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.

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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.

When Christians get HIV

HIV positive.

Imagine what hearing that news would sound like . . . “We’re sorry, sir, but the test came back positive for the antibodies against HIV. You are HIV positive.”

I’ve never heard those words, but my friend, Rick, has. Rick is a medical doctor. Well, he WAS a medical doctor. In fact, he was a bit of a hero among doctors. He was an emergency medical responder; one of the first people on the scene of a disaster or emergency. The kind of people that put themselves at risk in order to save those in desperate need.

And it was one of those risks in 1989 that changed his life forever.

In the middle of a medical emergency, Rick was withdrawing blood from a man that was confused and combative. As he pulled the needle out, the man jerked, and Rick was stuck in the arm with it.

What Rick didn’t know that day, but feared most of all, was that this man had received the HIV virus through a blood transfusion back in 1982. Being a diligent doctor, Rick tested himself for the next several months. Nine months later, the test came back . . . positive.

In 1989, there wasn’t much to be done for HIV/AIDS. The drugs available today hadn’t been invented yet, and so for two years he did nothing while his HIV levels climbed off the charts.

A year after contracting the disease, his employer fired him for being HIV positive. The very job that had GIVEN him the disease was now firing him for HAVING the disease.

After five years of living with the disease, Rick’s wife decided she couldn’t handle it anymore and took his son, moved out and divorced him. Rick said he understood and supported her in the decision, but that it was one of the darkest days in his life.

So, Rick and I sat for coffee a few weeks ago inside a small Starbucks up in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle. For hours, we talked about life, sports, family and eventually the disease.

Rick lives in Seattle now. He doesn’t have a job. His time is so consumed with organizing and taking the many anti-retroviral drugs (ARV’s) that he must take at specific times each day (38 different drugs each day) to keep him alive, that he has no time to work. He lives in a small apartment. Has no transportation. No family around him to support him. By all human standards, Rick should be a miserable, bitter and angry man.

But strangely, Rick is full of LIFE . . .

I think what most surprised me about my friend Rick is the purpose with which he now lives his life. He volunteers his small “free time” speaking at public schools about the dangers of HIV/AIDS. He works with a group called LifeLong in Seattle that case manages AIDS patients. He packages condoms into “safer sex” kits to be handout around Seattle. And on Thursday nights, you’ll find my friend, Rick, sitting inside a non-marked gay bath-house in Seattle, surrounded by a lifestyle he doesn’t condone, handing out these kits to any guys that will take them on the way in.

At a time when life would seem to be over, Rick thinks it has just begun. Not that there haven’t been real hurdles. Not that he hasn’t tried to give up. Not that he hasn’t called into question a God that would allow what has happened to him in the first place. But, on the other side and through a lot of struggle, he has found a purpose and a passion to his life that few others (especially the healthy) ever find.

HIV positive.

If you ask Rick, it was the worst news he ever received. It completely devastated his life. But, the funny thing about Rick is, if you listen long enough, he’ll tell you that now he knows it was the best news for everyone else.

Because his life took this unexpected turn, he has learned to trust God and get involved in what God is doing to help others. In Rick’s own words, “If I never had gotten sick, I would still be a doctor, making money, but not trying to do my part to save these people.”

Rick is teaching me a lot about what it means to love. And he is teaching me a lot more about what it means to really LIVE life on this earth.

As another of my friends has often said, “I don’t care about adding days to my life anymore, I’m more interested in pursuing life for my days.”

Or as another friend of both Rick and I once said: “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” – Jesus.

In fact, Jesus not only said this once, he is quoted as saying it in all four gospels (twice in Luke, actually). It is one of the few sayings of Jesus that was apparently equally memorable and important to all four individuals who documented Jesus’ life in the gospels.

But, maybe it wasn’t just memorable. Maybe it was reality.

Rick would agree. And so would I. And so many more people in our churches and communities could experience “life to the full” if they believed it too.