involving real people with real loves, desires, dreams and ambitions.

However, that wasn’t the biggest issue in a club like this. It was, to be sure, a very dark place, but not because gay men gathered there. The darkness came from the intent of the club. The club exists in order for people to meet (randomly?) and have their pornography and sexual addictions fed. The bathhouse operates to encourage people to engage in highly promiscuous and dangerous sexual activity. Activities that destroy relationships, encourage isolationism, damage families and promote disease.

Had this been a heterosexual club, it would have been no less dark. And in this way, homosexuality wasn’t even the major issue.

And i suppose that leads to the most important thing i learned:

3) God calls me to love people that others (especially many Christians) consider worthless.

I suppose at one point, just before i walked in the door that night, i may have considered them worthless as well. I was afraid of them. I was judgmental of them. I had already labeled and categorized them.

But, something happened as i watched guy after guy enter the club that night. In a glance, I started to look into their eyes. Although really, very few were willing to actually look anyone directly in the eye for long. And what i saw was not sub-human. They were not worthless garbage to be discarded. The were not “lost causes” to given up on and condemned.

They were Imago Dei. They were the image of God. They were and are created in the very same image of God that i am created in. And beyond their oppression to a sexual addiction, they are still valuable and beautiful.

So, I asked Rick, “How many churches help out with this?” He said he couldn’t think of any. So i asked, “How many Christians do you know that help out here? And again he couldn’t think of any.

Hundreds of people, like slaves oppressed by evil, flock to the bathhouses each day. And not a single Christian, other than Rick is anywhere in sight? That just doesn’t sound like the Jesus i know. And let me be clear, i’m not primarily picking on other Christians here, i’m shocked most at my own un-Christlike absence.

Would Jesus go to the bath house? I don’t know. But, i know he went to the places that no one else thought a respected religious leader should go. He showed up to parties at tax collector’s houses. Hung out with notorious sinners and prostitutes. He even invited a hated tax collector to be among his elite few, 12 disciples (Matthew 9:9-13).

And so, i arrived that night thinking that the people in the club weren’t worth the piece of latex we were handing out. But, I discovered instead that Jesus lives there. He lives there in the form of my friend, Rick, who sees beyond their addiction to the divine imprint and beauty in each of them.

If you ask Rick why he’s there, he might simply tell you, “I’m a doctor. And there are sick people here.”

Ironically, Jesus said the same thing when questioned about why he hung around the condemned of his day, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor-sick people do. For i have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.” (Matt. 9:12-13)

In that way, Jesus might more often be with Rick at the gay bath house, than with me in my house.