On Sexuality, Target, the Church, and True Courage

If there’s one thing we see evidenced throughout human history, it’s that human beings have a great propensity toward fearing that which is different.

And if there’s one thing we see evidenced throughout Church history, it’s that Christians are really good at justifying and legitimizing that prejudice by claiming it is God’s will.

The fact we are so quick to ascribe to God our own discrimination and bigotry is cause enough for mourning and repentance. But watching the pain, destruction, and death it causes as it is played out in real life is a million times worse.

Laws regarding transgender people – and specifically their use of public restrooms – have been all over the headlines the past couple of weeks. And the Christian response to these laws and headlines have largely been predictable and awful.

Those who claim to follow Jesus have sadly flocked to sign petitions and join boycotts over bathroom policies — as of this writing, over a million people have pledged to not shop at Target because the store decided to be inclusive and tolerant. (Given the history of success of Christian boycotts, I guess we can expect Target to soon become the world’s #1 retailer.) Like all knee-jerk reactions, however, people decrying transgender rights – especially in the name of God – simply do not understand what they’re opposing.

The initial reaction most people have is something along these lines: guys have penises and girls have vaginas. Somebody who has a particular body part and claims to be the other gender is gross and weird; therefore, it is wrong and we should fight against “normalizing” such behavior.

It seems pretty cut and dry. I’ll readily admit: up until a few months ago, that was how I viewed the issue as well. Then, I did a crazy thing: I actually started listening to people’s stories. I heard and read their experiences. And suddenly, “transgender” was not an “issue” any longer – this became about people.

It’s so easy to be against an idea. It’s infinitely more difficult to be against a person.

The Church does a phenomenal job of holding these sorts of discussions at arms’ length, of ensuring we don’t personalize them too much. It’s a lot like how the military trains soldiers, actually: dehumanize the enemy, and you have a lot easier time taking them out. For instance, it’s so comfortable to sit back in our privilege and say gay people shouldn’t be allowed to express their love through marriage; it’s a hell of lot harder to sit across from a gay couple, listen to their story, see the love they have for one another, and tell them they don’t deserve to be able to marry one another.

The same is true with transgender rights now as well. Dudes “pretending” to be chicks (or vice versa) instead of what they “really” are is gross, and therefore is wrong. Nobody should do it. But once you shut up and start listening to people and their stories, things begin to look a lot different.

(Side note: when it comes to discussing the transgender journey, we need to drop phrases like “pretending” and what somebody “really” is out of our vocabulary. Stat.)

After hearing and being affected by people’s stories, I went and checked out the science that explains what many of them are experiencing. Guess what? There is an actual, scientific difference between sex, which is biological, and gender identity, which is how people identify themselves. Biological sex and gender identity develop separately from one another in the womb. Hormones affect the development of reproductive organs in a fetus at different times and in different ways than they affect the development of gender identity in the brain. Ninety-nine percent of the time, the two end up in the same place. Every once in awhile, they don’t – and as a result, someone’s sex doesn’t match their gender.

(Another sidenote: this is known as gender dysphoria — and not every transgender person experiences it, but it is a useful place to begin our discussion and understanding.)

If we can understand this, it might stop us from the crude, snide, and mocking comments that have infuriatingly become the norm in the discussion on the “Christian” side of things.

In fact, we could say that gender dysphoria is no different than, say, depression — there isn’t something “wrong” with someone; this is simply something that happens to people. It should not be stereotyped or crudely joked about.

Which makes it all the more maddening and shameful that Christians are doing just that. I had multiple Christian friends over the past week or so share an article from a Christian satire site which mockingly intones, “Target Announces Senior Discount For Anyone Who Self-Identifies As Age 60 Or Older.” Not only does this article betray the author’s lack of understanding, and completely misrepresent the transgender community by inferring that they simply choose which sex to be for personal gain, it invites us to have a laugh at the expense of an oppressed and hurting group of people.

The more I saw this shared on Facebook the more sad I became.

I have wrestled with this topic for a couple years now, ever since meeting and talking to two transgender women in our church (both of whom were born biologically male), and I have come to this point in my own understanding: I see nowhere in Scripture proclaiming that being transgender is a sin. And I certainly do not see anywhere in Scripture that says using a bathroom based on your gender identity is a sin. Oh, sure, there’s the verse from Deuteronomy that says women can’t wear men’s clothes — but not only are we not under the Law any longer (let’s put this verse up alongside the ones about not wearing clothes with more than one kind of fabric or the ones about having to put tassels at the corners of your clothing and see which ones we want to pick and choose), folks who quote this verse don’t ever examine the purpose for this law or the cultural considerations that went into codifying it thousands of years ago.

The best anyone has ever done explaining to me why being transgender is a sin is this: gender is fixed at birth and transgender people are choosing to not be who God made them, therefore they are sinning. Even that philosophy is rich with irony, though: transgender people would say all they are trying to do is to embrace their gender identity and to be who God made them to be.

But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that somewhere in some hidden book of the Bible God clearly said that accepting your gender identity was wrong and being transgender was a sin. (Again: nowhere have I found where the Bible says this.) But what if it did? Would that make the jokes and the mockery and insults – the awful, horrific insults – shared in the name of Jesus any more okay? Would that make it okay to call transgender people monsters? Sexual predators? Deviants? To tell them that God detests them?

