“Letter from MISSISSIPPI” – (#3)

[Letter #3 from MISSISSIPPI – Part 6  of “A Conversation between Seattle and Mississippi”, a chronicle of honest discussion between two friends.]

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Hello again SEATTLE,

I hope you had a great Thanksgiving!

Sitting in church listening and thinking, I have come up with more thoughts for you on this conversation.

First, I have also experienced the desire to let people know that not all Christians are like “that.”  I’ve spent time and energy trying to convince some people of that, and finally realized that as long as I believed the Bible was exclusively true, and not just a nice story, they thought of me like “that” anyway.  So I guess I have gotten burned by that type of motivation….I also came to realize that pride was at least part of it.  “If you knew ME you might have a better view of Christians, I’m not THAT kind of (ignorant, stupid, prejudiced, kooky, crazy, homophobic, racist, redneck, protesting, abortion-clinic-blowing-up, hateful or judgmental) Christian.”  I really thought that those adjectives were the problem. And for some people, maybe they are.  Let’s make sure we aren’t doing the damage ourselves, however, by misrepresenting our brothers and sisters as actually being this way, if they are not…(dishonest protest picture).

Second, I mentioned that Jesus promised the world would hate us.  Not that we should seek that out from the world, but that we shouldn’t have a problem with the world hating us or hating Jesus because of us.  It’s just not true that “we must be doing something wrong if people hate us.” In fact, considering what Jesus promises, a more appropriate question would be, are we following him with integrity if no one hates us?

You interpret “the world” to mean other Christians. This gets into a really common attitude today.  People love to say that Christ’s biggest enemies were the religious people of his day…implying therefore, if He came back today, WE would be his enemies.  Todd Agnew’s popular song, “My Jesus” says: my Jesus would never be accepted in my church / The blood and dirt on His feet might stain the carpet / But He reaches for the hurting and despises the proud / I think He’d prefer Beale Street [bars/nightclubs] to the stained glass crowd….

Back then “religious” people were completely different than they are today.  They were an orthodox group with special status…not just any common person could believe and become “religious” the way they do today.  For the most part, those who are “religious” by today’s definition are not modern-day Pharisees, but rather his disciples!  His disciples were sinners who changed their entire lives after encountering him.  The “sinners” he loved too much, gathered around to hear him speak the good news.  They loved and believed in him.

The Pharisees’ problem was not that Jesus loved too much, it was his message that sinners-become-disciples had equal or greater spiritual status than the Pharisees.  The prodigal son who comes home and the man who begins work at the 11th hour receive equal rewards as lifelong rule-keepers.  Rather than the pious and self-righteous, pure-blood Jews who had always been in charge, every day “sinners” had equal access to eternal life.  This offended those in charge, because they wanted to be saved for what they were doing, not for believing in Jesus.  My point is that Jesus will be hated by those who do not believe in him, whether they are sinners or happen to call themselves “religious.”

I also think you made a false statement about the world we live in.  You said, “If people who DID believe thought Jesus loved too much, how much more those who don’t believe?”  First, like I said, I don’t think it was those who believed, and I don’t think it was loving too much, it was not wanting everyone who believed in Christ to be saved.  But, my real problem with this statement is that it misrepresents our culture.  Tolerance, acceptance and affirmation are the gods of our age.  I would be shocked if “the world” would ever hate anyone for loving too much today.  So I really just don’t think that’s what Jesus is talking about here.

Finally, I thought about Sodom & Gomorrah and Lot’s attitude there, and that he was praised as a righteous man…He did not engage or accept the culture there.  In fact he was accused of “judging” them simply for not wanting to aid them in their sin.  You mentioned Jonah…whatever other points might be made, the message he was sent by God to preach to total strangers was, repent or be destroyed.  That was the message, and it worked!  Even though he didn’t love them first or at all, even though they had no relationship with him and no reason to listen to him.  Verbal violence?  God was pleased that he was able to spare Ninevah (I am sure they were thrilled too) and that would not have been possible if not for Jonah’s message.  In Revelation and the letters to the churches, tolerating the sinful, immoral and idolatrous among them is an incredible offense against Jesus; not tolerating or even hating the wicked is seen as a virtue!  In Romans 1, Paul talks about people knowing that sins deserve death but that they not only continued sinning but also approved of those who did, implying that something other than approval was needed.