I cannot force myself to believe that response is the way of Jesus or the dream of God for this world.

To make matters worse, we hide our bigotry and fear behind a banner of supposed child safety. Christians sadly make the claim, either implicitly or in many cases explicitly, that “transgender” = “child predator” or “rapist.” I want us to pause and really let the hurtful nature of this argument sink in for a moment.

There has been no increase in public safety issues in cities with anti-discrimination laws that protect transgender people. On top of that, a coalition of 250 organizations who work with sexual abuse survivors are begging people to stop using that argument. It is nothing but fear-mongering divorced from reality. Besides, we all know how much criminals care about the law. (I find it ironic that the same people who say we can’t pass gun control because criminals would get guns anyway fail to see the same argument here that criminals will enter restrooms whether it’s legal or not.)

Beyond that, it’s pretty clear opponents of anti-discrimination laws haven’t really thought this thing through anyways. For instance, I can’t understand why somebody would want to force a person like Brae Carnes, who was born biologically male but identifies as a woman, to use the men’s restroom:

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And I can’t understand why somebody would want to force Michael Hughes, who was born biologically female but identifies as a man, to use the woman’s restroom:

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(Irony alert: opponents of anti-discrimination laws would undoubtedly try to stop Michael from using the women’s restroom, when it was their own bigotry that forced him into the women’s room to start with.)

Brae deserves to use the women’s room. Michael deserves to use the men’s room. And infinitely more than that, both of them deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. Sadly, a lot of Christians these days appear to be incapable of such a simple, foundational thing.

What makes this all even worse is watching Christians congratulate themselves for these sorts of responses. I’ve seen so many replies that essentially pat someone on the back for their “courage” (this seems to be the word du jour) in taking an anti-transgender or anti-gay stance — and not just for taking that stance, but for belittling, attacking, and demeaning other human beings.

That’s not courage. There’s nothing courageous about hate.

Standing “against culture” by attacking and mocking a group of hurting people isn’t courageous. And before you say, “disagreeing with somebody doesn’t mean you hate them,” what we’ve witnessed from Christians the past couple weeks goes far, far beyond a simple disagreement. It goes straight to an utter lack of compassion, a lack of desire to even listen or know or understand, and a complete disregard for somebody else’s dignity and humanity.

You know what is courageous? Standing up for love. Standing up for equality. Standing beside people whose suicide rate is ten times the general population because of the shit that gets dumped on them – including and especially from “Christians” – and loving them. Helping them. Welcoming them. Accepting them.

Young people who are transgender are oftentimes bullied to the point they end up hating themselves so much they try to kill themselves. (So yeah, tell me again how teenage boys just say they’re transgender so they can get into the girls’ locker room — it sounds like a real party to be transgender.) You know what takes real courage? Coming out as transgender. That’s courage. Christians should be leading the way in protecting those on a transgender journey. Instead, we’re oftentimes the ones causing the most pain.

Look, it’s simple: one of the foundational themes of Scripture is a choice between life and death. That choice is presented a host of times throughout the pages of this story. In the Torah, God lays out the choice: “Look! I am presenting you today with, on the one hand, life and good; and on the other, death and evil… I have presented you with life and death… therefore, choose life.” Through the prophet Jeremiah hundreds of years later, God lays out the same choice: “And here is what you are to tell this people: ‘Adonai says: “Look! I am presenting you with the way of life and the way of death.'” The book of Hebrew Proverbs is full of contrasts between choosing life and choosing death. We are specifically told that our words carry the power of life and death. The story of a Tree of Life and a Tree of Death in the Garden, and the death which Adam and Eve chose, is reimagined through the lens of Jesus all throughout the New Testament. This choice of bringing life or bringing death is a central tenet of our faith narrative and who we are as a people.

How incredibly sad, then, that we have willingly and zealously chosen the way of death – bringing death both figuratively and literally, and too often physically – when it comes to gay and transgender people.

Once again, the Church has chosen bedroom (and now bathroom) issues as a hill to die on. When will we move on from our obsession with sex and truly just love people? We’ve gotten really, really good at saying, “I love you, but…” I love you, but this is a sin you have to change before I will fully love you. I love you, but you can’t have the same rights as I do. I love you, but I cannot accept who you are. I love you, but only if you conform to my preconceived notions.

I’m so ready to instead just say, “I love you.” Period. Or, perhaps, “I love you, whether…” I love you, whether you identify as a male or female. I love you, whether you choose to transition or not. I love you, whether your biological sex matches your gender identity or not. I love you, and that means I will walk with you in this struggle as far as you want me to. I love you, and I support your fight for equality and a life free of bullying and abuse and pain. I love you and accept you and there is no “but.”

And to those of us who claim Jesus, I’m begging you: choose life. Bring life. Stop talking, stop hurting people, stop mocking, and listen. Learn. And love.

There’s Eating With Sinners, and There’s Eating With Sinners

During his time here on earth, Jesus made a habit of “eating with sinners.” The authors of all three synoptic gospels make it a point to tell the stories multiple times, and they use these stories as a vehicle to draw a stark contrast between Jesus and the religious leaders of the time. Just how stark that contrast is, however, has been lost today as the modern Church stumbles over itself debating the foolishness of just how far it’s okay to go when we interact with folks in our day.

At risk, folks argue, is legitimizing or condoning sin. Everyone must know where we stand on every sin issue, or – supposedly – we are by default saying sin is okay. In short order, we find ourselves unwittingly on the side of the Pharisees rather than the side of Jesus.

Here’s how it went down back in Jesus’ day: Jesus meets people the religious folks have deemed immoral or unclean. Jesus goes to their house and eats with them. Religious folks enter, get pissed off, and Jesus rebukes them. It’s a good formula for a “speaking truth to power” kind of moment. But it goes even deeper than that.

When the gospel writers wrote these stories (for example, in Luke chapter 5), they recorded an even greater contrast in the Greek. When they note that Jesus is eating with these people, they use the Greek word katakeimanoi, which translates into the rich Jewish notion of “table fellowship.” Table fellowship was an extension of the vitally important value of hospitality in Jewish culture, and it was understood to be much more intimate than simply physically eating a meal. It meant sharing life with someone, entering into their world, showing you cared and showing you loved them. Table fellowship to the Jewish people, writes Craig Blomberg at Denver Seminary, “created intimate friendship, so it was reserved for those whom a person deemed the right kind of companions.”

According to the Jewish teachers in Jesus’ day, “the power of the unclean to defile the clean far outstripped the ability of the clean to sanctify the unholy.”

Sound familiar?

Jesus took that entire notion, said “Screw that,” and proceeded to have table fellowship with all the worst kinds of people.

So there, religious leaders.

But this is where it gets even better: when the Pharisees came in and got upset, they weren’t upset that Jesus was sharing table fellowship with immoral people. They couldn’t even see that far. No, the writers used a completely different Greek word to describe what the religious leaders were upset about: esthiete. Literally, to put food in your mouth. The physical act of eating while someone was beside you. Nothing more.

And so we get to the point of these stories. Jesus is katakeimanoi — having table fellowship with sinners, becoming intimately involved in their lives — and then the Pharisees come in and ask why Jesus is esthiete — physically eating food with them.

Did you catch it? The Pharisees, in their quest for holiness, simply did not get it. It’s like the gospel writers were saying, “These religious people could not possibly miss the point more than this.” They were mad at something so little, when Jesus was up to something even more scandalous that they couldn’t even see!

We miss the point a lot of the time today, too.

We put up walls, protect ourselves from the unclean, and expect others to do the same. In the name of purity and holiness we look suspiciously on anyone who would dare even esthiete with “sinners.” Meanwhile, Jesus is inviting us — expecting us! — to go so much further than that and katakeimanoi with them! Screw the rules. Screw this false sense of holiness and purity. Get down in the mud with people and show them you actually care about them.

It seems to me we worry so much about legitimizing sin, we miss the fact that we are delegitimizing grace.

We’ve somehow subscribed to this awful sin-focused “gospel” which forces us to care only about ugliness and purity. Instead, we need to become re-enamored with a grace-focused gospel which forces us to care only about people.

Somehow, after enjoying table fellowship with Jesus, I seriously doubt the tax collector got up, left the house, and thought, “Huh. That Jesus fellow didn’t say anything about my tax business. That must means it’s totally legit! Sweet!” No, I imagine he left that house in awe of being accepted, cared for, and welcomed as a human being. And because of that, he was changed.

It’s time we stopped worrying so much about legitimizing sin and lived our lives in a way that legitimizes grace.

On Transparency

A Vice President here at the University at which I work once told me, “Nothing scares me more than someone who acts like they have their shit together.”

Wise words, to be sure. Implied in them is the fact that none of us has our shit together (or “poop in a group,” if you are disinclined toward swear words). The question, then, is what we do with our non-put-together selves.

This is nearly universally true, but especially in areas where culture has, at one point or another, demanded a subsection of the population become experts. Faculty in a university setting, for instance. Or, perhaps more challenging, teachers and pastors in the Church.

Once upon a time, pastors were viewed as, and expected to be, experts. To have all the answers. I’m not sure if that was ever a good idea to set that expectation of them, but what I am sure of is that today, that expectation is infinitely more harmful than helpful.

It’s harmful because it demands something impossible of church leaders. Nobody can be an expert on God. It’s inherently impossible, unless you shrink God down from his infinity into something manageable, which in itself is a heresy (and perhaps the largest and most popular heresy of the modern church).

It’s harmful because it makes pastors and teachers in the church deny their own questions and doubts and failings, which makes them less human and less honest.

It’s harmful because at some level (in a healthy or unhealthy way), church congregations view church leaders as a model to which to aspire, which then forces them to deny their own questions and doubts and failings.

It’s harmful because it turns away the billions of unchurched people who echo the words of that Vice President. They view the church with some degree of skepticism, ranging anywhere from dismissiveness to disgust to contempt, and at least a portion of it (I would argue a large portion) is derived from our untenable sense of certainty.