Intolerance for sin seems to be biblical….but it’s pretty much the worst thing you could display in our culture. So I think that’s a pretty good reason why the world might hate us. I never said we should be hateful or that we should not love sinners, but I don’t think that we should turn against other Christians who feel called to speak the truth.  We don’t know that someone might not be saved that way.  Who’s to say that but God?  One of my old churches decided to not try to bring anyone to church but just offer free water or carwashes on Saturday so they could be loving like Jesus.  That’s good for the church members, but I’m sure it won’t help anyone else’s soul.  And frankly, as long as there is just 1 wacky church out there to make the news, our PR with the world is never going to be improved anyway.  That seems to be the wrong tree to be barking up.

Like I said, I’m not condoning hate and I do realize there are hateful Christians out there.  I’m also not saying that having these meaningful, loving relationships with the lost is wrong.  I don’t think that, I think it’s awesome.  I’m glad there are Christians out there doing that but I am also glad there are Christians out there willing to speak the truth in a culture where that is one of the only things considered to be “wrong.”  It’s a shame that believers are hating you for what you’re doing, but I also think it’s a shame that believers have joined the world in hating the others for their message.  Because I think that’s what we are all supposed to be about, in a united way, now more than ever.

Many more thoughts to follow…. I have started rereading the NT through this lens.  It is strange that I would consider something so important and basic, a new way of thinking.  But for me, a lot of these questions and considerations really are new.  I suppose what is new, is the postmodern statement that protest without relationship is verbal violence, along with the presumption that publicly speaking truth is “protest.” But whatever the prompting, I think the question is important and deserves to have time spent on it!  So, thanks again.

MISSISSIPPI

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“Letter from SEATTLE” – (response #2)

[Response #2 from SEATTLE – Part 5 of “A Conversation between Seattle and Mississippi”, a chronicle of honest discussion between two friends.]

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Hey, MISSISSIPPI:

Hahahahaha!  You respond so quickly!  It takes me weeks to have time to sit down and write an email like that, and before I wake up you have written back. =)  So, I thought I would continue the dialogue—a little quicker myself.

And I think you must have been watching me write the last email because I really was smiling and laughing half the time!  Of course, it was late at night and I get a little delirious when I’m tired.   Well, and Jay Leno and Conan were on, so that makes me laugh too.

But, I also do appreciate a good friendly conversation that isn’t communicated through anger, meanness or general insensitivity.  If you only saw some of the emails and comments that come my way!  I don’t even show them to my wife, most of the time, because they are so full of anger and intensity.  And sadly, they often come from “Christian” brothers and sisters.

I really believe that these are the types of civil and open conversations that more Christians should be having with each other.   And I sincerely appreciate your views and the attitude with which you communicate them.

In regards to your last email, I think we probably agree in more areas than we realize.  For instance, I agree that at times we will be persecuted by people for standing up for what is right.  As you correctly stated, Jesus promises us that the world will hate us as it hated him.   And in that regard, I am OK with not being popular or liked.  Trust me, I have to have some thick skin to write blogs like that!  As much as you might think there are many who would cheer that blog, there are three times more that would like to dis-fellowship me for it.   I simply choose not to post their emails or comments because they are too rude and at times vulgar.

Here is the rub for me, though.  I believe Jesus was willing to be hated and I should too.  However, I just want to make sure that I am hated for the things that Jesus was hated for.  I want to “stand-up” for what Jesus stood for.   And as I read through the gospels, I can’t think of a single time that Jesus was hated because of his proclamation of repentance to people that were notorious sinners, unbelievers, non-religious or of other religious persuasion.  His methods seemed different when it came to outsiders.  He didn’t shy away from the problem, but he didn’t seem to start with behavior modification or correction either.   I do think Jesus wants repentance, but I can’t find any story there that is similar in method to the [mega-pastor] event.  Jesus lived love, and out of that love, spoke healing truth into people’s lives.  His message was about the “Kingdom” available to all, not simply adjusting your behavior.

Honestly, I really want to have those conversations with people around me that are hurting.  And I do engage in those conversations.  In all my relationships with people that don’t follow Christ, I am longing toward one-day (in some cases sooner, others later) sharing the truth as I see it in God’s word that can set them free from oppression, self-indulgence, greed, hostility, loneliness, and despair.  But, with so many of them I can’t start there or they’ll never hear it.  I have to earn that right to speak into their life.

I approach it that way (and hopefully some of my other nut job Christian friends do too) not because I’m ashamed of the message, but because I’m not ashamed to love them regardless of whether or not they ever believe it.

Also, I agree that there are those apparently following Christ who appear “ashamed” of the relationship and of any standard that God calls us to.  Whether this is more so now than at other times, I don’t know.  It seems that truly following Christ has always been counter-cultural and the temptation exists to make His radical claims more palatable.