Study after study shows that people today don’t have any interest in learning from “experts”. In the university setting, those who are open, transparent, and honest with their students have been shown to be far more effective teachers than those who set themselves up and answer-dispensing experts. And if that is true in the college classroom, how much more true is it in the church pulpit?

May we followers of Christ lead the charge down the path toward authenticity, openness, and transparency. May we welcome and encourage the difficult questions and doubts and be honest about our own struggles. May we learn the power of asking the right questions rather than having all the right answers. May we remember that leading doesn’t always mean being out in front of someone; that often it means walking alongside of them. And may we be pleasantly surprised at how Christlike this makes us.

God Made Us to Be His Kingdom

As he opens his letter that we now call Revelation. the apostle John mentions something in passing that blew me away this morning. John tells us God “has made us to be a kingdom.”

That’s huge.

God has made US to BE the Kingdom.

The Kingdom isn’t some far off distant thing to hope for. The Kingdom of God isn’t distinctly separate from us that we can choose to participate in or not. We ARE the Kingdom. At least, that’s what we’re MADE to be. US. You and me. Together, doing the best we can in Jesus’ power and grace.

When Jesus teaches us to pray, “Father, Your Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven,” it’s not a plea for something else to come, it’s a calling and a challenge to US to realize we’re already here.

When you’re wondering what your calling is, start by being the Kingdom to the people around you.

When you’re wondering where the Kingdom of God is, look in a mirror and remember Jesus’ words: the Kingdom of God is within you.

We are meant to be the Kingdom. You are meant to be the Kingdom personified. You are meant to be love and mercy and grace and forgiveness and compassion to the people around you — and to yourself.

Go be the Kingdom! Go be what you were made to be!

Evolving Faith: What Does it Mean?

If we now understand that all the authors of the Bible did not believe the same things as one another on some pretty foundational issues such monotheism, the afterlife, and morality, what impact does that have on our faith?

One could look at all of this and conclude there is no way the Bible can be true. It’s obviously written by humans, and this whole “given to man by God” thing is made up. Fair enough. But the other option is to conclude now, more than ever, the Bible must be true. After all, it’s obviously written by humans, and this whole “given to man by God” thing is made up.

Let me explain.

There are some religions and faith systems out there who claim their holy book or books were delivered to mankind straight from the mouth of God. For those faith systems, it is troublesome and embarrassing to find inaccuracies and errors in their holy texts, because it necessarily means their deity was incorrect. And who wants to follow/worship/devote their life to an incorrect deity?

The Bible never claims to be delivered straight from God to man. Instead, it is a collection of writings, written by human beings to other human beings within specific cultures, specific times, and specific settings. Now, Christians believe that somehow these stories that these human beings wrote down were inspired by God, but somewhere in the last few hundred years of modernity we’ve come to the extra-biblical (unbiblical?) conclusion “inspiration” means “dictated directly from the mouth of God.”

For some reason, we’ve taken the Bible and made it out to be something it never even claims itself to be.

Largely, religions do this to settle the matter of authority. If their book comes directly from the mouth of God, people will then need to heed it — or else they are choosing to not listen to God. It infuses their belief system with an extra large dose of legitimacy in their eyes.

Ironically, that line of reasoning is the same thing that delegitimizes the faith.

By attempting to shoehorn the Bible into this foreign shape, we set it — and our faith structure — up to fail from the beginning. Instead, what if we began accepting the Bible for what it truly is? If we start approaching, reading, and understanding the Bible as a collection of stories rather than a deity’s dictation, how much more does that open up beauty and truth to us? How much more might we understand the very heart of God this book is attempting to communicate?

When you view Scripture as a dictation from God, it is a huge problem that the Bible advocates for henotheism at the beginning and then transitions into monotheism. It’s a serious issue that the book teaches there is no afterlife at first and then adds one in later on. And it is an incredible dilemma that the mark of “good” morality continually gets adjusted throughout.

But if you see this as a collection of stories, suddenly those become no big deal at all — because these are stories about people trying to figure out who God is and how they relate to him. These are stories of people who lived in ancient, barbaric times and grew up with the rest of the world into a civilized society. These are stories of people trying to figure out better ways of doing things, of treating people, of understanding the world, of living. And so it comes as absolutely no surprise that the stories and beliefs change and grow over the years.

In fact, to me, it makes it even more likely that the stories are true. Not necessarily literally and historically accurate (Jonah and Job, I’m looking at you), but true. I’m much more interested in a story where the characters evolve and grow and change — and expect those who come after them to do the same — than I am in a fabricated story that appears in a moment of time and remains static forever after.

Again, it is so ironic to me that we’ve managed to take the Bible out of that first living, breathing category and shoved it haphazardly into the lifeless second.

Just because it grows and evolves along with the people who are writing it and living it doesn’t mean the Bible is just like any other book. In fact, the Apostle Paul believed Scripture to be so special and unique that he invented a brand new word to describe it: theopneustos. Literally, “God breathed.” That’s the word we interpret in English as “inspired” — it comes from God. But notice the connotation: it’s God-breathed, not God-dictated. It’s life-giving, just like God’s breath at the moment of creation in the Garden, not lifeless and static. It’s gently influenced with a breath, not tightly held under a heavy thumb of direction.

The Bible is true. It is authoritative. It is inspired. It speaks to the human condition, to the core of who we are, and directs us to continue this journey of discovering who God is and how we relate to him. And when we stop trying to make the Bible something it’s not, we will be free to experience the joy, the freedom, the grace, and the incredible sacrificial love through which that journey leads us.

Actually, Homosexuality is a Gospel Issue

After World Vision announced its decision to expand their employment practices to include married gay couples, a lot of Christians lost their ever-loving minds.

Thanks to this whole uproar over World Vision, the hypocrisy of the modern, western Christian majority has been laid bare for all to see – and the resulting chaos is not pretty.

Here’s why: after World Vision announced their policy change, thousands of Christians canceled their World Vision child sponsorships. In the first day, over two thousand people abandoned children. In the following days, thousands more followed suit. In other words, conservative Christians were so upset about gay people serving children, they more or less said: children need clean water, education, food, and medical supplies. Unless those things are provided by gay people. In that case children don’t need anything.

The counter argument from the conservative evangelical camp was quick: just because we are giving up on these specific children doesn’t mean we can’t go sponsor other children through other organizations. That logic, of course, is faulty, distant, and remarkably impersonal — as shown by several bloggers who pointed out that children are not merchandise, like cell phones and used cars, that we have the luxury of simply “trading in” for a different model.

Not only did Christians treat children – children! – as merchandise, they also treated them as bargaining chips, pushed to the middle of the poker table in order to force World Vision to fold. Entire denominations of churches, including the Assemblies of God and leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention, threatened to pull child sponsorships if World Vision continued on with the new policy.

Facing this incredible backlash, World Vision blinked and reversed course. Many evangelicals expressed their happiness at the reversal. Russell Moore, President of the Ethics Committee at the SBC, even declared it time to “rejoice.”

Now that the dust has settled a bit, let’s take a look at the scoreboard. Gay people: demonized. Children: dehumanized. Evangelicals: celebratory.

That pretty much sums up what’s wrong with the western “church” – and why so many prominent authors, speakers, and leaders have publicly divorced themselves from evangelicalism after this train wreck. I can’t blame them. A big part of me wants to as well.

The idea of abandoning a child who needs support over a doctrinal difference with those providing the support is unfathomable to me, and I still cannot understand at any level of humanity where anybody would think that was okay… least of all people who claim to be following Jesus. My wife and I supported a little girl named Ivis for several years. We chose her because she shared a birthday with one of our sons. We received letters from her, pictures from her, drawings that she had made. She told us about her life, her family, her home. She asked us about our pets, our boys. We developed a relationship with her. When we found out she no longer needed support, we switched our support to another little girl named Lizzi and have been supporting her for several months now.

I cannot fathom a universe in which we would walk up to Ivis or Lizzi, look them in the eyes, and tell them, “Sorry. I know you need food and medicine and schooling and clean water. But the people who give those things to you? They hire gay people now. So we’re going to have to take those things back — oh, and this relationship? It’s over.

This whole uproar has conclusively proven something that I have fought so hard not to believe for the past several years: apparently, Christians can be as big of jerks as the world says we are. Apparently, a wide swath of us actually do care more about doctrine than people, more about purity than love. And apparently, there are a lot of Christians who just cannot get over their obsession with sex and what happens in other people’s bedrooms.

The Gospel Coalition and the Southern Baptist Church both put out statements on the issue, declaring homosexuality to be a “gospel issue” and therefore, non-negotiable. To bend or compromise would be to negate the gospel itself.

The argument, of course, is ludicrous. But here’s the surprising twist: in what may be the first and only time I’ve agreed with anything written over at the Gospel Coalition, I actually do think that homosexuality is a gospel issue. Just not exactly how they meant it.

The gospel is infinitely bigger than simply separating the world into sinners and saints, the hellbound and heavenbound. The gospel is about all of creation being put back together, with agape love holding it all together and redeeming everything. Therefore, how we treat gay people (and all people!) is very much a gospel issue.

If we think whether or not someone is gay is more important than whether a child eats…

If we stand idly by and watch as a segment of humanity is demonized and persecuted, or worse, actively participate in those actions…

If we do not stand up for gay teenagers, among whom suicide rates are skyrocketing because of the abuse they face from their peers as well as from religious groups…

…then we are not only not living out the gospel, we are denying the very thing we claim to be defending.

If we do not possess the ability to even extend common human decency, then we are far worse than unbelievers – for even the “sinners” do that. We are called to do so much more… to extend the very selfless love that Jesus extended to us.

I say this all as someone who still believes that homosexuality is a sin. I’ve read all of the arguments and contextualizations and articles explaining why it’s not, but I can’t convince myself that I can take that leap and remain intellectually honest. But I also understand this: believing something is a sin does not give me the ability, the opportunity, or the right to be a douchebag.

Jesus has called me, called us, to love. Unconditionally, without pause, without question and without demands. His earliest followers declared that loving other people (which requires us to first see them as people!) to be the fulfillment of His “law.” And therefore, I concur: the complete and utter inability of the Church — a large or at least highly vocal portion of it — to truly love gay people is a gospel issue. And it’s one that must be resolved.