This, of course, is unnecessary.  And those that distance themselves from the difficult parts of Jesus’ teaching in order to make Jesus sound more acceptable to hearers are not only fooling themselves, but really deceiving those they intend to attract.  And at any rate, I think there are many well-meaning people that are lumped into this category that actually believe more of what I have described above than just “shame” in following Christ.

And, I’m not saying that there aren’t ever going to be times that non-believers disagree with us and even antagonize us for it.  I think that happens too and we should be OK with it.  But I think that happens for similar reasons when the world sees us caring for people it casts-off (i.e. drug dealers, sex offenders, terrorists, etc.).  If people who DID BELIEVE think that Jesus loved too much, how much more those that don’t believe?

Interestingly, though, when Jesus talks about being hated, the reference—I believe—is more the religious people around them than the non-religious.  In Jesus’ own context it was the religious leaders that always hated him.  It was they who killed him.  Not because he preached so much propositional truth, but because he loved too much. Or, if preaching, because he preached the truth about love.

In that way, I think [the mega-pastor] (if the illustrated scenario you described was accurate) misunderstood sacrifice.   He could have still been unpopular in his belief on homosexuality (I think that is fine, in fact, theologically we agree), but found an equally unpopular way (in Jesus’ sense) of loving outsiders.  Instead, it felt to me like he was willing to be unpopular with the world to in some small way be more popular with his church friends.

Now I’M being dangerous because I’m guessing at his motives!  And maybe I’m mistaking his motives (which isn’t really my point anyway—I’m not criticizing his motives, he might be a fine man, just his methods that I don’t think are consistent with Jesus), but if he did feel like a prophet, he’d do well to remember that is was God’s people that were angry with the prophets, not outsiders.  They existed, primarily, to reform God’s people, not convert others.  (the only exception I can think of here is Jonah, and without going into another long email, I think the circumstances illustrate a similar point).

In terms of media, I think you are right here as well.  They do often cast all Christians in one-boat as a bunch of wackos.   Of course media has an agenda too.  And very often they do choose the worst to represent us all.  And in that way, they share part of the blame of the perception of Christians today.  Although, I think we’d be wise to own up to our own fair share responsibility.   The Church does do some weird things sometimes!  LOL.

But, this comes down to several things for me too.  1)  There is a difference, I think, between the “cultural Christianity” in America today and real Authentic Jesus-following stuff.   The “cultural Christianity” (CC) is what makes the news.  It’s the people that say they are Christian, go to church occasionally, but live lives that look nothing like Christ.  Christianity isn’t so much a lifestyle to them, but a cultural definition of who they are.  However, whenever there is something to protest (and I’m not lumping [mega-pastor] in with this group) that is different than their American-Christian worldview, they are the first to speak up.  Not so much based on conviction about Christ’s transformation in their life or the world, but out of a sense of pride in their worldview they’ve always known being right.  These are the people that news agency’s love because they are full of hypocrisy, contradictions and have volatile sound-bites.

Then, there are the many good and devoted followers of Jesus in this country that really live what they preach and love God deeply.   And it is this group that I think you rightly pointed out are doing a great many things in their churches and communities that doesn’t make the TV.  And to these people I am deeply indebted and extremely proud.

Now, I know for me personally, when I am found agreeing with the media about the Christian stereotype, it is not because I’m ashamed of what that latter group believes and lives, or that I find it easier to perpetuate the media’s skewed perceptions.   But, rather, it is my agreement that the former group IS fraudulent and in many ways destructive.   I want people to see through that type of commitment anyway.

Which brings me to the second point . . . 2) I often spend a great deal of time criticizing the former group because I have to convince people today that not all Christians are like that.   To convince them that there are many followers-of-Jesus found in group 2 that are consistent, truthful and worthy of admiration.   It’s why I often don’t even use the name “Christian” for myself anymore (because it is culturally associated with CC), but use something else, such as “follower-of-Christ.”

My thought is that many people our age have noticed this difference as well.  Now, no doubt there are some that simply want to hide from difficulty, as you suggest, and it is easier for them to agree with mainstream thoughts about Christians.  And shame on them.

But a great deal more may simply be trying to make the point that Christianity is not a cultural garment to be worn when convenient, but is a life-altering commitment that invades every moment of your life.   It may be that this language we hear is an attempt at making that distinction in post-Christian culture that thinks they’ve heard everything there is to know about Jesus already—even though they probably haven’t.

Can it go overboard?  Probably.  I think it is a tough line to walk.   You are trying to build credibility, while still showing the good that exists in the bride of Christ.   Maybe I don’t always walk it correctly myself.  But, I really do try hard.   And I’m sure people of both good and bad motives go overboard in this area and that is regrettable.