Practical Holiness

At the church where I have the privilege of serving as the Teaching Pastor, I lead a teaching team of incredible people who sharpen one another through our deep friendships and shared wisdom. This team just got done teaching a series that we entitled “Practical Holiness” — and these teachings continue to blow me away with their poignancy, their truth, and their grace. So much so I wanted to make sure I share them with you.

For this series, we took some of the main themes from the 22 New Testament letters and taught through them in six weeks. Together with a lead-in sermon on language and a night cap from Revelation, I challenge you to find eight weeks of more powerful, life-giving teaching than this! In these eight weeks, four of our seven teachers taught from the stage – but make no mistake, every member was integrally involved in crafting the messages and none of them would have been as good as they were without everyone’s perspective and wisdom.

I could not be more proud of our team, so I am shamelessly plugging our teachings here. If you’re looking for a good way to spend several hours, may I recommend the following:

Words – The Power of Life and Death
Matt Coulter, 9/29/13

Practical Holiness
Matt Coulter, 10/6/13

Spiritual Gifts
Matt Coulter, 10/13/13

Prayer
Adam Coop, 10/20/13

Baptism
Matt Coulter, 10/27/13

Holy Spirit
Matt Coulter, 11/3/13

Submission
Tanya Engel, 11/10/13

Once and Future Hope: Revelation
Heath Underwood, 11/17/13

Getting it Wrong

I was struck with an incredibly humbling thought this afternoon while reflecting on advent.

When Jesus came to earth in the familiar Christmas scene as a baby in swaddling clothes, almost nobody expected it.

Why not?

The religious leaders thought they knew what the Messiah would be all about. They interpreted scripture in a way that pointed to a king, a political ruler, a revolutionary who would end the oppression of Rome and – finally! – grant Israel freedom and peace.

Their history colored their interpretation. God’s people had been subject to oppression and slavery for most of their existence. (And for the rest of their existence they had been embroiled in a bloody civil war.) The prophet Daniel foresaw a Kingdom of God which would come about during the reign of the Roman Empire. The prophet Isaiah said “the government would be on his shoulders”. What the people wanted, needed, was a removal of Rome and the advent of God.

Instead, they got a baby.

Only it wasn’t “instead”. Not really. Because that baby was exactly what the people wanted and needed: freedom. Peace. A way out of oppression. A way forward.

They just couldn’t see it because the religious leaders had interpreted things through one particular lens while God was operating in an entirely different way.

The shepherds – furthest removed from educated leaders – did see it. They saw it because they had a personal experience with God and his messengers that led them to a different interpretation of their story. Essentially, the mission the angels gave the shepherds was: go tell everyone the religious leaders are barking up the wrong tree.

It’s a mission that Jesus himself continued throughout his life.

And yet, today when we stack personal experience against educated, conventional theology we err on the side of mistaken religious leaders time and time again.

This advent, may we remember and be humbled: Sometimes religious leaders, with all our educated theological interpretations, can still be so very wrong.

Of T-Shirts, Irony, and Fire

Addie Zierman (who is probably my favorite writer out here on the internets) is celebrating the release of her new book, When We Were on Fire, by inviting other bloggers to link up to a synchroblog and share their stories of being “on fire.” I got really excited when I read that — see, once upon a time I was on fire, too, as many of us were, growing up in the evangelical culture in the ’90s. More than that, I wrote a chapter about it in my manuscript, Torn Wineskins, which will hopefully also become a published book in the near future.

Here is an excerpt from that manuscript, humbly submitted as one of a myriad of stories chronicling a simpler time when the world was black-and-white and we were so sure about everything. When we were on fire.

“Dude, I don’t get that shirt.”

We were standing in the hallway of Central High School, a group of friends chatting between classes or at lunch or sometime when high school students find time to chat about important topics. Topics like girls and music and… okay, pretty much just girls and music.

We were sophomores, and we wanted so badly to be cool. At least I did. I had just recently traded in my coke bottle glasses for contacts and began to exercise some semblance of fashion sense (read: I no longer hiked my pants up past my belly button or wore knee socks with shorts). And, we managed to impress a lot of folks with our empty Mountain Dew can collection inside our locker, arranged with the cans on their sides, stretching from bottom to top in multiple columns. To a high school sophomore boy, it was a thing of beauty.

Outside of the occasional Christmas Eve, I still had yet to attend a church service. I don’t know if I had ever seriously thought about God over the past seven years.

On this particular day, as we were standing by that can-filled locker listening to the latest Bon Jovi CD through mini speakers hooked up to my Discman, I noticed one of my friends had a t-shirt on that read something to the effect of, “Somebody call 911! I’m on fire!”

That’s when I told my friend, “Dude, I don’t get that shirt.”

Turns out the shirt was from a Christian conference he had gone to. He tried to explain to me that a Christian being “on fire” meant they were passionate about God. Really passionate. Like super passionate. I’m sure I must have looked lost, because I was stumped by that metaphor.

I still kind of am, actually. Christians use that phrase “on fire” so much we quickly forget just how strange it is. Ask a young Christian girl what she’s looking for in a future husband and one of her answers is likely to be, “A guy who is on fire for God.” Sermons are written to help people become on fire for God. Entire conferences are staged – and named – around the idea of being on fire for God. But I don’t think there is any other instance where this phraseology works. How weird would I be if I went around talking about being on fire for my wife? Can I be on fire for my favorite sports team? On fire for nacho cheese? As much as I love nacho cheese – and believe me, I love nacho cheese – it just doesn’t work.

At any rate, that conversation was the first time I had really thought about God for any length of time since hitting puberty. And it wasn’t really in any sort of positive way – I remember telling my friend that day that one thing I liked about him was even though he was apparently “on fire,” he didn’t go around talking about God and religion all the time. I appreciated that.

But in that hallway back in tenth grade, I had no idea what my future would hold. I had no idea that one day I would be the one who was on fire for God, wearing the t-shirts and the paraphernalia. That soon, I would be the one listening to only Christian music and smashing that Bon Jovi CD (then buying it again a few years later.) That I would eschew traditional high school life in favor of Bible studies, missions trips, and alternative harvest parties at the end of every October.

But on that day back in tenth grade, we were way more concerned with playing Bon Jovi as loud as we could get away with (it didn’t last too long before a teacher shut down the party) than discussing the finer points of faith in Jesus.

And that was just fine by me.

It was that same period in life, in high school, that I started dating a girl who had about as much interest in church as I did: that is, none. But her best friend was one of those mysterious folks who were “on fire” for God, and she invited us to come with her to church. A lot.

We eventually wore down and finally went, and I was kind of dreading it. Pictures of the Christmas Eve services I used to go to danced through my head – only without getting to hold flaming sticks of wax, which meant one thing: boring. I wanted to hold fire, to play with fire, but not to be on fire.

We finally agreed to go to youth group with her, and when we went, I was shocked. It more or less shook the foundations of what I understood “church” to be — in my admittedly extremely limited contact with the place.

Instead of hymns and organs, they had drums and guitars. Nobody dressed up (except me, nerd that I was and filled with religious assumptions). The youth pastor made fart jokes and burped into his microphone. They played games. They had a snack bar. They had basketball hoops.

I had fun.

I kept going back because I enjoyed it so much. Then we kept getting invited to go to “big church” on Sunday mornings. And so I went there, too. It wasn’t nearly as fun, but it was better than I remember church being and all the kids in the youth group sat together in the front row. It was fun hanging out with new friends. Belonging. That was a feeling that had eluded me for most of my short little life, and so I kept going back.

And one morning, I got saved in that Southern Baptist church.

In other words, it’s where I started following Jesus. At the time, I understood “salvation” as a one-time event — something that reserved my seat in Heaven and separated me from the unclean world I lived in. Something that set me at odds with unbelievers and created clearly demarcated lines between “us” and “them.”

Today, I understand salvation in a remarkably different way: as the beginning of a lifelong journey, something that is occurring over and over again in me every day.

Despite all of their flaws, I owe a lot to that church- especially its pastor. I will always have fond memories of that youth gym and the big church sanctuary, because it is where my crazy journey with Jesus all began. The ministry of that conservative church reached me. God used them.

That part of the story is beautiful.

What happened next was not quite so beautiful.

The story continues in my manuscript, Torn Wineskins. I’m praying for the opportunity to share it with you all soon!

Why Millennials Matter

Rachel Held Evans wrote a fantastic post for CNN’s Belief Blog a couple weekends ago on a topic that has been near and dear to my heart for years now: the declining relationship between the millennial generation (teens to mid-30-somethings) and the Church.

In the article, Rachel not only painted a picture of the problem (millennials having little to no interest in Church) but also began suggesting some potential solutions. Here, she argued quite persuasively for a change not in style, but in substance… changes that go deeper than a hipper worship band or a pastor with a cooler outfit. She begged for a substantive reflection of who we were, what we were about, and what we were communicating to a generation who gave up on us long ago.

On the whole, the article was a thoughtful, well-reasoned and at the same time impassioned plea to the Church. And it ignited a firestorm of a hundred angry and incredulous responses.

For the life of me, I still can’t figure out why.

Most of the responses I read seemed to be written by folks who entirely missed the point of what Rachel was trying to say: headlines like “Let’s Keep Church Uncool” appeared beside stories admonishing that church was a place to ask questions “only if you provided answers.” Writers lamented how folks like Rachel just wanted to tailor the church experience to the entitled, narcissistic tendencies of young people.

Sigh…

As I was processing why so many people had such a violently knee-jerk reaction to the CNN article, the only thing I could come up with was that these are folks who are watching the trend of millennials leaving the Church (their church, too) and who are scared to death of what it means to have to do something about it. Because to do something about it means releasing their tight control over the way church is supposed to be, how approaching God is supposed to happen. To do something about it means admitting the way they were leading has not worked. And so it is scary to be confronted with a scenario which requires soul-searching and releasing control.

Instead, many have simply chosen to stick their heads in the sand and pretend like the problem doesn’t even exist. I’ve read blog responses which boldly claimed that the millennial generation isn’t any different than the generations which came before them. That there really isn’t a problem. There’s no seismic shift. There’s no exodus from the church. That changing things in the Church would be overreacting to sensationalist fear mongering.