At any rate, while not all helpful or purely motivated, some of what I hear today actually gives me hope that things can be better, not worse.

Ok.  Long enough for email #2.   See you got me all thinking today, when I should be working!  LOL.

Grace and peace,

SEATTLE

“Letter from MISSISSIPPI” – (#2)

[Letter #2 from MISSISSIPPI – Part 4  of “A Conversation between Seattle and Mississippi”, a chronicle of honest discussion between two friends.]

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Hey SEATTLE,

Superb response!!  So good to hear back from you.  I love how much time you spent responding and how thoughtful and helpful to me this is.  I agree with you about the attitude of humility, and this is something I can learn from….of course.

I’m relieved to know that picture wasn’t from the actual protest and wasn’t actually a picture of real Christians protesting.  Putting it in your blog about Hutch is really misleading (I’m glad it wasn’t you) and it illustrates my feelings pretty well.  I do agree that there was likely a better way for him to go about this.  But for the sake of argument, let’s say that he didn’t do this to make himself feel good or hold on to any rights but because he prayed about it and genuinely thought his message needed to be heard by a hurting, lost world.  Maybe more as a prophet. The picture which is not even from a real event, somehow ends up illustrating his message. Fair?  No.  But maybe that is the very picture of what Jesus did, in laying down his personal rights to popularity, to being liked or loved, to not being a target for persecution and murder; I think he had to lay down those rights in order to speak the truth to people who didn’t want to hear it. Yes, he did it lovingly and through sacrifice but his message of repentance was never absent.

I think being persecuted for speaking truth is also a Christ-like way of laying your personal rights down, not keeping silent about the truth so people will look more favorably on you and your beliefs.  I just don’t think we can be caught up in how we might be represented in the media, in a world that is hostile to Christ.  If you’re angry at the picture of Christians that gets portrayed in the media, you should actually be angry with the media.  They ignore all the good that churches and Christians do and focus on the few cases they can find that misrepresent Christ; or they distort the actions of genuine Christians themselves, kind of like that fake protesting picture being shown in the context of Hutch’s protest.  But since Christ was treated no better, maybe we shouldn’t be angry at all—maybe we should expect others to see us this way and continue on faithfully, not bending our message to suit the fancy of those who are convicted by it and don’t wish to be.

I’m not so worried about the slippery slope, or keeping intact a culture that recognizes the moral truths that have produced a wonderful society.  I understand that Christianity has thrived more in cultures that are hostile to it.  My thinking is all about how and what Christians are saying about the truth.  Are we ashamed to be recipients of his grace, to know the One way and the One truth? Are we ashamed of the privilege and blessing of being saved, of telling others they need saving too? Are we ashamed of the material blessings God has given us, as we have lived faithful, generous, disciplined lives, and as we use it to bless others in ways that no other group of people does?  I hear this “Christian guilt” everywhere I turn and have a hard time squaring it with Scripture. “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes;” Rom. 1:16

It seems that more often than not especially with Christians our age, there is a public bashing of Christianity, and of those who would preach the Word or call sin what it is, and many of us are changing the message or watering it down because the world sees it as intolerant.  The world feels condemned in the presence of truth, but truth is not the problem.  The world WILL see our message in a very negative way if we are at all true to it.  Jesus promises exactly that.  We have to be true to the Word and let that be seen by the world—as much as they may then hate us, or Jesus for it (He promises us that too).  Only then will the hurting lost people who are actually looking for an answer, see any difference between our message and that of the world’s message of moral relativism.  To do otherwise is to hide our light under a bushel.  Obviously, there are more and less effective ways of doing this but I have to say I am weary of hearing Christians say that we should apologize to non Christians and never ever tell them the truth about their lives.  I’m not saying we should cast stones by any means, but we go so far as to agree with the lies the media is spreading about who we are!  Talk about doing something because it makes us feel good…I’m pretty sure no one is going to want to throw rocks at our heads or crucify us for such statements.

Anyway, that’s my concern and where I’m coming from.  I hear what you’re saying too & have read Miller, Claiborne, Camp, Wallis etc.  I have really enjoyed this dialogue b/c usually people get kind of uptight, over serious or angry and I can almost hear your laughter and smile coming across through cyberspace. God has blessed you with a beautiful compassion for the lost and hurting in our world and no doubt, if all Christians were like you then I do think our message would have a lot more weight.  I do.  So, you have been a really good example and given me a lot to think about with your blog and email.  Thanks so much for taking the time to read all this and respond.  I will be thinking about what you have said and pray about my understanding of these times and our role in them.

Have a great Thanksgiving!

MISSISSIPPI

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.