I could not disagree more, and the actual numbers could not disagree more, either. Rachel cites many in her piece, and there are even more that I turn to as well. Take, for instance, a survey from The Christian Index (a publication put out by the Georgia Baptist Convention). They broke down the percentage of folks who are “unchurched” by generation and came up with this:

The four categories are people who were born in the years mentioned in parentheses. To read this, for example, you can say that when this study was undertaken (2007), 35% of Americans born prior to 1946 were unchurched. At that same time, 85% of folks born from 1965-1976 were unchurched.

In other words, culture is rendering the church nearly obsolete. I wrote about this survey originally in a post entitled The Church is Literally Dying, and that is exactly what this graph shows — and what has people like me and Rachel Held Evans concerned about the future of the Church.

But wait — many folks out there have posited that those results are completely normal. That young people have always been less likely to be connected with a local church, and as you grow older you are more likely to find solace in a church home. It’s a sociological Known Fact… but it simply is not true.

Not according to Pew Research, anyhow. In a massive cultural survey that they’ve been doing for decades, they came up with some startling findings — like this graph which showed the percentage of people who self-identify as having a religious affiliation:

Strikingly, we see this axiom come into focus: views toward religion are largely the same when we are old as they are when we are young. There is no discernible movement toward (or away from) religion as a generation ages.

Combined with that first graph above, this offers a damning indictment of those who would bury their heads in the sand and ignore the “millennial problem”.

The same kind of trends can be seen in other questions in that Pew mega-survey as well — like this one, which tracks the percentage of Americans who believe the Bible is the literal word of God:

Again, there is no discernible shift in either direction as people age.

Of course, note in all three of these charts that as each generation comes into the picture, they are less and less inclined toward traditional religious beliefs and expressions. It is a trend which, again, does not “self-correct” as people age. We can toss that sociological assumption out the window.

There was one set of results from the Pew survey that was incredibly interesting to me in light of the other results. One question asked people if they prayed on a daily basis… and this chart actually did show big movement as people aged:

In other words, as people get older they begin to experience a need and a desire to communicate with God more… yet they do so decidedly outside of a local church experience. People crave an experience with God, but don’t believe they’ll find it in what we have to offer.

And yes, we see the same pattern here as well: even though people are more likely to reach out to God in prayer as they get older, each generation is less likely to do so than the one before.

So what does all of this mean?

Simply put, it means there is a problem – and there has been a problem for a number of years now. This is actually much bigger than just a “millennial issue” — it has been an issue for the past 50 years, and is now that much more noticeable with the millennial generation. It’s an issue that began at the same time culture began shifting away from modernity and towards postmodernity, and the Church’s response to that shift (driven by fear and suspicion) has largely exacerbated the problem.

So what do we do about the problem? First and foremost, we don’t panic. We don’t fearmonger or make decisions based out of fear. We recognize and choose to believe it when Jesus said the gates of hell will never prevail against His Church. Then instead of living and deciding out of fear we choose to live and decide out of love – love for God and love for people.

We do what is already being done by small pockets of believers across the world: we alter traditional church expressions of a life lived with God. We become more authentic. We do things differently — not to attract people by being cool, but by reflecting God better by being real.

We don’t cater to narcissistic needs and wants of a particular generation, but we do recognize and accept questions. And doubts. And we admit that we have them, too. We stop pushing political agendas of a temporal kingdom and begin pushing agendas of love for a different Kingdom. We stop trying to be perfect and provide all the answers, and start trying to shepherd people into better questions. We look at our doctrines and beliefs and examine them from fresh perspectives. We look at where they don’t fit into God’s narrative and rethink how we put feet to the missio Dei.

In short, we do what has been done a number of times already down through the generations: we contextualize. We contextualize our message, our traditions, our experiences, our methods, our lives… in other words, we do as Jesus did when he contextualized himself and his ministry to a Jewish culture thousands of years ago.

To some people in the Church, “contextualization” sounds an awful lot like “watering down.” I promise it doesn’t have to be. In fact, contextualization actually empowers and amplifies rather than weakens, because it allows the sick to understand the voice of the Doctor more clearly. It allows those living without wholeness to hear the sobs of God’s broken heart through the noise of their own lives.

To some people in the Church, “contextualization” sounds an awful lot like “heresy.” I promise it doesn’t have to be. In fact, contextualization uses as a foundation the very core beliefs which unite us. It does, however, show us that many things we once held as non-negotiable are actually quite negotiable after all — and that ought to be a freeing rather than a damning experience.

To some people in the Church, “contextualization” sounds an awful lot like “become the culture around you.” And once again, I promise it doesn’t have to be. In fact, one of the reasons we face the problem illustrated in those graphs above is because we as the Church became far too enmeshed in modernity – so much so that we cannot fathom a Church experience outside of that culture any longer.

But it is those dreamers, those visionaries, those leaders who see something better just up over the next hill who will take us into the next amazing chapter of our faith narrative. Our own story as the people of God. And as the group that joins them gets larger, we will see a reversal of the trends which led to Rachel’s original column.

It’s not about being cool or uncool or tailoring our church experiences to this generation or that generation’s preferences. It’s about the beautiful process of rediscovering who we are as a community of people trying to follow Jesus the best we know how… and the process of being who we are in the midst of the world around us.